One of Northfleet’s pre-war heroes was a teenager who would go on to become a giant of the game. Charles (Charlie) Buchan was born in Plumstead in 1891. A trainee teacher of botany upon leaving school, he joined Woolwich Arsenal in 1909 and played four reserve games, being selected as back-up for the first team’s FA Cup tie. But having fallen out with the Gunners’ management over expenses, or as the South Eastern Gazette rather more fancifully put it – “Buchan had ambitions and joined Northfleet to be in the fuller glare of the limelight” – the centre forward joined the Cementers for the remainder of the 1909/10 season.
At Stonebridge Road, Buchan enjoyed a great season – winning the Kent Senior Cup, the Kent League and the Thames and Medway Combination. The Gazette criticised the fact he was “a trifle slow on the ball, but has undoubted ability and passes beautifully.”
Northfleet couldn’t hope to keep such a gem and he signed briefly for Southern League Leyton for £3 a week (Fulham turned down his £2 a week demands) before Sunderland snapped him up in March 1911. He won the 1912-13 First Division title and just missed out on the Double, losing the FA Cup Final to Aston Villa. He became the Wearsiders all-time record goalscorer (209 goals in 370 games) in a career lasting until 1925 and was regarded as the best footballer in the country in his heyday.
He moved on to Arsenal for £2,000 and a £100 goal bonus aged 34 in 1925 and enjoyed three seasons at Highbury, scoring 42 times in 102 games. But like so many men of his generation, he could have added to those impressive figures but for the outbreak of war in 1914.
Buchan had to see out the 1914/15 season until he could join up and then he enlisted immediately in the Grenadier Guards, seeing action in some of the war’s biggest battles – on the Somme (where 380 men and 18 officers were killed from his battalion on his first day in battle), Ypres, at Cambrai where he won the Military Medal for bravery, and at Passchendale. He started the war as a private but ended it as a lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters.
He rejoined Sunderland in 1919. You’d think such an experience would have figured extensively in his later biography, but Buchan was a man who loved football above all else, and his book barely mentions his wartime experiences.
Where it does, it is usually in tandem with a mention of his beloved football, for he played in army and exhibition games throughout the conflict. One such recollection was, “Out in France… my first game was just behind the Somme front, just after the big push in July 1916, at our camp in Mariecourt a little north of Albert. From the playing field we could see the spire of Arras church. Legend had it that when the statue of the Virgin Mary hanging at right angles fell, the war would end. We devoutly wished it would fall right then and took a few potshots ourselves at it with a ball. No sooner had we started than the German shells began to drop perilously near the field. So we packed up and restarted on another pitch. The game had to go on!”
After the war, Buchan wanted to support the widows and orphans of those who did not return and he also made sure that those of his colleagues who could not play professional football for whatever reason as a result of the war, had some form of job in the sport to keep them going.
Buchan also played six times for his country either side of the war – a total that would surely have been greater but for 1914-18 – before retiring in 1928. He became a journalist for the Daily News and Daily Chronicle and a BBC radio broadcaster. In 1947 he helped establish the Footballer of the Year award and in 1951 began publishing Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly (below) that continued for 14 years after his death in 1960 at the age of 68. At its peak in the 1960s, it sold 250,000 copies a month and had 100,000 ‘boys club’ members.
The word ‘legend’ is overused in football (and elsewhere) these days, almost to the point of meaninglessness. But Buchan earned it for his footballing prowess, his war service and his later achievements – just as those of his fallen Northfleet teammates William Kennedy and Edwin Myers, and Gravesend’s Thorndike and Hibbin, as well as any other ‘Cementer’ or ‘Shrimper’ who died or survived the war, earned it.
Another to survive the war, though not a Northfleet player at the time of the conflict, was the first ever manager of Gravesend & Northfleet, Andy Wilson. Born in Lanarkshire in 1896, the striker had just signed for Middlesbrough when war broke out. During the conflict he guested for Hearts in his time away from the trenches, but suffered serious injury when he was shot in the hand at Arras. For the rest of his life, he wore a glove to hide the withered hand and forearm which the German bullet had shattered. Despite his wartime injury, he returned to guest for Hearts in 1918/19, scoring 29 goals.
After the war, he rejoined Middlesbrough, scoring 51 goals in 77 games and from 1923 spent eight years at Chelsea (who paid £6,500 for him), again with a decent goalscoring record (59 from 238 appearances), ending his career in the early 1930s at QPR. He scored more goals for Scotland than games he appeared in (17 goals in 14 internationals) and after ending his career in Britain moved to France with SC Nimes, before returning to manage Walsall.
His younger son, Jimmy survived a tour as a tail-gunner in the Far East during the Second World War and on the cessation of that conflict, Wilson Snr found himself in demand at newly-merged Gravesend & Northfleet, who were looking to make a statement with their choice of manager in their first season. By this time, aged 50, Wilson’s arm had been amputated as a result of the injury he sustained in the First World War. He enjoyed a decent maiden season, reaching the First Round of the FA Cup and guiding the Fleet to sixth place in the Southern League before close-season disputes with the directors saw him exit the club after just one year, to be replaced by Fred Lester.
A gifted and versatile sportsman, Wilson (despite being a Scotsman) represented England at Lawn Bowls, had a single-digit golf handicap and made century breaks at snooker. He died in London in 1973, at the age of 77.
In the course of this research, there were a few players who were documented as surviving the war, including Northfleet Kent Senior Cup Final veterans Alberts Williams and Crowhurst, though they were in support roles rather than regular front-line troops. In addition, Gravesend’s Dick Goad and teammate Pennington (no first name given) were quoted as having been demobbed from active service after war’s end, while Northfleet trainer Lance Corporal Greves had been sent home in the autumn of 1918 with dysentery and is not listed among the war dead records.
There were without doubt even more who came home – presumably many of the players who lined up for Northfleet in the 1919/20 season had seen some form of action during the Great War and survived it, though nothing has come to light of their war service as yet..