William Purdon Geen: the Welsh rugby international who died in Flanders in 1915.

101 WPG

At his best, “Billy” Geen was a dazzlingly entertaining three-quarter, with a bewildering side-step.  At times, he reminded supporters of some of the greatest exponents of Welsh back play, like Arthur Gould and Rhys Gabe. But he was a player of moods and occasional lapses of form, and his brief period in the game was dogged throughout by injury. And he was never able to fulfil his potential because, like so many of his unlucky generation, his promising rugby career was halted by the war.

The nephew of Frank Purdon, who played at forward for both Wales and Ireland, Billy was born in Newport on 14 March 1891. He learned the game at Haileybury College and quickly developed a reputation there as a talented all-rounder — he captained the school at cricket and kept wicket for Newport CC and Monmouthshire whilst still a schoolboy. In 1910, he went up to University College Oxford, where he won three Blues (not four as widely reported). In his first season at Oxford, he was fortunate enough to play on the wing outside Ronnie Poulton. Though both were individualists, they developed a close understanding and became a devastating try-scoring partnership. In the tightly contested Varsity Match of 1910, Billy made a dream debut by scoring three tries in the 23-18 defeat of Cambridge. He combined so well with Poulton that he was then rewarded with an English trial, playing for an England XV against the North. Not to be outdone, the Welsh selectors quickly retaliated by picking him for their trial and strengthened their claim on him when they subsequently named him as reserve for the fixture with England in January 1911. Remarkably, he was still only nineteen.

After more fine performances for Oxford the following season, it was widely anticipated that he would soon be capped by Wales. However, a serious injury sustained while playing for the Barbarians at Christmas ruled out any chance of international honours in 1911-12.

Fully recovered, he again hit top form for Oxford the next year. Billy normally played for Newport in the vacations, although he also  sometimes turned out for Blackheath and Bridgend. However, there was one special occasion during term time in 1912-13 when Newport called him up as a late replacement against the touring Springboks. This proved to be one of the highlights of Billy’s short career.Newport deservedly won 9-3 that day and his tackling was crucial to the victory.

Just four days after appearing on the wing in his third and final Varsity Match in December 1912, Billy played against the South Africans once again, when he gained his Welsh cap at last. Although Wales lost 3-0, he almost saved the day. After sensationally running the length of a muddy Arms Park, Billy chipped over the full-back, only to see the ball slither into touch-in-goal, just before he could get his hand on it to score the equaliser.

He won two further caps that season, though bad luck struck again as injury denied him two more. Many believed that he showed greatest potential as a centre, so he was selected there in his third and final international, against Ireland in March 1913. It was a shrewd decision. Billy was a great success and his many breaks and swerving runs inspired Wales to an exhilarating 16-13 victory.

After leaving Oxford in 1913, Billy was now able to play regularly for Newport, but the final season before the war was a disappointing one for him. He was selected by Wales for their opening match against England, but had to withdraw on medical advice and did not play again in 1913-14.

When war broke out, Billy was one of the very first to volunteer. He was commissioned second lieutenant in August 1914 and joined the 9th (Service) Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps. His last game of rugby was in April 1915 when, wearing the Barbarians jersey for the fifth time, he helped them defeat a Royal Army Medical Corps XV at Old Deer Park. Partnering him in the three-quarters that day were the English internationals Edgar Mobbs and Arthur Dingle, who were also fated to die in the war. A month later, Billy was on the Western Front.

On 30 July 1915, his Division were in the line around Hooge near Ypres, when the Germans launched a devastating attack. It was here that the first use of liquid fire was inflicted on British troops and, as a consequence, the enemy overwhelmed and captured the front trenches. The 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps were in reserve at the time and so were rushed up to join in a counter-attack. This was not a success, but Billy’s battalion did manage to recapture some of the lost trenches, although at great cost. In the act of taking their objective, the leading riflemen had come under enfilade fire from Hooge village. So with great gallantry, Second Lieutenant Geen took it on himself to lead a small party to close with the enemy and deal with their machine guns. He was never seen again and has no known grave. His date of death is officially recorded as 31 July 1915.

Yet another player whose best years were robbed by the war, the courageous William Purdon Geen is one of seven rugby internationals commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial to the Missing of the Salient.

He is also commemorated on memorials at Newport RFC, Haileybury College, University College Oxford, Blackheath FC and the Principality Stadium.

This article originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Billy Geen’s death in action in 1915. It is re-posted here, with some amendments, to commemorate the 101st anniversary of his death.

There is a much longer account of his life and rugby career in “Call Them to Remembrance”.

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Rugby and the Battle of the Somme: the International Players who Died

At least 136 international rugby players made the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War. Thirteen internationals – from England, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – died in the Battles of the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916). Nine of them are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme which records the names of over 72,000 men who have no known grave.

The outstanding Welsh international forward, Charlie Pritchard, is often said to have died on the Somme (14 August 1916), but he lost his life near Loos.

The thirteen Somme fatalities were:

Rowland Fraser (Scotland) 1 July 1916

“Rowley” Fraser was born in Perth on 10 January 1890 and was educated at Merchiston Castle School, Cambridge University and Edinburgh University.

He won three Blues at Cambridge in 1908, 1909 and 1910 and later played for Edinburgh University where he studied law 1911-1914. He was selected at forward in all four of Scotland’s internationals in 1910-11.

Rowley was commissioned on 15 August 1914. By the following January, he was serving on the Western Front, attached to the 1st Battalion The Rifle Brigade in the 4th Division.

On the 1 July 1916, his battalion attacked the line between Serre and Beaumont Hamel. Leading his company, Rowland was wounded by machine-gun fire just in front of the German trenches. While his wound was being dressed in a shell-hole, he was wounded again by shrapnel. He died of his wounds a few hours later.

Captain Rowland Fraser is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was twenty-six.

Richard Thomas (Wales) 7 July 1916

Dick Thomas was born in Ferndale, Rhondda on 14 October 1880 and was a collier before later joining the Glamorgan Police.

He played for Ferndale, Penygraig, Cardiff, Mountain Ash, Bridgend, Glamorgan Police and Glamorgan County.

Dick was a tough and versatile forward who, while playing for Mountain Ash, won four caps for Wales between 1906 and 1909. He participated in two Grand Slam winning teams.

Enlisting in the 16th Battalion (Cardiff City) Welsh Regiment early in 1915, he was quickly promoted to Company Sergeant Major. He was killed leading his men in the 38th (Welsh) Division’s disastrous opening attack on Mametz Wood on 7 July 1916. Had he survived he would have been recommended for the Military Cross. The wood was finally captured on the 12 July after much bitter fighting.

Company Sergeant Major Richard Thomas is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was thirty-five.

John Lewis Williams (Wales) 12 July 1916

Johnny Williams was born in the village of Whitchurch near Cardiff on 3 January 1882 and was educated at Cowbridge Grammar School. He was a coal exporter.

A brilliant wing three-quarter, and one of the most talented rugby players to die in the war, “JL” played for Whitchurch, Newport, Cardiff, London Welsh and Glamorgan County.

He won seventeen caps on the wing for Wales as a Cardiff player between 1906 and 1911 and was on the losing side only twice, averaging a try a match. He was a member of three Grand Slam winning teams and captained Wales once in 1911. “JL” was the leading try scorer on Anglo-Welsh tour of Australia and New Zealand and played in two of the three Tests.

He enlisted in September 1914 and was commissioned in the 16th Battalion (Cardiff City) Welsh Regiment soon after. Taking part in the Welsh Division’s opening assault on Mametz Wood  ̶ in which Dick Thomas lost his life ̶ Johnny was severely wounded in the leg. He died of his wounds five days later at a casualty clearing station on 12 July 1916.

Captain John Lewis Williams is buried at Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension. He was thirty-four.

David Watts (Wales) 14 July 1916

Dai Watts was born in Maesteg on 14 March 1886. By the time he was sixteen, he was already working underground.

In his rugby career, he played for a variety of clubs across the south Wales coalfield, including Maesteg Quins, Rhymney, Maesteg and Bridgend amongst others. He also represented Glamorgan County.

When playing for Maesteg, Dai was capped four times at forward by Wales in the last season before the Great War when Wales missed a Grand Slam by the smallest of margins, losing unluckily to England 10-9. He was a member of a Welsh pack known as the “Terrible Eight”.

Dai enlisted in the 7th Battalion King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry) early in the war. On 14 July 1916, he took part in the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. While the attack was largely successful, the 7/KSLI were initially held up by uncut wire and, as a result, they sustained many casualties, including Dai, who was amongst those killed in action.

Corporal David Watts is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was thirty.

Tobias Mortimer Moll (South Africa) 15 July 1916

Toby Moll was born in Cape Town on 20 July 1890. He was educated at South African College School and became an employee of the Bank of South Africa.

He played at forward for Randfontein, Hamilton’s and for Transvaal and Western Province.

Toby had one game for South Africa, the second Test against Great Britain in August 1910 at Port Elizabeth which the Springboks lost 8-3.

After serving in South West Africa, he was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment. He was wounded on 14 July 1916 by shellfire during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge and he died of his wounds the following day.

Second Lieutenant Tobias Moll is buried in Mericourt-L’Abbe Communal Cemetery Extension, near Albert. He was twenty-five.

Eric Milroy (Scotland) 18 July 1916

Eric Milroy was born in Edinburgh on 4 December 1887. He was educated at George Watson’s College and Edinburgh University and afterwards became a chartered accountant.

He was regarded by many as the finest Scottish scrum-half of his era. He was capped from the Watsonians club but never played for his university.

Eric won twelve Scottish caps between 1910 and 1914 and was Scotland’s last captain before the war. He was also a replacement scrum-half on the 1910 Great Britain tour to South Africa when he played in four provincial matches.

Eric enlisted in September 1914 and was commissioned soon after. He was drafted into the 8th Battalion Black Watch, 9th (Scottish) Division, immediately after the Battle of Loos in October 1915.

He was killed in action on 18 July 1916 during the fierce fighting in the Battle of Delville Wood.

Lieutenant Eric Milroy is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was twenty-eight.

John Abbott King (England) 9 August 1916

John King was born in Burley, Leeds on 21 August 1883. Educated at Giggleswick School, he later became a farmer at Ben Rhydding near Ilkley.

Before then, he spent some time in South Africa where he played for the Durbanville and Somerset West clubs. After returning home, he joined Headingley and later captained Yorkshire, for whom he played forty-six times. He also played for the North of England and the Barbarians. At 5ft 5ins (1.65m), he is believed to be the shortest man to play for England and was nicknamed the “Pocket Hercules”.

He was capped twelve times at forward by England, playing in 1910-11, 1911-12, when the Championship was shared with Ireland, and in 1912-13, when England won the Grand Slam for the first time.

John King enlisted in the first week of the war and served on the Western Front with the Yorkshire Hussars from April 1915. He later transferred at his own request to the 1/10th (Liverpool Scottish) King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. He was killed in action in a failed attack on Guillemont on 9 August 1916. Had he survived, he would have been recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his conduct in the battle.

Lance Corporal John King is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was thirty-two.

Lancelot Andrew Noel Slocock (England) 9 August 1916

Andrew Slocock was born on Christmas Day 1886 in Wootten Wawen, just outside Stratford-Upon-Avon. Educated at Marlborough College, he was later engaged in the cotton trade in Liverpool.

He played at forward for Liverpool, Lancashire and the North of England.

One of the best all round English forwards of his period, he won eight caps in 1906-7 and 1907-8 but was forced to give up serious rugby thereafter due to pressure of work. He should have won his first cap against South Africa in December 1906 but the invitation was wrongly sent to Arnold Alcock of Guy’s Hospital. Andrew captained England against Scotland in 1908.

In September 1915, he returned from the USA where he was then living to take a commission in the 1/10th (Liverpool Scottish) King’s (Liverpool) Regiment and was on the Western Front by January 1916. He was killed in action on 9 August 1916 in the attack on Guillemont where fellow English international John King, also of the London Scottish, lost his life on the same day.

Second Lieutenant Lancelot Andrew Noel Slocock is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was twenty-nine.

Horace Wyndham Thomas (Wales) 3 September 1916

Wyndham Thomas was born in the village of Pentyrch near Cardiff on 28 July 1890. Besides being a highly talented sporting all-rounder, he was also a gifted musician. He was educated at Bridgend County School, Monmouth School and Cambridge University, where he was a choral scholar at King’s College.

“HW” played for Blackheath, Cambridge University (Blue in 1912), Swansea, Calcutta and the Barbarians.

He won two caps at outside-half for Wales in 1912-13. His late drop goal attempt against South Africa would have won the match for Wales had it not shaved the upright. Immediately after playing against England, he left to work in business in India.

Wyndham returned to Britain in 1915 to take a commission. He went to the Western Front in March 1916, attached to the 16th Battalion The Rifle Brigade, 39th Division. On 3 September 1916, his Division fought in the Ancre Operations, attacking up the left flank of the Ancre Valley. The attack failed, though Wyndham managed to reach the German front line with a handful of his men but was then killed by shellfire.

Second Lieutenant Horace Wyndham Thomas is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was twenty-six.

Rupert Edward Inglis (England) 18 September 1916

At fifty-three, Rupert Inglis was the third oldest rugby international to die. He was born in London on 17 May 1863. He was educated at Rugby School and Oxford University and was ordained in 1889 and appointed rector of Frittenden in Kent in 1900.

He won two rugby Blues as a forward for Oxford in 1883 and 1884 and also played for Blackheath, Middlesex and the South of England.

Rupert Inglis won three caps for England in 1885-6, when they shared the championship with Scotland.

In July 1915, he was commissioned in the Army Chaplains’ Department as Chaplain to the Forces 4th Class (equating to the rank of captain) and in December 1915 he was attached to the 16th Infantry Brigade, 6th Division. On 18 September 1916, following an attack at Ginchy during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, he was with a party of stretcher bearers searching for the wounded when he was struck by shellfire and killed.

The Rev Rupert Inglis is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Robert Stanley Black (New Zealand) 21 September 1916

Bobby Black was born in Arrowtown, South Island on 23 August 1893. He worked as a clerk for the New South Wales Bank.

He played for Pirates (Dunedin), White Star (Westport) and University of Otago; provincial rugby for Otago and Buller; and for South Island v North Island in 1912 and 1914.

A speedy fist five-eighth, Bobby went on the invincible All Blacks tour of Australia in 1914. He played in six of the games, including the First Test, which New Zealand won 5-0. This match took place less than a month before the outbreak of war.

Bobby enlisted in 1915 and went overseas in March 1916. By the following autumn, he was serving as a private in the 2nd Battalion Canterbury Infantry Regiment, New Zealand Division. He was reported missing in an advance on 21 September 1916 during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

New Zealanders are not included on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, so Private Robert Black is commemorated with 1200 of his countrymen on the Caterpillar Valley (New Zealand) Memorial, Longueval. He was twenty-three.

Herbert Jones (Australia) 4 November 1916

Herbert Jones was born in Carrington, Newcastle, New South Wales on 8 August 1888. He was a dock labourer and coal trimmer.

He played for Carrington and North Newcastle and twenty-one times for New South Wales between 1911 and 1914. He went on the Australian tour to the USA in 1912 and then on the tour to New Zealand in 1913, He played centre in all three Tests there and scored a try in the third which was Australia’s first Test win (16-5) in New Zealand.

He enlisted in May 1915 and embarked overseas with the 30th (New South Wales) Battalion Australian Infantry, 5th Australian Division the following November. He was killed by shellfire on 4 November 1916.

Private Herbert Jones is buried at the A.I.F. Burial Ground cemetery, Flers. He was twenty-eight.

Alfred Frederick Maynard (England) 13 November 1916

Alfred Maynard was born in Penge, Croydon on 23 March 1894. His father played soccer for England in 1872. Alfred attended Durham School and Cambridge University.

He won two Blues at forward for Cambridge in 1912 and 1913 and played for the Harlequins, Durham City and Durham County. Following a fine game in the Varsity Match when he scored a spectacular try, he was selected for England, playing in three of their 1914 Grand Slam matches.

He went straight from Cambridge to the war, joining the Howe Battalion, Royal Naval Division in September 1914. He subsequently served with them at Antwerp, the Suez Canal and Gallipoli where he was wounded.

Alfred was killed leading his men in the attack on Beaumont Hamel during the Battle of the Ancre on 13 November 1916.

Lieutenant Alfred Maynard is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. At twenty-two, he was the youngest English international to die in the war.

 

Remember them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Names and Nicknames of Some Early Rugby Clubs of Cardiff and District

You have to hand it to the Victorians, when it came to naming their rugby clubs, they could certainly be very imaginative.

They had to be. There were so many teams in Victorian and Edwardian Cardiff and district — I’ve identified over 200 each season between 1889-90 and 1896-7, for instance — that they needed to find ways of differentiating themselves. For example, between 1885 and 1900, over thirty Roath teams used distinguishing names like Roath Albion, Roath Hornets, Roath Shamrocks etc. And, of course, there were very many Roath based clubs which didn’t include the name of the suburb at all, like Mackintosh and St. Peter’s.

Some teams adopted names which suggested a degree of aggression, for instance: Bowry [sic] Boys, Mary Ann Street Bushrangers, Merthyr Street Bruisers, Roath Mohawks, Penarth Dreadnoughts, Pentyrch Rowdy Boys and Riverside Warriors. Others relied on less assertive names, perhaps based on the emblems or badges which they wore on their jerseys, like Blackweir Diamonds, Cathays Red Star and Canton Red Anchor. Perhaps surprisingly, flower names were not uncommon, though maybe recruiting difficulties lead to Tongwynlais Flowers, Penarth Tulips and Llandaff Blossoms surviving only for a short period.

A few examples of the more unusual team names of the time included: North Central Buffoons, Maggie Murphy’s Pups, Globe Revellers (a pub side), Roath Pouncers, Harbour Lights, Broken Melodies, Waistcoat Tearers and Cardiff Waxlights. No doubt, humour sometimes came in to it: Alpine Rangers, for instance, played at sea level on East Moors.

There were very many teams, of course, which played under the more traditional names adopted by clubs like: Bute Dock Rangers, Ely Rovers, Gabalfa Stars, Moors United, Tresillian Harlequins and Wharton Wanderers. But the names used by Canton Crusaders, Grange Excelsiors, Roath Windsors, Splott Raglans and Whitchurch Crescents were also popular with Victorian clubs in Cardiff. Less common suffixes were those chosen by Butetown Barbarians, Canton Lillywhites, Cathays Albion, Penarth Victoria, Penhill Swifts, and Tongwynlais Ramblers. The existence of a Grange Blues team in the 1890s means that the modern professional regional team in Cardiff were by no means the first to make use of the name “Blues” in the city.

But these examples are just a few of the thousands of teams which existed in and around Cardiff before the First World War. Clubs then were not the more or less permanent organisations they are today. Most teams enjoyed a very short life. Many changed their names, some frequently. So the adoption of a name was much more fluid and ephemeral than today and, therefore, much more colourful.

As for nicknames, then, as now, most of the leading clubs in Cardiff and district had them, though in some cases, it might have been the local press who promoted their use as much as anything.

Today, Cardiff RFC are “the Blue and Blacks” but in Victorian times they were styled “the Bold Blue and Black” by players and supporters, though the press also sometimes referred to them as “the Welsh Metropolitans”. Penarth were “the Butcher Boys”, “Donkey Island” or, still used today, “the Seasiders”. And even in the 1960s, cries of “C’mon Donkey Island” could still occasionally be heard at the Penarth Athletic Field. St. Peter’s, then as today, were “the Rocks”. Canton used to be exotically known as “the Dancing Dervishes” or just “the Dervishes” but that name fell into disuse many years ago.

What about Cardiff and District Rugby Union  clubs which no longer exist? In Victorian times, the suburb of Grangetown was known locally as “the city of bricks”, so the Grange Stars/Grangetown club were “the Bricklayers”. Because of the location of Cardiff gaol, Adamsdown rugby club were “the Gaolers”. Roath were “the Zebras” (striped jerseys?); Canton Wanderers “the Tramps”; Loudoun “the Hounds”; and Mackintosh “the Gravediggers”.

Many of the residents of Newtown were of Irish extraction, so the local parish club, St. Paul’s, were unsurprisingly known as “the Irishmen”. The workers at Cardiff’s “Covent Garden” had a decent team called Cardiff Fruiterers and they went by the nickname of “the Banana Boys”. They even thought about adopting this as the official club name at one time.

One of Cardiff and District’s foremost local clubs before the First World War, Cardiff Romilly had the most unusual nickname, however. Although based in Canton, they regularly used the long-gone Blue Anchor pub in Wharton Street in the city centre. Romilly took their nickname from a Greek philosopher whose effigy could be found above the entrance to the pub. Democritus was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” because he thought it important to be cheerful in life and to laugh at the foibles of human nature.

So Cardiff Romilly referred to themselves, and were widely known, as “the Laughing Philosophers”, which is not a bad name for a rugby club when you think about it.

 

For much more about the nature of club rugby in Cardiff and Wales in Victorian times, please see “This Spellbound Rugby People: The Birth of Rugby in Cardiff and Wales” (2015).

Gwyn Prescott

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Charles Gerald Taylor: The Royal Navy Officer who was the First Welsh Rugby International to Die in the First World War.

This article was first posted on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Charles Taylor’s death in action in 1915. I have re-posted it here with minor amendments to commemorate the 101st anniversary of his death. There is a much longer account of Charles Taylor’s life in “Call Them to Remembrance”.

Lest We Forget – Charles Gerald Taylor (Wales)   24/1/1915                                                      

If Charles Taylor hadn’t decided to pursue a naval career he might never have become a rugby player. He was born in Ruabon, north Wales on 8 May 1863, the son of Reverend Alfred and Annie Taylor. His father was headmaster of Ruabon Grammar School, where Charles was educated.

North Wales has always been soccer country so, unsurprisingly, in his youth Charles was an association footballer, and a gifted one at that. However, at sixteen he left his Denbighshire home to join HMS Marlborough, a shore establishment in Portsmouth for the training of Royal Navy engineer officers. There the preferred sport was rugby – they had a decent fixture list and were members of the RFU – and so Charles was converted into a three-quarter. Any reluctance he may initially have felt was quickly dispelled as he proved to be a natural for the game and he soon became a “crack” member of the team. By the time he was twenty, Charles had come to the notice of the Welsh selectors.

He was fast, useful with the ball in hand and a good tackler but Charles was best known for his kicking. His particular speciality was a legacy from his soccer days: the fly kick to touch, a potentially dangerous tactic at any time but one which Charles could usually bring off with extraordinary accuracy. Well liked for his charm, humour and, not least, his post-match party piece on the banjo, he was clearly an asset for any rugby side.

Charles made his international debut in January 1884 on the wing against England at Leeds where he “put in some wonderful flying kicks”. He also nearly achieved lasting fame by helping to bring off a sensational victory with a drop goal attempt which unfortunately was disallowed. However, according to the England full back, Henry Tristram, who was in a much better position to see than the officials, the kick was good. It was, nevertheless, a memorable year for Charles: a few months later he came second in the pole vault at the AAA national championships.

Although he played all his club rugby in England, Charles became an automatic choice for Wales over four seasons, winning nine caps in all and missing only one through injury. No doubt with a nod to his naval background, the press therefore referred to him as “the sheet anchor” of the team.

His time in the Welsh jersey wasn’t a period of great success but there were signs that Wales were improving. Two wins out of two against Ireland, that near miss at Leeds and draws with England and Scotland were indications that, with Charles’s help, Wales now had to be taken seriously.

After six years at HMS Marlborough, Charles transferred to the Royal Naval College Greenwich in 1885 and so was able to join one of the best teams in the country, the powerful Blackheath club. He also helped set up London Welsh at this time but only turned out for them on the odd occasion. Playing against Scotland on 9 January 1886, Charles made rugby history as a member of the first-ever four three-quarter line-up in international rugby.

His final international appearance was in the victory over Ireland in March 1887, when Wales finished second in the championship, achieving their highest placing so far. A few months later, Assistant Engineer Charles Taylor was posted to his first ship for service in the Mediterranean and his senior rugby career had come to an end.

A highly professional and efficient officer, he had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. He was promoted to Engineer-Captain in 1912 and undoubtedly would have risen further had he survived. Soon after the outbreak of the Great War, he was posted to HMS Tiger, in the First Battle Cruiser Squadron, which was under the command of Rear Admiral Beatty. Charles held a position of considerable responsibility as the Squadron Engineer Officer.

Unknown to the enemy, by late January 1915, the British were intercepting their radio traffic and breaking into their naval codes. So when a squadron of German ships ventured out into the North Sea, the Royal Navy was waiting for them. On 24th January 1915, Beatty caught the Germans near the Dogger Bank.  During the battle, one of the German capital ships was sunk with the loss nearly a thousand lives, though the rest of the squadron managed to escape. No British ship was lost and only fifteen Royal Navy personnel were killed. However, it was HMS Tiger which suffered most of the British casualties when a shell hit a compartment below the conning tower. Engineer-Captain Taylor was nearby, calmly observing the technical performance of the ships, when, tragically, he was caught in the blast and killed instantly.

His body was returned home and he lies today in Tavistock New Cemetery, Devon. He left a widow and three children. At fifty-one, Charles Gerald Taylor was the fourth oldest rugby international to die in the Great War.

The Battle of Dogger Bank had added the first Welshman to the game’s international roll of honour.

 

Charles Taylor is commemorated on memorials at Ruabon, Dartmouth, Blackheath FC, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Principality (formerly Millennium) Stadium.

Gwyn Prescott

24 January 2016

 

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Whitchurch Superstar

I felt privileged to be asked to take photographs for my father’s book ‘Call Them to Remembrance’, as rugby and history have also been topics of interest for me. I had, of course, read about the tragic loss of life in World War I and felt keen to contribute to this piece as a way to remember those who have fallen.

But what was fascinating about working on this particular project, was learning about the individual stories of these fallen men; fine sportsmen who were struck down in their prime.

This was no more evident than in the case of John Lewis Williams. I was quick to learn that Williams had been born in Whitchurch, where I went to school and spent much of my teenage years. This suddenly struck home the reality of the tragic tale. Williams was, by all accounts, a superb footballer, and a huge loss for Wales and rugby. A true star of the game before his untimely death. Much is made of sportsmen and women today; Whitchurch is lucky enough to boast such sporting greats as Gareth Bale, Geraint Thomas and Sam Warburton, who are regarded superstars. Williams was on par with this at the time.

To emphasise the status that Williams held during his player career, last September, he was inducted into the World Rugby (formally IRB) Hall of Fame.

whitchurch memorial

Whitchurch Memorial -by Sian Prescott

That I had passed this memorial countless times and barely glanced at it, barely acknowledged the names which had, over the years, just become arbitrary text, I felt I had done Williams, and the other fallen men a disservice.

I had been ignorant to the fact a great rugby player was on this memorial; but also what else had the others achieved and done in their short lives. I was struck that any of these names could have been any of the names of people I had known and befriended in Whitchurch over the years.

It is very easy to pass by these memorials and take them for granted. Working on this project made me realise that it is worth the small time and effort to sometimes pause amidst our own busy lives, and acknowledge those who fought so that we could enjoy our freedoms today.

Sian Prescott

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The 2015 Passchendaele Commemoration Remembers “Dai” Westacott

At a moving commemoration held on the evening of the 10th November each year, the villagers of Passchendaele honour the memory of the men of all nationalities who died during the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July – 10 November 1917), perhaps better known as “Passchendaele”. Over half a million men became casualties in the battle but in order to personalise this horrendous human cost, the Passchendaele Commemoration focuses on the lives of just three soldiers who died. This year, one of the three was a rugby international. At least seven internationals died in the battle, including: James Henderson (Scotland), Albert Stewart (Ireland), Alfred Taylor (Ireland), Arthur Wilson (England) and two of the most famous rugby players to fall in the war, Edgar Mobbs (England) and David Gallaher (New Zealand). But it was the less well-known Welsh international, David Westacott, who was honoured at the 2015 commemoration.

This annual ceremony by the people of Passchendaele commemorates the end of the Third Battle of Ypres and the capture of their village by the Canadian Division on the 10th November 1917. This year over three hundred villagers took part, as well as government representatives from Belgium, Canada, New Zealand and Germany. Contingents of the Belgian, Canadian and German military were also present. The commemoration began just outside the village at the Crest Farm Canadian Memorial, with a reflection on the sacrifice of Myer Cohen of Canada, Hinrich Böttcher of Germany and, representing all the British soldiers who died, David Westacott. During a moving ceremony, an account of the life of each was read out and their photographs displayed at the memorial. This was then followed by a torchlit procession through the village to Passchendaele Church.

“Dai” Westacott was a Cardiff docker. A tough and powerful forward, he played for seven seasons for Cardiff during one of the most successful periods in their history. The highlight of his club career was surely his participation in Cardiff’s stunning 24-8 victory over Australia in 1908. He also played once for Wales in the match against Ireland in 1906. Although a thirty-two year-old family man when war broke out, Dai was an early volunteer and consequently he saw much action on the Western Front. On the 28th August 1917, he was serving with the 2/6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment in the line north-east of Ypres, when he was caught by a random shell and killed instantly. He has no known grave and is commemorated, not far from where he died, on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.

Dai is perhaps not the best known of the many internationals who died in the war, but it is gratifying to realise that his achievements and his sacrifice have been not been forgotten by the people of Passchendaele and Flanders.

This article recently appeared on the World Rugby Museum Blog, December 2015.

Gwyn Prescott

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The Origin and Early Years of the Cardiff and District Rugby Union

By the early 1890s, there were over 200 teams playing the game in the Cardiff, Penarth and Barry area and several of these clubs had joined the WRU. However, the Union was becoming alarmed that it might eventually be swamped by junior clubs from Cardiff and elsewhere. As a result, in 1892 the WRU resolved that strict criteria would be applied to all future applications for membership. At the same meeting, the nomination of several Cardiff district clubs for WRU membership was greeted with laughter by the delegates. In response to these rebuffs to the grassroots game in the town, H. W. Wells, a journalist on the Western Mail, suggested that it might be necessary to form a union of local clubs.

Further demands for a new union to control the burgeoning game in Cardiff surfaced shortly afterwards following a fractious and controversial game between Grangetown and Cardiff Rangers. Not only was the match a series of fist fights but the Rangers’ winning try was awarded, even though the scorer evaded tacklers by running behind the spectators on the touchline. Clearly, something needed to be done.

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