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Reading remembers its fallen

11 November 2014

Re-read Saturday's main feature from 'The Royal'

On Remembrance weekend, the club's official matchday programme, The Royal, paid special tribute once more to nine men who will not be forgotten. 44 who played for our club went on to fight in the First World War. 35 men made it home. Nine did not. The story of some of these men was first told by BBC Radio Berkshire’s Graham McKechnie and military historian Jon Cooksey four years ago and published in ‘The Royal’ back in November 2010.

This year marks 100 years since the start of World War One, therefore the club felt it appropriate to publish the feature-length piece on our website. Everybody at Reading Football Club wants to remember some of our heroes from a century ago, who remain heroes to Reading Football Club to this day…

Sergeant Joe Dickenson, 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards

“a man who gave everything for Reading”

Nine months into the war Reading FC had its first casualty - the first Reading player to go to war, Joe Dickenson, who had already served in the forces before joining the Royals, and in fact he was first spotted by Reading scouts while playing for the Household Brigade. Having already served, he was automatically called up the day after war broke out, leaving his pregnant wife Winifred and young son Stephen back at home. Described in the press as ‘a man who gave everything for Reading,’ he was a stocky chap and a real favourite of the Elm Park faithful.

He had cost Reading a mere £5 when he joined us from Tamworth club Two Gates Wanderers in February 1913. Within three months he had moved from lower league football to become part of the Reading squad that toured Italy, beating AC Milan 5-0 and triumphing over the Italian national team with performances that led to The Biscuitmen being described as ‘the best foreign team ever seen in Italy.’ He had also scored on his Southern League debut at Watford in March 1913.

Upon arriving in France, he wrote home declaring he was ‘hoping to bring home a German helmet!’ Despite fighting in terrible battles and dealing with the horrors of war, he never lost touch with home and events at Elm Park were never far from his thoughts. He also wrote, ‘what’s the matter with the Football Club, I wish I could come to 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 for that are gone. Wishing to be remembered to the boys. Shall I be home for next season.”

Devastatingly, Joe was not to return home to his beloved Royals. On the 19th May 1915, having survived three days of horrendous battles alongside 50,000 men at Festubert, Joe was charged with the task of burying dead bodies on the battlefield, both English and German. Shelling rained down that was described as ‘incredibly heavy’ but still only one man perished – tragically that man was Joe. He left behind a daughter he never met, and his name remains on a memorial at the Le Touret cemetery.

Edward ‘Ginger’ Mitchell, 164 Battery RFA

Edward ‘Ginger’ Mitchell played in the region of 15 games for the then-Biscuitmen and also lined up for Swansea before tragically losing his life while part of the 164 Battery Royal Field Artillery.

Private Allen Foster, 17th Middx Regiment

“Sometimes I think it will not last long. We can’t tell, we can only hope and trust it will not be for long.”
A swashbuckling forward with fabulous talent, Allen Foster was a larger-than-life character who drew attention and adulation with every rumbustious performance in a Reading shirt. He came to Reading’s attention after a couple of fine displays for Bristol City against our reserves and a £75 fee (paid in two instalments!) brought him to Elm Park in August 1911. From then on it was success all the way for the brilliant left-footed forward. There is more on his footballing career as a Royal on pages 28-29 of this issue, but with the footballing world at his feet, we will focus more on after his country called and he was sent into battle. The son of a Yorkshire miner, he remained in fine spirits and kept a cheeky tone when he wrote home of his experiences at Delville Wood: ‘We made old Fritz hop about! They were running about like lost sheep but we were popping away at him like blazes. I don’t think he expected us to be quite so near to him. We had to pay for being so near but as luck would have it, I managed to get back without a scratch. It’s very trying to the nerves, lots of fellows get what they call shellshock. You won’t last long out here, but there’s no need to worry, I’m A1. I often wonder how long it will be before we are back to the old times again. Sometimes I think it will not last long. We can’t tell, we can only hope and trust it will not be for long.’

At 4am on 8th August 1916 in a field in Guillemont just a stone’s throw from Delville Wood, Foster was in the trenches preparing to go over the top and, just like on the pitch at Elm Park, he was ready to tackle his opponent head on. Waiting 20 minutes for the whistle to blow, Foster and his fellow soldiers dutifully went into battle, but within a short space of time Allen had been shot in the thigh, abdomen and arm. Four incredibly brave stretcher bearers ducked the fire and shelling to retrieve Foster from the battlefield, and after what would have been no more than a patch up, he was taken 16 miles by ambulance across dusty roads to a hospital in Corbie near Amiens. Allen didn’t survive. When news made it back home the Reading Observer newspaper wrote, ‘The news of Allen Foster’s death came like a thunderclap and the death roll of Reading Football Club players is slowly mounting up. It seems impossible to believe that the fair-haired centre forward with a caustic tongue but lovable disposition would entertain us no more. One’s thoughts instantly flew to the quiet little woman and tiny babe.’

Private Jack Huggins, 1st/8th Durham Light Infantry

Teacher Jack Huggins played 31 times for the club in 1908-09. He was born in Whitehaven, playing for Bede College and Leadgate before a prestigious move to Sunderland. He then came to Reading, but despite a good goalscoring record of 6 goals in 31 matches he could not settle in the south and returned to Roker Park.

Private Ben Butler, 17th Middx Regiment

“Bad, this leg is done in. No more football for me.”

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 1908-09 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 Footballer’s Battalion and play his part in the conflict standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow professionals. Before going overseas, the Battalion had in fact played a number of exhibition games on English shores to encourage others to join them in battle.

At the time Ben was 29, and found himself on the narrow streets of Lens, a poor mining town with trenches running in and out of destroyed cottages, through back gardens; 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 the constant shelling. While undertaking these daily routines amid 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 ten days, but finally succumbed to rest in peace.

The hospital chaplain’s account read, ‘A great big chap lies in this bed, a guard bulges up the blankets over his leg. I asked him, “Well corporal, how are you now?” He replied to me, “Bad, this leg is done in. No more football for me.” He fights for dear life for ten days and then goes out. He has played the game, I doubt not that he has won many matches, a fine fellow. May he rest in peace.’

2nd Lt Freddie Wheatcroft, 5th East Surrey Regiment

2nd Lt Freddie Wheatcroft was our top scorer in 1908-09 with 14 goals, and also a legend at Swindon Town, whom he played for twice, helping them to two Southern League titles and two FA Cup semi-finals. He had started his career with hometown club Alfreton Town before three spells with Derby and one at Fulham. He was part of the 5th East Surrey Regiment and was killed in the Battle of Cambraj on 26th November 1917, buried at Anneux.

Corporal Heber ‘HP’ Slatter, 156 (Oxford) Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery

“Everything looks very bright from all sides and I shall be pleased to see the finish.”

Heber, or HP as he was often known as at Elm Park, had played for Berkshire at all levels before joining Reading as an amateur in 1909. He was stocky, only 5’5” tall and just 9st 11lbs, but still with a reputation for being tough in the tackle. He was born in Wokingham in July 1886, and lived at 77 Norfolk Road – right next to Elm Park and the Spreadeagle pub, making him probably the most local player ever to represent the club.

He earned his place in the first team at the left half position and played in the majority of the second half of the 1910-11 season that saw us win the Southern League Second Division championship. Heber was at Elm Park for four seasons, also working as a rate collector for the council, but during that time no-one was able to explain how he earned his unusual nickname of ‘Little Eva’! More flatteringly he had also been described as ‘one of the best half backs Reading ever produced.’

This promising player joined the Royal Garrison Artillery in November 1915, and was posted to France in 1916. He later wrote home, ‘We have been so busy moving up and down that I scarcely find time to write. Up to the present I have been keeping quite fit but we have had some very big bombardments. Everything looks very bright from all sides and I shall be pleased to see the finish. I have had a letter from my father, he is getting on well. I am writing this sitting on the ground with the paper across my knees.’

In the spring of 1918, Germany was making one last effort to win the war. All the land that had been won on the Somme, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, had been lost once more. Slatter’s role in the war differed from those Reading players who went before him, he was a gunner who would never have seen a German or gone over a trench. With the aid of Slatter’s war diary, it is clear to recall that rounds poured in around him, and his 156 Heavy Battery would have been drenched in German gas. Despite that, with hundreds of rounds being fired in their direction, there was practically no damage and only one man wounded. That one man was Corporal Heber Slatter, and he tragically died from those wounds four days later on 7th May 1918.

With censorship increasing and the death toll ever rising, Slatter’s passing only merited two column inches in the Reading Observer under the meek headline ‘Footballer Killed.’ And his wife’s personal battle continued as she fought for ten months to retrieve his personal effects from the army, including photographs, English, French and German coins and a pack of playing cards. To help Mrs Slatter and her family, a benefit game was played at Elm Park, raising £196 9s 4d.

Sergeant Len Hawes, Berks Yeomanry

Sergeant Len Hawes, a promising forward, was killed at Gallipoli with the Berkshire Yeomanry in August 1915.

Private James Comrie, 1st/7th Northumberland Fusiliers

James ‘Jimmy’ Comrie, born in Denny in March 1881, joined us from Third Lanark, having featured in two Scottish FA Cup finals. He was virtually ever-present in his one season, making 35 Southern League appearances for us before moving on to the then League club, Glossop. Jimmy went on to play for Bradford City and Lincoln and his cousin John Comrie also played for Reading between 1912 and 1915. He was a Private in the Northumberland Fusiliers.

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