In 1914 the Welsh international goalkeeper Leigh Roose – playboy, scholar, maverick and football’s first genuine superstar – went off to play his part in the First World War. What he witnessed on the battlefields of northern France and the Gallipoli Peninsula was a world away from his previous existence as a fans’ favourite on the playing fields of several top British clubs including Stoke, Everton and Sunderland. In this extract from his book Lost In France, Spencer Vignes delves into the mystery surrounding Leigh’s disappearance at the height of the war in 1916. Missing presumed dead or still alive? Only now has the truth come to light…
Of the half-a-million Allied troops landed on the Peninsula throughout the assault, nearly 300,000 were either killed or injured. By the end of January 1916 Leigh’s family feared that he might have joined the list of casualties, his regular stream of letters having dried up before Christmas. Enquiries were made, all of which drew a blank. Nobody seemed to know whether he had gone missing before, during or after the evacuation of Gallipoli. As the weeks turned into months and still there was no word, that almost became immaterial. Whatever the circumstances surrounding his apparent death, it seemed as though Leigh wasn’t coming back.
The loss of a loved one is, it goes without saying, one of life’s tougher trials. It is even harder to accept when there is no funeral to attend or body to bury. Throughout 1916 Leigh’s family, in particular his 77-year-old father, struggled to come to terms with their loss. As a pacifist, Richmond Roose had never wanted his son playing any part in the war, a contributory reason behind Leigh’s decision to volunteer for the YMCA rather than fight. Now, 20 years after Edward Roose’s death from hypothermia, he had lost a second child. Those close to Richmond believed the spark went out of his aging body through believing Leigh to be dead. He would die of natural causes the following year.
With over 760,000 other families caught up in the grieving process, it was years before any kind of normality returned to day-to-day life in Britain. That also applied to sport, with the first post-war Football League season starting in August 1919. Rugby union’s Five Nations Championship followed suit in 1920, Wales and England going head to head for the first time since 1914 in Swansea on 17 January.
When the two countries met again at Twickenham almost exactly a year later Leigh’s sister Helena Jenkins, together with her husband John (himself injured on the Western Front in 1916 by an exploding mine) and their son Dick, were among those in the crowd cheering on the visitors. Afterwards they adjourned to the Committee Room at the ground for a post-match dinner, a privilege granted to former internationals such as John and their families. Little did they realise their worlds were about to be turned upside down.
“We found we were sitting at a table with Tom Webster, the sports cartoonist for the Daily Mail and a very clever man,” recalled Dick in 2000. “Tom had known my uncle (Leigh) well. At some point one of us, I can’t remember who, said how sad it was about what had happened to Leigh at Gallipoli and how much he would have enjoyed an occasion like this. And straight away Tom said ‘No, he didn’t go missing at Gallipoli. I played cricket with him in Egypt after the evacuation!’ That was the moment we realised he had managed to get out.”
This shocking revelation stunned the whole family, especially Helena. It also threw up many questions. Had Leigh perished while travelling back to Britain from Egypt, his ship perhaps torpedoed by a German U-boat? What if he were still alive? Maybe he had suffered some form of breakdown or memory loss causing him to spend the past five years convalescing in a hospital or home? That might explain why he hadn’t been in touch.
Over the following weeks Helena and John sent dozens of letters and telegrams to people, organisations and businesses they remembered as having had some kind of link with Leigh. The list included friends, football clubs, hospitals, newspapers, private members clubs, even his favourite restaurants and watering holes. They were desperate to find out (a) if anyone knew where Leigh was, and (b) where and when the last known sighting of him had taken place. Several of those contacted offered to help by making enquiries of their own.
Having been one of the most popular and recognisable sportsmen in pre-war Britain, there was no shortage of replies. The vast majority said they hadn’t seen him since around or before 1914. However, there had been sightings during the war. Charlie Buchan, his one-time captain at Sunderland, had crossed paths with Leigh in northern France and found him to be in “good spirits” (Buchan came through the killing fields of Passchendaele, Cambrai and the Somme without so much as a mark). Richard Sutton, a journalist with The Times, also recalled a chance meeting with Leigh in London earlier that summer during which he had mentioned his imminent departure for France.
Then there were those such as George Holley who hadn’t seen Leigh during the First World War but had kept up to date with his movements by letter. The postmarks ranged from Bristol to Egypt to the French port of Calais and were dated 1914, 1915 and 1916. From information contained in some of these Helena was able to deduce that he had joined the 9th Royal Fusiliers at some point during the summer of 1916. Holley himself had last heard from Leigh in September of that year at which point the battalion were holed up in trenches around the villages of Agny and Dainville near the city of Arras. After that, nothing.
All the evidence seemed to suggest that Leigh had perished in France at some point during mid-to-late 1916. However, Helena wasn’t entirely convinced. Her brother had already come back from the dead once after Gallipoli. She needed to see with her own eyes some kind of proof that he really had gone for good. The Royal Fusiliers, if anyone, would be able to provide it. At least so she thought.
It was now that the search for information regarding Leigh’s whereabouts, or perhaps fate, took a bizarre new twist. According to regimental lists, no one with the surname ‘Roose’ had fought for any battalion of the Royal Fusiliers during the war. Certain a mistake had been made, John Jenkins asked contacts of his both within the regiment and the War Office to check again. All came back with the same answer – nobody called Leigh Roose had ever been a Royal Fusilier, let alone a soldier in the 9th Battalion. The War Office was also able to confirm that of the four soldiers killed between 1914 and 1918 with the surname Roose, none had been christened Leigh.
The most famous and certainly the most charismatic football player of his generation seemed to have vanished into thin air.
This is an extract from ‘Lost in France’, a book on the remarkable life and death of Leigh Roose. It is published through Pitch Publishing and is available here