War hero in the news
Reading war hero Albert ‘Ben’ Butler has been in the news once more this week, as his handwritten will was one of thousands to be made available online.
The original paper records that survived are being digitised in time for next year’s centenary of World War One, and Ben’s story seems to have again captured the public’s imagination.
This centre half was born Albert Victor Butler, but always played under the name Ben. Standing 5’9”, he came through the ranks at Arsenal and then moved to Berkshire as an amateur, learning his trade in our 1908/9 reserve team that won the Great Western League in some style - scoring 108 goals and only conceding 20 all season. His displays earned him a professional contract at Elm Park in April 1909, and he helped us to the Southern League Second Division championship two years later. His penultimate game for Reading came in a 2-0 win at Croydon Common, in which he was reported to have played ‘the game of his life.’
Both he and his family called Reading home, and his brother was landlord of the Star Inn in Caversham. Ben supplemented his own income with a job as an engine cleaner for the South East Railway Company, providing for his wife and two sons - Albert and Arthur.
Soon after war broke out, Ben volunteered to join the Footballers’ Battalion and play his part in the conflict, standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow professionals. Before going overseas, the Battalion had played a number of exhibition games on English shores to encourage others to join them in battle.
At the time Ben was 29, and he found himself on the narrow streets of Lens - a poor mining town with trenches running in and out of destroyed cottages, through back gardens. He faced horrendous urban warfare of the most brutal and unforgiving kind. Every single day he was up at dawn to fend off any German attacks, on watch throughout the day and then posted again at dusk to repel any more assaults amid constant shelling.
While undertaking these daily routines amidst the charred remains of houses, Ben was hit by a shell - and in the cruellest, most unthinkable act, this professional footballer had his leg blown off. He fought valiantly against what must have been unspeakable pain for an incredible ten days, but finally succumbed to rest in peace.
Historian Jon Cooksey, who has led two delegations of Reading fans and staff to the Somme in recent years, says the wills were crucial documents for descendants to cast some light on what a life was like at that time.
"[The wills] are giving us real nuggets of information which are filling the gaps in a man's service record, because it's not just about the military side, it's about their role in society and the backgrounds they came from. These men were leaving families behind, they were part of the fabric of their community. Their deaths were felt by whole villages, towns, not just their loved ones, and in this case - supporters of a football club."