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The Story Of Joe “Bubbles” Bailey

To mark 100 years since the Armistice, we present a long read on one of Reading’s true heroes.

Joe “Bubbles” Bailey, 1890-1974
Chris Lee

One hundred years on from the end of the First World War, it’s hard to come to terms with the scale of the conflict. By the end of the fighting, around six million Britons had signed up to fight for their country, either through volunteering or being conscription. Among them were footballers from across the country, including Reading’s very own Walter George Bailey, better known as Joe ‘Bubbles’ Bailey.

A STAR Hall Of Fame inductee in April 2017, Bailey was a true hero both on the battlefield - where he was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and Military Cross with two bars - and on the football pitch for Reading, for whom he played a crucial role in their emergence into the Football League. To mark a century since the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, we look back at the story of an incredible man.

Born in Thame, Oxfordshire, on February 9 1890, Bailey would start his career with his hometown club: Thame United. After a brief spell for Nottingham Forest at the end of 1910, he joined Oxford City in 1911 before signing for Reading that same year as an amateur player - a common theme in Southern England at the time. His talent would have seen him play a part in Great Britain’s 1912 Olympic side, only to be sidelined with injury. Undeterred, he turned pro not long after.

In what has gone down as one of the finest moments in this club’s history, Reading earned international plaudits with their famous 1913 tour of Italy, and Bailey was at the heart of it. The Biscuitmen took on some of the strongest opposition in the country at the time, but won four of their five matches. Bailey played a pivotal role in that success, scoring in every match of the tour: wins over Genoa (4-2), Milan (5-0), Pro Vercelli (6-0) and even the Italian national side (2-0), in addition to a 2-1 loss to Casale Monterrato.

Reading’s pre-tour squad photo from La Stampa Sportiva
Chris Lee

The Footballers’ Battalion

August 1914 saw the start of the First World War, with Great Britain soon joining. Although the professional army - the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) - was deployed, more volunteers were needed. Football played a key part in encouraging men to enlist. but The sport had lost its popularity in the opening stages of the conflict, with many calling for the professional game to be postponed so as to not detract from the war effort.

In reaction to the change in public opinion, a special regiment was formed in a meeting at Fulham Town Hall on December 15 1914 by William Joynson-Hicks MP: The 17th Middlesex, better known as the Footballers’ Battalion. Players from Arsenal, Bradford City, Brighton and Hove Albion, Chelsea, Clapton Orient, Croydon Common, Crystal Palace, Luton Town, Southend and Watford were signed up there and then.

By Spring 1915, more than 200 footballers from 60 clubs (mostly southern) had enlisted, but an influx of amateur players, pros and supporters saw the total jump to 1,600 by the Summer. Besides Joe Bailey, then a Lance Corporal, the unit also included Walter Tull, one of the country’s first black players and the British Army’s first black officer to command white troops.

Walter Tull (left) in full army uniform

Although the 17th were trained up as professional soldiers, they also played a key role in the recruitment drive, playing matches against other regiments and regular clubs to encourage spectators to support the war effort. Fixtures in early 1915 included a 2-0 win over the 23rd Royal Fusiliers at Craven Cottage and a comeback win over Croydon Common at The Nest in Selhurst, but the Footballers’ Battalion would also travel to Elm Park to take on Joe Bailey’s Reading on two occasions.

The first, on September 4 1915, was attended by a bumper crowd of 3,000, including 200 injured soldiers who had been given free entry for the game. The 17th’s side, which featured former Biscuitman Private Ben Butler but not Bailey, dominated and came away with a late 1-0 victory.

However, Reading would soon have their revenge. Another match took place the following month, the home side coming away with a hard-fought 3-2 victory, albeit with some help from the opposition. The decisive factor in the result was several Reading players in the 17th being allowed to line up for their club side. Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp note in When The Whistle Blows that:

“Corporal Fred Bartholomew played a fine game, and Reading’s second goal was scored by the club’s former centre-half, Corporal Terence ‘Ted’ Hanney. A former soldier with the 1st Royal Berkshires, Hanney had helped the Southern League club win the Second Division in the 1910/11 season.

“Hanney had also been a member of the Great Britain team at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, although he had missed the final on account of injury. Having made more than 100 appearances for Reading, Hanney had moved to Manchester City in 1913 for a transfer fee of £1,250.”

The Western Front

Having completed their training, the 17th set out for France in mid-November 1915, sailing from Folkestone to Boulogne before moving onto Les Ciseaux and then Isbergues, eventually settling at Guarbecque. It was there that Bailey tried a spot of makeshift fishing on a bombing course, dropping a grenade into the water to see what would happen. Unsurprisingly, several dead fish soon floated up to the surface.

A month later, the 17th had their first taste of frontline action, entering the trenches for the first time on December 10. As chance would have it, Bailey and the other Reading players in B Company were stationed with... the Royal Berkshires, perhaps the best place for a former Reading goalscorer to be.

In fact, even when Bailey and fellow former Biscuitman Hanney were relocated two miles back from the trenches by the time Christmas Day came, they made sure to have Christmas dinner with their Berkshire comrades. Bailey looked back fondly on this time in a letter published by the Berkshire Chronicle on January 7 1916:

“When we went to the trenches the other night we went in with the Berks Regiment for instructions. What a time Ted and myself had, also Norman Ward. Regimental Sergeant-Major King, D.C.M., was there, and he did not forget the boys. We had plenty of rum to keep the wet out: it poured with rain the whole time. The mud and water was up to our waists; we did look some nice boys.”

“I don’t think I have met a more sociable and better lot of fellows than the Berks; they are top-hole. We have only one killed in our company at present and one wounded (December 18), so we have not done so badly.”

The harsh realities of war were never far away though. Danger was a constant on the front lines of the Western Front - not just from gunfire and artillery barrages, but also by more devious methods of assault. With the Allies and Germans each locked into their opposing networks of trenches, new attack plans were thought up to provide the all-important breakthrough. For Bailey and his comrades, that meant potentially being on the wrong end of vicious uses of military technology, as he describes in the same edition of the Berkshire Chronicle:

“This part is terrible for the mines; you never know when you are safe. The Germans are always undermining. The beggars get right under our trenches. We blew up one the other night; talk about shake the earth, it nearly blew one down. I have been sent down for a ten days’ divisional bombing course, known as the Suicide Club, so I am well in it now. The rifle is not much use now as it is all bomb throwing.”

There was plenty of danger for Bailey from below, but just as much above him. The concept of an ‘air force’ was new in 1916, and both sides would go from flying rickety reconnaissance planes in the early stages of the conflict to having their airmen engage in dogfights and bombing runs - tactics still with us today. For the average Tommy in the trenches though, it was a startling sight to see aeroplanes go head-to-head, machine guns blazing, and a big enough event for Bailey to recount in another letter to the Berkshire Chronicle:

“It is a lovely day. I am writing this at the side of my dug-out, sitting on a bag of coke. Two German aeroplanes have just been over my head observing. It was a fine sight to see our aeroplanes firing at them with machine-guns in their planes, but no such luck as to see one come down.”

However, his time at the front didn’t just see him take part in military matters. Bailey, Hanney and the rest of the 17th kept playing football matches whenever they could, albeit against other army units rather than professional sides. The gulf in standard was stark, with one onlooker noting the Footballers’ Battalion had enough talent to “produce a dozen teams capable of beating any regimental eleven out here”.

Despite the mammoth gap in quality, what better way to boost morale on the depressing Western Front than to have soldiers’ sporting heroes play in front of their eyes? The 17th were entered into The Divisional Tournament to take on other battalions based in the region. Having been handed a bye in the first round, the 17th got off to a typically impressive start, thrashing the 13th Essex 9-0 on January 7 1916; Joe Bailey running riot with four goals. The final would eventually come a few months later on April 11, the 17th taking on the 34th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery at Hersin, just to the west of Lens in north-east France. Bailey started in what would hardly prove to be a narrow match; 11-0 the score at full-time.

Allen Foster, the scorer of 68 goals in 146 Southern League appearances for Reading before the war, was also in the Footballers’ Battalion, and far from lost his love of the game. In his own letter to the Berkshire Chronicle, the one-time centre-forward asked what kind of gates Reading were getting at Elm Park (“not much, I suppose” he figured) before admitting that there was “really no opposition” to Bailey and his time on the Western Front. He ended with a thinly-disguised hope of being back in the Reading starting XI after the war:

“I am in the best of health and still keeping my weight down for next August.”

Tragically, it wasn’t to be. On July 1 1916 came the start of the infamous Battle of the Somme, an engagement that would lead to the deaths of more than 400,000 British soldiers by the time it ended in November 1916. Just over a month in, Foster was cut down by machine gun fire in the fighting around Delville Wood and Guillemont. Rushed back from the fighting to receive medical attention, he managed to give the nurses his home address so they could contact his wife before passing away. The news was particularly devastating for Reading FC’s secretary-manager, Harry Matthews, who knew just how significant a role Foster had played for the club, saying:

“He was liked by all, and he has done a very great deal for our club... Of all the players, I devoutly hoped that he might be spared to come back and be with us all again. I am hoping when the better days come that the club can do something in appreciation of his good deeds.”

Allen Foster (fourth from right, back row) with other members of the 17th Middlesex in 1915
The National Army Museum

The club would indeed do something to remember Foster’s life - fittingly, with Joe Bailey playing a part. Bailey had been withdrawn from the front the month before the start of the fighting at the Somme, sent back to England after his hand was slashed on barbed wire and the wound didn’t heal. However, he was able to play football again - on November 18 1916 to be precise - coincidentally the last day of the Somme offensive.

In that match, Reading FC took on footballers from the 27th Middlesex (some of whom had previously been in the 17th) in a charity match to raise money for Foster’s widow and child. Bailey turned out in Reading colours, and Ted Hanney returned to Elm Park to fill in as linesman, but the 27th ran out 5-2 winners.

A true war hero

Joe Bailey would be back on the Western Front the following year, promoted from Corporal to Second Lieutenant in August 1917 albeit in a different unit: the Second Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. It was with them that Bailey became a true war hero, saving the lives of others due to his own bravery and earning the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”. On March 28 1918, just a week after the German’s ‘Spring Offensive’, Bailey went above and beyond with an act that would be mentioned in despatches a few months later as follows:

“When the line had to be reformed under heavy machine-gun fire, this officer moved about, placing the men in the best positions. He then made several journeys to an ammunition dump in front of the line, bringing back ammunition which was much needed. He also brought back a man who was lying wounded in the open.”

When soldiers who had already been awarded the Military Cross performed a similar act of bravery again, their original MC would be supplemented with a silver bar, and that’s exactly what Bailey did. Twice. In August of the same year, having been attached to the Second Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment a month prior, he attacked machine gun nests on two separate occasions, despite not being backed up by any more than three soldiers either time. His praises were again sung in despatches:

“Accompanied by one orderly he rushed a machine-gun post which was holding up the advance of the battalion, and captured 1 officer, 23 men, and 2 machine guns. Later in the day he made a reconnaissance under very heavy fire, and brought back information as to the position of the battalion. Two days later, accompanied by his orderly and two other men, he went forward and attacked two enemy machine guns, scattering the crews and killing several. His utter disregard of danger was magnificent.”

Bailey earned his second bar in October 1918, just over a month before the conflict’s conclusion. Again, he performed his duty under machine gun fire, despite the huge risk to his own life, with this last mention in despatches reading like so:

”For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Seranvillers on October 8th, 1918. He assembled the troops, and afterwards with a few scouts moved forward with the attack, He cleared the village and, with four men, captured prisoners and machine guns. He reorganised men of the battalion who had lost their companies and then went out and ascertained the enemy’s dispositions under very heavy machine-gun and shell fire. Greatly owing to his gallant and determined leadership all objectives were gained.”

Not content with his two-bar Military Cross, Bailey was further honoured with a mention in despatches, this time after being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), a medal for officers who have “performed meritorious or distinguished service in war.”

“For conspicuous gallantry and able leadership as Battalion Intelligence Officer at Romeries, Escarmain and Beaudignies, on 23rd October 1918, he went forward and found that a company had become disorganised owing to the loss of all its officers, and was hesitating to go forward. He immediately took command, rallied the men, and succeeded in getting them to their objective under heavy shell fire. Later, he led them in the assault on the final objective. He showed great skill in consolidating the positions gained and in the disposal of his force.”

Having started the war as a Private, Joe Bailey had ended it as the most highly-decorated officer of the Suffolk Regiment in the entire First World War. His record didn’t go unnoticed by his peers after the war though, with Bailey made an acting captain in February 1919 and then a full Lieutenant a month later, each time in the Suffolk Regiment. He was even given the high honour of collecting his battalion’s colours after the conflict to take them to Germany.

Joe Bailey in military uniform

A club legend

With the war finally ending on November 11 1918 - a century to this day - the country could belatedly go back to normal, or at least try. For Joe Bailey that meant swapping the battlefield for the football pitch, where he would make a historic contribution to Reading Football Club.

The professional game resumed post-war with the 1919/20 season, with The Biscuitmen competing in their previous division: the Southern League. However, 1920/21 saw the dawn of a new era for the club, Reading and a number of other sides from the former Southern League being brought into the newly-formed Division Three of an expanded Football League.

Our first game - and goal - in the Football League came on August 28 1920 in a 1-0 win at Newport County, and who better to score it than Joe Bailey? He would go on to also score the club’s first ever Football League hat-trick that season, finishing the campaign as top-scorer with 18 goals, before ending his Elm Park career in 1921 with a terrific record of 80 goals in 201 appearances. Reading honoured him on his departure with a testimonial - for which he sold a ticket a ticket to future monarch Edward VII!

Having left the club, he would try his hand at non-league football (for Boscombe and Sittingbourne), also coaching cricket for Warwick School. When war returned in 1939 he served his country once more, this time taking a command in the Dorset Home Guard, saying (via When The Whistle Blows):

“If there had been a battle, I was never in any doubt that we would have given Jerry a sticky time.”

Joe Bailey passed away in 1974 aged 84. Fast-forward to 2017 though, and he was officially recognised with an induction into STAR’s Hall of Fame, a fitting tribute to a true hero and club legend.