LFE Chief Executive Alan Sykes was in Longueval yesterday to pay tribute to the men of the 17th and 23rd Middlesex (the Footballers’ Battalions) who lost their lives during the First World War.
Sykes, part of a delegation that included representation from all levels of the game including The Football League, The PFA and The Football Supporters Federation was present as a memorial was dedicated to those that served in the conflict.
The Footballers’ Battalions allowed professional and amateur players, referees, administrators and football supporters to enlist and fight together in the trenches. And more than 8,000 of those officers and men were engaged in some of the darkest days of the First World War.
Now almost a century on, a permanent reminder of this sacrifice has been erected on the outskirts of Delville Wood – where much of the fiercest fighting took place.
Also at the dedication were staff from more than 20 Football League Clubs, many of whom have contributed to fund-raising for the memorial. One such Club representative was Nick Marshall (Academy Manager, Nottingham Forest) who was given a special role of reciting a poem during the service.
Wycombe Wanderers Winger Gareth Ainsworth who signalled the beginning of a two minute silence with a sharp blast on a trench whistle was another with a role to play.
“It is really important we never forget,” said the 37-year old. “Every footballer would be humbled by this place.”
“I was told they chose me because I have connections throughout the game from non-league to Premier League. There’s no Premier League, no League Two out here, all these lads fought side by side.”
“That’s humbling. To be the person asked to blow the whistle for the two-minute silence was a massive honour. That was the signal to go over the top and on the first day of battle thousands were wiped out.’‘
(Nick Marshall read a poem during the service)
For Football League Trust Officer Phil Stant who can count Hereford United, Cardiff City, Bury and Lincoln City amongst his former clubs the day had a special significance.
Stant, a former member of the SAS who served in The Falklands War was chief organiser.
“When I went to war for me it was an adventure,’‘ said Stant.
“June 8, 1982, was the day I grew up. The Sir Galahad got blown up when we were 100 metres away. The terrible injuries, the attack that came in from the Argentinian jets, were frightening. When you’ve seen sights like that, people with their legs blown off, it’s something you’ll always live with. That’s why this memorial is so important, for those guys who are still buried out there.’‘
Returning to England last night, the emotions of yesterday will live long in the memory for Sykes.
“It’s frightening to think that so many young men gave their lives in such a small area of land. The sacrifice of these men lives on with us today and I have returned with a sense of gratitude to a generation who gave everything to protect our freedom,” added the LFE Chief Executive.