THE TEAM THAT SURVIVED THE GREAT WAR

BY ED CHURCH (Nov 2020)

Even for a club whose early decades were so illustrious, there is something special about the Aston Villa side that lifted the FA Cup in 1913. The fact that all eleven players would go on to survive the First World War is remarkable enough. That so many would still be teammates when Villa repeated the feat in 1920 even more so. But, behind the bare facts, there is an asterisk. Aston Villa’s 1913 FA Cup winners were the team that survived the war… kind of.

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It was spring-heeled forward Joe Bache who led the side out in front of 121,000 fans for the 1913 showcase (the brave hordes in tree tops around Crystal Palace going uncounted). Opponents Sunderland were on their way to the league title. Villa to second place. These were the contests Bache had been relishing since joining Villa, way back in the reign of Queen Victoria. 

In more recent years, Bache’s goal threat had been supplemented by the even more prolific Harry Hampton. A cartoonist’s dream (his eyebrows were as notable as his strike rate) Hampton was soon looking to repeat his match-winning exploits of the 1905 final, only for a linesman’s flag to have other ideas – his first-half volley ruled out for offside.

If Bache and Hampton were the biggest names of the Villa frontline, in Clem Stephenson they had a teammate whose touch and vision made a mockery of the heavy boots and footballs of the day. In the same spell of dominance as Hampton’s disallowed goal, Stephenson slalomed into the Sunderland box before being crudely hacked down: penalty Villa. But when outside-right Charlie Wallace blasted well wide, the scores stayed locked at 0-0.

While Aston Villa were misfiring at one end, they were at least in safe hands at the other. Lean and agile, goalkeeper ‘Silent’ Sam Hardy was a different breed to the man-mountain Billy George he had succeeded (and the first keeper to truly embrace coming out to narrow the angles – something that frustrated Sunderland more than once). Only when Hardy was hurt and centre-half Jim Harrop took over did panic briefly ensue, full-backs Tommy Weston and Tom Lyons throwing themselves into a number of last-ditch tackles and goal-line clearances. In an age before substitutes, Hardy’s knee was soon strapped up and normal service resumed.

With the game scoreless going deep into the second half, one Villa player had reason to be relaxed about the outcome. Harry Hampton had experienced a strangely vivid dream the previous night – one in which Villa triumphed 1-0 with a goal from the not-so-likely source of half-back Tommy Barber. Hampton was even happy to tease Sunderland players with his “vision” of how the game would be won.

In the 78th minute, Charlie Wallace ventured forward, seeking to make amends for his penalty miss. Earning a corner and taking it himself, he swung the ball perfectly onto the forehead of one Tommy Barber who planted his header firmly into the net – Hampton’s premonition fulfilled. As captain Joe Bache lifted the trophy, Aston Villa were FA Cup winners for a fifth time.

The following year war broke out and, at the end of the 1914-15 season, the league was shut down altogether. For four years teammates went their separate ways in service of King and Country.

Clem Stephenson and Sam Hardy joined the Royal Navy, the former as a PT instructor, the latter patrolling the English Channel and surviving a fire when HMS Opossum was hit. Charlie Wallace moved into artillery, sent to the front with an anti-aircraft battery, while tough-tackling defender Tommy Weston found himself repelling attacks of a different nature – helping stem the German offensive at St Quentin before being wounded in the fighting around Arras.

Weston recovered, and all four men were in the Aston Villa side that lined up against Huddersfield for the first post-war Cup final in 1920. Their teammates Jim Harrop and wing-half Jimmy Leach were also back at the club (both retained on the home front for specialist machine skills) though the pair missed out on selection as Villa again triumphed 1-0.       

Joe Bache was another player who went into artillery but, when football resumed, time had finally caught up with his long career in claret and blue. As the FA Cup made its way back to Birmingham, Bache was 40 years old and playing in the Welsh league. His old goalscoring buddy, Harry Hampton, was determined that the lost war years would not be the final chapter in his own Villa story, but it was an endeavour in which he was only partly successful.

Having witnessed horrific casualties and suffered a mustard gas attack while serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps, Hampton was 34 by the time he walked out at Villa Park again. Struggling to turn back the clock, he managed just seven appearances before being sold across town to second division Birmingham City. He was unable to add to his pre-war tally of 242 Villa goals. 

Harold Halse and Tom Lyons had both previously left the club – surviving the war and continuing their careers elsewhere – leaving just Tommy Barber to account for. Villa’s 1913 match-winner enlisted in the famous “Footballers’ Batallion”, coming through some of the war’s heaviest fighting before being shot in the leg at Guillemont, two months into the Somme offensive. Evacuated back home, he was then struck down by pleurisy during his convalescence.

Unfit to return to the frontline, Barber was transferred to the Labour Corps and put to work in the toxic conditions of a munitions factory (possibly the worst place for someone getting over a lung disease). While the leg was eventually strong enough to retake the football field – a nomadic few years among mainly lower league clubs – the combined effects of pleurisy and munitions work meant ill-health was never far away.

In 1925, Tommy Barber called time on his attempts to keep playing. A few months later – twelve years after fulfilling Harry Hampton’s premonition – he died of tuberculosis. 

Charlie Wallace would be the last of the team to pass away, seeing in the 1970s before joining the rest of his old teammates as Holte Enders In The Sky.

Aston Villa’s FA Cup winning side of 1913.

The team that survived the war.

Kind of.

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