In the period leading up to the Great War, Aston Villa were the all-conquering team in English football, with six First Division titles and five FA Cup wins under George Ramsay – in many ways, Villa were football’s Victorian pioneers.
It’s even believed that Ramsay introduced the concept of dribbling as his Villa side became notorious with a style of play further refined to incorporate a passing style which better players were able to utilise, and Villa had a few of those.
Harry Hampton, Tommy Barber and Joseph Bache were just three of Villa’s and the First Division’s best players in the seasons preceding the 1914-15 campaign.
War broke out in August 1914, and so one of the country’s most successful football clubs were recognised with men fit to serve rather than players apt to win football matches.
The FA, along with the clubs in the Football League, decided to play on through the season as officials believed football played an important role in boosting the morale of players and supporters at home.
After wrongly expecting that the conflict would be over by Christmas, the football authorities insisted the 1914-15 season should be completed to its entirety, but according to the late Sir Doug Ellis, it was “not a popular decision.”
Aston Villa club historian, Laura Brett added: “There was a huge backlash from certain sections of the population who were not happy. They saw it as the football clubs money-grabbing and the players shirking their responsibilities.”
The stance that the FA took was met with widespread opposition and famous figures spoke of the shame this brought upon the nation. The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 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.”
Despite the public’s disappointment that the football season wasn’t curtailed, from the outset, Villa pledged £50 to the War Fund and a percentage of all gate receipts for the season. Villa’s players even expressed their wish to contribute 5% of their earnings weekly to the war effort in a meeting prior to the new campaign’s opening day win against Notts County.
Villa’s squad also agreed to receive ‘preparedness training’, which included strict military workouts by ex-army sergeant majors. Kitted out with special uniforms, military drills were also given to players who had not already signed up for war duty, in case they were called up to the frontline in northern France later down the line.
30 Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) territorial rifles were also ordered by the military and plans were drawn up for a firing range to be built near Villa Park. While Villa’s iconic grounds were effectively closed for the remainder of the conflict when the season was eventually halted, the club were able to raise money through ‘colts’ matches. That helped afford an ‘Aston Villa Ambulance Car’ to be used on the front line at a cost of £1,000.
Aston Villa’s heroes of the Great War
Villa actively encouraged that their players enlisted with Middlesex Regiment’s Football Battalion by offering to continue to pay half their wages to ensure their families were provided for during the war.
Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, called for a Football Battalion as part of the Pals’ Battalions scheme – a concept that stood in direct contrast to centuries of British military tradition, in which the British Army had always relied on professional soldiers rather than a select few members of the public.
Lord Kitchener proposed that the military draft its members from both the upper or lower classes to enlist men, to which General Sir Henry Rawlinson suggested that men would be more inclined to enlist in the Army if they knew that they were going to serve alongside their friends and colleagues.
It is difficult to confirm exactly how many of Villa’s players signed up in 1914 but recruitment drives were no irregularity, with appeals even appearing in the popular Villa programmes and magazines until football was suspended at the end of the season.
Football clubs tried to recruit supporters to fight for their country, too, and Aston Villa were no exception.
“An advert was placed in The Villa News and Record – the then matchday programme – on September 5 1914, looking for 100,000 men,” Brett said.
“Less than a week later, the next advertisement was for 500,000 men. That just shows the speed of the recruitment process.
“There were parades around the ground of various different regiments just to instil inspiration in the lads to join up, to wear that uniform and become part of a team.”
Formed at the Fulham Town Hall, England international and former Villa player, Frank Buckley became the first player to join the Football Battalion, out of thirty players who signed after its early formation.
Frank’s brother, Chris, made 136 appearances for Villa between 1906 and 1914 before joining the board and becoming the club’s chairman. The Football Battalion allowed players to leave on a Saturday to return to their clubs to take part in games, as the military proposed the balance between professional football and army training.
By March 1915, 122 players had joined the battalion, including Villa’s remarkable goal-scorer, Bache, Tommy Barber and Billy Gerrish. Of the three, Gerrish sadly died in action.
“He was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme,” Brett said.
Both of Gerrish’s legs were blown off after fighting in one of the deadliest battles in human history with 9,000 dead, wounded or missing. Legend has it that Gerrish lay quietly smoking a cigarette until he was picked up by the stretcher-bearers.
With such a large Villa contingent on the frontline, it was no surprise that two trenches in the Battle of Bazentin Ridge – the second phase of the Somme in 1916 – were named after the club.
The Battle of Bazentin Ridge took place July 14-17 in 1916 and marked the second phase of the Battle of the Somme and illustrated on a key military map, there are two allied trenches called ‘Aston Trench’ and ‘Villa Trench.
More than 70 Villa players served during the First World War, which broke out over 100 years ago, and like so many, Jack Windmill, an FA Cup winner with Villa in 1905 was as brave off the pitch as he was on it.
“Jack joined the Birmingham City Battalion and rose to become Regimental Sergeant Major,” Brett recalled.
“He saw active service in France and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Cross – he was quite a decorated player.”
Just as Windmill’s story was heroic, Aston-born Walter Kimberley’s was tragic.
The full-back made seven appearances for Villa before switching to Coventry City in 1912. Lance Corporal Kimberley served as a reservist during the early months of the war and was sent to France with the 5th Battalion, Coldstream Guards in August 1914.
“Walter contracted tuberculosis and died just before the war came to an end,” revealed Laura.
Over nine million military personnel were killed in battle when World War One ended on November 11, 1918. Villa’s president emeritus and club icon, Doug Ellis lost his father to the Great War.
“My father Herbert Ellis was the very first to leave the village of Hooton in the Wirral to join the Army,” Ellis explained.
“During that time he took some mustard gas. Consequently, he died of not being able to fight pleurisy and pneumonia in 1927. At the same time, I caught it off him – but I survived and he died.”
Sir Doug, chairman of the club from 1968 to 75, and then again from 1982 to 2006, said the success that the club enjoyed before the war-winning six league titles and five FA Cups – “was nothing compared to Villa’s role in the First World War.”
Pledging continued support during World War Two
20 years after World War One ended, football was suspended after just three matches of the 1939-40 season as a second World War arose.
As quickly as November 1939 – two months after World War Two began – the War Office commandeered Villa Park and the club pledged their support to the country’s war efforts once again.
Villa’s players were given a two weeks wage packet before being told that their contracts were suspended for the foreseeable future.
Several of the younger players in an era that Villa had managed to win another First Division title after the First World War broke out, joined the forces while many others went to work at the Kynochs Munitions Factory in Witton.
Eddie Lowe, Jack Maund and Alan Wakeman became Bevin Boys to work in the coal mines at Hednesford, while Eric Houghton and captain Jimmy Allen joined the Police Force.
Villa stepped up to support the country’s war effort in an unexpected way by renting 34 turnstiles to the Austin Motor Company and a large number of tip-up seats were loaned to air-raid shelters.
Balls and kits were supplied through the Red Cross and the YMCA to British prisoners of war (POWs), as football became a popular form of recreation at many large camps. Organised leagues were set up as one POW team at Stalag XXID at Poznan in Nazi-occupied Poland named themselves ‘Aston Villa’.
The Board of Trade and the Ministry of Supplies even rented space in the Trinity Road Stand from 1941 while other areas were rented to the Ministry of Works and fire watchers camped out in Villa Park dressing rooms.
The stadium escaped unscathed through the 1940 bombing of Aston but it was eventually hit a year later when the Trinity Road roof was holed by shrapnel and the Witton Lane Stand left a tangled wreck before gradually regaining control of the ground in 1943.
The Villa Park billiard table and piano belonging to the players was loaned to the Birmingham Corporation, but after the disappearance, the club were awarded £3,650 in compensation by the War Office and Birmingham Corporation for these inconveniences.
More than one million British military personnel died during the First and Second World Wars, with the First World War alone accounting for 886,000 fatalities despite being labelled the ‘war to end all wars.’
Served: J. Bache, T. Barber, A. Dyke, H. Hampton, S. Hardy, B. Morris, F. Moss, C. Stephenson, J. Stephenson, C. Wallace, T. Weston, T. Whittaker, R. Black, L. Bowker, F. Buckley, R. Chandler, S. Doncaster, A. Evans, W. George, A. Green, H. Henshall, G. Hunter, A. MacLachlan, A. Moss, C. Millington, T. Niblo, E. Parsons, L. Skiller, D. Sloley, H. Smart, J. Walters, J. Windmill, E. Woods.
Died: W. Bowker, W. Kimberley, A. Rogers, Dr. L. Roose, J. Watkins, H. Dobson, W. Gerrish, F. Hargrave.
Of those names, you might recognise Sam Hardy, who was reputed to have been one of the greatest-ever goalkeepers at Aston Villa, and Harry Hampton, the ‘Wellington Whirlwind’, a centre-forward who remains as one of Villa’s all-time leading scorers. Although Hampton never returned from the war as the same player having suffered from the effects of mustard gas poisoning during The Battle of the Somme.
After World War One, football resumed for the 1919-20 season – a campaign in which Villa managed to lift a sixth FA Cup, beating Huddersfield Town 1-0 in the final at Stamford Bridge. Though no cup final win is more triumphant than the bravery and cost of sacrifice that many gave, for our tomorrow. We will remember them.
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