“Clem Lewis is perhaps the greatest of all fly-halves today. The Germans tried to stop him from scoring in France by gassing him, but he remains as tricky and dangerous as ever”. The Tatler 3rd December 1919.
Amongst Cardiff Rugby Museum’s extensive collection of historic memorabilia is an Army cap awarded to a former Cardiff RFC captain, Clem Lewis, for taking part in an extraordinary rugby tournament held in March and April 1919. The cap is a precious reminder of that tournament, and it belonged to an outstandingly gifted player, who enjoyed a long and eventful career.
John Morris Clement Lewis played for Cardiff from 1909 to 1924; for Cambridge University in 1913 and 1919; and for Wales eleven times between 1912 and 1923. A master of the unexpected, Clem had all the skills of a typical Welsh outside-half, and possessed “as many tricks as a box of monkeys”.
Unfortunately, his sporting career, like that of so many others, was severely disrupted by the First World War. Not only did it cost him five crucial years when he would have been at the height of his powers, but his wartime experiences affected his post-war game and may even have contributed to his relatively early death.
Early in the war, Clem was commissioned into the 16th (Service) Battalion The Welsh Regiment. Known as the Cardiff City Battalion, this had many rugby players in its ranks, including several internationals, two of whom, Johnny Williams and Dick Thomas, lost their lives on the Somme. Serving as a lieutenant, Clem was gassed and wounded on 31st July 1917 in the 38th (Welsh) Division’s successful attack at Pilckem Ridge, during the opening phase of the Third Battle of Ypres.
In April 1918, it was reported that, owing to his wounds, he would probably have to give up the game. However, by the end of the year, he had recovered sufficiently to play again. As he was still serving in the Army, in March 1919, he was selected to represent the “Mother Country” at outside-half in the King’s Cup tournament.
Sometimes referred to as “rugby’s first world cup”, this was actually the “Inter Services and Dominions Forces Rugby Championship” and was therefore restricted to teams of servicemen from Britain and the Dominions. The participants included Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, while Britain was represented by the RAF and by the British Army, who played as the Mother Country. The Royal Navy were unable to enter a representative XV.
The six teams played in a league and, at its conclusion, New Zealand Services and the Mother Country tied on four wins and one defeat each. A play-off was therefore organised at Twickenham which the New Zealanders won by 9 points to 3. So Clem was awarded his Army cap, now in the Cardiff Rugby Museum, after playing in all six matches for the Mother Country. He had a fine tournament and was captain in the fixture with the Canadian Services.
Leaving the Army, he resumed his studies at Cambridge. In December 1919 – remarkably six years after appearing in his previous Varsity Match – he gave a match winning display for the Light Blues, which included kicking a vital penalty goal, in their 7-5 victory over Oxford.
He was selected three more times for Wales after the war, captaining his country in his last two internationals. He captained Cardiff in 1920-1 and played his 229th and last game for his club in 1924.
During his long career, Clem also played for Porthcawl, Bridgend, London Welsh, Handsworth, Leicester, Glamorgan, Crawshay’s and the Barbarians.
Only twenty years after his final appearance for Cardiff, Clem Lewis died, aged just fifty-four.
This is an amended version of an article written on behalf of the Cardiff Rugby Museum which appeared on the Sporting Heritage and the Armed Forces website.