A century on from the end of World War I, Andy Hill recalls the remarkable tale of his grandfather who had entered the conflict as a sharp-shooting striker, and after becoming a casualty of war went on to become a Palace goalkeeper.
Tomorrow sees the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day and the end of the Great War. Palace, like almost every sports club across the country, lost players during the conflict, but many other employees were also affected.
As a child in the 1960s, I grew up knowing that my grandfather Charles Hill had been Palace’s reserve team goalkeeper right after the war. It was a matter of family pride, especially for his widow who had a photo of him on her mantelpiece in his woollen goalkeeper’s jumper leaning against a goalpost.
He played as an amateur, meaning that when he returned from the war to take up his old job at London County Council, he would occasionally receive an open postcard on a Thursday to inform him he was required to play for Palace, signed by manager and club secretary Edmond Goodman. However in the days before substitutes and back-up keepers, Charles would never feature for the first-team but did go on to play for Brentford and Orient.
As he had died before I was born, I grew up only knowing he was a very good amateur goalkeeper. It was therefore surprising, after looking through boxes in my parents’ loft in the 1980s, to find an old ledger from before the war detailing seasonal stats for a club named only as SFC playing in Marlow Road, Anerley.
In it I found Charles listed as club captain, alongside what were to be two of his future brothers-in-law, yet he was playing centre-forward and banging in goals seemingly for fun: two, three or four a game!
It puzzled me why a player scoring like a pre-discovery Ian Wright was known only as a goalkeeper in family history, and it was not until after my father had died that the subject happened to crop up while talking with my uncle, who chuckled: “Oh! But didn’t you know? He was gassed in the war – he was never able to run again, so he could only play in goal after that!”
In fact, Charles had played pre-war as a goalkeeper for Dulwich Hamlet and Brentford, however further research found that he was gassed in March 1916 in France - hardly a couple of months after having been moved across the Channel to Flanders and almost to the day of his 26th birthday. He was returned to England to recover but was never fit enough again for active service, remaining a Training Sergeant in the Corps of Signals until his demob in 1919.
Unable to run any real distance, any thought he might have had of playing outfield again was gone, and so bad were the effects of the gas on his airways and lungs that he had to breathe brine in through his nose and out through his mouth daily to help his red-raw airways heal or stay free of infection. He did that until his death in 1955 aged 65.
In the current day, it is impossible to imagine that the club would suggest to Wilfried Zaha or Christian Benteke to continue as the club’s third-choice goalkeeper after a significant lung ailment stopped them being able to run.
However, back then all those who returned from the conflict, either wounded or struggling with the horrors they had witnessed, tried to return to normality by playing football, and honour those that did not, or physically could not, return home. And for that, a century later, we shall remember them.