Sport Remembers The Battle of the Somme 1916-2016

Big brave Sid and his Football Battalion pals

The players of the 1st Football Battalion were cruising in a match behind the front-lines. Goals from Jack Cock and Joe Bailey had them 6-0 up, defender Sid Wheelhouse could relax and goalkeeper Tommy Lonsdale took a penalty to keep himself interested. The battalion went on to win the divisional cup but by the time their medals were struck, four of the men who played that day in January 1916 would be dead on the Somme.

Like nearly every game for the players of the 17th Middlesex, the final of the 6th Brigade section of the Divisional Football Tournament had not been much of a contest. Four goals from Cock, the Huddersfield Town centre-forward, and two from Nottingham Forest’s Bailey saw off the 2nd South Staffords. The 17th were professional footballers, after all, and competition to make the team was intense.

Keeper takes a penalty... and misses

Only several inches of mud on the camp pitch at Busnes, between Calais and Arras in northern France, had prevented more pain for their opponents. It was a wet and chilly January 10, 1916. Sid Wheelhouse, a rock of a left-back and captain of Grimsby Town, said it reminded him of a game at Huddersfield two years earlier "when the ball would not bounce and we had to hook it out of the mud before we could kick it."

Towards the end of the rout the 17th won a penalty. Goalkeeper Tommy Lonsdale – Wheelhouse's best mate at Grimsby who played at West Ham before the war – had barely touched the ball and was called up to take it, just to let him know he had been in a game. Wheelhouse wrote: "Tommy took the kick and put it out of the goalkeeper’s reach – right over the bar!" The 17th Middlesex went on to win the 2nd Division (army, not Football League) Football Tournament, beating 34 Brigade Royal Field Artillery 11-0 in the final.

Clapton Orient’s George Scott and William Jonas, Plymouth Argyle’s Billy Baker and big Sid Wheelhouse would never receive their solid silver winners' medals.

11 killed by a mine under their trench

Sidney Wheelhouse, born at Bishop Auckland, County Durham in 1888, was the type of man you needed in the trenches. He became a legend at Grimsby; a 5ft 11ins rock in defence, playing 244 matches, becoming captain, scoring 39 goals. Although he was asked, Wheelhouse shunned moves to other clubs because he enjoyed life in the town, looking after wife Agnes and their three children, walking the two miles each day from his home in Cleethorpes to Blundell Park wearing his cloth cap.

He joined the 17th Middlesex in February 1915 after Arthur Tickler, 2nd Lieutenant in the battalion and son of the Grimsby MP, visited the ground. Six players and 25 supporters followed him. Wheelhouse saw action at Delville Wood and Guillemont on the Somme and was promoted to lance corporal. On September 18, 1916, he volunteered in an 11-strong work party to fix collapsed defences at Grey Sap near Beaumont Hamel. As well as damage from a previous bombardment, it had rained all night and the parapet was caving in.

Unknown to the men, German mining teams had put explosives near the sap and when a mortar and gas attack forced the 17th soldiers to take cover in it, the bomb was detonated. The blast sent a rush of gas into the sap and the men took the full force of it without a second to put on their masks. Four were killed, but Wheelhouse and the others were alive. Everyone thought he had been lucky as he was able, although suffering from the gas, to walk unaided to a dressing station.

A day later he and the six other men were dead.

"I don’t seem to be able to realise yet that Sid has gone. We had practically always been together" Keeper Tommy Lonsdale on his friend Sid Wheelhouse

A few days afterwards his team­mate Frank Martin and keeper Tommy Lonsdale visited his grave. "We thought Sid would be all right," wrote Lonsdale. "I got a shock when I heard he had died. [He] has a cross up with his name and date of death and we shall see that he has a wreath as soon as possible. We all feel his loss very much as he was a universal favourite out here... I'm a bit too much shaken up to think and write as I would like. I don’t seem to be able to realise yet that Sid has gone. We were from the same town and had practically always been together."

Wheelhouse is buried in Couin Cemetery near Arras. His death caused widespread grief in Grimsby.

The Grimsby News said he was "one of the most popular players who ever donned the town’s colours". The Athletic News reported that he was "a fine man, clean living, high minded, chivalrous and a model professional". His old mate Thomas Lonsdale was a coal miner's son born in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, in 1892. After leaving Grimsby in 1914 he had a couple of unsuccessful months playing 21 games for West Ham, on one occasion going missing and being fined a week’s wages.

Private Lonsdale was at Southend when war came and after the war played 31 times for Port Vale before a head injury forced him to retire in 1924. He died in his native north east aged 80.

A DSO and three Military Crosses

Walter George "Joe" Bailey survived the Somme and ended the war as a captain as one of the most respected and decorated men of the 1st Football Battalion. He won a Distinguished Service Order and three Military Crosses and, after the Armistice, was given the honour of collecting the battalion colours from England and delivering them to Germany. Bailey's DSO came when he was battalion intelligence officer less than a month before the end of the war.

On 23 October, 1918, in fighting near Romeries, France, he went up the line to find a company of 250 men who had lost all its officers. He took command and led them into an attack under heavy shell fire. Bailey’s three MCs came for reforming a line under fire, taking out two machine guns and, with just four men, clearing a village of the enemy and taking prisoners. One of his citations read: "His utter disregard of danger was magnificent."

Bailey, born in 1890 at Thame, Oxfordshire, had played for Nottingham Forest before joining up and afterwards went to Reading, scoring their first goal in the Football League in August 1920. A week later he scored the club’s first league hat-trick. Bailey became a cricket coach at Warwick School and a commander in the Home Guard during World War Two. "If there had been a battle," he said, "I was never in any doubt that we should have given Jerry a sticky time."

He died in Dorset aged 84.

Film star, singer, estate agent

John Gilbert Cock was a deadly, dashing centre-forward with a lovely tenor voice which he liked to unleash before coming out on to the pitch. He was, as one newspaper put it, "a magnificent specimen of health and manhood", one reason why Chelsea spent a record £2,650 to buy him from debt-­stricken Huddersfield in 1919.

Sergeant Major Cock had been reported killed at one stage but was later found and survived the Somme, fighting throughout the war, winning the Military and Distinguished Conduct Medals. In breaks from the front he played for Brentford, scoring six hat-tricks. Cock, born in Hayle, Cornwall in 1893, played twice for England and was the first Cornishman to represent his country at football. On his debut against Ireland in 1919 he scored after 30 seconds, still the third-fastest England goal ever. A nimble player with a powerful shot with either foot, he was a fitness fanatic, often staying behind for extra training.

For eleven years he was prolific for Chelsea, Everton, Plymouth Argyle and Millwall, scoring 225 goals in around 370 games. Known as "the best dressed player in football", Cock's voice and good looks landed him spots at music halls and parts in three films, including two about football: The Winning Goal in 1922, in which he played himself, and The Great Game, alongside a young Rex Harrison in 1930.

Cock worked as an estate agent for a while then became manager of Millwall for four years until 1948 and later a publican. He was occasionally in trouble with cars: In 1930 he was a passenger in a bad crash near Sandown Racecourse in Surrey and the next year was fined and banned for drink driving after a crash with an ambulance in Blackheath, South East London. When he applied for his licence back so he could keep his estate agent’s job the magistrate told him: "I think £20 was a sufficiently heavy penalty but let this be a lesson to you." Cock replied: "It has been, sir!"

He later ran The White Hart pub in New Cross, South London, and died in Kensington in 1966, aged 72. Many of the players who won 6-0 on that chill winter’s day in 1915 went on to live long and interesting lives.

Maybe they occasionally thought of their big, honest football pal Sid, lost in the gas of the Somme, and wondered how he might have got on in life.

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to Lance Corporal Sidney Wheelhouse or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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