By Gavin Milligan
Whilst enjoying 120 minutes of utter madness on Tuesday, being one of the Gunners travelling support at Reading, I noticed many of the away boys and girls proudly wearing these…..
I myself, as a serviceman, wear my Arsenal/Poppy pin badge for games at this time of year and it got me thinking about how the theme of remembrance ties in with our football club. In November, many teams across the football league will take to the pitch with red poppies emblazoned across their jerseys as a mark of respect for all those who made the ultimate sacrifice, both during and since the First World War.
The poppy has become an indelible mark in the nation’s psyche as a symbol of the horrendous losses suffered during World War One. It became the official icon of remembrance in 1920. The images of the blood red poppy covered fields of Passchendaele in Belgium are now synonymous with the slaughter of the Western Front. The Canadian medical officer John McCrae famously wrote:
“In Flanders fields the Poppies grow;
Between the crosses, row on row.”
Arsenal’s links with the military are deep rooted, perhaps more than any club in the Premier League. The cannons on our badge and around our ground, the name of our club shop “the armoury” and our nickname “the Gunners”, all of these are pointers to the proud heritage of the club clubs inception. The original team, Dial Square as we were believed to have been briefly known, was born from the Royal Armaments factory in Woolwich in 1886, founded in chief by Scotsman David Danskin.
There were various name changes, along with a move to Highbury in 1913, the same year the club suffer the ignominy of relegation from top tier football. A combination of Chairman Henry Norris’ ambition for the club and the cutbacks at the factory spelt the end of “Woolwich Arsenal” as it was. However, the club would never lose sight of its humble origins, born from the hard working men of the Royal Arsenal munitions factories.
Just a year later in 1914, British statesman Edward Grey would allegedly remark “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. In four years over 37 million people, military and civilian, would be killed or injured all across the globe. It’s a phrase we all hate at times, but begrudgingly you have to accept, sometimes football really is “just a game”.
Official competition ceased on the outbreak of the war as the country pumped it’s manpower in an effort to bolster its relatively small army. Lord Kitchener’s face stared out from recruiting posters at the men of Great Britain. The countries able-bodied males were expected to do their duty, both the players and off the field staff of Arsenal Football Club were no exception. With a large number of them on either active or home service, the club would fulfil wartime combination league fixtures by opening invites to guest players. Arsenal continued to play their fixtures at Highbury during the war. On occasion, bitter rivals Tottenham would use the pitch too, there was no sign of this cordiality post-war when the league resumed in 1919. Chairman Norris had negotiated the return of Arsenal to the top flight at Spurs’ expense, a number of theories remain to this day on how he achieved this. It is still a bone of contention to some.
The inter war years would see incredible success for the club under the tutelage of Herbert Chapman. When Chapman sadly passed away in 1934; George Allison took over control of the first team. Allison would guide arsenal to yet more success, but sadly, a Second World War was just around the corner and this progress would be curtailed. On the 3rd of September 1939, families gathered round their wireless radios to listen to the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Neville Chamberlain, declare that Great Britain was, for the second time in a century, at war with Germany.
During the Second World War’ Highbury closed its doors to become an air raid precaution centre. Spurs returned the favour offered to them by Arsenal during the First World War and our wartime games were played at White hart Lane. Again, with players expected to serve, guest stars would turn out in the red and white, including such stellar names of the time as Sir Stanley Matthews. There is one particularly charming tale of Arsenal legend and former all-time top scorer Cliff Bastin serving alongside the then first team trainer, Tom Whittaker, as ARP wardens. The pair braving the terror of the London blitz to spot fires whilst precariously perched atop the Highbury roof.
Workers transform Highbury into an Air Raid Precautions centre during WW2.
Whittaker, who would later himself manage the club, went on to join the RAF becoming a Squadron Leader, serving with considerable distinction during missions on D-Day.
Arsenal superstar Bastin was even the victim of bizarre Italian fascist propaganda when it was reported in 1941 that he had been captured during the battle for the island of Crete. A claim which was completely wide of the mark as Bastin, almost deaf by that point, was medically excused from military service.
Many other star Arsenal players from that legendary squad would serve their country, such as famous footballing and cricketing brothers Denis and Leslie Compton, both of whom served in the army. Lots of footballers spent the war on home service with the Army physical training corps, using their athletic prowess and knowledge to train service personnel in physical fitness. When on leave, many would take part in games. Sadly a lot of these players, such as Ted Drake, who joined the RAF, were robbed of the best years of their careers. However with so much sacrifice being made around the world, this seems to pale in comparison.
Highbury itself was bombed in 1941, the explosion and subsequent fire caused serious damage, especially to the North Bank. Extensive repair work was required to ensure Arsenal would be able to play there after the war. In 1946 competitive football resumed and it continues, thankfully uninterrupted by major conflict, up to present day. For the service personnel of this country it would seem, conflict has also continued uninterrupted in some way, shape or form. In fact 1968 is the only year since the Second World War that a British soldier has not been killed on active duty somewhere around the globe, a staggering statistic.
Over the last few seasons Arsenal have supported the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes by auctioning off the players match worn Poppy shirts, raising tens of thousands of pounds in the process. Each arsenal fan who wears their pin badge, or indeed a normal poppy have, just like the club they support, done their own little bit to aid those affected by conflict and also, just as importantly, to show their respect.
On Saturday the 10th of November we will play Fulham at the Emirates and 60’000 supporters will fall silent around the ground before the game kicks off. As @Victoriamscott pointed out on Twitter recently; the number of fans in our stadium who will be observing that mark of respect is almost identical to the number of casualties suffered by the British Army in just a single day at the beginning of the battle of the Somme in 1916. It is a sobering thought.
Us Gunners will be joined in silence by supporters the length and breadth of the country and rightly so.
“They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning.
We will remember them.”
In memory of my friend Stuart Wright; who fell 26/07/2007
Follow me on Twitter @Gav_AFC