Sacrifices made a century ago: Welsh rugby heroes on the Somme

The coming months will see the commemoration of one of the most notorious battles in history. The Battle of the Somme, fought between July 1st and November 18th 1916, has left an indelible mark on the history of the twentieth century and, for Britain in particular, it symbolises the horrors of modern warfare.

One hundred and forty one days of horror. The casualties are well documented: the first day alone saw 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 of whom were killed. The second day, with 30,000 British casualties, was not much better. Add to that the French and German losses and you have total losses of dead and injured easily exceeding 1,000,000.

It was inevitable that many British sportsmen would be among the dead. Heart of Midlothian, Scotland’s table topping football team, lost 3 players on the first day while English cricket saw 3 notable all-rounders, Booth, Jeeves and Burns make the ultimate sacrifice. Welsh goalkeeper Leigh Roose, English footballers Evelyn Lintott and Donald Bell VC and England rugby captain Lance Slocock met the same fate. But what of Welsh rugby? What sacrifices were made by this small nation, a nation which was just at the close of its first rugby ‘Golden Era’? The answer is stark. The total number of Welsh rugby internationals to die as a result of the Great War was 13, 14 if one includes ‘Hop’ Maddock who died in December 1921 as a result of illness which had its roots in the battlefields of the Somme. No less than 5 of these unlucky and brave young men met their death on the Somme.

Charles Meyrick Pritchard
Charles Meyrick Pritchard

The first to appear in Mike Rees’ book, Men Who Played the Game: Sportsmen who gave their life in the Great War, is a true man of Newport, Charles Meyrick Pritchard. Charlie was the son of John Pritchard, a founder member of the Newport Rugby Club and part of a family that ran a wine and spirit business. Following an education at Newport Intermediate School and Long Ashton, Bristol, Charlie joined Newport RFC and by 1904 this twenty two year old, thirteen stone, six foot tall version of the modern backrow forward was in the Welsh team. A year later he was taking his place on the field to decide the unofficial championship of the world. The New Zealand All Blacks arrived in Cardiff unbeaten to be challenged by a strong Welsh team and Charlie was to play a huge part in what many regard as the most important match in rugby history. Wales deservedly won a thrilling, controversial match 3-0 but, although it was Teddy Morgan who scored the try, Charlie was the inspiration. Fellow players had no doubt in telling anybody who was not too excited to listen that Charlie had played a key role, “knocking ‘em down like ninepins” according to George Travers, a fellow hero and club colleague. Others talked of his willingness to be in the thick of the fight, disrupting the hitherto invincible All Blacks with his devastating tackling. Following this victory Charlie’s fame was assured but his career didn’t end there. In 1906 he was made captain of Newport, a position that he held for 3 years. On the international field he won a further 10 caps, (14 in all), a figure that would have been higher but for injury. He played in the championship winning Wales team of 1906 and in the first Grand Slam success in 1908. After missing out on a second Grand Slam in 1909, Charlie played his last game for Wales in 1910.

With the outbreak of war Charlie was quick to enlist. He joined the South Wales Borderers as a temporary Second Lieutenant in May 1915, was promoted to lieutenant at the end of July and was made a captain in the 12th Battalion the following October. Following a period of training, Charlie arrived on the Western Front in June 1916 in time for the Somme offensive and was quickly into the action. He and his men had been forced to take cover in the long grass from their own bombs and struggled to avoid the German searchlights. On the night of 12th/13th August Charlie was instructed to lead a raiding party on the German trenches with a view to taking as many prisoners as possible. He led his men into the trenches showing exceptional bravery in the process and, despite being wounded in the wrist, continued to encourage and lead his men in what was to prove to be a successful raid. He took one of the enemy prisoner but was wounded once again, taken back to the British front line and then to No1 Casualty Clearing Station shortly before dawn on the wet morning of August 13th. Here his concern for the success of the raid and his devotion to duty came to the fore asking, “Have they got the Hun?” “Yes” he was told, “Well I have done my bit,” Charlie replied, the last words that he was known to speak. He died, without ever leaving the Clearing Station, on August 14th 1916.

His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander, wrote to the family describing Charlie as being “as brave as a lion” and talking about how his death had “cast a gloom” over the whole Battalion. Others spoke of the deep affection in which he was held, the fine example that he set as to what a sportsman should be and his “private tenderness” who was “loved by all who came into contact with him”. Attempts to grant him the Distinguished Order failed, as only living soldiers were eligible, although he was given a Mention in Dispatches. Charlie was buried in Choeques Military Cemetery, one of 86 members of Newport Athletic Club who lost their lives in The Great War and remembered on the Memorial Gates at Rodney Parade. The thirty two year old left in Llwynderi Road, Newport, a grieving widow with two young children and the legacy of a true Welsh rugby hero.

John Lewis Williams
John Lewis Williams

A second significant Welsh rugby player with Newport connections had already died on the Somme. John Lewis Williams is quite properly remembered as a prolific wing for both Cardiff and Wales, the most capped Welsh international to die in the conflict. However Johnnie Williams began his career at Newport in 1899 after leaving Cowbridge Grammar School. Born in Whitchurch in March 1882, Johnnie had an illustrious rugby career. After winning his first cap against the 1906 Springboks he went on to score a record seventeen tries in seventeen internationals, a record that was later equalled by Ken Jones and beaten by both Gerald Davies and Gareth Edwards in 1976. Illustrious company indeed! Noted for his swerve and sidestep, Johnnie was an integral part of three Wales Grand Slam winning teams in 1908, 1909 and 1911, one of the handful of Welsh players to achieve such a feat. Unsurprisingly, Johnnie also toured with the British Isles team which visited Australia and New Zealand in the summer of 1908 where he played in two of the three tests, scoring twelve tries on the trip. While making the long sea journey to the Southern Hemisphere, Johnnie earned himself a supplement to his two shillings a day out of pocket expenses by writing articles for the South Wales Daily News and the South Wales Echo. A well-educated man who earned his living as a principal clerk in a coal exporters based in Cardiff Coal Exchange, Johnnie was given the captaincy of his country for the game against France in Paris in 1911 due to his ability to speak French at the post match dinner. A couple of weeks later he played his seventeenth and final match for Wales in the victory over Ireland. His record was impressive with only two defeats in his Wales international career.

On the outbreak of war Johnnie joined the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welch Regiment and was, by July 1916, in the thick of the action on the Somme, in particular at Mametz Wood, a place synonymous with the Welsh losses in the Great War. The action which took place at Mametz between 7th and 12th July 1916 saw the 16th Royal Welch and the 11th South Wales Borderers suffer the most appalling losses. Johnnie went over the top on 7th July but heavy machine gun fire cut them down. Johnnie was severely wounded and his left leg was amputated. Infection set in and, although he was able to write to his wife Mabel that he was in good spirits, Johnnie died of wounds on 12th July. He was one of 190 officers and 3,803 other ranks who were casualties at Mametz. He had fought in distinguished company – the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and David Jones as well as the writers Frank Richards and Llewellyn Wyn Griffith all fought at Mametz but, unlike Johnnie, they survived to commit their experiences to paper. Johnnie was not so lucky. He left his wife of a mere eighteen months a widow in their Penarth home. His reputation as one of the great Welsh wings, however, remains firmly intact.

Dick Thomas
Dick Thomas

Alongside Johnnie, another Welsh international rugby player also made the supreme sacrifice. Born in Ferndale in October 1883, Dick Thomas had spent his early years working underground as a collier before joining the police force based in Mountain Ash. Dick, by now playing for Mountain Ash after short spells with Penygraig and Cardiff, had made his debut for Wales in the same game as Johnnie made his international bow. Although on the losing side against South Africa, Dick went on to win three more caps and contributed to victories in each of the 1908 and 1909 Grand Slam seasons. Only illness prevented him from winning more caps and possibly becoming a regular in the Welsh pack of this ‘Golden Era’. Dick was known as a tough uncompromising forward, who was also a Glamorgan Police heavyweight boxing champion. Never one to shirk a challenge, he went over the top on 7th July. His body was never found and he is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, one of the 72,195 names on that ‘memorial to the missing’.

David ‘Dai’ Watts
David ‘Dai’ Watts

Dick Thomas is not the only Welsh international named on the Thiepval Memorial. One week after Dick was lost and just three days after Johnnie Williams succumbed to his wounds, Dai Watts, a tough forward born in Maesteg in March 1886, was killed in action at Bazentin Ridge on 14th July. After a career spent playing for smaller valley clubs, Dai joined his hometown club, Maesteg where he became the first player from this club to be capped. Following impressive games for the Glamorgan League and then Glamorgan County, Dai was picked for the first international of 1914 against England. Wales lost this game 10-9, a match they should have won due to the supremacy of their forwards. England went on to win the Grand Slam under the captaincy of Ronnie Poulton, the glamorous young England centre who was killed in 1915, while the Welsh pack remained unchanged for their three subsequent victories and cement their reputation as ‘The Terrible Eight’. A long rugby career at international level appeared to be Dai’s destiny.

It was not to be. In the autumn of 1914 Dai joined the 7th (Service) Battalion, The King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry). In July 1916 they were involved in the Battle of Bazentin Bridge. At 3.25am on 14th July the KSLI were ordered to attack. Confronted by uncut wire they became easy targets and Dai was one of the 171 who lost their lives in this attack. There are no records of how this toughest of forwards met his end, only that his body was never recovered and that he left a widow and two children.

The third and final Welsh international named on the Thiepval Memorial is a player of a very different type to the tough, uncompromising miners, the forwards Dick Thomas and Dai Watts. Horace Wyndham Thomas was an outside half educated at Monmouth School and Cambridge University where he was a choral scholar. Born in Pentyrch near Cardiff in 1890, he originally attended Bridgend Grammar School before winning a scholarship at Monmouth. Both at Monmouth and Cambridge Wyndham excelled in a range of sports. Injury and choral duties prevented him gaining his ‘Blue’ but he finally achieved this in 1912 when he played his part in a Cambridge victory.  Four days later this brilliant and elusive outside half made his debut for Wales in the match against the Springboks, a game which he nearly won for Wales with a late drop goal attempt which sailed narrowly wide. Many who saw this effort were adamant that the ball had actually gone through the posts and that Wales were ‘robbed’. He kept his place for the game against England a few weeks later but, although he played in this match, Wyndham had been offered a job with a firm of shipping agents in Calcutta. Immediately after the game Wyndham sailed to India to fulfil a five year contract, a huge loss to Welsh rugby. It was expected that Wyndham would be the Welsh outside half for years to come.

When war broke out Wyndham resigned his job and headed home to join the 14th (Reserve) Rifle Brigade. In August he was to be found on the Somme and on 3rd September he was attempting to capture trenches above the Ancre. The assault resulted in over 400 casualties, one of whom was Second Lieutenant Horace Wyndham Thomas. His body was never found and his name joined those fellow players on the Thiepval Memorial. Of all the Welsh internationals killed in the Great War perhaps Wyndham Thomas was the player whose potential was greatest and unfulfilled. Lost to rugby far too soon, Wyndham, with all his brilliance and talent, perfectly represents the sacrifices made by that generation of rugby players one hundred years ago.

Men_Who_Played_the_GamergbThe stories of these players, (with the exception of Dai Watts), are included in Men Who Played the Game. Mike Rees has included the contributions of sportsmen in The Great War from all corners of Britain and the wider Empire but, during this summer of 2016, none of the stories have greater significance than those of the Welsh rugby heroes on the Somme. It is fitting that we now remember their sacrifice made a century ago.





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