The Great War Years


Relatively little is known about the impact of the Great War on football in the Bedford area, although we do know that the Eagles played two friendlies at Ford End Road in its first few weeks. The first was at the end of August, against the 4th Gordon Highlanders, which ended in a 6-4 win for Bedford. The other was a week later, against a Highland Division eleven, which was a 3-3 draw; the opposition was said to have included several Aberdeen professionals. Both matches happened because the Highland Division was billeted in the town while they underwent training before crossing to France just before the first Christmas of the War.

Immediately after the second of these matches, the ground was requisitioned by the military authorities and the club withdrew from the Northants League “until the present crisis is over”[1]. Perhaps only a few foresaw that the crisis would last for more than four miserable years.

By February 1915 the club was recorded as having donated £10 to the relief of the people of Bruges, but no more is heard of it in the playing sense until 1919. The Eyrie[2] seems to have been used for various military matches in 1914, when the Fifth Battalion of the Beds Regiment, including Lieutenant F W H Nicholas[3] who had briefly appeared for the Eagles before the war, played a Bury St Edmunds XI before a crowd of 1,000, winning 7-2, and a year later the 26th Cheshires played the 2nd Welsh Artillery on the ground. The ground was by now used by the Royal Engineers, since the permission of the Officer Commanding “A Depot” of that regiment was necessary for several charity matches in early 1919.

Meanwhile, several Eagles players, including Ralph Chapman, Harry Mardle, Ernie Hughes and Fred Smith, appeared for a “Munitions Workers’ XI” in matches in Russell Park and elsewhere in aid of Hospital funds and the Red Cross. By 1917, a “Bedford Combination” had been formed to provide competitive football for the various military and works’ elevens in the area: Walter Tysoe, who played regularly for the Eaglets for many years and occasionally for the first team, later becoming a Supporters’ Club official in the 1950s, was secretary of this league and Ted Humphreys acted as treasurer. Tysoe also started a “Bedford XI”, later known as Bedford Athletic, which included several Eagles players, strengthened by George Butcher who had been a professional for West Ham before the war and played for Luton after it. Another youngster who was given a chance in this team was Jack Chester, son of the Eagles’ trainer Charlie, who would play after the War in almost every position for the club.

Compared to some clubs, Bedford Town seems to have come off lightly in terms of loss of life in the War. This may reflect employment for some players in protected industries such as W H Allen’s and the other large works in the town. Although it’s difficult to be sure because so many surnames recur, I can only trace one definite casualty, Sgt George Green, who had played a few matches for the club but more often appeared for Bedford QPR and Kempston: he was killed in July 1916 on the Somme. Corporal William Perry, who died in Mesopotamia almost at the end of the War[4] may have been the “W Perry” who appeared in 1910/11, but that isn’t certain.

The club captain, Harry Brown, served in the Gallipoli campaign and wrote movingly of the burial of a comrade serving with him in the East Anglian Royal Engineers[5]. A Sergeant in the 7th Bedfords wrote home in February 1916 about a Beds v Northants match behind the lines in France, where Beds were represented “by Sgt Blakeman who played a ripping game”-this was Freddie Blakeman, who had joined the club from Kempston Rovers in 1912. Bob Villiers, a Biggleswade man who had played in the last pre-war season, was wounded and won the MM with the 18th Hussars in France[6]. Jack Hobkirk and his younger brother William (who became chairman of the club when a limited company was formed in 1950) both served in the Royal Navy.

Somebody was still keeping an eye on the club, since on 27 December 1918 the local papers carried the club’s Christmas Draw results. With the war now over, several more charity matches were played on the ground before the end of the 1918/19 season, including one between the Bedford Combination XI and the equivalent representative team from Northampton, and another “Military v Civilians” match chosen from within the Combination’s teams. These were in aid of local hospital funds. By the summer of 1919 the club was able to reconvene and re-enter the Northants League. At the AGM in July, Ralph Chapman was elected captain with Fred Smith as his deputy.

To continue the story see Seasons on the Field-the 1920s

[1] Bedfordshire Times, 11 September 1914

[2] Although that name would not become common until the 1920s

[3] The grandfather of cricketer and cricket commentator Mark Nicholas

[4] Bedfordshire Times, 1 November 1918

[5] Bedfordshire Times, 19 November 1915

[6] His Army papers can be seen on line at under his full name, Henry George Villiers.