Event to honour Scotland rugby players killed in WW1

SCOTLAND’S international rugby players killed during the First World War are to be honoured at an event next month which promises to highlight their forgotten role in the ­conflict.
The SRU Memorial at Murrayfield. Picture: Neil HannaThe SRU Memorial at Murrayfield. Picture: Neil Hanna
The SRU Memorial at Murrayfield. Picture: Neil Hanna

Historians who have been studying war records and cross-referencing them with rolls of honour ahead of next year’s centenary commemorations have confirmed that Scotland lost more international rugby players than any other country.

A total of 30 Scottish internationalists died in the Great War, including five who had been captains of the Scottish Rugby XV. England lost 27 national team players, France 23, New Zealand 12, Wales 11, while Australia and Ireland both lost nine each.

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But unlike other high-profile examples of sporting heroes killed in action, such as the seven members of Hearts football team, the Scottish rugby players’ sacrifice has been largely overlooked.

Now Alistair McEwen, project co-ordinator of Scotland’s War Project at Edinburgh University, will deliver an address based on a book published in 1919 that tells the story of the lost players.

The book, The Rugby Roll of Honour, was written by sports journalist EHD Sewell, who poignantly described how the players transferred “their leadership, courage, teamwork, discipline and fitness” from the field of play to the field of battle.

McEwen said the author had known many of the players which allowed him to give a fascinating insight into their personalities and background.

“Generally there is a lot of interest in World War One with the centenary year coming along. But many people may well not be aware of the role played by these men and the sort of lives they had led,” he said.

“Among them was Captain Thomas Arthur Nelson from Edinburgh whose family owned the Nelson publishing company. He had been a pupil at Edinburgh Academy, went to Oxford University and was a centre in the 1898 Calcutta Cup in Edinburgh.

“John Buchan, the author, had been a great friend of his and Sewell quotes Buchan writing about his friend Tommy, saying he was the stuff of which adventurers are made.”

In his book Sewell wrote: “Then came the War and the old life passed away in a night. From the first hour Tommy’s one thought was to give all he possessed to his country’s service. He esteemed everyone but himself, admired greatly his fellow-soldiers, and was modestly eager to make himself worthy of them.”

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Captain Nelson, of the 1st Lothians and Border Horse was killed in action on, 9 April 1917, aged 40, and is buried in Faubourg D’amiens cemetery, Arras, in France.

Just a week after war was declared the Scottish Football Union (as the Scottish Rugby Union was then) donated £500 to the National Relief Fund, offered Inverleith international ground to the military and urged its club members to join the war effort using “the training in discipline and self control” given by the game.

The first Scottish internationalist killed was Lieutenant Ronald Simpson who lost his life on 14 September 1914 on the Aisne on the Western Front in France.

Among the 30 killed were Lieutenant James Huggan from Jedburgh, a member of the Royal Army Medical Corp, also killed on the Aisne on 16 September 1914, aged 25.

Second Lieutenant Patrick Blair of the Rifle Brigade from Wanlockhead, Dumfriesshire was killed at Ypres on 6 July 1915, aged 23.

Yesterday former Scotland international rugby star Scott Hastings, said: “It’s very tragic and still feels very raw to think that so many Scottish internationalists were killed. It’s quite a thought that 100 years later society is still paying its respects to them. We all respect those guys who did so much and gave so much so that we could lead free lives.”

Yvonne McEwen, historian and director of Scotland’s War Project, said while details of the rugby internationalists killed was available, research showed the accepted figure of between 90,000 and 150,000 Scots killed in the conflict was underestimated.

“We have been systematically working through rolls of honour and found them incredibly deficient. A lot of names are not on them, there are those on them who are not Scottish but classed as Scottish and lots of Scots not on them who should be,” she said.

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“While the international rugby players were central there were other staff such as groundsmen who may have been killed and you can’t play without those who allowed the game to take place.”

Last night a spokeswoman from the Scottish Rugby Union said: “Scottish Rugby is hugely proud of the contribution made by all the Scotland internationalists who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country in all conflicts.

We especially remember the 30 internationalists who never returned from active service in the First World War, and those who lost their lives before and since, every year at a Remembrance Day service at the Memorial Arch within Murrayfield’s ground.

“From representing their country on the field of play to representing their country on the field of battle, most Scottish clubs disbanded and players signed up in droves, underlying the values of our rugby community as a whole.”

McEwan will give a talk entitled Scottish Rugby Internationalists Who Fell in the Great War on 11 December, 6:30-7:30pm, Edinburgh Central Library Conference Room. Free, but booking essential.

Twitter: @ScotsmanShanR