Derbyshire is home. So an everyday Saturday would be great. Awake to glorious sunshine. 9am at the 5km Markeaton ‘Park Run’ breaking my personal best. Re-fuel on a Birds sausage cob. Watch Derby County cruise to victory. Quick tennis session followed by essential rehydration with locally-brewed products, before dinner out with my partner and a glorious country view. Finally home to discover our big lottery win!
As the First World War centenary comes to a close, Peter Seddon considers a poignant ‘plaque to the fallen’ at Pride Park Stadium
The four-year-long First World War Centenary comes to a close on 11th November 2018. After thousands of poignant events this particular Armistice Day can be overlaid by a tone of justifiable celebration. The date marks 100 years since the Great War ended. The day will culminate with the lighting of beacons and ringing of bells across the country.
Remembrance ceremonies will take place as ever at the countless war memorials honouring the fallen. Most of these revered monuments were erected as soon as practicable after peace was declared. But one of Derbyshire’s most unusual is much newer, appearing only at the start of the Centenary period.
The modest but profoundly telling plaque at Pride Park Stadium was unveiled in November 2014 after Derby County responded positively to a supporter’s initial suggestion. The Spanish dolomite tablet fixed to the stadium wall might easily be overlooked in the hurly-burly of a match day. But the club and its supporters are proud to have recorded for posterity the names of six Derby County players known to have perished during the First World War.
It is difficult to imagine today’s equivalent – well-known footballers swapping shirts for military uniform, the football field for the battlefield, familiar routines for the complete unknown. Yet happen it did in an age relatively ‘not too long ago’ – but starkly different.
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914 there was no reason to imagine that first-class football would be disrupted – surely the conflict would be ‘all over by Christmas’.
For the 1914-15 campaign Derby County were in Division Two of the Football League having been relegated from the top flight the season before. In the opening game on 2nd September 1914 the Rams thrashed Barnsley 7-0 at the Baseball Ground. As war progressed over the Channel the fixtures were completed much as before – and on the final day in April 1915 Derby County beat Preston North End to clinch the Second Division Championship.
Two of the Rams players that day were George Brooks and Tommy Benfield. Little would they imagine that a century later their names would be engraved on the Derby County War Memorial. Both perished in the Great War – think Craig Bryson and Mason Mount from the current team. Or any combination of personal favourites – it brings it home.
After the season closed the suspension of the Football League was enacted almost inevitably after widespread criticism that fighting-fit ‘professional footballers’ were setting a poor example in continuing their trade. In truth several thousand had already enlisted – but the rhetoric stuck. In consequence the 1915-16 season never kicked off – not
until 1919-20 did League football resume.
During the four-season enforced hiatus a Derby County team competed initially in regional competitions concocted to fill the void. The matches remain in the record books but proved merely transitory and of little lasting significance – by April 1916 all football at Derby County ‘ceased for the duration’.
By then a significant number of players had already left the football field for the battlefield. The football authorities – initially so reviled for their perceived bad example – had played a key role in recruitment. Campaigns employing football themes proved particularly successful in the ‘volunteer’ period before compulsory conscription was introduced in January 1916 – and once that took effect countless footballers and supporters were fighting for ‘King and Country’.
The exemplar of this recruitment campaign was the 17th Middlesex Regiment comprised almost entirely of footballers – the famous ‘Footballers’ Battalion’. It had a strong Derby County link too – the battalion was under the command of Major Frank Buckley, the hard-as-nails centre-half who had captained the Rams 1913-14 team.
‘The famous ‘Footballers’
Battalion’ had a strong Derby County link... it was under the command of Major Frank Buckley, the hard-as-nails centre-half who had captained the
Rams 1913-14 team’
Major Buckley is not honoured on the Rams’ war memorial – he survived to become a celebrated manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers. In contrast his six kindred spirits never returned – but through the memorial their names live on.
Sergeant Thomas Benfield (Leicestershire Regiment) almost emerged from the conflict with his life intact. But having survived countless dangers he died of wounds on 19th September 1918 less than two months before Armistice Day.
By cruel coincidence his erstwhile team-mate Lance Corporal George Brooks (York and Lancaster Regiment) suffered an even more untimely end. He died in France on 8th November 1918 just three days before the war ended – in football parlance a sickening defeat in ‘time added on’.
Cambridge Graduate 2nd Lieutenant Reg Callender (Durham Light Infantry) was a much earlier casualty. He was killed in France on 5th October 1915. An England amateur international, Callender had a double link with Derbyshire football, having played for both Derby County and Glossop.
His end carried a particularly distressing irony – killed not by the enemy but by a grenade which exploded in his hand while he was demonstrating to his men.
The fiery inside-forward Private James Stevenson (Highland Light Infantry) was from an earlier era in Derby County history. The popular Scot played alongside the legendary Steve Bloomer in his prime in the 1890s. ‘Jimmy’ was quite old to be in the trenches: already 38 when the War began, he was aged 40 – the upper limit for ‘eligibility’ – when he was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme on 3rd July 1916. His body was never identified.
Unique among the plaque’s six names is Alfreton-born Lieutenant Frederick Wheatcroft – the sole Derbyshire native. An England amateur international, Fred Wheatcroft was a schoolteacher for much of his career, but found time to play first for Alfreton
Town and later for Derby County. As a centre-forward he led the attack – by all accounts matching those endeavours admirably in the more serious field of conflict.
His eight goals in 25 games for Derby County will never
be erased – nor will his army service record which harbours an indelible statistic of a different kind. Severely outnumbered near the French village of Bourlon he was killed there on 26th November 1917 aged 35.
The final player on the Rams memorial shares common ground with Wheatcroft – again a centreforward and schoolteacher. But he is more gloriously unique. Cambridge graduate Lieutenant Colonel the Reverend Bernard Vann (Sherwood Foresters) was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only Church of England cleric to win the VC during World War One as a combatant.
No matter that Vann played only three first-team games – he wore the Rams shirt and won the coveted medal. That makes him unique in the club’s history.
He won the VC for his actions on 29th September 1918 in an attack at Bellenglise and Lehaucourt in France. Under heavy fire, showing contempt for danger, Vann advanced his battalion and took out three men single-handed to ‘change the whole situation’. He survived the incursion but four days later was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Bernard Vann died never knowing that he had won the highest British military honour.
Although that completes the six names on the Derby County memorial, the roll-call isn’t comprehensive. At least five more Derby players were killed in the Great War, and a further eleven served and survived. Overall at least 22 Derby County players ‘past and present’ gave active service during World War One.
The plaque tacitly acknowledges that. It is a symbol honouring ‘all those connected with the club’ – players, officials and supporters – who lived through the First World War.
Its wording also embraces the Second World War.
The wider scope permits acknowledgment of two further memorable characters. Derby County’s record scorer Steve Bloomer did not see active service – almost 41 at the outbreak, he was considered ‘too old’. But the ‘Destroying Angel’ suffered a great deal – spending almost the entire duration imprisoned at the Ruhleben civilian internment camp near Berlin. Not knowing what lay ahead, Bloomer went to coach in Germany only months before the war began. For once the great striker’s timing failed him.
Finally perhaps the most extraordinary character of all – yet another centre-forward and again a cleric. The Reverend Llewellyn Henry Gwynne scored eight goals in his seven games for Derby County in 1887-88, and was captain once. His finest hour was scoring four in a Derbyshire Cup match on Christmas Eve.
But life after football eclipsed that transient stardom. Between 1920 and 1946 Gwynne served in Africa as the first Bishop of Egypt and Sudan, but prior to that fulfilled a key non-combative role in the First World War.
In July 1915 Gwynne was appointed Deputy Chaplain General of the Allied Forces in France, charged with leading a team of army chaplains tasked with the vital role of maintaining faith and morale in the fighting ranks. Gwynne did this so effectively that the celebrated General Sir Herbert Plumer later referred to him as ‘the single person who did most to win the war for the Allies’.
As accolades go that is quite something – a Rams centreforward with rare qualities indeed. Of today’s breed we ask for little more than 20 goals a season… and that rarely delivered. With that sobering contrast in mind, Rams fans might wish to seek out the Derby County War Memorial for a moment’s contemplation – Lest We Forget.
Steve Bloomer (inside right), sketched during his internment at Ruhleben Camp
1914 caricature - The Royal Engineers’ ‘game plan’ for Kaiser Wilhelm
The new memorial plaque at Pride Park stadium
Llewellyn Henry Gwynne (centre-forward) - once labelled ‘the man who did the most to win the war’
Mr Punch takes a swipe at professional footballers – October 1914
Reg Callender (outside-left) - killed in a freak hand grenade accident