Richard McFadden and his best friend, Willie Jonas, stood in the lice-infested trench, waiting for the command. When it came, they looked at each other for what would be the final time.
“Goodbye, Mac,” said Jonas. “Best of luck, love to my wife and best regards to the lads at Orient.” And then he was gone. Jonas was killed almost instantly, one of the thousands of casualties of the brutal Battle of the Somme of 1916.
“Before I could reply he was up and over,” McFadden wrote in a letter to Leyton Orient, who were then known as Clapton Orient. “No sooner had he jumped up out of the trench, my best friend of nearly 20 years was killed before my eyes. Words cannot express my feelings.”
The two men had been close friends since they were young. Jonas had become friends with McFadden at primary school after the latter had relocated to Northumberland with his family. They got on well immediately, but neither boy could have known that their friendship would last for 20 years. Tragically, it was snuffed out in an instant, brutally extinguished by gunfire.
Jonas and McFadden did not only share several personality traits; they both also possessed a talent on the football field. Scotland-born McFadden played for Blyth Spartans and Wallsend Park Villa, before being bought by Leyton Orient in 1911. He was a goalscorer by trade – no Orient player scored more often than McFadden during his four years on the club’s books – but his ability to put the ball in the back of the net on a regular basis was not the only reason he quickly became a popular figure in east London.
“He is rather short for a forward, yet sturdily built,” wrote the football editor of the Daily Express, “and he certainly knows how to make the best of his weight. A very tricky player. I hope we see a lot more of him.”
His most memorable goal came in a meeting with Arsenal in 1914, just two months before the beginning of World War One. By that stage McFadden had convinced Orient to sign his best mate Jonas, who was also a forward; as you might expect, the duo promptly struck up a fine relationship on the pitch as well as off it.
McFadden was well known for his willingness to help others. He once saved a man’s life by rescuing him from a building which had caught fire; on another occasion, he saved an 11-year-old child who was in danger of drowning in the River Lea in Hackney. It is not an exaggeration to say that McFadden was a local hero – and not just for what he did for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon.
His reputation was further enhanced when, along with 10 of his Orient colleagues, he signed up to join the 17th Middlesex Regiment and headed off to the frontline. Like so many other young men, he would not return. McFadden was joined by Jonas, defender George Scott, goalkeeper Jimmy Hugall and the club captain, Fred Parker.
McFadden acted with great courage on the battlefield. During the Battle of the Somme he was often seen venturing into no man’s land to help wounded troops, and such courage in the face of adversity saw him awarded a medal for bravery in the field.
Shortly after Jonas’s death, McFadden was fatally wounded by a shell blast which also took the life of Plymouth Argyle’s Billy Baker. By the time Orient received his letter in November 1916, he had been pronounced dead in a hospital in Couin. He was just 26 years old.
A total of three Orient players were killed in the battle: McFadden, Jonas and Scott. Hugall, the team’s goalkeeper, survived but was severely wounded. Still, he fought back and was able to extend his playing career until he passed away in 1927.
Parker, or ‘Spider’ as he was known to his teammates, also survived. “Mac feared nothing,” he later wrote of McFadden. “All the boys are going to visit his grave as soon as they get a chance. We have had a splendid cross made for him with a football at the top of it; but that will not bring him back. No one will miss him like I do – we were always together.”
Other clubs in England paid their respects to those players who had lost their lives in the conflict. “Orient have our deepest sympathy in the loss of that grand little player,” read a passage in Arsenal’s official matchday programme. “McFadden died like the little hero he was, and his name will be writ largely in the records of the all sacrificing deeds of the men who have played the Greatest Game to the very last. In civil life they were heroes and they proved themselves heroes on the battlefield – brave men and a very brave football club.”
There is a memorial in the village of Flers in the north of France commemorating the lives of McFadden and Jonas. Orient fans paid for it to be put up, raising £15,000 to ensure the players are not forgotten even as the years go by.
Over a century on from the end of the First World War, McFadden and his former team-mates are still remembered. Their legacy lives on at Leyton Orient.