On completion of the 1914-15 football season, Jimmy Speirs, Captain of Leeds City FC, exchanged the blue and gold of "the peacocks" for the uniform of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.
Jimmy returned to Glasgow, where Bessie and the children were now living at Darnley Road, Pollokshields – mid-way between Jimmy’s old house in Cathcart Road and Bessie’s former family home at Moss Side Road.
On 17 May 1915 Jimmy reported to a Glasgow recruiting office and volunteered to enlist.
Conscription was still over a year away, and even then, Jimmy would have been exempted on the grounds of being married with two young children.
Son Jimmy was just seven years old, whilst daughter Elizabeth was not yet three years of age.
Jimmy's attestation/enlistment papers - courtesy of the National Archives (WO reference 363) - enlarge left / right
Jimmy was examined and passed fit by Dr William Hansen, took the oath, and was approved by Captain W Ross for appointment to the Cameron Highlanders. There had always been confusion as to the spelling of Jimmy’s surname and, unfortunately, the British Army got it wrong….Spiers (not the correct Speirs) being the spelling which they adopted.
At twenty-nine years and two months old, Private S/18170 Speirs (left, click to enlarge) was older than most of his fellow recruits to the Cameron Highlanders at that time. Standing 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weighing 11 stone 8 pounds on enlisting, he was also above average height for the time and must have cut an imposing figure in his uniform.
A week after enlisting, on 22 May 1915, Jimmy was posted to the 3rd Battalion for training. This was a reserve Battalion which supplied troops to the Battalions in action overseas.
Jimmy's leadership qualities had already been evidenced in his football career, and on 29 July 1915 it appears that the military authorities also recognised these strengths - Jimmy being promoted to (unpaid) Lance Corporal.
Unfortunately, heavy casualties at the front meant that men from the reserve Battalion were soon posted overseas, and on 29 March 1916 Jimmy left Scotland to join the 7th Battalion of the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, "somewhere in France".
The 7th Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders was part of the 44th Brigade, attached to the 15th (Scottish) Division. The Division was formed at Aldershot in September 1914 as part of the "Second New Army", and arrived in France in July 1915. The Division served in France and Flanders until the Armistice.
On 19 July 1916, just a year after being appointed an unpaid Lance Corporal, and a few months after joining the 7th Battalion in France, Jimmy Speirs was officially promoted to Corporal.
The Battalion’s optimum strength was around 15 Officers and 600 "other ranks", but the level of casualties saw a great turnover (and occasional shortages) in the numbers. The Battalion’s War Diary does not name individual casualties from the "other ranks", but a newspaper report suggested that Jimmy "…was wounded in the heavy fighting of Autumn 1916, but was not fortunate enough to be sent to a home hospital. He rejoined his Regiment after convalescence".
Jimmy's service record (right - click to view) details "g.s.w. elbow L 8.9.16".
"g.s.w." was the abbreviation for gunshot wounds (but it was also used for shrapnel injuries), so apparently Jimmy was shot, or received shrapnel wounds, to his left elbow.
On 21 November 1916 Jimmy sent a postcard (below) to wife Bessie, in Glasgow. The sentiments expressed were no doubt replicated in thousands of other cards sent back from the Front. "Until the end" is embroidered on the postcard, and Jimmy has written on the reverse "and I hope it will not be long".
In April 1917, the Battalion was involved in the Second Battle of Arras, moving out of billets at Arras and relieving the 8/10th Gordon Highlanders in the Front Line trenches on Sunday 22 April. At 10.30pm on the evening of Friday 27 April, the Battalion was in turn relieved at the front line by the 8th Seaforth Highlanders, and moved back to the support line. The following day, at 9.30 pm, the Battalion was relieved in the support line by the 3rd London Regiment and withdrew to billets at Grand Place, Arras.
The Regimental War Diary for 28 April lists the following casualties for the attack over those few days in April, the numbers being typical of other actions involving the Battalion during its time at the Front:
Went in Officers
Went in Men
Came out Officers
Came out Men
The next few days were spent burying the dead, cleaning equipment and clothing, and training. The Battalion moved to Simincourt and later to Grand Rullecourt where, over the early days of May it regrouped, and additional Officers and Other Ranks were "taken on strength".
Whilst at Grand Rullecourt on 19 May 1917, the Battalion War Diary records the Corps Commander (Lt Col Norman MacLeod, DSO) having recommended the award of Military Medals to six men – the first on the list being "S/18170 Cpl J Spiers" [sic]. Just what deed Jimmy Speirs was responsible for, to earn this award for "bravery in the field", is not recorded.
Unfortunately, the citation which would have accompanied the award of Jimmy's Military Medal has not survived. Jimmy’s honour was published in the Supplement to the London Gazette of 9 July 1917, but – as was often the case – no detail of the act of bravery was given. Jimmy's family still have the following reports from (unknown) newspapers - but again, no detail of the act is given.
"A Gallant Sergeant" reads the headline of the report (above, right), and the reporter describes Jimmy as "an old friend of mine, for whom I have always had the highest regard. Both on and off the field Jimmy Speirs is a gentleman and there are few I would place before him in this respect". The report also talks of Jimmy "a few weeks ago coming through a big engagement unscathed". This was presumably Arras.
News of Jimmy's exploits also reached his Masonic Lodge in Glasgow (see Early years & family) and the Lodge minutes* record his award being conferred for "conspicuous conduct in the field".
In the possession of Jimmy's family are two cuttings from unknown newspapers which describe actions by the Cameron Highlanders. "Fighting Camerons" (left, click to enlarge) describes how a group of Camerons captured by the Germans were liberated - "we smashed into the escort and captured the whole outfit" a Tayport sergeant is reported to have said. Instead, it was the Camerons who "roped in about 400 prisoners....capturing Camerons doesn't pay". The cutting has had the date 14 May 1917 hand-written on the reverse.
The second cutting (left, click to view) reports "Camerons in action - thrilling charge in Arras battle". This again describes how the Cameron Highlanders had succeeded in the face of "Hell's fury", aided by the striking up of the pipes in mid-battle...."sending an exultant thrill through our breasts".
The fact that one of these reports is clearly of Arras, and the other (if the date is accurate) is almost certainly concerning the Arras initiative is perhaps significant.
The existence of these reports and the timing of the award does strongly suggest that Jimmy's act of bravery in the field occurred during those few days at the end of April, at Arras.
It had been reported (see "Gallant Sergeant" above) that Jimmy was attached to a machine gun section of the Cameron Highlanders. As a Corporal in April 1917, he would have almost certainly been in charge (the "Number 1") of a Lewis Gun section.
The Lewis Gun was a light machine gun, named after its American inventor Colonel Isaac Lewis. The Gun was air-cooled, and weighed 28 lbs (12 kg) including its top-feeding circular magazine (which held 47 rounds of .303" ammunition). Its firing rate of around 550 rounds per minute compared favourably with the heavy machine guns used on the Western Front, but to achieve that rate it required skill and co-ordination in reloading the magazine.
A Lewis Gun team comprised of at least two men, with up to five employed in the team in combat operations. The "Number 1" fired the gun, the "Number 2" changed the magazine, whilst Numbers 3, 4 and 5 carried the spare magazines in special bags, whilst protecting the firing team with rifles and hand-grenades. The Lewis Gun had a wooden shoulder butt and it could be fired by a reasonably strong man whilst standing, but it was more often used in the prone position using a bipod.
The Lewis Gun team were key to any attack and there are various references to their involvement in the Arras initiative, and in particular an action near the village of Guemappe - a village in the department of the Pas-de-Calais, 800 metres south west of the main road from Arras to Cambrai.
On 23 April 1917 the 15th (Scottish) Division (of which the 7th Battalion, Queens Own Cameron Highlanders were a part) attacked Guemappe as part of a general attack on the Hindenburg Line. Jimmy's 7th Battalion assaulted Guemappe from Spear Lane trench and took their objective, although they were later forced to pull back to their original positions. The contribution of the Lewis Gun teams was apparently significant.
Citations for Officers' awards at Guemappe include Military Crosses for 2nd Lt William Lamb Muir Kay and 2nd Lt Norman Stuart Sim. Both relate to the action on 23 April 1917 and both involve the two officers maintaining strongpoints - which would have been untenable with just rifles. The only thing that kept the German troops at bay and at real distance was machine guns. This is reflected between the lines in the two MC citations.
2nd Lt W L Muir Kay's citation reads: "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When the attack was held up by machine gun fire he organised the men near him, and led them forward. He exposed himself fearlessly in moving from hole to hole. He succeeded in forming a strongpoint which he held until relieved at night". To view the citation as published in the London Gazette, click here.
2nd Lt N S Sim's citation reads: "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led his men forward to assist the advance on the right. He exposed himself fearlessly in forming a strongpoint, which he held all day. Throughout he set a splendid example under most trying conditions". To view the citation as published in the London Gazette, click here.
(The citations published in the London Gazette are Crown Copyright and have been quoted by kind permission of The National Archives. Similarly, the links to the London Gazette have been inserted with the kind permission of The National Archives).
For certain Battalion-scale actions - such as Guemappe - when Military Crosses were awarded it was almost certain that Military Medals would also be awarded. Whilst there is still a degree of conjecture and speculation, the facts do seem to suggest that Jimmy - almost certainly leading a Lewis Gun team - was awarded his Military Medal for his contribution to the action at Guemappe on 23 April, 1917.
On 1 June 1917, Cpl Speirs became acting Sgt Speirs, with Jimmy’s promotion to Sergeant being confirmed shortly afterwards.
A well-earned period of leave was then granted, and Jimmy returned to visit friends in Glasgow, Bradford and Leeds. On Monday, 2 July, Jimmy called in on old acquaintances at the Bradford Weekly Telegraph, which described him as a "welcome and unexpected visitor, looking very fit and well". Evidently, Jimmy was due to return to the Front on 7 July – it would later transpire that the build-up was now well underway for what would become the infamous Battle of Passchendaele.
Above - the Bradford Weekly Telegraph reports Jimmy's visit to Bradford (reproduced by kind permission of the Telegraph & Argus, Bradford) - click to enlarge
On 1 August 1917 Jimmy sent a postcard home to wife Bessie. The card, which he had apparently borrowed from a colleague, read "1917 Souvenir from France". His message was "and may this be the last year of the War, best love, Jimmy".
Unfortunately, for Jimmy it was indeed the last year of the War - just three weeks later he was killed in action.
Jimmy's last postcard to Bessie ? - Click front or reverse to view
At 6.30pm on the evening of Monday, 20 August 1917, the Battalion moved up to relieve the 8th Battalion Worcester Regiment at Pommern Redoubt, with a strength of 15 officers and 450 other ranks. On that date, it was reported that Jimmy had written to his wife, Bessie, to say that the men would be "going over the parapet tomorrow". (That detail conflicts by 24 hours with the War Diary, which reports "zero hour" as being 4.45 am on 22 August). In any event, that would be the last letter which Bessie would receive from Jimmy.
The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 8 September 1917 (right, click to view) reported that Bessie had heard from another Sergeant in the Regiment, to say that Jimmy had been wounded on 20 August, and was missing.
"It can only be hoped...that the popular footballer has been made a prisoner. In the meantime, the greatest sympathy will be held with Mrs Speirs in her terrible anxiety"
(reproduced by kind permission of the Telegraph & Argus, Bradford)
On 13 September, the same newspaper (right, click to view) reported that Jimmy had been "…hit in the the thigh during an advance, and managed to crawl into a shell-hole. There he was attended to for a short time, but the Cameron Highlanders did not return from their raid that way, so he was not seen again".
(reproduced by kind permission of the Telegraph & Argus, Bradford)
Recent research suggests that Jimmy may, in fact, have died on 22 August. Information provided by Jan Van der Fraenen, formerly of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, shows that in October 1919 Jimmy's body was found at a point between the Battalion's starting line on 22 August (Pommern Castle) and its end line on the same date (west of Iberian Farm and Hill 35). The Battalion War Diaries mention facing heavy machine gun and rifle fire from Gallipoli Farm and Iberian Farm during its attack on Hill 35 - was it fire from Iberian Farm which mortally wounded Jimmy?
Above - Hill 35 (courtesy of Jan Van der Fraenen, formerly of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele)
Above - Map of the area of the attack on 22 August 1917 (courtesy of Jan Van der Fraenen, formerly of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele) - click to enlarge
The above map of the area of the attack on 22 August 1917 shows the starting line in green, with the end line in red. Jimmy's body was found between the two at the point marked with the red dot, close to Iberian Farm. Hill 35 is just to the north, whilst Dochy Farm can be seen to the east. Dochy Farm New British Cemetery where Jimmy is buried, is marked in yellow, alongside the road, just west of the Farm itself.
Above - View from the Battalion's start point on 22 August 1917, (click to enlarge)
The photograph above was taken in August 2007, from the Battalion's start point almost exactly 90 years earlier on 22 August 1917. The site of Pommern Castle is just off the top left of the photograph. The red-roofed building to the right is Iberian Farm, re-built on the site of the original. The small beck to the lower right is "Hanebeek". Jimmy's body was found about two-thirds of the way up the slope, about fifty yards from Iberian Farm.
By 24 August, the Battalion had been relieved by the 8/10th Gordons and proceeded to Erie Camp. On 27 August, the Company Commander produced a list of those men missing in operations between 20-24 August, which included Jimmy and a number of his colleagues from "B" Company.
The Battalion War Diary covering the period from 20-25 August 1917 can be read by clicking on the links below:
(Courtesy of the National Archives - WO reference 95/1941)
On 19 April 1920 The Cameron Highlanders' section of the Records Office at Perth wrote to Bessie (above left, click to enlarge) to return "articles of private property" of her late husband. Bessie's reply on 24 April (above right, click to view) reveals her frustration at the lack of information surrounding Jimmy's death.
Those articles were Jimmy's Identity Tags (click to enlarge). The tags, still in the possession of Jimmy's family, were usually worn on a cord around the neck, although occasionally the eight-sided one (originally green) was worn as a bracelet on the wrist. The circular tag started life as a red/vermillion colour, and both were made of compressed fibre, which degraded over time. Soldiers were issued with letter punches and ordered to stamp their own tags, with details of their surname, initials (but not rank), regiment abbreviated and religion. Much of that information can still be seen on Jimmy's tags.
On 28 August 1920 the Infantry Record Office in Perth wrote to Bessie (right, click to enlarge). Mrs Speirs was advised that a communication had been received from the War Office to the effect that her husband was now officially reported as "Killed in Action or Died of Wounds on or shortly after 20 August 1917".
So, doubt remains as to the precise date on which Jimmy died - but, for official purposes, it was recorded as 20 August.
Jimmy left a wife, Bessie, son James (aged 9 years) and daughter Elizabeth (5 years).
After the Armistice, the Dochy Farm New British Cemetery was made, by the concentration of isolated graves from the battlefields of Boesinghe, St Julien, Frezenberg and Passchendaele. Dochy Farm, which had become a German strongpoint, was taken by the 4th New Zealand Brigade on 4 October 1917, in the Battle of Broosiende. It lies in the commune of Langemarck (now Langmark) in West Flanders, near Ieper (formerly Ypres).
On 6 October 1921, the Infantry Record Office wrote (left,click to enlarge) to Bessie (still living at Darnley Road in Pollokshields) to advise that Jimmy’s remains had been exhumed and re-interred at Dochy Farm Cemetery). Sgt J H Speirs MM lies at rest in plot VI.E.15, one of 1,439 men buried at the Cemetery – the identities of two-thirds of whom are unknown.
There have always been errors regarding the spelling of Jimmy's surname - starting with his original enlistment papers recording his name as "Spiers" - and Jimmy's original gravestone (above left) was mis-spelt. However, in November 2007, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission accepted that "Speirs" was correct, amended their records and confirmed that Jimmy's gravestone would be corrected in due course. I am pleased to report that the gravestone has now been corrected (above right, photograph courtesy of Nigel Scott).
In addition to Jimmy Speirs, one other member of Bradford City's 1911 FA Cup winning team was killed in the First World War. Robert Torrance was brought into the side at centre-half for the Final Replay at Old Trafford, and was reportedly man of the match. Robert joined the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner, and was killed on 24 April 1918. He has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, almost within sight of Jimmy Speirs' grave at Dochy Farm cemetery.
Although not a member of the Cup winning team, Evelyn Lintott had been a colleague of Jimmy's at Bradford City throughout his stay there. Lintott, an English International, teamed up again with Jimmy at Leeds City in 1912. To avoid recruitment delays, Lintott - who had also been a schoolteacher - enlisted with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales Own) - the "Leeds Pals" - and was a Lieutenant when he was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. He has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Battle of the Somme (see below).
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (click to enlarge)
Jimmy Speirs had lived an eventful life, to say the least. He had achieved success at the highest level on the football field for club and country, and he went on to display gallantry on the battlefield, where he made the ultimate sacrifice.
In 2003, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret'd) A M Cumming OBE of the Regimental Headquarters, The Highlanders (into which the The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders has been absorbed) wrote of Jimmy:
"A remarkable man....to have played for Scotland, won the FA Cup, scored the winning goal and won a Military Medal is remarkable by any standards".
Above - Letter accompanying the Memorial Plaque (see below) sent to Bessie after the War (click to enlarge)
On 14 December 1921, Jimmy's War and Victory Medals were sent to Bessie, joining his Military Medal, which had been sent previously.