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On Sunday at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, communities large and small across the world will pause for a moment. They will remember, with sadness and pride, when the guns fell silent, when the armistice which ended the Great War came into effect and the reckoning began of the cost of “the war to end war”.
They will think of the servicemen from so many countries who never came home from theatres of war not only in Europe but Russia, the Near East, Africa and on the high seas. How the war changed so much, not only in military terms where new methods were discovered to cause death on an industrial scale but in our ability to discover better ways of healing the body and the mind.
131 international players lost their lives
The reverberations of the Great War remain with us today, in the nature of the society which has grown up over the last 100 years, but as tributes are paid and wreaths laid on Sunday, each small element of that society can consider what was lost between 1914-18.
The cost to rugby union was high: 131 international players lost their lives and that was merely the tip of the iceberg, given the alacrity with which players of all degrees joined up to fight.
A recruitment poster of the time, which can be seen in the refurbished World Rugby Museum in Twickenham’s South Stand, claimed that 90 per cent of rugby players had “done their duty” and that all athletes should follow their example. As Phil McGowan, the museum’s curator, observes, amateur sportsmen may initially have had greater freedom of choice than their professional counterparts but sportsmen’s battalions were created throughout the country.
Those who joined up included the entire England XV that won the Five Nations grand slam in 1914, capping a magnificent season by scoring nine tries against France. Four of those tries went to the captain and centre, Ronnie Poulton, one of six players from that XV in Paris who died during the conflict and whose passing provoked mourning throughout the rugby community, such was his standing within the game and the affection in which he was held.
There was a link at Saturday's game between England and New Zealand at Twickenham with Poulton (also referred to as Poulton Palmer through his association with the Palmer’s Biscuit Company though he was not referred to as such by his own family). One of England’s mascots was Max Garnett whose father, James, is a descendant through marriage of Poulton; the other mascot is Jack Davis whose grandfather, Richard Slocock, is the grandson of Lancelot Slocock, the lock who captained England against Scotland in 1908 and who became one of the 27 England internationals to die.
“I shall never play at Twickenham again.”
New Zealand’s contribution to the war effort was, in percentage terms, as high as any and their fallen included 13 internationals.
Perhaps the best known is Dave Gallaher, who captained the 1905-6 New Zealand touring party to Europe and joined up at the age of 42; he died during the battle of Passchendaele and his grave, at Nine Elms Cemetery in Poperhinge, has been a frequent place of pilgrimage in recent years by All Black squads who follow where their predecessors, the Invincibles of 1924-5, went a mere six years after the war ended.
Gallaher’s name is commemorated in the trophy competed for by New Zealand and France since 2000 and in the Gallaher Shield competition contested by the senior Auckland clubs for nearly 100 years. His statue stands outside Eden Park, the international stadium where so many New Zealand sides of the last 25 years have gone unbeaten. Four more All Blacks – George Sellars, James Baird, Reginald Taylor and James McNeece – died in one battle alone, that fought at Messines.
New Zealand’s Reserve Bank has minted an Armistice Day edition of the 50 cent piece, one of which will be used in Saturday’s coin toss. New Zealand’s military services are represented by the choice as All Black mascots of Logan and Eva Till whose father, Squadron Leader Ben Till, is a serving New Zealand Air Force officer and whose forebears served in World War I.
As both teams took the field on Saturday they crossed the spot where soil from Poulton’s grave at the Royal Berkshires Cemetery in Belgium was buried before The Army v Navy match in May. Soil from Twickenham had been laid at that cemetery in tribute to the man, hit by a sniper’s bullet, whose dying words (possibly apocryphal) were said to be: “I shall never play at Twickenham again.”