Sunday 18 February 2018

Past reality too often obscured by Celtic's complicated present

Some Celtic fans protest against the poppy but, as Peter Geoghegan recalls, the club once had strong links with the British armed forces

Peter Geoghegan

In March 1916, Celtic centre-half Peter Johnstone walked into a British Army recruitment office in Glasgow. He was in his late 20s, a father, husband and the linchpin of a side on the verge of winning a third consecutive Scottish league title. Just over a year later, Johnstone was dead, killed in action on a distant French battlefield.

Nearly a century on, Peter Johnstone has been almost completely forgotten – and so has the contribution of numerous former Celtic players and staff to the British war effort.

"You could go out and ask who Peter Johnstone was and people wouldn't know," says Michael Payne, a member of the Celtic supporters' club in Ballingry, a small town in Fife, central Scotland near where Johnstone was born and raised.

Johnstone was, in many ways, an unlikely Celtic hero. Born in 1888, he left school at 14 to follow his father, Thomas, down the local colliery. Tall and athletic, when not lying on his back for ten hours at a time in the pits he turned out for local junior outfit Glencraig Celtic. It was in the Glencraig hoops that he was spotted by Celtic directors, in 1908. He went on to make 223 appearances for the club, playing a starring role in Willie Maley's second great side.

The town of Glencraig has vanished, demolished in the 1950s. The pits that once scarred the landscape are gone, replaced by green fields. There is no trace of Glencraig's most famous player either.

"A lot of young Celtic fans here didn't know who he was. So we decided to do something about that," says Payne over a cup of coffee in the community centre which he manages. A young lad in the iconic green and white hooped jersey walks past. For many here, the 100-mile round trip to Celtic Park is a fortnightly pilgrimage.

Payne and the Celtic Graves Society, an organisation dedicated to remembering players and staff from the club who died in the two world wars, are raising money to erect a memorial to Peter Johnstone. Johnstone died when his regiment, the 6th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, attempted to capture a chemicals factory near Rouex in north-west France during the Battle of Arras. His name is listed on the memorial at Arras.

"There are not a lot of accurate stories about Peter Johnstone – there is a story that he had a death wish but that's not true," says Payne.

Johnstone certainly didn't have to fight. As a newsagent and a miner – both reserved occupations – Johnstone was protected from conscription but he signed up nonetheless. He even played for Celtic while he was enlisted: in September 1916, during his army training, Johnstone travelled overnight from England to help his team-mates oust Rangers from the Glasgow Cup.

Johnstone was the only serving Celtic player to die in World War I but he was not the only link between the club and the Great War.

"The Glasgow Irish made a huge contribution to the war, as did the Irish themselves. Celtic was an important part of that," says Ian McCallum, Celtic fan and author of The Celtic, Glasgow Irish and the Great War: The Gathering Storms.

Thirteen players connected to Celtic died during the conflict, says McCallum. These included Donald McLeod, who played over 150 times for the club and died in October 1917 at Passchendaele, and former Celtic full-back Robert Craig. Others returned home from the continent as war heroes. Willie Angus, who never played for the first team but was on the books at Celtic, was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery and valour after a daring rescue mission during which he lost an eye, damaged a foot and was wounded 40 times.

Celtic's relationship with the British Army was not simply an example of wartime expediency. From the club's inauguration in 1888, British Army bands regularly played at Parkhead before games, and many early Celtic players and staff were involved in the army. The club had such a strong relationship with the Gordon Highlanders that Celtic trained the battalion's football team and allowed Army cup games to be played at Parkhead. During the war the British Army even had a recruitment office at the ground.

Many on the Celtic board were firm supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the club played their part in the promotion of the war effort. Appeals were made at half-time during matches for recruits; the club sent footballs to army recruits in training and soldiers at the front; and matches for War Relief Funds, initially for Belgian refugees, were played at Hampden Park in 1915, 1916 and 1917, when Celtic, as league champions, played against a select team representing the rest of the league before large crowds.

Celtic did well during the First World War. Unlike in England, where football was suspended, it continued in Scotland, with some modifications. While chairman Tom White agreed with the War Office to postpone full internationals and the Scottish Cup, Celtic did win a hat-trick of league titles from 1915 to 1917.

These aspects of Celtic's history have been largely forgotten. Remembrance Sunday has become an increasingly controversial affair at Celtic Park. In 2010, fans from the Green Brigade unfurled large banners protesting the club's decision to play with a poppy on their shirts.

McCallum was motivated to write his book, the first in a series, by what he saw as "the lack of knowledge of the war among the Glasgow Irish".

A former soldier with 22 years experience in the British Army behind him, including several tours in Northern Ireland, McCallum is well placed to understand the dynamics of both the Bhoys and the armed forces. "When I was on leave from the army, I'd go to Celtic Park and sing IRA songs. There were thousands of soldiers like me," he recalls.

The attitude of Celtic fans towards those soldiers who fought in the British army has changed, he says. "If you went to Parkhead before say 1955, and in any way shape or form insulted or demeaned the war and remembrance, you'd have been lynched."

He adds: "The act of remembrance itself has become politicised in the footballing hothouse that is the west of Scotland. The whole remembrance thing has been politicised. If Rangers do anything the natural reaction of Celtic supporters is to oppose it. But remembrance should be a personal thing, not a political thing."

For Michael Payne, Peter Johnstone's contribution has been overlooked for too long. Ironically, the player himself would have seen at first hand the arms race in Europe in the summer of 1914 that would eventually cost him his life.

In May 1914, Celtic, the Scottish champions, went on a European tour. In Potsdam, Germany, they witnessed menacing Zeppelin airships circling overhead as they passed through. They met banks of artillery batteries in Vienna.

En route to Budapest from Vienna, the Celtic team bus was stopped by customs officials. Peter Johnstone's cases were searched. He was carrying contraband – ten extra packs of cigarettes. The border guards were about to confiscate the illicit Woodbines when they realised that the party was from the famous Celtic. Instead of giving up his smokes, Johnstone, like the rest of the squad, signed autographs and posed for photographs before being waved across the border. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The Great War had begun.

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