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County cricketers and the 1914-18 War

ECB remembers the most poignant stories of service and sacrifice from the world of cricket during the First World War.

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County cricketers and the 1914-18 War

Cricketers were at the forefront of the effort during the First World War

From our 2018 Cricket Remembers campaign, commemorating the cricketers who so bravely fought in the Great War, cricket historian David Frith recalls the service and sacrifice from the world of cricket in the First World War and remembers some of the most poignant stories of cricketers involved in the war.

The cataclysmic conflict of 1914 to 1918 was referred to as the Great War, and subsequently as the First World War after something just as horrendous was inflicted on mankind between 1939 and 1945. 

The ’14-18 war was defined by the seemingly interminable, blood-soaked stalemate on the killing-fields of France and Belgium as patriotic fervour and optimism gave way to impatience, exhaustion and despair as the months dragged on. The human cost was beyond realistic description.

Grief touched most households across the United Kingdom and in the homelands of her allies. Countless wives and mothers waited in dread for the telegram boy knocking on the door and conveying the worst possible news. 

Cricket and the war effort 

Cricketers, of course, were at the forefront of the war effort, their huge contribution encouraged by the illustrious Dr W.G. Grace’s call to arms. 

Had he been younger, cricket’s mighty figurehead would surely have been among the first to don uniform. As it was, he shook his fist at the sinister clouds above south London which hid a lethal, groaning Zeppelin airship.

“Now then, old boy,” said his friend Archie MacLaren, also a former captain of England, “you mustn’t get upset. Why, didn’t you face Ernie Jones [the bouncer-happy Australian fast bowler of the 1890s]?”  

“That’s as may be,” groaned WG, “but I could see him!”  

Days later, W.G. was dead following a stroke.

“Those who returned home had been changed irreparably, mentally if not physically. And if they resumed playing the game with greater freedom, it was because of their intense relief at having a peaceful normal life restored.”

Lives forever changed  

Numerous county cricketers served in the ’14-18 war. Some were killed, Test cricketers among them.

Those who returned home had been changed irreparably, mentally if not physically. And if they resumed playing the game with greater freedom, it was because of their intense relief at having a peaceful normal life restored.

Few cricketers of the modern era fortunately have ever experienced real warfare, with all its brutality, horror, hopelessness, and despair.

In the 8 August 1914 edition of the now-rare magazine The World of Cricketeditor Archie MacLaren opened his editorial with the same sort of patriotic words employed by most publications at the time: “Armageddon may well be at hand. As one writes the talk is all of War-War-War!

“Cricket is naturally pushed into the background – naturally and rightly – big a part as the greatest of games plays in our national life. Yet when the thrilling call – ‘Who is on our side?’ – goes forth, the debt the nation owes to cricket ought not to be forgotten.

“In spite of occasional squabbles – Sydney barracking, Bloemfontein incidents, and the like – cricket has perhaps done more than anything else to weld together.

“Those who kneel beside us/ At altars not Thine own – as Kipling has it in his noble Hymn Before Action. And among the bonds that bind them will be the bond of cricket.” 

Stirring stuff typical of MacLaren, who had scored 424 for Lancashire against Somerset 20 years previously, as well as five Test hundreds against Australia. 

Village greens to county clubs 

This and much similar editorial material was consumed around the nation at that fearful time.

Cricketers from village greens to county clubs, some only just out of school, volunteered to go to war during that tense autumn of 1914. The cricket season had only just been somehow completed midst the disruption. 

The Oval was requisitioned by the Army, so Surrey’s match against Kent (Jack Hobbs’s benefit match), followed by one against Yorkshire, were both played at Lord’s. The Surrey committee then decided to cancel the last two fixtures of the season, against Sussex at Hove and Leicestershire at The Oval.

In the final edition of The World of Cricket, Archie MacLaren featured Percy Jeeves of Warwickshire on the front cover. He seemed to be a certainty to be capped by England in the near future: but he was one of those destined not to survive the war.

There was a pointed reference to remarks uttered by Lord Roberts in a recruiting speech regarding “people who went on playing cricket at such a time”. 

Ominously, gloomily, understandably, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey stated that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”.

In the following (and final) edition of his magazine, MacLaren featured two Men of the Season on the front cover. One was Percy Jeeves of Warwickshire. He seemed to be a certainty to be capped by England in the near future: but he was one of those destined not to survive the war.

MacLaren’s “Pavilion Gossip” was confident, but a little more serious than ever before: “The days of waiting are past. Great Britain is at war, and the people are glad thereof – glad with no riotous gladness, with no cocksure assurance, but soberly, sternly glad. 

“It is not that we wanted war; but we could not brook dishonour. 

“We had to stand by our friends, and to bear England’s old, great part – that of the nation towards which the little peoples looked as a shield and buckler against the arrogant tyranny of the continental despots.” 

Incalculable loss 

Beyond county cricket, it is sobering to reflect that for every first-class cricketer who lost his life in the “Great War”, the roll-call of “ordinary” cricketers killed while fighting for their country remains incalculable. 

Club cricketers, apprentices and college boys innumerable died for the cause, some of them still in their teens. 

Their symbol might be Arthur Collins, who as a 13-year-old Clifton College schoolboy had scored 628 not out in a house match in 1899, for over a century the highest score made in a properly organised cricket match.

Club cricketers, apprentices and college boys innumerable died for the cause, some of them still in their teens.

He became a career soldier, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, and was killed during the first Battle of Ypres.

The date was 11 November 1914, and had the world but known it, this dreadful war had still to drag on for precisely four more years. The young cricket record-holder’s name is to be found on the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium, as are the names of a multitude of other servicemen whose remains were not recovered.  

Ultimate sacrifice and the Greater Game  

Young British men, and some not so young, crossed the Channel on their way to war, patriotic, indignant and angry at German aggression and barbaric cruelty; and a little frightened too, for they were only human, and very young, many of them, with vivid imaginations.

And some were cricketers, good players, some of them county players, and a handful of them had played for their country.

Of those who came home, some like Harry Lee carried injuries for life, though they resumed playing the game they loved. Some, like Andy Sandham (who in 1929-30 became the first to score a Test triple-century), were removed from the firing line by injury. 

One – Percy Jeeves, who was killed in France – was even immortalised beyond the pages of Wisden, when P.G. Wodehouse adopted the surname for his classic manservant of fiction.  

The cricket that they played is barely recognisable today. Their white/cream attire had no commercial logos; their bats were lightweight; batting gloves were flimsy; caps, sun hats and sometimes trilby hats were worn, though many preferred to be bare-headed, whether the bowling was fast or slow.

Spectators sat on the grass by the boundary, and some grounds had dangerous spiked railings around the perimeter. The scores were available only in the evening or next morning’s penny or tupp’ny newspapers.

As we commemorate the centenary of the end of that most horrifying conflict, it is also time to acknowledge the incalculable contribution of cricketers from the length and breadth of the British Isles and beyond.

It was indeed The Greater Game.

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Cricket Remembers

ECB Chief Executive Officer Tom Harrison on how the cricket family is honouring the efforts and sacrifices of those cricketers who fought and died during the First World War

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