View interactive

Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Stories of rugby greats lost in WWI

Book remembers international players who died for their countries.

David Gallaher. Photo / NZ Herald
David Gallaher. Photo / NZ Herald

They were the men who played for their country before dying for it.

Now the lives - and deaths - of every rugby union international killed in World War I have been pieced together for a project marking the centenary of its outbreak next year.

The players fought in every major theatre of the conflict; among them was an international who won the Victoria Cross for one of the war's most daring raids, and an England captain considered one of the greatest players the world has seen.

The research was undertaken by Nigel McCrery, amateur historian, rugby fan and screenwriter who created the BBC television series Silent Witness and New Tricks.

"These men tell the story of the war. They fought and died in every service and in every country. We can use their stories to remember the sacrifices that were made," he said.

"It's about not forgetting them. As time goes on it's easy to forget the sacrifice they made on our behalf. You do not have to believe in war to appreciate sacrifice."

Sporting and military archives were consulted in a two-year bid to identify every player involved in the conflict and bring to light lost details of their lives.

Research for the project revealed a total of 140 players were killed, from the national teams of nine Allied countries. Most were from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Two played for a British Isles side, a forerunner to today's British and Irish Lions.

There were also 21 from France, where the sport was a relatively recent import, as well as one from the US.

American Lieutenant Frank Gard, a flanker, captained his country in two games, against Australia and New Zealand, and was killed just two months before the war ended.

The project also illustrates the varied social backgrounds of those involved in the sport - which can still be seen today.

In England, where the game was played in public schools, most international players became officers. The same was also true of Scottish and Irish players. In Wales - as in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand - a larger proportion of players joined the ranks.

The national sides had a relatively swift turnover of players in the years before the war. Even still, larger numbers of players from some teams were lost in the fighting.

From the last Scotland and England match - in March 1914, which England won, 15-16 - only half who played survived the war. Among these, was the brilliant Lieutenant Ronald Poulton-Palmer who had captained the England side throughout their unbeaten 1913-14 season.

In the last test match before the outbreak of war - a 39-13 victory over France in April 1914 to clinch the Five Nations Championship "Grand Slam" - the centre had scored four tries and been hailed the world's greatest player. He was killed by a sniper in 1915, five weeks after arriving on the Western Front.

It was reported that his poignant last words were: "I shall never play at Twickenham again." Another figure from that Grand Slam-clinching triumph over France was Captain Robert Pillman, a flanker, who won his first and only cap in the game.

He was killed in July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, on the parapet of a German trench, while trying to bring his men back from a night raid.

Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Harrison, a forward, also played in the game against France. He was a serving naval officer at the time and just weeks after the match took part in the battle of Heligoland Bight, in August 1914.

He also fought in the battle of Dogger Bank, in 1915, and of Jutland, the following year. In 1918, he took part in the Zeebrugge Raid, an attempt by the Royal Navy to block the German-held port.

He was killed while leading his landing party against strongly held positions, an action for which he was awarded a posthumous VC.

Not all of the players were killed in action. The research discovered some died of disease, while others, traumatised by the conflict, committed suicide, including 2nd Lieutenant Jasper Thomas Brett.

The Irish winger fought at Gallipoli, now in modern-day Turkey, and was diagnosed with shell shock in June 1916. A month after his release from hospital, he killed himself by lying down in front of a train.

An unfortunate French soldier, Lieutenant Julien Dufau - a French centre and winger who scored a try against Ireland on his debut in 1912 - was captured and beheaded by local rebels in Niger, where he was in command of a camel unit.

The French contingent also included Lieutenant Maurice Jean-Paul Boyau, a flanker-turned-flying ace credited with 35 victories (21 of them enemy observation balloons), making him his country's fifth most successful fighter pilot of the war.

Telegraph Group Ltd

The new book Into Touch: Rugby Internationals Killed in the Great War.
The new book Into Touch: Rugby Internationals Killed in the Great War.

Legendary captain one of 13 All Blacks to fall in war

Dave Gallaher is considered the father of New Zealand rugby as the captain of the legendary "Originals" 1905 tour of Britain which was the first team known as the All Blacks.

He was one of 13 All Blacks killed in World War I and their sacrifices, and those of other New Zealanders, are often honoured by All Black teams touring Europe.

Widely considered one of the greatest leaders in the game, Gallaher was already a decorated soldier in the Boer War before first wearing the famous black jersey at the age of 30.

He had long retired before World War I started and although exempt from conscription because of his age, 42, Gallaher enlisted in July 1916.

He lied on the enrolment form to make himself three years younger and was quickly promoted from corporal to sergeant. His unit went into action in the Third Battle for Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, where more than 800 New Zealand soldiers were killed, including Gallaher.

The club rugby competition in Auckland is named in his honour, as is the Dave Gallaher Trophy contested between the All Blacks and France.

Former captain Anton Oliver was reduced to tears visiting the Nine Elms British cemetery in Belgium, where wreathes were laid at a monument bearing the words "Lest we forget".

"It was a time for reflection, not only for Dave Gallaher, but for all the other . . . New Zealanders who are buried there and all the other soldiers gone but not forgotten," Oliver said at the time in 2000.

Other All Black captains, such as Tana Umaga, have visited Gallaher's birthplace in County Donegal, Ireland.

- Jared Savage

Lest we forget

The research is featured in a new book Into Touch: Rugby Internationals Killed in the Great War by Nigel McCrery, which will be released in New Zealand on February 1.

- Daily Telegraph UK

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 22 Sep 2014 21:57:43 Processing Time: 432ms