Sports writing – and rugby in particular – has been guilty over the years of overborrowing phrases or cliches from the world of war. How many times have you read of a player “going over the top” or “launching an aerial bombardment” on the opposing full-back? Even the great Bill McLaren went there in his commentary when he described the Scotland full-back Gavin Hastings as having a “boot like a howitzer”.
Once upon a time, though, this kind of language was used to describe the actions of rugby players in the actual field of battle, a place where the red card meant an unmarked grave and no chance to fraternise in the bar with the beefy prop from the other team who escaped the ref’s attention when he surreptitiously caught you a punch early in the second half.
Stephen Cooper’s The Final Whistle: The Great War in Fifteen Players (Spellmount, 2012) is a history of how 15 members of Rosslyn Park Rugby Football Club willingly joined the battle in the First World War but never lived to hear the final whistle.
And what Cooper does so cleverly through his choice of players is to tiptoe through the maze of the war as it unfolded from 1914 to 1918, from the Western Front, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia to the opening salvos of the Easter Rising in Dublin. These men find their wars at sea, in the air and, needless to say, in the thick, cold, cloying mud of the trenches.
Rosslyn Park began life in 1879 and quickly became a backbone for the game in the London area, developing lasting rivalries with Richmond and Blackheath. When war was declared, it was comfortably based in Old Deer Park in Richmond. The club moved to Roehampton in 1956 which is where some of its great names were nurtured: Andy Ripley, Paul Ackford, Alex King and Danny Cipriani all went on to play for England.
In 1914, it could also lay claim to a number of internationals
Alec Todd was a backrow forward who had toured South Africa with the British Isles team of 1896 – they weren’t to become the Lions until 1930 – scoring his only international try in the second Test win in Johannesburg. In 1899, he played for London County Cricket Club under the captaincy and management of a certain Dr WG Grace.
He was shot by a sniper on Hill 60 and died four days later on April 21, 1915 at Number 3 Casualty Clearing Station, Poperinghe.
Arthur Leyland Harrison put the Royal Navy above all else, entering Britannia Royal Naval College in 1901 at the age of 15. He played rugby for Rosslyn Park and even went on tour with them to Germany in June 1913 where “the team had a great time owing to the hospitality of the Germans”.
The robust lock, with a jaw that puts even the mighty Lawrence Dallaglio’s to shame, caught the eye of the selectors and won his first England cap against Ireland at Twickenham on Valentine’s Day 1914, his performance earning him rave reviews. He missed the Scotland match because of Navy duties but then returned and contributed to England’s win over France April 1914.
He would surely have played a lot more for England had it not been for an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo, three months later.
Lieutenant-Commander Harrison volunteered for a new force – a forerunner of the Special Boat Service – which launched a daring and almost suicidal mission on the night of April 22, 1917 to neutralise the German guns at Zeebrugge while the navy blockaded the port.
That impressive jaw was ripped apart by a shell and he was taken for dead. In fact, he had been knocked out and when he roused himself he immediately rejoined the fray. The end came soon enough, though, as he led his men back into the fray. Harrison was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
In among the XV is Eric Fairbairn; an Olympic silver medallist in rowing (coxless pairs) in the London Games of 1908, The Australian survived just one week in the trenches in Belgium before being “dangerously wounded” by a rifle grenade, dying on June 20 1915.
Through Jack Bodenham, Cooper tells the story of the first day or the Battle of the Somme, the perfumer one of those that “simply disappeared”, while the tale of Guy Pinfield illustrates the sideshow of the Easter Rising in Dublin, the young Rosslyn Park wing the first British officer to die that day in Dublin Castle.
The chapter on John Harmon preludes his end in a flying accident by laying out the background of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin while the development of the tank is portrayed in the stories of Denis Monaghan, a good enough three-quarter player to represent the Barbarians, and JJ Conilh de Beyssac, another international who played the first of his five Tests for France against Ireland on New Year’s Day 1912 and the last against England in April 1914 – when Arthur Harrison was lined up opposite him.
Rosslyn Park provided over 350 young men to the services; Cooper’s research suggests 72 of those never came back. He has settled on 15 riveting stories, building vivid pictures of the men, their backgrounds in family, business and rugby and the battles they fought.
The Final Whistle is a lasting tribute to each and every one of them;
©Barney Spender 2013