Saracens at War – November 11th, 1914

There was to be no ‘Remembrance Day’ on November 11th 1914, obviously.

Wednesday, 11th November 1914 was the one hundredth day of the war, and was instead marked by the launch of von Hindenburg’s offensive against Warsaw in the east, and a final attempt by the Prussian Guard to seize back the Belgian city of Ypres from the stretched and exhausted British & French troops. In London, King George V opened a new session of Parliament on November 11th with the words “The energies and sympathies of My subjects in every part of the Empire are concentrated on the prosecution to a victorious issue of the War on which we are now engaged”.

Despite the Kaiser’s exhortation to his departing troops in August 1914 that they would be home ‘before the leaves fall from the trees’, the rapid victory in the West required by the von Schlieffen plan had been frustrated by the Allied resistance. Both the German and Allied armies began to dig fixed lines of entrenchments that would soon stretch from the Channel coast to the Alps. The British Official History of the First World War records that, by 11th November, “For the infantry in the front line and the fighting staffs there was nothing to do but lie at the bottom of the trenches and in the holes in the ground…to many of the infantry it seemed that the end was now at hand. Without losing heart or faith in the final victory, they had ceased to feel that their lives were any longer their own”.

The Front Line November 1914

The Front Line November 1914

The failure of the Prussian Guard assault on Ypres marked the closing phase of what became known as ‘The First Battle of Ypres’. Both British and German armies had each suffered more than 5,000 killed in this operation alone. British casualties during ‘First Ypres’ totalled 58,000 officers and men.  An Irish Guardsman recalled pressing their Battalion’s orderlies, cooks and batmen into service in the firing line to hold off the German advance in November “ ’Twas like a football scrum…if (one) dropped, there was no one to take his place”.

More than 89,000 casualties had been sustained since the conflict began – more than all the British infantry from the original seven Regular Battalions deployed to France at the outbreak of the war. The Official History concludes that “The old British Army was gone past recall, leaving but a remnant to carry on the training of the New Armies…”

By November 11th 1914 it was already clear that nobody – except perhaps the tens of thousands of wounded on both sides – would be ‘home before Christmas’….

To those back in the UK, the mounting casualty lists in the newspapers blurred with the repeated public call to arms, as Kitchener’s New Armies sought to raise and train sufficient troops to meet the German military challenge.

Many Saracens players were already part of this unprecedented military recruitment movement. Scrum-half Sydney Sylvester was, as we have seen, already in training in Colchester barracks with the ‘Stockbroker’s Battalion’. Reginald Potts, an Olympic medallist in gymnastics at the Stockholm 1912 games, had enlisted in the first ‘Sportsmen’s Battalion’ of the Royal Fusiliers, where he had already been recognised as a potential trainer for the Army Gymnastics Staff, whose numbers were to multiply vastly as a direct response to the New Armies initiative.  Rugged Saracens forward Walter Cairns Black was enlisted with the London Scottish regiment whilst Saracens ‘B’ team captain Austin Ball was serving full-time with the Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles. Victor Barnett, another Saracen who had acquired peacetime military experience via the Jewish Lads Brigade, was already made up as Junior Officer with the 12th Battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

Mr Punch and Professional Football 1914

Mr Punch and Professional Football 1914

‘Punch’ magazine continued to contribute to the accusations of unpatriotic behaviour exhibited by British professional football, in contrast to the rapid responses of rugby players and cricketers across the country, as can be seen from this rather acerbic cartoon from November 1914. The magazine sought to capture the mood of those, whom, perhaps, had not yet seen the full horrors of the Western Front close-up, when they wrote in November

Trench warfare is in full and deadly swing, but ‘Thomas of the light heart’ refuses to be downhearted:

He takes to fighting as a game,
He does no talking through his hat
Of holy missions: all the same
He has his faith–be sure of that:
He’ll not disgrace his sporting breed
Nor play what isn’t cricket. There’s his creed”

We will continue to trace and report the fortunes and experiences of our Saracens players through the course of the 1914-18 conflict and beyond in further blogs on this website. Please continue to follow this website to find out more about Saracens players during the First World War.

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