THE qualities which make a man vital on a sports field are those which will single him out on a field of battle. Courage, fitness, bravery, leadership are as useful to a XV or an eleven as to a company, writes Martin Wade.
The ranks, particularly of the British Army were swelled by entrants who played sport at a high level.
Rugby players in particular from across Monmouthshire joined the colours of many regiments during the war – several fighting with distinction.
Monmouthshire’s player soldiers came from all walks of life. Men like Ben Uzzell, fruit seller, and Richard Garnons Williams, who played for both Oxford and Cambridge universities. Those who played rugby did so shoulder-to-shoulder with men from all walks of life, as was always the way in Wales – and as they would in the trenches.
13 Welsh international rugby players were killed during the First World War, and such was the pre-eminence of the Black and Ambers in the Welsh game at the time, six of them were Newport players.
Son of a founder of Newport rugby club and captain for three seasons, Charles Mayrick Pritchard was part of the Black and Ambers team which narrowly lost 3-6 to the All Blacks in 1905. He won one of his 14 caps later that year, helping Wales beat the New Zealanders, when his aggression was said to have “knocked ‘em down like nine pins.”
Pritchard served as a captain with the South Wales Borderers, but within two months of arriving on the Western Front was fatally wounded in a raid on enemy trenches aimed at capturing prisoners. “Have they got the Hun?” he asked as he was carried away on a stretcher. “Yes,” he was told. “Then I have done my bit,” he’s reported to have said. These would be his last words before he died of his wounds the next day on August 14, 1916.
‘Johnnie’ Lewis Williams too shone on the field. A Newport player between 1899-1903, he captained Wales and was part of three Welsh Triple Crown winning sides and scored 17 tries in 17 games. He was captain too in the 38th (Welsh) Infantry Division and was one of the 4,000 killed or wounded taking Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme.
One of Wales’s first rugby international players, Richard Garnons Williams’ first and only cap came in 1881 and the career soldier was 58 by the time war broke out in 1914.
Having played rugby for both Oxford and Cambridge universities, he joined the Royal Fusiliers in 1885. He left the army, became a reservist but rejoined the regular army after the outbreak war. He was posted to his original regiment, the Royal Fusiliers as a major in September 1914, but was killed a year later while leading his battalion at the Battle of Loos.
Other Wales and Newport players who fell in action including William ‘Billie’ Purdon Geen, star of the side which beat the Springboks in 1912, who died at Ypres on July 31, 1915, aged 24. Another South African connection was through Phillip Dudley Waller. He won six Welsh caps and three for the 1910 British Lions in South Africa, where he stayed after the tour. Joining the South African Heavy Artillery Regiment, he was killed in shellfire at Arras on December 14, 1917, aged 28. Louis ‘Lou’ Augustus Phillips who helped Wales win the Triple Crown in 1900 was killed on March 14, 1916, aged 38.
Ben Uzzell, while not working as a fruiterer, was a true all-rounder, playing rugby for Newport and Pontypool and was Welsh 440 yards champion in 1912 and won the English 220 yards hurdle title in 1913. He served in France and killed in action France and was killed on September 25, 1918, while serving with the New Zealand army.
Although only formed two years before the outbreak of war, Newport County too suffered its share of war dead.
Ex-County captain Robert Henry ‘Bob’ Hammett who is buried at Christchurch Cemetery, succumbed to a ‘poisoned knee’ as a result of an injury he received on active service with the 16th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Newport County trainer Private Fred Perry of the 41st Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps was killed at Gallipoli, reported the South Wales Argus on September 15, 1915.
Newport Athletic Club stalwart, Richard Brinley Stokes was known as “a wonderfully fit man”, but was initially rejected by the Army because of his flat feet. He eventually joined The Monmouthshire Regiment in 1917. Transferred to the Cheshire Regiment he was killed in Glencourse Wood during the third battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele.
Some sportsmen survived, like Thomas Pearson. The resident engineer at Alexandra Docks, he played for Newport between 1895-1904 and won 13 caps for Wales, leading the national team once. A talented all-rounder, he represented Wales in squash, tennis, golf and hockey and was captain of the Welsh hockey squad, while playing for Newport Hockey Club.
His service career saw him attain the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Field Artillery and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and later Companion of the Order of the Bath.
Other high honours were won by Newport players.
Captain of the team which defeated the Springboks was Walter John Martin. Paired with Tommy Vile, he formed an ‘outstanding half-back combination’. He joined the Newport Athletic Club Platoon of the South Wales Borderers and reached the rank of Company Sergeant Major. Martin was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for obtaining “very valuable information at great personal risk”, even carrying a wounded man to safety under heavy shellfire.
Jack Wetter, a key player in the defeat of the Springboks in 1912, captained both Wales and Newport. During his wartime service he too won the DCM and when he died in 1967, his coffin was carried by six former Newport captains.
Sport continued to play a role in soldiers’ wartime lives. Aside from the famous games of football during the Christmas Day truce of 1914, a game of rugby or soccer was valued as a way of keeping men fit when they were away from the frontline.
The South Wales Argus even launched an appeal to send footballs ‘both rugby and association’ to the troops at the front.
Captain and Adjutant Herbert C Butler of the 2nd Battalion Monmouthshire Regt wrote: “I beg to acknowledge receipt of the Rugby Football you so kindly sent us. I can assure you it will be a great source of amusement to the men of this battalion.”
Private L Ellis of the 5th Battalion South Wales Borderers, appealed from the front saying that his machine gun section would be “very pleased if (the Argus) could send out an Association ball”. “We are now having a rest” he said “and we want something to keep us fit.
“There are several Newport boys in (our unit) I am one, late of High Cross Stars and Tydu Stars” The Argus assures him saying: “instructions have been given for a ball to be sent.”
The sacrifice made by many of these sportsmen from Monmouthshire is remembered at Rodney Parade in Newport. The names of those lying in faraway fields who would pound their own fields no more are recorded on the stadium’s memorial gates still.