top of page
  • Ednold

Clapton in the Trenches 3/8/20

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

If you were expecting a review of the latest Eric Clapton album I’m sorry to disappoint you. And if you aren’t a soccer* fan I encourage you to keep reading even through the soccery parts; you just may like the story all the same.

*Or football, as I will refer to it from this point on since that’s the term those nutty Brits use for a game where you kick the ball around the field with your feet. They are so silly.

In 1881 the members of the Glyn Cricket Club decided to try playing a different sport. Maybe they just weren’t very good at cricket. I don’t know why, but in that year they decided to form a football team. That team is still around and since 1987 they have been known as Leyton Orient, but this story begins long before then. In the late 1800’s they took the name of their London neighborhood, Clapton, and combined it with the name of one of their player’s employers, The Orient Steam Navigation Co., and became known as Clapton Orient.

As an interesting side note, Clapton Orient also had a baseball team for at least a while. They were national champions in 1907 and 1909 and won the British Cup in 1908. British baseball apparently never really took off but in the early days when the game was trying to be established, Clapton was a baseball hotbed.

Though they have changed their name more than once, Leyton Orient, or The O’s, as their fans call them, are the second oldest professional football team in London behind only Fulham. It may be difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when Orient were one of the Big Boys of the Big City. Even over a hundred years ago they had to contend with Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham and in 1912 they won the London Challenge Cup as the best team in town. They were the first team to host a member of the royal family at a Football League match. Had things been a little different, they might be a global powerhouse today and it may have been one of those other teams clashing with the likes of Macclesfield and Grimsby Town down in League Two* in 2020. So what happened? Why are they now more than a century removed from their greatest successes? Why are little kids in little Leyton Orient jerseys so outnumbered by those in Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City jerseys now?

  • *The English Football League is divided into four divisions with the 20 best teams playing against each other in the top division, the Premier League. League Two is the lowest of the four divisions. At the end of each season a few of the top teams earn promotion to the division above while a few of the worst are booted to the division below. With the movement up and down the ladder each year the teams in each division change from season to season. Very un-American but SO much more interesting.

Just some of the teams in Orient's crowded London football neighborhood
Just some of the teams in Orient's crowded London football neighborhood

Today, Leyton Orient’s Breyer Group Stadium, still known affectionately to some as simply Brisbane Road, lies in the London borough of Waltham Forest, a stone’s throw (if you’re a Crouser) pretty much due north of the 2012 Olympic Stadium now home to West Ham United. Perhaps five miles or so to the northwest is White Hart Lane, the huge shiny new home of Tottenham Hotspur. About the same distance west you’ll find the massive Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal. Why would a little team like Orient have wedged themselves in amongst such competition? Simply put; they didn’t. West Ham wouldn’t even enter the Football League until 1919, and even then they played their home games a few miles east of their current stadium. Tottenham was pretty much in the same place they are today but there were plenty of fans in northeast London for them to share with Orient. As a lifelong Arsenal fan I’m sad to admit that Orient’s decline can partly be attributed to Arsenal’s move from south of the Thames to north London in 1913. They began pulling fans from an area that had mostly been loyal to Orient or Tottenham until that time. Neither Tottenham nor Orient were happy about the move at the time and neither have they forgiven the intruders who have since enjoyed success that has generally eluded them both. But the decline of Orient’s fortunes had another, perhaps more influential cause.

With the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 the rise of patriotism in Britain led hundreds of thousands of men to volunteer for military service. At the same time, politicians, businessmen and sportsmen began a public debate as to the appropriateness of continuing to play football while energy and effort were required to stop the threat from Germany. The sometimes heated argument between those who saw football as a positive influence during a time of national stress and the “stoppers” who viewed the game as a bad influence on society became known as the “Football Controversy”. Even though the numbers showed that areas where football was most popular also provided the most recruits, this correlation didn’t seem to matter to the “stoppers”: They wanted professional football immediately shut down for the duration. This is where Lieutenant Colonel Sir George McCrae enters our story. McCrae, a Scotsman, had successfully raised a battalion that he would personally lead into battle. Many in his battalion were football players, with 11 men from Heart of Midlothian of Edinburgh signing up together. News of this success made its way to London just in time to convince the two sides of the “Controversy” that a compromise could be reached that would satisfy everyone.

With McCrae’s help, English football and the War Office reached a compromise that allowed the players to finish their current contracts through the end of the season with a guarantee that their teams would hire them back at the end of the war. In exchange, football would encourage recruitment of volunteers and provide a natural public relations platform for the War Office. A “Footballers’ Battalion”, officially the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, would be created so that players could serve together*, and on December 15, 1914 the first official meeting was held to kick off the formation of that battalion. The first player to step up and volunteer that night was Orient captain Fred Parker. But for a team that already had an anti-aircraft gun** and searchlight mounted on the kop*** at their stadium, just having their captain volunteer was not enough. In the ensuing weeks every single Orient player would volunteer to serve his country. Every one of them. As did two trainers and an assistant groundsman. All of them. The whole team and then some.

  • *Many similar "pals' battalions" were created for different occupations or geographic areas. Though a great recruiting tool, this also created situations where a single blast could take out an entire generation of a town's male population at once.

  • **Zeppelin attacks were not uncommon in London at the time.

  • ***To soldiers who had recently returned home from the Boer War in the early 1900’s, the steep slopes and terraces partially surrounding their teams’ fields reminded them of the Spion Kop, a hill in South Africa that was the site of a particularly bloody battle. Perhaps it goes without saying that Arsenal was the first recorded team with a “Kop” at their stadium, but many other teams had sections known to locals as “The Kop”. Though Liverpool’s is the most famous, there are still other existing kops around the league.

Professional football was suspended from 1915-1919, and many players from many teams saw action in the military before the war was over. But, as author Steve Jenkins put it, “It was only the outbreak of the First World War that prevented the O’s from achieving great things but when the call to arms was made, the Orient had responded to a man. The 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment was formed in the winter of 1914 made up entirely of footballers and football club staff from throughout the land, with supporters joining as time went on. They had volunteered by choice as individuals, but it was Clapton Orient who became the first English Football League club to volunteer its players and staff en masse.”

By the end of the war many of those Orient men would be too badly damaged to ever play football again, and three of them never came home at all. Two of those killed in action, Richard McFadden and William Jonas, had grown up together in Blyth, just north of Newcastle on the northeast coast. They were best friends and Jonas only ended up playing at Orient because of the strong recommendation he had received from McFadden. They were a pair of shifty forwards who accounted for much of the O’s scoring in the years leading up to the war. Though McFadden was the more prolific scorer, it was Jonas who was a bigger hit with the ladies. He had to have a notice printed in the game program politely requesting his female fans to stop writing to him as the amount of amorous fan mail was starting to upset his wife. Poor guy. The other man not to return from France was George Scott, a versatile player who, in less of a goal-scoring role was also a star of the team.

All three of these men were killed in the Somme in the summer and fall of 1916. Jonas was the first to fall, in July, and his best friend was right next to him when he went. The following is from a letter Richard McFadden sent soon afterward:

“Both Willie and I were trapped in a trench near to the front in Somme, France. Willie turned to me and said ‘Goodbye, Mac. Best of luck. Special love to my sweetheart Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient.’ Before I could reply to him he was up and over. No sooner had he jumped up out of the trench, my best friend of nearly twenty years was killed before my eyes. Words cannot express my feelings at this time.”

Scott would die the following month from wounds suffered while fighting in the Somme, and in October McFadden himself would follow. When you add the thirteen Orient men physically wounded in the war and the unknown number who were mentally scarred by what they had lived through, it isn’t hard to imagine the decimation of the team’s talent due to casualties suffered in the war. Orient never really recovered from their sacrifice and northeast London has been mainly Arsenal and Tottenham turf ever since.

As you may have gathered, character was not lacking on this Orient team. Take striker Richard McFadden for instance: How many of my readers have ever rescued someone from a burning building? Really? Ok, I’ll have to take your word for it. Maybe you did. But have you done it twice, on two separate occasions? Are you sure? Ok. Whatever. For the sake of argument let’s say I believe you. But did you also jump in and save a drowning boy from the River Lea just as he was about to go under? I thought not. McFadden did all of that. Which is why nobody was surprised that he made a habit of rushing out into no-man’s-land to save wounded buddies during the war. The guy was a super-hero. He should have worn a mask and a cape. An Edwardian mask and cape, whatever that may have looked like. Marvel should make a godawful movie about him. And, I almost forgot: He also scored 68 goals in 142 games for Orient before volunteering to fight for his king and country. In the prime of his career he joined up and earned promotion to Company Sarjeant Major and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery on the battlefield before being killed. But for all that he was just a man; someone who is even more inspiring because he didn’t possess any super-powers. I could argue that chances for such dramatic acts of heroism have decreased over the past century. I can complain that there just aren’t as many people stuck in burning buildings as there used to be. But the truth is that the opportunities to perform less-dramatic, everyday acts of heroism have probably multiplied during that time. How many of those have I done lately? That’s what Richard McFadden makes me think about.

After the war there was a general acknowledgement of the sacrifice the Orient team had made in service to the country. In particular, the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, attended an Orient match in 1921, making him the first royal to ever attend a Football League match and helping to legitimize the game in a way that it never had been before. Some 40,000 people who couldn’t fit inside the packed stadium gathered outside the gates to be present at the occasion. It was a very big deal. Since then the O’s have had their ups an downs. They actually reached the first division in 1962 before being sent back down the following year, and most of their time has been spent in the third or fourth divisions (today’s League One and League Two). But they have a pretty good excuse for their mediocrity. If you asked their fans today if they would forego their wartime legacy for a chance to be one of the Big Boys again I’d be interested to hear the answer. I have a feeling they’d tell you that no amount of trophies would mean as much as that decision their players made back in the day.

I don’t expect anyone to change their allegiance to their favorite team based on this one article. You have to pick and stick, as they say. But I think we can all agree that Orient is a great choice for everyone’s second-favorite. Sorry, Accrington Stanley. That knocks you down to #3 on my list and puts Scunthorpe out of the top five. For anyone keeping track, my new list is as follows:

1. Arsenal – Of course.

2. Leyton Orient – Should be clear by now why.

3. Accrington Stanley – Best name of any team anywhere and the first of many names vetoed by Mrs. Ednold when we were choosing a name for our son.

4. Crystal Palace – Making south London sound so idyllic is an accomplishment in itself.

5. Hartlepool – Best nickname in all of English football: The Monkey Hangers. Yes, you read that correctly. During the Napoleonic wars a French ship wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool and residents found the sole survivor, a pet monkey, on the beach. Having never seen a Frenchman or a monkey before, they assumed he was a French spy. After a speedy trial he was sentenced and hanged. Very no-nonsense folks in Hartlepool. Or maybe just no-sense folks. I’d like to go there someday and find out.

The O's WWI Memorial was unveiled in 2011 in Flers, France

I originally came across this story of Clapton Orient while researching my little article Roses-N-Guns. I contacted Mr. Steve Jenkins for help purchasing a copy of his book on the subject and have exchanged a few emails with him since then. Steve is Deputy Chairman of the Orient Supporter’s Club and his book, They Took The Lead, is wonderful and I highly recommend it. Over the past several years supporters of Leyton Orient have worked diligently to uncover the facts surrounding the team’s mass enlistment during the Great War. Mr. Jenkins has worked with many others to recognize those men and has been able to track down some of their descendants, many of whom had little idea of what their forefathers had been a part of. He has also been instrumental in the planning and fundraising to have memorials erected for the team both in London and in France. The historical information above is the product of his research over many years and the pictures are his also, used with his permission. If there are any inaccuracies in the facts in this story, they are my mistakes and not his. It has been a privilege to have Steve encourage me to share this story with you. He also has a day job and a family and the fact that he has been willing to personally respond to the requests of an amateur blogger on the other side of the world who has a few dozen readers is humbling. He even invited me to an O’s match next time I’m in London. I’ve already started casing local financial institutions and am currently looking for a few stealthy accomplices: Experience preferred and a fast car is a plus. I think The Bucket’s getaway days were over long ago.

It’s hard to do this story justice in such a short article, and if you’d like to learn more about the O’s or the Footballer’s Battalion or would like a copy of Steve’s book, and are great places to start.

74 views3 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Gil Stewart
Gil Stewart
Mar 08, 2020

This is some story, Marc. I don't know much about soccer but your story made me wish I did.

You did a wonderful job in the telling. I'm sure the author of the book thinks so too. I'm glad to hear that you plan to visit him sometime in the future. Mom


Gil Stewart
Gil Stewart
Mar 08, 2020

Great story....with some first rate research. It would doubtlessly have earned all five stars except for the unsubtle swipes at my Tottenham lads.

I can only guess they too could have been as heroic and patriotic as the brave O's. If only that quaint old pub had not been right next door to the enlistment office. Sadly, by the time those Hotspur warriors emerged from their "one last pint" no army in the world would take. them.

As if you needed another excuse to revisit Charley George country.


Terry Stewart
Terry Stewart
Mar 08, 2020

Wow, what a team. Since I've never really had a team I think I'll adopt the O's.

bottom of page