One of our key goals in this project has been to identify and share the final resting places of our Saracens who lost their lives during the First World War. We are very grateful to the Lottery Heritage Fund for their support in this regard, and hope that our initial tour of the WW1 battlefield cemeteries in September 2018 will help rugby fans and sports historians alike pay their respects to our fallen Saracens players.
Our visit was a culmination of work done so far, rather than a mission accomplished. We know we are still short of confirming the exact details of a number of players, and we continue to research the locations of memorials to some of those players confirmed as having died by ORG Williams in his club history from 1926. The intention was for this to be a first trip, which would then open up the future to further sorties by Saracens fans and rugby enthusiasts wishing, like us, to acknowledge the sacrifices made by these young men.
Saracens Battlefield Tour – Day 1
Having made a midnight crossing on Sunday, we began Monday morning in the beautiful coastal town of Le Touquet, now a favoured resort for wealthy Parisians including President Macron, but previously a vital port and site of the Duchess of Westminster‘s hospital (British Red Cross Society) The nearby, and rather less fashionable, fishing village of Etaples had been home to the Étaples Army Base Camp, the largest of its kind ever established overseas by the British forces, with a hospital capable of treating up to 22,000 patients. Wilfred Owen, the legendary war poet, described Etaples thus:
“A vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles … Chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all the faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England; nor can it be seen in any battle, but only in Étaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.”
A number of our Saracens would have passed through Etaples, but our first Saracen, Sergeant Charles Dearing (300335) had succumbed on the 16th April 1918 to wounds received fighting in the front line. He was buried in the specially constructed Etaples cemetery, the largest CWGC cemetery in France, on the former site of a military hospital. A Military Medal winner, the former schoolmaster, and alumnus of Borough Road College (now Brunel University), Dearing is remembered not just at the College, but also in his home parish in Norfolk.
Moving inland, toward the river Somme, we came next to the Aubigny communal cemetery extension. Here, rather than a purpose-built site, British graves had been placed in a small extension to the local community’s traditional burial site. Earlier graveyards often conformed to this tradition, at a point of the war when the vast human cost had not been anticipated. Jewish and Islamic graves also intermingled alongside the traditional crosses, with a small number of German graves also illustrating how the front-line had transitioned between the opposing armies. A number of French soldiers from the town had been buried in a dedicated plot within the cemetery, closest to the entrance, a position of significance and honour.
Here in Aubigny lies our 1913-14 Saracen Louis Edward Denton, whose life story we have researched and recorded. Denton died of his wounds and is buried here in the cemetery surrounded by other casualties from the fighting around Vimy Ridge.
Following a lunch of dubious nutritional value for most of the party (‘le Big Mac’) we travelled on to the vast British Forces memorial at Thiepval, to find two more of our Saracens players amongst the 72,000 men commemorated there – Rifleman John Somerville (#302789), killed in action on 9/10/16 and Company Sergeant-Major John Stuart Morris (#B759) who lost his life on 15/9/16.
Road-side sign boards help to explain and visualise the extent of the front-line at this most contested of frontiers, which had been the site of some of the heaviest fighting on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916. At the memorial itself, helpful and knowledgeable Commonwealth War Graves Interns were able to add further insights on the Thiepval legacy, and we extend our particular thanks to Olivia Smith, who enthusiastically assisted as we located our Saracens. Olivia had previously shown a party from the World Rugby Museum, include current/former England Internationals, around the Thiepval memorial as part of a new film… (Colin’s GB Masters Touch Rugby squad selection aside, we may have been somewhat of a let-down for Olivia, following such exulted company…!)
From the memorial itself it was possible, through dark lines in the fields and other scarring on the landscape still visible, to see the significant trench lines. Whilst at Thiepval we also paused to show respects to the Reverend Rupert Inglis former England International, the 100-year anniversary of whose death fell the very next day.
Before our final stop, having obtained assurances that there was no closing time on the grave sites in the evening, we took a long detour to visit the well-preserved trenches at Beaumont Hamel, part of the memorial to the disastrous Newfoundland Regiment advance of the first day of The Somme offensive.
We reached our final stop for the day at Perone Road with the light swiftly fading. This presented another beautifully unique cemetery, complete with climbable watchtower, where Elisha Horace Hopkins (#G/63188, Private, Middlesex Regt.) – one of our final Saracens (so far identified) to fall, is remembered. Less than two miles from Thiepval, but almost 2 years following the deaths of Somerville and Morris, EH Hopkins was killed on 27/8/1918, falling during the successful final British surge that was to bring the war to a close in November that year.
His grave (pictured here) carried the simple inscription “Sadly Missed” a last message from parents Thomas Henry and Ann Hopkins & his wife Frances Elizabeth Hopkins.
Saracens Battlefield Tour – Day 2
We had paused for the evening in the beautiful & completely rebuilt town square of Arras, a typical Flemish wool trading town, but one flattened by bombardments during the First World War due to its strategic position in the front-line for 4 years. The Arras memorial is located by the vast citadel built in the 17th century, ironically designed to defend the city and its populace against a style of warfare ushered out of existence by the mechanised slaughter of WW1.
The Lutyens-designed cemetery and memorial feature two more of our fallen Saracens, Norman Brabazon Dick and F.H.S. Satchwell. Both players are commemorated on the memorial walls of the cemetery, rather than with individual headstones in the graveyard itself. Like so many tens-of-thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in WW1, this tribute reflects that both our Saracens have no known grave, and so instead are listed upon this ‘Memorial to the Missing’ here in Arras, in the region in which they fought and ultimately fell.
We had hoped to visit the Wellington Tunnels – old coal mining shafts that had been carved out to house thousands of men and supplies, largely by a group of Kiwi ‘pioneers’. Unfortunately, time was pressing, so we instead made tracks for the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.
This vast and impressive structure dominates the landscape, showing why the ridge was so heavily fought over, and it is an area still marked by shell holes in multiple places. With a number of well-preserved trenches that visitors may explore, so better understand the day-to-day existence of those serving in the front line in 1914-18.
From Vimy, it is no more than a 20 minute drive to the Loos Memorial, where our former Saracen Victor Barron Barnett is commemorated. The CWGC Memorial site here forms the sides and back of the evocatively-named ‘Dud Corner Cemetery’ which is believed to have got its name from the large number of unexploded enemy shells found in the neighbourhood after the 1918 Armistice.
2nd Lieutenant VB Barnett of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who fell in the battle of Loos in 1915, is commemorated here on one of the many panels which list the names of more than 20,000 officers and men who have no known grave.
A short drive from Loos brought us to the Le Touret Memorial, where Lance-Corporal Walter ‘Wattie’ Cairns Black is remembered.
Wattie was killed in action on December 22nd, 1914, and was initially buried behind the front line near Givenchy. However, this area was subsequently destroyed by German artillery action and he now joins the ranks of the fallen here at this striking memorial.
He leaves behind some truly evocative letters home to his family, which we have been very grateful to receive from his descendants.
On route up toward Ypres, we stopped at the Indian memorial at Neuve-Chapelle. Remembering nearly 4,700 soldiers, porters and workmen the design incorporates elements of the Indian subcontinent: “characterised by Indian architectural styles with a circular enclosure centred on a tall pillar that is topped by a lotus capital, the Imperial British Crown and the Star of India.”
Their story is still largely little known, but one even more obscure to most of us is that of Portugal’s involvement on the Western Front, (caused apparently by the indiscriminate sinking of Portuguese shipping by German U-Boats).
Situated 100m from the Indian memorial, alongside a plaque telling the touching story of a Portuguese soldier who had married his French sweetheart, the gravestones were sadly often faded beyond legibility and overcrowded with weeds, illustrating – in contrast – just how successful and important remains the work of our own CWG Commission in maintaining these sites.
Our penultimate unplanned stop in transit was at “Plug Street” [Ploegsteert.] Other Anglicised names in the area included ‘Hyde Park Corner’ where the Royal Berkshire memorial is located, and ‘Clapham Junction’. These sorts of reminders of home were common in the trenches, and could be used for comic effect:
Around the corner, and found by us courtesy of some ‘eagle-eyes’ from the car noticing the tiny sign, we found the site of the famous football match between the English and German troops during the completely unofficial 1914 Christmas Truce. Although played with the wrong-shaped ball (!), it was still a nice reminder that even in these times of deadly conflict, the common language of and mutual passion for sport could have the power to bridge the boundary of lethal animosity.
Further up the road in the small Belgian town of Messines, (most famous for the huge explosion nearby in 1917) the truce has been celebrated in statue form, with a British and German soldier shown reaching to shake hands over a football:
Our final call of duty for the evening was the 8pm ‘Last Post’ service at the Menin Gate, Ypres.
There is little we feel we can add to words already expressed on the ceremony, and it is an event at which attendance really is the only true way to experience it properly, rather than via the modern idiom of mobile phone videos and live-streaming.
Hence, you see us here paying our respects at the ceremony, which remains a moving and poignant experience.
This was an appropriate conclusion to a very full day.
Saracens Battlefield Tour – Day 3
We started our final day with a visit to the ‘In Flanders Field’ museum in the centre of Ypres.
The exhibition is hosted in the stunning Cloth Hall which, alongside the Cathedral, had been rebuilt through the 1920s and ’30s at the behest of the townspeople. This had apparently been a talking point post-war, with Winston Churchill believing the town should remain in ruins as a reminder of the war, whilst others wished to completely redesign the town to modern specifications. These ideas were overruled by residents however, and anyone visiting this beautiful town with its reconstructed medieval architecture will likely join us in appreciating the wisdom of that decision.
Finding the museum entrance proved slightly tricky for our research team, as it is housed in the same building as the town’s own history museum. There was notable resignation in the faces of those on the help desk, politely guiding yet another group of ‘lost sheep’ to the other entrance, focusing on the hellish 4 years of WW1, rather than towards the 1000+ year history of their historic town. For the next visit, we promise to do the town museum, and hopefully make their day! Overall ‘In Flanders Fields’ was excellent, walking a carefully balanced journey through the war, its origins, its impact on both serving and civilian individuals and its aftermath.
Our final Saracens graveside visit was to Chester Farm, the smallest CWGC cemetery visited to-date, in order to pay our respects
to Alfred Austin Ball. Ball is currently our youngest Saracen killed on the front-line, being only 25 at the time of his untimely death on 3rd July, 1917. The fact that he had already been promoted to Acting Quartermaster Sergeant illustrates the respect that he must have earned in his company – a point reinforced by his commanding officer in a letter home to Alfred’s parents following his loss “he was liked by everybody, and has left a gap in their lives.”
Our final visit along the Flanders front line was to the extensive Tyne Cot memorial and cemetery, just outside Passendale. Built on the site of German pill boxes, the site is a memorial to 34,996 identified casualties from the British and New Zealand forces, nearly all of whom died between August 1917 and November 1918.
One notable memorial plaque caught our eye – the evocative fusion of the WW1 soldiers with the New Zealand fern leaf:
Our drive to the Channel tunnel allowed us to stop briefly at Dunkirk beach, where we had a short time to try to imagine the hopelessness of the situation in 1940 for the British and French soldiers patiently queuing for the flotilla of small ships whilst under constant attack. And then, it was time to head for home, each of us somewhat humbled by our experiences but at the same time gratified that our research efforts had succeeded in bringing together these until-now lost in action members of the greater Saracens family.
The trip had allowed us to pay respects to our fallen Saracens, and if future plans entail more trips – should other Saracens fans be interested – then hopefully more information and potentially more confirmed Saracens players will have come to light. We will be able to use the knowledge and photos gleaned from this trip towards the centenary memorial services on the 11th November 2018, where we also hope to unveil a Memorial Board to those who lost their lives in the conflict.