Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Football Battalion


I wrote previously about Plymouth's involvement in the Great War and, with the World Cup recently in the news, I thought that it would be interesting to write about the Football Battalion. There were many battalions formed in the earlier part of the war which involved work colleagues, school friends and sportsmen etc. These were known as the Pals Battalions.
In December 1914, the MP for Brentford, William Johnson-Hicks, had the idea to form the Footballers' Battalion, the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. By then, there were already many local Pals regiments around the country and battalions featuring sportsmen seemed a good idea. The Saracens and Wasps announced that 98% of their players had joined the Rugby Battalion, however, the Footballers' Battalion had a very limited take up. From 11 Lancashire football clubs, only 40 players enlisted.
By the end of November, 11 players from Argyle had joined the army and recruitment gathered pace. Of the 5,000 professional football players in Britain, 2,000 joined up and approximately 600 were killed in battle.
In January, 1915, a story published in The Times read:
'More than 200 recruits have been enrolled in London for the Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, in addition to 400 from other districts. Among the recruits are several Rugby international players of England, Ireland and Scotland, and the officers include more than one Double Blue. The commanding officer is Colonel C F Grantham, late of the Indian Army, and commissions have been given among others to Vivian J Woodward and Evelyn H Lintott, two well known players.'
At home, Plymouth Argyle had been making plans to join the Football League when war intervened. Professional football continued to be played up and down the country although there were some objections to the sport being continued while men were fighting and being killed overseas. Lord Kitchener's campaign, which included posters stating 'Your country needs you', appealed for fit young men to join the army. Criticism of football was voiced locally because of the three towns' strong military tradition. Local newspapers stopped reporting on match results so they could include page after page of those wounded or killed in battle.
On 2nd September 1914, Moses Russell made his first appearance for Plymouth Argyle in a match against Brighton and Hove Albion. The result for Plymouth was a 2-0 win. Although international football was suspended with the outbreak of war, the Southern League continued. Russell made 25 appearances with Argyle before play was completely suspended in 1915.
He later served as a private in the mechanised transport section of the Army Service Corps and was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
Evelyn Lintott, both footballer and officer, was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He had played for Plymouth Argyle as well as Queen’s Park Rangers before the outbreak of war.
On 8th August 1916, James 'Jimmy' McCormick, who played for Argyle 268 times up until 1915, was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Somme. As a Sergeant in 17th Middlesex, he was badly injured before being captured at Waterlot Farm, Guillemont. He was repatriated in November 1918 and continued to play for Argyle on his return.
On 22nd October 1916, Sergeant William James Baker was killed at Serre during the Battle of the Somme. Baker was a former professional footballer and played for Plymouth Argyle many times. He was 33 years old when he died and was awarded the Military Medal. He is commemorated at the Sucrerie military cemetery at Colincamps.
Norman Wood played for Argyle twice before joining the Footballers' Battalion. He served as a Sergeant and was killed on 28th July, 1916 at Delville Wood during the Battle of the Somme.
Jack Cock, another Argyle player, was awarded the military medal for bravery in the field. He was, at one time, recorded as ‘missing, presumed dead’, but survived the war and went on to play for England.
There were many other heroic footballers who fought in the war. Luckily, the majority of those who enlisted survived the war but many were never to play football again.
Incidentally, for anyone looking out for my new book 'Plymouth in the Great War', it will be published by Pen and Sword and released in October. I was hoping for an August publishing date but, unfortunately, it's out of my hands. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

Derek Dougan, Cooper's News, West Park 1972

Back in the 1970s, Derek Dougan was a huge star so it was a bit of a surprise when my mum came home from the shop where she worked and said that he would be signing copies of his new book there. The shop was Cooper's News at West Park (formerly Eastabrooks) which was a small newsagents, now long gone. I wqas at junior school then, at the nearby Knowle Primary, where one of the playtime pastimes involved swapping football cards (we all had a collection).
The book was called 'The Sash He Never Wore' and the year was 1972. Derek appeared at the shop at 7pm at night and there was a crowd of kids (mainly boys) waiting for him. For some reason, I didn't go but the manager of the shop, Clive Thomas (who was a lovely bloke), kindly got me his autograph (which I still have) and a signed copy of his book (which unfortunately disappeared years ago). I was pleased to have them.
Years later, I wonder if anyone else remembers Derek's visit to West Park, even then it seemed an odd venue for him to sign his books.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Tom Baker at Dingles in Plymouth on 21 June, 1976

This interesting photo of Tom Baker, appearing at Dingles on 21st June 1976, appeared in the Herald recently.
I was at the event all those years ago and there's a photo, that I took on the day, further back on my blog. I remember getting there for 9am and Tom arrived soon after. All the children were very excitied at Tom came up the escalator, dressed as Dr Who, and we all queued for his autograph. He had his trademark multi-coloured scarf on, which reached the ground. He was lovely to everyone and happily signed copies of the Dr Who Monster book. He also signed posters and gave out Target badges (Target was the publisher of the book). I had the signed book and poster for many years after but it's long since disappeared. I've still got the badge though and a signed photo.
Last year, the Herald contacted me and asked what it was like to meet Tom Baker and asked if they could use the photo I'd taken in an article celebrating 50 years of Dr Who. I told them that they already had photos of Tom's appearance but they said that they no longer existed and there was no record of the event. So I was amazed to see this photo in the Herald a few days ago together with the exact date of the event!
My memory has played tricks with me though because I originally thought that the signing had taken place in 1975 at Debenhams. Anyhow, it's good to see a clear picture of the event (unlike mine!) and Tom was a great bloke, by the way...

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Autographs of American soldiers stationed in Saltash Passage in 1944

Bryan Watts kindly wrote to me recently telling me that he had several autographs from the American soldiers that were stationed in Saltash Passage in 1944.
Tristan Nichols hopes to write a piece up for the Herald very shortly. Meanwhile, here's Bryan's letter:
Dear Derek,
In 1944 I was aged nine and lived half way up Normandy Hill, as it is now, at that time it was called Vicarage Road. I sat in my front window and watched as the American troops marched down the hill to board the boats and landing craft moored there. Myself and other children in the area had been down to Saltash Passage many times to look at the craft vehicles there.
I remember being chased off by the guards and the threats of painful consequences if caught.
But I also met four of these soldiers at St Budeaux Baptist Church and on 26th March 1944, these four men wrote in my autograph book which I still have.
I have recently been trying to find out if there is any way of discovering what happened to them. Although I have their names and rank, the stumbling block in any enquiry seems to be
that I haven’t got their serial numbers. I wondered if you would interested in seeing a copy of the pages from my book. I also wondered if there was anyone else who was in that area then remembers going to the Christmas Party in the camp in December 1943. My ultimate aim is to try to send these messages to their descendants as a piece of family history.
Hoping you may find this of interest,
Yours sincerely,
Bryan Watts.
Bryan's email address is bryan.watts935@btinternet.com if anyone has any information that might help.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Jack Cohen's Joke Shop

I'm sure that many people in Plymouth will have happy memories of visiting Jack Cohen's Joke Shop in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was the haunt of many kids and some of the jokes stocked included itching powder, stink bombs (very popular), whoopee cushions and much more. I knew a kid at school called Nicholas Rich who loved playing practical jokes and I'm sure much of his pocket money must have been spent in there. Jack was always lovely to all the kids that came in the shop. I remember buying a cheap imitation Action Man, made in China, and he told me not to forget to feed him! He was always larking around. Jokes and magic tricks seemed to go out of favour sometime in the 1980s and Jack eventually sold the shop. It ran for a while longer, keeping the same name, but eventually closed in the 1990s and ended up in a unit in Lovejoys in the Barbican.
This photo is interesting because it shows Warnes, the newsagents, to the left of Jack Cohen's. I'm sure when I was a kid, that Jack Cohen's was on the left and Warnes was on the right, so they must have changed over at some point.
Further down the street was the Green Shield Stamp Shop where you could exchange the stamps that you got free with your shopping for gifts. The only thing that I can remember us ever getting was a garden gnome!

Monday, 30 June 2014

Footage of American troops at Saltash Passage in 1944

Until today, I hadn't realised that there was extensive footage of the American troops who left Saltash Passage for D Day in 1944. Here are two films which show all and they prove very interesting viewing.
The area is instantly recognisable although some buildings have disappeared over the years.
Chimneys are smoking in one film and a steam train can be seen crossing Coombe Viaduct. The films feature on YouTube but can be bought in high definition from a company called Critical Past.





I know that there is also colour footage of the troops although this is short. I'll try and locate it later.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

A letter from an American soldier

With the recent commemoration of D Day, I was reminded of a letter that I received from an American soldier, who was a member of the 29th division. Back in 2006, I was researching a book about D Day so I wrote to the 29er magazine. John J Sommers of Fort Lauderdale, Florida kindly wrote back to me and sent some photos. I thought it would be interesting to share the letter and photos here. The letter read:
'Dec 9, 2005
Dear Sir,
I read your letter in the 29er magazine asking for photos for your book about Plymouth. I was stationed in Plymouth from September 1943 until D-Day June 1944 as a member of the 111th F. A Btn, C Battery, 29th Infantry Division. It was a very familiar name for me because I lived a few miles from Plymouth, Massachussets in the States and spent many days visiting there. My unit was billeted in a very beautiful place that was a British training center for Army soldiers. It wasn't very far from the center of Plymouth because we could walk into town. We used to visit 'The Hoe', the dock where the Pilgrims left from and there was an indoor amusement center that was very popular. When we left town, we would take a road to the right that led into a gate into our quarters. There was a guardhouse to the left and a large school house looking building, on the left, once inside the gate. Across from the building was a parade ground. Past there was the Spider Barracks that had heat, wonderful heat.
I suppose that all those places are gone now, but, I'm trying to remember the name of the place. Was Okehampton the name of the area we trained in?
Enclosed find two photos of me and my friend, I was eighteen at the time when I arrived in England. Turned nineteen in January, 1944. I am going to phone another 29er and ask him to send his photo to you, he was a First Sgt. and the youngest at 22 in the division, maybe the Ninth Army.
Good luck with your book and I hope it's a best seller and let me know if I can be of any help.
John J. Somers.'
I wrote back to John but never heard any more. I've several other letters from D Day soldiers which I hope to find soon and which I'll put on this blog at a later date.