This post is dedicated to my brother-in-law Tim Spillane, a life long Gooner he died from cancer on the 14th of June 2003 aged 38. RIP.
"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living.....and the dead."
James Joyce 1905.
On this the 125th anniversary of the founding of our club, there will invariably be tales told of glory, against the odds victories and painful defeats. We will sing the praises of Brady, Wright, Bergkamp and Henry. We will remember Anfield ’89, winning the title at Old Trafford and the Lane, the crushing Champions League defeat of 2006, but I urge you to take a minute to remember some unsung heroes. Giants of the red and white who wore the cannon with pride, lost to the whims of memory, forgotten by history, but forever woven in to the fabric of the club. Forever Arsenal.
In 1892 Woolwich Arsenal were pariahs. A professional team in an era of amateurs blocked from league football and limited to the FA Cup and the odd friendly match. In one of these friendlies, Arsenal played the Army team of the South Stafford regiment. One player stood out, a young right back called Joseph Powell. The Arsenal management bought him out of his Army contract and signed him to professional terms. We were allowed into the league the following season and Powell became our first ever Captain in a game against Newcastle Utd in September 1893. Described as a “strong and purposeful right back” he was a stalwart in the Arsenal team scoring his only goal in a 5-0 victory against Loughborough Town in 1896.
On the 23rd of November 1896, in a game against Kettering Town, Powell tried to acrobatically clear a ball at head height when he became entangled with another player, falling heavily and breaking his arm. The injury was reportedly so horrific that the first player to go to his assistance promptly fainted at the sight of the protruding bone. Powell subsequently developed septicaemia and, despite having the arm amputated, died a week later. He was 26.
The First World War machine treated Arsenal no less kindly than any of the youth of England, methodically chewing them up and spitting them out. Arsenal men like James Maxwell, outside right, killed in action in 1915, and right half Spencer Bassett killed on the Western Front in 1917.
The Arsenal goalkeeper in the 1910/1911 season, Welshman Leigh Roose, received the Military Medal fighting at the Somme where “he threw bombs until his arms gave out, and then, joining the covering party, used his rifle to great effect”. On October 7th 1916 at Guadecort, Arsenal forward Gordon Hoove witnessed Roose “charge at the enemy lines firing his gun rapidly”. Roose’s body was never found.
Equally tragic is the story of Arsenal left back Robert Benson. Signed from Sheffield United in 1913 this dour ex-coalminer went on to become a regular in the first team. Weighing 14 stone and possessing a ferocious shot he had a reputation as the “terror of opposing forwards”. He had a unique style of penalty taking where he would run nearly the full length of the pitch before unleashing an unstoppable shot towards goal. Benson quit football at the outbreak of war and took up a job as a munitions worker. On a visit to Highbury for a friendly game against Reading he was asked to fill in at right back. Patently unfit he had to leave the game complaining of feeling unwell. He collapsed in the dressing room and died in the arms of the Arsenal trainer, George Hardy. He was buried in his Arsenal shirt.
Tragedy was not reserved for just the Arsenal players. The legendary Arsenal manager and great innovator Herbert Chapman, was a meticulous student of the game, and regularly watched other teams play. On New Year’s Day 1934 he was on a scouting mission at Notts County when he developed a cold. Next day he watched Sheffield Wednesday against Birmingham, and then against his doctors orders went to watch Arsenal’s 3rd team play. He grudgingly took to his bed and died of pneumonia 3 days later. He was buried in Hendon on January 10th 1934.
Arsenals first casualty of the 2nd World War was Highbury itself. Requisitioned by the War Office, it was used first as a first aid training station and later as ARP head quarters for London. The North Bank suffered severe bomb damage during the blitz. 26 people were killed on the 27th of June 1944 when a V1 ‘Flying Bomb’ destroyed Highbury Corner.
Bill Dean was an Arsenal supporter and fulfilled his lifelong ambition when signed as a goalkeeper in 1940. He joined the Royal Navy and served on board the light cruiser HMS Naiad predominantly in the Mediterranean. In March 1942 they received information that an Italian cruiser was badly damaged off the coast of Crete. The Naiad rushed to that location to finish her off, but it turned out to be a trap. HMS Naiad was sunk by the German U-Boat, U-565, and Dean was killed along with 76 other members of the crew.
Another Arsenal player, Hugh Glass, joined the Merchant Navy and worked in the engine room of the SS Ocean Crusader. On her maiden voyage she sailed from New York to Liverpool, in atrocious weather as part of the convoy HX-216. Even though she was brand new and a relatively fast ship, she slowed down to help stragglers in the convoy and became detached from her escort. Fatally she strayed into territory patrolled by the U boat group known as the ‘Dragon Wolfpack’, and was torpedoed by U-262. All hands were lost.
Henry Cook joined the Royal Navy as a pilot. While training to land on the deck of a ship his plane was caught in a freak cross wind and he was killed instantly.
Sidney Pugh joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was killed in action on the 15th April 1944. William Parr, also a volunteer, was shot down while searching for U-Boats on the 8th of March 1942.
Leslie Lack served in the 118 Spitfire Squadron of the RAF. Returning from a routine mission on the 18th of March 1943 he was shot down by his own anti aircraft crew. He was 22.
Robert ‘Bobby’ Daniels was capped by Wales in 1938 aged just 16, and joined Arsenal the same year. 5 years later he was a Gunner on a Lancaster bomber involved in the Christmas Eve bombing of Berlin. His plane flew into heavy flak and was shot down. His body was never recovered.
Cyril Tooze joined the 9th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and saw action in North Africa before being part of the campaign to liberate Italy. Early in 1944 the 9th were involved in heavy fighting during the Anzio campaign, where the front line was continually blurred and the battle moved back and forth often from street to street. He was shot in the head and killed by a German sniper on the 22nd of January 1944.
Herbie Roberts was signed from Oswestry Town in 1926 for just £200. A highly versatile defender he became a crucial part of Chapman’s innovative ‘WM’ formation. Nicknamed ‘the policeman’ Tom Whittaker said of him, “His genius came from the fact that he was highly intelligent, and more importantly, did what he was told”. He was part of the team that won three league titles in 1931, 1933 and 1934. Roberts also joined the Royal Fusiliers where he became a Lieutenant. He died from complications to a skin disease in June 1944.
First team coach Tom Whittaker took over as Arsenal manager upon George Allison’s resignation in 1947. Under his leadership Arsenal won the League in 1948 and 1953 and the FA Cup in 1950. This Arsenal stalwart appointed by Chapman in 1927 died of a heart attack on the 24th October 1956 at the age of 58.
And because, under equality’s sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save this day for them.
George Mackay Brown.