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Battle of the Somme: 100 years on

1 July 2016

Saturday 25th April 1914, was a match day like no other for Burnley. That Saturday marked the club’s first appearance in an FA Cup Final where the Clarets claimed a 1-0 victory against Liverpool at the original Crystal Palace venue. A large proportion of the town's population made the journey to see the Final. Up to 12,000 left Burnley for the capital the night before and another 4,000 departed on early morning special trains to ensure London was filled that day with a claret and blue army. The game was also notable for being the first time that the reigning British monarch, King George V, attended a cup final. The masses returned jubilant to the north-west courtesy of Bert Freeman's second-half strike and after seeing King George handing Tommy Boyle the famous trophy.

That jubilant mood in the summer of 1914 soon became more unpredictable with the outbreak of the First World War. Only weeks before the outbreak of war in Europe, Burnley fulfilled a month of hastily arranged fixtures on the continent as was their privilege as FA Cup holders. Burnley faced sides from Germany, Austria-Hungary as well as the travelling Glasgow Celtic in a showpiece match staged in Budapest. The outbreak of the war caught English football completely off guard, ahead of the 1914-1915 season, which was due to get underway on the first weekend of September 1914.

After much deliberation, it was decided that the 1914-1915 season would get the go-ahead since there was a genuine belief that that the fighting would be over before Christmas. There did not appear to be any reason to suspend the League and FA Cup programmes. The Burnley Express and Advertiser, reported the decision of the Football Association by stating that, ‘in the interests of the people of the country football ought to continue.’ However the seeds were sown for the militarization of the sport as the FA had decided that, ‘if the time comes when the grounds are wanted for the training and drilling of recruits, or anything in the way of National Service they will be given up willingly.’ This included Turf Moor which played host to various recruitment drives and parades during the course of the war.

The FA's decision to allow football to continue in wartime was met with a mixed response from local fans judging by the letters pages of the Burnley Express.  One such letter attributed to ‘A Spectator for Twenty Years’ aims fire at the ‘nuts’ who were more inclined to watch Burnley than they were to join the Armed Forces: "The talk of our local young ‘nuts’ seems to be “If I join up I shall miss the football season. Burnley won the Cup last season, and you can talk as you like I’m going to watch them win the Championship from Rovers this season”.

These local criticisms were reflective of the way in which professional football was viewed at a national level following the outbreak of the war. The season started amidst fierce criticism that the sport was doing its best for the enemy. The satirical magazine Punch featured a cartoon encouraging football to give a call to arms in October 1914. The carton entitled The Greater Game, depicts Mr. Punch reminding the footballing world that there is honour to be gained in the war effort. As the 1914-15 season continued, interest in football declined rapidly. Attendances virtually halved and clubs struggled to stay afloat as a result.

The War Office sanctioned the staging of the 1915 FA Cup final as a temporary farewell to the game until hostilities were over. This game became known as the Khaki Cup Final due to so many of the spectators attending Old Trafford in uniform to see Sheffield United beat Chelsea. After the game, Lord Derby, presenting the trophy reminded all attending "it is now the duty of everyone to join with each other and play a sterner game for England." Football bowed to the inevitable.

Meanwhile in East Lancashire recruitment was well underway for men to meet Kitchener's call for a volunteer army.  Thousands of men volunteered for Pals' Battalions as it was realised that local ties could be harnessed for national gain. Kitchener believed many more men would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates. The 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment, better known as the Accrington Pals, was one of the best known of the Pals' Battalions, but did not solely consist of men drawn from Accrington. Around half of the 1,200 strong battalion had been recruited from Accrington with around a quarter each from both Burnley and Blackburn. It was not until February 1916 that the Accrington Pals were ordered to France, but upon arrival they were nominated to take part in the "Big Push" on the Somme and their date with destiny.

At 07:30 hrs, on the 1st July 1916, after a week-long artillery bombardment of German positions, the Big Push on the Somme began, with the British and Commonwealth troops poised to play a key role in relieving the pressure on the French troops further down the line at Verdun. The Accrington Pals had been set the objective of capturing the fortified village of Serre alongside eleven other Pals Battalions in the 31st Division. These battalions contained men from Hull, Leeds, Bradford, Durham, Sheffield and Barnsley: all would fall together that morning. Further down the line at 07:30 hrs when the whistle came for men to go over the top, a company of soldiers from the East Surrey Regiment punted footballs across the shell-scarred landscape of the Somme's No Man's Land towards their own objective.

Seven days of British artillery fire was meant to have obliterated the German defences but as they advanced slowly across the 300-yard No Man's Land, the German troops emerged from deep dugouts unscathed by the shelling and proceeded to bombard the defenceless Pals with machine gun and rifle fire. The debacle was part of the Battle of the Somme in which over 100,000 British troops advanced on a 15-mile front and suffered almost 60,000 casualties in men killed, wounded or missing. Many of the dead lying beyond the British Front Line of 1st July would never be recovered.

Many men from Burnley served notably with other regiments during the First World War but it is fitting that the centenary of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme is commemorated this summer as the first day of the battle remains the bloodiest ever day in British military history. Over 19,000 young men were killed on the opening day alone. When the offensive was halted in November, more than one million British Empire, French and German servicemen had been wounded, captured or killed.  The Accrington Pals had been virtually wiped out.

The wartime years 1914-1918 devastated the Burnley area. The total number of men who perished in the four years of war was around 4,500. Factoring in those who had been severely wounded or disabled and those who had remained prisoners of war, the combined figure would be nearly four times the number killed, a figure of around 17,000 is realistic.  To put this figure into perspective this represented somewhere between 30-40% of Burnley's adult male population at the time. This number is probably not too far away from the number of men who headed onto the special trains to London in April 1914 in high spirits to see their beloved clarets win the cup. It is impossible to calculate just how many of the clarets faithful who headed down to London that day, did serve in the war and paid the ultimate price for their country, but it’s plausible to presume there would have been a large overlap.

The Burnley side which overcame Liverpool in the FA Cup final on the 25th April 1914 was subsequently torn apart by the First World War. The starting eleven that day was: Ronnie Sewell, Tom Bamford, David Taylor, George Halley, Tommy Boyle, Billy Watson, Billy Nesbitt, Dick Lindley, Bert Freeman, Teddy Hodgson and Eddie Mosscrop. This named side never appeared in a competitive fixture together ever again. Centre forward Teddy Hodgson died of kidney failure which arose from complications of a wartime wound gained whilst serving with the 52nd Manchester Regiment. Hodgson died in Whalley Military Hospital on the 4th August 1919, the day after Turf Moor had played host to a peace celebration. Reserve team players Alfred Lorimer, John Heaton, William Pickering, William Johnson and John Brown also paid the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War, as did former player Wilf Toman. Claret, Bernard Donaghy, an Irish international who retired from playing in 1908 died on the 1st July 1916 at the Somme, he served with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and his body was never recovered so is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

In 1991 a memorial was constructed of red Accrington bricks and dedicated to the memory of all members of the Accrington Pals, the 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment, who fought and fell in the opening phase of the Battle of the Somme. It can be found today in the position of the British Front Line where the 11th East Lancs began their attack on 1st July 1916.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit this memorial and pay my respects last month. Something that will always stay with me from this visit is the time I spent alone in Queens' Cemetery. This cemetery is less than two hundred metres from the frontline trench from which the Accrington Pals set out on the morning of the 1st July 1916.  Most of the cemeteries I visited on the Western Front had a carefully planned approach with men laid to rest with a small amount of space between the headstones.  At Queens' Cemetery the tombstones are touching, such is the congested nature of the loss at the Somme. The majority of the tombstones in this cemetery are engraved with the East Lancashire cap badge and each represents one young man taken too soon by the ravages of the First World War. These men were never to return to East Lancashire to see their beloved Clarets, Accrington or even Blackburn Rovers again.

Fighting the Greater Game for England, it didn't matter which team the men supported, war did not stop to take notice of football and these men are all laid to rest together. One hundred years on from the horrors of the Battle of the Somme, spare a thought on this day for the young men of the Pals Battalions who paid the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that some corner of a foreign field remains for ever England.

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