A little piece of Australia

The Map of Australia

One of the absolute pleasures of podcasting is the chance to speak to passionate and enthusiastic individuals whose determination to preserve the heritage of the Great War is nothing short of inspirational. My guest on this week’s podcast, Helen Roberts, was an absolute joy to interview.

Having grown up in rural Wiltshire, Helen remembered seeing the famous Fovant military badges carved into the side of a hill. The collection of ten military badges depicts the cap badges of various regiments, and it is thought that six of them date back to the Great War.

On a nearby hillside lay a map of Australia, which had been cut into the chalk in 1917 by men of the Australian army based at the nearby Hurdcott Camp. Like the Fovant badges, the map itself had been allowed to become overgrown during WW2 so that it didn’t act as a marker to Luftwaffe bombers. The Fovant badges were restored in the post-war era, but the map of Australia was only preserved until the late 1960s, when it began to decline. Helen was determined that this didn’t happen and started a crusade to see the map restored to its former glory. It took all of Helen’s diplomatic negotiation skills to work with the relevant landowners to gain access to the site, which led to creating a charitable trust dedicated to the preservation of the site. The website for the Trust can be found here: https://map-of-australia.com/.

Talking to Helen, one could not help but be swept up by her incredible enthusiasm for this project, and her excitement at finding out information about the men who lived and worked on the camp shines through in our conversation. Helen has curated a remarkable archive of material, the links to which can be found below:

The extraordinary photo archive of Cecil Green – https://moore.edu.au/resources/cecil-greens-photographs-of-the-8th-training-battalion-aif/

The Ben Edgcumbe Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/benedgcumbe/

You can also see an interview from South News with Helen here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-wiltshire-46060246

The Cecil Green photo archive is one of the most remarkable WW1 collections I have ever seen, and it provides a fascinating journey through the life and travels of a Digger and his journey through WW1. Some of the pictures of the massive Hurdcott Camp are quite remarkable.

This interview was great fun to record and I hope that it provides a fascinating insight into a little-known piece of Great War history, whose future is safe thanks to the dedication and foresight of the remarkable Helen Roberts.

The 48 hour VCs – Hill 60

The memorial stone atop Hill 60

The battlefield area of Hill 60 just to the southwest of Ypres will always be one of my must-see areas whenever I am guiding someone around the Salient. There are, in my mind, few places left around Ypres that match the description given by the late great Richard Holmes of the battlefield being “a strip of murdered Nature.”

What makes Hill 60 so special is it’s such a compact area, with the main fighting in April 1915 taking place on a patch of land only a little larger than Trafalgar Square in London. But, it was on this hilltop, that a remarkable 4 VCs were won, 3 by men of the 1st East Surrey’s (Private Edward Dwyer, Lt. George Roupell, and 2nd Lt. Benjamin Geary) and one by a man from the 9th London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles). The London Regiment VC, won by 2nd Lt. Harold Woolley, was the first Victoria Cross to be awarded to a member of a Territorial Battalion during the Great War. In a mark of how severe the fighting was in this small area, the 1st East Surrey’s won their three VCs in the space of just 48 hours.

Dwyer VC
Roupell VC
Geary VC
Woolley VC

Hill 60 sits to the southeast of Ypres and was once a lover’s lane, where young couples take an afternoon sojourn and enjoy peace and privacy. The landscape was entirely man-made from spoil made during the cutting of the Ypres-Comines railway. The spoil created a “hill” that stood approximately 60ft above sea level, hence the name as it appeared on maps. The remaining spoil was dumped in two locations, one called the Caterpiller, due to its shape, and the third spoil pile an ugly pimple on the landscape known simply as The Dump.

The area around Hill 60 had been taken by the Germans from the French in 1914 and provided an unparalleled view back toward Ypres. The Germans appreciated the tactical significance of the hill and were determined to keep hold of it at all costs. Equally, the British too wanted to take control, and the scene was set for the fighting of 1915.

Ypres, as seen from Hill 60

You can hear all about the VC winners in the podcast, but of all of them, it’s Edward Dwyer that really stands out to me. Dwyer was born in Fulham, West London, on the 25th of November 1895. He worked as a greengrocer in London before deciding that he wanted some adventure in his life and joined the Army at the age of 16. He served with the battalion from the start of the war and was 19 when we performed the act that won him his VC. His VC was presented to him by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 15th of June 1915, and during a period of leave, Dwyer entrusted his medal to Canon Brown of the Catholic church in Holloway, who kept hold of the medal.

In 1916, Dwyer was recorded talking about his time in the military, pay, leave, and conditions at the front, and this recording is in itself a remarkable thing, being the only recording made of a serving soldier during the Great War. You can listen to the recording by clicking on the link below:

Edward Dwyer was to lose his life on the Somme in 1916 and lies buried in Flatiron Copse.

The heroic struggle of the four battalions of infantry to capture Hill 60 was in vain as the hill was captured by the Germans shortly after the fighting of the 21st, and was to remain in their hands for a full two years until it was captured as part of the Messines offensive.

It’s a battlefield that still very much bears the scars of the fighting that took place during the Great War, and is a must-see for any trip to the Ypres salient.

Hill 60 today (image courtesy of travelfrance.fr)

Beyond the Front – Fampoux

In out latest podcast, we visit one of the lesser-known battlefields of the Great War, the small villages of Fampoux and Roeux which are located to the east of the city of Arras. On the 9th of April 1917, Fampoux and the formidable Hyderabad Redoubt stood in the way of the 4th Division, but they were both taken with relative ease. The 1st Rifle Brigade captured the redoubt in a masterpiece of infantry assault, and in the process captured a German general who happened to be visiting the redoubt at the time of the attack. His driver, on seeing the advancing British, fled and left his General to his fate – one can only imagine what might have happened to the driver had the General got his hands on him!

Our journey begins at Fampoux British Cemetery, located on a farm track to the west of Fampoux village. The track was known as York Lane to the British during the fighting. Men from the 4th Division began the cemetery during the fighting in 1917, and this small cemetery now contains just 118 graves, of which 8 are unidentified. During the fighting the cemetery was known as Helena Trench Cemetery, to the small trench which ran parallel to the current track.

Fampoux British Cemetery

To the north of Fampoux lies a sunken lane known to the British during the War as Northumberland Lane, and it was from here that men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders set off on their ill fated attack on the Rouex chemical works on the afternoon of the 11th April.

The Seaforth Highlanders Memorial, Fampoux

Located along the lane stands on a small embankment a magnificent stone memorial cross to the men of the Seaforth Highlanders who fell in their hundreds across the fields in this area. About 300 metres behind the cross on the fields was the site of the Hyderabad Redoubt, and the location of the cross provides excellent views across the battlefield to Rouex and in the distance Greenland Hill.

Further along the lane past the memorial lies the beautiful Sunken Road Cemetery. Begun during the fighting in 1917 by men of the 4th and 34th Divisions the cemetery contains 196 graves from WW1 of which 26 are unidentified. There are special memorials to sixteen men buried at the time in the cemetery whose graves were destroyed by shell fire in later battles. Like the memorial, the cemetery offers commanding views over the battlefields.

Sunken Road Cemetery

As we continue our visit to the battlefield we come to Level Crossing Cemetery located to the south of the River Scarpe, and adjacent to the TGV train line, it’s another charming cemetery, looked after with the level of care and attention that one sees in all CWGC cemeteries. The cemetery was begun in May 1917 with the dead from the battlefield being collected and buried in this cemetery created by the Divisional Burial Officer of the 4th Division. The cemetery contains 405 burials from WW1, the vast majority of whom died during the fighting around Fampoux and Rouex.

In the cemetery lies the grave of Lt Angus Dodgshon the youngest member of the Magic Circle whose father made such efforts to save him from being sent to the front line.

Level Crossing Cemetery, Fampoux
Hubert Dunsterville Harvey-Kelly DSO

Our final stop on the trip around the battlefield is at the grave of Lt Hubert Dunsterville Harvey-Kelly DSO buried in Browns Copse Cemetery. One of the great eccentrics of the RFC, he was mad,bad and a liability to know but was immensely popular due to his effervescent personality and wicked sense of humour. A lover of women, wine, fine cigars, and gambling, Harvey-Kelly was an exceptional pilot who joined the RFC from the Royal Irish in 1913. During the battle of Le Cateau he forced a German plane to land, but, not happy with this as a result, he landed his plane and chased the German aviator across a cabbage field firing shots from his revolver at him.

He would always fly with a potato and a cotton reel in his pocket, in the belief that if he were captured the gift of such useful items would surely lead to fair treatment by the Germans.

He lost his life on the 29th April 1917 at the end of “Bloody April” and is buried in the peaceful surroundings of Brown’s Copse Cemetery.

The three VCs of Thatcham

For many towns, the honour of having a Victoria Cross winner from the town is an immense source of civic pride.  Streets and parks are often named in honour of the towns heroes.  Given the scarcity of the award, with only 1355 having been awarded since its inception in 1856, it’s quite understandable why the holders of the medal are held in such esteem.  Only three men have won the VC twice (two of whom were Doctors and never fired a shot in anger) and only four sets of brothers have both been awarded the VC.

The small Berkshire town of Thatcham, holds a remarkable place in the history of the Victoria Cross. To have one VC winner would be a source of pride enough, but remarkably, Thatcham was home to no less that three Victoria Cross winners, including two brothers!  Indeed until WW2, Thatcham held the record for the town with the most VC winners per capita, until Culdane in Scotland with just 8000 inhabitants received a third VC in 1944 which took it to the top of the list.

The three VCs were won in three different wars, the first in the Boer War, the second in the Great War and third in the Second World War.  The first and second World War winners were brothers.

William John House VC was born in 1879 in Thatcham where his family were living.  His father Thomas House was a plate layer by trade.  A plate layer was a skilled trade involving the inspection of the integrity of railway tracks, which required a steady eye.  The 1891 census shows the family living at 15, Park Lane, Thatcham with William being the oldest of the House’s four children.  He joined the Royal Berkshire Regiment at the age of 17 in 1896, and with three years’ service under his belt he found himself on a ship bound for South Africa to fight with his regiment in the Second Boer War.

The second Boer War, fought between 1899 and 1902 was a conflict between the colonial British and the two Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, mainly over the influence of the British in South Africa.  The discovery of large quantities of diamonds and gold in the two Boer provinces may have been a subsidiary factor!  The highly skilled British army were dragged into a guerrilla war against the Boers, and adopted a brutal policy of scorched earth.

On the 2nd August 1900 the regiment was involved in an attack against the Boers in the Magaliesberg mountain range, at a place called Mosilikatse. During the attack a Berkshire’s sergeant was seriously wounded by Boer gunfire and lay wounded in front of the British positions.  Despite being warned not to go out due to the danger of sniper fire, Private House ran from cover and picked the wounded man up onto his back and ran back towards the British lines.  He was, himself, seriously wounded during the action and was heard shouting to his comrades not to come out and try and rescue him.  It is not known whether the Sergeant survived or not.

House’s VC was gazetted on his 23rd birthday in 1902 and he was awarded the BVC by King Edward VII in London in 1902 having recuperated from his wounds. 

He remained with the Berkshire regiment until 1912, when he was stationed at Shaft Barracks in Dover. On the 28th February he was cleaning his rifle when it went off and shot him in the head.  While recorded as an accidental death it is widely believed that he took his own life. He is buried in Dover and his VC medal is in the Rifles Museum in Salisbury.

Thatcham’s next VC was awarded in 1915 to 2nd Lieutenant Alexander Buller Turner of the 3rd Battalion the Royal Berkshire Regiment on the afternoon of the 28th September 1915 during the fighting near Vermelles during the Battle of Loos in northern France.  His father Charles Turner, was a career soldier being a Major in the Royal Berks and his mother was the daughter of Admiral Sir Alexander Buller.

1915 had been a sanguinary experience for the British, with the failed campaign in Gallipoli and the massacres at the Battles of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert earlier in 1915.  The Battle of Loos was conducted in September 1915 in the grim industrial wasteland of Artois, near the mining town of Loos.  The battlefield was pancake flat with no cover, and covered with heavily fortified mine workings and slag heaps. It marked a paradigm shift in British tactics, the battle being the first time the British used poison gas against the Germans.

On the afternoon of the 28th September the Berkshire’s were fighting in the vicinity of the slag heap known as Fosse 8 which sat behind the formidable German strongpoint of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, near the village of Vermelles.  The fighting was centred on a German trench called Slag Alley and was brutal hand to hand combat, with grenades and bayonets being used freely.  After a number of bomb (grenade) attacks had failed, Turner volunteered to lead a fresh attack against the Germans.  He made his way down the German trench throwing grenades like a mad man and in a matter of moments had cleared over 150 yards of German trench.  Despite facing a hail of German grenade and rifle fire he pressed on until the remainder of his regiment was able to join him.  As he rounded the final bend in the German line he was shot in the stomach, but the Berkshire’s successfully took the German trench.  There is no doubt that his actions saved the lives of countless men.  He died of his wounds on the 1st October 1915, and lies buried at Chocques Military Cemetery in France. His medal is the regimental museum in Salisbury.

As we have mentioned only four sets of brothers have been awarded the VC, and Thatcham’s third VC was awarded to Alex Buller Turner’s younger brother Victor Buller Turner.  Like his older brother Victor had been a pupil at Wellington College, and studied at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst.  Having been commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade, by 1942 he was a Colonel and found himself in the Western Desert of North Africa in the 2nd El Alamein campaign. On the 27th October his Rifle Brigade company had taken a German position on high ground near to a feature called the Kidney, and dug in awaiting the expected German counter attack.  It duly came and over the next 36 hours, the men of the Rifle Brigade fought off over 90 German tanks, destroying 55 of them.  At one stage Turner acted as gun loader for a 6lb gun being manned by a Sergeant and a 2nd Lieutenant.  He was seriously wounded in the head but refused to leave and seek medical attention until the final German tank had been seen off.  Through his cool leadership, disregard of his own safety and personal bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross.  He survived the War and his medal is held in the Rifle Brigade museum in Winchester.

Miraculously, the Turner’s mother Jane was a direct descendant of Sir Redvers Buller was awarded the VC in 1879 in the Zulu War.

Three remarkable men of whom Thatcham should be rightly proud.

The truth is out there.

Firstly, apologies for the lack of blog updates, unfortunately I’ve had COVID and updating the blog hasn’t been top of my list of priorities – I know, any excuses!

The Khaki Chums Cross – the turnip field at Ploegsteert

I did manage however to post a new podcast update the other day, and in the pod we paid a visit to one of my favourite spots on the Western Front, Ploegsteert Wood (or Plugstreet as it was known to the British). It’s a compact area in southern Flanders, very close to the border with France, and from a military history perspective it packs real bang for buck – there was much happened in a very small area, with heavy fighting in every year of the War (with the exception of 1916 when there was a small gathering on the Somme instead.)

On the northern edge of the wood, facing the leeward slopes of Messines Ridge stands a wooden memorial cross erected to commemorate the activities of a group of fine historians known as the Khaki Chums, who spent Christmas of 1999 in the field behind the cross, commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Christmas Truce. There is no doubt that in this field, fraternisation and interaction took place between the British and Germans on that first wartime Christmas in 1914. As you can see from the picture above, it remains a site of pilgrimage to this day, with many visitors leaving a football to commemorate the football match that took place between the Germans and the British. Or did it?

Of all the stories about the Great War, the football match played between the Tommies and Fritz is possibly the biggest myth to come out of the Great War. The field itself was covered with shell holes and frozen turnips – hardly an ideal surface for a kick about. The dead lay strewn over the field, once again, hardly ideal conditions for a kick about. There were some really excellent podcasts brought out last Christmas which dissected the Christmas Truce (Paul Reed’s Old Front Line was especially memorable) and the general concensus seems to be that there was much talk about playing football but little to no evidence that it took place in the front lines.

A message from one of my Patreon supporters (www.patreon.com/footstepsofthefallen) gave me a great idea for a podcast – why not take some of the famous stories and myths of the Great War and see whether we can dispel them in a podcast. A shout out on Twitter has brought some great questions – how about you, the readers of this blog. Is there a burning question about the Great War that you’d like included in the podcast?

If there is, drop me a message via the Contact Me tab up above, and you never know, it might make it into the podcast!

Better late than never

In late 1914, Arthur Osman who was the editor of the “Pigeon Fancier” magazine approached the War Office to offer to set up a pigeon service for the British Army in France and Belgium. The British were surprisingly behind the Germans and French in terms of their use of pigeons, both Germany and France having a well established pigeon service in place.

Osman’s help was gratefully received and within a remarkably short space of time, thousands of pigeons were in service on the Western Front and on other battlefields. Known as the “First Flying Corps” pigeons quickly showed their metal on the battlefields, and of the 12 million messages sent by the British by pigeon, a remarkable 94% were delivered successfully.

A remarkable piece of news came out of Alsace in the last week, about a man out walking his dog who discovered a Great War pigeon message in the ground. Having opened the cannister and deciphered the message, it was found that the pigeon had been dispatched by a Prussian officer in the year 1910. At this time, Alsace was still very much a German territory and the message appears to refer to military maneuvers that were taking place at the Inglesheim training centre.

It would appear that the message dropped off and we will never know whether it was received – it was normal practice to send at least four pigeons with the same message, on the assumption that at least one would get through.

In February 1916 the German Army, led by General Falkenhayn, launched a major offensive against Verdun on the Meuse front. Thus began one of the most bitterly fought and costly battles of the First World War, lasting seven months and resulting in 700,000 casualties. Verdun, well protected by a ring of fortresses in the surrounding hills, was never captured.

On 1 June the Germans began besieging one of those forts, Fort Vaux, which was commanded by Major Reynal a wounded veteran of the colonial wars. Arriving at Vaux just a week earlier he was dismayed to find that the 250 man garrison had swollen to over 600 men, many of them wounded men who had taken refuge in the fort to escape the bitter fighting outside. Once the fort was surrounded the Germans broke into some of the underground galleries which had to be hastily barricaded and defended by grenades and machine guns. In semi darkness hand to hand fighting occurred and then the Germans introduced gas and flamethrowers. Conditions were becoming desperate and on 4 June Reynal used his last carrier pigeon to send an urgent S.O.S. message back to Headquarters in Verdun. “We continue to hold but are suffering a dangerous attack by gas and fumes. Very critical. It is urgent that we are relieved. Make visual communication (semaphore) via Souville which has not responded to our calls for help. This is my last pigeon.”

The pigeon, later named The Valiant, fluttered wounded into the Citadel in Verdun delivering the message, but died soon afterwards. Some months later the pigeon was awarded the Croix de Guerre the citation reading as follows. “In spite of enormous difficulties resulting from intensive shelling and a huge emission of poison gas the pigeon accomplished the mission which had been assigned to it by Cdr Reynal. Severely gassed the pigeon arrived dying.”

The following night a last desperate suicidal relief attempt failed with heavy loss of life. Meanwhile Reynal had been informed by his Quartermaster that water supplies had run out. Reynal realised that surrender was inevitable to relieve the sufferings of his men. So at 06.00 hours on the 7 May the white flag was raised. Major Raynal was immediately interviewed by Crown Prince Wilhelm, congratulated on his gallant defence and allowed to keep his sword.

After the war in 1919 a memorial to the gallant pigeon was erected on one of the fortress walls where it still stands today.

After listing the units involved in the siege there is a brief summary of the sufferings endured, and the  Croix de Guerre citation is given underneath. At the top perches the pigeon standing on a steel helmet with a palm frond in its beak.

The satire’s in the sinking.

A quick search of a well known online auction site will reveal thousands of items related to the Great War. I’ve seen more artifacts made of wood from HMS Iron Duke, which sunk at Jutland, to make me think that she must have been the only ship in the British navy made entirely of teak.

Occasionally, however, with some good fortune, it’s possible to find some real gems. A few years ago, I was on business in Metzingen, Germany, and happened to have a few hours to spare one afternoon. Wandering around the town, I came across the art gallery that had a collection of a German artist’s works by the name of Karl Goetz.

Goetz wasn’t an artist I was familiar with, but the works took me in with their creativity and general subversiveness. Goetz was a sculptor and medalist who created a wide-ranging collection of satirical and propaganda based medals from before the Great War and through the Second World War, right up until he died in 1950.

One of the cases was something I recognised, but didn’t know was Goetz’s work. It was an original Lusitania medal.

At 2.15 pm, on the afternoon of the 7th May 1915, the Cunard liner “Lusitania” was off the coast of Ireland travelling back from America, when a German U-boat, U20, fired a torpedo which hit the ship, causing it to sink in a matter of minutes. Of the 2000 passengers, 1200 men, women, and children were drowned, including many American citizens.

The ship’s sinking provoked almost as much outrage as the invasion of Belgium had done, and the British wasted no time in using this as a propaganda tool against the Germans, highlighting German villainy and their indifference to human life.

Goetz cast the medallion as an attempt to display his bewilderment at the British Government and the Cunard Line for allowing the ship to have sailed when the Germans responded to the British naval blockade by announcing a period of unrestricted submarine warfare. Goetz felt that Germany had done all it good to warn its enemies of the risks faced by shipping. The Admiralty had registered the Lusitania as an armed auxiliary ship, and at the time it was sunk, the cargo included rifle and machine-gun ammunition and shrapnel shell cases.

The medal was a biting work of satire, mocking Britain and United States’ obsession with business and trade, and mocked the US’s supposed impartiality. As impressive a piece as this is, Goetz made a serious mistake with the casting, recording the date as the 5th May instead of the 7th May.

The medal was cast in bronze and on the front depicted the ship sinking, with smoke pouring from the four funnels. The bow is laden with armaments and the front of the ship is shown as being ram-shaped, possibly a reference to the Admiralty instruction that U-boats should be rammed if they were seen.

The back of the medal, depicts Death in a Cunard ticket booth selling tickets to the massed crowd. To the left a man reads a newspaper with a headline warning of the threat of U-Boats, and standing next to him a man in a top hat raises a finger in warning. The finger-raising man is believed to be the German Ambassador to the US. The significance of the action comes from a newspaper advert that the German government took out on the 1st May 1915, which appeared next to all Cunard advertisements in that days press. The Germans warned that they were at War with Britain and ships sailing within the zone of unrestricted submarine war, whether they be British or her Allies, were at risk. The medal bears the words GESCHÄFT ÜBER ALLES, or “Business above all.”

The British seized on the medallion as a tool to whip up anti-German sentiment and they produced over 300,000 replica medals, using the erroneous date to show that the sinking of the liner was pre-planned. Their intentional blurring of the subtle, but significant difference, between a medal and medallion served their propaganda purpose well. By describing the piece as medal, it led the public to believe that the item had been produced as a symbol of national celebration at the killing of civilians.

The publicity of the medal and the well orchestrated British propaganda campaign has obscured the memory that many other contemporary German artists also produced medallions commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania.

I would need to win the lottery to afford an original Lusitania medallion, but over the years I have collected a number of pieces of Goetz’s WW1 medallions.

The one above is my particular favourite – I love the subversive nature of the satire. The Kaiser, riding a hobby horse shouts “I will lead you!” and on the back, the disabled soldier, with his homeless and starving family below the words “Towards a glorious future!”

I will be writing a number of blog posts over the coming weeks about some of the more unusual items of ephemera from my collection.

If you happen to find a Lusitania medallion lying in a drawer, give me a shout and I will be more than happy to give it a good home for you.

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.