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Test and County Cricketers at War 1914-1918

Part One of two exclusive Great War features for ECB by David Frith

On October 15, 1915, cricket's Grand Old Man, Dr W.G.Grace, shook his fist helplessly at the night sky. In his high-pitched Gloucestershire voice, he cursed the barely visible monster as it groaned sinisterly through the clouds. Germany's terror weapon, the Zeppelin airship, was causing outrage among the people of England as it delivered death and destruction in cowardly manner. The Greatest Cricketer, now aged 67, tugged nervously at his beard, disturbed as never before.

The Surrey batsman H.D.G.“Shrimp” Leveson Gower, now in Army uniform, was shaken at seeing WG so distressed, and reminded him that he'd coped with several generations of  mighty fast bowlers on dodgy pitches. WG retorted: “Yes, but I could see those beggars.” It's fairly certain that the menace of the Zeppelins, so soon after he'd suffered a stroke, hastened his death, which came eight days later.

Two of his sons served in the Great War of 1914-18, and there's little doubt that had he been half his age WG would also have done his bit for the war effort. As it was, soon after the outbreak of hostilities early in August 1914, he had written a persuasive letter to The Sportsman urging that the cricket season be terminated there and then, and encouraging all first-class cricketers to join up  immediately to serve their country.

This the men of Great Britain did, in their tens of thousands, as did loyal subjects in far-flung parts of the Empire. Many, of course, were cricketers. Some had played county and Test cricket, and some were destined to do so when peace was secured after four years of horror and fatigue. Countless others lost their lives or were seriously wounded, never to play again.

A soldier batting - Image courtesy David Frith collection

Almost every town and village was touched by grief. Fatality lists included some popular cricketers, some record-holders among them. Arthur Collins, whose 628 not out in a house match at Clifton College in 1899 remains to this day the highest score ever recorded in a genuine match, was an early casualty, killed at Ypres in November 1914. The anguish was compounded when two of his brothers lost their lives. Over 3000 Cliftonians fought in the 1914-18 war, and 578 of them were killed. This was by no means an untypical statistic on memorial boards at seats of learning.

Alan Marshal, a powerful Queenslander who had made a spectacular impression with WG's London County and with Surrey, fought at Gallipoli but died of enteric fever in 1915, a dark year rendered even sadder than most with the suicide, at his home half a mile from Lord's, of former England captain A.E.Stoddart at 52, and the early death of Victor Trumper, followed by the passing of WG himself in the October.

Major (his given name) Booth, the Yorkshire all-rounder, was killed in the assault on Serre in July 1916, an action in which fellow Yorkshireman Roy Kilner was wounded (mercifully it was his right arm, not his bowling arm).  As Booth lay dying, young Yorkshire cricketer Abe Waddington, whose hero he was, nursed him through his final moments, but was forced to abandon him in a rat-infested crater.  Not until nine months later were Booth's remains identified from his MCC tour cigarette case.

Inside a week of Booth's death, W.B.Burns, a powerful all-rounder, was killed in an attack on Contalmaison, where fellow Worcestershire player Arthur Isaac also lost his life. Burns was a terrifying fast bowler, although the legitimacy of his action had frequently been questioned. Hampshire's George Brown objected to Burns's bowling, saying, “He'll kill someone one day!”  A fortnight after Burns's death, Percy Jeeves, the Yorkshire-born Warwickshire (and surely future England) allrounder, was lost without trace in another of those senseless blood-drenched night-time advances against impossible odds: German machine-gunners versus sitting ducks. It was left to P.G.Wodehouse to immortalise Jeeves by using his name for the manservant in his Bertie Wooster books.

Image courtesy David Frith collectionCasualty figures rose alarmingly. Further cricketers were killed or wounded. The dashing Kent and England amateur Kenneth Hutchings (pictured right), who fashioned a glorious century in a Melbourne Ashes Test, was blown apart in the trenches at Ginchy in September 1916.

Soon, Middlesex batsman Leonard Moon, who had played for England in four Tests in South Africa in 1905-06 and for Hampstead alongside Stoddart and Spofforth, was among those who could take no more. In 1916 he shot himself.  In the Hampstead history Moon was described as “genial and carefree”.

His nerves completely gone, Percy Hardy, of Somerset, had committed suicide earlier that same year.  And towards the end of 1917 the player who had probably earned the highest ranking of them all, Colin Blythe, of Kent and England, epileptic yet happy-go-lucky, a slow left-arm maestro who once took 17 wickets in a county match, and whose final ball, in a wartime fixture at Lord's was hit for six, was killed by shellfire near Passchendaele. He was 38. His two damaged wallets were later presented to Kent CCC for poignant display at the Canterbury ground.

Australia had mourned the death at Beersheba, late in 1917, of fast bowler Tibby Cotter, and there were several South African Test cricketers who failed to survive this callous war. Among the most heart-rending losses were the late ones, when the conflict was nearing its end. Lancashire, having lost Harold Garnett, a fine left-hander, late in 1917, heard that batsman Alfred Hartley had been killed a month before the war ended. At nearly 40, he may not have recaptured his place in the county side, but there surely would have been further enjoyable summers in the field to come. Tantalisingly, some died from illness or wounds after peace had come to pass, most notably R.O.Schwarz, who had bowled the new googly for Middlesex and South Africa. He succumbed to influenza a week after the armistice.

The wartime editions of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack carried hundreds upon hundreds of obituaries. Yet these covered almost exclusively county and university players and young men who had played cricket at the public schools. So very many other club and village cricketers whose education had been minimal and unprivileged died unnoticed beyond the confines of town or village.

Middlesex batsman Leonard Moon, who shot himself in 1916 - Image courtesy David Frith collection

Thousands of the survivors were physically or mentally impaired, the most famous of them being Frank Chester, who had displayed enormous potential with Worcestershire, scoring a century against Somerset when only 17. Having hit 115 for the Royal Field Artillery in 1915, he lost an arm during combat in Salonika.  Psychological problems ensued, but taking up umpiring was his salvation. In 1924, at the age of only 28, he stood in his first Test match, and was soon regarded as the finest in the world. Bill Parry was another Test umpire who went about his duties with a serious physical impediment: he had lost a leg in battle, and more than once had his artificial limb splintered and knocked from under him in the field by a robust pull shot.

A fascinating post-war observation concerned  A.J.“Johnny” Evans, the Kent amateur who had earned admiration for his courageous escapes from German prison camps during the Great War. As he sat on the Lord's balcony in June 1921, padded up and awaiting his turn to bat in his only Test match, with Australia's terrifying fast bowlers Gregory and McDonald firing down their blistering bouncers, Evans's knees were seen to be knocking together.  Comparing cricket with real war is tasteless, but this incident did cause some intriguing wonderment.

A few players survived serious war wounds and continued to play at high level.  Harry Lee of Middlesex was given up for dead, lying for three days in No Man's Land during the fighting at Neuve Chapelle. A near-miraculous revival left him with a pronounced limp, despite which he later scored double-centuries for Middlesex (also once taking eight wickets in an innings with offies), and winning one Test cap. Mechanic George Geary's serious injury, inflicted by an errant aeroplane propeller, left him thinking he would never play again. To his, Leicestershire's and England's relief he did, and with great success.

Most onlookers already knew about Lionel Tennyson's war record as they watched him gallantly score 99 runs in the Headingley Test of 1921, facing the fire of Gregory and McDonald with only one good hand after the other had been damaged in the field. Living under shellfire day after day, month after month, surviving the retreat from Mons and the ferocious battle of the Marne, but being one of the favoured who was never seriously wounded, His Lordship had seen his way through this savage war, although, like all the others, he was changed forever by the unceasing strain and punishment. Wounded three times, and stretched to describe the horror of some of the things he had witnessed, Tennyson also endured the pain of losing two brothers in action. “The sights in the battle of the Aisne were bad enough,” he was to write, “but the bits of men, clothes, rifles etc in the trenches after this battle, men dead and dying, are better left unthought of...”

Australia's elegant between-wars wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield was fortunate to survive a terrible head wound when a shell killed his three fellow stretcher-bearers and their patient during the combat at Polygon Wood. A metal plate was placed near the front of his head, so when Harold Larwood felled Oldfield with a bouncer during the Adelaide Test of the 1932-33 Bodyline series, there were serious fears for him. When the crowd began to seethe and threaten to storm the playing field that turbulent day, England's Maurice Tate, although he had served as a signaller in the Royal Artillery in France, now declared that he feared for his safety. Sitting on the players' balcony, not having been selected for the match, he decided to leave the ground fast.

Image courtesy David Frith collectionPerhaps the most remarkable post-war comeback to the playing field was performed by Alex Johnston (pictured right), a pre-war Hampshire batsman, who was wounded four times, mentioned in dispatches five times, and won the DSO and bar. Surviving the carnage of the Somme and Ypres, he became the youngest general in the British Army in 1917. His letters home are masterpieces of understatement: “The old Bosche gave us quite a big dose of gas shell yesterday evening, which I always dislike, and when they mix it up with heavy stuff which knocks in doorways and shakes up the place generally, it is rather a nuisance.

“He's a good soldier, the old Bosche,” Johnston sportingly observed, though he was less patient with the British press: “These [Zeppelin] raids on London are rather a nuisance, but I don't think the Germans have a more useful ally than the English papers, and they make me perfectly ill to read them.” His battalion had had a recent triumph in taking 130 prisoners and 14 machine-guns at a cost of three killed and 40-odd wounded: “Isn't that extraordinarily good?”  Later: “We were up and over that steep slope, through Messines and its tremendous defences.”

Ending the war with one leg four inches shorter than the other, Alex Johnston felt he was entitled to a runner when he batted, but was not permitted to do so in the county game. So this outstanding war hero made do thereafter with gathering runs in club and wandering cricket.

It must have been beyond expression how relieved those warrior cricketers were to be back on the good green turf again, serenity and beauty contrasting with the barbarity of the battlefield, memories of which would haunt them for the remainder of their lives.

Some further reading: 

How's That! By Frank Chester (Hutchinson, 1956)

The Real Jeeves by Brian Halford (Pitch, 2013)

Tragic White Roses by Mick Pope (The author, 1995)

Wisden on the Great War edited by Andrew Renshaw (John Wisden, 2014)

Colin Blythe: Lament for a Legend by Christopher Scoble (SportsBooks, 2005)

From Verse to Worse by Lionel Lord Tennyson (Cassell, 1933)

DAVID FRITH is a former editor of The Cricketer and of Wisden Cricket Monthly, and is the author of more than 30 cricket books. His grandfather served with the East Surrey Regiment in the 1914-18 War, which also claimed the lives of two great-uncles.

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