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Richard Davies Garnons Williams – The Oldest Rugby International to Die in the First World War

At least 136 rugby internationals died in the Great War. The oldest of them all – and one of the most courageous – was fifty-nine year-old Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies Garnons Williams. To put this in perspective, the Crimean War had only just ended when Richard was born on 15 June 1856. His place of birth was the tiny Radnorshire village of Llowes, where his father was vicar at the time, but he came from a very old Breconshire landowning family of squires and parsons.

Richard was one of the early pioneers of rugby in Wales though he learned the game at his public school in England. Unfortunately, some writers have mixed up Magdalen College School Oxford, which Richard attended, with Magdalen College Oxford University, which he certainly did not. As a result of this confusion, it is often claimed – without the slightest evidence therefore – that he played for Oxford University! But since Richard never attended Oxford University, he could not possibly have played for the Dark Blues. However, in 1875, when he was eighteen, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. He played rugby for Cambridge but didn’t win a Blue there. He only spent a year at university, enrolling in 1876 at the Royal Military College Sandhurst, which he also represented at rugby.

In 1877, Richard joined the 7th Regiment (later renamed the Royal Fusiliers) and was stationed in Hounslow, which enabled him to continue playing in the London area. Earlier in his career, he had occasionally played for the Brecon club. However, during the 1880-1 season, he travelled back to Wales at weekends to play several games for Newport. Following some good performances there, he was selected to represent Wales at forward in their first ever international match against England at Blackheath in February 1881.

It was quite an achievement for Wales even to secure this fixture, as the Welsh game was still very much in its infancy then. Ten years earlier, rugby had been virtually unknown there. Wales had no realistic prospect of winning the match and they were completely overwhelmed, conceding thirteen tries in the process. Despite his team being reduced to thirteen players by half time (and some reports even claim Wales finished with only eleven fit men), Richard stuck manfully to his task as the depleted Welsh pack struggled to compete.

The organisation of the Welsh team that day was nothing like as chaotic as usually claimed, but nevertheless only five of the team played for Wales again. It was Richard’s only international appearance and, because of the increasing demands of his military career, he seems to have to have dropped out of senior rugby thereafter. Posted to Gibraltar, he later saw active service with the Royal Fusiliers in Egypt.  He retired from the regular Army in 1892 and then qualified as a barrister and acquired a landed estate near Hay-on-Wye. He remained involved with the military, however, serving as a major with the local Volunteers. On reaching fifty in 1906, he resigned his commission and, no doubt assuming his army days were well and truly behind him, he settled into a life of active public service in Breconshire.

After his death, friends testified to his unusually strong sense of duty. They were not surprised, therefore, when, despite his being fifty-eight and a family man, Richard immediately offered his services to the country again as soon as war broke out. His old regiment were forming a new “Service” battalion at Hounslow and, in late September 1914, with the rank of major, he was appointed second in command of this battalion, the 12th Royal Fusiliers. By then, it was thirty-three years since he had played international rugby.

As part of the 73rd Brigade, 24th Division, the battalion landed in France in early September 1915 and were immediately allocated to the general reserve for the Battle of Loos. Despite having received no training or preparation for trench warfare, they were ordered to the front, where the inexperienced troops arrived after enduring several exhausting night matches under wretched conditions. The battle opened on the 25th September and, late in the day, the weary 73rd Brigade was led off to relieve the 9th Scottish Division which had captured trenches at the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Inexplicably, at this crucial moment, the commanding officer of the 12th Royal Fusiliers was called up to the staff. Therefore just as they were going into action for the first time, Richard was given command of the battalion and ordered to carry out the relief.

For two days, the Fusiliers were constantly shelled but, despite having no sleep, no supplies and little water, they kept the Germans at bay. Fighting alongside them in the same brigade were the 7th Northamptonshires in which Edgar Mobbs, the England international who was killed in 1917, was serving. However, on the 27th September, a strong German offensive drove the British back from their hard won positions. The Fusiliers found themselves under attack from both their flanks and so were forced to retire.

Such was the chaos of the Battle of Loos that many of the men, who were officially recorded as having died on the opening day (the 25th), were actually killed a day or two later. Richard appears to have been one of these. According to official records, he lost his life as he led his battalion up the line on the 25th September and that is the date recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Register. However, eyewitness accounts given to his family confirm that he was shot and killed two days later on the 27th while organising the battalion’s retirement. One of his men wrote, “he was with us all the time in the front trench … we could not have had a better, braver officer … no man could have done better.”

Even for the young and fit, the conditions suffered by the Fusiliers were utterly deplorable. But it is hard to imagine what it was like for someone approaching sixty with the responsibility of command suddenly thrust upon him. After all, he didn’t have to be there. But his unshakeable sense of duty drove him on. He put his men first and, in doing so, sacrificed his own life. “No man could have done better”.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies Garnons Williams is commemorated with over 20,000 others on the Loos Memorial to the Missing located at Dud Corner Cemetery near the town of Loos-en-Gohelle, France.

 

This is an amended and extended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Richard Davies Garnons Williams’ death in action on 27th September 1915. 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”. The circumstances surrounding the selection of the first Welsh XV in 1881 is covered in detail in “This Rugby Spellbound People”. This questions some of the conventional versions of these events..

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