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Bryn Lewis (1891-1917), the Swansea, Cambridge University, Barbarians and Wales Wing who Died near Ypres

Brinley Richard Lewis was a speedy wing three-quarter of great skill who, for a variety of reasons, was never able to demonstrate his talents to the full at international level.  He was highly regarded by English critics, some of whom were bewildered that Wales didn’t make more use of him. “He had splendid hands, true football pace, pluck, neat kicking ability … and he knew the game.  He was the best wing of his day [yet] could boast only a couple of international caps”, wrote one.

Injuries and the coming of war restricted his international appearances and, because he played much of his best rugby for Cambridge University and occasionally London Welsh, many of his outstanding performances took place out of the sight of Welsh selectors.

Born in the Swansea Valley at Pontardawe in 1891, “Bryn” was not unknown, however, in Wales.  Even at fourteen, he was already making headlines.  He “played brilliantly” with the ball in hand when Wales defeated the English Schools at Leicester in 1905.

After captaining Swansea Grammar School, Bryn played for Pontardawe before going up to Trinity Hall Cambridge in 1909.  There he won the first of his three Blues on the wing in December 1909.  Unfortunately, Oxford were much stronger during this period and Bryn was on the losing side on each occasion.  Although in 1910, his inspirational play almost gave Cambridge an unexpected victory.  Just after half time, Bryn scored his second try to put his side into an 18-13 lead.  However, he was then controversially tackled and badly injured while in touch.  He took no further part in the game.  Most observers agreed that the loss of Bryn, who was playing splendidly, was the turning point of the match.  Reduced to fourteen, Cambridge struggled to defend against the Oxford attack and the peerless Ronnie Poulton struck twice, his second try sealing a 23-18 last minute victory.

Even though Oxford comfortably won the 1911 Varsity match by 19 points, Bryn was singled out for praise by the press for his “brilliant form”.  He “alone grasped what was wanted in attack”.  He made some good runs, cross kicked cleverly but “was handicapped by the poor play of his fellow backs”.  In fact, Bryn had been demonstrating his blistering pace for Cambridge all season and he was now seriously being talked about as a future international.  Had he been playing regularly for Swansea, one Welsh journalist believed, he would certainly have been capped earlier; but he was forced to wait until the final international of 1911-12 before being given his chance against Ireland in Belfast.

However, Wales selected a very inexperienced side which played poorly, particularly in the backs, who squandered many scoring opportunities.  Bryn had a disappointing game.  He seemed to be over anxious and he failed to produce anything like his Cambridge form.  The 12-5 defeat was the first time in thirteen years that Wales lost two Championship matches in a season: selectors, press and Welsh public were not too pleased.

Bryn returned to Cambridge for a fourth year, but a late injury cost him a fourth Blue in 1912, when ironically Cambridge won for the first time in seven years.  Previously, Bryn had turned out for Swansea during his vacations, but for the rest of 1912-13, he was now able to play regularly in Wales for the All Whites.  This was a good time to be a member of the Swansea team, which went on to win the Welsh Club Championship that season.  Such was the quality of his performances for the club that the selectors could not continue to overlook him and he was again picked for the final game of the season against Ireland.  This time there was to be a complete turnaround in his fortunes.  Playing with much greater self-assurance, he had a magnificent game.  In a tense match, Wales just managed to hang on to win by 16-13.  Bryn had a big hand in the victory, running with great confidence, defending courageously and contributing two of the three Welsh tries, one from half-way. He was the best three-quarter on the field.

Further honours followed over Easter 1913 when Bryn became the first Swansea player to represent the Barbarians.  However, persistent injuries affected his play for much of the crucial part of 1913-14 and these ruled him out of consideration for further caps that season.  He did eventually recover his old form but events unfolding in Europe would deny Bryn any chance of playing for Wales again.

He enlisted early in the war and, while still in training, he was selected for the Welsh XV which faced the Barbarians at Cardiff in April 1915.  Wales fielded a strong side, but one lacking in match fitness.  The Barbarians, captained by Edgar Mobbs, won comfortably by 26-10, but Bryn was one of the few Welsh players to come out of the game with his reputation intact.  A few weeks later, he was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery.

He served on the Western Front with the 38th (Welsh) Division throughout 1916 and survived the Battle of Mametz Wood, which took the lives of fellow Welsh internationals Dick Thomas and Johnny Williams.  By August 1916, Bryn had been promoted to major and was commanding a six-gun battery.  In April 1917, the Welsh Division were holding part of the line in the Ypres Salient.  On the morning of the 2thApril, Bryn was taking his breakfast behind the gun lines when he was killed by a high velocity shell.

His brigade commander later wrote: “he was such a splendid fellow … he was beloved by officers and men alike … he had great strength of character and was bound always to do well.”

Brinley Richard Lewis is buried in Ferme-Olivier Cemetery, near Boesinghe, Belgium.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on 2nd April 1917 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Brinley Richard Lewis’s death in the Ypres Salient.

There is a much longer account of his life and rugby career in “Call Them to Remembrance”. 

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Horace Wyndham Thomas (1890-1916): The Cambridge Choral Scholar who Played for Wales.

Horace Wyndham Thomas was that very rare combination: not only a gifted Cambridge choral scholar, but also a brilliant Welsh international rugby player. Press reports of his games for Blackheath or Cambridge University – he played almost all his senior rugby in England – demonstrated that Wyndham was one of the most exciting and intuitive attacking outside-halves of his time. Sadly, however, because of work commitments and then the outbreak of war, he was unable to fulfil his outstanding potential.

Wyndham was born in 1890 in Pentyrch near Cardiff. He began playing rugby at Bridgend County School, where he was described by the headmaster as “the best character we ever had here”. In 1906, he won a scholarship to Monmouth School, where he represented the school not just at rugby but also at cricket, hockey, gymnastics and athletics.

Possessed with an exceptionally fine singing voice, he won a prestigious choral scholarship to King’s College Cambridge in 1909. It is unlikely that any Cambridge undergraduate enjoyed a fuller life, for this included services in King’s Chapel with the college choir; performances with university music and drama societies; cricket for King’s and the university second XI; and of course, rugby for King’s and for the Light Blues. College reports confirm that he was very popular with his tutors and fellow students, and universally admired for his modesty.

During his three years at Cambridge, Wyndham’s main rugby club outside the university was Blackheath, although he also played a couple of times for London Welsh. Selected to play for Cambridge against Oxford in December 1911, he was forced to drop out at the last minute due to injury. However, despite this disappointing setback, further honours came in the Christmas vacation when he took part in the Barbarians tour matches at Newport and Leicester. Over the holiday, he also played twice for Swansea, partnering Dicky Owen, one of the greatest scrum-halves ever to represent Wales, although the experiment was not repeated.

It is clear from the press reports for the following season that Wyndham was now playing with great assurance and “constantly bewildering” brilliance. He finally won his Blue in December 1912, when he helped Cambridge defeat Oxford for the first time in seven years. The Welsh selectors were so impressed with Wyndham’s performance that he was picked to play for Wales against South Africa only four days later. It is a common perception that, in doing so, the WRU contravened their own regulation that players who opted for clubs like Blackheath rather than London Welsh would not be selected. However, all that the WRU had decided some years earlier was that they would give preference to London Welsh players, a rather different matter.

Wyndham’s international rugby career was short but dramatic. Five minutes before the end of his debut match against South Africa, with the Springboks leading by one penalty to nil, Wyndham attempted a difficult drop goal, then worth four points. A great cheer went up, but the referee judged, controversially, that Wyndham had missed the upright by six inches. The Western Mail commented that “those inches were sufficient to deprive Wales of victory and of making the brilliant Cantab one of the immortals of Welsh rugby”. Had the kick been successful, H. Wyndham Thomas would indeed still be a household name in Wales. Sport can be a cruel business.

The Western Mail also commented that Wyndham was “just the type of player Wales cannot afford to lose”. In fact, Wyndham had recently accepted an appointment with a firm of shipping agents in Calcutta, and was planning to sail from Gravesend on the very day of the next international match, when Wales were due to meet England. The WRU, however, persuaded him to revise his travel arrangements so that he could play. This meant that not long after the match – in which England recorded their first ever victory at the Arms Park – Wyndham had to take a long train journey through France, to meet his boat when she docked at Marseilles. It is doubtful whether anyone had a more unusual departure from the international game.

Wyndham continued to play rugby and cricket in India, but returned home in 1915 to take up a commission, eventually joining the 16th Battalion Rifle Brigade in France in March 1916. Most modern accounts incorrectly claim that he was killed in the Battle of Guillemont on 3rd September 1916. However, he actually lost his life elsewhere that day, several miles to the north-west, in an attempt to secure the high ground on the left bank of the river Ancre, north of Hamel. With over 400 casualties, the 16th Rifle Brigade suffered terribly in this assault. Wyndham was one of only a handful from his battalion who managed to reach the German line. He had just encouraged his men to follow him into the trench with the cry – all too familiar on the rugby field – “Come on boys, we’ve got them beat”, when he was tragically caught by shellfire and killed instantly.

Who knows what this exceptionally gifted young man might have achieved if he had survived the war. Writing to Wyndham’s family after his death, the Provost of King’s College, M.R. James, said “There never was surely a brighter spirit than his”, and that he would be greatly missed.

Second Lieutenant Horace Wyndham Thomas, the multi-talented King’s College choral scholar and Welsh rugby international, is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

 

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on 3rd September 2016 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Horace Wyndham Thomas’s death north of Hamel on the Somme.

 

There is a much longer account of his life and rugby career in “Call Them to Remembrance”. 

 

 

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