The first red rose to die

This morning I had the great pleasure of being interviewed on BBC Radio Berkshire, talking about a man called Charles Edward Wilson.

“How very different is your action to that of the men who can still go on with their cricket and football, as if the very existence of the country were not at stake! This is not the time to play games, wholesome as they are in times of piping peace. We are engaged in a life and death struggle.”

These words, from Field Marshal Lord Roberts, in a speech on the 29th August 1914, spelt out a clear message to the professional sportsmen of Britain – it is your time to stand up and be counted. 

“If the cricketer had a straight eye let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, amateur footballer and occasional MCC cricketer in September 1914 in support of Robert’s remarks above.

There was a perception in main stream media that footballers and cricketers were reticent to enlist, and a well-orchestrated poster campaign around the towns and cities of Britain drew on a quote from the German newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung which proclaimed to its readers that “Young Britons prefer to exercise their long limbs on the football ground, rather than expose them to any sort of risk in the service of their country.”

The campaign appeared to have the desired effect, and sportsmen rushed to enlist in their hundreds.  It is impossible to say how many professional sportsmen enlisted to fight in the Great War, but the numbers are significant.  All sports were represented, with football and cricket being especially so. Over 2000 of the 5000 professional footballers of the day enlisted, indeed the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment was known as the Footballers Battalion, owing to its core members all being professional players.  In all 274 first class cricketers were killed in the Great War, the most famous of these perhaps being Colin Blythe of Kent, widely regarded as one of the finest spin bowlers ever to play the game.  He was the Shane Warne of his generation, being one of only 33 players to take over 2500 wickets in his career, and holding the joint record for the most wickets taken in a single days play with 17.

The sport of rugby contributed many men to the forces, and it is a name on the war memorial in All Saints Church, Downshire Square in Reading which holds a significant place in the history of English Rugby Union.

Charles Edward Wilson, was born on the 2nd June 1871 in Fermoy, Cork, Ireland, the son of Major General Francis Wilson, and his Jamaican wife Mary.  Although born in Ireland the family moved about and the 1891 census shows them living at 297, Danbury Road, Ipswich.  His father at this time was on the Reserve of Army Officers, holding the rank of Honorary Major General, and 19 year old Charles was shown as being a Gentleman Cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He had a younger sister, Erina, who was four years his junior.

Having studied at Dover College in Kent, Charles followed his father into the Army, and after a successful stint at Sandhurst, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant into the Queens Royal West Surrey Regiment, on the 22nd July 1896.  His association with Reading began on the 31st December 1896, when he married 23 year old Mabel Carr, the daughter of Colonel Sidney Carr, in All Saints Church. 

On the 1st October 1897, their first child Edward Sidney Wilson was born, and the records show he was baptised on the 2nd October, and sadly died at only ten days old on the 11th October 1897.  Edward’s twin, Royal Claude Wilson was born on the 2nd October 1897, followed by Hugh Edward Wilson in 1904.

In the period between the birth of Royal and Hugh, Charles was in South Africa with his regiment, fighting the second Boer War.  The Surreys saw action in many of the major engagements of this conflict, including the relief of Ladysmith, the Battle of Spion Kop and the fighting around the Tagula Heights.  He was promoted twice, first to Captain in August 1901, and then to Adjutant in 1902, where he was appointed as the Assistant Provost Marshall (a staff officer post) in South Africa.  He was mentioned in despatches on numerous occasions and was awarded the Queens and Kings South Africa Medals, each with two clasps.

It is believed that after South Africa he saw active service in India.  His wife Mabel, sadly died in 1910, but the cause of her death has not been possible to establish.  The 1911 census saw him as a widower at Stoughton Barracks in Guildford, holding the rank of Captain.  The 1911 census shows that his son Hugh was in the care of his maternal grandmother, Rose Carr, at 7, Maitland Road, Reading.  She was 61 years old at this time and was supported in bringing him up by a Governess, Cook and a Maid.

Aside from excelling in his career as an Army Officer, it was on the rugby field that Charles Wilson also made his mark.  Like many fine players, he represented his college, played for the Officers at Sandhurst and then went on to represent the Army.  He played club rugby at Blackheath Rugby Club, and whilst playing here he was invited to play for the Barbarians on their 1895 annual tour to Wales.  This tour always featured a match against Penarth RFC, and was played over the Easter Weekend, with a match against Penarth on Good Friday, Cardiff on the Saturday, and a round of golf at Glamorganshire Golf Club on Easter Sunday, followed by matches against Swansea on Easter Monday and Newport on the Tuesday.

Following up on this success, and whilst still playing for Blackheath, Charles Wilson was selected and capped for England in the Home Championship match against Ireland, played at Richmond on the 5th February 1898, which England lost 6-9.  Wilson played in the second row, was one of six new caps for England in a side captained by the sporting phenomenon that was James Frederick Byrne.  As well as being England captain, Byrne was also a first class cricketer for Warwickshire, an Olympic athlete and played rugby for the British and Irish Lions. 

Despite the loss, England won the Championship in 1898, with a final record of played 3, won 1, drawn 1 and lost 1. It should be noted however that England only won the Championship that year by default, owing to Scotland refusing to play Wales as a result of the fallout of what was known as the Gould Affair.  The winner of this match would have won the Championship.  The Gould Affair, in essence, referred to the Welsh rugby legend Arthur “Monkey” Gould who was offered a Testimonial on his retirement.  The English Rugby Football Union and the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), argued that this testimonial constituted professionalism, which breached the sports by-laws.  The Welsh Rugby Union withdrew from the IRFB in protest, meaning there was no match against Scotland. 

Despite his best efforts, Charles received only this one cap, and never played for England again.

At the outbreak of War in 1914, the Surrey’s were part of the British Expeditionary Force to be sent to Belgium at the outbreak of hostilities, and were involved in many of the key engagements of the early days of fighting, seeing action at Mons, and the retreat to the Marne.  By the 15th September 1914, the Army had reached the River Aisne where both sides began to dig trenches, in an attempt to outflank the enemy, in what was known as the “Race to the Sea”.  The Battalion War Diary reports that on the 16th September, the Battalion was in action near Soissons on the Chemin des Dames and was exposed all day to heavy German artillery and sniper fire, whilst attempting to dig trenches on the exposed sloping valley sides.  On the 17th September, the German artillery bombardment reached an intensity not yet seen and casualties were huge.  It was during this concentrated period of shell fire that Charles Wilson was killed. He thus became the first England rugby international to die during the Great War.

He was not however the first rugby international to be killed, this sad honour going to Frenchman Xavier Maysonnie, who was killed on the 6th September 1914, having earned three caps for France.  A Scottish International, Ronald Simson was the first of the home union players to die, being killed in France on the 14th September 1914.

The award of his Legion d’Honneur medal was announced posthumously.  His son Hugh, would also serve in the Army, this time in the Second World War, losing his life in Tunisia in 1943.

Charles Wilson is buried in Paissy Churchyard, on the Aisne.

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