Tag Archives: Grand Slam

Charles “Charlie” Meyrick Pritchard (1882-1916): One of the Greatest Forwards to Play Rugby for Wales

During the Great War, Captain Wyndham Williams of the Royal Army Medical Corps kept a diary of his experiences as a medical officer on the Western Front. In August 1916, he was on duty at a casualty clearing station when one of the wounded being brought in caught his eye. Captain Williams, from Nantymoel near Bridgend, was a keen follower of rugby, so it is perhaps not surprising that he immediately recognised the badly wounded casualty as one of the heroes of the Welsh victory over New Zealand in 1905. After all, he had been at the Arms Park that day. It is interesting, however, that, “Charlie” Pritchard is the only patient mentioned by name in Captain Williams’s diary, although he must have treated thousands of casualties during the war. This diary entry is clear evidence of Charlie’s fame and popularity.

Charlie Pritchard was certainly one of the greatest forwards of his era and, arguably, he was one of the finest ever to represent Wales. A vigorous and courageous player, he was also highly regarded in rugby circles for his genial, warm-hearted and sporting nature. Between 1904 and 1910, he won fourteen caps for Wales, though injuries cost him at least ten more. He played in the Triple Crown teams of 1904-5 and 1907-8 when Wales also recorded the first ever Grand Slam. However, it was his total and unflagging commitment in the 3-0 defeat of New Zealand for which he is best remembered. His devastating tackling in this gruelling match was acknowledged by the press as crucial to the Welsh victory. Charlie was “always in the thick of the fight” that day when he performed “prodigies of aggressive defence” for Wales.

Born in 1882 into a sporting family in Newport, he learned the game, however, in England when he boarded at Long Ashton School, Bristol.  After school, he took up work in the family wine and spirit business and, at only nineteen, he was invited to play for Newport in an especially tough away game against the then Welsh champions, Swansea. So impressive was he on his debut in the hard fought Newport victory that, from then on, he became a permanent member of the Newport pack. He played in well over two hundred matches for the club between January 1902 and April 1911, and was a popular captain for three consecutive seasons though he was injured for much of that time.

A physically dominant presence on the field, he was described as the “Uskside Adonis” by the irrepressible Percy Bush, the Wales fly-half in the New Zealand match. Charlie was a vigorous and resolute forward who always committed himself totally during matches. His reputation as a tackler was fearsome, yet he was also widely admired for his chivalrous approach to the game and it was said of him that he was never guilty of foul play during his entire career.

In May 1915, he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 12th Battalion (3rd Gwent) The South Wales Borderers. They went on active service in June 1916, and gained their first experience of trench warfare near Béthune. Because of the date of his death, it is widely but incorrectly claimed that Charlie died in the Battle of the Somme. However, he did not. He never served on the Somme and he died, and is buried, over thirty miles to the north in a different part of the Western Front.

 

On the night of 12th August 1916, Charlie  ̶  now promoted to captain  ̶  was in command of a strong raiding party who had been given instructions to capture a prisoner. Charlie was wounded before reaching the enemy trench but he refused to stop. Moreover, he arrived at the trench first and jumped in and grabbed a prisoner. After scrambling out with him, he then ordered his men back but was wounded again, this time much more seriously. He was forced to hand the prisoner over, and two comrades then managed with great difficulty to carry Charlie back to safety. Now in a state of collapse, he asked “Have they got the Hun?” When told they had, he replied, “Well, I have done my bit”. He was then stretchered out of the line and taken to the Casualty Clearing Station at Chocques, a few miles behind the front.

 

Despite the ministrations of Captain Wyndham Williams and his medical colleagues, it was here that, on the 14th August 1916, Charlie Pritchard died of his wounds. The 12thSouth Wales Borderers War Diary recorded, “The Battalion thus loses a very gallant officer and a chivalrous, generous and large minded gentleman.” It was later announced that, had he survived, Charlie would have been recommended for the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery. Only the Victoria Cross was a higher gallantry award but at that time the DSO could not be awarded posthumously. So he never received the decoration he so richly deserved.

 

When he heard the news, a distraught WJ Townsend Collins, a journalist who knew Charlie well, wrote movingly:

The war has swept away many a great and famous Rugby player who was also a good fellow; but among them all was none with a stouter or kinder heart, more beloved, more lamented than Charlie Pritchard.

Captain Charles Meyrick Pritchard is buried in Chocques Military Cemetery, three miles north-west of Béthune.

I should like to thank Clive Lougher for allowing me to make use the information in his grandfather’s diary.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on 14th August 2016 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Charlie Pritchard’s death in a Casualty Clearing Station at Chocques. 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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Dick Thomas (1880-1916): Welsh International Killed at Mametz Wood

Company Sergeant Major Richard “Dick” Thomas was killed during the early stages of the Battle of the Somme as he was bravely leading his men in the initial attack on Mametz Wood on the 7th July 1916. A policeman in civilian life, and a well-known Welsh rugby international, his passing must have been especially keenly felt, not just by his family, friends and comrades in arms, but by the whole of the Welsh sporting community.

Dick was born into a mining family in Ferndale, Rhondda, and although he initially worked underground, he subsequently joined the Glamorgan Police and rose to the rank of sergeant. He began his rugby career with Ferndale Scarlets, but quickly moved on to a more senior Rhondda club, Penygraig. There he soon began to impress the Welsh selectors, and in 1904-5 he was named reserve forward for all three of Wales’s internationals. He also had a few games for Cardiff that season, but after he joined the police force he was posted to the Cynon Valley. So he joined Mountain Ash who, like Penygraig, played in the Glamorgan League, a fiercely contested competition for valley clubs.

Not that this bothered Dick much. He was a tough forward with a reputation for being able to take and give knocks. We “would sooner face any man than Dick Thomas, the fiery chariot” wrote one old opponent. But, despite being a hard-working scrummager and a fearless tackler, Dick also possessed good all round footballing skills and he demonstrated his versatility by appearing regularly at halfback or threequarter for the Glamorgan Police team. Right up to his retirement – and this was a time when the press often overlooked the contribution of individual forwards – Dick was frequently referred to in match reports as one of the outstanding players.

Throughout his career, Dick was a regular in the Glamorgan County XV and he played for them against New Zealand (when he was “head and shoulders above any other forward”), South Africa and Australia. It was following a fine display for the county against the 1906 Springboks that he was awarded his first cap against South Africa a few weeks later. Dick went on to play three more times for Wales in 1907-8 and 1908-9. Serious illness and injury denied him more caps, but he still managed to play in two successive Grand Slam winning teams.

In 1911, following another posting, Dick transferred to the Bridgend club and he continued to play – and play well – for them, and for Glamorgan Police, right up to 1914. He was also a talented boxer, and he was three times heavyweight boxing champion of the Glamorgan Police. Just six months before the outbreak of the war, he reached the heavyweight final of the Welsh Amateur Championships, although he lost to a much younger opponent.

Dick’s grandson, another Richard Thomas, has recently located his grandfather’s birth certificate, which reveals that his date of birth was 14th October 1880 – three years earlier than suggested in most accounts of Dick’s life. This only further emphasises the longevity of Dick’s sporting career. The discovery of his birth certificate also resolves the question of Dick’s exact names. For many years, he has been widely, but incorrectly, referred to as ‘Edward John’ or ‘Edward John Richard’ Thomas, but he was in fact registered as just ‘Richard Thomas’. Evidently this mistake arose long after his death, when his military record was confused with that of another Welshman, an ‘Edward John Thomas’ who was killed on exactly the same day during the Battle of the Somme.

With the coming of war, Dick enlisted in the 16th Battalion (Cardiff City) Welsh Regiment and was soon promoted to Company Sergeant Major. This unit was full of rugby players, so he found himself serving alongside many former teammates and opponents.

Six days after the opening of the Battle of the Somme, the 38th (Welsh) Division were given the task of capturing Mametz Wood. The City Battalion, together with the 11th Battalion South Wales Borderers, were selected to spearhead the initial attack on the wood on the 7th July. The plan, however, was ill-conceived and stood little chance of success. The Germans were well dug in at the edge of the wood as well as on the right flank of the attackers. The artillery failed to neutralise the enemy’s machine guns, while the promised covering smoke never materialised. The attack was held up well before the men could get into the wood and the 16th Welsh suffered terribly from both frontal and enfilade fire. Company Sergeant Major Richard Thomas was one of nearly 140 from his battalion who were killed in the doomed assault. Mametz Wood was eventually captured five days later after much Welsh blood was shed.

The commanding officer of the 16th Welsh, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Smith, a Welsh trialist and an old teammate and police colleague of Dick’s, wrote to his widow, “My old friend Dick was killed while attacking a wood … I had already recommended him for a MC for his gallantry and splendid example to his men”. However, Dick never received the decoration: at that time, the Military Cross could not be awarded posthumously.

A Welsh selector later wrote of Dick, “He died as he had always lived, a great hero.”

Richard Thomas is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme; on the Bridgend War Memorial and on the Glamorgan Police War Memorial.  A new building has recently been named in his honour at the Bridgend headquarters of the South Wales Police.

 

I should like to thank Richard and Margaret Thomas, John Jenkins and Gareth Madge for their help in researching this article.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Dick Thomas’s death in action on 7th July 2016. It is re-posted here to commemorate the 101st anniversary of his death.

There is a much longer account of Dick Thomas’s life and rugby career in “Call Them to Remembrance”. 

 

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