November 11th is a poignant day across the nation, and with it being the centenary year of the Armistice, this year’s Remembrance Day has added significance.
For Leeds United, the First World War was a key part of the club’s own identity. In fact, it proved to be a foundation stone of the club’s existence.
On October 13th 1919, 11 months after the First World War had reached its climax, Leeds City F.C. was expelled from the football league.
This was because the club was unable to produce their books to the FA disproving the rumour that illegal payments had been made to Leeds players during the war.
Upon failing to produce their books at an official FA hearing, the club was given a second deadline. When this was not met, the FA were left with no alternative but to expel the club from the league. From Leeds City’s death arose another club.
Consequently, the centenary of the First World War comes just before the centenary celebrations of Leeds United as we know the club. The Kaiser Chiefs are already scheduled to play at Elland Road in June, while the club is also preparing a collation of supporter memories for the landmark year.
Yet, while the Great War became a transitional phase for the city of Leeds and their football team, the lives of Leeds City players who fought so heroically in the war will be remembered in the history records forever.
A total of seven Leeds City players served in the war: Simpson Bainbridge, Charlie Copeland, John Edmondson, John Jackson, James Speirs, Arthur Wainwright and Willis Walker. A further total of 12 servicemen were formerly on the club’s books when they took up arms.
Of the seven Leeds players who went out to fight for their country, one never returned.
An inside-forward born in Scotland, James ‘Jimmy’ Speirs scored over 100 goals during his career. Signed from Bradford in December 1912, Speirs was brought to Leeds by Herbert Chapman, a key capture for the club in their quest to earn promotion to the top division.
The Scottish forward would go on to score 22 goals across his first two seasons at the club, forming a decent partnership with the prolific Billy McLeod as Leeds finished sixth and fourth respectively.
However, the 1914/15 season prior to the war was a disappointing one from the club and Speirs’ point of view as they limped to 15th, when they were widely expected to challenge for promotion.
After playing his final game in a 2-0 home loss to Barnsley on April 24th 1915, Speirs made the decision to return home to Glasgow to enlist in the British Army.
In October 1919, the same month Leeds City were expelled from the football league, Bessie Speirs received the tragic news that her husband’s body had been found on the battlefield. Ten months later, it was officially confirmed Jimmy had been killed on August 20th 1917 in Belgium.
Speirs’ bravery is evident. After being posted to the 7th Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, he was promoted to the rank of corporal in July 1916. Involved in heavy machine-gun fighting on the Somme, Speirs was then appointed as a sergeant as the British Army launched a major offensive around the Ypres Salient in Belgium.
In total, James Speirs played 78 games for Leeds City, scoring 32 goals. Playing for Clyde, Rangers and Bradford as well, Speirs found the net 104 times during a career which spanned over 250 appearances.
James Hamilton Speirs died at the age of 31. Like millions of other servicemen killed across the world during the First World War, Speirs’ life was cut tragically short.
Today, we remember them regardless of football allegiance.