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.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN uncovers the story of a young Belgian forward who answered the call to defend his homeland in the summer of 1914.
Football first raised its tentative shoots in Belgium in the busy port of Antwerp, where the locals were astonished and intrigued to witness British sailors indulging in the timeless activity of the “kick-about”. Initially dismissed as another example of bizarre British eccentricity, the new sport quickly gained a following amongst the bourgeoisie as a pursuit that a gentleman should aspire to. Consequently the more fashionable schools in Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels and Liege actively recruited teachers from Britain to gain more pupils. The graduates would go on to set up their own football clubs, initially in the major cities, and by 1895 there was enough rivalry among them to set up their own league to determine who the first Belgian champions would be. Seven teams, four from Brussels, would take part in the inaugural league with games played in a round robin system, the eventual champions being FC Liégeois, who would go on to win three out of the first four championships finishing second in 1896/97 – incidentally, the club are still in existence, one of their more famous players being a certain Jean–Marc Bosman! By the turn of the century, football was firmly established as the premier sport in Belgium and it would not be long until it had its first superstar.
Alphonse Léopold Six was born in 1890 in the medieval city of Bruges. Little is known about his childhood or the circumstances of his family, but it is safe to infer that he came from a comfortable, middle class background – the fact that he was named Léopold, after the famous Belgian King, suggests a royalist background; and the fact that he played football suggests he went to a prestigious school, probably the Saint Francis Xavier institute. Six began playing in the youth team of Cercle Bruges – founded by SFX pupils – and quickly established himself as a prolific forward; however around this time a German Field Marshal presented a plan that would set Six on an irrevocable, fatalistic path. Blessed with the ignorance of youth, Six would carry on, and by the age of 17 he was promoted to the first team and began playing in the Belgian league.
His first few seasons presented few opportunities for the young Six as Cercle Bruges had a prolific scorer in Louis Saeys, but an injury to Saeys in the 1909/10 season would see Six supplant him as the club’s top scorer. It was in the following season that Six would acquire legendary status. His 38 goals in just 20 games saw Cercle Bruges win their first title, a huge achievement for what was, even then, a small club. 1911/12 saw Six again finish top scorer but by then covetous eyes were beginning to focus on him, in the shape of the most dominant club in Belgium, namely Union Saint-Gilloise. From 1903 until 1912 USG had won seven titles and were considered the most innovative, attacking club in Belgian football. Little wonder that they sought to bring the country’s most prolific goal scorer into their fold. Promising him a well paid job – Belgian football was still nominally amateur – they signed Six in the summer of 1912. Things quickly went sour. The job fell through and Alphonse, desperate for a way out, took the unprecedented step of moving across the border to Lille, to sign for Olympique Lillois. By this time Six was a household name in Belgium and had played nine times for the Belgian international side – scoring eight goals – under the management of the Scot, William Maxwell. He began his career in France as a dazzling young prospect with OL winning the French league title in his first season – becoming the first Belgian footballer to win a title in a foreign country – and establishing himself as a hero in the hearts and minds of the citizens of Lille. Unbeknown to Alphonse, two men were conspiring to irrevocably change his life, the German Field Marshal and a Serbian nationalist called Gavrilo Princip.
In 1905 the German Field Marshal Alfred Von Schlieffen, had presented a plan for defeating the great empire of Russia should war break out between the empires of Austro-Hungary and Russia. The plan was breathtaking in its simplicity and brilliance, attack Russia and its ally France simultaneously, concentrating the main attack on the French, relying on the ineptitude of the Russian generals to slow down the Russian response. To avoid the heavily fortified Franco-German border the German army would simply march through neutral Belgium, feint towards Paris and wheel east to attack the border forts from behind. Like all great plans the devil was in the detail and a fundamental part of it broke down: little Belgium refused to cooperate. At first, the Germans proceeded as planned but they were halted at Liege where fierce resistance inflicted considerable casualties and, combined with damage to the Belgian railway, their war machine ground to a halt. Inevitably, Liege fell to the Germans and King Albert ordered all his troops to Antwerp to defend the city. However, although retreating, the troops were ordered to occasionally pause and engage the advancing German troops in guerrilla warfare, using snipers and ambush to slow them down. Alphonse Six found himself in one of the companies charged with this suicidal mission.
On the 19th of August 1914, near the small town of Boutersem, Alphonse Six and his comrades found themselves cut off from the general retreat. Surrounded and exhausted, they repelled wave after wave of enemy troops, until the Germans, hardened in heart and mind by the guerrilla tactics that had lost them so many of their comrades, eventually overwhelmed the Belgians and slaughtered every last one. Alphonse’s body was never found. The Great War was only two weeks old.
Futile as the Belgian resistance may seem today, it did slow the Germans down and gave more time for the French and the British to organise their resistance. Von Schlieffen’s plan was eventually abandoned for the hell of trench warfare and the ensuing stalemate.
Alphonse Six was but one of many. Football legend yes, but no more a hero than the carpenter, the farmer, the labourer that died by his side. As I write, one hundred years later, Belgium are in the World Cup quarter-final. I don’t know if any of the current squad has ever heard of Alphonse Six or the men who died with him that day, but they do need to remember; that just a century ago a minnow stood up and thwarted a giant.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN – @clockend5