Remembering the rugby players who died in the Somme
Players from Scotland and France killed in the First World War will be honoured tomorrow with a new trophy. Joe Shute reports
Fittingly, for one of Scottish rugby’s greatest ever scrum halves, Eric Milroy was a difficult man to pin down. A first-rate scholar and trained accountant, he was also a terrier on the sporting field who competed with a ferocity that belied his short stature. Milroy, nicknamed “Puss” by his friends at Edinburgh’s George Watson’s College, was also the apple of his mother’s eye. Whenever he left the family home for a rugby match she would always proffer the same advice: “Don’t get hurt today. Remember – keep well back.”
Between 1910 and 1914, Milroy played 12 times for Scotland and captained the team in the last international before the Great War
– a narrow 16-15 defeat to England at Inverleith. By the end of the war in 1918, 11 of the players on the field for Scotland that day had been killed. In total, 31 Scottish rugby internationals died during the First World War – the largest number of any of the Five Nations.
Milroy joined the 9th (Highlander) Battalion Royal Scots. At the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916, he was promoted to lieutenant and attached to the 8th Battalion Black Watch as Lewis gun officer.
During his time on the Western Front, Milroy regularly wrote to his mother, Walteria, and sweetheart Helen Urquhart. His last letter home to his mother was sent on July 17 1916, the day before an assault on Delville Wood – which was to become one of the bloodiest encounters of the entire war.
“We are in for some slight trouble tomorrow,” he wrote. “So I am just warning you that there is to be no ‘keeping well back then’.”
The following day, the Germans launched an artillery barrage so fierce that only a single tree was left standing – a hornbeam, which remains today. Milroy was killed at the age of 28.
Like thousands of others who died in the battle that became known as “Devil’s Wood”, his body was never recovered. Instead, his name is inscribed on the memorial to the missing at Thiepval cemetery.
For a year following his death, his mother would visit Edinburgh Waverley Station every night, watching the troop trains disembark in the faint hope her son would be among them. For the rest of her life, she left the porch light on before going to bed.
“She certainly never got over his death,” recalls Milroy’s great-niece Jean Ross, whose mother was brought up by Walteria. “I don’t think she ever accepted it.”
Tomorrow, before the Six Nations match between Scotland and France at Murrayfield, the sacrifice of the fallen rugby players from both nations will be honoured with a new trophy called The Auld Alliance – after the ancient pact agreed between the two countries to back each other in times of war.
The trophy – cast in solid silver and entwined with designs of poppies and cornflowers – features the names of Eric Milroy and the 1914 French captain Marcel Burgun, and will be carried on to the field by two 11-yearold descendants of the men. On the Scottish side will be Jean Ross’s grandson, Lachlan. “He is excited and very proud,” says the 74-year-old, who runs a sheep farm in Galloway.
“I told him, ‘You do realise you will be walking out in front of 60,000 people’, but he said that wasn’t a problem.
“The family are absolutely thrilled to bits. It just means Eric will not be forgotten. He is the missing link in our family and it’s wonderful he will be remembered.”
Even among the carnage of the First World War, where whole villages were wiped out in a single charge across Noman’s-land, rugby players comprised a disproportionately high number of the fallen. Over the course of the war, a total of 129 British, French and Commonwealth rugby internationals lost their lives.
Following the declaration of war in 1914, it took just nine days for the Rugby Football Union to urge every player across the land to enlist. So enthusiastically did players heed the call to fight for their country that the RFU even momentarily considered forming its own battalion, before realising that most had already signed up.
At first, other professional sportsmen – footballers and cricketers – proved rather less willing. A propaganda poster was even distributed nationwide reading: “Rugby Union footballers are doing their duty. Over 90per cent have enlisted. British Athletes! Will you follow this glorious example?”
Milroy signed up with as much patriotic pride as anyone else, although his letters home shielded his
‘The remarkable thing is how many players volunteered and how many were killed’
family from the true horror of what he faced. According to Jean Ross, Milroy became engaged to Helen Urquhart during the war. “In one of his letters home to his mum, he said he had sent Helen a ring he had bought,” she recalls. “I remember Eric’s brother going up there to visit her when I was younger.”
Despite being cut down in his prime, before he could father any children, Milroy was one of four siblings, and his nieces and nephews grew up well aware of the shadow his death cast over the family – even if it was rarely discussed.
“They didn’t talk much about him,” says Ross. “It was a real sadness in the family. He was so young when he was killed.”
His great-nephew is Sir Eric Kinloch Anderson – a former Gordonstoun teacher and headmaster at Eton, who counts Prince Charles, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Tony Blair among his former pupils.
Sir Eric’s son, David Anderson QC, a London-based barrister who for six years was this country’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, was contacted last year by a man called Patrick Caublot from the Amiens Rugby Club, which is based near the Somme.
To mark the centenary of the Great War and honour the fallen, the Frenchman suggested a tournament and new trophy, which the two nations will be able to compete for every year. Anderson agreed. “The remarkable thing is just how many players volunteered and how many were killed,” he says.
Like Eric Milroy in Scotland, Marcel Burgun was a leading light of French rugby. Born in Russia to a French clockmaker and his Norwegian wife, he initially served in the artillery when war broke out. But following the death of his elder brother in action in March 1915, he applied for a transfer to the air force – the most dangerous role of the Great War.
He was described as a “remarkable pilot of rare intrepidity” and was triumphant in numerous dogfights, before being shot down and killed in September 1915. The 26-year-old was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for his heroism.
Despite their two converging lives, according to his family, Milroy only played rugby against Burgun once, in Paris in 1913. A Scottish victory ended with the French supporters pelting the players with stones. Consequently, the 1914 fixture was called off.
The two men belonged to an era when great rivalries, like great lives, could be snuffed out in an instant. But as their countrymen march out to the Murrayfield roar a century on, it will be in the knowledge and pride that their memory endures.
Rivals: Marcel Burgun (above left: front row, second from left) and Eric Milroy (above: back row, second from right)
Two nations: the Auld Alliance Trophy at Murrayfield ahead of the Six Nations match between Scotland and France tomorrow with, from left, bagpiper Ryan Steele, Romain Cabanas, a descendant of Burgun, and Lachlan Ross, a descendant of Milroy