The football, rugby and cricket stars of Sunderland who went to war

Some of the players that Billy Barker starred alongside.
Some of the players that Billy Barker starred alongside.
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A Sunderland sports club was devastated by the First World War when 64 members died out of 270 who went into battle.

Historian Keith Gregson has completed a four-year labour of love to Wearside’s heroes.

The opening of the Ashbrooke club.

The opening of the Ashbrooke club.

Writer and researcher Keith studied men who had one thing in common – they were all members of the then Sunderland Cricket and (Rugby) Football Club based at Ashbrooke.

He did work online and at The National Archives. It was a painstaking effort but the outcome is a completed work to be published online this month.

His book can be downloaded and any money collected will be divided between two club-related charitable projects.

It’s an absorbing

Many who served worked in law, shipping, banking and medicine. A large number were students when the war broke out. Over 70 were rewarded for bravery or their contribution to the war effort including 33 Military Crosses – (in some cases more than one MC was gained)

Keith Gregson

study which reveals;

l 64 club members died in the war. That total included six sets of brothers.

l 100 members of the rugby club served their country and to a man, they joined up for the fight in one fell swoop in September 1914. Their number included international players, as well as a British Lion and a Barbarian.

That number also included Sunderland Rugby Club scrum-half Billy Barker dwho ied in March 1918

Keith Gregson

Keith Gregson

l 80-plus cricketers served their country from the Ashbrooke club. Keith’s research managed to find records of the opening six batsmen of one particular team. Yet when they all went to war, five of them died in the same battle, and while serving in the same battalion. (And among them were two men who lived next door to each other).

l From the tennis club, 30 men went to war and that included county players as well as one national and international star.

l And the wartime records of 18 players from Ashbrooke’s hockey club have also been found. They included an international, a North of England captain and 11 who received some form of recognition for bravery during the conflict.

“All in all nearly 270 members of Ashbrooke Sports Club (then Sunderland Cricket and Football Club) have been identified as being on active service in the three branches of the forces during the First World War.”

The shocking price paid by Sunderland soldiers has also been revealed by Keith.

“Of those who have left some record of service, at least 63 died as a result of the war,” he said.

That’s around 26 percent of those who served - well above the accepted average for British and Imperial troops.

“Of those who have left some record of service a further 70 at least were wounded or suffered illness as a result of the war – again a high number,” Keith added.

“The average age of Ashbrooke recruits in 1914 was in the mid-20s.”

But why was Keith so keen to complete his immense study?

“From the start of research in 2014, the aim has always been to ensure that the resultant work was in the public domain by November 11, 2018.”

More than 215 of the Ashbrooke men lived within a 15-minute walk of the venue.

“Many of those who served worked in the law, shipping, banking and medicine. A large number were students when the war broke out,” Keith said.

“Over 70 were rewarded for bravery or their contribution to the war effort including 33 Military Crosses – (in some cases more than one MC was gained).”

Others paid heavily in other ways for their service. At least six were prisoners of war.

War was a complete leveller. Men from numerous professions served their country and that included 47 Sunderland solicitors – 26 of them were club members and 14 of them died in battle.

Keith’s work – ‘Can You Do Nothing To Mend My Broken Heart – The Ashbrooke Boys – A Sports Club At War (1914-18)’ – is 190 pages long with 75,000 words and 258 case studies.

The download cost of £10 will be evenly divided between the John Drummond Trust and The Last Stand. Interested people can find it at http://www.keithgregson.com