Armistice Day: Remembering Sandy Turnbull, the Manchester United great killed at the Battle of the Somme

Sunday marks 100 years since the cessation of hostilities. Ahead of the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium, Andy Mitten remembers those players who lost their lives serving in the First World War

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Colorsport/REX/Shutterstock (3135799a)
Football - 1908 / 1909 season - Manchester United photocall Sandy Turnbull Sandy Thurnbull - Manchester United
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A minute’s silence will be held before Sunday’s Manchester derby to mark the 100 years since the First World War Armistice. Though they didn’t lose the same number of players as Burnley or Heart of Midlothian - Burnley players alone accounted for 11 casualties, several who had won the 1914 FA Cup before war broke out - United and City both lost players killed in action.

United’s Sergeant Sandy Turnbull was killed in Arras in northern France in 1917. His body was never recovered, one of the 72,000 British soldiers whose bodies were never found on the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium.

Turnbull’s name is on the Stretford Cenotaph which lists the 580 men from Stretford killed in the First World War. It’s less than one mile from Old Trafford and United fans walk past the memorial before every home game.

Turnbull, originally from Scotland, lived in a terraced house in Stretford with his wife and four children. An inside forward, who had scored United's goal in the 1909 FA Cup final, he also played for Manchester City between 1902-1906. In 1905, City were found guilty of malpractice relating to payments of its players and the entire squad was suspended. When the ban was lifted in December 1906, Turnbull along with fellow City players Billy Meredith, Herbert Burgess and Jimmy Bannister, moved to United. They would help United to their first ever league title in 1907/08, a year when Turnbull scored 27 goals in 25 games. He played up front with another Turnbull, Jimmy, (no relation) who managed 22 goals the following season. Both Turnbulls played up front in the 1909 FA Cup final.

Sandy was the bigger name and scored the first ever goal at Old Trafford in a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool in February 1909. He scored 101 goals for United until his final game before joining the Middlesex Regiment alongside other footballers and then the East Surrey Regiment where he reached the rank of Lance Sergeant.

At the time of his death, Turnbull was United's all-time leading scorer. Even today, 103 years after his final goal, against Sheffield United in 1915, he ranks 19th on Manchester United's goalscorer's chart, one place behind Cristiano Ronaldo, two behind Andy Cole, three behind Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and four behind Brian McClair.


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Turnbull was a star. Before one game against Plymouth Argyle, the local newspaper wrote: “Argyle feared United’s stars: ‘where’s Billy Meredith? was the prevailing query and there was great anxiety to see Turnbull.”

Turnbull went to war having received a life ban for match fixing in 1915 following a game between United, who were fighting relegation, and mid-table Liverpool in 1915. United won 2-0 but seven players placed bets on the 2-0 outcome and all were banned for life, though most saw their bans overturned. Liverpool players had colluded and agreed to be defeated. Suspicions were raised when they missed a penalty and appeared to lack their usual motivation. Turnbull was 32 when he died but he received a posthumous reinstatement from the ban.

City reserve player Frank Hesham, a Mancunian, was killed on November 17, 1915 and is buried near Ypres, scene of major WW1 battles at nearby Paschendale, in Belgium. Peter Gartland, a City player when he went to serve for his country, lost his leg after being hit by shrapnel.

Another former United player, defender Oscar Linkson, who played 59 games between 1908-1913 and won the league and FA Cup, also died at war. He was playing for Shelbourne in Dublin when he signed up to fight in the same Middlesex regiment as Turnbull, the 1st Football Battalion which was formed under the Pals battalion scheme where friends went to fight together. Linkson went missing in the Somme offensive in August 1916 in a battle to seize Guillemont Station. He was 28. As with Turnbull, his body was never recovered.

July 1, 1916 saw the opening of the Battle of the Somme and remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, with 20,000 casualties. The Manchester and Liverpool regiments fought side by side and were among the few to reach their objectives on that horrific first day of battle.

Linkson had made his debut in a 2-2 draw against Nottingham Forest in 1908 in front of 20,000 at United’s Bank Street home in Clayton. The goalscorer that day? Turnbull with two, naturally.


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