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

The Daily Telegraph - - News Review & Features -

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

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