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.
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.
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.
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.