An entire team wiped out by the Great War

A LITTLE over 95 years ago, in the spring of 1914, the domestic rugby union season was drawing to a close. Among the fixtures played by London Scottish Football Club, as they are known to this day, was one against capital rivals Blackheath.

Founded in 1878, London Scottish had flourished in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, and put out a number of teams every matchday. They fielded four against Blackheath – 60 men in all, in those days before injury replacements – never mind tactical substitutions – were permitted.

Of those 60, according to one of the most remarkable literary works ever written about Scottish sport, 45 were to be killed on active service in the First World War.

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Mick Imlah, who died in January of motor neurone disease aged just 52, published just two full books of poetry. His second, The Lost Leader, contains 'London Scottish (1914)', a masterpiece of brief grief.

Selected as one of the works to be printed on postcards for National Poetry Day last month, 'London Scottish 1914' sums up the scale of the club's losses in just 15 lines. The 60 men who played against Blackheath, it says, "swapped their Richmond turf for Belgian ditches" – Richmond being a reference to the club's home, the Athletic Ground in the London suburb, Belgian ditches referring to the trenches in which both Allied and German armies were bogged down for much of the war.

Imlah also recounts how, out of the 15 survivors, only one played on in the post-war years.

"Just one, Brodie the prop, resumed his post;

"The others sometimes drank to 'The Forty-Five';

"Neither a humorous nor an idle boast."

Rod Lynch, the current London Scottish president, said yesterday that, while not every detail mentioned in Imlah's poem can be verified, the size of the losses sustained by the club was a matter of record. "There is some poetic licence in it," he said.

"Even at the time there was very little documentation, in those days of amateur, social rugby, of who played in which team on which date. And many of the records we did have from that period were destroyed between the wars.

"But some of the details are definitely correct. Imlah mentions the Battle of Messines, for example, and we know for sure that at least five London Scottish members fought there.

"And there was a man called Brodie. But unfortunately no-one now knows anything about him."

A MEMORIAL roll of honour at the Athletic Ground commemorates the club's war dead. So too does The First 100 by Frank Morris, a book published in 1977 to mark the club's centenary. It lists 103 men who died in what was then known as the Great War, and adds the words "and others" to acknowledge the list could be incomplete.

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For besides the men who played for London Scottish against Blackheath in 1914 and later fell in the service of the country, some of the most celebrated of the club's players from previous seasons also died in the war.

According to the 1919 publication The Rugby Football Internationals Roll of Honour, a copy of which is kept in the Scottish Rugby Union library at Murrayfield, 89 international players from what were then known as the Empire Forces were killed in the war. There were Australians, Englishmen, Irishmen, New Zealanders, South Africans, Scots and Welshmen among them. (The French Rugby Federation commemorated its own dead in a separate publication).

Of those 89, no fewer than 30 were Scottish. And of those 30, 17 had been members of London Scottish.

Some had not necessarily won their caps while playing for the club. But all had been members; all had contributed to the well-being of the club, on or off the field, or both.

The first known rugby international of any nation to die was a Scot, and a London Scottish player. Ronald Simson, aged 24, was killed in action on the Aisne on 14 September 1914.

Two days later, 25-year-old James Huggan died at the same place. Huggan, another London Scottish player, had taken part in Scotland's last international, the Calcutta Cup match at Inverleith in March of that year, scoring one of his team's three tries.

The other two in the 15-16 defeat were scored by John Will. He died in an air battle over Arras in 1917.

Frederick Turner, the back-row forward who had taken the kicks for Scotland against England in the same match, died in the trenches near Kemmel in January 1915 at the age of 26.

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Eric Young, who had played alongside Turner in the Calcutta Cup game, died at Gallipoli, aged 23, in June 1915. David Bain, who had captained Scotland against Wales in 1914, was killed in action in France, also in 1915. He was 23.

For many young London Scottish members, joining the regiment which bore the same name as their rugby club was a natural thing to do. When the London Scottish regiment, founded in 1859, became the first Territorial Army unit to go into action in the war, scores of rugby players were among its ranks.

The site of the action was the Messines ridge, during the first battle of Ypres.

It was 31 October 1914, the date on which to this day the regiment formally remembers its fallen with a dinner at its headquarters, in London's Horseferry Road.

Among the men who fell at Messines on that afternoon was James Ross, who had captained the rugby club in 1901-2 and again in 1904-5. He was reported missing at the end of that day's fighting.

"There was a fair number of our players who joined the London Scottish regiment, and, as I said, at least five of them fought at Messines," Lynch recalled. "They came up against the regular German army. They were damn near wiped out as a fighting unit."

A mere glance at the statistics would easily allow you to underestimate the influence of the regiment. As it only maintained two battalions, it was constantly sending officers to other regiments. Just as some of those who played for London Scottish had won their caps elsewhere, so some who died wearing the cap badge of other army units had started their military careers with the London Scottish regiment.

The losses continued on land, in the air, and at sea. In September 1915, David Bedell-Sivright died, aged 34. A surgeon, he succumbed to blood poisoning – like Young, at Gallipoli. He had been capped 22 times for Scotland, and is still regarded as one of the greatest of our international players.

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The Rugby Football Internationals Roll of Honour summed up his reputation well: "If a plebiscite was taken 'Who was the hardest forward who ever played international football?', Bedell-Sivright would get most votes if the voting was confined to players, and probably so in any event."

In May 1916, John Wilson perished at the Battle of Jutland, the decisive naval encounter of the war. He was 32. Two months later, on 1 July, Rowland Fraser died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, aged 26. He was a member of the Rifle Brigade, and was part of a division which included 27 rugby internationals he had played with or against.

That date came to be known as the blackest day in the history of the Army. Nearly 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives. Among them, not too far from where Fraser's Rifle Brigade had fought, were members of the 16th Royal Scots, 'McCrae's Battalion'. Duncan Currie, Harry Wattie and Ernest Ellis died that day.

Hearts players all, they had joined McCrae's with many of their team-mates, with professional footballers from other clubs, and with hundreds of supporters. The story of McCrae's Battalion is told in the book of that name by Edinburgh author Jack Alexander.

It took Alexander years of painstaking research to dispel the fog of war and document the reality behind the legend.

A similar labour awaits someone with the skill and dedication to find out what actually happened to all the London Scottish men who had played against Blackheath and went on to fight for their country. Until then, Imlah's poem will remain their most moving tribute.

BARELY more than 90 years ago, in the autumn of 1919, London Scottish, in common with other clubs, prepared for the resumption of the domestic rugby calendar. Of those who had played for the club before hostilities began, only 29 reported for duty.

A club which had once easily fielded four teams, with dozens of other men inactive each week through injury or other commitments, now lacked the playing strength to make up two full XVs.

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In time, new recruits came along, as they did every year. But the losses, as they were for every club, and for millions of families throughout the land, were irreparable.