The Final Whistle
The Great War in Fifteen Players
By Stephen Cooper
The History Press Copyright © 2012 Stephen Cooper
All rights reserved.
The First Blow
When the time came for the whistle to blow they were glad.
The shrill note hung in the damp air and in the moment's hesitation before they started, all time was suspended and every breath was held. The waiting was finally over and all they had trained for now lay in front of them. Their great game was now about to kick off on this field and their greatest hope was for victory.
The captain looked along his line to the left and right and saw that his men were ready. They had all worked hard for this since training had begun; they were fit in wind and limb, and eager to get stuck in. The mud on their boots, which they never could shake off, no longer felt so heavy.
He had talked to them quietly, each man in his turn; no need for big words as each knew his job and what he had to do. The big men felt strong, relishing the scrimmage to come, their faces set and determined. The faster men were looking to stretch their legs and show their pace in attack. In their eyes, he could see the excitement and the nervousness; no man on his team wanted to let the side down – if they had fears, this was the worst of them.
Most of all they were eager to take the fight to the opposition. This was their first taste of the game. The side they faced was unknown to them, although its reputation was fearsome. Their captain raised his arm to signal readiness, to steady the impatient, and waited for the moment, his own heart battering so loud in his chest he wondered that his men could not hear it.
He placed the whistle to his lips.
The Final Whistle
This is the story of fifteen men and more who heard that first shrill blast and answered its call to arms; they did not live to hear the final whistle that ended the game.
All were members of one sporting club, Rosslyn Park, then in Henry VIII's ancient Deer Park in Richmond to the south-west of London. In their youth they flocked together from all parts of the land and from the furthest ends of the earth to play the game of rugby. They stepped forward again in 1914 to fight a war that would last four long seasons.
Some were still in their playing prime; others had long since hung up their boots in favour of gentler pursuits, professions and families. These now took second place to war. The Victory Medal issued in 1919 sought to ennoble this brutal struggle as 'The Great War for Civilisation'; but these men never wore this medal or celebrated the victory: every one was killed in that Great War.
The whistle marked a beginning, but it also signalled an end: it blew away the old civilisation. On 4 August 1914, western imperial time was divided into 'before the whistle' and after – the time before the whistle would never return. This war did not end all wars, as optimists fervently hoped, but it did forever change the world. Combatants and civilians alike knew that they were living through an unprecedented transformation: the breakdown of one epoch and the uncertain stirrings of a new age. Wartime nurse Vera Brittain wrote in 1916: 'It seems to me that the War will make a big division of "before" and "after" in the history of the World, almost if not quite as big as the "B.C." and "A.D." division made by the birth of Christ.' It took four years before the final whistle could sound and 'After War' time could begin.
The history of these men begins with their names lost in mystery. Rosslyn Park Football Club was established in 1879. In that year of the nineteenth century British soldiers died at Rorke's Drift; they also fought and died in Afghanistan, as they do again in the twenty-first. For relaxation they played rugby, with rudimentary pitch and posts, shown in a Victorian periodical engraving, at Khelat-i-Gilzai, near Kandahar. In 2007 a prince and future vice-patron of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) kicked an oval ball about with his Household Cavalry unit in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. These colour images now flash worldwide on the internet and satellite television – our media have made progress even if our civilisation hasn't.
In 1914, with a new war looming, Rosslyn Park already had thirty-five seasons of mud on its shorts; successive waves of players had worn its red-and-white hooped jersey and would now don khaki. Any club of young, physically fit men will naturally suffer losses in wartime; those killed in the 'Second Great War' of the century, including the Russian Prince Alex Obolensky, the flying winger killed in his RAF Hurricane in 1940, are rightly revered on a clubhouse plaque. But why is there no memorial to its first war dead? Was it somehow lost in the move from Richmond to Roehampton in 1956? A few short miles but a careless slip by clumsy movers and a slab of broken marble consigned in muttering embarrassment to a skip; without a memorial there was no Roll of Honour, no record of the club's pain and pride.
So began the first work to piece together the list of men who died. The sole clue was a yellowed press cutting of the club's 1919 annual general meeting, reporting sixty-six members killed and six missing. No names were mentioned. Thankfully the club's membership records survive; the meticulous copperplate entries for name, address and school attended were checked against Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records of those who died. Some names took several more hours of trawling through census, school and university records, newspaper microfiche and National Archives to achieve conclusive matches. The total has already surpassed the stated seventy-two; several more sit 'on the bench', tantalisingly short of the perfect match of name, address or initial that would select them definitively for the side lost by history.
Many names were already linked through shared friendships at school and university. In varying permutations, they bob to the surface time and again in a stream of match reports, school magazine articles, team sheets and photograph captions. Rosslyn Park would unite them again – friends naturally flock together in rugby – and prolong those masculine bonds into adult life. So, fleetingly, would military service in war, until it tore their brief lives and friendships violently apart. Muscular rugby bodies were reduced to sandbags of body parts: lungs drowned in gas froth; tendons and ligaments shredded and twitching; limbs sheared and snapped by pressure waves from passing shells; skulls splintered by steel, stripped of flesh and bleached. In their hour of dying their median age would be 23.
Young men, whether from the Australian outback, Indian railway or industrial Wales, were drawn by education or profession to London's metropolis and found companionship there with like-minded rugby players; they became teammates and close friends. Some passed through the club only briefly for a season or two and might not recognise a common allegiance if they later stumbled across a fellow 'Park-ite' at the front. Guy du Maurier had first played for the club in its earliest North London incarnation, when just 16 in 1881; he became the oldest to die, aged 49, in 1915. Much younger men than Guy were looking forward to a new season and a life of promise when war broke out; the youngest, Gerald David Lomax, was to die at just 20 years of age.
Some displayed exceptional talent in sporting arenas (not just the rugby field) that won them national honours. Others discovered talents and passions they scarce suspected – among them a poet and a playwright – to confound those who cherish the fixed image of rugby 'hearties' who could destroy Christopher Isherwood's college room for kicks. Some achieved distinction in death: the first player lost in August 1914 was the first airman downed by enemy fire; one of the last won the Victoria Cross in 1918. Many more were unsung battlers who hardly aspired to international sporting glory but volunteered enthusiastically to represent their country in the field.
Perhaps these players had absorbed some martial spirit from the terroir of Richmond Old Deer Park, in the manner of fine French wines. The 'splendidly quick-drying springy turf' had once been used as an archery range by Queen Elizabeth I, that 'weak and feeble woman, with the heart and stomach of a king'. Just as these fresh recruits came from all corners of Britain and the empire for trial on the rugby field, so they were sent out to fight in every theatre of this war. On its second day the writer Henry James could write privately of 'the plunge of civilisation into this abyss of blood and darkness'; public hubbub, on the other hand, was of heroic adventure. The early clashes, roared on by armchair spectators reading sanitised match reports from the battlefield, had the flavour of one huge game. Plucky defence to the last man against superior opposition, defiant goal-line stands and, in true sporting headline fashion, the 'Race to the Sea', as both sides attempted to outflank the opposition by running wide around the wings.
A series of last-ditch tackles, at the cost of thousands dead and wounded, stopped every attack until the Germans were squeezed out of play at the topographic touchlines of the North Sea and Swiss border. Both sides then settled down to a full-frontal forwards game in the mud, rolling on interminable replacements as men went off injured and dying. The thoroughbreds were forever left in reserve, starved of action, waiting for the opportunity to burst through a gap in the opposition line which, in those four hard years, only appeared very late as its German defenders died on their feet – or surrendered on their knees.
However, the stark image of the Western Front is only part of the story. What emerges from the lives of these rugby men is a remarkable history in miniature of the entire war, across all fronts, arms, theatres and engagements. Some went to 'quiet shows' that proved just as deadly as the celebrated set pieces of Ypres and the Somme. They would die in Dublin and Lincolnshire. Some were honoured for their bravery, with one achieving the nation's highest award; far more fought in obscurity, their feats of arms rarely recorded and their death in 'some corner of a foreign field' marked only by the prosaic marginal notes of overworked War Office clerks. Not for them the gleam of the Military or Victoria Cross, or even the dignity of a named grave, only the shadow of the Cross of Sacrifice or granite memorial.
Some inherent quality of bravery or natural leadership saw many rugby men take the lead, as they had on the field, whether as reckless pilots in frail biplane or balloon, as officers of doomed infantry companies or at the head of desperate naval storming parties. Youthful hopes – the promise of life, adventure, love – turned swiftly to fears of death, dismemberment, squalor and insanity. In callous mockery of the club motto, fortune did not always favour the brave.
Their names are now scattered on public war memorials in home towns where they lived and were loved, and on battlefields where they perished. They were also engraved on the rim of the Victory Medal, its rainbow ribbon emptily promising 'never again'. This award was not automatic; service medals were issued to other ranks, but officers or their next of kin had to apply for them. The family also received a circular bronze plaque, known blackly as the 'Death Penny', and a printed scroll from the king. These too are scattered or lost. I have been privileged to view the plaque and medal trio of 'first-class rugby forward' Arnold Huckett, dead at Gallipoli, touchingly reunited by a collector with those of his brother Oliver, killed in France. Aussie Syd Burdekin's medals are safe in a Sydney museum. As for the rest, who knows.
For many parents, the loss of a young son (or two, even three), heart -breaking in its own right, could also mean the death of the family name, as the male lineage was violently severed. Thus it could be said that whole families died at Ypres, Suvla Bay or Kut. Kipling borrowed from Ecclesiasticus to promise that 'their Name Liveth for Evermore', but with no descendants to preserve them, the living stories behind those dead names have rarely been handed down. Nor are they collected in one place that unites them, as the rugby club once did. Occasionally photographs emerge from family albums that speak more eloquently than the formal portraits in memorial books. However, some sons have left no trace of a face and remain invisible and lost as men. It is the author's hope that more knowledge will rise from the depths when readers chance upon these pages.
Almost a century later, why do we write so many books about the Great War? And why do they invariably focus on those who died? Gertrude Stein's oft-quoted 'lost generation' referred not to the dead of the war, but to its war-interrupted survivors, damaged and drifting in the 1920s. Many died but three-quarters of Park's estimated 350 members who fought came through alive, although not always untouched in body or mind. There are as many heroic stories to be told of players who survived. In his 1918 VC citation, Captain Reginald Hayward:
... displayed almost superhuman powers of endurance. In spite of the fact that he was buried, wounded in the head and rendered deaf on the first day of operations and had his arm shattered two days later, he refused to leave his men, even though he received a third serious injury to his head, until he collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
In hearty disregard for mortality, the superhuman Hayward lived until 1978. Yet it is Arthur Harrison VC, who died sixty years earlier in a storm of bullets at Zeebrugge, who fascinates and whose equally vivid story is told here.
This book tells of fifteen lives cut short, and touches on many others. Few of these mostly young men had time to marry and father children who would live after them and tend the flame of memory. If they wrote letters home, as surely they did, only a few have been spared by time; those glimpses into the thoughts of Alec Todd, John (Jack) Bodenham, Jimmy Dingle and Guy du Maurier are precious. Many did not even leave mortal remains: thirty-four bodies – two entire teams and more – were never found and have no known resting place. The only true death is to be forgotten; these pages hope to resurrect the ghosts of men lost and buried in the mass tomb of the Unknown Soldier that is the Great War.
A fortunate few achieved some small measure of youthful fame before the whistle, but rarely did it last, overwhelmed by the cataclysmic wave that washed away their world. None lived to write the memoirs and autobiographies which flooded on to the market in the 1920s and by which we know of the survivors' experiences. None were interviewed as forgotten voices in their declining years by historians rushing to preserve their accounts before age overcame them. While their names crumble on cold monuments, the warm-blooded stories of these vigorous, energetic and talented rugby-playing men have never been told.
The Boys Who Won the War
Soldiers do not start wars. They fight them under orders. It is politicians who start wars and leave soldiers to endure them until they end. Then in the 'Great War to end all wars', once the fighting had stopped, the politicians again stepped forward, flags flying, to create the Treaty of Versailles and its vindictive reparations against Germany which led inexorably to another great war. And so it goes.
This fight was one of attrition. The generals' dreams and experience lay in wars of movement: sweeping flanking manoeuvres and gallant cavalry charges against brave but poorly equipped adversaries in colonial campaigns. Once outflanking was blocked by trenches stretching 460 miles from the Channel to the Alps, they had no Plan B. Gallipoli and Mesopotamia represented flanking moves on a grand scale, but soon regressed to the unimaginative mean of Western Front siege warfare.
Troops battered themselves senseless and lifeless against enemy defences because of the generals' instinct to attack, to break through and renew mobile warfare – otherwise why have generals? Even if there was no strategic offensive, there was an insistence on 'activity' or demonstration of aggressive intent, with artillery 'hates' and trench raids by night and day. The question 'Are we being as offensive as we might be?' was deservedly satirised in the pages of the Wipers Times trench journal; offence simply brought counter-offence, bombardment and death. (Continues...)
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