How Scots passed Serbs wartime gift of rugby

George Heriot's First XV 1918-19 including Dimitrije Dulkanovic and Danilo Pavlovic (back row left) from Serbia

George Heriot's First XV 1918-19 including Dimitrije Dulkanovic and Danilo Pavlovic (back row left) from Serbia

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THEY escaped the battlefield to find glory on the playing field. George Heriot’s, one of Scotland’s most prestigious public schools, is to mark the centenary of the arrival of 27 Serbian schoolboys who later introduced rugby to their native country.

Over the next four years the Edinburgh school will tell the story of the boys who survived the most horrific conditions while escaping from their war-torn nation but went on to play the first Serbian international sporting event – a rugby match on the fields of Inverleith.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, the school has posted on its website the first instalment of what will be a four-year project designed to chart the stories of the Serbian boys, aged 12 to 17, who were taken in by the educational establishment in 1916.

The boys’ plight began in the winter of 1915 when they were part of what was known as the “retreat”, a journey over the mountains of Albania and Montenegro to the Adriatic coast, where there lay the prospect of evacuation by British, French and Italian allies.

More than 100,000 Serbian soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians took part in the journey. Many thousands perished, including 8,000 boys who died of starvation, cold and disease in the hostile mountains.

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The ordeal was documented by Hilton Young, a member of the British Adriatic Mission to Serbia, who described some of the unlucky ones: “I saw two boys (and I set this down for those that glorify war) that, too weak either of them to walk alone, were staggering along, each supported against the other… I saw them stagger aside off the road and fall amongst the bushes.” Both died shortly after.

Among the 5,000 boys who survived were 27 boys who arrived at Waverley station in August 1916, just before the start of the school term. George Heriot’s had agreed to provide their board and education and, despite, never having played rugby before, the boys quickly took to the game.

Over the next two years the boys became so adept at the sport that they participated in an international game – Serbia versus a team pulled from boys from other nations – and won.

A number of the boys went on to study engineering at Edinburgh University and later used their skills to help rebuild their home country.

As Dimitrije Dulkanovic explained when interviewed in his eighties: “The prime of our lives were spent here in this beautiful country with your grandfathers and grandmothers. At that war time we were homeless and parentless so our gratitude to Scotland and the Scottish people will last till the end of our lives.”

Dulkanovic was the last surviving “Serbian boy” and was buried in 1995 in Zemun, Belgrade, in his Heriot’s school tie. The school now plans to bring over a group of relatives of the boys to celebrate founders’ day in 2016, the 100th anniversary of their arrival.

Yesterday Louise Millar, who has researched the Serbian boys’ stories for a series to be published on the school’s website, said: “It is an amazing story and there is a lot still to come out, including the boys’ visit in 1959 and what happened to them after they returned to Yugoslavia which is amazing stuff. There were four of the original boys and one of their sons who returned in 1959. The origins of the game of rugby in Serbia is through these boys. The other boys dispersed to different parts of Britain brought back cricket and football but our boys brought back rugby.”

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