As the centenary of the Great War passes, the nation paused to consider the efforts and sacrifices of so many, though often overlooked among the horror of war were the numerous opportunities that service life presented.
First published in Valley Review on 15th December 2018
In the case of local lad, Gunner 245451 Duff Morrison Bruce from Floyd Road, the army provided his first experience of playing football, one that would evolve into a professional career.
Born in Aberdeen in August 1898, he had moved to South East London in 1910 settling initially in New cross where his father was a highways foreman. On leaving school Duff briefly worked in 1914 for the Great Western Railway as a telephone/office boy, there appears no record of him playing local football until he joined the Royal Artillery in May 1915, aged 17 here, on the football field he quickly began to catch the eye of his comrades and officers alike.
Initially joining the 58th London Division Ammunition Column, it was with this unit that he served overseas with seeing his first action on the Somme in 1916. His military records show him to be a fiery character, on the 5 September he was awarded 8 days in military prison, a severe penalty, the crime of which is not reported other than ‘fighting’.
He was to see action at the battle of Arras the following spring, notably in the Vimy Ridge sector before transferring to a more frontline role with XIV Brigade Royal Horse Artillery on 12 May 1917.
It was with this independent army brigade that he fought the Battle of Messines throughout June, after which the unit prepared to move to the Italian front.
Despite the relatively peaceful and scenic surroundings of Italy compared to France, life was not without difficulty for Duff, in March 1918 he was admitted to 69 Field Ambulance with a case of Scabies, it took him away from the frontline for two months.
Shortly after re-joining XIV Brigade he was awarded 4 days Field Punishment No2 for being absent from his post during battle on the 15 June 1918. This day saw the heaviest fighting of the Italian Campaign as the Austrians launched a major attack on the British Divisions holding the line in the forests and hilltops of the Asiago Plateau, it was a very serious offence and the punishment involved Duff being handcuffed and put through hard labour together with a loss of pay for the period of detention.
Despite continued discipline issues, he was awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry in the Field in 1918, a significant award, it appears in the London Gazette of February 1919 but sadly no citation can lead only to conjecture that it was for the successful crossing of the River Piave in October 1918. This decisive action led to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian forces in Italy, the war ending a week earlier than in France of the 4 November 1918. Duff then formed part of the Army of Occupation in Germany near to Cologne. Whilst there he played for the Brigade football team and won the Divisional Cup in 1919.
He returned to the UK on leave in July, overstaying by five days and adding to another entry on his conduct sheet alongside a fine & forfeits. Soon after he suffered a sprained ankle playing football spending time in hospital recovering from the injury, the remainder of his service life appears to be one of playing football to a good standard and despite his somewhat ‘chequered’ career to date was promoted to Lance Bombadier before his discharge on the 17 November 1919.
His last in night uniform was an eventful one, reported drunk in the canteen just before midnight he struck both an NCO & Private in a brawl leading to him being reduced back to the rank of Gunner just hours before re-entering civilian life.
On returning home to his family in Floyd Road, he signed as an amateur for Charlton playing as both a centre forward and right back during the 1920-21 season, the side that year winning the Kent league.
The following year he signed professional forms at the club, it was suggested in an early programme pen picture at the time that he ‘has the makings of a very fine player, but like other of the Charlton players, his career depends entirely upon his own assiduous training and development…it is certain that with ordinary luck he will make a big name in football circles…at 5ft9 in height, 10st 10lb in weight and still making muscle, he has all the attributes of a first class defender. He possesses the dry humour of his native land and is brimming over with mirth and high spirits’.
Duff married Elizabeth Venables in Greenwich in the spring of 1922 and his promising career for the Addicks was paused shortly afterwards when he moved back to his native Aberdeen, signing for the Dons he was to make 110 League and Cup appearances for the club, his final games saw him receiving a benefit match in April 1927 with Dundee providing the opposition.
He returned to the Valley for a second spell in 1928 but tragedy struck just months later when, during a fight with a soldier at a coffee stall, he was struck by a glass tumbler and losing sight in one eye, ending his professional career.
He once again returned to Scotland, playing part time for Brechin City and Forres Mechanics before finally hanging his boots up in February 1930. His remaining years were spent employed as an engineer and living at 2 Robertson Place, Milltimber until, still listed as a keen golfer, his death was reported by the Bon Accord Club in 1972, aged 74.