This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of The Football Pink fanzine which was released in August 2014 and was themed ‘War’ to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.
WILLIAM HEANEY celebrates the heroism of a man who was an ordinary footballer and an extraordinary man.
Seventy one Scots were awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of their heroics during World War I. Ordinary people from across the country performed extraordinary acts of courage, in situations and environments to which nobody should be exposed.
The individuals who conducted these selfless acts, and received the highest military honour, were part of a truly exceptional group. Amongst their number was a footballer.
William Angus was born in 1888 in the village of Armadale, West Lothian. However, while still a youngster, his family moved to the place where he would spend the rest of his life.
Carluke is a small town in South Lanarkshire less than 20 miles south-east of Glasgow. While now containing a largely commuter population, weaving was originally the main line of work in what was once a small village. However, the industrial revolution saw Carluke develop into a mining town with coal, iron and lime all being sourced in the area. It’s unsurprising then that, after leaving school at fourteen years old, young Angus followed in his father’s footsteps and became a coal miner at the local colliery.
For most young miners, their future was very clear – decades of long shifts below ground, carrying out physically exhausting work, the demands of which weren’t reflected in their wage. There were also the everyday risks of flooding, fire and over-exposure to harmful, potentially fatal, gases. Serious injury and even death were all too common occurrences.
Unlike the majority of his contemporaries however, Angus had a potential escape route from life in the pit. After starting out as an amateur player with Carluke Rovers, he then moved into the professional ranks.
Celtic, in 1912, were a team in transition. Their run of six straight league titles – still the second most successful run in the club’s history – had been ended by Rangers. Despite Scottish Cup wins in 1911 and 1912, failure in the league meant that improvements were needed.
In charge at the time was the legendary Willie Maley. The club’s first ever manager, Sligo-born Maley would lead the club to 30 trophies in a remarkable 43-year reign as manager. He was the antithesis of the modern manager, taking no involvement in training, not conducting pre or post-match team talks and informing players of starting line-ups via the press.
During the early years of their existence, Celtic had recruited new talent by purchasing players from rival clubs. Maley, however, had a different approach, instead introducing youngsters from junior football. Shortly before Angus arrived at the club, another promising young player had started to make his mark in the first-team.
Patsy Gallacher was a slightly built winger who would go on to achieve legendary status, winning seven league titles and becoming the sixth highest goalscorer in Celtic’s history. He is also famous for his goal against Dundee in the 1925 Scottish Cup final, where he somersaulted over the opposition line with the ball between his feet.
Unfortunately for Angus, he didn’t make the same impression as ‘The Mighty Atom’. After two seasons in the east end of Glasgow, he left without making a competitive appearance. Details of his Celtic career are scarce, though there are records of appearances in a friendly against an army team and a fund-raising match against junior opposition. While his inconspicuous spell would have disappointed any ambitious player, it was no disgrace to be kept out of a side that contained Gallacher, and other revered figures such as Jimmy McMenemy and Alec McNair.
Angus returned to the junior ranks, turning out for Wishaw Athletic, where he was made captain. His time there would be short-lived though, as world events began to dominate everyday lives.
Givenchy-les-la-Basse is a small village in northern France, approximately twenty miles from Lille. Despite having a population of less than 1,000, it is a community that felt the impact of two world wars, with the village being decimated during both conflicts.
It was there that Lance-Corporal William Angus found himself during the summer of 1915, as part of ‘D’ Company 8th Royal Scots. Just 70 yards separated the young troops from their German counterparts. Despite having been able to force the opposition back, the British forces were hampered by the positioning of the Germans, at the top of a small embankment.
The situation was unchanged for several weeks before it was decided that a bombing raid would be launched to force the enemy from their position. On the evening of 11th June, a team led by Lt James Martin carried out the dangerous operation. However, their efforts were in vain – the Germans had anticipated such an attack and detonated a large bomb, blowing a hole in the embankment and causing the British to retreat.
Once back in the relative safety of a trench, it was realised that Lt Martin had not returned. His plight was confirmed the next morning when he was seen lying close to the Germans. Some movement meant that he was still alive but there was outrage when Martin asked the enemy for water and instead a grenade was thrown at him.
Angus volunteered to launch a rescue attempt but his request was denied by senior officers. However, he was insistent. Martin was also from Carluke and Angus felt that he couldn’t return there having left someone from his home town to die. Eventually, his superiors relented and granted him permission to try and bring Martin back, though he was warned that he was setting himself up for almost certain death. Angus was unperturbed, stating that it didn’t matter ‘whether death came now or later.’
With a rope tied around his waist, Angus set out on his mission to rescue his injured comrade. After arriving undetected at his intended target, he removed the rope and tied it around Martin. He then managed to raise him up and started on the journey back. At some point on that return, the Germans became aware of what was happening and the two men came under a hail of bombs and bullets. Angus, who had resorted to lifting Martin, was felled several times, but on each occasion rose to his feet and continued.
While his actions up to this point were nothing short of remarkable, Angus then displayed even less regard for his own safety. As other troops pulled Martin to safety, he set off at a right angle, the hope being that the opposing forces would be distracted by his actions, allowing his stricken colleague to reach the trench without any more wounds.
It was the ultimate decoy run. This time, however, instead of defenders tracking his movement it was armed soldiers, the roar of the crowd replaced by the sound of gunfire and explosions.
When he eventually returned to safe territory, he collapsed. He had received forty different wounds, some of which cost him his left eye and part of his right foot.
After two months of recovery in a French hospital, Angus returned to the UK and was given the Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace – he was the first Scottish territorial soldier to receive the award. After being nominated for the honour, there was little doubt that he would be a worthy recipient. The commanding officer at Givenchy, Lt. Colonel Gemmill, commented that, ‘No braver deed was ever done in the history of the British Army.’
An even greater welcome awaited him on his return to Scotland. The people of Carluke were naturally delighted to greet their returning hero, and the football community were equally rapturous in their reception. In one day, Angus attended Glasgow Cup semi-final matches hosted by both Celtic and Rangers. He received standing ovations at each venue, one of those all too few occasions where respect and human dignity were able to overcome the hatred which has blighted the Scottish game.
Football, like every other section of society, had to come to terms with significant loss. Players, former players, officials and, of course, fans perished in huge numbers. Most notably, amongst the fatalities were the players of Heart of Midlothian.
During the 1914/15 season, Hearts were the team to beat. After only one defeat in their first sixteen league games, they were on course to win only their second championship. However, in effect, they sacrificed the trophy to help with the war effort.
Towards the end of 1914, businessman and former MP, Sir George McCrae, called on men from the Edinburgh area to join his battalion, the 16th Royal Scots. The Hearts squad immediately signed up, the first football club to do so. Their actions not only encouraged Hearts fans to follow their heroes and volunteer, it was also the perfect response to public criticism of the club, for continuing to play matches while other young men of their generation were dying on foreign soil. One letter to an Edinburgh newspaper had suggested that if the players weren’t prepared to fight, then the club should consider changing its name to ‘The White Feathers of Midlothian.’
The actions of the players at Tynecastle also encouraged players and supporters from other clubs to join MacCrae’s Battalion. Hibernian, Falkirk, Dunfermline and Raith Rovers were also represented in what was the first ‘footballer’s battalion’.
It’s hardly surprising that Hearts suffered on the field on play. The combination of military training and competing for a league title proved too much and they were eventually overtaken by Celtic. Indeed, on one occasion, they lost to Morton after arriving shortly before kick-off, having only just completed night manoeuvres.
Missing out on silverware however, means very little when considering that seven Hearts players did not return from the Great War.
The injuries Angus sustained on French soil meant that he was unable to return to playing football or coal mining. Instead he found work as Master of Works at the Racecourse Betting Control Board in Carluke and later ran a goods carrier business. He also served as a Justice of the Peace.
In 1917, he married Mary Nugent. They would go on to have five children. Angus also remained involved in the game in an alternative capacity, being appointed President of Carluke Rovers.
James Martin also returned to Carluke and he would never forget the man who had saved his life. Every year, on the date he was rescued by Angus, Martin would send his friend a telegram. The message would never change, reading ‘Congratulations on the 12th.’ It was a simple gesture, but one which would mean a great deal to two men who formed a bond that few people could understand. After Martin passed away in 1956, his brother carried on the tradition.
William Angus died in 1959, two days after the 44th anniversary of his great deed. He is buried in Carluke and remains one of the most important figures in the town’s history – a man who wanted to be successful playing the game he loved, but through circumstances beyond his control, was to make a significantly greater contribution to the world.
He may have been an average footballer, but he was an exceptional human being.
WILLIAM HEANEY – @midfieldveteran