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The Final Whistle

The Great War in Fifteen Players

Stephen Cooper, The History Press, 2013

 

ISBN 9780752499000

This book won Rugby Book of the Year last year, and I am not surprised. I am a bit late to it, mainly because it was a slightly-below-the-radar publication, and have read it because I am now doing a little research into this area. It is a tour de force – clearly heaps of research has been done, and the result is a very dense but readable account of WW1 through the eyes of some talented young men.

 

Rugby in the Edwardian era was fed by the England’s public schools. The best rugby players have always showed a lot of fighting spirit (in the best possible sense), so it was inevitable that the Edwardian cohort would become officers in Kitchener’s Army. The book focuses on just one rugby club -  Rosslyn Park in South West London. Over the full course of the war it sent more than 350 members to the front. c 84 never returned to the clubhouse when war was done A truly horrendous toll. As the Park, like my own club, was at the epicentre of English rugby at the time, and provided more than its fair share of internationals, the book inevitably spreads to a coverage of the impact of war on the sport in general.

 

Its structure is to give a profile of one player in each of the fifteen main chapters, arranged in the chronological order of their death.  They have clearly been selected so as to enable Stephen Cooper to cover the gamut of British military activities. No Park member died whilst with the Royal Naval Air Service, so this arm escapes his pen.

Perhaps Cooper has chosen wisely, more likely the raw Park members that signed up in (mostly) youthful enthusiasm were simply a fine bunch of men. After a while with this book, one opens a new chapter with heavy heart, knowing that one will come to know a young man a little, one with whom it would be a pleasure to swap pints and tales at a club bar, with the sure knowledge that in a few pages his corpse will be propping up another CWGC headstone.  Guy du Maurier is a case in point, a sensitive and sensible officer. I have copied a particularly heart-tugging letter about his family in my WW1 pages.

 

The best chapters are those where the author has had access to a number of personal family letters to flesh out the character of a man who would soon write his last epistle. One such is that of Alec Findlater Todd (who after Park, but before the war, went on to play for my club, Blackheath). More poignant still the 29 year-old Captain married in 1902; his courtship is endearing. He died near Hill 60 at Ypres in 1915.

 

Another soul whose passing seems such a waste is that of Nowell Oxland; a gifted poet, he again features in my WW1 pages. Like the much better known Rupert Brooke he was sent on Churchill’s ignoble expedition to the Dardanelles, and died (alongside other club members) in Suvla Bay. Oxland describes the hell of Gallipoli searingly well. The country makes an unwelcome return in the chapter on the 1917 death of one Wilfred Jesson, where artillery fire was deliberately brought down on our own men. One wonders how anyone returned with both limbs and sanity intact.

 

Throughout the book statistics are mentioned casually which are quite jaw-dropping. One Park player, Jimmy Dingle, was both a pupil and later a teacher at Durham school. Although only of 90 pupils in size, it lost 98 (young) old boys in the conflict. Another killer stat: on July 1 1916 (the first day of the Somme), the British Army lost more men than it did in the Crimea, Boer and Korean Wars combined.

 

If the book falters, it is when Cooper tries to paint too broad a canvas, and enlighten the reader on most major aspects of the war. Thus before a Park player becomes a “tankie”, we are treated to an exhaustive introduction to the genesis of the battle tank, and their first use on operations. Superfluous, I feel, to many of the book’s readers, and it takes away from a focus on the personalities. On another occasion Cooper riffs into a dissertation on pre-war cricket.

 

The chapter on Guy Pinfield deals with the very important topic of shell-shock (PTSD), and details General Haig’s unflinching order for the death penalty for one 2nd Lt Eric Skeffington-Poole. The futility of much of Britain’s military endeavours was highlighted by the death of Arthur Harrison, who became one of several posthumous VCs won in the attempt to blockade Zeebrugge harbour. He was clearly an all-action hero of the kind that used to be the centrepiece of boy’s magazines.

 

By book’s end the reader can be in no doubt that Park, and the rest of England’s rugby clubs, had done more than their fair share of providing men (for the most part junior officers) to satisfy the insatiable hunger of Kitchener’s Army. The Final Whistle is very well researched, the result a granularity at times over-bearing. A sombre tome, it could not have done a better job in accounting for the human cost of this inhuman conflict.