The 1914 Christmas Truce has become the most enduring episode of that curiously companionable combination of sport and war. Regularly recounted or referred to in television programmes, books, feature films and even a pop music video, it was Christmas Eve, the singing of carols and a game of football played in No-Man’s Land. Then there is Billy Nevill, the British army captain on the Somme in 1916, who, on the first day of that shattering massacre, led his company towards the enemy lines dribbling a football. Yet, the first Tommy on the Western Front to kick a football in anger remains firmly on the bench. To all intents and purposes, the story of the Footballer of Loos died with former London Irish Rifleman, Frank Edwards, in January 1964 when Bert Coward, himself a former rifleman, told the News of The World: ‘It’s a pile of piffle and nonsense that Edwards rallied the men through his football.’  

As the assistant curator of the London Irish Regimental Museum and Secretary of the London Irish Rifles he knew for sure that there was not a living man who could say they knew of the actual man who kicked off the ball. A colleague pointed to the football bearing the inscription etched in chalk ‘Loos 1915’, believed to be the actual ball kicked into No Man’s Land and which remains today a prized possession of the London Irish. Both men confirmed that nobody was given the credit for kicking off the football, and former rifleman Walter Dalby agreed. From his home in Harlington, Middlesex, he spoke up in Edwards’ defence, declaring that he was in no doubt that Frank was the first solider to kick the ball. ‘There’s no question about it,’ he retaliated, ‘because I was the second man to kick it. I was 17 at the time. We all had footballs, but a Lieutenant Dale put a bullet through mine, saying it would distract us. He didn’t get Frankie’s however. Frankie pulled out the football just as we were going over the top. He took the first kick, and sent it to me.’  

Walter or ‘Jimmy’ Dalby appears in the definitive, but unpublished, history of the 1/18th Battalion London Regiment (London Irish Rifles) assembled by former Second Lieutenant S F Major over the course of some 40 years. Derived from first-hand accounts and recollections of comrades ‘as were available at the time,’ work on the history began in the 1930s as a supplement to the History of the 47th (London) Division published in 1922. The demanding task involved much cross checking amongst comrades for correctness and approval and was only completed and sent to the London Irish Regimental Museum in 1973, nine years after Frank Edwards had died.  

S F Major first told the story of ‘Loos and the early morning football match there’ to readers of the London Evening News in a full-length feature article celebrating the 20th anniversary of the battle in 1935. Like Edwards and the rest of the battalion, Major took part in the weeks of intense training behind the lines, rehearsing the smashing of German defences in a vast area marked out for practice with tape and coloured flags. The final rehearsal went well, but ‘bore no resemblance to the horror of the reality.’ It was about 11.15 pm on the night of 24 September 1915 when the whole battalion moved off to the trenches.FrankEdwardsolder3.jpg (538547 bytes) The London Irish moved up under cover of the noisy darkness from Les Brebis where they had been quartered during training. All were equipped with the weird, goggle-eyed gas masks of grey flannel to pull over their heads like hoods as protection against the new weapon, poisonous gas. The biggest artillery barrage in the war so far begun almost a fortnight earlier had reached staggering proportions. At 5.50 a.m. the following morning, experts agreed that there was sufficient wind to send the latest diabolical weapon rolling across No Man’s Land towards the enemy trenches. A slight westerly wind, with a suggestion of south in it, was blowing and the division confirmed the release of poisonous gas for the first time. Soon clouds of smoke and gas were slowly rolling across towards the Germans.  

At 06.00 the officers gave final instructions. The men looked to their rifles, bayonets, and gas masks. By 06.15 the wind changed again slightly. Gas and smoke came drifting back, causing the crude gas helmets to be immediately pulled on and tucked into collars. Many men slow in adjusting their masks fell choking to the floor of the trench. S F Major then recalled a sight that astonished him. ‘Rifleman Frank Edwards was calmly using valuable breath to blow up a football as though the matter in hand were going to be a cup-tie! Edwards had conceived the great idea of dribbling the ball into the enemy’s lines. He had cherished the notion for some time. It was discussed freely and frowned upon definitely by authority, so much so that his platoon officer was said to have ordered the ball to be deflated’. As S F Major recounted to readers of the London Evening News in 1935, so Edwards confirmed in a BBC interview that same year how that officer, Mr Dale, ‘got to hear about the ball on the night before the attack, and I had to let it down. Not that he was ‘windy’; he was the bravest of all and the youngest, being only 18, I believe. He thought it would be exposing ourselves to more risk and he knew what we had coming to us in the morning.’ Edwards then went on to inform listeners how he got the ball out of his haversack and blew it up with his breath. ‘We managed to get it laced up just before the artillery started the bombardment. It was like hell let loose, especially when ‘Jerry’ replied with high explosives, and it was impossible to hear even shouted orders’. Whatever might happen to the battle, the sight of British soldiers coolly passing the ball from one to another would, Edwards thought; give the enemy their biggest shock of the war. ‘Just imagine, as I did, a party of London Irishmen, with our war cry of ‘Hurroo’ charging across No Man’s Land passing the ball forward to finish up the mad rush by leaping into their trench with the rifle and bayonet’.  

The idea continued to fascinate Edwards and he had made up his mind to go through with it, whatever the consequences. So when the order came to go over the top he lobbed the ball ahead, as a goalkeeper might fling it back up the field. Some of his friends, fellow football enthusiasts, spread out like a line of forwards and went after it  - Micky Mileham, Bill Taylor and Jimmy Dalby were three whose names are linked to the record of this exploit.  A hefty kick came off the boot of rifleman Mileham who then passed it to Dalby and on to Bill Taylor, all the while shells bursting among them and shrapnel screaming overhead. The ball continued in play before the line of charging eerie hooded shapes disappeared through the drifting, poisonous fog. Where it eventually finished up, Second Lieutenant Major did not see, but believed it was up by the German wire. For some of the London Irish who kicked and passed the ball it was the last game they ever played. Edwards himself failed to reach the enemy lines, going down wounded, with Micky Mileham stopping to fix the tourniquet that saved his pal’s life. Mileham listened to Edwards’ recount the ‘thrilling narrative of the historic act.’ A few weeks later and the two men were reunited after 20 years. Although Mileham had been a teetotaller all those years, one newspaper reported the two men drinking ‘a hearty toast to each other in a glass of beer as they relived those tense moments and the renewal of their war-time friendship’. Also listening from his home in Nottingham had been Captain Dale, who was given Edwards’ address through the BBC.  

More than 61,000 casualties were sustained at the Battle of Loos, over 50,000 of them in the main fighting area between Loos and Givenchy, and the remainder in the subsidiary attacks. Of these, 7,766 men died. Casualties were particularly high among Scots units. Many New Army units, rushed into a battle area for the first time only a matter of days after landing in France, were devastated. A significant proportion of the remaining pre-war regular troops were lost, and more than 2,000 officers were killed or wounded. This irreplaceable asset in experienced men and leaders was a most serious loss to the rapidly diminishing ‘old’ British army So while The Footballer of Loos has become one of the forgotten voices of the First World War, it is as well to keep it in perspective. Suffice to say that in sport there are winners and losers. In some sports there can be a tie. Battles can be won and lost, but in war there are never any winners.

The Football.

©Ed Harris 2007

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