This year the 14th of April marks the one hundredth anniversary of a remarkable game of rugby union played between the 4th and 48th (South Midland) Divisions of the British Army at Nieppe in France, close to the Belgium border.
Amongst those involved in the game, either as players or officials, were no fewer than ten internationals, including the 1914 England captain Ronald Poulton Palmer and three Irishmen – Billy Hinton, Billy Tyrrell and George Hamlet – who subsequently served as President of the Irish RFU.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the game was neither the eminence of the participants nor the result (a comfortable 17-0 victory for the 48th Division), but that it happened at all. It is believed to have been the first time that an official representative rugby match had ever been played in a military forward area, within range of the enemy’s guns, between teams comprised of players temporarily withdrawn from the front lines.
The 4th Division, which had been part of the British Expeditionary Force since August 1914, had already fought in autumn battles at Le Cateau and on the Aisne before moving to the sector north-east of Armentières and establishing its headquarters in the chateau at Nieppe. By the spring of 1915, the Division was battle-hardened and thoroughly used to life on the Western Front.
In contrast the 48th Division, originally a territorial division intended exclusively for home defence, consisted of units that had subsequently volunteered to serve overseas. After a period of intensive training in Chelmsford, they had arrived in the area at the beginning of April, where they were immediately attached to units of the 4th Division for their introduction to trench warfare.
One of the 48th Division units was the 1/5th Gloucestershire Regiment which contained within its ranks no fewer than eighteen members of the Gloucester rugby club. Their most notable triumph whilst at Chelmsford had been a 49-0 thrashing of a team representing the newly-arrived Canadian forces in a specially-arranged match at the Queen’s Club in Kensington the previous December. Their team manager that day had been Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Gilbert Collett, a former player of repute with Gloucester and the Barbarians who had played in all three tests of the British Isles team’s tour of South Africa in 1903.
Within days of reaching the Front, Collett was contacted by the 48th’s commander Major-General Henry Heath and asked to organise a team to play the 4th Division. He immediately rode over to see Poulton Palmer, who was serving nearby with the 1/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, and persuaded him to captain the side, which was built around eleven players from the Gloucester club.
Writing a private memoir in 1938, Lieutenant (later Air Vice-Marshall Sir) William Tyrrell, then of the Royal Army Medical Corps attached to the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, recalled the astonishment with which the 48th Division’s official proposed was received at the 4th Division headquarters – such a sporting contest had never been mounted before. Furthermore, could they even raise a team?
The challenge was nevertheless accepted and the afternoon of Wednesday 14th April set as the date for the game. Tyrrell – now appointed the 4th Division’s team captain – recorded that he then spent a very welcome seven consecutive days out of the trenches helping to organise a team that might do justice to the honour of the 4th Division.
The 4th‘s official team list, including reserves, and details of the arrangements for the game were issued to all units just four days before the game, now scheduled to kick off at 2.45pm on the Nieppe Chateau Ground. Transport for players would be available on the day and they would play in khaki-coloured vests or shirts, with shorts specially made to follow.
Eventually 14th April arrived. The weather was dull, cold, cloudy and visited by occasional rain showers.
It is worth noting that, even for the participants, the event was no more than a short interlude in the business of war. Tyrrell wrote that not only was there was no pavilion made available to his players, who had to change behind the motor-lorry in which they had arrived, but there was no time or opportunity for the players to socialise after the match. In fact many of them returned immediately to their units in the line.
By all accounts the match – played over just twenty-five minutes each way in deference to the fact that most of the 4th Division side had only recently come out of the trenches – was a full-blooded affair, despite the one-sided result.
It was the last game ever played by Poulton Palmer, who was killed by a sniper exactly three weeks later.
The team line-ups for this unique fixture were as follows:
Pte. C. Cook, Pte. W. Washbourne, Pte. L. Hamblin, Lieut. R. Poulton Palmer (ENGLAND), Pte. F. Webb, Pte. S. Sysum, L-C. A. Lewis, Lieut. C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, Lieut . L.R.C. Sumner, Capt. F.H. Deakin, L-C. S. Millard, Pte. J. Harris, Pte. A. Cook, Pte. S. Smart (ENGLAND), W.M. Wallace (SCOTLAND)*
Lieut. W. Hinton (IRELAND), Lieut. A.E. Sedgwick, Lieut. S.R. Hockaday, Lieut. Thompson, L-C. Lancaster, Dr Jones, Pte. Moran, Lieut. Fraser (SCOTLAND), Lieut. Kegney, Lieut. A.W. Mitchell, Capt. Morton (ENGLAND), Lieut. Smith (IRELAND)*, Lieut. Tyrrell (IRELAND), Lieut. Yarrow, Lieut. Keppel
Basil Maclear (IRELAND)
About the Author– James Corsan began profession life as a barrister and then survived a quarter of a century in the British television industry. His book ‘For Poulton and England’ is available here.