The three lost heroes of Clapton Orient

Football stars Mac McFadden and Willie Jonas were trapped in a trench. Willie turned to his lifelong friend and said: “Goodbye Mac, best regards to the lads at Orient.” Then he was gone. Willie, Mac and their pal George Scott were three Clapton Orient footballers who died at the Somme.

Just over a year earlier, the star strikers had won their final match of the season for their north east London side in front of 20,000 fans. When the game ended several of the team pulled on their army uniforms and marched around the pitch to the acclaim of the crowd.

My best friend was killed before my eyes

After losing his friend that terrible day, McFadden, 27, sent a heartbreaking letter to the club:

“I sadly report the death of my friend and O’s colleague William Jonas, age 26. Both Willie and I were trapped in a trench near the front. Willie turned to me and said: ‘Goodbye Mac, best of luck. Special love to Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient.” Before I could reply he was up and over. No sooner had he jumped up out of the trench, my best friend of nearly 20 years was killed before my eyes. Words cannot express my feelings.”

Richard McFadden's cigarette card

Weeks later, McFadden was dead and defender George Scott was also to lose his life.

41 volunteers from Clapton Orient

It had all been so different 19 months earlier, when Orient captain Fred “Spider” Parker, stepped up to the platform at Fulham Town Hall and signed his name to go to war. It was the climax of a historic meeting on 15 December 1914, to create the 1st Football Battalion, the 17th Middlesex. After months of bitter controversy over professional football’s decision to continue with the 1914-­15 season despite the war, the Orient players made a stand.

Fred 'SPIDER' Parker (Clapton Orient)

Fred 'SPIDER' Parker (Clapton Orient) The Captain was the first to step onto the recruiting platform at Fulham Town Hall in December 1914. Colorsport/REX

That evening Spider and nine teammates became the first English Football League team to join up en masse, along with 26 players from other clubs. Captain Henry Wells-Holland, TA soldier and Orient chairman, wanted an entire platoon of men from the club. Forty-one players, staff and supporters rallied to his call.

The football battalions ball had been set rolling three weeks earlier in Edinburgh by Sir George McCrea, who persuaded 11 Heart of Midlothian players to join his 16th Battalion, The Royal Scots. It inspired sportsmen and fans from all over east Scotland to do the same.

At that final game on 24 April 1915, Orient beat Leicester Fosse 2-0 at Millfields Road, Clapton, before the players’ confident march-past. The 1st Football Battalion – or the 17th (Service) Battalion Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge's Own) to give it its full title – was to fight until February 1918, losing more than 1,000 men.

He died like the little hero he was

Richard “Mac” McFadden was a brilliant striker and Orient’s top scorer from 1911-­1915. He was already a hero in civvy street, risking himself to save a man from a burning building and winning a medal for rescuing a drowning 11-year-old boy from the River Lea in Hackney.

Born in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire, in 1889, as a boy he moved to north east England, where he met lifelong friend Jonas and played for local sides Blyth and Wallsend Park Villa before heading south. Just 5ft 8ins tall, stockily built and an inspiring figure, McFadden rose to Company Sergeant Major with the 17th Middlesex. He continued to save people at the front, venturing time and again into no man’s land to help injured comrades.

Clapton Orient Football Club 1914 William Jonas (left) and Richard McFadden

William Jonas (left) and Richard McFadden. Colorsport/REX

McFadden was wounded and won the Military Medal for his exploits. On 22 October 1916, he was leading troops to the line along a trench near the village of Serre when he was hit by a shell blast. The same artillery attack also killed Plymouth Argyle’s Billy Baker.

Seriously wounded, McFadden died next day in a field hospital. He is buried next to a German soldier at Couin British Cemetery. Spider Parker wrote: “Mac feared nothing. All the boys are going to visit his grave as soon as they get a chance. We have had a splendid cross made for him with a football at the top of it; but that will not bring him back. No one will miss him like I do – we were always together."

The Official Arsenal Programme said: “[Clapton Orient] have our deepest sympathy in the loss...of that grand little player. McFadden died like the little hero he was, and his name will be writ largely in the records of the all­sacrificing deeds of the men who have played the Greatest Game to the very last.”

To his young lady admirers: Jonas is married

William Jonas was the David Beckham of his age, loved by fans for his passing ability, his goals and his good looks. He would get up to 50 letters a week from female admirers, so many that the club put a notice in the programme:

“For the interest of the young ladies of Clapton Park, we have to state that Jonas is married to a very charming young lady.”

Born in Blyth, Northumberland, in 1890, in Jonas played for Jarrow Croft FC and Havannah Rovers before arriving at Orient in 1912 on recommendation from McFadden. He was a key member of the side as the Os rose became one of the top teams in Division Two before the war.

Jonas died instantly after he said his brave farewell and scrambled from the trench at Delville Wood on 27 July 1916. His body was never recovered and he is named on the memorial at Thiepval.

He’d tackle a steam engine for a goal

George Scott was one of Orient’s best pre­war players. Born in West Stanley, Co Durham, in 1885, he played for Braeside FC and Sunderland West End before joining Orient in July 1908. He was a brave centre-half, famous for his bandy legs, but would also play at inside-forward. He scored 33 goals in 205 games for the Os.

A month into the Somme, 30­-year-­old Scott was wounded, taken prisoner and died at a German field hospital on August 16, 1916. He is buried at St Souplet British Cemetery. The Orient Programme paid tribute: “It is with feelings of sorrow we inform our readers that another of our players has paid the Great Price. Big-hearted and daring – as George always was – we can imagine the impetuosity with which he confronted the enemy. To those who knew him personally he was one of the best.”

The Athletic News reported: “[He] would tackle a steam engine if he saw a goal in prospect. With such a disposition it is small wonder that he has fallen in the great fight.” 

Spider Parker, colour sergeant with the 17th, survived the war. After he retired from football in 1922 he worked as a porter at London’s King’s Cross station. He died in 1963 aged 76. 

In 2011, Leyton Orient supporters unveiled a memorial to all of the club’s war heroes at the village of Flers.

Service at Thiepval Memorial

On 23 July Leyton Orient FC will travel to Thiepval to hold a Remembrance service for William Jonas, Richard McFadden and George Scott.

Somme Remembers

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 one of the 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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