This upcoming Armistice Day (observed as Veteran’s Day in the U.S.) on November 11, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The war’s impact on the international development of soccer was significant as rapid military mobilization drained the various British and North American domestic leagues of players and the sport emerged as a popular pastime among soldiers in the competing armies engaged along the front lines. For the smaller amateur leagues that existed on the frontier of soccer’s reach in the United States, the outbreak of the Great War often proved disastrous. This was certainly the case in metro Atlanta as many of the experienced English and Scottish players enlisted in the British and Canadian armies during the fall and early winter of 1914, bringing an abrupt end to the year-old Georgia State Soccer League. A handful of native-born and naturalized American players would later join their former teammates after the United States entered the conflict in 1917. Together, these men were among the scores of amateur and professional footballers from around the world who joined in the fight. Over the next few months, Soccer Down Here will explore the stories of pioneering soccer players in the Atlanta area who fought and sometimes sacrificed their lives in the “war to end all wars,” beginning with Wilfred Sidney Hicks of the Atlanta Soccer Football Club, who was killed in action at the Battle of the Canal du Nord on September 28, 1918.
Pvt. Wilfred Sidney Hicks (1897 - 1918), 43rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force
The Hicks and West families in Atlanta, c.1915. Wilfred Hicks is located in the back row, second from right.
“..only this week we hear that Hicks has gone to the war in Europe. All these men have left a record of good service and did their share of hard work in the making of the game in Atlanta…”
Atlanta Constitution, December 27, 1914.
Wilfred Sidney Hicks was born on June 23, 1897 in the parish of St. Sampson, on the Channel Island of Guernsey. The youngest of Sarah and Harry Hicks’ three children, the 14-year-old emigrated to the United States with his parents and two sisters, May and Maud, during the spring of 1911. The family entered the country in New York before settling in Atlanta to be near relatives already living in the city and employed at the Georgia School of Technology. Through their family connections, Wilfred and his father soon found work in the Georgia Tech print shop and according to family lore, the athletic teenager often enjoyed running with the Tech track teams during his off hours.
Unsurprisingly, the English-born Hicks’ athletic interests also extended to soccer and the sport most likely provided a level of familiarity and comfort as he adapted to his new, southern surroundings. Wilfred Hicks became a central player for the Atlanta Soccer Football Club (ASFC) in 1913-14 during the first and only season of the amateur, four-team Georgia State Soccer League, which also included clubs representing nearby Lithonia, Stone Mountain, and the Atlanta-based, Foote & Davies Company. Hicks’ debut appearance for the Atlanta team was on November 1, 1913 in a preseason game versus Lithonia at Piedmont Park. Despite his team’s 6-1 drubbing, the teen was singled out in a newspaper report as “easily” the best man for the Atlanta side and one “who played a beautiful game.”
Hicks would go on to start in a combined total of eight friendly and league games over the course of the season, filling in at a variety of positions, ranging from right fullback to center forward, and playing a key role in helping Atlanta finish second in the standings behind the champion “Stonecutters” of Lithonia, Georgia. The outbreak of World War I in the late summer of 1914 would bring an abrupt end to organized soccer in metro Atlanta. Despite early optimism expressed among some officials that the league could feasibly continue, reality set in by late December of that year and play was canceled indefinitely.
Wilfred Hicks' travelogue, December 1914- April, 1915.
As part of his post-mortem on the league published in the Atlanta Constitution, Thomas “Pat” Harland noted that 17-year-old Wilfred Hicks was among those soccer players who had “gone to the war in Europe.” In reality, the restless teenager had run away from home, possibly with the hope of joining the British military, and leaving nothing but a note on a pillow to his parents indicating his whereabouts. According to his personal travelogue, Hicks’ journey began on a tramp ship that set sail from Savannah to England on Christmas Eve 1914. He spent the next four months at sea, touring the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, the island of Madeira, and Cuba, before returning to the States and Atlanta, via New York, on April 26, 1915.
Following his return to home, Wilfred Hicks lived with his family in the Lake Claire neighborhood of Atlanta and worked at the Georgia Tech print shop for the next two years. He left home a final time in April 1917, traveling to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (St. Johns) in the Quebec Province of Canada. Once there, Hicks enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), falsely claiming he was 21 years of age on his attestation papers when in truth he was still 19 - only a few months shy of his 20th birthday.
Hicks was originally attached with the Canadian Engineers, Regimental Depot. A few weeks after enlisting, he sailed from Halifax, Canada to England aboard the S.S. Justicia. By mid-September 1917, Wilfred Hicks had transferred to the 43rd Battalion, Cameron Highlanders of Canada, CEF, an infantry battalion mobilized out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and was actively fighting on the Western Front in France.
Pvt. Wilfred Sidney Hicks, 43rd Battalion, CEF, 1918.
A German gas attack on the Canadian-held lines in early March 1918 wounded Wilfred Hicks and killed approximately 20 of his comrades. In a letter written to his parents shortly thereafter, the young soldier sought to comfort his mother and father by downplaying the severity of his condition. He also recounted some details of the attack in his note, which was published in the April 23, 1918 edition of the Technique, the Georgia Tech student newspaper,
“Old ‘Fritz’ put up a barrage, then he sent a big salvo of gas shells and they burst right over the front line. My clothes were quite wet with the liquid, so you see we got a big dose before we could put on our gas masks. It’s only a second after the shells burst that the liquid forms into gas...I’m pretty well now, it’s only my chest, but I don’t think it will make any difference because I am not very sick, so don’t get uneasy. I’m all right. Wishing you both the best of health, love to all.”
Hicks would spend just over a month regaining his health at the Willesden General and Canadian Convalescent hospitals in England before his discharge to active duty on May 7, 1918. He rejoined the 43rd Battalion on the Western Front on September 9th, just after the start of the Allied Hundred Days Offensive against German defensive fortifications in northern France collectively known as the Hindenburg Line.
Less than a month after his return to the front, Wilfred Hicks was killed in action on September 28, 1918 during the Battle of Canal du-Nord. According to official military records, the 21-year-old private’s machine gun unit was hit by a mortar shell while engaged in an advance attack on enemy positions along the railroad lines northeast of the Fontaine-Notre-Dame, France. Hicks’ body was never recovered. The Atlanta Journal published notice of his death almost a month later on October 22, 1918. The Constitution followed suit the next day.
The name of Private Wilfred Sidney Hicks of the 43rd Battalion, CEF, a Guernsey native and noted player in Atlanta’s early amateur organized soccer league, is inscribed among the fallen soldiers on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France and the Bailiwick of Guernsey War Memorial in Saint Peter Port, Isle of Guernsey. His sacrifice has also been honored on the Georgia State World War I Memorial, located in front of the Floyd Veterans Memorial Building near the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial, France
“Atlanta Soccers Lose To Lithonia.” Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, 2 November 1913.
Hargetion, Julie, personal correspondence, 2018.
Harland, Thomas “Pat.” “Soccer Football Is Here to Stay.” Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, 27 December 1914.
Hicks, Wilfred Sidney. “Letter From Front To Mr. Hicks.” The Technique, Atlanta, 23 April 1918.
Library and Archives of Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; CEF Personnel Files; Reference: RG 150; Volume: Box 4327 - 34.
Watkins, Jeffrey, personal correspondence, 2016, 2018.
Wilfred Sydney Hicks Dies Fighting Teutons.” Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, 23 October 1918.
Young Hicks Is Killed With Canadian Force.” Atlanta Journal, Atlanta, 22 October 1918.