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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. When he was eighteen, he did go to university but to a different one: in 1875, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. But he didn’t win a Blue at Cambridge and he left there after completing only year to pursue a career in the Army, enrolling in 1876 at the Royal Military College Sandhurst, where he played for the XV.

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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The Names and Nicknames of Some Early Rugby Clubs of Cardiff and District

You have to hand it to the Victorians, when it came to naming their rugby clubs, they could certainly be very imaginative.

They had to be. There were so many teams in Victorian and Edwardian Cardiff and district — I’ve identified over 200 each season between 1889-90 and 1896-7, for instance — that they needed to find ways of differentiating themselves. For example, between 1885 and 1900, over thirty Roath teams used distinguishing names like Roath Albion, Roath Hornets, Roath Shamrocks etc. And, of course, there were very many Roath based clubs which didn’t include the name of the suburb at all, like Mackintosh and St. Peter’s.

Some teams adopted names which suggested a degree of aggression, for instance: Bowry [sic] Boys, Mary Ann Street Bushrangers, Merthyr Street Bruisers, Roath Mohawks, Penarth Dreadnoughts, Pentyrch Rowdy Boys and Riverside Warriors. Others relied on less assertive names, perhaps based on the emblems or badges which they wore on their jerseys, like Blackweir Diamonds, Cathays Red Star and Canton Red Anchor. Perhaps surprisingly, flower names were not uncommon, though maybe recruiting difficulties lead to Tongwynlais Flowers, Penarth Tulips and Llandaff Blossoms surviving only for a short period.

A few examples of the more unusual team names of the time included: North Central Buffoons, Maggie Murphy’s Pups, Globe Revellers (a pub side), Roath Pouncers, Harbour Lights, Broken Melodies, Waistcoat Tearers and Cardiff Waxlights. No doubt, humour sometimes came in to it: Alpine Rangers, for instance, played at sea level on East Moors.

There were very many teams, of course, which played under the more traditional names adopted by clubs like: Bute Dock Rangers, Ely Rovers, Gabalfa Stars, Moors United, Tresillian Harlequins and Wharton Wanderers. But the names used by Canton Crusaders, Grange Excelsiors, Roath Windsors, Splott Raglans and Whitchurch Crescents were also popular with Victorian clubs in Cardiff. Less common suffixes were those chosen by Butetown Barbarians, Canton Lillywhites, Cathays Albion, Penarth Victoria, Penhill Swifts, and Tongwynlais Ramblers. The existence of a Grange Blues team in the 1890s means that the modern professional regional team in Cardiff were by no means the first to make use of the name “Blues” in the city.

But these examples are just a few of the thousands of teams which existed in and around Cardiff before the First World War. Clubs then were not the more or less permanent organisations they are today. Most teams enjoyed a very short life. Many changed their names, some frequently. So the adoption of a name was much more fluid and ephemeral than today and, therefore, much more colourful.

As for nicknames, then, as now, most of the leading clubs in Cardiff and district had them, though in some cases, it might have been the local press who promoted their use as much as anything.

Today, Cardiff RFC are “the Blue and Blacks” but in Victorian times they were styled “the Bold Blue and Black” by players and supporters, though the press also sometimes referred to them as “the Welsh Metropolitans”. Penarth were “the Butcher Boys”, “Donkey Island” or, still used today, “the Seasiders”. And even in the 1960s, cries of “C’mon Donkey Island” could still occasionally be heard at the Penarth Athletic Field. St. Peter’s, then as today, were “the Rocks”. Canton used to be exotically known as “the Dancing Dervishes” or just “the Dervishes” but that name fell into disuse many years ago.

What about Cardiff and District Rugby Union  clubs which no longer exist? In Victorian times, the suburb of Grangetown was known locally as “the city of bricks”, so the Grange Stars/Grangetown club were “the Bricklayers”. Because of the location of Cardiff gaol, Adamsdown rugby club were “the Gaolers”. Roath were “the Zebras” (striped jerseys?); Canton Wanderers “the Tramps”; Loudoun “the Hounds”; and Mackintosh “the Gravediggers”.

Many of the residents of Newtown were of Irish extraction, so the local parish club, St. Paul’s, were unsurprisingly known as “the Irishmen”. The workers at Cardiff’s “Covent Garden” had a decent team called Cardiff Fruiterers and they went by the nickname of “the Banana Boys”. They even thought about adopting this as the official club name at one time.

One of Cardiff and District’s foremost local clubs before the First World War, Cardiff Romilly had the most unusual nickname, however. Although based in Canton, they regularly used the long-gone Blue Anchor pub in Wharton Street in the city centre. Romilly took their nickname from a Greek philosopher whose effigy stood above the door of the pub. Democritus was known at the “Laughing Philosopher” because he thought it important to be cheerful in life and to laugh at the foibles of human nature.

So Cardiff Romilly referred to themselves, and were widely known, as “the Laughing Philosophers”, which is not a bad name for a rugby club when you think about it.

 

For much more about the nature of club rugby in Cardiff and Wales in Victorian times, please see “This Spellbound Rugby People: The Birth of Rugby in Cardiff and Wales” (2015).

Gwyn Prescott

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Whitchurch Superstar

I felt privileged to be asked to take photographs for my father’s book ‘Call Them to Remembrance’, as rugby and history have also been topics of interest for me. I had, of course, read about the tragic loss of life in World War I and felt keen to contribute to this piece as a way to remember those who have fallen.

But what was fascinating about working on this particular project, was learning about the individual stories of these fallen men; fine sportsmen who were struck down in their prime.

This was no more evident than in the case of John Lewis Williams. I was quick to learn that Williams had been born in Whitchurch, where I went to school and spent much of my teenage years. This suddenly struck home the reality of the tragic tale. Williams was, by all accounts, a superb footballer, and a huge loss for Wales and rugby. A true star of the game before his untimely death. Much is made of sportsmen and women today; Whitchurch is lucky enough to boast such sporting greats as Gareth Bale, Geraint Thomas and Sam Warburton, who are regarded superstars. Williams was on par with this at the time.

To emphasise the status that Williams held during his player career, last September, he was inducted into the World Rugby (formally IRB) Hall of Fame.

whitchurch memorial

Whitchurch Memorial -by Sian Prescott

That I had passed this memorial countless times and barely glanced at it, barely acknowledged the names which had, over the years, just become arbitrary text, I felt I had done Williams, and the other fallen men a disservice.

I had been ignorant to the fact a great rugby player was on this memorial; but also what else had the others achieved and done in their short lives. I was struck that any of these names could have been any of the names of people I had known and befriended in Whitchurch over the years.

It is very easy to pass by these memorials and take them for granted. Working on this project made me realise that it is worth the small time and effort to sometimes pause amidst our own busy lives, and acknowledge those who fought so that we could enjoy our freedoms today.

Sian Prescott

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The Origin and Early Years of the Cardiff and District Rugby Union

By the early 1890s, there were over 200 teams playing the game in the Cardiff, Penarth and Barry area and several of these clubs had joined the WRU. However, the Union was becoming alarmed that it might eventually be swamped by junior clubs from Cardiff and elsewhere. As a result, in 1892 the WRU resolved that strict criteria would be applied to all future applications for membership. At the same meeting, the nomination of several Cardiff district clubs for WRU membership was greeted with laughter by the delegates. In response to these rebuffs to the grassroots game in the town, H. W. Wells, a journalist on the Western Mail, suggested that it might be necessary to form a union of local clubs.

Further demands for a new union to control the burgeoning game in Cardiff surfaced shortly afterwards following a fractious and controversial game between Grangetown and Cardiff Rangers. Not only was the match a series of fist fights but the Rangers’ winning try was awarded, even though the scorer evaded tacklers by running behind the spectators on the touchline. Clearly, something needed to be done.

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