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Phil Waller: the Welsh Rugby International and the Two Minutes Silence

This article was posted on the World Rugby Museum blog on 14 December 2017 to mark the centenary of Philip Dudley Waller’s death on the Western Front. Shortly afterwards, it was “borrowed” online without acknowledgement. So it is posted again here under my by-line with some minor amendments.

The practice of observing two minutes silence on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday was initiated following a suggestion made to the King by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick after the tragic death on the Western Front of his son, Major Percy Fitzpatrick and of his friend and former Welsh rugby international, Lieutenant Philip Dudley Waller.  On 14 December 1917, the two officers were travelling by car on the Cambrai to Bapaume road to a nearby railhead, when they were both killed by shellfire.  Indirectly, therefore, this tragic event has had a profound influence upon national acts of remembrance up to the present day.

Although Phil Waller played rugby for Wales, he was English by birth, having been born in Bath in 1889.  However, his family moved to Llanelli when he was young and so it was at Llanelli Intermediate School that he first came to prominence at rugby.  He did not play for the town club though, because at seventeen he moved to Newport to take up an engineering apprenticeship at the docks.  There, he joined Newport’s Third XV as a forward in 1906-7, but the precocious youngster made his First XV debut before the end of that season.  He was still only eighteen.  For the next three years, he remained a regular member of the Newport pack.  Though not a particularly strong scrummager, he made up for this with his fine line-out work and his mobility and all-round play in the loose.  He was described by one contemporary as “a very dashing forward … with a great capacity for covering work”.

With his reputation at Newport growing, in November 1908, he was selected for Somerset against the touring Australians.  Though defeated 8-0, the county put up a good fight.  Their forwards were prominent in the loose and Phil was amongst the best of them.  The referee, Tom Schofield, was a WRU official and so was well placed to recommend that Phil should be included in the Wales team to meet the Australians at Cardiff two weeks later.  It was a decision Schofield didn’t regret.

Despite being only nineteen, Phil was one of the successes of the match, a tight battle which Wales won by 9 points to 6.  While the home pack struggled in the scrums, they had a clear advantage in open play.  Phil was a “glutton for work” according to one reporter, and the Australian manager singled him out for special praise.

Not surprisingly, he kept his place for the rest of the season, and a very successful season it was for Wales.  An 8-0 victory over England at Cardiff was followed by a much harder match at Edinburgh, which Wales won 5-3. France were beaten 47-5, still Wales’ greatest margin of victory in the fixture.  Then, in defeating Ireland 18-5 at Swansea, Wales became the first country to win a successive Triple Crown/Grand Slam.  Although throughout the championship the Welsh forwards did not dominate in the set scrummage, they more than compensated for this with their vigorous loose play in which Phil was conspicuous.   In the Triple Crown decider against Ireland, his contribution in two of Wales’ three tries proved crucial to the victory.

He was retained for the opening game of 1910-11, when Wales thrashed France 49-14 at Swansea.  However, even though Phil had now played six times for Wales and had never been on the losing side, this turned out to be his last Welsh cap, as he was replaced by the Cardiff docker, Joe Pugsley, who was a stronger scrummager.

This wasn’t the end of Phil’s international career, though. In the summer of 1910, he was one of a record seven Newport players who were selected for the “Lions” tour to South Africa.  Over half the team were uncapped, so the party was not a particularly strong one, especially behind the scrum.  It was a bruising tour and several men had to be drafted in to replace the injured.  However, Phil seems to have revelled in the conditions and he completed the tour with a quite exceptional record.  Demonstrating his fitness, endurance and resilience, he played in all but one of the twenty-four fixtures, including the three Test matches.  In the first, Britain were just edged out 14-10 but the tourists levelled the series by winning the second by 8 points to 3, a victory in which Phil was prominent.  Unfortunately, in the deciding Test, Britain were reduced to fourteen men after ten minutes, when the Newport fullback Stanley Williams was carried off injured.  The Springboks went on to win 21-5.

Giving up any possibility of further Welsh caps, Phil decided to stay on in South Africa after the tour, after being offered an engineering job in Johannesburg.  So for the next three seasons he played for the local Wanderers club.  This came to an end, however, with the coming of war.

Phil enlisted as a gunner in the 71st (South African) Siege Battery which was raised in Transvaal.  He saw action on the Somme in 1916 and in the major battles of the following year.  In May 1917, he was commissioned in the field and was later promoted to lieutenant but he did not survive very long after this.  He is often wrongly said to have died at Arras, but a little over a week after taking part in the Battle of Cambrai, Lieutenant Waller was going home on leave. He and Major Fitzpatrick had only just left their battery at Beaumetz-lès-Cambrai when the shell struck.

80 PDW

When I visited the area a couple of years ago, I found that the two men, who had died so tragically, had been buried alongside each other in the intimate and beautiful Red Cross Corner Cemetery at Beugny. near Bapaume.

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John Lewis Williams (1882-1916): World Rugby Hall of Fame Inductee

During the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the flying Welsh wing-three-quarter, John (“Johnny” or “Johnnie”) Lewis Williams, was inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame, ninety-nine years after his death in the Great War. It was a richly deserved honour. He was, after all, one of the most talented and exciting rugby players to be killed in the war. In his time, he was admired for his “sure tackling, fielding, and kicking, combined with a deceptive turn of speed and, above all, a capital swerve” and was praised as “a great footballer; always a trier and a universal favourite of the crowd”.

Johnny played twelve seasons of elite club rugby and, during Wales’ first “Golden Era”, he won seventeen Welsh caps between 1906 and 1911, averaging a try a match. On the losing side only twice for Wales, he was a prominent member of three Grand Slam winning teams. Johnny also played in two Tests against New Zealand for the 1908 British (Anglo-Welsh) tourists and was the team’s leading try scorer.

Born 1882 in Whitchurch, then a village just outside Cardiff, he was educated at Cowbridge Grammar School. Though this school had pioneered rugby in Wales in the 1870s, by Johnny’s time it had switched to soccer, so it was with his local club that he gained his first experience as a three-quarter. So well did the talented youngster take to the game at Whitchurch that he was soon invited to join Newport, where he made his First XV debut whilst still just seventeen. However in 1903-4, after four seasons at Rodney Parade, he moved to his home town club and remained with Cardiff until he retired. Now permanently settled at the Arms Park, Johnny worked hard at improving his speed and perfecting what became his signature side-step and inward swerve from the touchline, and it paid off. He quickly established a dazzling centre/wing partnership with Rhys Gabe, one of the finest centres ever to play for Wales. The Welsh selectors took note.

Johnny won his first cap against South Africa in 1906 and was one of the few Welshmen to receive praise after Wales’ surprising defeat. A month later, however, in happier circumstances, he demonstrated his devastating swerve by leaving Arthur Marsberg standing when he scored in Cardiff’s stunning 17-0 defeat of the Springboks. Marsberg, a full-back who was rarely bettered, sportingly acknowledged this feat by immediately shaking Johnny’s hand. Two years later, Johnny scored two spectacular tries in Cardiff’s 24-8 victory over Australia.

He was also regularly on the score sheet for Wales. On two occasions, he registered a hat trick against Ireland, in 1907 and in 1910. His tries in the tight victories over Scotland and Ireland proved to be crucial in helping Wales win the first Grand Slam in 1907-8. Johnny was prominent again in 1908-9, when the defeat of Australia was followed by a second successive Grand Slam.  In 1910-11, he was still delighting the crowds, as Wales gained their third Grand Slam (and their sixth Triple Crown in eleven years). For the 1911 match in Paris, Johnny was honoured with the Welsh captaincy and celebrated this with a fine try in the 15-0 victory. He retired from rugby at the end of that season but returned to France under rather different circumstances within a few years.

Johnny was a partner in a coal exporting business in Cardiff but when war broke out but he enlisted as a private in the Royal Fusiliers at the age of thirty-two. However, with the Lord Mayor of Cardiff campaigning to raise a battalion bearing the name of the city, Johnny decided to apply for a commission and was accepted and later promoted to captain in this new unit. What helped him make up his mind was the number of local rugby players  ̶  many of whom were old friends   ̶  serving in the 16th Battalion (Cardiff City) Welsh Regiment. They included Welsh internationals Bert Winfield, Clem Lewis and Dick Thomas; the Welsh-born but English post-war international Robert Duncan; and many players from Cardiff RFC, Glamorgan Wanderers and Cardiff and District clubs. In particular, Johnny was more than well acquainted with Fred Smith who later commanded the Cardiff City Battalion in France: when Johnny captained Cardiff RFC in 1909-10, Fred had been his vice-captain.

Johnny took part in the 38th (Welsh) Division’s first major action of the war, the Battle of Mametz Wood. The 16th Welsh and the 11th South Wales Borderers were ordered to make the opening attack on the wood on the 7th July 1916. It was, though, an impossible task. The operation was badly planned and consequently the attacking troops were unable to get within 200 metres of their objective. Waves of men were cut down by heavy machine gun fire, not only from the wood, but also from their right flank. Encouraging his men forward, Johnny  ̶  like Dick Thomas  ̶  was one of over 300 casualties suffered by the Cardiff City Battalion that ill-fated day. He received a severe shrapnel wound to the left leg and was evacuated to a casualty clearing station some miles behind the front.

There his leg had to be amputated but his condition deteriorated rapidly and on the 12th July 1916  ̶  the day that Mametz Wood was finally cleared of the enemy  ̶  “Johnny Bach”, the prolific try scorer and “universal favourite” of the Arms Park crowd, sadly succumbed to his wounds.

Captain John Lewis Williams is buried in Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension alongside 900 others, most of whom died of wounds during the Battles of the Somme.

His name can be found on many memorials around south Wales, including those at Whitchurch, Penarth and Rodney Parade in Newport.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of John Lewis Williams’s death on 12th July 2016. It is re-posted here 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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