Tag Archives: Rugby and WW1

David “Dai” Watts (1886-1916) of the Terrible Eight.

Yet another casualty of the Battle of the Somme, “Dai” Watts  ̶  a tough and immensely strong forward  ̶  was at the core of a formidable and powerful Welsh pack who outplayed all their international opponents in the last season before the Great War. Remembered to this day as “The Terrible Eight”, they were so dominant that, for the first time ever, Wales fielded an unchanged pack in all their games. The team was led from the front by the robust Reverend Alban Davies who, despite his calling, was always in the thick of the action. Davies later served as a chaplain in the war.

Born in Cwmdu, Maesteg in 1886, Dai spent the whole of his working life as a collier. He first played club rugby for Maesteg Quins but, as his work took him around the south Wales coalfield, he played for a variety of valley clubs over the years. However, in 1912, he returned home to join Maesteg and, in his first season there, they won the fiercely competitive Glamorgan League. It was his commanding contribution to this success which finally brought Dai to the attention of the Welsh selectors. Maesteg had never previously had a player capped directly from the club. That was to change.

Although Dai had never played for one of the more fashionable Welsh clubs, he was included in the Welsh XV for the opening match of 1914 at Twickenham and here he proved his selection was no fluke. The English forwards were completely overwhelmed. The Times referred to Dai and his companions as “men of splendid physique in perfect training, man for man heavier and stronger (than the English). These Welshmen knew every move of forward play”.

The Welsh team of 1913-14 missed a Grand Slam by a sliver. Given their forward dominance, they should have won at Twickenham and were unlucky not to do so. But, against the run of play, England scored a late converted try to win 10-9. The Times summed it up: “Wales, the better team on the day, retired beaten by fate and Poulton”.

With a strengthened three-quarter line, however, Wales went on to win their remaining three games, including recording very comfortable victories over Scotland and France. However, it was their last international match before the war, played in Belfast, which was to become part of rugby’s folklore.  Described by one well-known journalist writing in 1948 as the roughest he had ever seen in sixty years, it seems that some of the forwards had squared up to each other the night before and they agreed to settle their differences during the game. According to some accounts, there were running fights between the forwards throughout the match and players were regularly taken out off the ball though, inexplicably, the referee ignored all the foul play. Eventually though, the Welsh forwards got on top of their Irish counterparts and Wales went on to win by 11-3. It was following these events that Dai and his teammates were dubbed “The Terrible Eight” by the Irish.

Dai was married with two children but, perhaps like many others who were just glad to get away from working at the coalface for “a few months”, he enlisted in the 7th Battalion King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry) early in the war. There was one last game of rugby for Dai before he went on active service, an unofficial match held between a Wales XV and the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park in April 1915 to boost recruitment. Five months later, Dai was serving on the Western Front. In July 1916 his Division was moved south to play a part in the Battle of the Somme, and they arrived near Mametz Wood on the same day that his fellow Welsh internationals Dick Thomas and Johnny Williams became casualties there.

On the 14th July 1916, Dai took part in the well planned and largely successful dawn attack on Bazentin Ridge. However, the unfortunate 7th KSLI were confronted by thick belts of wire which had not been destroyed by the artillery and, as a result, many of the Shropshires were cut down by machine gun fire. With support from their flank, they did eventually get through and take the German trenches but only with great loss of life. Among the 171 men of the battalion who were killed was Dai Watts. On that day, at the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, “The Terrible Eight” were tragically reduced to seven.

Corporal David Watts has no known grave and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Dai Watts’ death in action at Bazentin Ridge on 14th 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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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 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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