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Feature: Remembering the Robins of 1913/14

12 November 2017

This Remembrance Weekend we pay our respects with a special feature on the Cheltenham Town team of 1913/14 that was to lose many players during World War One. Club secretary and historian, Paul Godfrey, takes a closer look at the brave team that went to war and those that sadly never came home...

Season 1913-14 had been the most successful season in the hitherto short history of Cheltenham Town A.F.C. The first team had won the North Gloucestershire League championship having lost only two games all season and the reserves claimed the Cheltenham League Division One title.

Players, committee men and other local dignitaries toasted those successes at a club dinner on the 25th April 1914 at the Great Western Hotel and there was much to look forward to.

The club had secured an agreement to play its 1914-15 home matches at the Victoria Ground, home of Cheltenham Cricket Club, and the FA Cup was to be entered for the first time. Cheltenham Town were even drawn away to Trowbridge Town in the Extra Preliminary Round but the match never took place, the United Kingdom having entered the War against Germany on 4th August.

Within a few short months of their title celebrations most of the club's players were heeding the call from Lord Kitchener to enlist in the armed forces, no doubt blissfully unaware of the horrors that lay in store for them.

Researching the Cheltenham Town players who served in World War One is no easy task given the sheer number of local men who went to the front. It is believed that in the region of 1,600 people from Cheltenham and the surrounding areas gave their lives in the Great War (the town’s population was only around 50,000 at the time).

However, the local press reported the conflict in good detail and it is possible to identify various members of the 1913-14 team who were involved. Detailed research has also been carried out by the authors of the wonderful book “Leaving All That Was Dear”, which can be viewed in the local history room of Cheltenham Library.

The ‘Echo’ reported in August 1915 that by that time most of Cheltenham Town’s players had joined the Army, although their numbers were spread across various different regiments. Not all of them joined the Gloucestershire Regiment or signed up together in ‘pals battalions’, such as the 17th (Service) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, which contained a number of professional footballers.

Reflecting back now, it is remarkable to consider not only the sheer scale of the conflict but also the fact that so many ordinary men and women were involved in it. Cheltenham Town’s team were all part-time footballers and their ranks included schoolteachers, bank clerks, skilled tradesmen and even a hairdresser. Many found themselves exposed to front line combat, facing the enemy at close quarters and there at least two examples of extraordinary bravery.

Utility player Tommy Wall, a master at St. Paul’s Practising school who played in a number of different positions for the first team, became a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was awarded the Military Cross in 1916. His citation reads: “Having gone forward with two telephonists to select a forward post, he came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, during which one of his men was wounded and he himself was hit in the head. Placing the wounded man in a dug-out, he went back alone through a heavy barrage, and returned with a stretcher, upon which he and the unwounded telephonist carried the wounded man back to safety, after which, in spite of his own wounds, he carried on with the laying of the wire. His pluck and devotion to duty were most marked.”

Also recognised for gallantry and in receipt of the Military Medal was right-back and club secretary W.D.Barker, a former teacher who became a corporal in the King’s Royal Rifles and was seriously wounded in 1915 when his trench was hit by an artillery shell. Barker was cared for in a French hospital and returned to The Somme in early September 1916. Although no citation for his act of bravery appears to have survived, there are enough fragments of his military record to suggest that he may well have been involved in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which featured the first ever usage of tanks by the British Army. He was wounded for a second time, receiving gun shots to the shoulder and eyebrow, but returned to active duty once again after 16 days’ treatment.

Sadly, and inevitably, there were several members of the 1913-14 championship teams who did not return from the War.

George Rathbone had been the regular right-half in the first team and worked as a bank cashier in Cheltenham High Street. He joined the Army upon the outbreak of War and became a lieutenant in the Northamptonshire Regiment, heading to France in August 1916. Rathbone was wounded the following year, suffering injuries that required treatment in a London hospital, but like so many other soldiers he was sent back to the front as soon as he was fit enough. On 21st March 1918 his battalion fought a strong defence against a German attack, heavily outnumbered by the enemy yet inflicting heavy casualties on them, and Rathbone was the only officer of his battalion to be killed that day. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Pozières Memorial in the heart of what was The Somme battlefield.

Every successful team needs a goal-scorer and Leslie 'Dick' Betteridge had been the leading marksman during 1913-14, hitting 37 goals in 26 matches. A plumber by trade, he enlisted on the outbreak of War in the 10th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment and was sent to France in August 1915. His battalion was engaged on the first day of the battle of Loos, going over the top and attacking the German trenches across 400 yards of open ground. The Glosters were praised for their bravery but it came at a huge cost with 459 men killed, 44 of them from Cheltenham including Betteridge who is buried in Dud Corner Cemetery near the city of Lens in Northern France. He was 24 years old.

Hector Mitford, a defender who played regularly for the Cheltenham League side, had been a hairdresser before the War at a salon in Promenade Villas. He enlisted in the Gloucestershire Regiment and was posted to France in March 1915. Three years later he found himself at Saint-Venant near the River Lys in Northern France. His battalion were engaged to repel the German spring offensive and he was fatally wounded, later dying of his wounds at Aire-sur-Lys Military Hospital. He is buried at Aire Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais.

Frank Arkell was an inside-left for the Cheltenham League team and a trainee solicitor who forewent his final law exams to join the Glosters in September 1914. He was attached to a machine gun section of the 1/5th (Territorial) Battalion, landing in France during April 1915. Private Arkell served for the next three years, repeatedly refusing to accept a commission or take promotion in the ranks. He was killed during the German spring offensive of 1918 when his company came under heavy fire as they retreated. Arkell bravely held the rear of the group and with no regard for his own safety, provided covering fire so that others could reach safety. He has no known grave and is also commemorated at the Pozières Memorial.

In addition to those direct casualties of the fighting defender George Cooper, who worked as a bank clerk in Montpellier and joined the so-called ‘Bankers Battalion’ the 26th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, had been due to join the fighting in France but died of meningitis in a military isolation hospital in Aldershot in 1916.

Remarkably, a small number of players survived the War and turned out for the team in season 1919-20 when football resumed once again. Ernie James, Reg Trinder, Frank Challenger, E.J.Chard and George Yeandle all served in the Army and made appearances for the re-formed team although both Trinder and Challenger had lost brothers in the conflict. Leslie Trinder was killed at Ypres in 1917 and Arthur Challenger died at the battle of Bazentin in 1916.

Over the next 100 years Cheltenham Town FC rose through the leagues to reach the position we now hold but through the gifts of modern technology and the diligent archiving of the journalists and researchers who have covered the Great War, we are today able to pay tribute to those young footballers from Cheltenham who fought and died in the first World War.

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