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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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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 Graham 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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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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