1915 was a bittersweet year for Everton FC. The 1914-15 season was played entirely during wartime and was probably the most controversial ever, resulting in divisions within sport that still find echoes today, and yet Everton were able to celebrate their second league title.
Before a ball was kicked British forces became locked in a constant struggle alongside the French against a German army that was the best in the world. By the time Everton lifted the trophy in late April the British had suffered appalling losses, with the original expeditionary force all but destroyed; that the war had lasted until the spring of 1915 with no sign of a conclusion was a surprise to almost everyone. Although press censorship kept the home public unaware of the realities of the war, the twists and turns of the 1914-15 season must have diverted them from their anxieties. For Everton fans in the trenches the arrival of the results must have been what was then called a real tonic. From a purely football standpoint Everton were worthy winners of the title in April 1915, triumphing against the odds when all seemed lost, and the players who won it deserve the highest praise. Sadly season 1914-15 was inevitably overshadowed by world events.
As the season closed Everton’s players were released either to join up or were found jobs in wartime industry. However the rest of 1915 would see the loss of five men with previous Everton connections. They had only a handful of appearances between them, but they had all signed for Everton and pulled on the famous blue jersey.
The first man killed was Fred Collinson who was also the oldest Everton player to be lost WW1. Fred had turned out for Everton reserves as far back as 1892 playing at the then new Goodison Park. He was sold to his hometown club Bury for £10 and played regularly during the 1890’s. He missed Bury’s greatest period at the turn of the century as he was serving in the Boer War in South Africa and probably fought at the battle of Spion Kop with the Lancashire Fusiliers. When war broke out in 1914 he returned to the colours and was killed at Gallipoli in Turkey on 15th May 1915, he was 41 years old.
Thomas Norse’s story parallels Fred Collinson’s. He was signed from junior football in Blackburn, but after two reserve games in March 1903 he was released and returned to east Lancashire. He joined up in 1914 and landed in Gallipoli with the East Lancashire regiment on 9th May 1915, four days after Fred Collinson. He was killed not far from where Fred had fallen on 22nd June. Neither man’s body was recovered after the war and they are commemorated on the Helles Memorial to the Missing.
Harry Norris was the first Everton player to die on the Western Front, at Ypres on 27th August 1915. His father Fitzroy was a major figure in early Lancashire football as a referee and later manager and director of Bolton Wanderers. Harry was on Everton’s books around 1906 and was loaned to Tranmere at one stage. In 1915 he was serving with the 11th (Pioneer) battalion of the King’s Liverpool regiment. The pioneers were fighting troops who specialised in construction and engineering, a key role in trench warfare. Harry is buried in Ypres Reservoir cemetery.
Thomas Gracie was signed from Morton in Scotland after he was a reserve in an England v Scotland international at Goodison in 1911. He failed to make a breakthrough at Everton and crossed the park in a part exchange deal a year later. After a short spell at Anfield he returned to Scotland with Hearts and was joint top scorer in Scotland in 1914-15. He and his teammates joined the 16th (McCrae’s) battalion of the Royal Scots; the first of the footballers’ battalions. He did not have a chance to serve overseas as he died from leukaemia in Glasgow on 23rd October, less than a month after his brother John was killed in France. Thomas is buried in Glasgow’s Craigton cemetery.
David Murray was the fifth ex Everton man to be killed on 10th December 1915. Like Tom Gracie David Murray played for both Everton and Liverpool after signing from Rangers in 1903. He made two appearances for the Blues at left back and then fifteen for Liverpool before moving to Hull and then Leeds City where he became captain. His career appears to have been curtailed by injury and he became a miner in Mexborough in South Yorkshire. In early September 1914 he joined up and arrived in France with the 11th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on 7th July. He fought through the battle of Loos in late September and was killed in the same area. David Murray has no known grave and is remembered on the Loos Memorial to the Missing at Dud Corner.
Pete Jones – EFC Heritage Society.