Tag Archives: Welsh Rugby Union

Phil Waller: the Welsh Rugby International and the Two Minutes Silence

This article was posted on the World Rugby Museum blog on 14 December 2017 to mark the centenary of Philip Dudley Waller’s death on the Western Front. Shortly afterwards, it was “borrowed” online without acknowledgement. So it is posted again here under my by-line with some minor amendments.

The practice of observing two minutes silence on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday was initiated following a suggestion made to the King by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick after the tragic death on the Western Front of his son, Major Percy Fitzpatrick and of his friend and former Welsh rugby international, Lieutenant Philip Dudley Waller.  On 14 December 1917, the two officers were travelling by car on the Cambrai to Bapaume road to a nearby railhead, when they were both killed by shellfire.  Indirectly, therefore, this tragic event has had a profound influence upon national acts of remembrance up to the present day.

Although Phil Waller played rugby for Wales, he was English by birth, having been born in Bath in 1889.  However, his family moved to Llanelli when he was young and so it was at Llanelli Intermediate School that he first came to prominence at rugby.  He did not play for the town club though, because at seventeen he moved to Newport to take up an engineering apprenticeship at the docks.  There, he joined Newport’s Third XV as a forward in 1906-7, but the precocious youngster made his First XV debut before the end of that season.  He was still only eighteen.  For the next three years, he remained a regular member of the Newport pack.  Though not a particularly strong scrummager, he made up for this with his fine line-out work and his mobility and all-round play in the loose.  He was described by one contemporary as “a very dashing forward … with a great capacity for covering work”.

With his reputation at Newport growing, in November 1908, he was selected for Somerset against the touring Australians.  Though defeated 8-0, the county put up a good fight.  Their forwards were prominent in the loose and Phil was amongst the best of them.  The referee, Tom Schofield, was a WRU official and so was well placed to recommend that Phil should be included in the Wales team to meet the Australians at Cardiff two weeks later.  It was a decision Schofield didn’t regret.

Despite being only nineteen, Phil was one of the successes of the match, a tight battle which Wales won by 9 points to 6.  While the home pack struggled in the scrums, they had a clear advantage in open play.  Phil was a “glutton for work” according to one reporter, and the Australian manager singled him out for special praise.

Not surprisingly, he kept his place for the rest of the season, and a very successful season it was for Wales.  An 8-0 victory over England at Cardiff was followed by a much harder match at Edinburgh, which Wales won 5-3. France were beaten 47-5, still Wales’ greatest margin of victory in the fixture.  Then, in defeating Ireland 18-5 at Swansea, Wales became the first country to win a successive Triple Crown/Grand Slam.  Although throughout the championship the Welsh forwards did not dominate in the set scrummage, they more than compensated for this with their vigorous loose play in which Phil was conspicuous.   In the Triple Crown decider against Ireland, his contribution in two of Wales’ three tries proved crucial to the victory.

He was retained for the opening game of 1910-11, when Wales thrashed France 49-14 at Swansea.  However, even though Phil had now played six times for Wales and had never been on the losing side, this turned out to be his last Welsh cap, as he was replaced by the Cardiff docker, Joe Pugsley, who was a stronger scrummager.

This wasn’t the end of Phil’s international career, though. In the summer of 1910, he was one of a record seven Newport players who were selected for the “Lions” tour to South Africa.  Over half the team were uncapped, so the party was not a particularly strong one, especially behind the scrum.  It was a bruising tour and several men had to be drafted in to replace the injured.  However, Phil seems to have revelled in the conditions and he completed the tour with a quite exceptional record.  Demonstrating his fitness, endurance and resilience, he played in all but one of the twenty-four fixtures, including the three Test matches.  In the first, Britain were just edged out 14-10 but the tourists levelled the series by winning the second by 8 points to 3, a victory in which Phil was prominent.  Unfortunately, in the deciding Test, Britain were reduced to fourteen men after ten minutes, when the Newport fullback Stanley Williams was carried off injured.  The Springboks went on to win 21-5.

Giving up any possibility of further Welsh caps, Phil decided to stay on in South Africa after the tour, after being offered an engineering job in Johannesburg.  So for the next three seasons he played for the local Wanderers club.  This came to an end, however, with the coming of war.

Phil enlisted as a gunner in the 71st (South African) Siege Battery which was raised in Transvaal.  He saw action on the Somme in 1916 and in the major battles of the following year.  In May 1917, he was commissioned in the field and was later promoted to lieutenant but he did not survive very long after this.  He is often wrongly said to have died at Arras, but a little over a week after taking part in the Battle of Cambrai, Lieutenant Waller was going home on leave. He and Major Fitzpatrick had only just left their battery at Beaumetz-lès-Cambrai when the shell struck.

80 PDW

When I visited the area a couple of years ago, I found that the two men, who had died so tragically, had been buried alongside each other in the intimate and beautiful Red Cross Corner Cemetery at Beugny. near Bapaume.

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Cardiff Rugby Football Club: Players Who Died in the First World War

 

A new World Rugby Memorial dedicated to all players who died in the First World War was unveiled in Craonnelle, Aisne, France in September 2017.  The Memorial was created  and donated by the former French rugby international Jean-Pierre Rives, who is now an acclaimed sculptor. In association with this, a Book of Remembrance is being compiled and can be accessed here: http://www.rugbymemorial.com/wrm-database/

I have been helping the memorial organiser John Dennison with some of the names, including those of men from Cardiff RFC and other clubs from the Cardiff area.

World Rugby Museum

Unfortunately, there are no players’ names recorded on the Cardiff RFC war memorial; and any club records which may have identified them were probably lost in the flooding of the Arms Park in 1960. During the course of my research, I have so far identified twenty-five Cardiff RFC First XV and Reserve XV players, though there must be many others. However, I have submitted details of these men for inclusion in the Book of Remembrance and it will be possible to add further names as they become available.

The names of two players; one member of the ground staff; and one unconfirmed war casualty have been added to this Roll of Honour since it was first posted.

The details of First XV appearances shown here have been taken from D E Davies’ club history.

                                           Cardiff RFC Roll of Honour

Geoffrey Nepean Biggs. (1 game 1906/7).

Also Bath, United Services, Royal Navy and Somerset. Born Cardiff 12 June 1885. Lieutenant Commander HM Submarine E30 Royal Navy. Killed in action 22 November 1916.  Commemorated Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Alan Thompson Watt Boswell. (Reserves).

Also University College Cardiff. Born Dover 3 May 1890. Played amateur soccer and hockey for Wales. Second Lieutenant 108 Squadron Royal Air Force. Killed in action 2 October 1918. Commemorated Arras Flying Services Memorial, France.

James Arthur Balfour Carson (Jimmy). (27 games 1911/12).

Also Blackheath , London Irish and Ulster.  Born Larne, Ulster 16 October 1891. Captain Royal Army Medical Corps attached Royal Air Force as a dental surgeon. Died 9 August 1918. Buried Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt. .

Charles Bernard Davies. (9 games 1913/14).

Also Llandovery College, Swansea, Caerphilly and Glamorgan.  Born Cardiff 5 June 1894. Lieutenant 3rd Bn. Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Killed in action 9 June 1916. Buried Queens Cemetery, Bucquoy, France.

John Robert Collard Dunn. (Reserves).

Also Old Monktonians (later renamed Glamorgan Wanderers) and London Welsh. Born 1885. Second Lieutenant 5th Bn. Welsh Regiment. Killed in action 20 August 1915. Commemorated Helles Memorial, Gallipoli.

William Setten Goff (Bill). (34 games 1912/13 – 1913/14).

Also Exeter, Swansea and Devon. Born Exeter 1881. Lieutenant 7th Bn. Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Military Cross. Killed in action 22 April 1918. Buried Bouzincourt Communal Cemetery Extension, France.

George Thomas Harben. (Reserves).

Also Court Road School (Grangetown) and Welsh Schoolboys. Born Grangetown 1895. Private 8th Bn. South Staffordshire Regiment. Killed in action 27 August 1915.  Buried Voormezele Enclosure No. 3 Cemetery, near Ypres, Belgium.

Fred Hine. (44 games 1898/9 – 1902/3).

Also Cardiff Romilly. Born Stratford-on-Avon c1878. Corporal 1st Aircraft Depot Royal Air Force. Died of pneumonia 9 February 1919.  Buried Longuenesse (St. Omer) Souvenir Cemetery, France.

Owen Jenkins. (Reserves).

Also University College Cardiff, Gowerton, Swansea and Abertillery. Born Llangennech 1886. Lance Corporal 15th Company, Machine Gun Corps. Killed in action Somme 5 September 1916. Buried Delville Wood Cemetery, France.

Gwilym Jones. (5 games 1908/9).

Also Tylorstown, Treorchy, London Welsh, Pontypridd, Llwynypia, Neath and Glamorgan. Lived in Pontygwaith, Rhondda. Lieutenant 8th Bn. Lincoln Regiment. Killed in action 10 September 1918. Buried Hermies Hill British Cemetery, France

Nicholas Kehoe (Nick). (Reserves).

Also Pontypridd.  Born New Ross, Wexford. Private 1st Bn. Grenadier Guards. Killed in action 26 October 1914. Buried Harlebeke New British Cemetery, Belgium.

Augustus Lewis (Gus). (32 games 1910/11 – 1913/14).

Also Grangetown. Born Pembrokeshire 1889. Lance Corporal 7th Bn. Royal West Kent Regiment. Died of wounds received on the Somme 22 July 1916. Buried Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff.

Harold Alfred Llewellyn. (Reserves).

Also Cheltenham College, Clifton and Cardiff Roxburgh. Born 22 May 1891. Lieutenant 8th Bn. South Wales Borderers. Died accidentally 14 June 1916. Buried Sarigol Military Cemetery, Salonika, Greece.

William McIntyre (Bill). (81 games 1897/8 – 1903/4).

Also Mackintosh. Private 2nd Bn. Welsh Regiment. Born Cardiff. Killed in action Somme 18 July 1916. Commemorated Thiepval Memorial, France.

Frederick William Ovenden. (1 game 1901/2).

Also Old Monktonians (later renamed Glamorgan Wanderers). Born Hythe, Kent 28 February 1881. Private 72nd Bn. Canadian Infantry. Killed in action 3 February 1917.  Buried Villers Station Cemetery, France.

William Jenkin Richards. (Reserves).

Also Whitchurch and Old Monktonians (later renamed Glamorgan Wanderers). Born Treherbert 13 December 1883. Captain 16th Bn. Welsh Regiment. Killed in action Third Battle of Ypres 27 August 1917. Commemorated Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.

George Robson (1 game 1909/10*).

Also Fettes College, Westoe and Durham County. Born c 1882; from South Shields. Lieutenant 4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. Killed in action Third Battle of Ypres 20 September 1917. Commemorated Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.          (Added 11.06.2018)

*Not listed in D E Davies’ club history but press reports confirm he played at least one First XV match v Pontypool 2 October 1909.

Richard Thomas (Dick). (1 game 1904/5).

Also Penygraig, Mountain Ash, Bridgend, Glamorgan Police, Glamorgan and Wales. Born Ferndale 14 October 1880. Company Sergeant Major 16th Bn. Welsh Regiment. Killed in action Mametz Wood 7 July 1916. Commemorated Thiepval Memorial, France.

Alfred Titt. (1 game 1913/14).

Also Cardiff Reserves  cap 1913-14. Born Cardiff. Lance Corporal 16th Bn. Welsh Regiment. Killed in action Mametz Wood 7 July 1916. Commemorated Thiepval Memorial, France.

David Westacott (Dai). (120 games 1903/4 to 1909/10).

Also Grange Stars, Penarth, Glamorgan and Wales. Born Grangetown 10 October 1882. Private 2/6th Bn. Gloucestershire Regiment. Killed in action Third Battle of Ypres 28 August 1917. Commemorated Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.

George Stanley Williams (Stanley). (10 games 1912/13 – 1913/14).

Also Bridgend, Old Monktonians and Glamorgan.  Born Bridgend 1890. Lieutenant 16th Bn. Welsh Regiment later posted to 14th Bn. Welsh Regiment. Killed in action 20 October 1918. Buried Montay-Neuvilly Road Cemetery, France.

John Lewis Williams (Johnny). (199 games 1903/4 -1910/11).

Also Whitchurch, Newport, London Welsh, Glamorgan, Wales and Great Britain (Anglo-Welsh). Born Whitchurch 3 January 1882. Inductee World Rugby Hall of Fame. Captain 16th Bn. Welsh Regiment. Died at Corbie of wounds received at Mametz Wood 12 July 1916. Buried Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension, France.

Thomas Williams (Tom). (5 games 1895/6).

Also Llwynypia, West Wales (Welsh Trial). Joined the Northern Union and played for Salford, SwintonMid-Rhondda and Lancashire. Born Penrhiwfer, Rhondda c1876. Private Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry. Died of enteric fever 17 October 1915. Buried Alexandria (Chatby) Military and War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt.     (Added 02.05.2018). 

Walter Kent Williams. (20 games 1881/2 – 1884/5).

Also Cardiff Collegiate Proprietary School and London Welsh.  Born St. David’s, Pembrokeshire 24 October 1863. Engineer-Captain HMS Bulwark Royal Navy. Killed 26 November 1914.  Commemorated Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Walter Young. (2 games 1906/7).

Born in Penarth. Sergeant 2nd Bn. Gloucestershire Regiment.  Killed in action 4 October 1916. Buried Struma Military Cemetery, Salonika, Greece.

                                          Arms Park Ground Staff

Arthur Ernest Herbert Bates.

Born Cardiff 1886. Private 1st Bn. Royal West Kent Regiment.Killed in action 4 October 1917. Commemorated Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.                             (Added 19.02.2019).

                                          Unconfirmed War Casualty

Rev. Enoch Thomas Davies. (4 games 1900/01).

Also Jesus College Oxford, Mountain Ash, London Welsh, Penarth, Glamorgan and Welsh Trialist. Born Carmarthenshire 1874. Chaplain to 5th Battalion Welsh Regiment (at home). Volunteer Church Army in France. Died of pneumonia Penarth 6 October 1918. Buried St Augustine’s Churchyard, Penarth, not in a Commonwealth War Grave. May not be a war casualty but commemorated on the Penarth RFC war memorial. (Added 21.03.2019).

 

 

 

Gwyn Prescott 11 November 2017

 

 

 

 

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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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Charles “Charlie” Meyrick Pritchard (1882-1916): One of the Greatest Forwards to Play Rugby for Wales

During the Great War, Captain Wyndham Williams of the Royal Army Medical Corps kept a diary of his experiences as a medical officer on the Western Front. In August 1916, he was on duty at a casualty clearing station when one of the wounded being brought in caught his eye. Captain Williams, from Nantymoel near Bridgend, was a keen follower of rugby, so it is perhaps not surprising that he immediately recognised the badly wounded casualty as one of the heroes of the Welsh victory over New Zealand in 1905. After all, he had been at the Arms Park that day. It is interesting, however, that, “Charlie” Pritchard is the only patient mentioned by name in Captain Williams’s diary, although he must have treated thousands of casualties during the war. This diary entry is clear evidence of Charlie’s fame and popularity.

Charlie Pritchard was certainly one of the greatest forwards of his era and, arguably, he was one of the finest ever to represent Wales. A vigorous and courageous player, he was also highly regarded in rugby circles for his genial, warm-hearted and sporting nature. Between 1904 and 1910, he won fourteen caps for Wales, though injuries cost him at least ten more. He played in the Triple Crown teams of 1904-5 and 1907-8 when Wales also recorded the first ever Grand Slam. However, it was his total and unflagging commitment in the 3-0 defeat of New Zealand for which he is best remembered. His devastating tackling in this gruelling match was acknowledged by the press as crucial to the Welsh victory. Charlie was “always in the thick of the fight” that day when he performed “prodigies of aggressive defence” for Wales.

Born in 1882 into a sporting family in Newport, he learned the game, however, in England when he boarded at Long Ashton School, Bristol.  After school, he took up work in the family wine and spirit business and, at only nineteen, he was invited to play for Newport in an especially tough away game against the then Welsh champions, Swansea. So impressive was he on his debut in the hard fought Newport victory that, from then on, he became a permanent member of the Newport pack. He played in well over two hundred matches for the club between January 1902 and April 1911, and was a popular captain for three consecutive seasons though he was injured for much of that time.

A physically dominant presence on the field, he was described as the “Uskside Appollo” by the irrepressible Percy Bush, the Wales fly-half in the New Zealand match. Charlie was a vigorous and resolute forward who always committed himself totally during matches. His reputation as a tackler was fearsome, yet he was also widely admired for his chivalrous approach to the game and it was said of him that he was never guilty of foul play during his entire career.

In May 1915, he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 12th Battalion The South Wales Borderers (3rd Gwent). They went on active service in June 1916, and gained their first experience of trench warfare near Béthune. Because of the date of his death, it is widely but incorrectly claimed that Charlie died in the Battle of the Somme. However, he did not. He never served on the Somme and he died, and is buried, over thirty miles to the north in a different part of the Western Front.

 

On the night of 12th August 1916, Charlie  ̶  now promoted to captain  ̶  was in command of a strong raiding party who had been given instructions to capture a prisoner. Charlie was wounded before reaching the enemy trench but he refused to stop. Moreover, he arrived at the trench first and jumped in and grabbed a prisoner. After scrambling out with him, he then ordered his men back but was wounded again, this time much more seriously. He was forced to hand the prisoner over, and two comrades then managed with great difficulty to carry Charlie back to safety. Now in a state of collapse, he asked “Have they got the Hun?” When told they had, he replied, “Well, I have done my bit”. He was then stretchered out of the line and taken to the Casualty Clearing Station at Chocques, a few miles behind the front.

 

Despite the ministrations of Captain Wyndham Williams and his medical colleagues, it was here that, on the 14th August 1916, Charlie Pritchard died of his wounds. The 12thSouth Wales Borderers War Diary recorded, “The Battalion thus loses a very gallant officer and a chivalrous, generous and large minded gentleman.” It was later announced that, had he survived, Charlie would have been recommended for the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery. Only the Victoria Cross was a higher gallantry award but at that time the DSO could not be awarded posthumously. So he never received the decoration he so richly deserved.

 

When he heard the news, a distraught WJ Townsend Collins, a journalist who knew Charlie well, wrote movingly:

The war has swept away many a great and famous Rugby player who was also a good fellow; but among them all was none with a stouter or kinder heart, more beloved, more lamented than Charlie Pritchard.

Captain Charles Meyrick Pritchard is buried in Chocques Military Cemetery, three miles north-west of Béthune.

I should like to thank Clive Lougher for allowing me to make use the information in his grandfather’s diary.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on 14th August 2016 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Charlie Pritchard’s death in a Casualty Clearing Station at Chocques. 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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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 (Service) Battalion Welsh Regiment (Cardiff City). 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 Welsh Regiment (Cardiff City) 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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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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William Purdon Geen: the Welsh rugby international who died in Flanders in 1915.

101 WPG

At his best, “Billy” Geen was a dazzlingly entertaining three-quarter, with a bewildering side-step.  At times, he reminded supporters of some of the greatest exponents of Welsh back play, like Arthur Gould and Rhys Gabe. But he was a player of moods and occasional lapses of form, and his brief period in the game was dogged throughout by injury. And he was never able to fulfil his potential because, like so many of his unlucky generation, his promising rugby career was halted by the war.

The nephew of Frank Purdon, who played at forward for both Wales and Ireland, Billy was born in Newport on 14 March 1891. He learned the game at Haileybury College and quickly developed a reputation there as a talented all-rounder — he captained the school at cricket and kept wicket for Newport CC and Monmouthshire whilst still a schoolboy. In 1910, he went up to University College Oxford, where he won three Blues (not four as widely reported). In his first season at Oxford, he was fortunate enough to play on the wing outside Ronnie Poulton. Though both were individualists, they developed a close understanding and became a devastating try-scoring partnership. In the tightly contested Varsity Match of 1910, Billy made a dream debut by scoring three tries in the 23-18 defeat of Cambridge. He combined so well with Poulton that he was then rewarded with an English trial, playing for an England XV against the North. Not to be outdone, the Welsh selectors quickly retaliated by picking him for their trial and strengthened their claim on him when they subsequently named him as reserve for the fixture with England in January 1911. Remarkably, he was still only nineteen.

After more fine performances for Oxford the following season, it was widely anticipated that he would soon be capped by Wales. However, a serious injury sustained while playing for the Barbarians at Christmas ruled out any chance of international honours in 1911-12.

Fully recovered, he again hit top form for Oxford the next year. Billy normally played for Newport in the vacations, although he also  sometimes turned out for Blackheath and Bridgend. However, there was one special occasion during term time in 1912-13 when Newport called him up as a late replacement against the touring Springboks. This proved to be one of the highlights of Billy’s short career.Newport deservedly won 9-3 that day and his tackling was crucial to the victory.

Just four days after appearing on the wing in his third and final Varsity Match in December 1912, Billy played against the South Africans once again, when he gained his Welsh cap at last. Although Wales lost 3-0, he almost saved the day. After sensationally running the length of a muddy Arms Park, Billy chipped over the full-back, only to see the ball slither into touch-in-goal, just before he could get his hand on it to score the equaliser.

He won two further caps that season, though bad luck struck again as injury denied him two more. Many believed that he showed greatest potential as a centre, so he was selected there in his third and final international, against Ireland in March 1913. It was a shrewd decision. Billy was a great success and his many breaks and swerving runs inspired Wales to an exhilarating 16-13 victory.

After leaving Oxford in 1913, Billy was now able to play regularly for Newport, but the final season before the war was a disappointing one for him. He was selected by Wales for their opening match against England, but had to withdraw on medical advice and did not play again in 1913-14.

When war broke out, Billy was one of the very first to volunteer. He was commissioned second lieutenant in August 1914 and joined the 9th (Service) Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps. His last game of rugby was in April 1915 when, wearing the Barbarians jersey for the fifth time, he helped them defeat a Royal Army Medical Corps XV at Old Deer Park. Partnering him in the three-quarters that day were the English internationals Edgar Mobbs and Arthur Dingle, who were also fated to die in the war. A month later, Billy was on the Western Front.

On 30 July 1915, his Division were in the line around Hooge near Ypres, when the Germans launched a devastating attack. It was here that the first use of liquid fire was inflicted on British troops and, as a consequence, the enemy overwhelmed and captured the front trenches. The 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps were in reserve at the time and so were rushed up to join in a counter-attack. This was not a success, but Billy’s battalion did manage to recapture some of the lost trenches, although at great cost. In the act of taking their objective, the leading riflemen had come under enfilade fire from Hooge village. So with great gallantry, Second Lieutenant Geen took it on himself to lead a small party to close with the enemy and deal with their machine guns. He was never seen again and has no known grave. His date of death is officially recorded as 31 July 1915.

Yet another player whose best years were robbed by the war, the courageous William Purdon Geen is one of seven rugby internationals commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial to the Missing of the Salient.

He is also commemorated on memorials at Newport RFC, Haileybury College, University College Oxford, Blackheath FC and the Principality Stadium.

This article originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Billy Geen’s death in action in 1915. It is re-posted here, with some amendments, 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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