ANTON RIPPON reviews the latest publication from the Wisden imprint which features some harrowing details
Steve Bloomer was probably football’s first superstar. But his timing let him down when he managed to obtain a coaching job in Berlin just in time to be interned for the duration of the First World War. Bloomer was sent to the Ruhleben internment camp where he helped to organise – and star in – a football league between teams of inmates.
More than that, he also played cricket there, scoring centuries and taking wickets aplenty. Bloomer, though, never featured in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the game’s annual of record which has been published every year since 1864 – even through, not only the “war to end all wars”, but also through the world war that followed it.
Of course, the games in which Bloomer featured were far from first-class, but he also fails to appear in the cricketers’ “Bible” for another reason – he survived the war, unlike the 1,788 cricketers whose obituaries filled so many pages of otherwise slim Wisden editions between 1915 and 1919.
The village green and the village war memorial are a quintessential English scene. Now Andrew Renshaw, a former editor of newspapers in Hampshire and Surrey, has gathered together and annotated those obits into one book, the startlingly impressive Wisden on the Great War – The Lives of Cricket’s Fallen 1914-1918.
I’ve always felt that Wisden could be a trifle understated, and so it was with the obituary of Rupert Brooke, who died on April 23, 1915, in a French hospital ship moored in a bay of the island of Skyros in the Aegean, on his way to the Gallipoli landing. Brooke was a decent schoolboy cricketer and Wisden recorded: “In 1906 he was in the Rugby XI, and although he was unsuccessful in the Marlborough match he headed the School’s bowling averages with a record of 19 wickets for 14.05 runs each. He had gained considerable reputation as a poet.”
Staying with the literary theme, when Percy Jeeves, a promising all-rounder who had played 50 matches for Warwickshire, was killed in 1916 while serving with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Wisden said that England had lost a cricketer “of whom very high hopes had been entertained”. What it didn’t say was that PG Wodehouse had been so impressed with Jeeves when he saw him play in a County Championship match at Cheltenham in 1913 that he chose to immortalise the fallen cricketer by naming Bertie Wooster’s gentleman’s gentleman after him.
The remains of Lieutenant Arthur Edward Jeune “James” Collins of the Royal Engineers, killed on November 11, 1914, during the First Battle of Ypres, were never found due to the continued fighting for the next four years over the ground where he had been buried. His name is recorded at the Menin Gate. He never played first-class cricket but he holds a famous place in the game’s history. Wisden records how Collins “came suddenly into note by scoring 628 not out in a junior house match at Clifton College in June 1899, when he was only 13 years old”. At the time The Times reported his feat as the world record score.
Renshaw has added interesting information to some originally very brief Wisden obituaries. Take that of Rev Rupert Inglis, an army chaplain and another schoolboy cricketer. He was killed when hit by a shell on September 18, 1916, as he searched No Man’s Land for wounded soldiers. Inglis, a rector in the Kent village of Frittenden, wrote regularly to his parishioners from the Western Front where, in breaks from the fighting, he organised games for the soldiers. “MCC have sent me some splendid cricket things,” he told them in one letter.
Sergeant Colin Blythe, a left-arm bowler for England and Kent, was killed by random shell-fire on the railway between Pimmern and Forest Hall, near Passchendaele, in November 1917. Wisden described his death as “the most serious [loss] that cricket has sustained during the war”.
Not all died in the heat of battle, however. Private Frederick Percy Hardy of the City of London Yeomanry, a “left-handed batsman and useful bowler” who played 99 times for Somerset, was “found dead on the floor of a lavatory at King’s Cross station (GNR) on March 9, 1916. His throat had been cut and a blood-stained knife was by his side,” Wisden records. Hardy was on the verge of being sent back to the front.
Renshaw has contributed to Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, has collected Wisden for 50 years and is co-author of The Wisden Collector’s Guide (2011). He is a vice-president of Hampshire CCC and president of Eversley Cricket Club in Hampshire, where he played for 25 years. He has done the game another great service with this painstakingly researched book that throws yet another light on the Great War.
- Wisden on the Great War – The Lives of Cricket’s Fallen 1914-1918 by Andrew Renshaw (Wisden, 544 pages)
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