Celtic Football Club and the Great War

[Image] If being the 1st British Club ever to win the European Cup was not in itself a peerless achievement, the philanthropic origins of Celtic Football Club also make it a totally unique institution in British football. The Club was founded in 1888 by a Marist Brother by the name of Brother Walfrid.

Brother Walfrid was so appalled at the poverty and squalid living conditions which were the lot of Glasgow's East-End Irish immigrant population, that he founded the Club specifically to raise money to alleviate their hardship. Walfrid could never have imagined then, that less than thirty years later, the Club that he founded would be contributing to the Great War effort. Unlike the romantic roots of the Club, the link between Celtic and the 1st World War has yet to be fully explored. Yet to ignore it is to deny football fans the world over access to another major part of Celtic's unique social history.
For example, Willie Angus who signed for Celtic in 1911 and played for the team during seasons 1912-13 and 1913-14 became the first ever Scottish Territorial soldier to win the Victoria Cross.

Willie won his VC on June 12th, 1915 in Givenchy. He lost an eye, damaged a foot and was wounded 40 times in the process of successfully rescuing Lt James Martin, a fellow native of Willie's home town of Carluke who was lying injured a couple of feet away from the German front lines. A visit to the Willie Angus website gives the reader the full details of his deed and provides a unique insight into his truly amazing story. Needless to say Willie never played for Celtic again after this. There were other Celts who fought and unlike Willie never made it back to Blighty. Of the 908,371 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed during the Great 1914-18 War, 7 of them were on the books of Celtic.

Willie Angus VC

Spare a thought for the following ex Celtic players, Patrick Slavin, Leigh Roose, Donnie McLeod, Archie McMillan, Robert Craig, John McLaughlin and Peter Johnstone they gave their lives in the bloodiest war of them all - this article is dedicated to their memory.

We pick up their story in 1916, 2 years into the Great War at the Battle of the Somme. July 1st 1916, the 1st day of the Somme is famous for being the blackest day in British military history where nearly 60,000 British casualties were sustained in the first hour and a half of the Battle. The battle raged on for five months from July 1st to November 25th during that time the British forces managed to advance no further than 12 kilometres sustaining 420,000 casualties, 2 of whom played for Celtic.

One of those players was the enigmatic Welsh International goalkeeper Leigh Roose who also held a Doctorate in Bacteriology, who played on loan to Celtic once in March 1910. Leigh joined the 9th Royal Fusiliers in 1914 and rose to the rank of Lance Corporal and won the Military Medal. Leigh died on 7th of October 1916, his Battalion was caught up in fierce fighting in the Battle for Montauban. At 1:45pm Leigh's regiment led the attack on enemy lines, encountering heavy machine gun fire on the way. On reaching the top of the nearby ridge, the attacking battalions were practically decimated by heavy shelling and machine gun fire. Like many attacking manoeuvres throughout the 1st World War, the objectives of this attack were never reached. That one day's attack highlighted the human tragedy that was the First World War, costing the lives of 25 men with an additional 165 missing presumed dead and 132 wounded for no material gain. As one of those 165 who is still 'missing' Leigh's name is inscribed on the massive Thiepval Memorial to his 72,000 other comrades who died in the Battle who also have no known grave.

The second Celtic player who lost his life on the Somme was Sergeant Patrick Slavin whose playing career included spells at Fauldhouse Hibs, Heatherbell, Celtic, Broxburn and West Calder Swifts. Seargent Slavin was with the 2nd Bn Royal Scots and died on Monday 13th November 1916. Patrick lies buried in Serre Rd No 2 Cemetery in the same cemetery as my Great Great Uncle Harold Bates, which is the largest cemetery on the Somme, containing 7,126 graves. Patrick's Regiment was involved in one of the most significant Battles of the Somme campaign - the 2nd Battle for the village of Serre. On the fateful day of Patrick's death, fog was thick as zero hour approached at 5am which signified the start of the 2nd ill-fated attack on Serre. The Regimental diary states that they were not as prepared as they might have been for the unexpected weather conditions, suggesting that tapes should have been laid in advance to guide Patrick's comrades to where the gaps were in the German barbed wire. One cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for Patrick and his comrades waiting to go over the top at 5am into 'insufficient light' plus thick fog with no tapes to guide them to where the enemy was. If that was not bad enough the diary also informs us that not only had the German wire not been properly cut to the extent reported, but also the enemy lay in wait in 'greater numbers than expected'. One suspects that even if Black Adder's batman Baldrick had been in charge that day, his cunning plan would not have involved this suicide mission which resulted in 23 soldiers including Patrick being killed, 84 missing presumed dead and 177 wounded.

The following year of 1917 saw a further 4 Celtic players killed in action. Two players died within 6 days of each other and were both involved in the Battle of Arras, which claimed 139,867 British casualties.

Details of John McLaughlin's Celtic career are scant which suggests that he was probably on the books but never made a 1st team appearance. John was not only played with Celtic but also Mossend Hibs and Renton. John held the rank of Private in the 11th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) - and died of his wounds on Thursday 10th May 1917 and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery. John was almost certainly a patient in one of the 15 military hospitals located in Etaples. John was probably injured on 23.4.17 which was the date of the last recorded heavy casualty list incurred by the 10/11th HLI at the Battle for Cavelry Farm at Monchy Le Preux just North of Arras.

Eleven days later the pre-war Celtic legend Peter Johnstone who played 223 times for the club and featured prominently in the 6 league titles in a row side also died in the Battle of Arras on Wednesday 16th May. Peter joined the 6th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders as a Private to get quicker into the action. Peter was involved in very heavy fighting to capture a nearby chemical works between May 15th-16th. The Regimental casualty list over the 2 day Battle, reads 43 killed, 26 missing presumed dead and 51 wounded. Sadly Peter's body was never recovered and his name is inscribed on the Arras Memorial to the Missing. Rumour of Peter's death swept throughout Glasgow and was sadly confirmed on June 6th.

The grim harvest that was 1917 also claimed Archie McMillan who made his first team debut as an outside left against Rangers in 1913. Between the 21st and 23rd of November, Private Archie McMillan and the rest of the 1st/7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were involved in heavy fighting in the Battle of Cambrai, North of Arras. The Argyll's orders were to capture the village of Fontaine Notre-Dame which is located 2-3 miles outside Cambrai in Northern France. Archie's battalion was successful in capturing the village on the 23rd November 1917. Unfortunately Archie along with 8 of his other comrades died, a further 22 were missing presumed dead and 126 were wounded during the three-day battle. Archie is buried in Rocquigny-Equancort Rd British Cemetery, Manancourt.

The final casualty of 1917 was Donald McLeod who made 155 appearances as a full back for Celtic between 1902-08. Gunner McLeod was in the 466th Battery of the 65th Royal Field Artillery (RFA) and died from his wounds on Saturday 6.10.17. Donnie is buried in Dozinghem Military Cemetery in Poperinge, Belgium which was used as a Casualty Clearing Station until 1918 which suggests that Donnie was not killed in Battle but injured. Unfortunately due to scant regimental diary information, all we know of the whereabouts of Donnie was that he was in Belgium when he picked up his injury. Donnie most certainly would have been involved in the latter stages of the Battle of Passchendaele. Passchendaele was hell on earth - a mudbath where the Battlefield had been turned into a swamp by continuous rain and shelling. The conditions were so horrific that they prompted the Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon to write:

"...I died in Hell
(they called it Passchendaele) my wound was slight
and I was hobbling back; and then a shell
burst slick upon the duckboards; so I fell
into the bottomless mud, and lost the light"

Passchendaele lasted 3 months at a cost of over half a million lives of which 300,000 were British.

The final Celt to die in the Great War was Robert Craig who died on Friday 19th April 1918. Robert's Celtic career spanned between 1906-09 where he appeared 13 times as full-back. Robert was a Private in the 5th Battalion of the South Wales Borderers (SWB) and lies buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery which was used as a hospital cemetery. Robert was wounded on the 11th April as the German's re-captured the Belgian town of Messines, the scene of a British victory a year earlier. Ten SWB's died that day and Robert was one of 38 wounded who were taken to hospital.

To visit the Graves of Patrick Slavin, Archie McMillan, John McLaughlin and Donnie McLeod and the Memorials to the Missing which contain the names of Leigh Roose and Peter Johnstone gave me a chance to reflect upon the deaths of these brave men and their connections with Celtic. As a Scottish Club, Celtic are by no means unique with regards to their links with the Great War. At the end of November 1914, the entire Hearts first team squad enlisted and seven of their players also died. The only difference is that their names live on in the form of a Club war memorial at Haymarket Station. Isn't it about time Celtic officially recognised this forgotten part of their social history in a similar way, so that the fans of today and tomorrow can respect the memory of the 7 players from yesterday who died during the Great War?

(Thanks to Eugene McBride and Peter Burns for archive information)

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Robert Hoskins

Copyright © Robert Hoskins  November, 2001

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