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London Irish Rifles - The Footballer of Loos, 1915
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London Irish Rifles - The Footballer of Loos, 1915

Measurements: Height: 39cm (15.3ins)

£14000

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Bronze figure of a London volunteer infantryman of 1915 dressed in greatcoat, soft cap, puttees, ammunution boots. He is shown striding forward, holding a rifle in his right hand and a football in his left. He is further laden with webbing, haversacks, valise, mess tin, entrenching tool and bandolier for an extra 100 rounds in preparation for the coming fight. The whole set upon naturalistic integral bronze. Signed to the reverse ‘Paul R. Montford’. On a stepped ebonised base. Height of bronze: 29.8cm (11.75in)

Provenance:
Kensington Division, British Red Cross Society

The Footballer of Loos captures the moment when Rifleman Frank Edwards of ‘A’ Company, 1/18th London Irish Rifles flung his football forward to ‘kick off’ the Battle of Loos. His battalion, a London-based volunteer unit had been given the doubtful honour of leading the first ‘Big Push’ of the First World War. The British attack included the release of 150 tons of chlorine gas, which initially aided by a favourable breeze, stalled half way across No Man’s Land and shortly before Zero Hour rolled back towards the British lines. While Edwards’ pals, many of them members of London Irish F.C., donned crudely designed gas hoods, he remained focussed on the idea they had long discussed and been forced to conceal from authority - to play the game of their lives and pass a football amongst themselves before scoring a goal in the enemy trench.

Climbing out of the relative safety of the fire trench at dawn on 26 September 1915, Edwards and his pals spread out in familiar formation. Undeterred by high explosive shells and enemy machine fire cutting swathes through the advancing platoons to left and right, Rifleman Mileham passed to Rifleman Taylor who booted the ball on to seventeen year-old Rifleman Dalby who in turn passed it back to Edwards. To French troops waiting to begin their own attack, it was a display of total madness until an officer who had lived in England explained it as a ‘beau geste’ - or rather an exaggerated display of British sportsmanship.  After two hundred yards the footballers disappeared into the smoke and gas barrage. Choking and with exposed skin taking on a deathly yellow tinge, Edwards was felled by bullet to the thigh. Mileham applied a field dressing and was shot in the chest while their mates played on into oblivion.

Edwards’ exploit was widely witnessed, not least by the general responsible for the gas attack. With casualties in the twelve leading battalions in excess of 10,000 within forty-eight hours, inspirational stories were rare and reports of the football exploit were quickly circulated in the home press. Accordingly the Footballer of Loos quickly became a subject of interest to illustrators and artists. The war artist Lady Butler produced a painting for the London Irish Rifles, while the established sculptor Paul Montford produced the present model in bronze. An unsigned bronze cast of this figure, which until now was believed to be unique, holds pride of place to the left of the central dedication panel of the London Irish War Memorial at Connaught House. Entitled ‘Man of Loos’, it came to represent the spirit of the regiment as a whole during the First World War. It is mirrored on the right of the memorial’s central panel by a bronze of similar size of a Second World War infantryman entitled ‘Son of Man’. The memorial records the names of more than 1700 men who fell whilst serving with the London Irish Rifles during the First and Second World Wars.

The sculptor Paul Raphael Montford (1868-1938) was a bohemian figure. Born in Kentish Town to Horace Montford, a sculptor who taught at the Royal Academy Schools and his wife Sarah who was a member of the Academy’s curatorial staff, Paul received his early training in his father's studio and then at Lambeth School of Art (1884-5). In 1887 he entered the R.A. Schools where he won a number of medals and a travelling scholarship. Impressed by the monumental sculpture he encountered abroad, he went on to establish a reputation as an architectural sculptor. He provided the sculptural elements for important buildings including the Northampton Institute, Battersea Town Hall, Cardiff City Hall, Victoria and Albert Museum with Sir Aston Webb and the bridge at Kelvingrove, Glasgow. He also developed skills in portraiture. His memorial to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in Westminster Abbey being considered one of his prestigious commissions. On the eve of the First World War he completed a memorial to the musicians who perished during sinking of the Titanic for Institute of the National Orchestral Assocation in Archer Street, Soho.

The precise reason behind the making of the bronze Footballer of Loos are now obscure. However the inscription on the base of the present bronze suggests the possibility of a commission from a patron or supporter of the Kensington Division of the British Red Cross Society. Following up on fund raising successes in the West End, a Red Cross shop selling donated items was established at 92 Kensington High Street in February 1918. The profits were shared between the Red Cross’ Kensington division and Kensington war hospital supply depot. The shop was reported to be flourishing in January 1919.

Despite winning the competition for the Croydon Cenotaph, Montford concluded he would find it increasingly difficult to obtain commissions in the face of competition from younger sculptors who had seen war service. Accordingly he took the decision to emigrate in 1923 to Australia where his work on the National War Memorial of Victoria in Melbourne ensured his success as a sculptor in his adopted country. In 1931 the commanding officer of the London Irish Rifles, Lieutenant-Colonel J.A. Mulholland, M.C., presented the Lord Mayor of Belfast with a silver replica of Montford’s bronze, giving the partly wrong but well intentioned explanation that ‘a man in the ranks had carved [sic] in bronze a magnificent statue of the footballer of Loos which stood in the officers’ mess.’ Intriguingly he further added ‘It was only on very particular occasions that a replica of that statue was struck. In fact the [silver] statuette he was presenting was ‘the fourth copied from the [bronze] original.’ (The Northern Whig & Belfast Post, 1.8.1931).

The story of the Footballer of Loos can be seen in many ways; as a reminder of regimental spirit and sacrifice; as a manifestation of the early 20th century predilection for comparing sport with war; and as a plain demonstration of the enthusiasms of a typical volunteer. Reports of the informal kickabouts with German troops during the fabled ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914 had suggested common ground on both sides and were positively reported in the British press, but within a few days the British High Command condemned as fraternization and treason. Arguably, the footballers of Loos by their audacious act were making a claim on sporting values against both British officialdom and a baffled foe. On 1 July 1916 - the First Day of the Battle of the Somme - Captain W.P. ‘Billie’ Nevill of the 8th East Surreys famously repeated the football charge, having provided, with approval from above, two footballs for his company to kick across No Man’s Land. The gesture made no difference to the fate of Nevill and the half of his company who perished that day, but like Edwards they recognised the value of the game to help take minds off the horrors ahead and the ‘dread anticipation of death’.


Sources :

Harris, E. (2009) The Footballer of Loos, A Story of the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles in the First World War,

Zimmer, J. (1986) 'Montford, Paul Raphael (1868 - 1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, MUP,

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