John James Blacklaw Borthwick was born in 1886 in Edinburgh and played for local club sides before joining Hibs for the 1907-08 season. He then moved to Everton, where he had 25 games, before signing for Millwall in 1911.
‘I expected to die any minute’
Borthwick, a private in the 1st Football Battalion, the 17th Middlesex, was wounded in the terrible fighting at Delville Wood on July 28, 1916. It was quickly nicknamed Devil’s Wood by the soldiers. Recuperating in hospital in Liverpool, Borthwick wrote to Millwall manager Bert Lipsham:
“We were being very heavily shelled, dead and wounded all over the place, Germans as well as our own... Our captain... gave orders for four men to take a wounded captain to the dressing station, and I was one to be chosen. There wasn’t a whole stretcher in the place, and all the stretcher bearers were knocked out except one. We got two stout branches of a tree and put two waterproof sheets across them, placed the captain on it, and then started off.
“We had to go three-quarters of a mile to the dressing station, and God knows how we got there with shells flying all around us, scrambling up and down shell holes and over broken tree trunks. I expected that we should all go up in the air any minute.
"However, we arrived all safe and I was thankful as I was well beat. We had an hour’s rest before starting back off again."
"I never heard the shell coming"
“Everything was going well until I stopped my packet. I never heard the shell coming but felt it as my neck was very near set in. The piece must have been rather large and I was afraid I should be under the turf with a little wooden cross on top. I managed to get back to our trench and the stretcher-bearer dressed the wound. I lay down in the side of the trench for nearly half an hour until the shelling quieted down.
“Our captain wanted to send four men to carry me out, but I didn't fancy it so I told him I would rather walk if he sent a man with me to see I didn't collapse. Jack Nuttall [a teammate at Millwall] came with me and you ought to have seen us dashing across the wood.
“I remember getting to the dressing station but I must have lost consciousness as I don’t remember seeing our doctor. I was operated on next day, but I remember nothing about it. I was placed on the danger list and the missus had word to come, but I took a turn for the better."
"I’m afraid I’m finished with football"
“What a ward I was in, not one able to get up. We had six deaths in 24 hours and one fellow off his head. I am glad to say that my wound is going on all right, but I am afraid I am finished with football.
“I feel rather sorry as I am sure the army training had done me a lot of good. I was looking forward to coming home and making good. However, I must be thankful I am alive. My head has been trepanned, as the skull was knocked in. The cut extends from nearly the top of my head down too my eyebrow. It was a near thing of my losing my right eye.
“This is worse than a whole season of cup ties.”
Borthwick was right, he never played football again. He settled in Liverpool, for many years running the Winslow Hotel opposite Goodison Park, and died aged 56 in 1942. In 2010, the Football League unveiled their memorial with his words on at the villages of Longueval, where the 17th Middlesex began their attacks on Devil’s Wood.
Remembering the Somme
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.
Make your own commemoration to one of the casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.