My Tears on the Western Front / Times Magazine
It is still dark when Lewis Moody, the former English rugby captain, arrives at the Thiepval Memorial in northern France. Sir Edwin Lutyens’ vast, multi-arched monument looms – floodlit - through the dense fog shrouding the surrounding woods and erstwhile battlefields of the Somme. But for a caretaker, there is not another soul around. Save for some distant church bells, the silence is absolute.
Amongst the 72,000 names of fallen soldiers that cover the memorial’s many walls he soon locates the two that he has come to find. They are scarcely a yard apart, close enough that he can touch both at once. He runs his hand reverentially along the carved letters. He stands in silence, head bowed, as he reflects on the story behind them.
The first, Second Lieutenant Noel Slocock, was a tall, rampaging forward - like Moody himself - who played eight times for England before World War One, once as captain. A cotton trader, he swiftly returned from America to Britain to enlist in the Liverpool Scottish 1/10th Battalion when the war erupted.
The second, Lance Corporal Jack King, was a Yorkshire farmer who played 12 times as England’s Number Eight despite being just 5’5” tall, and was dubbed the team’s ‘Pocket Hercules’ for his fearless tackling.
King tried to enlist with the Yorkshire Hussars just days after Britain declared war, but was rejected because of his height. “I’m simply going to stick here until you do take me in,” he told the recruiting officer, who eventually relented. He subsequently switched to the Liverpool Scottish join his old friend Slocock and see more action.
On the evening of August 8 1916, in the midst of the Battle of the Somme, their battalion was ordered up to the front line. It reached the trenches at 4.00am, and was immediately ordered to attack a farmhouse at Guillemont. “It is almost impossible to begin to describe the sights and sounds here...Had I not seen them (I) could never have believed that such chaos could be created by man,” Slocock wrote to his mother. “So long as I don’t disgrace the old Rugby game, I don’t think I mind,” King wrote in a final letter to a friend.
At 4.20am Slocock and King went over the top and charged. “Three times that day did they attempt to take Guillemont, and three times they were repulsed, the flower of the grand regiment going down before the hellish machine gun fire of the Boche,” one historian recorded.
The two famous rugby players never returned. Their bodies were never recovered. “I love to believe they died together, and are buried side by side in some field,” says Moody, his eyes watering. “They were both such great characters, such brave, lion-hearted forwards, and the reasons they played the game – the camaraderie, the desire to help the guys around them – were probably the same reasons they threw themselves into combat and were the first to go over the top.”
He writes on a mini-rugby ball emblazoned with the red rose of England rugby, and lays it beneath the names of his rugby forebears. ‘Jack and Noel – Oh how I would love to have known you,’ the inscription reads. ‘Thank you for inspiring us still.’
Moody is an engaging personality. Now 39 and the doting father of two young sons, he is cauliflower-eared and broken nosed but a far cry from the stereotypical rugby forward. He has set up his own brain tumour charity, and a company that promotes rugby in state schools. He is friendly, thoughtful, articulate and utterly devoid of airs and graces despite his stellar sporting record.
He played 71 games for England - 11 as captain, and three times for the British Lions, before retiring in 2012. He was part of the England squad that lifted the World Cup in 2003, and won seven premiership titles and two Heineken cups with Leicester. A marauding flanker who played with such a reckless disregard for his own safety that he was called ‘Mad Dog’, he also had the unfortunate distinction of being the first England player ever sent off at Twickenham.
I first met him at last November’s launch of a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) foundation designed to keep alive the memory of the 1.1 million servicemen who died in the Great War now that its centennial is almost over. We got chatting. He told me he had agreed to serve as the foundation’s ambassador because that war had “always been an incredible passion of mine”.
It was the one subject that had fascinated him during an otherwise undistinguished academic career at Oakham school. Later, as a player, he would pass plaques to England rugby’s war dead whenever he entered Twickenham’s changing rooms. On tour in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, he would slip away to visit First World War memorials in search of inspiration. And towards the end of his career he used a medal earned by his great grandfather and namesake – a survivor of the war’s first big battle at Mons - to motivate himself before big matches.
Shortly before rugby’s version of going ‘over the top’ – running down the tunnel with his team mates to spend 80 minutes battling ferociously for every inch of muddy turf – he would sit quietly clutching the bronze 1914 Mons Star. “You’re trying to get to a level of emotional arousal that’s bordering on hatred, and it was at a time when I found it hard to get to the right pitch of emotional peak to play games,” he said.
“I would squeeze the medal. It was all well and good looking at it, but you want to feel it being part of you. The one thing I’ve always had as a mantra is ‘be worthy’, and I always wanted to be worthy of the sacrifices my great-grandfather and his contemporaries made...That medal was really special. I used it until I stopped playing.”
Moody also told me he wanted to make a “pilgrimage” to the graves of the 22 England internationals who died in France or Belgium during World War One. He wanted to thank and pay homage to them for the inspiration their bravery and sacrifice had given him. “Let’s do it together,” I suggested. Hence, early one recent morning, Moody, a CWGC historian and I left from Twickenham’s Rose and Poppy memorial gates on a quixotic, three-day, 845-mile tour of 16 different cemeteries and monuments scattered across the foggy, flat, featureless farmland of the old Western Front.
Slocock and King are not the only England internationals commemorated at Thiepval. The same monument records the names of Rupert Inglis and Alfred Maynard.
Inglis, who played three times for England in 1886, was a country vicar with a wife and three children who enlisted as an army chaplain aged 51 because ‘it was hard to tell people that it was their duty (to fight) and then remain comfortably at home’. Two years later he became the oldest former international to die, killed recovering the wounded from no-man’s land while acting as a volunteer stretcher-bearer during the Battle of the Somme.
“I’m trying to imagine a 53-year-old man going into no-man’s land,” said Moody as we located Inglis’s name amongst the infinite others. “He had no need to. It wasn’t his role. He was supposed to be at an aid station. I suppose he felt that compulsion to do more when there’s so much misery and sadness all around.”
Lieutenant Maynard, at 22, was the youngest to perish. Wounded in Gallipolli, the hooker died leading his company in a pre-dawn attack during the Somme offensive. He had played three times for England in 1914, one of an outstanding team which had won the Grand Slam that spring for the second successive year.
That team covered itself in glory in another way, too. Imbued with a sense of duty and patriotism unthinkable today, it enlisted en masse. Within four months of Britain declaring war, The Times reported that ‘every player who represented England in Rugby international matches last year has joined the colours’.
Nine days after the declaration the Rugby Football Union had urged all players to enlist. A month later it cancelled the rest of the 1914-15 season. It even considered forming a battalion of rugby players, but most had already signed up. The professional sports - football, rugby league, cricket - were much slower to respond, and soon a recruitment poster declared: “Rugby Union footballers are doing their duty. Over 90 per cent have enlisted. British Athletes! Will you follow this glorious example?
By the war’s end 129 British, French and Commonwealth rugby internationals had lost their lives. They included Ronald Poulton Palmer, heir to the Huntley Palmer biscuit fortune, who captained the 1914 team and was the most famous player of his day, scoring no fewer than 20 tries in 17 internationals. He sailed to war in the same ferry that had taken him to play France in Paris a few months earlier, and was killed by a German sniper near Ploegsteert Wood. His last words were “I shall never play at Twickenham again”, and his death was announced on newspaper placards across London.
But the relatively young, and still proudly amateur, sport gained enormously in stature. Many public schools, persuaded of rugby’s virtues, switched from football to rugby. Crowds doubled in size. King George V unveiled a memorial at Twickenham in 1921. “From a PR point of view it was a huge coup for Rugby Union because it was seen as a patriotic sport,” Phil McGowan, curator of Twickenham’s World Rugby Museum, said.
As we drove between cemeteries, each an immaculately-tended haven of peace in what what was once a sea of mud and carnage, we mugged up on the players and it became clear that in almost every case rugby’s ethos – the courage, camaraderie, discipline and leadership it required – had infused the way they had conducted themselves in war.
Some died leading charges against heavily-defended German positions. Others insisted on returning to the trenches despite serious injuries. One rescued a gassed colleague from no-man’s land. Another repeatedly asked about his colleagues as he lay mortally wounded by the shell that had injured them.
Many were decorated or mentioned in dispatches, but few surpassed Edgar Mobbs, another former England captain. He volunteered the moment war broke out, but was rejected for being too old at 32. He instead raised his own company of 264 volunteers, reputedly inviting spectators to join him during a half-time appeal at a Northampton Saints game. His so-called ‘Sportsmen’ fought at the battles of Loos, Somme and Arras. Mobbs was wounded three times, but refused to leave his men. He was promoted from private to colonel in two years, and awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
He was eventually shot while trying to seize a German machine gun emplacement at Passchendaele in 1917. As he lay dying in a shell hole he sent the emplacement’s exact position back to headquarters so the artillery could destroy it, scribbling the words “Am seriously wounded” on the end. “He was one of those once-in-a-generation individuals, a natural leader of men with the ability to inspire all those around him,” Moody said as he searched for Mobbs’ name amongst the 54,000 inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres.
That evening Moody was invited to lay a wreath during the ‘Last Post’ ceremony that has been staged at the Menin Gate every night since 1928 - World War Two excepted. He read The Exhortation - ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old’. He was then mobbed by a group of English schoolchildren wanting selfies.
Afterwards, in the car, he vehemently rejected the idea that he deserved such adulation: “I’ve never considered myself a hero in any way, shape or form. I had the great privilege of playing a sport I loved for a long period of time with some remarkable individuals.”
As a player Moody certainly faced hardship and adversity in abundance. He shared the fear that pervaded changing rooms before big matches. “You’re trying to repress a lot of demons, all your doubts about your ability to do the right thing and lead by example,” he said. Some players were physically sick, he added.
He regaled us with tales of appalling injuries he had witnessed on the rugby field, and he suffered many himself - at least eight concussions, broken bones all over his body, torn ligaments and tendons, shoulder damage that required four reconstructions and permanent impairment of his left eye.
He would frequently take to the field dosed up with painkillers. A surfeit of painkillers, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics eventually led to three years of crippling, humiliating, bowel-loosening colitis that, in his words, “stripped me of any self-esteem, and of any quality of life”.
But that, he insisted, was nothing compared to what the fallen England internationals had confronted. “We had moments of anxiety before a big game, but every moment they were near the front line they had the anxiety of ‘where’s the next shell going to fall’ and the absolute random, chaotic nature of who survived, who lived and who didn’t,” he said.
“I appreciate how hard the sport we played was, and the levels we had to go to, but the mental challenge of fearing you would break your leg in a tackle was nothing to the knowledge that climbing out of that trench into no-man’s land could be your last step. How the hell do you climb each rung of the ladder and stick your head over the parapet knowing what’s on the other side? I’ll never understand how you don’t just shrink back and sit down and say ‘No, I’m not doing it’.”
The 22 were true heroes. For them a blast of the whistle meant going over the top, not the start of a game. “They went into battle, fought and died, some out of duty and some because their team mates signed up and they felt they needed to be there with them. That beats sporting heroism into insignificance.”
What Moody does believe is that “rugby prepared these players for war” - a common view at the time. “Rugby Football, above all games, is one which develops the qualities that go on to make good fighting men,” Admiral Lord Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, said in 1915. “The Rugby Footballer makes the finest soldier in the world,” Colonel Jonathan Davidson of the Liverpool Scottish declared after King and Slocock’s deaths.
And so our whirlwind tour proceeded, from Etaples to Lijssenthoek to Hyde Park Corner. The names on those endless rows of white headstones were just that – names. But as Moody stopped to reflect on each player’s story, sometimes seizing on some small detail of their rugby careers or war records, he managed briefly to resurrect them a century after their deaths. This one had blithely drunk champagne an hour before playing for the Lions. That one calmly smoked a cigarette after being shot through the neck, and died three days later.
He undoubtedly felt a strong connection with these pioneers of his beloved game, men who had played on the same hallowed turf as him and experienced the same sporting triumphs and disasters. A handful were, like him, amongst the select band of 129 men who have captained England.
By dusk the first day, well behind schedule, we faced a further two-hour drive to visit the lonely grave of Captain Charles Wilson in the village of Paissy. Moody flatly refused to have dinner in Arras instead. On a cold, black night we drove up a muddy track to the village church, found Wilson’s grave by torchlight, and left a mini-rugby ball inscribed: ‘Remembered by your rugby family’. “It would not have been right to leave one out,” Moody declared.
I began to understand his bond with these players when we visited the grave of Second Lieutenant Harry Alexander at the Arras Road Cemetery the next morning. Alexander was, like me, an old Uppinghamian. We had both played in Uppingham’s 1st XV, in the same colours, on the same pitch. At Moody’s suggestion, I inscribed his rugby ball.
That sense of connection became even more pronounced at our next stop, the Loos memorial. There we found the name not just of Second Lieutenant Douglas Lambert, a winger who scored a record five tries on his debut against France in 1907, but of Moody’s great-great-uncle, Albert Lovejoy, and of my great-uncle, Harold Sanderson. To our amazement we also discovered that our two forebears were killed on exactly the same day - September 25 1915 - the start of the bloody but futile Battle of Loos. This time my eyes brimmed.
Our final visit was to a plaque in a nondescript churchyard in Zeebrugge. It honoured Arthur Harrison, a naval officer charged with destroying German batteries on a mile-long mole (causeway) in Zeebrugge harbour so the navy could scupper ships across the mouth of a canal used by German U-boats.
As Harrison landed on the mole a shell broke his jaw and knocked him out. Recovering consciousness, he led his storming party in a full-frontal assault on the batteries in much the same way he might once have assailed the try line. Most were killed, and Harrison was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Moody suggested we observe a minute’s silence at the plaque. Beneath it he placed a rugby ball inscribed: “Thank you for inspiring me as a player.” In Harrison’s case that inspiration was especially real and direct. During Moody’s later years as an England player the words of his VC citation were prominently displayed in the team’s Pennyhill training centre: “Lieutenant-Commander Harrison, though already severely wounded and undoubtedly in great pain, displayed indomitable resolution and courage of the highest order in pressing his attacks, knowing that any delay in silencing the guns might jeopardise the main object of the expedition.”
From Zeebrugge we drove back to Calais and the Eurostar. Moody was content, fulfilled. The trip had been an “emotional roller coaster”, a mixture of sadness and celebration, but he had achieved his goal. “To know I’ve thanked them personally, having used their spirits and what they embodied to motivate me as a player, feels absolutely fitting,” he said. “It’s something I’ve needed to do for a long time.”
(Twickenham’s new World Rugby Museum opens with a permanent wartime gallery on February 2. Details of the new Commonwealth War Graves Commission Foundation are on www.cwgc.org)