In an era in which much is made of professional players’ lavish lifestyles, modern players cannot imagine the suffering endured by their predecessors.
While the First World War ravaged Europe, professional clubs in England pushed for the continuation of football, claiming it helped to keep the public’s spirits up.
However, this stance was soon met with widespread opposition and famous figures spoke of the shame this brought upon the nation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, publicly appealed for professional footballers to volunteer for service, stating, “If a footballer has strength of limb, let him serve and march in the field of battle.”
It was then that Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, called for a Football Battalion as part of the Pals’ Battalions scheme.
William Joynson-Hicks, the Viscount of Brentford, formed the Football Battalion on 12th December 1914 at Fulham Town Hall and Frank Buckley, an England international who had been with Aston Villa from 1902-1904 and whose brother Chris made 136 appearances for Villa between 1906 and 1914 before joining the board and becoming the club’s chairman, was the first player to join the newly-formed battalion.
By March 1915, 122 players had joined the Football Battalion, including Aston Villa’s Tommy Barber, Joseph Bache (a remarkable goal-scorer during his time in claret and blue) and Billy Gerrish. Of the three, Gerrish died in action.
Many more Villa players enlisted and saw action in World War One, including:
W. Bowker (killed) W. Kimberley (died, 1918) A. Rogers (killed) Dr. L. Roose (killed)
J. Watkins (killed) W. Battersby R. Black L. Bowker R. Chandler A. Cross A. Davis
A. Dyke W. George H. Hampton A. Hall S. Hardy W. Harris H. Kilner A. McLachlan
J. Merrick W. Morris F. Moss E. Parkes E. Parsons C. Stephenson J. Stephenson
F. Suddes C. Wallace W. Walpole H. Wells T. Weston J. Windmill E. Woods D. York
Of those names, many will recognise Sam Hardy, who was reputed to have been one of the greatest-ever goalkeepers at Aston Villa, and ‘Happy’ Harry Hampton, the ‘Wellington Whirlwind’, a centre-forward who remains Villa’s all-time leading scorer. Although Hampton played for Villa until 1920, he was never the same after the war, having suffered from the effects of mustard gas poisoning during The Battle of the Somme.
After the war, football resumed for the 1919-20 season and it was the season in which Villa won the FA Cup for the sixth time, beating Huddersfield Town 1-0 in the final at Stamford Bridge.
Before the outbreak of World War Two, the Villans boasted fourteen full internationals in their ranks and were flying high, having finished second in the league in 1933. However, the declaration of war and its prolonged nature hit the club hard, as it did all English clubs. Villans who served in the Second World War included:
M. Armstrong (killed) J. Barker R. Beresford J. Browne H. Brain B. Cobley T. Cullen
A. Grosvenor J. Harper A. Hickman E. Houghton R. Jones A. Kerr L. Latham G. Lunn
J. Martin A. Moss F. Moss F. O’Donnell F. Osbourne J. Rutherford A. Sockett
Nowadays, professional footballers are labelled heroes all too easily. On this, the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we pay tribute to these truly heroic Villans. We shall remember them.