Tag Archives: Royal Fusiliers

Lou Phillips (1878-1916): Welsh Rugby International and Golf Champion

Arguably no sport requires such a wide and varied range of skills as rugby. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that many of the best exponents of the game have also been good at other sports. And of all the Welsh sportsmen who died during the Great War, there was possibly no more talented all-rounder than Newport’s Louis Augustus Phillips. After all, Lou represented Wales at three sports   ̶  water-polo and golf, as well as rugby  ̶  and he played Minor Counties cricket for Monmouthshire. He was also a champion swimmer.

His debut international rugby season, 1899-1900, heralded what has become known as Wales’s “First Golden Era”, twelve seasons of unprecedented success.   Yet, despite this, he was extremely modest and was never known to boast about his many sporting achievements.

Born in Newport in 1878, Lou’s sporting talents first became apparent at Monmouth School, and by the age of nineteen, he was playing regularly at half-back for Newport. There he developed an almost perfect understanding with George Llewellyn Lloyd who won twelve caps for Wales between 1896 and 1903. Such was their almost uncanny awareness of each other’s play, they would often inter-change their half-back roles, though Lou tended to concentrate more on scrum-half. After only a couple of seasons together, Lloyd and Phillips were regarded by some as the most effective half-back pairing in the Kingdom.

Any forward would have been happy to play in front of a half-back like Lou.  He passed, kicked and tackled well, ran determinedly and was described as “one of those great-hearted players who refuse to give up even when the position seems hopeless”.

At last his chance with Wales came in the match against England at Gloucester in January 1900. He and Lloyd outwitted and outplayed their opposite numbers as Wales recorded a well-deserved 13-3 victory. With Lou in brilliant form, Wales went on to win only their second-ever Triple Crown, beating Scotland 12-3 and Ireland 3-0.  For Wales, much more was to come. Five further Triple Crowns followed over the next eleven years but, sadly, Lou was unable to enjoy this success.

Over Christmas 1900, he badly injured his knee in a Newport club match. As a result, Lou had to miss the England game a few weeks later, but he was unwisely prevailed upon to play against Scotland for his fourth cap. This was an understandable but serious mistake on the part of the selectors, as Lou broke down after only ten minutes. Typically though, he refused to leave the field, which only aggravated his injury. Inexplicably, the Welsh captain, Billy Bancroft, made matters worse by keeping him at half-back, where he was cruelly exposed to the marauding Scottish forwards. Scotland won 18-8 and the chance of a first-ever successive Triple Crown was gone.

He was replaced for the Ireland match by Swansea’s Dickie Owen who, over the next eleven years, went on to establish himself as one of the greatest scrum-halves ever to play the game.  On the other hand, however, Lou’s brilliant rugby career had ended at the tragically early age of twenty-two.

But, undaunted, Lou then decided to take up golf and he applied himself so well at his new sport that he became the leading amateur golfer in pre-war Wales. He won the Welsh Championship in 1907 and 1912, reached the final of the Irish Amateur Open in 1913 and made the last eight of the Amateur Championship held at Sandwich in 1914.

Lou qualified as an architect in 1907 and was practising in Newport when war broke out in 1914. At thirty-six, he was over the age limit at that time, but he still immediately enlisted in the Public Schools Brigade, joining the 20th Battalion The Royal Fusiliers. Given their background, many of the volunteers for this Brigade later became officers, but the self-effacing Lou refused a commission. He did, however, accept promotion to sergeant.

In March 1916, the 20th Royal Fusiliers were in the line near La Bassée at Cuinchy. On the night of the 14th he was with a wiring-party out in no man’s land, when he was shot in the chest and killed, another brave victim of the casual attrition which was the daily experience of life on the Western Front. Although he is often mistakenly said to have died at Cambrai   ̶   which is over forty miles to the south   ̶  ­­Lou Phillips is buried between Béthune and La Bassée in the Churchyard Extension at Cambrin.

As the Welsh public opened their copies of the South Wales Argus a few days later, they were faced with the headline, “Great Athlete Killed”. It was no exaggeration.

 

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Louis Augustus Phillips’ death in action on 14th March 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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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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