Lest we forget - Sunderland AFC historian Rob Mason gives fascinating insight into the lives of former players who perished in both world wars
“It’s going to be a dog fight” and you would “want him the trenches with you” – two common phrases I’ve heard many times from fans, former players and journalists in the countless relegation battles I’ve witnessed following SAFC.
While such analogies of war have become synonymous in football and part of a supporter’s vocabulary, the recent conflict in Ukraine has really highlighted there’s no meaningful comparison between what happens on the football field and horrors which take place on the battlefield.
During a period of peace and stability in Europe, sport has in many ways provided a vehicle for countries to flex their muscles in the desire to become an international force.
However, for eight names inscribed on the plaque on the fans statue at the Stadium of Light, the realities of war and futility of such comparisons could not be more stark.
Alex Barrie, James Chalmers, Jack Huggins, Sandy McAllister, Albert Milton, Leigh Richmond Roose and Thomas Rowlandson are all former SAFC players who perished on the battlefields of Europe during WW1, while Percy Saunders paid the ultimate sacrifice during WW2.
While the first year of the Great War saw professional football fixtures continue across England, the decision was heavily criticised, and the 1915/16 season was curtailed.
Despite being the English football stars of their time, with SAFC having won the league title in 1913, many of the team swapped the football field for the battle field as they enlisted to fight in the trenches of Northern Europe.
SAFC historian Rob Mason said: “The harsh realities of war are perhaps best illustrated by Albert Milton, who was a left-back who made 140 appearances for Sunderland and became a bombardier in the Royal Artillery. He was a key member of the club’s title winning team and four years later on October 11, 1917, he died on the battlefield.
"He’s buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium.”
At a time when top footballers earn multi-million pound salaries and have movie star status, it’s difficult for the modern day fan to comprehend a contemporary equivalent, although images of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Oleksandr Usyk, fighting on the Ukrainian front-line highlights sporting fame and fortune don’t necessarily bring immunity from the vagaries of war.
Rob added: “When the Football League was suspended, these were fit young men in their 20s and early 30s and were the sought after demographic to go off and fight. What happened with Albert would be like one of Manchester City stars of today going off to war and four years later being dead on the battle field.”
Another title winner who didn’t come home was Sandy McAllister who was an ever-present in the club’s 1902 league winning season and made a total of 222 appearances, scoring five goals.
Rob said: “Sandy was a very famous player who played in the first ever game at Roker Park and the last game at Newcastle Road, the club’s previous ground. I actually met his daughter about 20 years ago. She was 99 at the time and she told me that, like many of those who died in the conflict, it was not a bullet but disease which resulted in his death.
"Sandy was buried in Giavera del Montello in Italy.”
The physical prowess and ball handling skills of former goalkeeper Leigh Richmond Roose was harnessed by the army as a potent weapon of attack across the wilderness of No Man’s Land.
Rob said: “Leigh played for Sunderland between 1908 and 1911. He was a Welsh international and was a real football superstar of his day and was known for dating many girlfriends, including Marie Lloyd, who was a popular singer at the time.
“He played in the famous 1908 9-1 victory over Newcastle United and played 99 times for the club. He was an entertainer and used to do gymnastics using the crossbar. It was a time when goalkeepers could handle the ball outside the box and Leigh would bounce the ball to the halfway line before throwing the ball into the opposition’s box.
"He had such a fantastic throwing arm that he was deployed in the army to throw grenades at the German front-line.”
Leigh initially served in Gallipoli but sadly died on the battlefields of Northern France on October 7, 1916.
Another former goalkeeper who sadly perished was Thomas Rowlandson who made 12 appearances.
Rob added: “Thomas was from a very well to do background and actually went to Cambridge University. He went on to play for a number of clubs, including Sunderland. He was awarded the Military Cross for his services in the army but sadly died in the Somme on September 15, 1916 during the Battle of Flers.”
Former centre-half, Alex Barrie, came within six weeks of surviving the conflict but sadly died in battle on October 1, while Jack Huggins died in the Battle of Ypres on April 25, 1916 – just five days after arriving on the front line.
Alex made 71 appearances in the red and white shirt, scoring two goals, while Jack made 14 appearances scoring two goals.
As well as being etched into the plaque outside the Stadium of Light, former player James Chalmers, who made 27 appearances, is permanently etched into the club’s history, having scored the last ever league goal at Newcastle Road in April 1898. He lost his life at the Battle of Gallipoli on July 12, 1915.
The memorial plaque also contains the name Percy Saunders, the only former player to die during WW2.
Rob said: “Percy was an inside forward who was known for his good looks. He became a sergeant in the army but was aboard the ship SS Roseboom when it was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean on March 2, 1942. He is named on the memorial in Singapore Cemetery.”
However, it’s not just those who perished who should be remembered, with many former players serving during both conflicts and returning home to their families, and in some cases, their careers.
One of those was one of the club’s greatest ever goalscorers, Charlie Buchan.
Rob said: “Charlie served in WW1 but before going off to fight he scored in the club’s last game before the league stopped and the first game when it restarted. However, for some players who were perhaps in their late 20s when the wars started, by the time they returned they had either missed their best years or their careers were over.”
As the club’s historian, it was Rob who initiated the installation of the memorial plaque for Armistice day in 2013, and he has recently spent time working with the Academy U12s team teaching the youngsters about war poetry, including In Flanders Fields, as part of a Premier League Academies project based around the conflict.
Rob, a former English teacher, said: “We’ve all heard the phrase lest we forget, and we should never forget the sacrifices these players and others from that generation made. It’s vitally important that young people understand the horrors of war as there are only ever losers on both sides.”
You can find out more about the players who gave the ultimate sacrifice, along with all the former players to represent the club in Rob’s new book, Sunderland The Absolute Record: The Players, which can be purchased from the club shop and website.