BY TOM WOOD
As the Sheffield Pals paraded around the city with rifles in their hands, it was a young sports reporter’s pen and pad that made history during the Great War.
Richard Sparling, a local sports reporter for the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in the 1920’s and author of the first football book (Romance of the Wednesday) has had his work displayed at the National Football Museum in Manchester.
The display is part of the Greater Game exhibition which features his journal, a character profile and pictures of him and his wife Millie Archer on their wedding day just before he left to fight.
Richard was the first man to write a hardback football book in 1926, but he made his name six years before, when he wrote a book about his experiences in the 12th (Service) Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment.
The National Football Museum said they are delighted to be able to display the exhibition. Alexander Jackson, a collections officer for the museum, was the one who organised the display after studying a PhD on the Sheffield Pals and Richard Sparling.
He said: “I found it quite interesting to read about the wider stories; it was poignant that the Sheffield Pals were hit during the Somme, but it was the personal story of Richard that fascinated me.”
Richard who lived at Pickering Road in Sheffield joined the 12th Battalion Yorks and Lancaster Regiment at the age of 24 with his colleagues Howard R. Sleigh and Herve A. Giraud.
A total of 500,000 men joined the regiment and 1,131 were part of the Sheffield Pals, these included stock brokers, teachers, footballers and journalists.
They were treated like local celebrities as they signed up to join Kitchener’s new army. However, only a few men knew what was in store. The war was the first of its kind; everyone was told that they would be home by Christmas. How wrong they were.
The Sheffield City Battalion travelled to Egypt before they returned to Europe to fight at the Somme.
Over 420,000 British troops were killed at the battle of the Somme and the Sheffield Pals suffered major casualties as over half (500) of their troops were injured. The Pals were told to climb over the steep, muddy trenches and walk to the next, which made them easy targets for the German machine guns.
Richard described the first day of the Somme: “The 1st of July, 1916, will be remembered as one of the saddest and most tragic, yet withal one of the most glorious pages of Sheffield history, for on that day there fell in battle the largest number of Sheffield men ever known. Around it sacred memories will ever cling as citizens recall the gallant men who in a few minutes put to the test their long months of training.”
The Somme intended to pave a way to victory, but the battle was long and painful with many men sacrificing their lives to gain just a few hundred yards. K. W. Mitchinson the author of Pioneer Battalions in the Great War wrote: “In subsequent decades, experience of the Somme was to bury itself into the British psyche. What had been intended as an offensive to open the road to victory turned into a bloody slogging match of attrition.”
Luckily, Richard and Howard survived the Somme, but many of his pals didn’t return home, like Herve who was killed in 1917. The battalion was subsequently reinforced and went on to fight at Arras (1917) and St. Quintin (1918) before it was disbanded after the army was reorganised.
Richard Harris, a historian who may have spoken to Richard Sparling whilst he was at the Sheffield Telegraph collecting material for his book Covenant of Death, Richard said: “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.’
Richard and Howard returned to work like many of the soldiers who survived the war. Both journalists were awarded military service medals in 1918 and had a picture in the paper congratulating them.
Jason Dickinson, who wrote 100 years of Hillsborough thought that most of the soldiers could not wait to go back to their normal lives, he said: “Most came back damaged physically and mentally, it was horrendous, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were delighted to go back to their normal jobs.”
Even though the war was a major part of many young men’s lives it was hardly discussed, Alex said: “It was very rare that a military record was spoken about, so if Richard was writing a match report on Sheffield Wednesday and a player fought in the war, it would be very unlikely for it to be mentioned, unlike today where that would be a strong angle for a story.”
Dickinson, who writes for the Sheffield Wednesday match day programme, admires how Richard moved so quickly from one genre to another in only six years.
He said: “It’s so much easier to write a match report because it’s all fact; you know the scorer and what happened during the match. But to describe what happened every day on a personal level is quite amazing. “
It was not a surprise that both Richard and Howard became lifelong friends after fighting in the war together. In 1926 they co-wrote The Romance of the Wednesday. They also became editors of the Sheffield Green ‘Un one after the other in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Alex, who has read The Romance of The Wednesday said it was an interesting read: “Obviously they served together and had that comradery, and it looks like that never left when they moved on from the war.”
Richard was described as enthusiastic and hardworking but he’s just someone who typified men and women from that time.
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