Tag Archives: WW1

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 Battalion (Cardiff City) Welsh Regiment. 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 (Cardiff City) Welsh Regiment and was soon promoted to Company Sergeant Major. This unit was full of rugby players, so he found himself serving alongside many former teammates and opponents.

Six days after the opening of the Battle of the Somme, the 38th (Welsh) Division were given the task of capturing Mametz Wood. The City Battalion, together with the 11th Battalion South Wales Borderers, were selected to spearhead the initial attack on the wood on the 7th July. The plan, however, was ill-conceived and stood little chance of success. The Germans were well dug in at the edge of the wood as well as on the right flank of the attackers. The artillery failed to neutralise the enemy’s machine guns, while the promised covering smoke never materialised. The attack was held up well before the men could get into the wood and the 16th Welsh suffered terribly from both frontal and enfilade fire. Company Sergeant Major Richard Thomas was one of nearly 140 from his battalion who were killed in the doomed assault. Mametz Wood was eventually captured five days later after much Welsh blood was shed.

The commanding officer of the 16th Welsh, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Smith, a Welsh trialist and an old teammate and police colleague of Dick’s, wrote to his widow, “My old friend Dick was killed while attacking a wood … I had already recommended him for a MC for his gallantry and splendid example to his men”. However, Dick never received the decoration: at that time, the Military Cross could not be awarded posthumously.

A Welsh selector later wrote of Dick, “He died as he had always lived, a great hero.”

Richard Thomas is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme; on the Bridgend War Memorial and on the Glamorgan Police War Memorial.  A new building has recently been named in his honour at the Bridgend headquarters of the South Wales Police.

 

I should like to thank Richard and Margaret Thomas, John Jenkins and Gareth Madge for their help in researching this article.

This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Dick Thomas’s death in action on 7th July 2016. It is re-posted here to commemorate the 101st anniversary of his death.

There is a much longer account of Dick Thomas’s life and rugby career in “Call Them to Remembrance”. 

 

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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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Charles Gerald Taylor: The Royal Navy Officer who was the First Welsh Rugby International to Die in the First World War.

This article was first posted on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Charles Taylor’s death in action in 1915. I have re-posted it here with minor amendments to commemorate the 101st anniversary of his death. There is a much longer account of Charles Taylor’s life in “Call Them to Remembrance”.

Lest We Forget – Charles Gerald Taylor (Wales)   24/1/1915                                                      

If Charles Taylor hadn’t decided to pursue a naval career he might never have become a rugby player. He was born in Ruabon, north Wales on 8 May 1863, the son of Reverend Alfred and Annie Taylor. His father was headmaster of Ruabon Grammar School, where Charles was educated.

North Wales has always been soccer country so, unsurprisingly, in his youth Charles was an association footballer, and a gifted one at that. However, at sixteen he left his Denbighshire home to join HMS Marlborough, a shore establishment in Portsmouth for the training of Royal Navy engineer officers. There the preferred sport was rugby – they had a decent fixture list and were members of the RFU – and so Charles was converted into a three-quarter. Any reluctance he may initially have felt was quickly dispelled as he proved to be a natural for the game and he soon became a “crack” member of the team. By the time he was twenty, Charles had come to the notice of the Welsh selectors.

He was fast, useful with the ball in hand and a good tackler but Charles was best known for his kicking. His particular speciality was a legacy from his soccer days: the fly kick to touch, a potentially dangerous tactic at any time but one which Charles could usually bring off with extraordinary accuracy. Well liked for his charm, humour and, not least, his post-match party piece on the banjo, he was clearly an asset for any rugby side.

Charles made his international debut in January 1884 on the wing against England at Leeds where he “put in some wonderful flying kicks”. He also nearly achieved lasting fame by helping to bring off a sensational victory with a drop goal attempt which unfortunately was disallowed. However, according to the England full back, Henry Tristram, who was in a much better position to see than the officials, the kick was good. It was, nevertheless, a memorable year for Charles: a few months later he came second in the pole vault at the AAA national championships.

Although he played all his club rugby in England, Charles became an automatic choice for Wales over four seasons, winning nine caps in all and missing only one through injury. No doubt with a nod to his naval background, the press therefore referred to him as “the sheet anchor” of the team.

His time in the Welsh jersey wasn’t a period of great success but there were signs that Wales were improving. Two wins out of two against Ireland, that near miss at Leeds and draws with England and Scotland were indications that, with Charles’s help, Wales now had to be taken seriously.

After six years at HMS Marlborough, Charles transferred to the Royal Naval College Greenwich in 1885 and so was able to join one of the best teams in the country, the powerful Blackheath club. He also helped set up London Welsh at this time but only turned out for them on the odd occasion. Playing against Scotland on 9 January 1886, Charles made rugby history as a member of the first-ever four three-quarter line-up in international rugby.

His final international appearance was in the victory over Ireland in March 1887, when Wales finished second in the championship, achieving their highest placing so far. A few months later, Assistant Engineer Charles Taylor was posted to his first ship for service in the Mediterranean and his senior rugby career had come to an end.

A highly professional and efficient officer, he had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. He was promoted to Engineer-Captain in 1912 and undoubtedly would have risen further had he survived. Soon after the outbreak of the Great War, he was posted to HMS Tiger, in the First Battle Cruiser Squadron, which was under the command of Rear Admiral Beatty. Charles held a position of considerable responsibility as the Squadron Engineer Officer.

Unknown to the enemy, by late January 1915, the British were intercepting their radio traffic and breaking into their naval codes. So when a squadron of German ships ventured out into the North Sea, the Royal Navy was waiting for them. On 24th January 1915, Beatty caught the Germans near the Dogger Bank.  During the battle, one of the German capital ships was sunk with the loss nearly a thousand lives, though the rest of the squadron managed to escape. No British ship was lost and only fifteen Royal Navy personnel were killed. However, it was HMS Tiger which suffered most of the British casualties when a shell hit a compartment below the conning tower. Engineer-Captain Taylor was nearby, calmly observing the technical performance of the ships, when, tragically, he was caught in the blast and killed instantly.

His body was returned home and he lies today in Tavistock New Cemetery, Devon. He left a widow and three children. At fifty-one, Charles Gerald Taylor was the fourth oldest rugby international to die in the Great War.

The Battle of Dogger Bank had added the first Welshman to the game’s international roll of honour.

 

Charles Taylor is commemorated on memorials at Ruabon, Dartmouth, Blackheath FC, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Principality (formerly Millennium) Stadium.

Gwyn Prescott

24 January 2016

 

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The 2015 Passchendaele Commemoration Remembers “Dai” Westacott

At a moving commemoration held on the evening of the 10th November each year, the villagers of Passchendaele honour the memory of the men of all nationalities who died during the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July – 10 November 1917), perhaps better known as “Passchendaele”. Over half a million men became casualties in the battle but in order to personalise this horrendous human cost, the Passchendaele Commemoration focuses on the lives of just three soldiers who died. This year, one of the three was a rugby international. At least seven internationals died in the battle, including: James Henderson (Scotland), Albert Stewart (Ireland), Alfred Taylor (Ireland), Arthur Wilson (England) and two of the most famous rugby players to fall in the war, Edgar Mobbs (England) and David Gallaher (New Zealand). But it was the less well-known Welsh international, David Westacott, who was honoured at the 2015 commemoration.

This annual ceremony by the people of Passchendaele commemorates the end of the Third Battle of Ypres and the capture of their village by the Canadian Division on the 10th November 1917. This year over three hundred villagers took part, as well as government representatives from Belgium, Canada, New Zealand and Germany. Contingents of the Belgian, Canadian and German military were also present. The commemoration began just outside the village at the Crest Farm Canadian Memorial, with a reflection on the sacrifice of Myer Cohen of Canada, Hinrich Böttcher of Germany and, representing all the British soldiers who died, David Westacott. During a moving ceremony, an account of the life of each was read out and their photographs displayed at the memorial. This was then followed by a torchlit procession through the village to Passchendaele Church.

“Dai” Westacott was a Cardiff docker. A tough and powerful forward, he played for seven seasons for Cardiff during one of the most successful periods in their history. The highlight of his club career was surely his participation in Cardiff’s stunning 24-8 victory over Australia in 1908. He also played once for Wales in the match against Ireland in 1906. Although a thirty-two year-old family man when war broke out, Dai was an early volunteer and consequently he saw much action on the Western Front. On the 28th August 1917, he was serving with the 2/6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment in the line north-east of Ypres, when he was caught by a random shell and killed instantly. He has no known grave and is commemorated, not far from where he died, on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.

Dai is perhaps not the best known of the many internationals who died in the war, but it is gratifying to realise that his achievements and his sacrifice have been not been forgotten by the people of Passchendaele and Flanders.

This article recently appeared on the World Rugby Museum Blog, December 2015.

Gwyn Prescott

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