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Footballers' team took players into the Somme

HIS last words to his boyhood pal, before he went over the top to his death on the Somme, were to send best wishes to their mutual team.

He was Pte William Jonas, who had started his playing career as a footballer with Jarrow Croft FC.

His team, by then, was Clapton Orient – at least at home.

By 1916, Blyth-born Jonas was donning boots for an altogether more remarkable side: The 17th Middlesex Regiment, the Footballers' Battalion.

Think of the First World War and football, and the most abiding image is of the games played between British Tommies and their German foes during that first Christmas truce in 1914.

What is less generally well known is that there were several battalions made up almost wholly of football players and others associated with the game.

They sprang from the same ethos as the Pals' Battalions which, in a response to Kitchener's summons to arms, saw whole bodies of young men recruited from specific areas, or even trades.

It could claim some of the leading players of the day among its ranks, from clubs as famous then as now, like Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.

Men like former Newcastle United goalkeeper Charles Bunyan, who lied about his age to enlist – he was 46, but claimed to be only in his late 30s – and also Gateshead-born George Pyke, who played centre-forward for Newcastle.

George Scott, who had started his football career in the Sunderland District Amateur Leagues, played for Sunderland West End FC.

Captured by the Germans in action at Guillemont on the Western Front in the summer of 1916, Scott would die soon after from his injuries.

When The Whistle Blows tells their story and that of the hundreds of other players, both professional and amateur, as well as club supporters and officials, who made up the Footballers' Battalion.

Football games had already been rich mobilising grounds. As early as September 1914, recruiting officers paraded around Villa Park, at a match between Aston Villa and Sunderland, garnering several volunteers as a band played the French and Russian national anthems.

The 17th Middlesex Regiment, formed just before Christmas 1914, would eventually number more than 1,600 officers and men, more than 500 of whom would be lost at the Somme alone.

They included former Jarrow Croft player Billy Jonas, whose good looks had made him something of a heart-throb.

Jonas, who lived with his wife Mary Jane at Washington, would die in the killing field of Delville Wood. He was only 26.

He has no known grave, but his name appears on the massive Thiepval Memorial to the missing, which still dominates the Somme battlefield today.

By the time it was disbanded in February 1918, it's estimated that some 4,500 men had passed through the 17th Middlesex Regiment's ranks, of whom nearly 1,000 never came home. One of its company commanders, Capt Allastair McReady-Diarmid, would be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

This is an impressive book which uses many previously unpublished letters, personal accounts and photographs to tell a poignant but stirring story of great courage and also great sacrifice.

When The Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers' Battalion in the Great War, by Andrew Riddich and John Kemp, is published in paperback by Haynes Publishing, price 9.99.