William Sharpley's poppy at Thiepval

Leicester Fosse & The First World War: William Sharpley

William Sharpley, the third Leicester Fosse player to be killed in the War, lost his life on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme.
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His story is a remarkable one. He was mentioned in dispatches, as well as being awarded the Russian Medal of St George in addition to the Distinguished Conduct Medal. There is also an interesting postscript to his story involving the anarchist movement of Great Britain.

A serving soldier, William played his only game for Leicester Fosse, against Leeds City in April 1912.

He arrived at the Western Front with the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment on 21 August, 1914.

Between 5 and 19 September, 1914 he fought in the First Battle of the Marne, when the Allies halted the initial German advance 10 miles from Paris. The taxis of Paris, together with civilian cars, were requisitioned (pictured) to rush troops to the front enabling the French and British to counter-attack, forcing a German retreat.   

William’s role in that counter attack is detailed in his Regiment’s War Diary of 8 September, 1914. His Battalion moved forward to cross the River Marne, moving in single file through a thick wood to the east side of the road. Sharpley himself was then sent forward to reconnoitre and to draw the enemy’s fire. He provided covering fire for the advance and two of his party were injured as the enemy returned machine gunfire.

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Battle of the Marne taxis, 1914
Battle of the Marne taxis, 1914

Paris taxis rushed troops to the front enabling the French and British to counter-attack, forcing a German retreat

A month later, the War Diary of 21 October, 1914 describes how he and another sergeant, after their officers were killed, 'did good work'.

The London Gazette of 4 December, 1914 reported that Sharpley had been mentioned in dispatches 'for conspicuous gallantry in rescuing and bringing in across the open, and under fire, a wounded NCO'.

The Allies sometimes awarded their own medals for bravery to soldiers of other Allied nations. This resulted in Sharpley receiving the Russian Empire’s Medal of St George, 2nd Class. On 25 August, 1915, the London Gazette reported that ‘His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Russia has been graciously pleased to confer, with the approval of His Majesty the King’, this award ‘for gallantry and distinguished service in the field’.

Having already been mentioned in dispatches for bringing in a wounded soldier under fire in 1914, Sharpley won the Distinguished Conduct Medal in February 1916 for a similar act.

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Alan Birchenall points out William Sharpley's name after visiting his memorial at Thiepval.

The Intelligence Summary recorded that 'At about 6am on 6 February, 1916, Lance Corporal Rogers, was severely wounded at an isolated post in front of one of our trenches south east of Hebuterne. It was impossible to reach him except over the open and Sergeant Sharpley, accompanied by a Lance Corporal went out at 7.30 am under hostile fire and succeeded in getting Lance Corporal Rogers back to our trenches. Owing to the exposed nature of the ground and the deep mud, it was not until 1:15pm that this was safely accomplished'.

Just over four months later, Sharpley was dead, killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, which records the 73,000 British and Empire soldiers who were killed but whose bodies were never found.

In October 2014, representatives from Leicester City visited his memorial at Thiepval. Club Ambassador Alan Birchenall laid a poppy at the foot of the panel commemorating William’s death. Back in Leicester, Wes Morgan held up a picture of his memorial plaque when he and other players visited Leicester’s Victoria Park War Memorial to pay their respects to those Leicester Fosse players killed in the war.

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Wes Morgan at Victoria Park
Wes Morgan at Victoria Park

Wes Morgan holds up a picture of William Sharpley's memorial while at Leicester's Victoria Park memorial.

The story doesn’t quite end there. A fascinating postscript can be found in Nigel McCrery’s book, The Final Season, published in 2013.

He recounts that William’s sister Kate Sharpley had been active in the anarchist movement throughout the war. When she received medals from Queen Mary for her dead father, dead brother and dead boyfriend, she threw them back in the Queen’s face as a protest against the War. She was arrested and beaten by the police. She was released without charge, although she lost her job.  

Following her death at the age of 82 in 1978, the Brixton Anarchists named their archive collection, the ‘Kate Sharpley Library’. This maintains an archive of original anarchist documents and publishes books and pamphlets based on those materials.

With thanks to Terry Bensusan, whose research into William Sharpley has helped with this article.

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