02 February 2018

Remembering Rugby’s war dead

As the Six Nations kick-off approaches, we remember rugby players from around the world who redirected their sporting qualities – passion, dedication, camaraderie – to the war effort. From within the eight major rugby nations alone, 185 “capped” international players lost their lives during the two world wars.

 

The 1914 Grand Slam winning England  team was devastated by the loss of five players during the First World War

Players from many of the minor rugby nations also joined up, while countless others at club level rushed to enlist but were never to return. Far too many died to be listed here, but we can look at some of their representative stories.

England - Vice Admiral Norman Atherton Wodehouse

The perfect season, or Grand Slam, is something all modern players aspire to. The same was true of their predecessors and in 1913 the England team, under the captaincy of Norman, became the first side to achieve a Grand Slam in the Five Nations Championship.

Norman was born in 1887 and won 14 caps for England between 1910 and 1913, captaining his country on six occasions. That first Grand Slam ushered in a golden era of English rugby but after securing victory, Norman retired from test rugby to continue his career with the Royal Navy.

During the First World War, Norman served with distinction as a gunnery officer on board the battleship HMS Revenge at the Battle of Jutland. Several of his Grand Slam winning team were to be killed during the war, including such gifted players as Ronnie Poulton-Palmer and John Raphael, but Norman survived and his naval career later secured him the position of Aide-de-Camp to King George VI, for which he was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath.

When the Second World War began in 1939 Norman was recalled to active service. In 1941 he was commanding a convoy to South Africa when they were attacked by German submarines. Norman ordered the convoy to scatter and his ship was never seen again. He is commemorated on the Liverpool Naval Memorial.

Ireland - Captain Robert Alexander

Robert “Bob” Alexander was born in Belfast in 1910 and was a natural sportsman, playing both rugby and cricket at international level.

Bob made his debut for Ireland against England in 1936 and played a total of 11 times for his country, scoring one try. Considered a large player by the standards of the day, Bob’s speed made him a natural for his favoured position, Flanker.

Bob also played with the Barbarians in 1935/36 and toured with the British Lions team to South Africa in 1938, playing in all three tests and scoring a try in the third game, “made possible by a tremendous burst of speed which brought the spectators to their feet”. The Lions won the game, although they lost the series by two games to one. In total, he scored six tries on the tour which was a record for a forward at the time.

In 1937 Bob joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary but with the coming of the Second World War he enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, quickly rising from the ranks to be commissioned as an officer in 1940. By the end of 1941 he held the rank of Captain.

In July 1943 Bob was ordered to lead his troops in an attack across the Simento River in Sicily. He was killed and is buried with many of his comrades in Catania War Cemetery.

In a letter to Bob’s brother, his Commanding Officer wrote: “I cannot put on paper what a loss he has been to the Regiment as the finest type of officer and leader, and to us personally as a friend.”

Scotland - Surgeon David Revell Bedell-Sivright

David was a large, physical and skilful player, considered to be one of the best forwards of his day. He was also a keen boxer and was Scottish Amateur Heavyweight Champion in 1909. But it was in rugby that his real talent laid.

From school rugby, to captain of both Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities’ first teams, David went on to play for Scotland on 22 occasions between 1900 and 1908 – their most successful ever period. David also went on two British Lions tours, captaining the second tour in 1904.

In 1915, while serving with the Medical Unit of the Royal Naval Division during the Gallipoli campaign, David contracted Septicaemia, a disease of the blood. He died on 5 September and was buried at sea. He is commemorated by name on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Wales - Lieutenant John Raymond Evans

By 1934, John Evans had become a prominent player at club level for the Welsh side Newport and he was rewarded for his performances when he was one of 13 new caps selected to play for Wales against England at Cardiff.  Although Wales lost, and this was to be his only appearance for his country, John is one of only four Welsh Internationals ever to captain the side on their debut.

With war imminent, John signed up with the South Wales Borderers, he later transferred to the Welsh Guards before volunteering for service with the Parachute Regiment, eventually serving as a Lieutenant with the 3rd Battalion in North Africa during 1942/43. It was while serving with this unit that John was killed during an attack to secure some high ground near an important road. He is buried in Tabarka Ras Rajel War Cemetery.

 

 - Read more about rugby’s war dead -

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