James Hamilton Speirs MM (1886-1917) was born in the Glaswegian district of Govan on 22 March 1886 and died in Belgium on 20 August 1917. A renowned inside-forward, Speirs scored more than one hundred goals during a ten-year career in Scottish and English professional football and captained Bradford City to their sole FA Cup triumph in 1911. Speirs enlisted the British Army during the First World War and would ultimately lose his life serving with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders during the Third Battle of Ypres.
Speirs began his football career at hugely-successful local amateur side Maryhill FC, where his impressive performances soon caught the attention of Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers. After completing the 1904/05 season with Maryhill, Speirs moved to Ibrox with teammate John McFie in the summer of 1905 and would make his debut on 25 September 1905 in a 5-0 defeat against Heart of Midlothian.
Despite this disappointing start, Speirs soon settled at Rangers and would go on to score nine times in 21 games by the end his debut season at the club. Furthermore, Speirs would also win his first piece of silverware as Rangers beat Queens Park 3-2 in the final of the Glasgow Merchants’ Charity Cup. The following season was to prove even more productive for Speirs, if not for Rangers, as he struck what would prove to be a career-best 13 goals in 22 league games for the club. Despite this impressive contribution from Speirs however, Rangers could only manage a disappointing third-place finish, languishing some 10 points behind champions, and arch rivals, Celtic.
The 1907/08 campaign would prove similarly underwhelming for Rangers as they again finished two places behind Celtic, who finished as champions of Scotland for the fourth successive season. For Speirs, the season would also represent his last at Ibrox and in the summer of 1908, he moved across Glasgow to join Clyde, then based in Rutherglen. Speirs made his debut in a 1-0 victory over Hamilton Academical on 15 August 1908, and would go on to hit score a respectable 10 goals in 20 games as Clyde finished third in the league and progressing to the semi-final or the cup.
After just one season at Shawfield Park, Speirs was persuaded to quit Scottish football and made his way south to join English First Division side Bradford City. The Bantams had only just avoided relegation during the 1908/09 season and were again expected to be among the strugglers during the 1909/10 campaign. After making his debut in a 1-0 defeat at Manchester United on 1 September 1909, Speirs played his first home game at three days later in a 4-1 victory over Bristol City. Despite having to wait 16 games to score his first goal for his new club, Speirs made an immediate impact at Valley Parade and would be an ever-present as City finished seventh in the league and reached the Second Round of the FA Cup.
The following season saw City secure a highly-respectable fifth-placed finish, with Speirs contributing seven goals from 25 games played. It was an impressive campaign from the Yorkshire side, further enhanced when they beat Newcastle United 1-0 in the the FA Cup Final Replay at Old Trafford to win the illustrious competition for the first and only time in their history. For Speirs the triumph was yet more memorable as he not only captained the side, but also scored the goal that won the game. It was the pinnacle of Speirs playing career and City were greeted by more than 100,000 fans on their return to Bradford with the trophy after the final.
After the highs of the 1910/11 campaign, the following season proved to be one of frustration for both Speirs and his club. After starting the season well, the City skipper picked up an injury in late September and was be forced to sit on the sidelines until mid-March 1912. In his absence, City struggled with consistency and would eventually finish mid-table in the First Division. In the FA Cup, they beat neighbours Bradford Park Avenue in the Third Round but were eliminated in the quarter final by eventual winners Barnsley.
Despite his injury problems, Speirs began the 1912/13 season well. Having played 13 of his side’s opening 15 games, the Scot struck nine times and was back in top form. In December 1912 however, Speirs ended his three and a half season stay at Bradford City when ambitious Second Division side Leeds City paid £1400 to take him to Elland Road. It was something of a coup for Leeds, by now coached by Herbert Chapman, and was one which they hoped would see them break into the top tier of English football.
In his first season at Leeds, Speirs scored ten goals in 20 games to help them to sixth spot. It was a solid start but one which Leeds and Speirs bettered the following season as they finished fourth, five points behind champions Notts County. Captaining the side, Speirs scored 12 goals in 29 games and formed a potent partnership with the club’s top-scorer Billy McLeod, who hit 27.
Heading into the 1914/15 season, many believed Leeds were good enough to finally secure a place at the top table of English football and confidence was high at the club. Yet Leeds began the season in the worse possible manner, losing their opening four games of the season, and would eventually finish in a lowly 15th spot. It was a disappointing campaign for the club and one which was compounded by a poor showing in the FA Cup. For Speirs, it would also prove to be his last season in English football.
Having played his final game for Leeds in a 2-0 home loss to Barnsley on 24 April 1915, Speirs made the decision to return home to Glasgow to enlist in the British Army. In his ten-year career as a professional footballer, Speirs had played a total of 256 games in all competitions and had scored 104 goals. He had also picked up an FA Cup winners’ medal and had been capped once by his country.
First World War Service
Speirs arrived back in Glasgow soon after the culmination of the 1914/15 football season and enlisted in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders on 17 May 1915. Posted to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion at Invergordon for training one week later, Private S/18170 Speirs soon impressed sufficiently to be appointed lance corporal on 29 July 1915. He was then posted to the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders on 29 March and was promoted to the rank of corporal on 19 July 1916 – three weeks into the major British offensive north of the River Somme.
As part of a machine-gun squad, Speirs was to be involved in heavy fighting on the Somme and was wounded in his left elbow on 8 September 1916. After treatment behind the lines, Speirs made a swift return to his unit and again saw heavy action during the Battle of Arras in the Spring of 1917. Having sustained significant casualties, the 7th Camerons were finally sent back into reserve to regroup and recover. It was during this period that Speirs was to be recommended for the Military Medal, awarded to other ranks for bravery in the field. The award was subsequently granted and notification was posted in the Supplement to The London Gazette on 7 July 1917.
Having come through his first two years of service relatively unscathed, Speirs was appointed acting-sergeant on 1 June 1917 before being promoted to sergeant. Soon after, Speirs was granted home leave and would spend time in Glasgow, Leeds and Bradford before returning to his unit during the second week of July 1917. Two weeks later, the British Army launched a major offensive around the Ypres Salient in Belgium.
On 20 August 1917, the 7th Camerons moved into lines east of St Julien, where they prepared for an attack on a German strongpoint at Hill 35. Leaving their trenches at Pommern Redoubt, the battalion made progress but were soon held up by heavy machine gun fire coming from Gallipoli Farm and Iberian Farm. After suffering heavy losses, the were relieved on 24 August and made their way to Erie Camp, south east of Poperinghe.
Of the 15 officers and 450 other ranks that had gone into action, the Camerons had suffered a total of 144 casualties. Among the missing was Sgt Speirs, who was reported to have been hit in the thigh during the attack. Despite initial hopes that the popular NCO had been taken prisoner, no further information was received and Speirs was eventually reported ‘missing presumed dead’.
In October 1919, Bessie Speirs received news that her husband’s body had been found on the battlefield where he had fallen, close to Iberian Farm. On 20 August 1920, she received further communication from the War Office advising her that her husband was now officially recorded as being ‘Killed in Action or Died of Wounds on or shortly after 20 August 1917.’ Finally, on 6 October 1921, Bessie Speirs was informed that her husband’s remains had been buried at Dochy Farm Cemetery, located north-west of Zonnebeke. It had been more than four years since his death and two since his body had been found on the battlefield.
In one final and sad twist of fate, Speirs was to lie under a mis-spelled headstone for almost eight decades following a clerical error on his enlistment in 1915. It was not until 2007 that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission finally agreed to remove the stone recording his name as Spiers and replaced it with one that carried the correct spelling.
COMPLETE CAREER STATISTICAL RECORD
|Season||Club||League Pos||FA Cup||League Games||League Goals||FA Cup Games||FA Cup Goals|
|1905/06||Rangers||4th (Scottish First Division)||18||6||3||3|
|1906/07||Rangers||3rd (Scottish First Division)||22||13||3||1|
|1907/08||Rangers||3rd (Scottish First Division)||13||5||3||1|
|1908/09||Clyde||3rd (Scottish First Division)||14||7||6||3|
|1909/10||Bradford City||7th (First Division)||R2||38||6||2||1|
|1910/11||Bradford City||5th (First Division)||W||25||7||6||2|
|1911/12||Bradford City||11th (First Division)||R4||10||7||2||1|
|1912/13||Bradford City||13th (First Division)||R1||13||9|
|1912/13||Leeds City||6th (Second Division)||R1||19||10||1|
|1913/14||Leeds City||4th (Second Division)||R2||29||12||2|
|1914/15||Leeds City||15th (Second Division)||R2||25||10||2|
A full list of sources used to create this page can be found here.