When war broke out across Europe in August 1914 it was very much a case of 'business as usual' as far as football was concerned, despite protests on many fronts that able-bodied men should not take part in sport when others were losing their lives across the Channel.
Whether there was a general feeling that 'it will all be over in three months', that professional footballers should honour their contractual obligations or financial interests were coming to the fore, the Football League and the FA decided to continue with the normal programme of games, but that money should be raised to support the war effort.
The Town kicked off the 1914/15 Southern League season as normal, but crowds were down and as it became clear that the war would last longer than three months, the increasing pressure put on the football authorities ensured they began to crack.
'Pals' battalions (where recruits were from a particular town or profession) were seen as a clever initiative to increase the number of men needed in an increasingly terrible conflict.
With this in mind, a meeting took place at Fulham Town Hall on 15th December 1914 to form a Footballers Battalion, with its official title the 17th (Service) Battalion (Football), Middlesex Regiment.
Any recruits would be given leave to play for their clubs in league and cup matches for the rest of the season, while the battalion received military training, and the usual height requirements would be dispensed with.
At the end of the meeting 35 professional footballers from the south-east joined the ‘Colours’, including Hugh Roberts and Frank Lindley from Luton. Within a month the ranks had swelled to 600.
Normal football was suspended at the end of the 1914/15 season with a London Combination League set up in 1915/16 for clubs less than 18 miles from the capital, which precluded the Town. Intense lobbying by Hatters secretary Charles Green eventually allowed us to take part in a supplementary tournament at the back end of the season.
We were allowed to participate in the London Combination in 1916/17, but even the persuasive powers of Green could not convince the authorities that we should take part over the next two seasons, on grounds of security, so we had to make do with friendly fixtures.
With war finally over, three Luton players who were on the books in 1914 had given the ultimate sacrifice. Arthur Wileman, who had made 107 first team appearances for the Hatters, together with Ernest Dodd (one appearance) and Frank Gilder, who were on amateur forms. Former players who had died were Walter Fairgrieve, Julius Gregory, Thomas Clifford, George Porter and John (Jock) Jarvie.
Of those who survived the war, Frank Lindley was wounded, as was Ernie Simms, while Sid Hoar was gassed. Westby Heath, who had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, was wounded as was Arthur Roe.
Robert Frith had two toes amputated and returned to a reserved occupation as a furnace man at a Sheffield steelworks, while John Dunn was called back from service for ‘more important work’ in a munitions factory in Liverpool. Both Fred and Bob Hawkes were exempted service in June 1916 as they were both sole heads of businesses in the Luton hat trade.
Hugh Roberts, Thomas Wilson and James Brandham returned from war physically unscathed.
SGT ARTHUR WILEMAN MM. THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE
Born in Newhall, Derbyshire in 1889, Arthur started with the local Swifts side before joining Gresley Rovers where he was top scorer and catching the eye of Football League outfit Burton United.
At Burton his efforts were not enough to save the club from re-election but his career took an upward turn when four years old Chelsea took him to Stamford Bridge in 1909. His stay at Chelsea lasted two seasons, where he managed five goals from 14 appearances, before he spent a year at Millwall.
Coming to Kenilworth Road in 1912, just as the Hatters had been relegated to Southern League Division Two, Arthur made a steady start before coming to the fore in 1913/14 when the Town won promotion back to Division One.
Forming part of a deadly strike force with Ernie Simms he scored 27 goals to Ernie's 28 as the Town netted 92 times in only 30 games in a
"His brilliant drives from the inside-right position are not merely spectacular. They are deadly," said the Luton News as the Town settled back to
Southern League Division One football.
Arthur joined the 11th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment rather than the Footballers' Battalion, enlisting at the Kingsway recruiting office in London. He won the Military Medal (MM) for bravery in the field during the third battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, in late 1917.
On 28th April 1918, with war slowly coming to an end, Arthur's unit was in the front line at Elzenwalle Chateau repulsing the German Spring
Offensive when he was part of a reconnaissance patrol that was heavily shelled.
His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing in Belgium.
ERNIE SIMMS ‘CAUSE CELEBRE’
Born in Murton in 1891, Ernie played for South Shields Adelaide and Murton Colliery Welfare before joining Barnsley in 1912.
He could not get into the first team at Oakwell but averaged a goal a game for their Central League side (reserves) and came to Luton at the start of the 1913/14 season, our second in Southern League Division Two. His 28 goals from 24 games helped to win promotion and he then went on to bag 22 in 38 games in Southern League Division One in 1914/15.
He joined the Footballers’ Battalion (17th Middlesex) in May 1915 and was transferred to the 23rd Battalion in July 1915. He was recorded as being absent several times during the 1915/16 season, which probably ties in with him playing for the Town in the London Combination Supplementary Tournament that season, scoring four goals from nine starts.
Soldiers waiting to be posted abroad were then allowed, in 1916/17, to return to play for their clubs and Ernie scored 39 goals in 30 starts that season in the London Combination which was a new national record.
It is recorded that the 23rd Battalion served in Italy from November 1917 until March 1918, and it is in this period that Ernie suffered a severe leg injury and was sent home. The injury left him with a pronounced limp and an ungainly running style, but he was determined to return to full fitness and re-commence playing football.
Kenilworth Road was by now closed for the duration of the war and Ernie gained entry to the ground each night by climbing up a drainpipe with the ‘agility and ease of a practiced cat-burglar’. He then stripped down to his vest and underpants and completed lap after lap of the cinder track surrounding the pitch and raced up and down the terraces.
One winter morning a caretaker arrived at the ground and noticed footprints in the snow. Fearing there was a burglar at large the police lay in wait for him that evening and after his arrest he was forced to reveal all.
The story hit the press and the matter became a ‘cause celebre’ with Simms’ spirit and determination catching the national mood of the time.
The Town’s directors could hardly refuse him another contract, and he rewarded them by scoring 12 goals in 33 Southern League games in 1919/20 and 29 from 40 games in 1920/21 when the Southern League formed Division Three of the Football League.
On 22nd October 1921 he played for England against Northern Ireland in Belfast (two of his Luton team mates Allan Mathieson and Louis Bookman were on the other side – missing three influential players the Town still managed to beat Portsmouth 1-0 that day) after being named as travelling reserve twice previously.
He scored 18 in 25 starts in 1921/22 before moving to South Shields, then of Division Two, in March 1922. He netted three in nine in 21/22, seven in 36 in 22/23 and nine in 17 in 23/24 before transferring to Stockport (also of Division 2) in December 1923. He scored six in 20 starts in 23/24, six in 23 in 24/25 and eight in 23 in 25/26, a season which saw Stockport relegated.
As an aside he took part in an FA Tour of Australia in 1925 and scored 36 times in 18 games. The FA had a record of played 25, won 25, goals for 139, against 13! Simms was not even top scorer as Batten of Plymouth scored 47 goals from 21 starts.
He then went on to play for Scunthorpe and York (both then in the Midland League), where he was a prolific scorer before returning to Luton to work at Vauxhall and turn out for the works side.
He continued to work at Vauxhall until retirement and died in Luton in 1971. He was living in Winch Street at the time of his death.