Villans to Heroes: Aston Villa Players in World War One

As we enter remembrance weekend, it’s important to remember those of the Villa family who serve and have served in our armed forces. Perhaps most poignantly we acknowledge those who served in the war which began our remembrance tradition. These men were often in the prime of their careers, yet volunteered to serve selflessly.

Some players continued to achieve as footballers after the end of the war. Some were never the same again, and some never returned at all. Today we remember them.

Tommy Barber

Born in Nuneaton in 1888, Tommy was spotted by Bolton Wanderers and made his debut in 1908. Signing for Villa in 1912, he spent 3 successful seasons with us, scoring the winner in the 1913 Cup Final. At the outbreak of war, Tommy joined the Middlesex regiment and served in the trenches. He was involved in heavy fighting at Delville Wood and Waterloo Farm, known by British troops as ‘the bloody high wood’.

Image from footballandthefirstworldwar.org

This was a slaughterhouse where large scale troop movements were impossible, and the fighting was sporadic and often hand to hand. Tommy survived, though he unsurprisingly suffered injuries and was evacuated back to the UK. This didn’t mean his contribution was over however, and Tommy finished the war working in a munitions factory in Glasgow. His injuries meant his career with Villa was over, but he played for minor clubs including Merthyr Tydfil, and had a spell in Northern Ireland with Bohemians and Linfield. He never fully recovered from the war, suffering frequent ill health before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1925, aged just 36.

Henry Dobson

Born in Chesterton, Staffordshire in 1893, Henry was a tough defender who played six games for Villa before war interrupted his career in 1915. Like my great grandfather, Dobson served in the North Staffordshire Regiment. In February 1918, the German Army launched a huge last-gasp offensive, known as the Kaiserschlacht (kings battle). Over 1 million shells were fired into allied lines and the Germans took over 90,000 prisoners. Henry was not captured, but was badly wounded in the retreat and died on 29th March 1918. He was one of over 850,000 young men to be killed in the battle, and is buried in the British cemetery at Prémont, France.

Archie Dyke

Like Henry Dobson, Archie was from North Staffordshire and was just starting his Villa career when war intervened. He served with the Royal Horse Artillery in the Middle East but became ill and was discharged in 1919. Sadly, Archie never fully recovered and his career at the top level was over. He spent time at Stafford Rangers, Coventry City and Blackpool before retiring in 1922. Archie passed away in 1955.

Harry Hampton

Born in Shropshire in 1885, Harry Hampton is a true Villa legend. Known as ‘Happy’, Hampton played over 300 times for our club, and is Villa’s all time top scorer with 242 goals in 376 games. He helped us win the FA Cup in 1905 and 1913, as well as the League Championship in 1910.

After scoring 19 goals in 1914-15, war intervened. Harry joined the Royal Medical Corps, serving at field hospitals in France. In 1917, the Germans unleashed poison gas on the Western Front. Private Hampton inhaled mustard gas in December 1917 and was badly injured.

Discharged in 1919, Harry was never the same player. He made just 7 further appearances for us before moving on to lower level football (he signed for Blues). After retiring in 1925, Harry lived a long life despite his wartime trauma, and ran a catering business in Rhyl, where he died in 1963 aged 77.

Frank Moss

Born in Aston itself in 1895, defender Frank Moss made his debut for Villa in April 1915, just weeks before the start of World War One. Private Moss served in the Lincolnshire Regiment and took part in the carnage at Ypres in 1917. Miraculously, Frank was only wounded in the knee and became a physical training instructor until the end of the war. Despite his injury, Frank resumed his Villa career, playing for ten seasons and totalling 292 appearances. He died in 1965 aged 70.

Sam Hardy

Born in Derbyshire in 1882, goalkeeper Sam Hardy joined from Liverpool in 1912 and was Villa’s number one at the outbreak of war. He joined the Navy and served on the destroyer HMS Opossum. He narrowly escaped when the ship was badly damaged by enemy fire in the English Channel. Discharged in 1918, Hardy resumed his career at Villa for two more seasons before transferring to Nottingham Forest in 1921. Despite the war, Sam Hardy made 551 appearances during his 24-year career. After football, he ran pubs until his death in 1966, aged 84.

Albert Evans

Evans was a defender and part of our double winning team in 1896/97. After 176 appearances in Claret and Blue, he’d retired by the start of the war. He witnessed the horror of the trenches, but survived. He travelled in North America after the war, before returning to Warwickshire where he died in 1966, aged 94.

Joe Windmill

Windmill was born in Brierley Hill in 1881. Joe was also a defender who made 43 appearances for Villa from 1903, winning the FA Cup in 1905. As a schoolteacher, his local authority made him quit football to concentrate on his teaching duties in 1910. In 1914, Joe joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, where he rose to become Regimental Sergeant Major. He fought at the front and survived despite being gassed and wounded. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal. After his service he returned to teaching, but ill health claimed him in 1927 aged just 46. Truly a giant of his time.

There should also be a special mention for Billy Gerrish. Billy was a key player in the championship season of 1909-10, scoring a crucial 14 goals. He fought with the Middlesex Regiment and was killed by a shell explosion at ‘Bloody’ Delville Wood in 1916.

Football largely carried on in some form throughout the war and Villa donated proceeds from wartime games to an ambulance for the front, although the war ended before it arrived. Many players also played wartime friendly games to lift morale amongst troops shortly to leave for battle.

Aston Villa’s post-war team 1919-20 (image from footballandthefirstworldwar.org)

The power of our game to lift and inspire even in the worst circumstances is probably best highlighted by a description in the Sporting Mail by reporter Charlie Johnstone. He wrote of two wounded veterans; one maimed and one who’d lost an eye and an arm, who’d just witnessed Villa’s 4-1 win over Manchester City in April 1915:

“They were vastly delighted by the Villa display: in spite of their terrible injuries, these men were as cheery as mudlarks and full of enthusiasm.”

The War ended. The game of football went on.

UTV, Rob

Thanks to The Aston Villa Chronicles by John Lerwill and footballandthefirstworldwar.org – both invaluable sources of reference.

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