Monday 15 April 2019

Football & War and The Football of Loos at Champion Hill

Poster signed by all of the participants (author's collection)

Regular readers of this blog will know that in June of 2018, I had the honour to be invited to speak at The University of Wolverhampton as part of their Football and War Project. This fascinating initiative, convened by Dr. Alex Alexandrou, researches, studies and disseminates subjects such as the role of football during the two world wars, footballers who have been involved in armed conflict, the relationship between the armed forces and football clubs and the social impact of the game upon the public during times of war.

In the aftermath of that talk, Alex floated the idea of opening up the seminar talks to a wider audience outside the Wolverhampton campus and suggested that we might like to host such an event at Dulwich Hamlet FC. As the club was still in enforced exile at this point, staging the event in our own clubhouse was out of the question, although it was thought that perhaps the event could be held in a local pub to act as a fundraiser. This all changed when the momentous news was received towards the end of last year that the club would be returning home to Champion Hill; the whole complexion of the event had changed - we could now pay tribute to our own players and those of other clubs in the comfort of our newly revamped clubhouse and hopefully attract a much larger audience into the bargain.

The idea of taking the seminar talks on the road was to open them up to a wider football audience, as we know that supporters of all clubs have a genuine interest and affection for the history and heritage of not only their own clubs but also of the game in general and care deeply for it. It was with this in mind that we set out to make it an evening that would appeal not just to the many Dulwich Hamlet fans with an interest in history but to fans of all clubs and so Alex devised a programme of events that would hopefully achieve this ambition.

Our speakers from left to right - Steve Hunnisett, Roger Deason, Jack McInroy, Alex Alexandrou, Tony Robinson (with the Football of Loos) and Tim Godden (photo courtesy Mishi Morath)

In the event, we provided three speakers from within the Dulwich Hamlet community - Jack McInroy, aka The Hamlet Historian, spoke eloquently about Hussein Hegazi, the first Egyptian footballer to play in England, a hundred years or so before Mo Salah became big news in this country. Jack has just completed writing a fantastically informative book on Hussein Hegazi, which was released on the night of our seminar.  Jack recalled that when he began his research into the player, he had made a phone call to the Egyptian Embassy in London to obtain contact details of the Egyptian Football Association in order to further his research. When Jack answered the question as to which player he was investigating, he was astonished to be told that "Hussein Hegazi is the greatest footballer this country has ever produced - he was the father of the game in our country." Such is the esteem that he is still held.

Hussein Hegazi: Dulwich Hamlet's Egyptian King by Jack McInroy

Roger Deason told us of the club's history during the turbulent years of The Great War between 1914 and 1919 and spoke of the casualties from amongst the playing staff, numbering twenty two fatalities and numerous others who suffered life changing injuries, both physical and mental. Roger also explained how the club took an early decision to actively involve themselves in the recruiting process and so encourage all players, officials and supporters to join up in order to help the war effort and declaring that it was everyone's patriotic duty to do so.

Quite appropriately in view of the major involvement of our playing staff who served as Royal Air Force aircrew in the 1939-1945 conflict, I acted as "Tail End Charlie" and brought the evening to a close by discussing the club's history during the Second World War and of the four players - all aircrew - who feature on the Roll of Honour. We also looked at how we had two club officials who served as Air Raid Wardens, one player in the Fire Service and at least one who had served as a Bevin Boy. We also looked at the impact of the war on the immediate locality and how the Borough of Camberwell was the fifth most bombed borough in London. We closed by revealing how two further players appeared to have been accidentally omitted from the Roll of Honour and our hopes of adding these two men at some point in the future. One of those omitted players, Alan Adams was covered in the November 2018 edition of this blog.

Alan Adams - one of our 'missing men' (Luuk Buist)

Interspersed between the in-house speakers, we were honoured to have two guest speakers with us. Firstly, Tim Godden, the well-known artist and illustrator, who went above and beyond the call of duty by driving up to Southeast London from Devon and back home again on the night.  Tim gave a fascinating talk on "Footballers of The Great War - The Stories Behind The Drawings" in which he provided insights not only about the subject matter of the drawings and the reason for choosing them but also something as to the technical aspects of how the drawings are produced. Tim had recently produced wonderfully evocative drawings of Edgar Kail and Hussein Hegazi, as well as Adolf Jager of our good friends at Altona 93 in Hamburg and showed us these portraits along with many others that he has produced. Tim is most generously ensuring that ten percent of the proceeds of all sales of his Dulwich Hamlet portraits goes to our Twelfth Man Scheme, thus helping the club financially.

Our other guest speaker had something of a shorter journey to reach us, as Tony Robinson of the London Irish Rifles Association had come from the Regimental Museum at Camberwell and had brought with him an artefact that perhaps most easily demonstrates the connection between football and war. This was the actual "Football of Loos", secreted about his person by Rifleman Frank Edwards of the 1st Battalion, London Irish Rifles and dribbled by him towards the German front line on 25 September 1915. Edwards himself was injured early in the advance but the task was taken up by several of his colleagues as they advanced but sadly, the ball became impaled on barbed wire and so was never actually kicked into the German trenches.

Tony explained that the London Irish succeeded in achieving their objective of holding the village of Loos and when they were relieved after a few days and were proceeding back down the line, one of the soldiers of the regiment retrieved the ball from the barbed wire, thus ensuring its survival.

Lady Butler's famous but inaccurate portrayal of The Footballer of Loos (author's collection)

Tony also explained that following the Christmas Truce of 1914, when a few impromptu games of football were played between British and German soldiers, senior officers had taken a dim view of this activity and promptly banned any such contact in the future, regarding it as something approaching mutiny. As a result, in the immediate run-up to the Battle of Loos, officers of the London Irish had gotten wind of what the men had planned and had succeeded in locating three other footballs, all of which were deliberately punctured by bayonet. Frank Edwards managed to keep his deflated ball a secret and had hidden it beneath his his tunic. As the battalion was preparing to advance, he managed to inflate the ball and once the order was given to "go over the top" history was made as the ball was revealed and the epic dribble toward the German line began, immortalised by Lady Butler's famous but inaccurate painting of the event. Inaccurate, because as Tony explained, the Battle of Loos saw the first use of poison gas during the Great War, used not by "The Nasty Germans" but actually by the British and as a result, Frank Edwards and his colleagues were all wearing gas hoods, as correctly depicted in Tim Godden's drawing, which appeared for the first time on the night of our event, in which Tim was able to photograph the image as a backdrop to the actual football itself.
Tim Godden's Tweet showing his new (and accurate) portrait of a gas-hooded Frank Edwards forming a backdrop to the actual Football of Loos

Tony went on to explain the regiment's role during the Second World War in which they played a prominent part during the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, becoming part of the "D-Day Dodgers" - the response to a supposed comment by Viscountess Astor that somehow the men fighting in this theatre were having a relatively easy time of things compared to those fighting in Normandy, despite the steady stream of casualties incurred at places like Salerno and Monte Casino. Tony closed by telling us of how the regiment still exists as part of the Army Reserve and is now of Company strength, based at Camberwell and informed us that "You don't have to be Irish to join but you'll become Irish by adoption!"

The talks were of a universally high calibre, well researched and presented, which all seemed to be well received by an excellent attendance of over sixty supporters from not only Dulwich Hamlet but also from other clubs as widespread as Exeter City, Charlton Athletic, Epsom & Ewell, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Ipswich Town and Sutton United. I understand from Alex that future seminars are planned in the summer and autumn for Exeter City and Charlton Athletic but such was the successful nature of the evening, both with content and attendance, that the event will be returning to Champion Hill sometime in 2020. We look forward to doing so and will be actively thinking of new subjects to cover!

Thanks are due to Alex Alexandrou of the Football and War Project for choosing Dulwich Hamlet FC to host the first of these 'on the road' events, to all of our speakers, Roger Deason, Jack McInroy, Tim Godden and Tony Robinson for giving of their time so freely and to Tom Cullen, Managing Director of Dulwich Hamlet FC and to Davey Wade-Brown, Bar Manager of Dulwich Hamlet FC and his staff for making the clubhouse available to us and for ensuring the evening ran smoothly and of course, many thanks to all who came along and supported the event on the evening.

Web Links:

Football and War Network

The Hamlet Historian

Tim Godden Illustrations 

London Irish Rifles Association