White Horse: the 1923 Cup Final, my Grandfather and Me.
How one man's road to Wembley went through Egypt, East Africa and beyond
The White Horse Cup Final has always been a seductive symbol of British decency, with an over-enthusiastic but ultimately well-behaved crowd allowing order to be restored, not by a policeman as such, but by the equine beast he is sitting on.
The only thing my grandmother ever had to say about the 1923 cup final was that Bobby had gone to the match without a proper coat and scarf. It had been an uncommonly cold spring, and not wrapping up well was just asking for trouble. Her husband came back from London with pneumonia, and was dead within weeks.
The FA Cup Final of April 28 1923 was arguably the most famous match ever to take place in the history of English football. The record books tell us that Bolton Wanderers defeated West Ham United 2-0, with goals from David Jack and Jack Smith, but that's not why the occasion was important. It was the first match ever played at the brand-new Wembley Stadium, and tens of thousands of ticketless fans famously forced their way inside the ground, spilling out onto the pitch. According to estimates, 300,000 people were crammed into a stadium that had an official capacity of 126,000. The terrain was cleared patiently and methodically by mounted police, including one officer (George Scorey) on a white horse named Billy. Immortalized by newsreel footage, the match has been known as the White Horse Cup Final ever since.
My grandfather Bobby Bousfield was indeed at Wembley on that day, and we still have the ticket stub to prove it. Unfortunately we don't know anything about his experience of the match. Did he ever reach the north stand enclosure marked on his ticket? How much of the game could he actually see? April 1923 nevertheless plays a central role in Bousfield family mythology. Not only had my grandfather attended one of the most famous football matches of all time, but the experience had quite literally killed him. Curiously, and perhaps a little shamefully, none of his male descendants went on to honour Bobby's memory by supporting Bolton Wanderers.
There was a reason why Bobby had been in such weak health. Sent to Africa to fight out British-German colonial rivalries in World War I, he had caught malaria almost as soon as he arrived. And in those days, malaria was an affliction you never quite got rid of. His war was spent in hospital camps in German East Africa (now Tanzania), South Africa, and eventually Alexandria in Egypt. We still have the letters that the bored, malarial Bobby sent my grandmother from Africa every few days. Carefully numbered from 1 to 127, they are stored in an old wooden trunk that looks just as old as the letters themselves. The pair got engaged by post some time in 1917, a process which also required asking my grandmother's father for consent - we can imagine the suspense of waiting for answers that took weeks, often months to arrive.
My grandmother Rene was very much a daughter of the British Empire, accustomed to foreign postings, slow postal services, and a childhood of fragmented friendships. Her father was Sergeant-Major Hanson, a career soldier who had run away to join the army as a teenager and ended up barking out the orders on parade grounds everywhere from Aldershot to Egypt. Rene had been born on a British military base at Athlone in Ireland in 1895; her childhood years were spent in Malta, Gibraltar and Cairo.
I remember my grandmother's house in England's rural northwest as a kind of ark where the heirlooms of empire were kept: photograph of her sitting on a donkey in front of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, brass trays engraved with hypnotic swirls of Arabic lettering, service medals in their original boxes, old uniforms kept behind the stiff, creaking doors of bedroom wardrobes, and boxes of postcards from military postings around the Mediterranean. Whenever my brother and I went to grandma’s house during the school holidays, these were the things that inspired our games, and suggested destinations to which we could travel in our imaginations.
There is no doubt that those of us born in the Sixties and educated in the Seventies saw the British Empire both as something that had happened in the past, and was now largely over, and also something that had on the whole been benign. There was also an unspoken feeling that the empire had largely come about by accident and happenstance, an organic fluid that had oozed naturally into the world's vacant spaces.
Bearing in mind that concepts of post-imperial guilt and responsibility had not yet reached the British education system (indeed arguments about this are still current in 2023), the whole colonial project appeared to our generation as some sort of adventure, led by robust men who resembled captains of the school rugby team. Thanks to such enterprise, the empire could be seen as something that had been legitimately earned, like a sporting trophy, an Olympic medal.
In my young imagination, the mysterious grandfather who had died four decades before my own appearance was, on account of his African odyssey, one of the modest heroes of this empire. In actual fact he hated travel, hated the army, hated Africa, and would have been quite happy to spend his entire life strolling the sheep-nibbled hills of his beloved northern England.
Bobby was called up in summer 1916. After months of training he was put on a boat for Africa, which set sail on May 4 1917. What can I tell you about him to flesh out his personality? Not much, bearing in mind that he died well before my time. He was born, one of nine children, in Kirkby Stephen, one of those north-country market towns full of houses that look like piled-up cubes of grey-brown stone. His parents were farmers who had diversified into running a couple of local pubs. Eager to keep him at home, his mum obstructed Bobby's efforts to get into grammar school, but he did at least qualify as a post office telegraphist, which is why he ended up conscripted into the Royal Engineers. He was a keen church-goer, not much of a drinker, and a bit of a prude. He didn't really fit into the macho card-playing cussing-and-quarelling milieu into which he was thrown, and didn't make many army friends.
"This is malaria sure enough."
The sea journey took over seven weeks. “I suppose there is such a place as Africa? " he joked in late May. "Perhaps there has been a volcanic eruption which has removed it elsewhere.” Eventually they put in to Freetown in Sierra Leone to take on water. Officers were allowed shore leave, but the lower ranks were not.
“On this boat more than half the space, with all the comforts – dining rooms, smoke-rooms, bathrooms, writing rooms, separate cabins, covered decks – is allotted to about thirty officers. In the rest of the ship two thousand men are herded together like so many cattle, with insufficient space to either eat or sleep. I’m absolutely sore with sitting and lying on the hard deck, and the want of exercise – there is scarcely room to move – makes one feel so stiff and weary. It even takes hours to get a wash, and the accommodation in every respect is a crying disgrace. "
Bobby finally went ashore at Dar es Salaam on June 20 1917, but he'd missed most of the fighting. German East Africa was German no more. Bobby's somewhat uneventful period of active service lasted little more than two weeks. By July 2 he was complaining of sleepless nights, violent headaches and aching limbs. "This is malaria sure enough."
Bobby spent the next 18 months moving from one military hospital to another, traversing German East Africa and South Africa, before finally being sent by ship to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Here he found a bed in the magnificent, beach-side Montaza Palace, built by the Ottoman Viceroy Khedive Abbas in 1892 and turned by the country's British occupiers into what must have been one of the most luxurious troop hospitals of all time.
Bobby was far from being the only one to have fallen victim to the fever. Indeed the British troops sent to East Africa had turned out to be totally unsuited to equatorial warfare: they may as well have just stayed at home. Malaria affected thousands: in autumn 1916 somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 troops had been removed from active service due to the disease.
Unsurprisingly it had been the local Africans who had done most of the fighting. Both the British and the Germans had used large numbers of native troops (known as askaris) and porters in their military campaigns. The dislocation caused by years of fighting also caused economic collapse, famine, and untold civilian deaths. According to military historian Ian Paice, almost 300,000 civilians died in German East Africa as a result of Germany's conduct of the war alone - figures for those affected by Britain's military activities must have been similarly horrific. How are these people remembered? Did they write letters too? Do their descendants store their memories in a trunk? There is a monument to the askaris in Dar es Salaam, although it was put there by the British colonial authorities in 1927.
In Europe at least, World War I brought about the collapse of empires and the creation of new independent states. In Africa, and the Middle East, exactly the opposite happened. The colonies of the defeated powers were not handed their freedom, but simply divided up between the victors. German East Africa became the British mandate of Tanganyika; its people were once again required to fight for Britain on various fronts in World War II. Winning its independence in 1961, Tanganyika became Tanzania in 1964.
Reading through Bobby's letters it is clear that for him and his generation, the empire was never anything other than the natural order of things, a moral undertaking borne by superior white races. “I’d like to have a peep behind the almost ignorant mind of one of them to find out what their considered opinion of us really is" he wrote of the local communities that provided labour and logistical support for the sanatorium where he was staying. "One thing is certain, and that is that they instinctively know that we are their betters.”
The African troops serving with Entente armies occasionally featured in Bobby's letters as a source of exotic entertainment. Here he is describing a party of black troops from the Belgian Congo: “They all have teeth filed down to the sharpness of a needle point, and shaped like cat’s claws. Their bodies are cut and carved fantastically by some terrible process done in infancy. They are fearless warriors, but useless against modern weapons as they just charge forwards making lots of noise.”
Far from being just a football stadium, Wembley was a monument to imperial power.
Bobby was in Alexandria when the war came to an end. He was genuinely shocked by the indiscipline shown by British troops and their lack of respect for the local community, although this didn't necessarily change his fundamentally racist worldview. “The Armistice is being celebrated here in a way that I have always thought as very un-English. In the town it is almost panic indescribable. There are two or three divisions from the Palestine Front quartered in Alexandria, and I am given to understand that the men have gone completely mad. Every night there have been wild scenes: premises wrecked and contents looted, concert halls and cinemas pulled to bits: altogether disgraceful and disgusting scenes. The troops are absolutely out of control. All the shops are boarded up. The civilian population does not dare show its face." Perhaps it would not be going too far to interpret the chaotic scenes at Wembley in 1923 as a delayed echo of the madness of November 1918, when long-suppressed desires for life and freedom resulted in orgiastic celebrations.
Bobby and his fellow patients were shipped home in early 1919. His wartime correspondence finally came to an end with a telegram, addressed to Miss Rene Hanson and dated February 5 1919. Garbled by someone in a hurry but reasonably clear in meaning, it read “just free first train morning from Carlisle love Bobby”
Which brings us back again to the White Horse Final of 1923. After all that time spent travelling around Africa, Wembley wasn't such an inappropriate place for Bobby to visit on his final journey. Far from being just a football stadium, it was a monument to imperial power. Resembling a cross between a Roman arena and a Mughal Indian palace, it was originally entitled the "Empire Stadium", the designated venue for a grand post-war festival entitled the British Empire Exhibition. Running from April to October in both 1924 and 1925, the exhibition's pavilions showcased industries and folklore from around the British-ruled parts of the globe. The event presented the empire as an ongoing success story that brought out the best in both the British and their subject races. Individuals from some parts of the empire were put on show to demonstrate handicrafts, prompting complaints from African students in London that the exhibition amounted to a demeaning human zoo.
Taken in isolation, the White Horse Final and the Empire Exhibition that followed it seem to evoke a carnivalesque Britain of mass enthusiasms and extravagant public entertainments: an optimistic society entering an age of leisure and post-war celebration. The White Horse Final in particular has always functioned as a seductive symbol of British decency, with an over-enthusiastic but ultimately well-behaved crowd allowing order to be restored, not by a policeman as such, but by the noble equine beast he is sitting on.
However Britain in the early 1920s was also a country of high unemployment, declining living standards and looming industrial unrest. The great General Strike of 1925, which didn't just set social classes against each other but also split families and communities, was only two years away. Britain was also a country whose addiction to empire would continue to bring exploitation, humiliation and avoidable tragedy to communities across the globe. Watching the grainy black-and-white film of the White Horse Cup Final, it's impossible not to look at all those thousands of people without asking oneself what had they been doing five years previously, and where might they be going in the future.
The British media still expends an inordinate amount of energy in cultivating national mythologies that emphasize the uniqueness of our island nation, and the benign nature of the empire over which we once ruled. Popular history - music, sport, our supposed love of animals - is often deployed to reinforce the sentimental appeal of the overall message. However it is no longer enough to look at that mass of humanity at Wembley, the "Empire Stadium", without at the same time wanting to know more about the millions of people around the globe whose experience of British culture was rather different to our own.
An alternative version of this article appeared in Croatian national daily Jutarnji list in April 2023.
© Jonathan Bousfield