Orient FC and the First World War

Professional FootballLast Saturday, on ANZAC day, Leyton Orient played their last home game of the season, a 1-1 draw against Sheffield United. Almost exactly 100 years earlier on 24th April 1915, Clapton Orient as they were then known, beat Leicester Fosse 2-0 in what was the last game before 41 players left to join the army, and in one case the Royal Navy.

Commemorations took place before the game and at half time, including a young players from Leyton Orient Trust and Leicester City Community Trust re-enacting the match between the two clubs, in traditional club colours. The Orient team ran out as 3-0 winners, beating their forebears of 100years earlier who could only manage a 2-0 victory.

Present at the game were relatives of the three Clapton Orient players who were killed in action, all on the Somme in 1916, with the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, a Kitchener battalion also known as the 1st Footballers battalion.

Dick McFadden was only 5ft 8ins tall, yet he was a prolific goal scorers who had played for Clapton Orient since their entry into the Football League in 1905. In 1914-15 he beat his own club record scoring 21 goals in a season. Winning the Military Medal in 1915, he was Company Sergeant Major when he was wounded on 22nd Oct 1916, while on the Redan Ridge, succumbing from his wounds the next day. He is buried in Couin Military Cemetery, near Doullens in France. The cemetery contains many graves of those who died of wounds in the nearby field ambulances during the Somme battles.

Dick McFadden was born in Scotland, but grew up in Blyth, Northumberland, where he was friends with William Lomas, who signed for Clapton Orient in 1912 and scored 10 league goals in the 1913-14 season. He managed to get himself sent off in Jan 1915 at Millwall for fighting with their goalkeeper, which caused a riot in the stands. Private William Lomas was killed in action on 27th July 1916, during an attack at Delville Wood. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the hugely impressive Thiepval memorial on the Somme. One of Orients greatest pre-war players was George Scott, who was famous for his bandy legs. Joining in 1908, he scored a number of goals, including a hat trick against Leicester. Private Scott died on 16th August 1916, and is now buried in St Souplet Military Cemetery near Le Cateau in France.

If you want to read more about the pressure on professional football at the start of the First World War, ‘McCraes Battalion –The story of the 16th Royal Scots ’ by Jack Alexander covers it very well, in a book primarily concerned with the tale of the footballers and supporters of Hearts.

Only English professional footballer has won a Victoria Cross, Donald Bell who won his on the Somme in July 1916. A school teacher in Harrogate, he had played professionally a number of times for Bradford Park Avenue.

You can hear the story behind the soldiers with no known grave on the walk ‘For King & Country’

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