Ger­man rugby club that lost 24 mem­bers in the First World War are vis­it­ing for sport­ing rea­sons, writes John Mclel­lan

The Scotsman - - Scottish Perspective -

Emerg­ing from Green Park tube sta­tion in Lon­don on Thurs­day af­ter­noon, the un­mis­tak­able sound of a mil­i­tary band and the whump-whump-whump of bass drums cut through the drone of traf­fic crawl­ing down Pic­cadilly.

No or­di­nary band, but the Brigade of Guards on the pa­rade ground in front of Welling­ton Bar­racks re­hears­ing for to­mor­row’s Ar­mistice Centenary com­mem­o­ra­tion in White­hall. A small groups of tourists peered through the fenc­ing at what, even with­out full dress uni­form, was still an im­pres­sive sight.

On the other side of the rail­ings, the on­look­ers in­cluded se­nior of­fi­cers in brass-but­toned, red­lined great­coats, com­pete with swords, and an­other in knee­high brown rid­ing boots and jodh­purs in a scene which had changed lit­tle in the 100 years since the guns on the Western Front fell silent.

It’s a short walk from the bar­racks down Bird­cage Walk to White­hall and the Min­istry of De­fence to where I was head­ing, every cor­ner seem­ingly a me­mo­rial to some as­pect of the great con­flicts of the 20th cen­tury; War Rooms, Guards Me­mo­rial, the Women of WW2 and the Ceno­taph it­self. Then the com­man­ders; Churchill, Field Mar­shalls Mont­gomery, Brooke, Slim and, of course, Earl Haig.

Mont­gomery and Brooke served un­der Haig in the trenches, Mont­gomery be­ing shot in the chest by a sniper at Ypres and, given ju­nior of­fi­cers suf­fered by far the high­est fa­tal­ity rate, he was lucky to sur­vive. Due to the Army’s rigid class struc­ture of the time, at the out­set of war ju­nior of­fi­cers were drawn al­most ex­clu­sively from pri­vate schools and be­cause of the em­pha­sis on sport they tended to be fit and were as­signed to com­bat reg­i­ments. It was an ex­clu­sive club only smashed by the at­tri­tion of Ger­man ma­chine guns as the young of­fi­cers led their men out of the trenches.

Scot­land had a higher num­ber of in­fantry bat­tal­ions com­pared to sup­port reg­i­ments in which the ca­su­alty rate was lower, so the list of names on memo­ri­als at schools like He­riot’s and Wat­son’s are long for that rea­son. No fam­ily’s sac­ri­fice was greater than an­other’s, but the ef­fect on the Scot­tish mid­dle classes was cat­a­strophic. Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, a third of all men aged be­tween 18 and 23 in Au­gust 1914 were killed, so team pho­to­graphs from 1910-14 re­ally are a pic­ture of what poet Wil­fred Owen called doomed youth. The ob­vi­ous re­sult was a gen­er­a­tion of women who lost, or would never find, part­ners or raise fam­i­lies.

It was, of course, the same on the Ger­man side but their sur­vivors did not have any com­fort that it was all worth­while; no winged an­gels of vic­tory, no stat­ues of uni­formed men with heads bowed on every vil­lage green, their grave mark­ers func­tional com­pared to the Im­pe­rial War Graves Com­mis­sion’s beau­ti­fully en­graved in­di­vid­ual memo­ri­als.

For the losers there would be no equiv­a­lent of the jaw-drop­ping Tyne Cot Ceme­tery on the other side of the Pass­chen­daele slope, yet the im­pact on Ger­man so­ci­ety was every bit as great. For ex­am­ple, the VFR 06 Dohren rugby club in Han­nover was es­tab­lished in 1906 and 12 years later 24 mem­bers were dead. VFR sur­vived all the hor­rors which fol­lowed and this week eight of its mem­bers will visit Scot­land to en­joy the sport their fore­bears in­tro­duced when the car­nage await­ing them in Flan­ders could not have been imag­ined.

Their visit is noth­ing at all to do with the Ar­mistice Centenary but a lot to do with the Scot­land v South Africa match at Mur­ray­field next Satur­day be­cause they or­gan­ise an an­nual Au­tumn In­ter­na­tional trip. On Fri­day evening, they will be at Myre­side for Wat­so­ni­ans v He­ri­ots and our pre-match din­ner.

It will be all about the rugby and the friend­ships en­joyed by the clos­est of ri­vals; maybe some­one will bring up Brexit, but we will not dwell on the events of 100 years ago. But in this week of all weeks, we will re­mem­ber that so many young men on both sides never got the chance to sit back in their later years to eat, drink, laugh and risk noth­ing more dan­ger­ous than a high tackle.

Not so hush-hush

I was in the MOD for a meet­ing of the De­fence and Se­cu­rity Me­dia Ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee, a uniquely Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tion in which me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tives sit down with govern­ment of­fi­cials to dis­cuss any con­cerns about pub­lic­ity which might af­fect na­tional se­cu­rity.

Founded in 1912, and col­lo­qui­ally known as the D-no­tice sys­tem, it ex­ists to en­able ed­i­tors and broad­cast­ers to seek ad­vice about what can or can­not be safely pub­lished. It is also the sub­ject of many myths about se­crecy and cover-ups, but is so se­cret there is a web­site with the mem­bers’ pic­tures. In any case, more prob­lems are caused for govern­ment by exser­vice­men sell­ing their sto­ries of der­ring-do than pry­ing re­porters.

An ex­traor­di­nay life

It’s hard not to be moved by the statue of Pol­ish Sec­ond World War com­man­der Gen­eral Stanisław Maczek, on a bench in the quad­ran­gle of Ed­in­burgh City Cham­bers, now sur­rounded by wreaths. He fought in the Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian army on the Ital­ian front inthe First World War, then for the newly in­de­pen­dent Poland’s forces in the Pol­ish-ukrainian War, and af­ter that against the Rus­sian Bol­she­viks, which might ex­plain why the Com­mu­nists stripped him of Pol­ish cit­i­zen­ship. Af­ter the fall of Poland and France in 1940, he made his way to Bri­tain and even­tu­ally led the Free Pol­ish ar­moured brigade across North­ern Europe.

Be­ing based in Scot­land be­fore the Nor­mandy land­ings, he set­tled in March­mont where he died in 1994 aged 102, hav­ing been forced to make a liv­ing as a bar­man in the Lear­month Ho­tel be­cause he was not granted a war pen­sion. Now you can sit with him, re­splen­dent in his Ro­gaty­wka cap, and mar­vel at an ex­tra­or­di­nary life.

Mem­bers of a Han­nover club will be at Myre­side to watch Wat­so­ni­ans take on He­ri­ots (Pic­ture: Ian Ge­orge­son)

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