London Scottish to pay tribute to WW1 fallen

MORE than 40 young rugby players from London Scottish will take part in a unique First World War Centenary event in Laon, France this weekend – 100 years to the day since former London Scot and Scotland internationalist Lt Ronnie Simson perished in the Great War – the first British rugby ­internationlist to be felled ­during the conflict.

Ronald Simson, holding the ball, as a member of the Edinburgh Academy fourth XV rugby team of 1904-1905
Ronald Simson, holding the ball, as a member of the Edinburgh Academy fourth XV rugby team of 1904-1905

The events commemorate the opening battles of the Great War in France where the first international rugby players were killed in September 1914.

Stade Toulousain’s French half-back Alfred Mayssonnie was the first rugby internationalist to be killed on 6 September, 1914 during the early stages of the Battle of Marne.

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Eight days later, on 14 September, a shell took out Lt Ronald Francis Simson, aged 24, and his horse, during the ­Battle of the Aisne on the Chemin des Dames ridge.

Another London Scottish player and Scotland internationalist, James Huggan, died the next day and Charles Wilson of the London club Blackheath and England fell a day later.

The Chemin des Dames is the ridge between Arras and Reims that the Germans took straight after the Battle of the Marne. The British and French together tried and failed to take it back in ­September 1914.

Both sides dug in, literally, creating the Western Front’s first trenches.

Players and officials from London Scottish will be joined across the Channel this weekend by colleagues from Blackheath Rugby Club – a former club of Ronnie Simson, who was a career soldier who entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1909.

London Scottish, with its ­connection to the London ­Scottish Regiment, and Blackheath, with its proximity to Woolwich barracks, always had members and players with ­military ­connections.

In total 87 international ­players from the British Isles lost their lives during the Great War: 31 of them were Scots, 27 are on London Scottish’s or ­Blackheath’s roll of honour, ­including four named on both.

In all, London Scottish lost at least 100 members of their club, Blackheath losing 60.

Back in May the two clubs played a special First World War commemoration match to close the season.

Hosted by the Conseil Général de l’Aisne and the town of Laon in association with other rugby clubs in the region, this ­weekend will culminate in a rugby ­tournament connecting the clubs’ current players with those of the past who gave their lives in WW1.

Blackheath and London Scottish U15s will play a Flandres Select XV, organised by the Comité Départemental de Rugby de l’Aisne and the Comité de Rugby des Flandres, with the support of Laon Rugby Club.

The next day will see the two main events, Blackheath U17s v Flandres Select XV, followed by London Scottish Under-18s v Racing Metro Under-18s. On their shirts, each player will bear the name of a First World War player from his respective club.

London Scottish players will also visit Lt Ronnie Simson’s grave in Moulins and Blackheath players will visit Wilson’s in Paissy, each laying wreaths. On Saturday morning, players and officials will attend a commemorative service at the Basque Memorial, at Craonelle on the Chemin des Dames, on the site of the Front.

They will then take part in a walk alongside serving soldiers from the British and French ­Armies, from Vendresse to Cerny en Laonnais, following in the footsteps 100 years to the day that so many British lives were lost in an attempt to take the plateau.

At Vendresse there will be a short service where the names of the fallen of both clubs will be read.

At Cerny the final act of ­reconciliation will take place with the laying of wreaths in the British and German war ­cemeteries by the British and German Ambassadors. Prince Charles, German ­Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande will ­attend events over the same weekend.

President ­Hollande’s grandfather died on the Chemin des Dames and ­the French premier visited in July as the Tour de France passed along this ridge, with the cyclists ­commemorating the three Tour de France winners killed in the war.

Paul McFarland, honorary secretary of London Scottish, said: “This will be no ordinary battlefield tour but will provide young players at both clubs a unique perspective on the Great War and the opportunity to identify with the young men who wore the same jersey before them.

“Sportsmen with rugby ­players to the fore, volunteered in disproportionate numbers and inevitably formed a disproportionate number of the killed and wounded.

“It sounds trite but is true that the values of comradeship which attract young people to our game today are those that attracted their predecessors a century ago to join our clubs and then inspired them to join up to fight the war.”

He continued: “In July, I was on the Chemin des Dames – where a ‘trench’ of cornflowers – the French equivalent of the poppy – flanked the road for 40km, alongside François Hollande as the Tour de France passed.

“It was a privilege to be there as cyclists remembered their fallen predecessors and it will be an honour to represent our club at the Rugby Trench.”