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Thank you: The story of our visit to Northern France as players pay tribute – video

4 November 2018

Last season's match programme for the visit of Luton Town on 11 November featured my article on the Cheltenham Town players who fought in World War One, wrote club historian Paul Godfrey in Saturday's special edition of The Robin.

The article was researched using locally sourced historical materials because, unlike those football clubs with a long history in the Football League, Cheltenham Town were an amateur club at the time and little information existed on the club's players who took part in The Great War.

This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice, we decided to take the research a bit further by visiting the graves and memorials to those Cheltenham Town players who died in the War, all of which are situated in Northern France.

When three weeks ago we found ourselves without a game, Yeovil Town having invoked the EFL rule that allows a match to be postponed if three or more players are called up for international duty, I travelled with club associate director Murry Toms to visit the battlefields of Pas-de-Calais and Somme. We took with us floral tributes provided by Robins fan Donna Beaver of the The Flower Studio and using information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, we were able to locate the memorials relatively easily.

Beginning at the small town of Aire-sur-la-Lys, 60Km south of Calais, there is a military section in the town's own cemetery containing the grave of Hector Mitford, a Cheltenham hairdresser who played regularly for the club's Cheltenham League team. He enlisted in the Gloucestershire Regiment in early 1915 and survived over three years of the conflict before becoming fatally wounded when his battalion were engaged against the German spring offensive of 1918. His grave is situated towards the back of the cemetery, overlooked by trees and close to the War Stone containing the inscription "Their Name Liveth for Evermore."

Heading south-east from here and past the town of Béthune, there is a long straight road which heads directly into the former mining town of Lens and right past the stadium of Ligue 1 team RC Lens, where England played Wales at the 2016 Euros. About half-way along, the road rises to a crest and on the left-hand side is the considerable military cemetery of Dud Corner commemorating the Battle of Loos, where the Gloucestershire Regiment fought bravely but at great cost in August 1915. Situated just inside to the right is the grave is Dick Betteridge, a Cheltenham plumber who was top scorer for Cheltenham Town in their North Gloucester League championship season of 1913-14 with 37 goals in 26 matches. We gave him pride of place on the cover of our matchday programme.

Driving south from Lens for 50Km you reach the town of Bapaume, which marks the start of a trail through The Somme, scene of the infamous 1916 offensive which became one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Today it is a beautiful part of the World: not unlike the Cotswolds with green fields and gentle rolling hills making it difficult to imagine the living Hell of mud, barbed wire and munitions that the forces of both sides found themselves thrust into.

Between the towns of Bapaume and Albert there are a number of important sites to visit. Off to the right and a short drive through the countryside is Thiepval, the largest Commonwealth War memorial in the World, which features a museum and commemorations to thousands of service people including a member of my wife's family, who's service record reads that he died at the age of 21. The truth is that he lied about his age when going to enlist and was actually much younger, thinking that going off to fight in France would be a great adventure.

A little further beyond Thiepval is Beaumont Hamel and the Canadian War memorial of Newfoundland Park, which has a fascinating little museum and the well-preserved trenches and craters cutting across the fields.

Back along the main road behind the village of La Boisselle is the phenomenal Lochnagar Mine Crater. This was created on day one of the battle when the Royal Engineers dug tunnels under the German trenches, filled them with explosives and blew them up leaving a gigantic hole in the ground. The action didn't go according to plan, however, and many soldiers were lost including a pals battalion from one of our League Two rivals. The ill-fated 'Grimsby Chums' suffered 502 casualties in one day as they attempted to secure the crater and a short but precious stretch of ground.

The two Cheltenham Town players lost in the Battle of the Somme were trainee solicitor Frank Arkell and bank cashier George Rathbone. Both of them were key members of the 1913-14 championship team and both have no known grave. They are commemorated on the panels at the back of the Pozières Memorial, situated between the mine crater and the village of Pozières. They can be found on the rear wall of the cemetery alongside many other names from the Gloucestershire Regiment and others from all across the country. Finally, we should also mention George Cooper, another bank clerk, who was due to head to the front in 1916 but succumbed to meningitis at a military hospital in Aldershot before he could head to France.

In the summer all around the Somme Valley the poppies come up and the picture of the poppy field was taken by me just a short distance from Pozières while on route to and England game in Paris in 2017. At the time I had no idea I was so close to two former Robins players and the place where W.D.Barker, the club secretary, fought and won the Military Medal. Every town and no doubt every football club in the country was affected by the Great War and today, 100 years on from the end of it all, we can recognise the part that our club played in what was boldly but mistakenly termed as "The War to End All Wars."

Meet the 1913/14 Cheltenham Town team


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