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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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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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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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