Leicester Fosse And The First World War: Part 19

The story of William Pepper.
In a new 25-part series, Club Historian John Hutchinson investigates the stories behind Leicester Fosse and the First World War. 2014 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. 

There were huge losses on both sides of the conflict. Over fifty players from Leicester Fosse Football Club fought in that War. They served in a variety of regiments, including the famous Footballers’ Battalion. Four Fosse players were decorated during the conflict. 

Up until recently, we thought that 11 Leicester Fosse players were killed in this war but recent research by Paul Taylor has revealed a 12th fatality, whose story is told below. 

In , John looked at the story of Robert Messer. 

William Pepper was the 12th Leicester Fosse player to be killed in action. He was one of only two Fosse fatalities not to have been killed on the Western Front, the other being William Cox who died in November 1915 from wounds received at Gallipoli. 

Born in Kent, goalkeeper Bill’s only game for Leicester Fosse was a 5-1 defeat by Leeds City at Elland Road in February 1913. Soon afterwards he returned to Kent and during the First World War became a private in the 1st/5th Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment. 

Using sources from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Imperial War Museum, the National Archives and Regimental records, it has been possible to build on Paul’s discovery and reconstruct the circumstances surrounding Bill Pepper’s First World War. 

Bill’s regiment served in India until December 1917. It then moved to Mesopotamia (now Iraq) which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany. On arrival in Basra, (which had been occupied by the British in November 1914, to secure the oil fields), Bill’s regiment joined the 54th Brigade in the 18th Indian Division. 

In the years before Bill’s arrival, the British Empire forces (mainly from India, but also from Australia, New Zealand and Britain) had pushed northwards from Basra to Baghdad in 1915 and then been forced to retreat to Kut where they endured a lengthy siege, suffering horrendous casualties before they finally surrendered in April 1916. 

In 1917, the British reoccupied Kut (pictured top of copy) and advanced again to Baghdad which they re-entered in March 1917. The Ottoman Turkish forces withdrew further north to Mosul. The British at this point stopped their advance due to stretched supply lines, the hot summer and lack of reinforcements. This was the situation when Bill arrived in Basra in December 1917 as part of the 18th Indian Division. Ten months later, on 23 October 1918, Bill left Baghdad with the 18th Indian Division for one last offensive. 

With the end of the war approaching the British wanted to capture the oil fields further north around Mosul before an armistice was signed. Within two days, the Anglo-Indian force had advanced 120 kilometres to the Little Zab River. 

Fighting continued against the 6th Ottoman Army, (in what has become known as the Battle of Sharqat), until 30 October. Bill was killed on October 25, one of 1,800 British Empire casualties The Ottomans surrendered on 30 October. 

The 18th Division advanced to Mosul which they entered on 1 November. Bill is one of 40,600 British Empire soldiers who died in Mesoptamia whose graves are not known. They are commemorated on the Basra Memorial (pictured below). Bill’s name is on Panel 29. 

Due to the current situation in Iraq, this Memorial, (which was moved to Nasiriyah in Iraq and re-erected in its entirety in 1997), cannot be maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A two volume Roll of Honour (pictured below) listing all the men on the Basra Memorial is on display at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Head Office in Maidenhead. 

The documentary film “Foxes Remembered: The story of Leicester City and the First World War” can be viewed .

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