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Sgt Joe Dickenson

2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards

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Joe Dickenson was the first Reading FC footballer to be involved in the First World War and was one of the first English professional footballers to be killed in action.

Because Joe had been a regular soldier before the war – he joined up in June 1909 for three years – he was called up as a reservist on 5th August 1914, re-joining his old regiment, the Grenadier Guards. Within a week he was in France with its 2nd Battalion.

It was through the Army that Joe Dickenson had come to the attention of Reading FC.  The Berks & Bucks FA had played a match at Slough against the Household Brigade but the counties were one short so Dickenson played for them and caught the eye of several Reading FC officials.  They watched him when he played for his hometown side, Tamworth club Two Gates Wanderers, and signed him in February 1913 for a fee of £5. By then his three-year stint in the Army had finished so he was free to play for Reading.

He scored on his Southern League debut for Reading FC in a 3-3 draw against Watford and was part of the squad that toured Italy in May.  He had just signed for the 1914-15 season when he was called up. Landing in France on 13th August 1914, Joe was an ‘Old Contemptible’ who fought in the early battles of 1914 and took part in the retreat from Mons and the subsequent heavy fighting at the end of 1914 at Ypres.

Upon arriving in France, he had written home declaring he was, 'hoping to bring home a German helmet!' He also wrote, in a letter to the Club Secretary, 'What’s the matter with the Football Club, I wish I could come and help you! Your last two results I consider very good. I should wish to come home now, I think I’ve done my bit here. I’m sure I could do my bit on the football pitch but I don’t think it will be soon. I would love to have one game with you. I wanted to be home for this season but all hopes are gone.'

After the failure of the British attacks at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 and Aubers Ridge on 9th May 1915, the British attacked once again; this time at Festubert on 16th May in an attempt to try to seize the higher ground of the Aubers Ridge. Joe Dickenson and the Grenadier Guards were thrown into the battle at 4.30pm on 18th May on a front between positions known as the Schoolhouse and the Fermi Cour l’Avoué, north of the present day D72 – Quinque Rue – which runs between Festubert and Lorgies. The Grenadiers were lashed with a terrific fire from German machine-guns as they charged across the open ground.

‘The attack,’ states the Grenadiers’ War Diary, ‘was a failure owing to flatness of country swept by machine gun fire and enfilade artillery fire.’ A visit to the site today confirms the diary entry. The ground is almost pancake flat and devoid of cover apart from the vegetation and intersecting drainage ditches. Casualties were heavy but Joe Dickenson survived.

The next day, 19th May 1915, the Grenadiers spent digging in and burying their dead whilst the Germans strengthened their new line and brought up reinforcements. Their artillery hit the Grenadiers’ trenches hard. ‘Heavy shelling all day with every description of shell – some very big,’ recorded the War Diary.  Only one man was recorded as being killed that day: 26-year-old Joe Dickenson.  His body was never found.  He left behind a daughter that he had never met.  Joe Dickenson is commemorated on the Le Touret memorial for the missing.

Killed in action at Battle of Festubert, 19th May 1915.
Commemorated at Le Touret Memorial, France.

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