Boro’s Blood Sacrifice And An Historic Opportunity Lost

THE CATACLYSM of the First World War wiped out an entire generation and left much of mainland Europe devastated.
It also destroyed Boro’s first and best chance to launch a serious assault on the title. A promising team that was fast evolving into a potent unit was wiped out and an ambitious club gathering upward momentum was stopped in its tracks.
As the FootballLeague was suspended for the duration, many of the players lost their best years of their careers.  More poignantly, four of them – young men with glory on the horizon – lost their lives after answering the call to arms.  Three former stars also died in action along with one of the club’s directors. Boro were left broken and traumatised.

Boro's Fallen Heroes, as depicted by club artist in residence Richard Piers Rayner
Boro’s Fallen Heroes of the Great War, as depicted poignantly by the club ‘s superb artist in residence Richard Piers Rayner
Of course the fortunes of a mere football club pale into insignificance against the mechanised slaughter of millions.  And the deaths of a handful of players has to be put into context. A total of 3,765 Teessiders were killed in action and almost 6,000 from the wider area of North Yorkshire and South Durham we now think of being part of our Greater Gazetteshire hinterland , each death having a tragic lasting impact on families and friends and collectively on communities for decades to come.
And Boro were far from unique in having players on their books killed. Hundreds of professionals volunteered – almost the entire squads of Clapton Orient and Hearts enlisted en masse – with many joining the ‘Football Battalions,’ fronted by England international Frank Buckley, later to manage Wolves and Leeds among others.
Encouraged by the government and the army, there were publics meeting in major cities in which household names pledged themselves to the war effort  and exhorted their team-mates and supporters of their clubs to follow suit amid much cheering.
The battalions were a morale-boosting recruiting tool aiming to encourage volunteers from among ordinary workers and to deflect early criticism of a game  initially continuing as normal, impervious to the growing casualty list among those who so recently had paid their two bob to file onto the terraces.  Footballers were among the fittest and most athletic young men in the land (and among the best paid of their class) and it was natural there were demands for them to add their weight to the war effort.
The Battalion was launched on January 1st 1915, halfway through the season. Players were initially granted leave on Saturday to play for their clubs but the logistics and the cost – the army and clubs both declined to pay for rail travel l-  proved prohibitive for many.  After a sluggish start – just 122 players of England’s 1,800 professionals had signed up after two months – prompted some stinging press criticism, the recruitment rate speeded up and with the end of the season in April hundreds of players flocked to the flag, either to the Football Battalion, part of the Middlesex Regiment, or to their local regiments.
The Football Battalion have a kick-about in No Man's Land during a lull in the fighting
The Football Battalion have a kick-about in No Man’s Land during a lull in the fighting
But the Football Battalion was to quickly reflect the tragic  cost to the nation. Over 1,000 of players were to die in the war including 462 in the carnage of Arras in 1917.  Hundreds of other players and former players were also to perish in the ranks of other regiments of the army as well as in the navy and  the fledgling air-force.  An entire generation of footballers from every level of the game was wiped out with many who survived returning with injuries that prevented them resuming their careers.
From that perspective Boro’s punishing losses were on a par with many clubs and they would have to bear their burden with a stoicism seen in every other workplace.
But the timing was terrible for Boro. The war shattered what had been an impressive trajectory towards the top by a rising football force and a slick team that was just beginning to blossom.
A decade of serious game-changing investment had prepared the way. A plush new ground at Ayresome Park in 1902 drew some of the biggest crowds in the country and the money was poured into the team.  Boro had signed England centre-forward Steve Bloomer – the Edwardian Alan Shearer – and prompted ‘moneybags’ moral outrage about upstarts buying success in the broadsheets and questions in the House of Commons as they shattered the world transfer record to buy Alf Common for £1,000 in 1905. Modern fans may see some familiar themes.
Boro had established themselves as a middling top flight side but come 1913 were ready for their big push for glory.  They started the 1913-14 season slowly but with South Bank sensation George Elliott banging in goals they started to climb the table steadily and to close in ominously on the top.  But as Boro gathered momentum so did mass mobilisation of armies across Europe as political tensions grew taut and storm clouds gathered.
In mid-April Boro beat rivals Spurs 6-0 to nudge into fifth place and move just three points off the top with two games to go. The title and glory was within touching distance.   A 4-0 leathering of Liverpool followed and then on the final day Boro won 3-1 at second-placed Aston Villa but despite that they fell agonisingly just  three points short in third after a late spurt had given Blackburn Rovers the title.
But despite the frustration of the near miss impressed English football pundits from the national press were raving about the team that had been built by secretary/manager Tom McIntosh and widely tipped them as next term’s Champions.
The Boro side that finished third in 1914 - and were tipped for a title tilt in the season to come.
The side that finished third in 1914 – and were tipped for a title tilt in the season to come.
It was Boro’s moment. History beckoned. A decade of investment and growth in stature and resources was about to pay off: Boro were set for success. What could go wrong?
On the day Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in July to trigger the inevitable slide towards hostilities, Boro had battered Northern League champions South Bank 11-1 in a friendly as they geared up for the coming campaign.
They lost the new season’s opener 3-1 at Sheffield Wednesday –  but then rattled off three straight wins, including a 3-2 away victory at eventual champions Everton and clicked into gear as they went 11 games unbeaten to settle into the leading group by November.
But the reality of war was starting to bite. Late in September the allies won the Battle of the Marne to stop the German advance and the long networks of trenches began to appear as the armies dug in for what was to become a nightmare four years of unprecedented industrialised attritional slaughter.
In October with the First Battle of Ypres the casualties started to pile up:  the British Expeditionary Force suffered almost 8,000 dead and 30,000 wounded in a three week stalemate. The enormity of war hit home. It was clear it wouldn’t be over by Christmas.
Soon fans in their thousands and players in their tens were joining up and football was fast fading into insignificance. The authorities were in two minds whether to scrap the season as a reflection of the depth of the crisis or press on for public morale.
The fixtures were finished amid increasing dissent and the second half of the season fizzled out as skeleton sides filleted of first team stars went through the motions, distorting the competitive balance and rendering the table almost meaningless.
After Christmas a much changed Boro side were becalmed in mid-table. A team that started the campaign touted as Champions finished 12th but it barely mattered .
Of the side that started a season ripe with opportunity in red, five were to finish it wearing khaki.  And two – key players – were to die in action.
Skipper Andy Jackson, was a commanding centre-half and Scottish international, the kingpin of the Boro defence. The terrace favourite had played 137 games for Boro and was tipped to be one of the game’s all time greats. He left after the season’s end and was killed in France in 1917.
Another Scot, Archie Wilson, started that season as a new signing. The former Spurs and Forest winger was an instant hit supplying crosses for Elliott and scoring four goals in his 21 games.  He joined up in the summer and was killed in action in France in 1916.
And two more players that were to feature in that opening run of 12 promising games were also to fall in the war.
 New boy Richard Wynn scored on his debut – a 6-0 battering of Spurs – in the previous term and played five times in the ill-fated season before volunteering in the summer of 1915. He was badly injured in the closing days of the war and died of his wounds in 1919.
Middlesbrough-born fringe figure Harry Cook had been on the books for two years before making two appearances in the truncated term before following the patriotic professionals into the ranks as soon as the season ended. He fought and survived  for two years in the Yorkshire Regiment and was promoted to sergeant before being killed at the Somme in 1917.
Another to die in action was Don McLeod, a gritty defender who retired from Boro at the end of the sizzling season in which they finished third. A Scottish international, he had won the title four times with Celtic before joining Boro where he played 148 games over five successful seasons. He was killed at Dozenhem in Belgium in 1917.
Two other former Boro players also paid the ultimate sacrifice.  Inside forward Bobby Atherton had played in the opening game at Ayresome Park in 1903, a 3-2 defeat to Sunderland, and was the first player to win international honours while at Boro when he was picked for Wales.  He played 66 times and scored 14 goals before leaving for Chelsea.  He was killed when his submarine was torpedoed by a u-boat in 1917.
And right-half John Harkins, another Scot, had played 40 games in 1906 and 1907 before leaving for a stint back home and then later played for Leeds. He joined the Black Watch and was killed in skirmishes against Turkish forces in 1916 near Amara in Iraq.
As well as the players Boro also lost Albert Forbes, a club director and son of the Middlesbrough baking dynasty after who the Forbes Building on Linthorpe Road is named.  Forbes, a solicitor,  had joined the board during the years of Ayresome expansion. He joined the Royal Artillery and suffered badly when a battery he was commanding was hit by a gas attack in 1917 and after years of pain he died in 1920 aged 37.
Boro – the town as much as the team – struggled to recover from the ravages of war or regain the swagger and confidence of 1913.  When football resumed in 1919 the finished in mid-table, then after a brief rally and an eighth place then slumped into several seasons of struggle before being relegated in May 1924.
The war robbed a generation of its youth and innocence.  It denied Boro a crack at glory. While we often make parochial jokes about the Kaiser – and Hitler – declaring war to deny Boro their birthright, on balance only one of those things is truly important.

15 thoughts on “Boro’s Blood Sacrifice And An Historic Opportunity Lost

  1. Yes good read. You can’t see many of the current generation of footballers being among the first to sign up. To be fair, for most of them it wouldn’t even be their country involved.

  2. Great article. I paused for my own personal reflection last night at 10 – I’m eternally touched by the human slaughter of this (and every other) war, and this brings home how no strata of society or public life was unaffected. I recall visiting the ‘Lost’ gardens at Heligan not long after they opened, and seeing the gardeners hut where all the groundsmen had written their names as they volunteered en-masse and went off to France. Not a single one returned. Well said AV.

  3. My granddad used to tell me about how we should have won the title by 1916 but for the war and, with slightly less conviction, my dad used to claim the same about WW2. What can I tell my grandchildren to explain why 7th was the best we did in my time? I can only talk about the way zillions were frittered away. Far less poignant.

    However I see Bob Mortimer has come to my rescue. He reckons we’re going to have our best season for 76 years. By that reckoning, we’re about to finish in 4th place in the top division. Now that would be some achievement! I look forward to the Champions League.

  4. Er, Clayton anyone? This is such a sobering article I feel guilty creeping in on this – but the communication blackout is ended – we’re getting (not quite got) our man – that’s a great piece of quiet, efficient, professional business.

    1. I concur, this needs to be discussed but seemed inappropriate on this thread due to the gravity of the preceding article (which is great, but sobering). Any chance of another short thread regarding Clayton and final week deals that we can comment on and discuss in, AV?

      **AV writes: There you go. Always give the audience what they want.

  5. Nikeboro

    You can also tell the grandkids that we went to Wembley three times (four if you include ZDS) and won a trophy at the millennium. Throw in two seasons in Europe including a final.

    I must admit I agree with you about Bob’s prediction but that reminds me of the famous story about the Boro player waking up in the corner of a hostelry following a night out celebrating promotion. He asked where he was and the cleaner replied The Northern. Damn he said, didn’t last long in the second division.

    In the old days we could put whatever words we wanted and Vic would have decided on decency and disclosure. All this self discipline is fatiguing.

  6. Glad you wrote that smoggy paul. As I bet av is. He was probably thinking he’d have to write another blog just so we could talk about something football related. Any football talk on this blog would have seemed insensitive!

    Glad I’ve already written something. On the Clayton transfer that’s great news. Felt after the Villarreal game that we were really light in midfield (quality wise not quantity) think he’ll add a lot to the team.

  7. Thanks for that Vic.

    I was aware that Boro players of the time had made the ultimate sacrifice during that period. I was however not aware of any of their names or individual stories.

    It’s great to be able to learn a little more about these gentleman, as well as being important that their stories continue to be told.

    They were incredibly brave people, and even as someone who is currently a serving member of HM Armed Forces, and has been to Afghanistan on a couple of occasions, I am still in awe of what they did in the face of such horrors.

  8. Just for the record, we were not the only team to suffer because of the war. In 1914–15 Oldham Athletic lost the league by one point, as close as they have ever come to winning the league. Latics early success was only halted by the First World War.

    And they were relegated from the Football League First Division in 1923.

    Up the Boro!

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