HISTORY FEATURE: The soldiers who dribbled a football to enemy territory...

HISTORY FEATURE: The soldiers who dribbled a football to enemy territory...

By Gareth Dennison | 19/06/2022

HISTORY FEATURE: The soldiers who dribbled a football to enemy territory...

 

IT WAS perfect weather for the nation’s favourite pastime — but a First World War battlefield in France is not the most obvious venue for football.

But this was the day in 1917 when gallant infantrymen from Rotherham dribbled a footie beyond enemy lines.

The 2/5th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment had been at the heart of heavy fighting during the early part of 1917.

Now, on November 20, it was time to storm Havrincourt — a village about 20 miles north of Saint-Quentin, which would later be twinned with Rotherham.

The football idea came from the fertile brain of young Parkgate corporal Ernest Evans, who was nicknamed Kuftee.

It had already been decided that when they went over the top to advance, they would all light a cigarette. So why not — quite literally — throw a ball into the proceedings?

One of soldiers who fought in the battle would later tell the Advertiser: “It came to pass that when B Company lined up that morning, No 6 Platoon had a football, and the moment the word ‘go’ was given, Kuftee kicked off and the leather was kept on the go ’til the company reached its objective 7,000 yards nearer Berlin.

“It was arranged beforehand that every man should go over smoking a cigarette, and the moment the word ‘advance’ went, the order ‘light up’ was passed round.

“Everyone lighted up — even the gallant young officer, well-known to Rotherham boys in the first line local territorials, who had never smoked a cigarette before, but, who now, as company commander, joined in with the lads — a sportsman, whate’er the great adventure on which they were about to embark had in store.

“So, with cigarettes all alight, and faces set grimly eastward, the men of B Company went forward, the football being ever kept on the move.”

In fact, the presence of the ball meant the advance was going a little too quickly.

The lads had to pause at a certain point — let’s call it half-time — otherwise they would have been in danger of veering into the areas ahead being barraged by our side of the battle.

Our witness recalled: “As they came up, the dashing boys did not know of this enforced halt, and at the green line, someone headed the ball well over.

“Someone also rushed forward, put the ball still further ahead, and then the order, aforementioned, was given.

“But the football was in our barrage. The ball was in danger of being blown up, and as we intended that it should go to Rotherham Museum unscathed, it was imperative that it should be rescued at once.

“And rescued it was, though at no small risk to the rescuer. He was a Rotherham lad, I believe. At that point, for the benefit of any stray Huns who might be left, British shrapnel were falling fast and furious.”

So the football was recovered to the British side of the “green” line and placed ready for the next stage of the assault to take back Havrincourt.

“Advance!” — the order was given again. And again the leather ball was kicked forwards.

The men were heading for a sunken road, while enemy machine guns and snipers did their best to take them out.

Bullets were flying thick and fast — there was anxiety among the Rotherham lads, but still the football remained at their feet, being passed from one pair of muddy boots to another.

They were desperate to locate an enemy post and were delighted when they did. It was less than 100 yards from an enemy machine gun garrison.

Kuftee took to kicking the ball against the wall of the post in time with the fire of the German fighter’s infernal machine.

“That’ll put the wind up ‘em,” said Kuftee.

Soon, a tank arrived and took out the machine gun post “spitting death” at the British and French troops.

But what of the football? Had the tank wiped it out or had it been saved?

“We were not long in doubt,” according to our witness from the day. “Kuftee was after that ball at the double, and his throw-in proved that our mascot was still safe.

“That was about the most exciting experience the ball had, but you should see the look of amazement on the faces of the droves of Hun prisoners as they passed by and saw the boys in khaki kicking the ball along to the goal.

“Into trench, and out of trench it was kicked, and down a German dug-out from which the second in command and adjutant of a German battalion later emerged as prisoners.

“And so on till we came to consolidate.

“Hours later; when another little job was on, the ball was again taken forward, and rested victoriously on the parados as we dug ourselves in.”

The ball was given to the museum at Clifton Park as a unique relic of the famous victory.

Reflecting on the day afterwards, the Advertiser said: “It shows what influence a football can have on the minds of Britishers even when facing death.

“That football deserves to be regarded as one of the most precious of the town’s possessions.

“It had such an inspiring effect on the men of the battalion that they kept their place at the head of the attack and were the first to drive the enemy from his strongly-entrenched positions.

“That monument at Havrincourt ought to have a football carved upon it: ‘Kuftee’ Evans scored the greatest goal of his life that day’, and the ball is the relic of one of the most memorable international contests ever entered upon. It merits a silver mount with an inscription in letters of gold.”

Havrincourt was still described as still little more than a pile of ruins when a memorial to the 62nd Division, which included the 2/5th Batt. York and Lancaster Regiment, was unveiled in June 1922.

The Union flag was displayed by nearly every house in the village.

The Marquis d’Havrincourt had generously given the site for the memorial, which comprises a pedestal and obelisk standing 50ft high.

The location is at the top of the village, meaning the tribute looks out over the countryside made famous for being the scene of stern encounters with the enemy.

It faces the spot where the 62nd Division rose from the trenches during the mighty onslaught of late 1917.

To one side were there withered trees of Havrincourt Park, and not far away a remnant of the Hindenburg line was still visible.

The unveiling event made the place a scene of colour and animation from early in the day.

The village band entertained as the crowd waited for 200 Yorkshire representatives to arrive by train. The British delegation — including some of the Rotherham “footballers” — were greeted by hearty cheers.

After cordial greetings, they gathered into formation and marched — led by the band — to the centre of the village.

Here, the visitors mingled among the locals, strolled in small groups, renewed old acquaintances and visited cafés. Many made a reverent pilgrimage to the British cemeteries nearby.

The unveiling ceremony was at 2.30pm, with dignitaries including prominent figures Lt-General Sir RD Whigham, who commanded the 62nd Division; Mr W Hodgson, the Lord Mayor of Leeds; and General Berthelot, who commanded the Fifth French Army, who had fought alongside the 62nd.

The general’s arrival was greeted with a rendition of La Marseillaise, played by the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

After a short service conducted by forces chaplain Rev Colonel Charvasse, General Berthelot carried out the unveiling by removing the Union flag which had covered the monument.

Wreaths were laid; prayers were said.

The general — an imposing figure in his horizon blue and scarlet cap — made a speech which paid high tribute to the men of the 62nd.

After recalling their brilliant conduct in various operations and their splendid military qualities, he made a strong appeal for unity between France and Great Britain.

This precious friendship, he said, grew out of the close bonds uniting the soldiers of the two countries must remain indissoluble. These bonds — formed in blood and suffering — must not be forgotten in peace.

“We owe them to our warriors who fell, and whose memory we are here met to honour,” he said.

“Their death was the purchase price of the union of the two nations, yea, of civilisation itself, which is only possible if our two countries remain as one, a union which is especially dear to us because it means peace throughout the world.”

The Advertiser of June 10, 1922, reported the unveiling and reflected on the Rotherham unit’s exploits during the war.

An article said: “In the story of Havrincourt, so far as the great war is concerned, the part played by the Rotherham Battalion of Territorials (the 2/5th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment) forms the chief chapter, and although Rotherham, either in an official or a civic sense, has not yet considered itself called upon to recognise the dates of historic deeds performed by its sons, the storming of Havrincourt by the 2/5th Battalion York and Lancaster Regt. will not be forgotten by many of the townspeople.

“We have left it to the French to raise a lasting monument to the bravery of our townsmen at Havrincourt, where, on November 20th, 1917, the 2/5th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment led the attack on the German fortifications with all the nonchalance as if they were taking part in a football match.”

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