Remembering Barry Town’s first captain: Major James Wightman, DSO MC

Born in Harras Moor in Whitehaven, Cumbria, in the north west of England, in 1893, James appears on the 1901 census as a son of James and Sarah Jane Wightman. His father was born in Ireland, and was an inn keeper in Whitehaven. When James snr died in 1904, it was the first tragedy to strike the family, and his mother continued the business alone.

James jnr had an elder sister, Sarah Grears Wightman, two elder brothers in Samuel and Tom, and a younger brother in John (‘Jack’). Following the death of his father, James moved to west Wales to complete teacher training at Carmarthen Training College (now the University of Wales).

Excelling at sport, James captained the college rugby and football teams, and was also a keen cricketer.  Indeed, James was later described as being ‘acknowledged as the best all-round athlete of the Training College, and a first-class footballer’.

Yet, it wasn’t James who hit the sporting headlines first. His older brother Samuel, known as Sammy, played for Workington AFC, who at the time were playing in the Lancashire Combination.

The original Workington AFC would soon fold, but by then Sammy Wightman had transferred to a new team in the south Wales valleys. Merthyr Town was formed in 1909, and placed in the Second Division of the Southern League. Widely acknowledged as the strongest league outside the football league, this was a big step up for Sammy.

By Christmas 1909, Sammy had been spotted by English Division One side, Middlesbrough FC. Boro had finished 6th in the League in 1908 and 9th in 1909. They’d smashed the transfer record a few seasons previously when they bought Alf Common for £1,000. Boro were a big name club.

Sammy signed for Boro from Merthyr for a fee of £100 and a first-team appearance by Boro at Penydarren Park, Merthyr. That match was played in March 1910, with Sammy Wightman appearing in the Boro line-up. With Boro hit by scandal later in 1910 (involving match-fixing in an effort to influence a local election), and with Sammy disaffected by his place in the club, he signed for Luton Town, then in the Southern League.

During his playing career with Luton Town, Sammy was in the side that played against Watford. There’s little of interest to that small piece of history, other than future Barry Town player-manager, Syd Beaumont, opposed Sammy in the Watford line-up. A couple of years later, Syd would find himself at Troedyrhiw with Sammy’s younger brother, James.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck when Sammy was involved in an incident on the pitch in a match against Brighton in April 1912. Clearing a ball into touch from the wing, Sammy was challenged by Brighton’s Fred Goodwin, and received what the coroner later adjudged to be an accidental blow to the stomach.

Sammy’s death-bed deposition, given when he was told he would not survive the injury, stated he believed it was a malicious challenge by Goodwin. The coroner would dismiss this deposition.

Although able to walk off the pitch with assistance, Sammy’s condition deteriorated rapidly and he died the following Wednesday. He’d suffered secondary infection after tearing open his small intestine. Sammy was transferred by train to be buried back in his hometown of Whitehaven, and the coffin was accompanied by Sammy’s younger brother James.

The following match for Luton was against Swindon Town, and following the final whistle, the Luton Red Cross Band took to the pitch to play Chopin’s Funeral March. A local newspaper reported the scene:

“Not a sound could be heard but that of the wonderful, dirgelike strains of the great musician, and the 7,000 spectators stood silent and bare-headed until the last mournful chord had died away. Even grown-up men were seen with tears streaming down their faces, and as the spectators filed sadly out of the ground there was little of the accustomed chatter and laughter which one usually hears. Both teams wore black armlets in memory of Wightman… There was little enthusiasm among the spectators, and everyone was glad when the final whistle sent the players into the dressing room.”

Sammy’s coffin was transferred back to Whitehaven by train and was accompanied by his younger brother, James.

James resumed college at Carmarthen, and later moved to Merthyr to complete his scholastic studies and eventually ended up teaching at the school in Troedyrhiw. Almost inevitably perhaps, he would soon join the Troedyrhiw football club. Already at Troedyrhiw was Syd Beaumont, a man who played against Sammy for Watford the previous season.

There’s no evidence to prove what happened next, but there seems to me to be very little chance James and Syd didn’t know the connection between them once they both joined Troedyrhiw.

Football had been played in Barry almost since the creation of the town in the late 1880s, and the Barry District side was an early powerhouse of football in south Wales. Before Swansea and before Cardiff.

Yet, with those two clubs going from strength to strength and with Barry quickly becoming a football backwater, the Barry Association Football and Sports Co. Ltd was registered in November 1912, and the Barry AFC was born. The club’s ground, Jenner Park, was started in early 1913, and by the summer, the Southern League announced the club and the ground had met the correct criteria. All the club needed were players.

It was from here that Jim Wightman signed for Barry AFC, and was joined by fellow Troedyrhiw player, Syd Beaumont as player-manager. An indication of Wightman’s respect as a footballer and an athlete was clearly shown when the Barry management made James the club’s captain for the opening match, and for the rest of the season.

James captained the side when Barry opened up its new era with a surprise 2-1 victory over Mid Rhondda United, in front of a crowd of around 4,000 at Jenner Park. Barry’s 1913-14 season was underway.

wightman James Wightman, pictured for Barry in the 1913-14 season.

 

Of lesser renown, maybe, was the fact that James was also the first Barry player ever to be sent off the field of play when he punched a Newport County player in Barry’s 6-2 win over County in February 1914.

A few weeks later, James sealed the points for Barry in a home win over Pontypridd by converting a penalty.  This was his only goal for the football club.  Of the 33 games played in cup and league in Barry’s inaugural season, James played in 32 of them.

By the summer of 1914, Barry was preparing for the 1914-15 season, European war, or no European war.  As line-up details are pretty scant for the 1914-15 season it’s uncertain how many, if any, matches were played with James Wightman in the line-up.

The 4 September issue of the Barry Dock News announced Wightman had resigned for the season. Wightman was later credited as bringing Bill Bowen to Barry. Bowen had earned an Amateur International cap for Wales while playing for Troedyrhiw.  James was also later credited with bringing to Barry ‘several of its most valuable players including Woodward, Alby Thomas, and D.J. Jones’.

Following the outbreak of hostilities on the continent, James had almost immediately signed up to Kitchener’s Army, aged just 22, and joined the Irish Guards as a Private before quickly joining the The East Surrey 8th Battalion, so if he did continue to play for Barry, it would have only been for the initial games.  Following training, James and the 8th Battalion East Surreys landed at Boulogne in France, and saw action at Loos, before being posted to the Somme.

During a short break back in Wales during August 1915, the now Lieutenant James Wightman married his sweetheart, Eleanor Gertrude Morris, at St. Peter’s Church, Carmarthen, before enjoying a short honeymoon in Tenby.  Wightman is described in the Herald of Wales newspaper as ‘the well known South Wales footballer, who has captained the Carmarthen Training College team and the Barry Association team.”

Enjoying some leave during April of 1916, Wightman makes his first appearance in the diaries of the 8th Battalion after the famous events of the 1st July 1916, on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. The exploits of the 8th Battalion, and that of Captain Wilfred ‘Billie’ Neville, would later become known as ‘The Football Charge’.

Fearing how his men would react when they were finally asked to go ‘over the top’ and attack the German trenches some 300 yards away, Neville had brought with him four footballs.  Offering a prize to whoever scored a ‘goal’ by getting to the other side and attacking the Germans, James was part of the Football Attack that was later immortalised back home in the press when this poem was printed:

—-

On through the hail of slaughter,

Where gallant comrades fall,

Where blood is poured like water,

They drive the trickling ball.

The fear of death before them,

Is but an empty name;

True to the land that bore them,

The Surreys played the game.

—-

Two of the footballs were later recovered, and one of them remains on display at Dover Castle.  On reading the 8th Battalion East Surrey diaries from the time though, James was absolutely involved in the famous attack.

The East Surrey War Diary states, Lieutenant Colonel Brame “…turned up with a bottle of champagne. This bottle was sent around from officer to officer, those who shared in it being Major Irwin, Captain Gimson, Lieutenant Bowen, Lieutenant Derrick, Lieutenant Janion, Lieutenant Thorley, Lieutenant Wightman, Lieutenant Alcock and Captain Clare.”

Also in the East Surrey’s diaries, written under the phrase “The rest of this is not official” features several macabre adverts:

COME AND JOIN THE GREAT INTERNATIONAL FINAL

 —

ENGLAND v GERMANY

— 

KICK OFF AT ZERO HOUR

 —

(NO REFEREE)

By 30 September 1916, it’s reported that James had been awarded the Military Cross for his hand-to-hand fighting and for the quality of his bomb-throwing. One wonders if James learned his bomb-throwing technique while a young cricketer at Carmarthen.

 

Wightman - Military Cross award description

October 1916 saw James promoted from Lieutenant to Captain, and by December had been promoted again to Lieutenant-Colonel. Following Colonel Irwin DSO’s injury at the Somme, James had taken over command of the battalion and held the post permanently afterwards.

Back at home, there was much pride in the efforts of James at the Front, and his various promotions. Barry AFC, unlike many others, was still operating throughout the war, and by January 1917 the club’s officials and supporters were discussing the possibility of honouring James with a testimonial match after the war was over.

By 30 September 1917, James had taken the Senior Officers’ Course in Aldershot and rejoined the Battalion, taking over as 2nd in Command of 8th Battalion alongside Lieutenant Colonel Irwin who was the Commander.

In March 1918, the Germans had begun a ferocious counter-attack known as the Spring Offensive, which was a do or die attempt at finally winning the war in the west.  Ultimately, it failed, and by August the Germans were in retreat.

By then acting as temporary Major, James and his battalion came under heavy fire from munitions as well as gas on the morning of 4 April. The Battalion’s HQ could see a ‘general withdrawal’ was underway, started by the Australians.  The weather was so atrocious, the rifles and Lewis Guns were getting clogged with liquid mud and were becoming unusable.

It was estimated that the fire-power was reduced by two-thirds because of the mud, and the Lewis Guns especially being almost impossible to use and therefore the men were left ‘practically unarmed’. By the evening of 4 April, only four officers remained either alive or able to continue in his post.

Major James ‘Jim’ Wightman became a casualty of the war when sent to see the Brigade Commander of the 7th Queens. This is how the 8th Battalion’ East Surreys diaries report what happened next:

“While talking to the General, Major Wightman was shot through the body by an enemy sniper and mortally wounded.  His servant, Private Newman, made a very gallant attempt to get him away with the help of three men of the 7th Queens, but after two had been killed, and one wounded, he gave up the attempt and waited until it was sufficiently dark, when he succeeded with the help of three other men in carrying Major Wightman back to Cachy, a distance of about one and a half miles.

This very gallant Officer subsequently died of his wound on the 9.4.18., and was buried at Piquigny.  He had carried out his duties for two years as a Scouting Officer, Company Commander, 2nd in Command, and, for a short period, Battalion Commander with the utmost gallantry and resolution, and on many occasions, when the situation demanded it, exposed himself with complete disregard for his personal safety.  His loss was a heavy blow which was felt by every Officer, NCO, and man in the Battalion.”

Tragically, while looking through the records, it transpires that James’s brother, Jack, was also killed at the Front on the same day as James was mortally injured, 4 April 1918.

Major James Wightman, captain of Barry AFC, and awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and Military Cross for his services to the East Surrey’s and our country was just 25.

Jack Wightman was in the Machine Gun Corps (Cavalry) 2nd Squadron, and, like his brother James, was a victim of the German Spring Offensive.  He is buried at the Pozieres Memorial in France.  He was 23.

With Barry reforming in time for the 1919-20 Southern League season, the Supporters’ Club remembered James when the chairman stated:

“Seventy percent of the team joined the Army. One member of the team, not only in his play and in his actions was a gentleman, was the first join up. There was not another team in the country who could say that one of their members joined up as a private, and died a lieutenant colonel.”

It’s our honour to remember our club captain, James Wightman, on the centenary of his death in action at the Western Front. We also remember his younger brother Jack. and his older brother, Sammy. Rest in peace.

Jason Pawlin

wightman tombstone

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