Clapton Orient and the Great War

Clapton Orient and the Great War

Following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 4th August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force was sent over to Belgium and France to confront the might of the German Army, However, it was soon evident that a major influx of recruits would be needed to bolster the number of military personnel in the country’s armed forces. Consequently a large number of what became known as Pals’ battalions were raised to help with the recruitment drive.

A Pals’ battalion comprised of men who came from the same town or village, had the same interest, profession or job and with all these elements supposedly contributing to an extra esprit de corps on the front line.

With the war raging in Europe, generally life back home continued as normal. People still got on with their daily lives, went to work, met up with family and friends and enjoyed pastimes and interests in their spare time.

Just as now, one hundred years ago, sport and leisure played a major part in most people’s lives, whether participating or as spectators. The three main spectator sports, cricket, rugby and football were all caught up in the effects of the war but reacted in different ways. Firstly cricket was fortunate due to the season drawing to a close. However, rugby was affected by the large number of players lost to the war who had studied at colleges and universities with many of them being snapped up as officers – this left football to stand alone and continue to be played whilst the war raged over the channel.

Initially the authorities saw football, particularly professional football, as a way of distracting the public from the everyday stress of war and initially this seemed to be the case. However, after a few months a massive back-lash emanated from those attending games, causing a major problem for the clubs and even threatening the very existence of the game as we know it. Many spectators voiced their unease and displeasure to the players before, during and after matches, saying such things as ‘my dad, brother or uncle are risking their life fighting over in France, and yet you lot are being paid to kick a ball around’. Stronger language was used but it was only once turnstiles stopped turning did the football authorities look to try and do something about it.

By now an initiative had been put in place by the former Member of Parliament for East Edinburgh, Sir George McCrae, to form a local battalion – the 16th Royal Scots, and to encourage professional footballers to join up. McCrae was successful in gaining the support of Heart of Midlothian team, players from Dunfermline, Falkirk, Raith Rovers and Mossend Burnside signed-up and a large number of football supporters enlisted. This positive response resulted in public opinion changing almost overnight.

The battalion was an immediate success and this was duly noted south of the border.

Following the outbreak of war and encouraged by the success of the 16th Royal Scots, the Clapton Orient chairman, Captain Henry Wells-Holland, had the dream of starting his own platoon consisting entirely of O’s players and staff.

By now, the authorities – who were mindful of the criticism of professional football continuing whilst a war was on – deciding to form a battalion specifically for footballers, a meeting was held at Fulham Town Hall on 15th December 1914 for players that wanted to join up into the newly formed battalion – the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment – which soon became more commonly known as the Footballers’ Battalion.

The atmosphere at the meeting was electric with the hall jammed packed with footballers, ground staff and supporters. The O’s Captain Fred Parker lead the way being the first footballer to go onto the stage and join up into the 17th. He was immediately followed by nine other Clapton Orient players including centre-forward William Jonas and O’s goal-ace Richard McFadden. A number of players from other clubs also then came forward to enlist.

As in Scotland, public opinion changed and the future of professional football was saved. However, this was now not the main concern. The concern was for the need to get the lads trained up to serve in the front line.

Meanwhile, footballers continued to join up, either into the Footballers’ Battalion or their local regiment. Clapton Orient’s contribution was truly remarkable with a further thirty-one players, officials and supporters enlisting – making forty-one in total, by far the largest contingent of any Club.

Whilst all this was taking place, the 1914/15 football season was coming to a close. Clapton Orient’s last game was at home to Leicester Fosse on 24th April It was well publicised that like all other clubs in the Football League, this would be the last official league game until after the war. With this in mind the stadium was packed well before kick-off, indeed some supporters gained a good viewpoint by climbing up onto the roof of one of the stands.

The Orient side at that time included a number of footballers who complemented each other really well. They were all real characters and interestingly, a number of the players originated from ‘up north’ – Goal-keeper Jimmy Hugall, wing-half Nolan ‘Peggy’ Evans, Jack ‘Bull’ Forrest, in addition reliable defender and utility player George Scott and school-boy pals, centre-forward William Jonas and goal-ace Richard McFadden – just some of the players who would all go on to be heroes in France.

With the knowledge that the Clapton Orient team would ultimately find themselves in the front line, along with other footballers who had signed on the dotted line, the actual result – a fine 2-0 win for the O’s was almost an irrelevance.

Straight after the match and still profusely sweating, the Orient lads came out of the changing-room wearing their new uniform, to form up behind the band and parade around the pitch. The waiting thousand’s who had refused to leave, gave their Orient heroes the best possible send-off, with many of those assembled realising that some, if not most, would not return to play football once hostilities were over. After all, the original statement that the ‘war would be over by Christmas’ was shown to be incorrect.

Footage of this iconic moment in Clapton Orient’s history can be found on YouTube under the heading of ‘Clapton’s Khaki Team’.

The O’s contingent and the rest of the Footballers’ Battalion initially went to Cranleigh training camp in Surrey and then in July to Clipstone Camp in Nottinghamshire, before transferring finally to Perham Down on the edge of Salisbury Plain in August 1915.

The battalion first set foot in France, arriving in Boulogne on 18th November and whilst not initially in the front line, the first serious action took place at Souchez Mine Crater on 1st June 1916, resulting in three officers killed or wounded, seven from the ranks killed and fifty-one wounded. From then on the Footballers’ Battalion made its way up to the front-line serving as part of the 2nd Division in the Battle of the Somme arriving on 23rd July.

The casualties were now mounting up in the battalion and a few days later on 27th July, whilst in action in Delville Wood during some of the fiercest fighting of the war, O’s striker William Jonas was killed. Both he and his pal Richard McFadden were in a trench in No Man’s Land. Jonas could take no more and decided to make a run back to the British Line, sadly as soon as he jumped up he was shot and such was the ferocity of the battle his body could not be retrieved. Despite his overwhelming devastation, McFadden was able to write a letter to the Orient, in which he gave a stomach-churning eye-witness account of his best friend’s death.

William Jonas

William Jonas was born in Blyth in 1892 and signed for Clapton Orient in 1912. He was a centre-forward and a daring, good looking lad who soon had the ladies of Millfields Road swooning due to his good-looks and dashing style. At one stage he was receiving up to fifty letters a week from female admirers – things got so bad he penned an article in the O’s programme to say that whilst he appreciated the letters and the kind words they contain, he is very happily married to his sweet-heart Mary Jane and therefore could they please stop! As well as scoring 23 goals in 74 appearances, Billy would always give one hundred per cent, which at times could get him involved in some rather heated exchanges, such as when he was sent off at Millwall along with the Lion’s goal-keeper for fighting. This incident resulted in a full scale riot inside the stadium with police on horse-back escorting the Orient fans out of the ground for their own safety!

George Scott

Born in Sunderland in 1885 and very fond of his Mackem roots, Scott joined the O’s in 1909 – his first professional club. He soon became a favourite with the fans, making 213 appearances for Clapton Orient and scoring 34 goals including the winner against Tottenham Hotspur in April 1909 – as these stats show, George was no slouch when in front of goal. He was an excellent utility player, being able to play in midfield, up-front as well as his accustomed position of centre-half.

George had an exceptionally strong character and would have been a big influence in the side with his presence being felt by all around him. This would have stood him in good stead when serving in France. His stubborn determination would lead him to be in the thick of the action when in the front-line. Unfortunately on one occasion when in action, he was wounded and taken prisoner before being treated in a German Military Hospital at Le Cateau where sadly he died on 16th August 1916.

Richard McFadden

O’s goal-ace Richard McFadden, was born in Cambuslang, Scotland in 1889. After initially moving to Blackburn with his family when still a very young boy, a further move to Blyth took place which by coincidence saw him going to the same school as William Jonas, indeed they became great friends and it was McFadden, who, after signing for Clapton Orient in 1911, got Jonas a trial at the Orient. McFadden went on to be top scorer in the four seasons he played for the O’s – with 68 goals from 142 appearances. The outbreak of war could not have come at a worse time for him personally as he was in line to win his first full cap for Scotland, having scored the winning goal against England at Craven Cottage whilst representing a Southern XI. However, his reputation far exceeded football.

Before coming to play for the Orient, it was documented that he had dragged a man from a burning building. Later, whilst on a training run along Lea Bridge Road, McFadden spotted two young lads struggling in the River Lea. Without hesitation, he jumped in and rescued them. Two weeks later and when walking across Clapton Park, McFadden heard a women’s screams in the distance and immediately rushed over to her. The woman through her tears, anguish and gasps of breath, explained that her home was on fire and that her very young child was trapped in the kitchen. Again, without hesitation, McFadden dashed inside and brought the badly burned child out and handed her over to the rescue services that by now had arrived. Sadly, the young girl did not survive. However, McFadden’s bravery was recognised by Councillor William Hammer, the mayor of Hackney who awarded him a medal for his brave deeds. By all accounts he had to almost be dragged in front of the mayor such was his modesty.

McFadden’s live saving exploits continued over in France when he would go out into No Man’s Land to rescue wounded comrades – for this he was awarded the military medal for his bravery in the field. He was also promoted to Company Serjeant Major and was also in-line for a commission.

Sadly, he was not to receive his promotion as whilst leading a group of troops along a trench near Serre on 22nd October 1916, he was hit, along with the rest of the group, by the blast of an exploding shell which caused him severe wounds. Despite urgent medical attention and him seemingly stabilising whilst under observation in a field hospital, Richard McFadden passed away the following day.

The loss of these three fine lads, along with those who sustained wounds resulting in them never to be able to play football again, decimated Clapton Orient. The Club struggled to find replacements anywhere as good as those brave lads who served King and Country and with the benefit of hindsight it is obvious to see that it never fully recovered from its patriotic lead and example.

There was recognition of Clapton Orient’s service and sacrifice throughout the country with various tributes being made – none so high as that made by King George V:

Good luck to Clapton Orient FC, no football club had paid a greater price to patriotism…