“Good old rugby football. All over the
British Isles its exponents were in the van of those who went.”
Bishop of Bloemfontein
and former British Lion, 1921
One hundred years ago, the rugby pitches of the British Empire and France emptied out, and a generation of players traded in their hoop jerseys for khaki uniforms. A terrible number of them ended up littering the battlefields of France, Belgium, and Turkey, never to return to the game they loved.
Rugby union was still a young sport then. It had been only a bit more than 60 years since the first set of rules was codified and roughly 80 since William Webb Ellis, “with a fine disregard for the rules of football,” as the apocryphal plaque at Rugby School declares, first picked up the ball and ran. But by 1914 rugby was a solid institution among middle- and lower-upper-class England, and the men who played it were filled with Edwardian notions of masculinity, glory, and empire. When England declared war on August 4, 1914, rugby players volunteered by the hundreds. Because of their social class and background, most of them ended up as junior officers. In other words, the first over the top of the trench.
Overall, 140 international rugby players from nine countries died in the war. Author Nigel McCrery profiled every one in a book released last year, Into Touch: Rugby Internationals Killed in the Great War. Scotland lost 30 international players, more than any other nation. They included not only the best of their day, but some of the greatest of all time.
There was Dave Gallaher, the captain of the original New Zealand All Blacks team. Gallaher was too old to be conscripted, but when his two brothers were killed in the war, he falsified his age and enlisted. After he was killed by shrapnel at Passchendaele, the Auckland Star wrote in his 1917 obituary: “Standing six feet in height, thirteen stone in weight, hard as nails, fast and full of dash, he bolted from the mark every time, played right up to the whistle and stopped for nothing big or small.”
There was Ronald Poulton-Palmer, a renowned English center. A sniper killed him on the Western Front just 13 months after he scored four tries (the rugby equivalent of a touchdown) against France. His last words were reported to be: “I shall never play at Twickenham again.”
They came not only from the British Isles, but in droves from New Zealand and Australia. It is estimated that 98 percent of the rugby players in Australia enlisted.
“We arrived at Heliopolis about three weeks ago,” Clarrie Wallach, an Australian forward, wrote in a letter on his way to Gallipoli. “We have been in some pretty solid work, but expect to go into the real stuff next week. All the rugby union men are well here, from the Major down to the privates. Twit Tasker told me how Harold George died the death of deaths—a hero’s—never beaten till the whistle went.”
George, also an Australian player, was mortally wounded by a sniper. By the time the ANZAC forces finally evacuated Gallipoli, seven Wallabies had been buried on the Dardanelles Peninsula.
Tasker, who held the distinction of being the first Wallaby to be ejected from a match, was evacuated after his legs were peppered with shrapnel. “It will be some time before he can do any of that sidestepping he used to do,” one of his old rugby colleagues wrote home in a letter. Tasker was discharged in 1915 but reenlisted and saw action on the Western Front, where he was wounded twice more and gassed before a shell killed him three months short of the war’s end.
Wallach was later killed in action and received the Military Cross. His brother Neville, also a rugger, enlisted at 18 and received a Military Cross for his actions at the First Battle of Bullecourt. According to his citation, Neville Wallach “was a Platoon Commander in the attack on the Hindenburg Line near Bullecourt on 11 April 1917 and though he received a bullet through his thigh . . . led his men over 1,200 yards of ground swept by shell and machine gun fire.” A shell killed him in 1918.