Richard McFadden and his best friend, Willie Jonas, stood in the cold, lice-infested trench, waiting for the command. When it came, they looked at each other. It would be for the last time.
“Goodbye, Mac,” said Willie. “Best of luck, love to my wife and best regards to the lads at Orient.” And then he was gone. Jonas was killed almost instantly, one of the thousands of casualties of the brutal Battle of the Somme.
“Before I could reply he was up and over,” McFadden wrote in a letter to Leyton Orient. “No sooner had he jumped up out of the trench, my best friend of nearly 20 years was killed before my eyes. Words cannot express my feelings.”
McFadden and Jonas had been friends since childhood. The former had moved to Blyth – a mining town in Northumberland – with his family and the two boys met at school. There was an instant connection, one that would endure for two decades. But it was snuffed out in a moment, by a burst of gunfire.
Both had a clear talent for football from a young age. McFadden, in particular, had an eye-catching knack for scoring goals. Born in 1889, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, he played for Blyth Spartans and Wallsend Park Villa, before his eventual move to Leyton Orient in 1911. It did not take him long to establish himself as a popular figure at the club.
“He is rather short for a forward, yet sturdily built,” wrote the-then football editor of the Daily Express, “and he certainly knows how to make the best of his weight. A very tricky player. I hope we see a lot more of him.”
Perhaps his most famous goal came against Arsenal in 1914, just two months before the start of the First World War. By then he had persuaded the club to sign his lifelong friend and fellow striker Jonas. The two were admired for their goalscoring exploits on the pitch, and for their endearing personalities off it.
There were countless stories of McFadden’s willingness to help others: it was said he once dragged a man from a burning building, saving his life; at Orient he rescued two young children who were struggling in the River Lea; and two weeks later he pulled another boy out of a burning building. He was, by all accounts, something of a hero.
His reputation was further enhanced when, along with 10 of his Orient teammates, he signed up to join the 17th Middlesex Regiment and headed off to war. Like so many other young men, he did not return.
McFadden was joined by Jonas, defender George Scott, goalkeeper Jimmy Hugall and the club captain, Fred Parker – who was nicknamed ‘Spider’. For Leyton Orient, the war would have a tragic and indelible impact.
McFadden, typically, acted with great courage on the battlefield. During the Battle of the Somme he was often seen venturing into no man’s land to help wounded soldiers. Such fearlessness saw him awarded a medal for ‘Bravery in the Field’.
Shortly after Jonas’s death, McFadden was fatally wounded by a shell blast. By the time Orient received his letter, in November 1916, he had died in a field hospital in Couin. He was 26 years old.
The battle resulted in the deaths of three Orient players: McFadden, Jonas and Scott. Hugall, the team’s goalkeeper, survived but was severely wounded. Still, he continued his playing career until his death in 1927.
Parker, or ‘Spider’ as he was known to his teammates, also survived. “Mac feared nothing,” he later wrote of McFadden. “All the boys are going to visit his grave as soon as they get a chance. We have had a splendid cross made for him with a football at the top of it; but that will not bring him back. No one will miss him like I do – we were always together.”
Other clubs in England paid their respects to the fallen players. Arsenal, who had been on the end of a McFadden masterclass only two years earlier, wrote in their official programme: “Orient have our deepest sympathy in the loss of that grand little player. McFadden died like the little hero he was, and his name will be writ largely in the records of the all sacrificing deeds of the men who have played the Greatest Game to the very last. In civil life they were heroes and they proved themselves heroes on the battlefield. Brave men and a very brave football club.”
There is a memorial in the northern French village of Flers which commemorates the lives of McFadden and Jonas. Orient fans raised £15,000 to make it possible.
One hundred years on from the end of the First World War, he and his team-mates have not been forgotten. Their legacy lives on at Leyton Orient.
(Callum Rice-Coates of thesetpieces.com).
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