The Foresters Who Played and Fought
In the 154 years of Nottingham Forest the two world wars were understandably dark times. In the context of football each conflict created huge turmoil on the game and sizemic financial and personal suffering. Forest faced massive uncertainty and a great difficulty just to survive but the commitment of some truly magnificent individuals kept the club going.
Then there were those men who found their professional football careers over in almost an instant. Having to leave their sport, their families and the homes for a very different type of field. While their experiences were no worse generally than any other who went off to fight for many of these men their career in football was blighted or even lost altogether. Some never even made it back at all.
The story of the Nottingham Forest and their players during these times isn’t widely documented but there, amongst the tragedy, are wonderful stories that should inspire us all.
The Great War 1914-1919
In the summer of 1914 a 29 year old goalkeeper named William Fiske arrived in Nottingham. He had completed a transfer from Blackpool for a considerable fee and would step out as a Forest player for the first time in August.
Fiske, born as Tommy Fiske in Suffolk, had made 217 appearances for Blackpool over a seven year span and his signing was viewed as a major addition for the Foresters ahead of the 1914/15 campaign. Forest were residing in the Second Division side having dropped out of the top league in 1911.
His debut, however, would not materialise as planned.
Before Fiske had agreed to move to the City Ground, global events had begun to transpire. On 28th June the assassination of an Austrian Archduke by a Bosnian Serb would have far reaching consequences for Fiske and the wider world. The chain reaction of countries having alliances or treaties with one another led to Britain entering what would be known as the Great War on August 4th 1914.
Fiske was an army reservist and on August 1st, the very same day that he was due to report to his new club, he was instructed that he would soon join up with the Norfolk Regiment. On 22nd August the Sheffield Daily Telegraph carried a story that Fiske was in Belfast ‘’prepatory to going to war.’’
Two other Forest first team players were also reservists and the Nottingham Daily Express featured a story titled ‘Forest’s Misfortunes’ on 6th August:
‘’The mobilisation of the army has run counter with the mobilisation of the troops of the big football clubs, and the ranks of the former have swollen at the expense of the latter.’’
Joining Fiske on immediate enrolment into the armed forces was R.E Firth, an outside right forward, who was part of the Royal Field Engineers and inside right J.J Bell who met up with the Royal Engineers.
‘’Several of the Forest players gathered on the platform to bid farewell to their colleagues as did also Mr. H.R Cobbin (a member of the committee), Mr R.J Marsters (the secretary) and ‘Robin Hood’ of the ‘Football News’.
The Express story continues:
‘’Just before the train departed Mr R.J Marsters, on behalf of the officials and players, handed the trio large packets of tobacco and cigarettes. Characteristic of the club’s kindly consideration of its staff, it has undertaken to make ample provision for the departed players’ families in their absence.’’
Presumably the other Forest players were aware that some of them would follow the same path before long.
While in the wider context of global conflict the fate of Nottingham Forest and English football was not of the utmost importance there was a desire for the sport to continue to some extent. Football, it was felt by those at the top of the game and in government, would help maintain morale amongst the public.
Inevitably the continuation of the football season was not without severe disruption. The Nottingham Journal revealed on 6th August that Forest were actively needing to fill gaps in their squad created by the departure of players to the military:
‘’…arrangements have already been made with several young fellows of promise to have trials.’’
Forest also had to face up to financial implications forced upon them, particularly with obligations to donate to the war effort. On 26th August The Nottingham Daily Express advised of a final practice match between the squad at 6pm that evening with gate receipts being gifted to the War Relief Effort.
The weeks and months passed and war gripped hold. The casualties mounted and the need for men to fight intensified. Some resentment began to stir towards professional footballers that continued to play and not join up.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was vocal on the subject:
‘’If a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle’’
On December 12th the 17th Service Batallion of the Middlesex Regiment was formed. It was more popularly referred to as the Footballers Batallion. Its purpose was to promote enrolment from professional footballers and by March 1915 it had signed up 122 individuals from the football world.
One of those was a centre half named Joe Mercer.
Mercer had joined Forest from Ellesmere Port in 1910 and was a regular in defence. He had already made 29 appearances that season when he decided to join up to the Footballers Batallion. That 29th appearance was his 150th in total for the Garibaldi Red. It would also be his last.
Forest lost many of their established first team to the war. Sadly their reserved and younger players were also drawn into the fight.
George Hazard was from Radford. He had played in the reserve side at Forest since he was a teenager and, like William Fiske, was an army reservist. After the outbreak of war he was soon enlisted to the 2nd Batallion of the Sherwood Foresters regiment.
Hazard was killed in action in February 1915 aged just 23. It is thought he met his end in the fields of Flanders.
While all of the men who fought and died had their lives cut tragically short the example of Hazard demonstrates how young men of such promise were cut down before their potential was ever truly realised. George Hazard never made an appearance for the Forest first team – war robbed him of that opportunity.
The loss to Nottingham Forest was considerable but it mattered little in light of the loss endured by his family and friends. And they were not alone.
William Fiske reached the rank of sergeant. He did finally make his long awaited debut for Forest while home on leave. In total he made five appearances including two against Derby County.
He was killed on May 27th 1918 during the Battle of Aisne, one of the final large counter offensives by the German army. Fiske’s obituary tells the following about his death:
‘’The German attack had cut through the British front and pushed it back for forty miles in movement unknown since the trenches were first dug. The British orders were to retreat but the barrage laid down by the Germans was a deadly one.
With his platoon surrounded, (Fiske) rolled up his shirt sleeves and went over the top. No identifiable part of the cat-like goalkeeper’s body has ever been found.’’
Joe Mercer did survive the war but at a cost. A German gas attack inflicted on his company led to severe respiratory problems. Mercer is recorded as a Forest player until after the war but it is not thought he featured again for them. He returned briefly to Ellesmere Port and later made fifteen appearances for Tranmere Rovers.
Mercer finally succumbed to illness brought on by the exposure to gas in wartime in 1927. He died aged 36.
In the same month the Britain entered the war back in August 1914, the Mercer’s welcomed a son into their family. Joe Mercer Jnr followed his father into professional football and gained great recognition during his time as a player with Everton and Arsenal. He subsequently managed numerous clubs and had a seven game spell in charge of the England national team in 1974 after the resignation of Alf Ramsey.
The Second World War 1939-145
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 was an even more perilous time for Forest. The club experienced a major financial crisis primarily created by the onset of war.
Forest, at one stage, became very close to not existing. H.R Cobbin was the Club Chairman and had been since 1920. Prior to that he was a committee member since 1912 – he had stood on the platform in 1914 and waved the trio of Fiske, Bell and Firth off to war.
Cobbin, unbeknown to his colleagues, wrote a large cheque in 1939 that rescued Nottingham Forest from closure.
The Forest manager, Billy Walker, witnessed his side decimated by war and the financial situation. In 1947 he wrote:
‘’…although things looked very black, the committee decided they owed it to the boys who were going to war, and as a means of keeping up morale, to carry on.’’
Aside from a three season spell at the top level in the 1920’s Forest had remained a Second Division side since the First World War. While hardship lay ahead Walker acknowledged that there was an opportunity to rebuild the team during the break in scheduled league action.
Walker pioneered a Colts network that aimed to source and develop promising local talent. This strategy not only helped sustain the club but pushed it forward at a time when the usual league structure was abandoned during wartime.
As had occurred in 1914/15 established Forest players were enlisted and left to fight abroad. In his book, The Official History of the Original Reds, Don Wright regales a story from 2011 when a woman wrote to Forest enquiring about a man that had served with her grandfather:
‘’Shortly before he died last year my grandfather wrote his memoirs, including his experiences serving in the West Yorkshire regiment in the Second World War. He described an incident in May / June 1940 in which his company was fired upon by German Stuka planes, injuring the colleague next to him who later died from his wounds.
According to grandpa’s account, this man was a professional footballer for Nottingham Forest and one of the injuries he sustained was his foot being sliced off by a piece of shrapnel.
My grandpa wrote that he wished he could remember the brave man’s name but that, with the passage of time, he could not. ‘’
Don Wright is also the club historian and was able to identify the man in question as Samuel Grenville Roberts. Roberts was an inside-right who was only twenty-years old when he was fatally wounded on 3rd June 1940 during the evacuation of Dunkirk. He appeared for Forest a total of six times having signed in 1937 from Huthwaite Colliery.
In his book, Wright also explains that centre-forward Harry Race was killed in Africa in 1942. Race had played 124 times for Forest scoring 30 goals.
Like with George Hazard in WWI Forest also lost young reserve players. Joe Crofts, Alf Moult and Frank Johnson were all killed in action.
A mainstay of the 1930’s was goalkeeper Percy Ashton. He joined Forest in 1930 and made 179 appearances. He bid farewell in 1939 after the outbreak of war to join the armed forces.
Ashton never played professionally again although did have a period with Grantham Road after the war. He died in 1985 aged 76.
A long time team mate of Ashton’s was Tom Peacock. An inside left who played 109 times for Forest finding the net 57 times. A small number of these appearances were gained after 1939 when Peacock returned home on leave from the RAF.
In a strange twist the war perhaps prolonged Peacock’s Forest career. On 4th May 1939, just a few months before the Second World War began; the Nottingham Evening Post revealed that Peacock was being made available for transfer. Commenting on the names included on the ‘open to transfer’ list the Post wrote:
‘’There are no surprises although there must inevitably be a feeling of regret that the time has come to say good-bye to Peacock who, until his cartilage trouble the other year, was one of the most promising inside forwards the club had found since the days of Charlie Jones.’’
Having featured on occasions during the conflict as a ‘guest’ player, Peacock made his return after the end of hostilities for Forest in a game against Derby at the Baseball Ground. It would also be his final appearance. Peacock retired and became Headmaster at the St Edmunds CoE Primary School in Mansfield Woodhouse.
The men referenced here in relation to both World Wars are not the only individuals to have played for Forest and fought. There are certainly many others who are equally deserving of praise and our collective thanks. As, of course, are all who served.
Those who continued to play should also not be forgotten. In the very darkest days for the country the ability to watch football and, as explained, return from action to play would have surely had a not insignificant impact on morale.
These men are worthy of our recognition. They did not necessarily lift Nottingham Forest to great triumphs but theirs was the greatest sacrifice. War blighted their football career and often brought it to a premature end. Those less fortunate paid with their lives. Here’s to every last one them.
When you wear the shirt, remember what they did.
Epilogue: Beyond the World Wars
Since 1945 there has thankfully not been a need for Forest players to enlist and fight. Yet the service to the armed forces had continued from within the fanbase. Within the services the club are incredibly well represented by a multitude of brave men and women. Remembrance Day we should keep in mind represents a wider scope than those heroic souls who fought against tyranny in the two world wars.
Neil Wagstaff is concluding 40 years of service in the Royal Navy where has progressed from 16 year old recruit through to Captain:
‘’Throughout the 40 years and for several years before I have seen Forest wherever and whenever my duties have allowed. On our numerous trips to Wembley in the 80’s and 90’s the only ones I missed were the three defeats. In 1991 having secured a ticket to the final I was sent to Iraq and ended up listening to the game on World Service radio.’’
The Sherwood Foresters are one of the most prominent local regiments and it was the unit with whom George Hazard fought and died in World War One. It is likely there will be other Forest players too and certainly numerous Forest supporters who have served within it. The Sherwood Foresters were later merged with other units to form the Mercian Regiment.
Ninety four years after Hazard’s untimely death, a Forest supporter named Kieron Hill who served in the Mercian was killed in Afghanistan. He was twenty years old.
Following his death the Ministry of Defence described Hill, whose brother was part of the Forest academy at the time, as an ‘ardent’ Forest supporter.
His commanding officer, Simon Banton, added:
‘’His twin passions were the Mercian Regiment and Nottingham Forest Football Club.’’
Rather aptly considering Saturday’s fixture, the Sherwood Foresters represented the Notts and Derby region. As part of it, Reds and Rams have served side by side for generations and with distinction. And they still do today in the Mercian.
Former Derby player Bernard Vann was an officer in the Sherwood Foresters during the First World War. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during the 1915 Battle of Loos. He was given command of his own company and later awarded the Victoria Cross in 1918. It was a medal he would never receive as he was killed less than a week later.
This Remembrance Day we should give all of these individuals a moment of thought.
William Fiske climbing out of the trench in France and dashing towards the German line never to be seen again. George Hazard, a Radford lad, falling into the Belgian mud not much more than a boy and a long way from home. Samuel Roberts cut down at Dunkirk during one of the pivotal moments of the Second World War. And Kieron Hill, the biggest of Forest fans, no longer able to stand beside us on the terraces.
We must remember them.
We will remember them.