Written by Andy Lock
Most people will be aware that this November marks the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice which brought the fighting between the Armies of the Western Allies, including the British Empire, and those of Imperial Germany to an end. A two-minute silence at 11am will be familiar to us all, but the origin of this most habitual act of remembrance is probably not so familiar. If it seems unlikely that this could possibly be relevant to a Blackheath Rugby Programme, as will soon be revealed, it does involve the Club, or rather, a club player.
At this point it’s important to clarify something – the purpose of this article is not to present another testimonial to a few figures of a doomed youth, or a lost generation, or bemoan the futility of a brutal conflict from another time. The Centenary has produced more than enough of those already, and unremarkable journalism has blighted the efforts of historians to educate those who may be interested in learning more. More useful and important is taking the opportunity to discuss issues relating to the conflict and its remembrance through the familiar links to us in today’s world; the Club happens to be one such superb link, with its unrivalled history.
The short version of the ‘two minute silence story’ is that it originated in Cape Town, South Africa, as a daily three-minute silence, or ‘Three Minute Pause,’ in 1918 at the behest of the then Mayor of the City, Sir Harry Hands. Sir Harry had felt compelled to initiate some sort of act after the personally devastating news of the death of his son, Captain Reginald Hands of the 73rd Seige Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, on the 20th of April in that year. The German Spring offensive had been under way for almost a month by that point, using artillery barrages of phenomenal intensity, specially trained, equipped and prepared assault troops, and using thousands of tons of poison gas launched in canisters, particularly to nullify British Artillery. It was gas that killed Reginald. The loss felt by Sir Harry prompted the institution of the Three Minute Pause, which was reported across the Empire and adopted by Britain, and various other nations. The link with the Club, is that apart from being responsible for some very hefty artillery pieces, Captain Hands was a talented sportsman, playing Cricket for South Africa, and Rugby for England and among others, Blackheath Football Club.
Reginald is one of 63 known Club Players to have been killed in the Great War, the first of whom was killed during the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the last within a fortnight of the Armistice, on 31st October 1918. A high proportion of the Club’s fallen belonged to either the Royal Artillery or Royal Engineers; a symptom of Blackheath’s proximity to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, historically where Engineer and Artillery officers were trained. As such, the Club Roll of Honour overwhelmingly contains officers, and a number of them were very highly decorated – including ten military crosses, a Croix de Guerre from Belgium, a Distinguished Service Order, and even a Victoria Cross were awarded to Club men who did not survive the conflict. There are also a number of international players listed on the Roll of Honour; including Reggie Hands, there were 13 players capped by a home nation, and the only Argentine international to be killed in the conflict – Frederic Sawyer, an Engineer who emigrated to South America to work on Railway construction, played in the Second Row for Argentina against a British ‘Lions’ touring side in 1910. He returned home at the outbreak of war and was killed in France in April 1917.
Blackheath’s commitment to the First World War was significant then, and the loss to the Club and the sport was heavy, with some exceptionally talented young men killed.
Other aspects of our approach to remembrance include the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – working initially as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915, renaming as the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 and finally changing to its current name in 1960, the Commission is responsible for the upkeep of the Commonwealth’s First and Second World War cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing. Earlier this year was the reburial and dedication of seven British soldiers whose remains were discovered in 2016. Six were unidentified; one was named as Captain Henry John Innes Walker based on the discovery of artifacts with the body giving sufficient certainty for identification. Walker was an Aucklander who had come to the UK to join the British Army in 1912, and deployed to France in August 1914. He was involved in one of the Christmas Truces, and his letters home are invaluable source material to help us understand these moments, and an except of one is below:
“During the night the men grouped together round the fires and sang carols, hymns and very ‘low’ funny songs almost in the same breath. The Germans from their trenches applauded our singing, and we did the same for them. They sing very well, and have better taste than our men in the class of songs. At midnight I hopped on to the top of the trench and called, for three cheers for the King, and then we sang the National Anthem, I’m blowed if the Germans didn’t join in. I turned in about 1 a.m., and they were still at it. Next morning the most farcical affair took place. Our men and the Germans met half-way between the trenches, shook hands, exchanged cigars and cigarettes, and talked matters over. The Germans in front of us belong to the (four) Saxon corps. They are either absolute kids (some owned up to being 16 1/2 years old) or else funny, fat, old things. They gave us photos of themselves and we gave them bully beef, jam, etc., which they were mighty pleased to get.”
Walker was killed in action on 25th April 1915, probably from an abdominal wound. His body was not recovered from the battlefield, he was posted missing, and after the war his name was inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial, along with around 55,000 others lost in that area with no known grave. The situation changed in 2016 with his discovery and identification, and ultimately with his reburial and headstone dedication on 18th April this year. His life and experiences would be interesting enough for many of us without the added connection of having played for Blackheath in 1913.
The list of Club players and their actions go on, but few could go further than Hands and Walker in drawing personal connections between our Rugby team, this conflict which changed the world, and the continuing way we remember and commemorate our war dead. There is, however, one serious flaw with the Club’s Roll of Honour, and that is that it does not record the men who survived the war, and lived with what they had experienced. This is a continued failing in the way we understand the First World War; nearly 90% of our soldiers, sailors and airmen did in fact come home, and that their stories are still compelling, valuable and worthy of remembrance. The sad fact is that unless you were decorated, disciplined or you died, records of your life are very hard to come by. If this article has a recommendation to make, it is that when we remember the great and good of the Club and of our Country as a whole this year, the Victoria Cross winners, the international sportsmen and yes, even the War Poets, spare a thought for those who served and came back home. In doing that, remember that the work in revealing their stories continues, new knowledge is emerging about this conflict all the time, and remembrance doesn’t just stop with the centenary, least of all for Blackheath’s Rugby Club; we are very much part of this ongoing history, as Walker’s discovery and the two-minute silence show.
Andy Lock, or Locky to his team mates, plays for Blackheath’s social side, The Bandits, and has represented the Club for 10 years at various levels. He is also a historian, specialising in conflict history with an MA in British History of the First World War. He gives talks to branches of the Western Front Association, is a guest lecturer at Univeristy of Suffolk, is a battlefield guide and will be speaking at the Great War 100 event in Hertfordshire on 9th & 10th November