Shot, gassed and a PoW - Brave Joe Mercer’s war

Joe Mercer was never the same again after the war. The Nottingham Forest centre-half was wounded, gassed and spent 18 months as a prisoner of war. Apart from his injuries, he suffered psychologically and died before his time aged 37. His stoic bravery was typical of many who fought at the Somme.

Born in 1889 in Higher Bebington, south of Birkenhead in what was then Cheshire, Mercer became a bricklayer at Burnell’s Ironworks, Ellesmere Port. A clever 13st 6ft 2in centre-half who took no prisoners, he played for the factory team and Ellesmere Port FC before being snapped up by Nottingham Forest in 1910.

A football for his little son

England manager Joe Mercer's earliest memory was his dad coming home from the war. Joe Mercer Snr, a stranger, walked in, undid his kit-bag, pulled out a football and gently lobbed it to his four-year-old son. It was an apt beginning for Joe Jr, the man who would win league titles as an Everton and Arsenal player, create the great Manchester City side of the late 1960s and see the England job pulled from under his nose in favour of Don Revie.

Sergeant Joseph Powell Mercer Snr hadn’t been a bad player himself. But never fully recovered after he was wounded at the Somme, shot again and gassed at Oppy Wood in 1917, captured and spent 18 months in three German PoW camps.

"He's good but he’ll get us thrown out of the league" Everton scout’s report on Joe Mercer

Everton too had been interested but when a scout went to watch him play, Mercer was a little too rough with the opposition. William Cuff, who would manage at Goodison Park for 17 years before becoming chairman between 1921 and 1938, reported back: "He's a good player all right, but had get us thrown out of the League!"

Forest were struggling in the nether regions of the Second Division but it did not stop Mercer developing into an impressive player in his 149 games and he was said to be close to an England cap.

In the summer he would come home to work on the building sites. And despite being a star at one of Britain’s oldest clubs, when he married Ethel Breeze in 1913 he put his occupation down as bricklayer. Joseph Jnr, the first of four children, arrived five days after war was declared.

Just over three months later, on December 16, 1914, a day after the 17th Middlesex 1st Football Battalion was established, Mercer Snr travelled to London with Forest teammates Tom Gibson and Harold Iremonger and joined up.

Surviving three PoW camps

Surrounded by some of the best players in England, Mercer was in and out of the 17th's team, playing against Reading in front of 3,000 during training and again several times behind the lines. In August 1916 at the Somme, he he was hit in the head by shrapnel. Two months later his Forest teammate Private Tim Coleman joked about Mercer’s style of play when he wrote to the club: "Joe Mercer is just getting into form again, you know what that means. Look out for another Big Push."

Promoted to sergeant at Oppy Wood, after 20 months at war on April 28, 1917, he was gassed, hit in the shoulder and shot in the leg when his unit overran a village and became isolated. He lay in a shell hole for hours under a British artillery barrage and was captured by a German machine gun party as he tried to find his way back to his line.

In 1919, back in Ellesmere Port, Mercer gave an extraordinary account of his survival in three PoW camps to the Chester Observer, which strangely failed to print a single word of his words, preferring to deliver the story in reported speech. Here is an edited version.

"He was taken to... Langensalza [central Germany], a three days’ journey by train. The food was such that no wounded man could tackle it at all. He was pleased to see Britishers helping in the hospital and Jim McCormick, Plymouth’s right half-back.

"The food...was terrible and often included raw fish and black bread. Only the Russians could eat it, and they were almost at starvation point. Sergeant Mercer states it reminded him of Woodward’s Sea Lions [a famous travelling show].

"[In] Giessen [north of Frankfurt]...five-a-side football contests were arranged. They had to buy wood from the Germans to make goalposts and nets were string taken from parcels from England. The commandant at Giessen was usually very fair and held the British up as a pattern to other nationalities in the camp for their cleanliness.

"Sergeant Mercer left [for] Meschede [near Dortmund] on 17 March 1918 and his new camp was known to be one of the worst in Germany. Those who lived through this ordeal were in a terrible state, but quite 25 per cent died, and as many as five Britishers were carried from the train dead on arrival at the camp. No one had been allowed to take them any food, the prevention of disease being the excuse made by the Germans, and special guards were provided carrying switches of barbed wire with which they used to strike at any prisoners trying to take food over the fence.

"One day, a man brought in a bath of so-called soup and the starving prisoners absolutely mobbed him. There was such a rush that as soon as one man got a bowl full it was upset in the crush and all the soup was wasted. The camp accommodation was [for] 10,000 and this number had increased to 22,000.

"The Germans pillaged the prisoners’ supply of medicine. A tunnel was made with a view to escape but it was discovered and prisoners from the whole barrack, about 250, had to do 21 days "dark cells" in batches of 30.

"Sergeant Mercer was not ill-treated himself and says that the Germans never tackled anyone strong. He adds that it was fine the way the Britishers stuck together under all circumstances and if a man is a prisoner of war it soon brings out the bad or good in him. Except for the stiffness in his arm, Sergeant Mercer is sound in wind and limb, and soon hopes to be able to take up football in real earnest."

Never lived to see his son’s football glory

But of course Joe Mercer was never able to play properly again. He went back to Forest then signed for Tranmere Rovers in 1921, playing 21 games in their first season in the Third Division (North). Mercer Jr was not impressed. "I watched my father play for Tranmere and I did not think he was much of a footballer – he did not dribble!" he said. "Yet his old pals tell me that he was a better footballer than I ever was!"

Joe Mercer Jr won three league titles and an FA Cup with Everton and Arsenal, played five times for England, plus 27 games during World War Two when he was a PT instructor at Aldershot and internationals were not recorded officially, and in 1950 was the writers footballer of the year.

He led Manchester City to their greatest successes before recent times, winning promotion to the First Division in 1966, the league in 1968, the FA Cup in 1969 and the League Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup in 1970. In 1974, he was caretaker manager of England for seven games before the job was given to Don Revie. If only the old man had been there to see it.

When Joe was 12, Mercer Snr died aged just 37 after a spell in a sanatorium, his physical and mental health destroyed by the sufferings of his war.

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 Sergeant Joe Mercer 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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