Ronald Poulton Palmer, 1889-1915: England rugby captain, killed in Ploegsteert, Belgium
When England’s rugby union players take a left turn out of the tunnel before facing New Zealand at Twickenham today, they will cross a special patch of earth. For it is where soil from the grave of arguably England’s greatest player – Ronald Poulton Palmer – was buried in May.
Today’s mascots will be Max Garnett, his 10-year-old great, great nephew, and also Jack Davis, the great, great grandson of Lancelot Slocock, another former England captain who died during the First World War. Poulton Palmer was also the great uncle of Peter Jay, the former BBC economics editor and British ambassador to the United States.
“Our family was nearly wiped out,” says Jay. “We are very proud of Ronnie. He would play games in his father’s garden on the Isle of Wight. That was where he learnt his body swerve and he never lost that extreme elusiveness.”
As detailed in James Holder’s new book, The Great War’s Sporting Casualties, Poulton Palmer set numerous enduring records. He remains the only player to score five tries in the Varsity match. He played in the first international at Twickenham in 1910 and captained England to the equivalent of a Grand Slam in 1914, culminating with his four tries against France in the last international before the outbreak of war.
Poulton Palmer was 25 when, on May 5, 1915, he died after being struck by a sniper while repairing a trench near Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium. As he lay dying, his last words were: “I shall never play at Twickenham again.”
Soil from Twickenham was subsequently scattered onto his
grave at the Royal Berks Cemetery in Belgium by Lewis Moody. The former England flanker described Poulton Palmer as “the world’s best rugby player of his day”.
Another relative, James Garnett, will be at Twickenham today.
“I can remember seeing his caps at my father’s house and wearing them as a kid,” he says. “The laying of the soil at Twickenham was very emotional and, every international, they will now go over Poulton Palmer. He was a trailblazer – in every single picture you will see him holding the ball in two hands.”
Jay, 81, will give a speech this Armistice weekend as part of his duties as the Mayor of Woodstock. “I will ask what patriotism is,” he says. “Their generation put country before themselves.
“I will ask: Why did they lay down their lives? And have we lived in a way that respected what they did and which has made the most of that opportunity?”
Tribute: Lewis Moody honours rugby legend Ronald Poulton Palmer (above far right) Circuit length: 4.309km 2017 winner:Max Verstappen