Home Cricket through the Wars Cricket in the 1st World War: The Coming of War

Cricket in the 1st World War: The Coming of War

by John Broom

“I’ll have one more over”
Arthur Carr

June 1914 saw cricket celebrating its illustrious past rather than contemplating the coming months with any particular trepidation. MCC staged two matches to mark the centenary of the inauguration of the current Lord’s cricket ground. The first featured a team comprised of players who had won the recent Test series in South Africa, led by Essex’s doughty all-rounder Johnny Douglas. Their opponents, a Rest of England XI, captained by C.B. Fry.

The guest of honour at the match was no less a personage than His Majesty King George V, accompanied by two of his sons, the future Edward VIII and George VI. At the accompanying Centenary Dinner held at the Hotel Cecil, Lord Hawke, President of MCC, had to his right Prince Albert of Schleswig-Holstein.

Like George V, a grandson of Queen Victoria, Albert mixed freely with the eminent names of English cricket, several of them, like Hawke, members of the aristocracy. Warm words were exchanged between the German prince and his English friends.

The celebrations also had a military theme, featuring a match between the Royal Navy and Army, played over 25–27 June. Only one player on duty, the Hon. Lionel Tennyson, would play Test cricket during his career. Sadly, in line with the statistical chance of becoming a fatality of the Great War, one player from each side, Captain William Mackworth Parker and Sub Lieutenant Frederick Trumble, would perish during the carnage of the ensuing four years.

The day after the fixture’s conclusion, Gavrilo Princip fired the ominous shots that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie as they were being driven through Sarajevo on an official visit.

There was no immediate impact on the game but as the carefully constructed Alliance System broke down throughout July, by early August clear disruption and dislocation hung heavy in the air. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey gazed mournfully from his office window on the evening of 3 August. ‘It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”’

The dimming of English cricket’s lamps began the following day. Nottinghamshire batsman Arthur Carr had led a charmed but idiosyncratic life, being removed from Eton to Sherborne School by his wealthy stockbroker father before embarking on an unremarkable stint at Oxford University. It would be on the cricket field and battlefield that he would win plaudits. Carr was batting for his county against Surrey at the Kennington Oval on 4 August when a telegram arrived summoning him to join his regiment. ‘I’ll have one more over,’ he is reputed to have said, before throwing his wicket away.

Eight County Championship matches were in progress that day, as Britain slid into war. The previous day, the peerless Jack Hobbs, the greatest English batsman of his era, and for many judges the most superlative of all time, had been at his majestic best in front of a 17,000-strong crowd at The Oval. Having already achieved his highest first-class score of 225 not out against Essex at Leyton earlier in the summer, the Master knocked up a faultless 226 out of 375 in four hours and twenty minutes against Carr’s Nottinghamshire. The day ‘furnished much enjoyment’, recorded Wisden.

Surrey’s players were in a quandary as to whether to continue their championship programme. They travelled to Worcester on 5 August, ‘obviously disturbed and worried sick like everyone else’, recalled Percy Fender. The county was to play seven more matches before the season’s end.

The Reverend Randolph Hodgson, writing under the pen name ‘A Country Vicar’ in The Cricketer in August 1929, recalled the surreal atmosphere as the remaining championship matches were played out: ‘for a time, first-class cricket continued. I remember Angela and I went on Monday August 10 to see Surrey vs Kent.’ This match had been granted to Jack Hobbs as a benefit. Unfortunately for the great man it could not be played at his home ground as The Oval had already been occupied by the military authorities. Lord’s opened its arms to welcome the fixture. ‘It was the last time I saw old Tom [Hayward] bat and the last time I saw poor Colin Blythe bowl. The pair had a tremendous duel.’

Colin Blythe

Blythe captured nine for 97 for Kent in his penultimate first-class appearance at Lord’s. Despite having accepted a coaching position at Eton, in an era when professional cricketers often carried on playing into their late forties, the 35-year-old left-handed finger spinner might have expected a good decade or more of turning out intermittently during school holidays for Kent, adding to his tally of 2,506 first-class wickets. When not enticing batsmen to give up their wickets, off the field Blythe played the violin, and Harry Altham judged that his bowling action ‘reflected the sensitive touch and the sense of rhythm of a musician’.

The Reverend and Mrs Hodgson then took a holiday in Eastbourne having prudently decided to postpone a planned trip to the Black Forest. This enabled the couple to watch Sussex play Lancashire at The Saffrons. The Worsley Wonder, Johnny Tyldesley, scored 104 for the visitors before 175 not out from Albert Relf set up a victory for the south coast side. ‘Little did one imagine it at the time, but that was the last first-class match we watched for more than four long years!’

Johnny Tyldesley

The Eastbourne Chronicle enthused about the success of the town’s cricket week: ‘It was favoured with glorious weather, not a drop of rain falling to interfere with either the play of the men or the comfort of the spectators.’ A hint of the gloomy backdrop to the festival was recorded: ‘taking all things into consideration, the attendances were good.’

The day after Sussex completed their victory over Lancashire, achievements of a higher plane were attained at Mons. Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Stanley Godfrey of 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers became the first Great War recipients of the Victoria Cross for their stoic defence of a machine-gun position. Reports of the heroism of Dease, Godfrey and others sat ill alongside reports of runs, wickets and catches in the printed press.

On the evening of Sunday, 23 August, Hampshire batsman the Hon. Lionel Tennyson left for France with 120 riflemen from Southampton Docks only to be delayed by thick fog off the Isle of Wight. He eventually arrived at Le Havre on the following afternoon as his county colleagues began their match against Lancashire at Bournemouth. By 5 September, he was engaged in the retreat from Mons, which Dease’s and Godfrey’s actions had helped enable. By November, Tennyson, having been shot in the leg and tearing his ligaments when falling in a shell hole, arrived back in England to find that The Times had reported him dead – not the last cricketer to be subjected to a fallacious premature passing.

The impression that the war deserved the nation’s full attention was reinforced a few days later as news came through of further retreats at the Battle of Le Cateau. One of the men in action was the tall, willowy and handsome 34-year-old Captain Alan Luther of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Luther had played some pre-war first-class cricket for Sussex and MCC. He was wounded in the early afternoon of 26 August and had to be left on the battlefield to the mercies of the advancing Germans. A report appeared in the Yorkshire Evening Post erroneously stating he had been killed. Little attempt was made by the enemy to succour the wounded and few survived.

Luther would have been amongst the dead the next morning had not a German officer passed by around dusk and studied the Englishman’s identity disc. Luther recalled in The Cricketer Spring Annual of 1941 that the German remarked, ‘I am afraid you won’t play any more cricket.’ Luther then ascertained that his foe had been studying land agency in England under H.K. Foster, a member of the famous Worcestershire cricketing family, and had taken an interest in ‘our national game’.

It is rumoured that an MCC membership card was found upon Luther’s person, which confirmed his identity. The two men found that they had some mutual cricketing friends and the German arranged for Luther to be put on a horse and taken back to the British lines. As Luther recalled, ‘The chances against meeting a cricketing Hun must have been astronomical.’

In the years preceding the war, Hampshire CCC had owed much to their armed services cricketers. Teddy Wynyard and Robert Poore had both been prolific runmakers during the short periods of time they could devote to the game. Another military player was Alexander Johnston. Having played against Surrey at the United Services Ground at Portsmouth on 23–25 July, scoring 53 opening the batting in the first innings, Johnston was soon in action on a sterner field, taking part in the engagements at Mons, Le Cateau and the retreat to the Aisne. Serving as a signals officer for 7 Infantry Brigade, he received the first of four wounds he would sustain during the war. Johnston, a useful batsman and occasional legbreak bowler, played 107 matches for Hampshire between his military duties. By the end of the war he had earned the DSO with bar, been mentioned in despatches on five occasions and risen to the rank of brigadier general. Despite sustaining a permanent limp from various injuries, Johnston managed to continue his sporting activities post-war, playing one final match for Hampshire in 1919 and making further appearances for MCC and the Gentlemen.

With men who had been a mere few weeks previously engaged in county cricket now sustaining career-changing injuries on the Western Front, cricketing authorities embarked on a period of self-reflection, attempting to calibrate the correct response to an ever-worsening situation.

How cricket coped with the serious war situation of 1914 will be covered in the next blog

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