Elliott Taylor, author of “Up The Hammers! The West Ham Battalion in the Great War 1914-1918”, reflects on the sacrifices of the West Ham Pals.
It was rather fitting that yesterday, our last Remembrance match before West Ham United leave the Boleyn Ground, took place almost exactly 100 years to the day that the West Ham Battalion left England for the combat zone of France on 16/17 November 1915.
The Hammers had been raised by the Mayor of the Borough in January and it had only taken a month to fill the ranks of the Battalion, including my own Great Grandfather, Joe Cooper from Limehouse.
So many local lads volunteered that a ‘Reserve’ Battalion was formed and it was these men who played football on this very pitch in 1915. East London as a whole provided the largest number of men throughout the nation for the Great War with more than 18,000 volunteers before Conscription was introduced.
The West Ham Battalion lost many men over the coming 12 months and by the time we are sitting in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park next season for our first Remembrance match at our new home, it will be exactly 100 Years since the Hammers ‘did their bit’ on The Somme, which culminated in one last devastating battle in 1916 on 13 November.
This attack was on a strongly held German position near to Beaumont Hamel called ‘The Quadrilateral’ and it took place in thick fog. It led to the deaths of many fine local men, including Captain William Busby who had already been awarded the Military Cross aged 24. He was from Sherrard Road in Forest Gate, just a few streets away from the Boleyn Ground. He worked in the City as a chemical analyst and was also the local Scout Master of the West Ham Troop (now 2nd Newham). On his death in action the Scouts renamed themselves Busby Troop in his honour.
Honour was something the Hammers had in abundance. They had the lowest disciplinary rate in the Brigade which was the envy of other Battalions and, by the war’s end, had stacked up more than half a dozen Distinguished Conduct Medal’s, nearly a dozen of the Military Cross and over 40 of the Military Medal.
Their largest medal haul came during their final battle in the Great War on the last day of November, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai. This intense fight lasted for more than 24 hours and at one moment, early on, D Company had become surrounded yet they remained determined to fight on to the last round.
As their ammunition became drastically reduced a call went out for a volunteer to attempt to get back to the West Ham lines for reinforcements. It was almost a suicide mission. The lad who stepped forward was Laurie Legg, a 23 year old former shipping clerk from Walthamstow. Somehow Laurie made it through the German lines and mud and gave his report. Every effort was immediately made to rescue D Company but, sadly, all in vain. Less than 20 men survived and they became Prisoners of War by the next day, remaining in awful captivity until 1918.
The memorial to The Hammers was unveiled at the Boleyn Ground back in November 2009 by Sir Trevor Brooking and, incidentally, just as Saturday, West Ham played Everton.
As you can see, the month of November holds some significant dates for the West Ham Battalion in this, their centenary year. But we equally commemorate the wider sacrifices made by our Service Personnel in many conflicts since the Great War including WW2, Korea, Suez, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq and most recently Afghanistan.
I would like to commend the tireless work done by the Royal British Legion, East Ham Branch, with a special mention for Ken Hill and Bob Stokes who have provided the Colour Party at the Boleyn Ground for many years.
Their dedication is unwavering as they regard the tasks as an honour and a duty and it will be another poignant day when the memorial to our West Ham Battalion is removed from the Boleyn Ground and installed on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park next season.
As we have done for many years West Ham United will continue to ensure that:
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.
Elliott Taylor is author of “Up The Hammers! The West Ham Battalion in the Great War 1914-1918” and also runs the ‘West Ham Pals’ blog where you can find much more information and photos of the West Ham Battalion.