THE Sunderland stars of the Great War era were heroes of the football field – and the battlefield.
Charlie Buchan, Leigh Roose, Harry Low, Albert Milton, Bert Hobson, Bob Young and Thomas Rowlandson all collected a haul of medals and trophies as players.
But, when their footballing careers were cut short by the outbreak of the First World War on August 4, 1914, they showed just as much fighting spirit off the pitch as on it.
“I’m very proud of the part my grandad played in the war, as well as his part in the history of a club I still idolise today,” said Maurice Low, grandson of wing half Harry.
“A great many Sunderland players of that era joined the forces, others went into war work. Some won prestigious medals, but some sadly made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Aberdeen-born Harry Low started his career at local club Orion in 1901, signed as a professional with Aberdeen in 1903 and transferred to Sunderland in May 1907.
His Black Cats debut was inauspicious – a 5-2 drubbing by Manchester City – but he would go on to win the 1913 League Championship, and almost won the FA Cup that year too.
“He was very loyal to Sunderland and even pulled out of the Scotland squad to be part of an FA Cup semi-final replay against Newcastle United in 1913,” said Maurice.
“He’d been called up for Scotland for a friendly against Ireland in Dublin, but thought it more important to play for Sunderland. He was never called up again after that.”
The outbreak of war saw thousands of Wearsiders sign up to fight – but Sunderland’s star footballers were all under contract to stay until the end of the 1914/15 season.
Most continued to play with great reluctance and, once the season was over, service in the army, Royal Navy and munitions factories followed for the majority of men.
“Grandad played wartime football for South Shields prior to being called up,” said Maurice. “He joined the Royal Navy and ended up playing football for his ship.”
Harry, of Primrose Crescent in Fulwell, signed up as an able seaman on February 15, 1917. His initial training took place at HMS Victory naval base in Portsmouth.
From there the former footballer was drafted to HMS Dido – an Eclipse-class cruiser which served as a depot ship to destroyer flotillas at Harwich throughout the war.
“He served in home waters and became captain of his ship’s football team,” said Maurice. “My grandmother had to take a whole load of football boots down for him! He ended up honourably discharged after etting wounded. He then retired from professional football in May 1919 and became landlord of The Fort pub instead. In those days, the pub was at the centre of a very busy Monkwearmouth. It was filled with iners, labourers and shipyard workers and was always extremely popular.”
Sadly, Harry enjoyed only a year in his new career. He died on September 26, 1920, aged 38 – after attending a football match at Roker Park and developing pneumonia.
His widow, Jennie, was left to bring up daughter Kathleen and sons Harry, Gordon and Maurice alone. All three boys later fought in World War Two – and survived.
Harry’s brother Wilf, who played from Newcastle and Scotland, also died at a young age – becoming the first person to die in Newcastle after being hit by a car in 1933.
“I wish I could have met my grandad, but he died more than 30 years before I was born,” said Maurice. “I’m lucky, though, as I have photos covering most of his life.
“But I would have liked to have asked him about his war experiences, as well as his time as a footballer. I’m proud, very much so, of everything that he did with his life.”
Leigh Richmond Roose
WELSH international Leigh Richmond Roose was Sunderland’s first choice of goalkeeper from 1908 until 1910 – when he broke his wrist in a match.
But, although the injury put the blocks on his Wearside footballing career, Roose’s goalkeeping abilities were to make him a noted grenade thrower during the war.
The sportsman had resumed his medical training, and was playing for Aberystwyth, when war was declared. He immediately joined the Royal Army Medical Corps.
His early service saw Roose treating injured Western Front soldiers at a hospital in Rouen, before transferring to an evacuation hospital in Gallipoli in April 1915.
The following year, however, he joined the Royal Fusiliers as a private – winning a Military Medal for bravery while fighting at the Battle of the Somme in August 1916.
His citation read: “Private Leigh Roose, who had never visited the trenches before, was in the sap when the ‘flammenwerfer’ attack began.
“He managed to get back along the trench and, though nearly choked with fumes with his clothes burnt, refused to go to the dressing station.
“He continued to throw bombs until his arm gave out, and then, joining the covering party, used his rifle with great effect.”
Tragically, on October 7, 1916, he lost his life during an attack on German trenches at Gueudecourt – last seen running towards the enemy “at full speed” firing his gun.
The lance corporal was 38 when he died at the Somme. The exact location, and manner, of his death today still remain a mystery. His body was never recovered.
CHARLIE Buchan – hailed as one of Sunderland’s all time greats – was a hero both on and off the football pitch.
The centre forward, son of blacksmith William Buchan and his wife Jane, was born in London in 1891 and joined Sunderland in 1911 after spells with Arsenal and Leyton.
He went on to become part of the Football League-winning team of 1912/13, was runner-up to Aston Villa in the FA Cup Final and made his debut for England in 1913.
Despite his devotion to football, however, he was determined to fight when war broke out. Indeed, the end of the 1914/15 season couldn’t come soon enough for Charlie.
“I wanted to join up,” he revealed in his book A Lifetime in Football. “But, when the League decided the competition should run, I was reminded I had a contract to carry out.
“Every weekday we went through military training, with broomsticks instead of rifles, from an army instructor – preparing for the day when we could do our bit.
“That day came at last and I went to the recruiting office in Sunderland. ‘You’re big enough for the Grenadier Guards,’ said the sergeant. ‘That suits me,’ I replied.”
Charlie reported for duty at Caterham Barracks just a few days later but, even while fighting at the tenches, he still managed to find time for a few games of football. My first game was behind the Somme front, just after the big push in July 1916, at our camp in Maricourt – a little north of Albert,” he later recalled.
“No sooner had we started then German shells began to drop perilously near. We restarted on another pitch. The game had to go on!”
Charlie survived the Somme, Cambrai and Passchendaele ‘without a scratch’ – winning a Military Medal for his actions during the Battle of Boesinghe in Belgium.
His commendation was awarded after he stormed a German lookout post at the height of the battle, while most of his unit was “pinned down” in brutal fighting.
Charlie was bayoneted as he took the post, but the blade passed through a gap in his toes. He then ran to a mess tent for vital rations for his unit – under heavy enemy fire.
Promotion to temporary second lieutenant followed on September 11, 1918 – a role he held until leaving the army and returning to Wearside to play football once again.
Charlie rarely talked about the war, but did admit: “Training was tough, but I know it did me all the good in the world. I was proud to belong to the Grenader Guards.”
•Charlie, who was capped for England six times, died in June 1960, aged 68. He is still Sunderland’s record league scorer – with 209 goals.
Albert Milton – bought by Sunderland in 1908: Joined Royal Field Artillery as a bombardier. Killed in action at Passchendaele on October 11, 1917. Military Medal.
Harry Ness – played for Sunderland and Barnsley: A corporal in the Royal Engineers. Awarded the Victory and British Star.
George Anderson – played for Sunderland and Aberdeen. Served with the Royal Marine Light Infantry.
Sammy Hartnell – reserve centre forward: Served as a gunner with the Royal Garrison Artillery and killed in action in France on August 8, 1918.
Tommy Thompson and Tom Wilson – 1914-15 Sunderland Reserves: Both served in the Cyclists Corps.
Bert Hobson – signed by Sunderland in 1912: Played for Wolves and Stoke during the war, but also won a Military Medal for bravery with Northumberland Fusiliers.
Henry Martin – won the Football League title with Sunderland in 1913: Served in the army during the Great War and later managed Mansfield Town.
Thomas Sowerby Rowlandson – goalkeeper from 1904-5: Served as a captain in the Yorkshire Hussars. Won a Millitary Cross. Killed in action on September 15, 1916. (Pictured above).
Jimmy Seed – 1914-15 Sunderland Reserve Team: Joined the Cyclists Corps. Gassed in last month of the war and only played once for Sunderland, in 1919, on his return.
Bob Young – played for Sunderland and coached Norwich City: Won Military Medal for bravery at Cambrin in 1916, during Battle of the Somme. Wounded in action.