Tag Archives: Welsh Rugby

Dai Westacott (1882-1917): the Grangetown Docker who Played for Wales

 

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“Dai” Westacott had just one cap at forward for Wales but might have expected more, since he played for Cardiff for seven seasons during one of the club’s most successful periods. However, he had the misfortune to be selected for what turned out to be one of Welsh rugby’s most disappointing international performances in the years leading up to the First World War.

In 1905-6, Wales were in the middle of their First Golden Era, a twelve year period of astonishing success, which included six Triple Crowns. In March 1906, they only had to beat Ireland in Belfast to achieve what no other international side had yet managed:  a consecutive Triple Crown. And, having defeated New Zealand the previous December, they would also become the first side to record four wins in a season.

However, it was not to be. The whole team suffered from acute sea sickness during an atrocious crossing of the Irish Sea. They played badly and were well beaten by the Irish by 11 points to 6. There was, of course, great disappointment about the result in Wales and, despite the circumstances, someone had to be blamed. Even though the whole pack had played badly, Dai and his fellow debutant Jack Powell were never picked by Wales again.

Born in 1882 in Grangetown, near Cardiff docks where he worked as a labourer, Dai was very much a local man and was well known to many of the regular supporters at the Arms Park. He was introduced to rugby at the Grange elementary school and developed his game at the grassroots level in the sometimes brutal league and cup competitions organised by the Cardiff and District Rugby Union. By 1902-3, he was beginning to come to prominence while playing for Grange Stars, who that year won the Cardiff and District Union’s senior competition, the Mallett Cup – still competed for today. Then, as now, the final was held at the Arms Park and, following Dai’s impressive performance, he was invited to join the Cardiff club for the 1903-4 season. Tough and renowned for his immense strength (no need for weight training for dockers like Dai), he was also a good handler of the ball and surprisingly fast and elusive for a forward. He quickly established himself as a First XV player and in only his second season with the club, he played in every match.

Before long he was being referred to as a future international. In December 1905, Dai was playing well enough to be included in the Glamorgan pack which outplayed their New Zealand opponents though, a trifle unfortunately, the home side lost 9-0. Dai should have appeared against the All Blacks again, this time for Cardiff, but an unlucky injury forced him to withdraw. The press worried that his absence would prove costly and it may well have done. Cardiff lost narrowly by 10 points to 8. Agonisingly, a missed conversion resulted in the club’s only defeat in 1905-6.

To commemorate an “Invincible Inter-Club Season”, twenty-one of the leading Cardiff players in 1905-6 were presented with inscribed gold pocket watches. In 1972, Dai’s watch was donated to Cardiff RFC by his grandson and can now be seen both at the Cardiff Rugby Museum and online at https://cardiffrugbymuseum.org/articles/dai-westacott%E2%80%99s-gold-watchWestacott Watch 1

After winning his Welsh cap, Dai continued to be a prominent cornerstone in the Cardiff pack throughout most of the next four seasons, though he did have a very brief spell with Penarth RFC. This arose after Dai spent a period in Cardiff Reserves following his being charged with assaulting two policemen who tried to break up a fight with a neighbour. This incident may well have contributed to his being ignored by the Welsh selectors thereafter, despite his playing consistently well at the highest level.

His most memorable performance for Cardiff during this period was in their crushing 24-8 victory over the touring Australians in December 1908. Demonstrating his all-round footballing skills, late in the game, he broke through the Wallabies’ defence, headed for the line but then gave a perfectly timed pass to the wing JL Williams, who sprinted in to score a spectacular fifth try for Cardiff. Johnny Williams was another Welsh international who would tragically lose his life in the war.

Although he was a family man with four children, Dai volunteered in the first months of the war, as did many other Cardiff rugby footballers, at least twenty-five of whom did not return. Dai suffered much hardship during the conflict. By February 1915, he was already in France with the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. Serving alongside him was the Gloucester RFC and England forward Harry Berry. They were old adversaries and had played against each other in 1909-10, Dai’s last season with Cardiff. Sadly, Harry was killed at Aubers Ridge shortly afterwards. Dai too became a casualty when he was badly wounded on the Somme in 1916, but he later returned to active service  during the bitter fighting in the Third Battle of  Ypres, this time with the 2/6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. On 28th August 1917, his battalion was in the line north-east of Ypres near Wieltje.  It was a relatively quiet day but nobody was completely safe on the Western Front. Artillery was always a great danger and it was a random shell which caught Dai in a support trench. He was killed instantly.

During the Passchendaele Ceremony, which is held in November each year to commemorate the end of Third Ypres, the lives of three of the fallen combatants are remembered.  In the 2015 Ceremony, ninety-eight years after his death, it was the Cardiff docker Dai Westacott, who was honoured as the representative of all of the men of the British Army who died in that dreadful battle.

Dai has also recently been remembered by the Welsh writer David Subacchi. His poem “Dai Westacott”, published on the Amsterdam Quarterly website, can be viewed here: http://www.amsterdamquarterly.org/aq_issues/aq15-war-peace/david-subacchi-dai-westacott/

Private Westacott’s burial place was subsequently lost, so today he is commemorated, not far from where he died, on the Tyne Cot Memorial near Zonnebeke.  His is one of 35,000 names on the memorial, which commemorates those who died in the Ypres Salient after 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave.

 

This is an amended and updated version of an article which originally appeared on 28th August 1917 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of David Westacott’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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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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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.

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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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