In our first chapter, we traced the London-based childhood and subsequent career path of our Saracens squad member, Victor Baron Barnett, as he, like so many of his young contemporaries in the first decade of the new century, took on the challenges facing him with both zeal and great commitment.
Victor was a member of the 1909-10 Saracens 1st XV squad. He is pictured here aged 23, looking cheerful with his Saracens team-mates, seated on the far right in the middle row. An enthusiastic & athletic individual, he had also joined the Jewish Lads Brigade and spent summers at their military cadet training camps before the war.
Employed in London’s financial district, he volunteered in September 1914, where his military training and leadership skills honed at summer camps with the Jewish Lads Brigade were quickly recognised. He was rapidly assigned as a 2nd Lieutenant to the 12th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, a volunteer force that was raised in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne was and deployed to Lord Rothschild’s country estate on the Hertfordshire-Buckinghamshire borders around the town of Tring for military training.
The ‘St George’s Gazette‘ Fusiliers publication from these months reveals a great deal about the commitment, enthusiasm, sense of duty and unfailing British sense of humour that prevailed amongst the 12th and 13th Battalions stationed in “the rusticated hamlet of Tring“. Initially billeted with the local residents whilst their own huts were being constructed, the thousands of volunteer soldiers were quick to assess their small group of 35 officers’ intentions:
“The officers responsible for the compilation of the various weekly programmes all appear to have incited themselves as one, and, in addition, taken themselves a motto… – Work! Work! Work!”
The ‘work’ was both challenging and physical, with “Night attacks, outposts and marches” plus introductions to the art and science of ‘musketry’ featuring frequently in the programme.
A 25-mile marching exercise by Victor’s ‘D’ Company was celebrated in the Gazette on 27th February 2015, where he is recorded as being one of the officers who led the men at a speed of 4 mph to a set a new record for the distance, beating the previous time set by ‘C’ Company of the Yorkshires. This achievement was significant enough to draw the praise of Divisional C.O., Sir Edward Hutton, who wrote “The Lieutenant-General commanding sends his hearty congratulations to Captain Icke and ‘D’ Company on their excellent march“. No doubt, Victor’s competitive nature was equally satisfied by this public commendation & praise for his team. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can only look forlornly on the further comment in the ‘Gazette’ that “The march was accomplished without a single casualty, the ambulance returning empty…“…this, sadly, was not to be the Battalion’s experience upon their deployment to the Western Front…
Despite the unstinting support of the local residents, the Battalion ‘Gazette’ contributors seem to have found the small town and local area a far cry from their lives in the busy cities of the North East. “Tring has a lamentable lack of attractions in the shape of amusements” mourned the author on 27th February. However, as would befit Battalions of men raised in the shadow of St James’ Park and Newcastle United F.C., the soldiers’ spare hours were quickly filled with seemingly countless games of football and other sporting activities.
Reports of sporting activity feature frequently in the ‘Gazette’ during these months – but Victor’s Saracens-honed skills might not have been fully appreciated, as the editor noted “The world of sport at Tring…can be summed up in one word – ‘Football’.” !
Indeed, the various Company and Battalion teams lists that are published show that very few officers at all made the representative soccer sides, perhaps reinforcing previous studies that have widely illustrated the prevalence of rugby- & cricket-playing ex-public school junior officers in the New Armies of the First World War. By 28th of March the ‘Gazette’ could hardly conceal its delight at the arrival of a devastating new ‘weapon’ at the Tring camp….a brand-new football strip for the team! “Our Battalion is now ‘rigged out’ with proper football kit, and if they can manage to play half as well as they look, they will have more than a sporting chance even with the (Newcastle) United”
The Fusilier Battalions stoically endured the rains and snow of late March and early April 1915, before noting with undisguised glee that “The fine weather and bracing air have revived our football enthusiasm and the month has witnessed some excellent games“. The 12th’s football team, again with only 1 officer in the side, went unbeaten in the inter-Battalion matches, scoring 14 goals and conceding only 1. On St George’s Day, 23rd April 1915, both the 12th and 13th Battalions combined for a celebratory Sports Day in Grove Park, Tring. The troops “attended in full strength, as did the majority of the less-occupied population of Tring” noted the ‘Gazette’, which went on to report in considerable detail the events of the day, which it divided neatly into “the proverbial ‘sublime’ and ‘ridiculous’ . First there were 1/2 mile flat race, 200 yards race and 100 yards sprint. These demonstrated the true worth of the training we are getting, and the competitors certainly did shew some really fine efforts. As a contrast, there were: the 3-legged race, reveille race and the obstacle race. The latter, especially created ‘some’ fun, the majority of the audience did impromptu sprints to follow the careers of one or two of the favourites!”
There was, however, once again a clear divide between the activities of the enlisted men and the officers, for whom there was both a horse-race and a 120 yard sprint. In this latter event “Colonel Mullins of the 12th Battalion, gained a popular victory (perhaps out-sprinting our own 2nd Lt Barnett?)…but owing to the number of competitors it looked more like a Shrove Tuesday Football Match“!
However, the idyllic-sounding training ground experiences could not continue infinitely. The demands of the Western Front in particular were to accelerate the need for the Battalion and thousands of other New Army volunteers to reinforce the French and British armies, and Victor and his fellow Northumberland Fusiliers embarked and were deployed to France in the first week of September 1915. They were to be part of a combined Franco-British offensive, attacking eastward along a 20-mile front near the French mining town of Lens.
The first day of the battle on 25th September 1915 still resonates today for many reasons. It was the first time that the British had used the release of poison gas as an offensive weapon against the German lines. In addition, the actions of the men of the London Irish Rifles that day entered military and sporting folklore, after they conspired to dribble 6 leather footballs towards the German lines as they went ‘over the top’, many meeting their deaths in doing so.
The following morning, despite the months of training, their much improved fitness, and their indomitable team spirit, Victor and thousands of his Fusilier colleagues were to discover their own combat experience was sadly to be short-lived. On 26th September, they were hurled against the German 6th Army in a combined attack led by General Foch, which we now remember as the Battle of Loos. More than 3,800 Fusilier casualties were suffered at Loos in that single day.
Victor was killed in action as the 12th attempted to take and hold Hill 70, but were forced to retreat by the German counter-attack. His body was never recovered. He was just 27 years old.
His gallantry and sacrifice is commemorated in London on the Stock Exchange War Memorial, unveiled in 1922, and here, on the Loos Memorial in Pas de Calais.
Victor joins the growing ranks of fallen Saracens – volunteers who gave their lives during the First World World.
On Armistice Day weekend, 2016, as our Rugby Club comes together to remember the sacrifices of so many hundreds of thousands of young men during the 1914-18 war, we are pleased to tell, for the very first time, the story of Victor Baron Barnett, Saracen, b.1887 d.1915.
(With thanks to the research team from the Northumberland Fusiliers Museum, Alnwick, for their assistance in this project)
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