On 28th July 2014, the world was forced to come to terms with the fact that the outbreak of the First World War had, for the foreseeable future, become an event that occurred 100+ years ago, the distance between 'then' and 'now' no longer measured in decades but in centuries.
On Saturday 11th November 2017, Tranmere Rovers will take to the field at Prenton Park to play a National League fixture against Dagenham and Redbridge, 99 years after the cessation of the hostilities of the First World War on the same date in 1918 and 72 years, 2 months and 9 days removed from the end of the Second World War.
After that date, we will have entered the final 12 months of the first century post-World War One and the countdown to the 11th November 2018, at which point the 'Great War' in its entirety will become more than 100 years old, will have begun.
As we approach that landmark occasion, it is important to strengthen our resolve in ensuring the sacrifices of those burdened with the responsibility of representing their friends and families on the fields of battle are never forgotten.
Naturally, this is an ever-enduring weight that is passed from generation to generation, threat to threat, location to location. From the fields of the Somme to the deserts of the Middle East, the Wirral, much like most of the country, sends some of its numbers to fight, and much too often die, in service of the majority.
Whilst those involved in conflicts fresh in living memory are often survived by friends and family who can give first-hand accounts of their lives and their story, sacrifices viewed through the increasingly-distant eyes of history are, understandably, pieced together by future generations using the information available to them.
In the pursuit of understanding and the goal of remembering the sacrifices made in WWI and WWII by Tranmere Rovers players, I have scoured old programmes, referred to the book (Tranmere Rovers — The Complete Record) and various other sources to bring to you some insight into the sacrifices made by those who also donned a Tranmere Rovers shirt, either before or after their service.
First World War
Unfortunately, there is very little information relating to those who took up arms during the First World War. There are, however, snippets of information that shed valuable light upon the types of situations facing players and former players of Tranmere Rovers during the world's first truly global conflict.
Please find below the details of Tranmere Rovers connections to the First World War:
George Devaney — DIED, 4th November 1916. A goalkeeper who joined Rovers in 1911, he was killed in the Somme Offensive just weeks after joining the frontline.
Thomas McNaught — DIED, 14th March 1915. Hit on the head whilst carrying bandages to an injured comrade.
Jack Ellis — INJURED. During invasion of Gallipoli at Sulva Bay in 1915.
Johnny Campbell — INJURED. Shot in head near Cambrai, France, 1918. Played in almost 250 matches until 1929, however the bullet was never removed!
Ralph Holden — INJURED. Weeks before end of the war, lost his leg during fighting in France. The former Rovers captain had a testimonial in 1919 and a crowd of 5000 raised a reported £450 in his honour.
Billy Fenner — INJURED. Details unknown.
Joe Mercer Senior — CAPTURED. Spent two years in a prisoner of war camp before returning to make 36 further appearances for Tranmere. Left Rovers in 1921 and sadly died in 1927 in his mid-thirties, reportedly spending time in a sanatorium before his passing.
Joined Tranmere Rovers after the war:
1919 — Tom Stuart
1920 — William Rainford, Arthur Sugden
Second World War
In November 1944, the Birkenhead Advertiser reported 140 players with Tranmere connections had served during World War Two. It would be impossible to detail each one of their stories with the requisite level of detail, so please find below the information surrounding the 9 Rovers players who made the ultimate sacrifice:
Ernest Davies — 91 appearances, including 46 during his army training. Initially of Cheshire Regiment, transferred to 1st Battalion, King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) in 1941 as Corporal Davies. Served in North Africa, where he earned an Africa Star. DIED 17th August 1942 when HMT Princess Marguerite was torpedoed whilst leaving Port Said, Egypt.
Stanley Holbrook Docking — Signed in May 1938 for £1,100 (from Newcastle United), he was top-scorer in 1938-39 season with 7 goals in 31 appearances. Released after a season, Stanley briefly joined Hartlepools United before enlisting in the RAF. DIED 27th May 1940 due to septicaemia contracted whilst on leave at Newcastle Infirmary.
Stanley Douglas Duff — Joined Rovers in May 1937 and played 8 First XI matches, scoring 3 goals, including one in the Club's biggest ever senior win, a 13-0 victory over Nantwich in April 1938. Left that summer and went on to make appearances for Waterford, Chester and New Brighton before joining the RAF as a wireless operator. DIED 9th September 1941 after a plane crash at Ballacregga Farm on the Ilse of Man.
Stanley Herbert Gooding — 15-year-old Stanley was killed after a Luftwaffe air-raid on Birkenhead on 13th March 1941. The strike on his home at 318 Laird Street took the lives of both Stanley and his older sister, Florence, who was 27-years-old. Despite his age, circumstances dictated that he had already had a brief spell with Rovers before his passing in 1941.
Kenneth Haimes — Little is known about Kenneth due to contemporary circumstances, but it is believed he passed away during the Second World War. Records show he was registered at the Club between the 1940-41 and 1944-45 seasons and he is included in the Football League's register with an annotation of “Killed in Action”.
John Kearns — Joined in February 1938, immediately suffering a serious injury but came back to represent Tranmere 22 times during 1938-39, scoring his only First XI goal on 29th April 1939. An army reservist, Kearns was called up in August 1939 and he went to France with the British Expeditionary Force. He was evacuated from Dunkirk and continued to serve, becoming Bombardier Kearns before his death on 14th February 1945 due to an accidental grenade explosion at the Royal Artillery's Proof and Experimental Establishment in Eskmeals, Cumberland.
Gerald Stanley Roberts — Joined Rovers in 1929 and made two First XI appearances during the 1932-33 season. Stayed on the books as an amateur until 1936. Joined the army in 1941 and progressed to rank of Sergeant Roberts. He was involved in the D-Day landings in June 1944 as a commander of a Sherman tank with the 144th (8th Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment) Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps. He continued in the battles surrounding Caen, France, but was killed on 16th July 1944 when his tank was hit by a shell close to the village of Noyers.
Gordon Rosenthal — Brother of former Rovers players Abe and Leslie Rosenthal, Gordon signed for Rovers in November 1937 before turning professional in July 1939. He made no First XI appearances, just friendlies, before joining RAF. Went to USA for training, earning both RAF and American 'wings'. Pilot Sergeant Rosenthal returned and played one match for the Tranmere First XI, a derby against New Brighton on 4th April 1942. Posted to RAF Hawarden, on 10 August 1942 he took a Spitfire on a training flight, however the engine stalled and he crashed into the River Dee, sadly drowning.
John George 'Jack' Watson — Signed for Rovers in December 1930 as an amateur and stayed registered on the books until 1937, moved to South Liverpool and Chester and represented Cheshire whilst registered to Tranmere. He served in the Royal Artillery as Captain Watson from 1940 until 1944. When in Cairo, he transferred to the 1st Battalion, The London Scottish, The Gordon Highlanders for the Italian campaign. He was killed on 9th September 1944 after the company headquarters was hit by a point-blank strike from a self-propelled high velocity gun during a battle to retain a ridge at Il Palazzo.
As the home to Cammell Laird shipyard, Birkenhead and the Wirral were amongst the worst-affected areas from air strikes aimed at damaging the British war effort. The lists of sacrifices previously referenced highlight the fact that every person living in the area at the time made some element of sacrifice and endured an element of loss, from friends and family to homes and childhoods.
Just A Game
This article has made specific reference to those Tranmere players captured, injured or killed through the course of the First and Second World Wars, but it would be remiss to overlook the contributions made by those with connections to Tranmere Rovers in subsequent conflicts.
Although the scale of the devastation of the World Wars makes them the focus of the majority of remembrance at this time of year, it is important to recognise the sacrifices made, and that continue to be made, by the fans and friends of Tranmere Rovers, most of whom have never stepped out in the line-up, yet take a Tranmere-laden heart into the line of duty.
On 11th November 2017, when Dagenham and Redbridge come to town for a 'battle' between potential promotion rivals, it's perhaps incumbent upon all of the SWA to take a moment to remember the sacrifices of those such as George Devaney and Stanley Herbert Gooding. To recognise, as the Club itself is doing with special entry prices for current and veteran service personnel, that without their bravery on the battlefield, there would be no 'fight' on the football field.
We will remember them.
We must remember them.