Story by Steven Morris for The Telegraph, March 10, 2011:
A leather football that British soldiers dribbled through no man’s land while coming under machine-gun fire during a first world war battle has been saved for posterity after being discovered in an old box.
Members of the London Irish Rifles soccer team smuggled the ball out of their own trenches – against orders – during the battle of Loos in 1915 and passed it among themselves, determined to boot it into the German lines.
They didn’t make it and the ball ended up pierced on barbed wire. It was retrieved from the battlefield, displayed for a while at the regimental museum and eventually stored in a container, forgotten and in danger of perishing.
The ball has now been conserved by experts and is to go back on display this weekend at the regimental museum in Camberwell, south-east London.
Nigel Wilkinson, vice-chairman of the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association, said the soldiers originally had six balls that they planned to take with them into no man’s land but their commanding officer shot five of them when he heard what was being planned.
The sixth was stuffed up the tunic of the team captain, Private Frank Edwards, who inflated it as he prepared to charge from the British trench.
As the whistle for the “big push” sounded, Edwards booted the ball out. It was passed around before it ended up being pierced on barbed wire on the German frontline.
Wilkinson said: “The London Irish had a first-class football team and they were keen to score a goal in Jerry’s frontline trenches. One of the platoon commanders thought that this was a bad idea and just before the whistles blew for the attack he went round puncturing all those that he could find.
“A deflated ball was concealed under Private Edwards’s tunic and reinflated. Defying orders, the London Irish kicked off the big push by punting the football into no man’s land and went hell for leather after it.”
Edwards was said to have dribbled the ball for 20 metres before he went down injured when he was shot through the thigh.
In the battalion’s record, it was noted that the men were seen to pass and repass the ball until they disappeared in a smoke cloud towards the German frontline. Another soldier wrote that the men cried out “On the ball, London Irish” as they advanced.
Wilkinson said the ball had not been lost – but had been neglected. “It was in a very poor condition and was at risk of disintegrating into dust,” he said.
The episode is reminiscent of stories of British and German soldiers taking part in kickabouts in no man’s land during brief truces.
Edwards’s granddaughter, Susan Harris, said: “I remember my grandfather very well and remember his love of football. His story is one that has been forgotten about, so I’m delighted that his ball has been conserved for the future.”
Yvette Fletcher, head of conservation at the Leather Conservation Centre in Northampton, where the ball was restored, said: “It came to us in quite a bad state. There were a lot of tears in the leather which was very weak and we were concerned that it would fall apart. There is still the rudimentary stitching on the ball from where it was repaired having been cut on the barbed wire. It is still very fragile, which is not surprising as it has been through the first world war.”