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Page last updated at 16:19 GMT, Tuesday, 15 July 2008 17:19 UK

Day to remember for Orient fans

By Chris Slegg

Leyton Orient

The hype surrounding football these days makes heroes of players all too easily. But the Leyton Orient team of 1914/15 were exactly that.

Clapton Orient, as they were then known, were the first Football League team to enlist en masse to serve King and country. All 41 players and staff signed up to fight, a move that inspired other teams to follow suit.

And it was to the battlefields of northern France that they were posted. There they found themselves embroiled in one of the bloodiest military operations of all time.

The Battle of the Somme raged between 1 July and 18 November 1916 and resulted in almost 1.5m casualties. On the first day of fighting alone the British lost close to 20,000 men with nearly 40,000 more wounded.

Thirteen Orient players were wounded in battle while three lost their lives: Privates William Jonas and George Scott and Company Sergeant Major Richard McFadden. Only Scott had survived beyond his 30th birthday.

This weekend no less than 183 O's fans gathered outside the Matchroom Stadium at 0600 BST on Saturday to travel to France and visit the final resting places of each of the three players.

At each site bugles and bagpipes were played to honour the men while poems were read and wreaths were laid.

They were human beings, young lads who were actually brave enough to make the choice to go and fight in the cruellest conditions for their country and for our freedom

Orient fan

"We're a small club but we've got a big heart," deputy chairman of the O's Supporters' Club Steve Jenkins said as the four coach loads of fans arrived at the Thiepval Memorial.

"It's fantastic that so many fans have made the effort to come here and pay their respects to the players who gave up their lives."

William Jonas was one of 73,000 men whose bodies were never found. Unable to be afforded the dignity of a known grave, their names are instead inscribed on the towering Thiepval Memorial.

The centre-forward was just 26 when he met his end on the 27th day of the Battle of the Somme. McFadden wrote to the club to report the death: "Willie turned to me and said goodbye Mac," he wrote.

Interview: Steve Jenkins from the Leyton Orient Supporters Group

"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 out of the trench, my best friend of nearly 20 years was killed before my eyes."

As a prolific goalscorer McFadden, himself just 27 when he died of his wounds in October, was an Orient legend. He had already come to wider public recognition for saving the life of a drowning boy he pulled from the River Lea in 1912.

"I'd read the story of these boys," said one fan on the trip. "But being here, seeing the graves and the names etched in stone makes them real people again. It somehow brings them to life.

"They were human beings, young lads who were actually brave enough to make the choice to go and fight in the cruellest conditions for their country and for our freedom."

Many football clubs lost players in the war, but what makes Orient's story impressive is that they led the way in signing up together.

They did so at a time when many frowned on professional sportsmen, wondering whether it was right that football should still be played in the midst of all the fighting.

Football was suspended after the 1914/15 season after the outbreak of the First World War and when it resumed in 1919 Orient had suffered greatly.

"Orient were on a par with Arsenal and Tottenham before the war," said Jenkins. "But with Arsenal moving north of the river from Woolwich the population couldn't sustain three clubs of that size and the impact of the war took its toll."

Orient may not have had the success of their north London neighbours in the intervening years but perhaps the measure of a club's greatness is not in the trophies it wins but in what it gives to its people. There is no denying Orient's was the ultimate sacrifice.

see also
Orient keen to sign left winger
04 Jul 08 |  Leyton Orient
Orient complete triple capture
02 Jul 08 |  Leyton Orient
Darlington sign defender Fortune
28 Jun 08 |  Darlington

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