Saturday 25 June 2011

France-Belgium 2011 - A Final Picture

Our band of travellers at Jimmy Speirs' grave. An appropriate way to end the celebrations of Glorious 1911.

France-Belgium 2011 - James Comrie

The huge Menin Gate at Ypres has become the site of one of the best known and poignant ceremonies that surrounds the modern memory of the First World War. Every night members of the Ypres fire brigade play the last post beneath the imposing gate on which are inscribed the names of 56,000 men who died in the defence of Ypres and have no known grave.

Among those names is James Comrie, signed when Bradford City gained promotion to the first division and he replaced Gerald Kirk in the team. When the war came James was living in Lincoln, but for reasons unknown he ended up serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers. He was killed near Ypres, but has no known grave. As large crowds gathered to witness the last post ceremony, the traffic was stopped and the bugles sounded their lament, I looked for James' name, but found myself pondering the eleven men whose graves we had visited.

My eyes were then drawn to the endless lists of names on the Menin Gate. I read as many as I could, thinking of the places and lives they had left behind. This is no glorification of war, far from it, there was only sadness and a thankfulness that my generation had not been asked to face the horrors that these ordinary men had.

France-Belgium 2011 - Gerald Kirk

The village of Poperinghe was for British troops a respite from the hell of Ypres. This was the railhead for the infamous Ypres Salient but also a place where bars and restaurants could be visited. For City's amateur centre half Gerald Kirk it was the place he came to die. Badly wounded during the defence of St Julian following the first ever gas attack in the history of warfare, when the German's released poison gas on French colonial troops who ran for their lives at the sight of the yellow gas clouds.

Gerald's company were thrown into a hasty counter attack designed to plug the gap in the line, it was successful but it cost Gerald Kirk his life. Badly wounded he was taken to Poperinghe, but the following day he succumbed and he lies in the Poperinghe Old British Cemetery.

France-Belgium 2011 - Robert Torrance

As you walk down the gravel path to the Tyne Cot Cemetery halfway up the Passchendaele ridge, a soft woman's voice reads a name, regiment and age at the time of death. It's a beautiful litany of the 300,000 men who died in the infamous Battle of Passchdaele. Tyne Cot is the largest British and Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. Over twelve thousands graves and an additional 36,000 on its Memorial to the Missing. This truly is the Silent City.

Among the names on the Memorial to the Missing is that of Robert Torrance. Probably Bradford City's greatest defender. The auburn haired centre half was the man-of-the-match in the 1911 FA Cup Final replay. Seven years later he lost an arm during an artillery barrage near the Belgian town of Ypes. The field hospital he was taken to was then shelled and Robert was blasted into oblivion. His body was never found. Today he may still lie undiscovered under a Belgian field, or he may lie in a grave marked simply 'known unto God'.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

France-Belgium 2011 - Jimmy Conlin

The Nieupoort Memorial to the Missing was unlike any other we had seen thus far. It was situated in the centre of the town, at a main road intersection with trams and canals nearby.

City's first ever England international Jimmy Conlin is commemorated on the memorial. He was quite a character. The first City player to be sent off, only the second ever player in the world to be sold for over £1,000 and he was at the centre of a riot at Valley Parade against Manchester United in 1906.

Sadly, his brilliant career ended with suspension as drink got the better of him. Jimmy was killed in action at Neiupoort whilst serving with the Highland Light Infantry. He has no known grave and is thus commemorated by name on the memorial. The photograph shows bullet holes in the memorial from the Second World War.

France-Belgium 2011 - Ernest Goodwin

Line after line of brilliant white headstones. Étaples British Cemetery, within sight of the sea, is a poignant place. Here wounded soldiers were brought from the front. If they survived they were placed on a boat for Britain and home. Sadly, over 12,000 got within sight and sound of the sea, and by association, home, before succumbing to their wounds.

Among the rows of headstones is City reserve Ernest Goodwin. He lived on South Parade right behind Valley Parade's main stand. Ernest was badly wounded by shrapnel attacking Thiepval during the Battle of the Somme. He made it to Étaples, but no further.

Sunday 19 June 2011

France-Belgium 2011 - Harry Potter

The huge Arras Memorial to the Missing lies alongside a major road just west of the city centre. Once inside the high walls of the memorial the noise of the traffic disappears and once again you find yourself in the tranquility of an English garden.

The beauty and peace of the Commonwealth Cemeteries strikes the visitor time and again. Among the 30,000 names on the Arras Memorial is that of City reserve Harry Potter. A native of Bradford, Harry was living in Girlington with a young family when war came. He died holding the line in the German all-or-nothing spring offensive of 1918. It was the beginning of the end of the 'war to end wars'.

Once the German offensive was spent, the British began a sustained push that rolled the German's back towards their border and eventual surrender. Little compensation for Harry's wife and young daughter left behind in Bradford.

France-Belgium 2011 - Bradford Pals Memorial

The tiny village of Hebuterne has a plaque on its church wall commemorating the Bradford Pals. The location was chosen because it is close to where 44 Pals were killed in woodland, but it is a couple of miles distant from Serre where the majority of them were mown down on 1 July 1916. The area around Serre has several Pals memorials - Accrington, Barnsley, Sheffield to name but a few, so it does feel a bit odd that the Bradford Pals memorial stands on its own at Hebuterne.

Thanks to Steve Whittaker we were able to lay a claret and amber wreath to remember the Pals who died on the Somme. Both battalions were admitted free to Valley Parade in the days leading up to their departure from Bradford. Their initial meetings took place at the Drill Hall right next to the ground and undoubtedly many of them will have been supporters of Speirs, Torrance et al.

Indeed among the ranks of the Pals was none other than City's most famous player, the England international winger Dickie Bond, fortunately he survived the conflict.

Sunday 12 June 2011

France-Belgium 2011 - Donald Bell - Part Two

A few minutes drive from Bell's redoubt is the final resting place of Bradford Park Avenue's Donald Bell VC. We walked down a grassy path between ploughed fields into what the troops called the Caterpillar Valley, dominated today by the large Gordon's Dump Cemetery.

Without a building in sight we walked among the long lines of brilliant white headstones. Several wreaths of poppies lay at the foot of Donald Bell's headstone - including ones from Aireville School, Skipton and Donald Bell's former school, Harrogate Grammar.

Undoubtedly, his grave attracts the most attention in the large cemetery, yet all the headstone are of exactly the same size and design; the message being that they fought together and died together, equals in life and death. It was a sentiment that was to change Britain and beyond, for among the battlefields of the Great War our modern world was formed.

Thursday 9 June 2011

France-Belgium 2011 - Donald Bell

The Somme.

The tall white cross of sacrifice that stand sentinel over every British and Commonwealth cemetery becomes a regular sight. We wind among narrow lanes and suddenly come across Bell’s Redoubt on the edge of the village of Contalmaison.

On the roadside stands a memorial marking the spot where Bradford Park Avenue’s Donald Bell died. He is commemorated because a few days before his death he charged across no man’s land under heavy fire and killed the crew of a machine gun that was decimating the attacking troops. For his extreme valour Bell was awarded the Victoria Cross. A few days later he attempted to repeat a similar act and was killed.

Alongside the memorial was a wreath of poppies from Bradford Park Avenue. It was strange seeing the familiar civic coat of arms so deep in the French countryside; a little piece of a foreign roadside that will be forever Bradford.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Bradford Park Avene's Jimmy Smith

Another remote French village, set in rolling fields of barley, Ramicourt. Situated on the edge of the village and on a rise is the final resting place of Bradford Park Avenue's Jimmy Smith. He was a striker with an incredible scoring rate. Signed to strengthen the Avenue side in the wake of their promotion to the top division, he carried on hitting the net with an unerring regularity. Just a few days before he was due to return home to Bradford to marry his fiancé at Heaton he was killed in action. His portrait hung in the boardroom at Park Avenue as as a reminder of his supreme sacrifice - I wonder what became of it after Park Avenue was demolished in 1980?

Unfortunately, his grave stone is badly worn, but will doubtless be replaced in the near future. As we looked out in brilliant sunshine over the fields of barley swaying gently in the breeze, it was once again difficult to comprehend the slaughter that had occurred in that place. If the cemeteries did not exist the battlefields of the Great War would have already been returned completely to nature. In some ways a sad thought, in others a lovely one.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

France-Belgium 2011 - George Draycott

Under glorious skies the final commemoration of Glorious 1911 took place on the Great War battlefields of Belgium and France. No Bradford City supporter will need reminding that the captain and goal scorer in the 1911 FA Cup Final, Jimmy Speirs, was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele just six years later. Thus the centenary of the FA Cup victory was the appropriate occasion to visit the final resting places of the nine Bradford City players who lost their lives in the Great War. Over the next couple of weeks we will feature sections of the journey, along with a commentary and photographs.

Twenty City supporters left Bradford Interchange on a sunny Thursday mid-morning en route to France. One change of trains, a quick dash through the Channel Tunnel and we were in Lille in time for tea. The following day we were conveyed by a Belgian coach to Gauche Wood and the first of the former players George Draycott. He lies in an isolated cemetery among rolling hills with the Gauche Wood as its backdrop. A single tree stands within the cemetery. Looking out over the quiet fields it is difficult to believe that men fought and died in this tranquil place. The tiny cemetery had a powerful impact on our group. Its size and isolation added to the poignancy. We wondered how many visitors had discovered George’s final resting place? Situated up a winding green lane, inaccessible by car and many miles from the nearest centre of population, Gauche Wood is far from the madding crowd. The beautifully tended cemetery, designed, like all the others, to resemble an English country garden, evidently has regular visits from its gardeners, but one suspects visitors are few and far between. If it was my fate to be killed in a war many miles from home, I would be content to have somewhere akin to Gauche Wood as my final resting place.

Monday 6 June 2011

France-Belgium 2011

The final event to commemorate the centenary of the 1911 FA Cup triumph took place this weekend when twenty people visited the final resting places of the nine Bradford City players killed in the Great War. We also took in the graves of the the two Bradford Park Avenue players and the Serre area where the Bradford Pals attacked on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Further images and a report will follow.

Speaking of events, this is the absolute final week of the When The FA Cup Came Home exhibition at Bradford Industrial Museum. It all finishes next Sunday 12 June. If you've not visited, shame on you! But there's still time - just.

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