WEARSIDE sportsmen were heroes both on and off the pitch during World War One – as new research has revealed.
Keith Gregson, archivist and historian for Ashbrooke Sports Club, has spent months tracking down the wartime activities of the 1913/14 1st XV rugby team.
Now details of his research – from battlefield bravery to tragic deaths – will be unveiled during an illustrated talk at the West Lawn-based club on September 14.
“Here we have a tight group of sportsmen – all around the same age, living close to each other and, in many cases, joining up to fight side by side,” said Keith.
“Their stories make up a microcosm of the wider war with some killed in action, some receiving bravery awards and one at least becoming a prisoner of war.”
Edward Moore, Frederick Longden, Lancelot Foster, John Hopper, Charles Ranken and ten others all collected a haul of sporting honours as elite 1st XV players.
But, when their rugby pursuits were cut short by the outbreak of World War One on August 4, 1914, they transferred their fighting spirit to the battlefield instead.
“We know that 42 rugby players joined up to fight in the early days of August 1914, and 224 members of the wider sports club had enlisted by September 10,” said Keith.
“A special meeting was held at the club to wish the men ‘luck’. And, as ‘luck’ would have it, the membership book for 1914 has survived – helping with my research.
“So far I have managed to record in detail what happened to 13 of the 15 players in the first team, but I would be very happy to hear from people with more information.”
Among the 1st XV rugby players to serve with distinction was Edward Haydon Moore, of Westburn House, who was a trainee solicitor when war broke out.
After joining the 3rd Yorks and Lancs Regiment, he rose to the rank of captain – later being mentioned in dispatches and winning a Military Cross for his brave actions.
“Sadly, he died of wounds on April 25, 1917. His brother Geoffrey, a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, was also killed. Another brother, Maurice, survived,” said Keith.
“The Moore family was one of the most prominent in Ashbrooke. Edward’s father, Maurice, was an army officer too – being in charge of the North Divisional Cyclists.”
Another top-flight rugby player to die during the Great War was solicitor Frederick Longden – a clerk with his family’s law firm in John Street, Sunderland.
“He had only just been admitted to the firm when war broke out. He was mobilised in August 1914 and gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in 4th DLI later that month,” said Keith.
“He entered the front on June 16, 1915, and was then attached to the 2nd Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. He later became acting captain in 15th DLI in 1918.”
The young lawyer lost his life, however, at the Battle of Miraumont on August 24, 1918, and is today remembered at the Vis-en-Artois British cemetery in France.
“His army record suggests he had previously been ‘gravely wounded’ and his body was never found. His father, a former 1st XV player, claimed his medals,” said Keith.
One of Ashbrooke’s “greatest all-round sportsmen” – Charles Pickersgill – managed to survive the horrors of conflict, however, and was still playing rugby into his 50s.
First appearing for the 1st XV at 17, in the 1904/5 season, he went on to captain the side both before and after the war – despite spending several tough years fighting.
“Charles, who lived at 4 North Elms, was a member of the well-known Pickersgill shipbuilding family and in his late 20s when war was declared,” said Keith.
“During the conflict he served as a 2nd Lieutenant and then captain in the 7th DLI, entering the front on April 19, 1915 and thus qualifying for three medals.
“He was a great all-round sportsman, playing for Durham County at cricket, rugby football and lawn tennis, as well as amateur football for Sunderland AFC.”
It is believed that virtually all of Ashbrooke’s elite rugby players served as officers during the war – with their haul of honours including two Military Crosses.
And although several were never to make it back to the rugby pitch, many survivors returned for at least one season – with some remaining as club members for decades.
“It is important that the sacrifices of these men for King and Country should never be forgotten – and they will be remembered through my talk,” said Keith.
l Keith’s talk – Sunderland Cricket and (Rugby) Football Club & The First World War – will be held at the club on September 14 at 7pm. He can be contacted via email at Keith.firstname.lastname@example.org
Rugby team roll of honour
l CHARLES THOMPSON RANKEN (Wing):
Mining engineer Charles won promotion to the 1st XV just a year before war broke out – after serving his time on the wing for the 2nd XV.
During the conflict he served in the Royal Field Artillery (3rd Northumbrian Brigade) as a captain, being mentioned in dispatches and winning a Military Cross in 1919.
“He worked as a mining engineer at Hylton Colliery for more than 30 years after the war and at one point he was colliery manager. He died in 1957,” said Keith.
l JOHN HOPPER (Captain):
John, the 22-year-old son of a ship broker, was privately educated in London before working as a shipbuilder in Sunderland just before the Great War.
The Grange Crescent sportsman joined 7th DLI as a private, but transferred to the Royal Engineers as a second lieutenant. He fought in France from April 1915.
l JOHN GILLIES (Wing):
Twenty-four-year-old John was in his third season for the 1st XV when war broke out – and immediately joined the 7th DLI as a private.
The shipbuilding apprentice, from The Elms West, was transferred to the Chinese Labour Corps as a lieutenant and fought in the French war zone from 1915.
l EDGAR PICKERSGILL (Backs/centres)
Edgar – a clerk in a coal exporting business – played in the 1st XV in the four seasons leading up to the Great War, as well as for one season afterwards.
In his mid-20s when war broke out, the sportsman from 4 North Elms, is believed to have joined the army – but further information on him is still needed.
l LANCELOT J FOSTER (Back):
Solicitor’s son Lancelot, of Claremont Terrace, played in the 1st XV backs for a “number of seasons” before war broke out. He was aged around 20 at the time.
He signed up as a private with the 7th DLI, later winning promotion to 2nd Lieutenant and then full Lieutenant. His army career saw him fight on the front lines from 1915.
“I believe he was captured during the Spring Offensive in May 1918 and held as a prisoner-of-war by the Germans until repatriated in December that year,” said Keith.
l JOHN RUTHERFORD (Ex-captain):
John, a chartered accountant from Cedars Crescent, played for the 1st XV from 1908 to 1914 – and during the first post-war season on his return from battle.
He joined the 4th Northumbrian Battery (Howitzer Brigade) of the Royal Field Artillery and entered the Western Front in July 1915. He was later promoted to major.
“Rutherford was knighted in 1953 for his political and public services,” said Keith.
l HERBERT TODD (Forwards):
Herbert, a South Shields chemical works clerk, was 30 when war broke out and served as a captain, later a major, in the Royal Field Artillery.
l JAMES EDWARDS (Back):
Heaton-born James – whose father was managing director of the Middle Dock at South Shields – played for Ashbrooke’s 1st XV in the season before war broke out.
The apprentice engineer, who was working in Southwick at the time, joined 7th DLI as a 2nd Lieutenant and on September 25, 1915, suffered shock from a shell explosion.
“He returned to fighting, however, but was killed at the Somme on January 7, 1917. He had been serving with either the 14th or 16th DLI at the time he died,” said Keith.
l WILLIAM MCMILLAN (Future captain):
Former Bede pupil William won a 1st Class qualification from Sunderland Technical College, as well as a bursary to London’s Imperial College, just as war broke out.
The 20-year-old Ashwood Street man served as a 2nd Lieutenant in both the Royal Engineers and the Northumberland Fusiliers – arriving in Europe on March 3, 1916.
l J MCMILLAN (Forward):
Thought to be the brother of William McMillan, but forename unknown. Played in the second row of the 1st XV, but further information is sought.
l FREDERICK BELL (Front row):
Draughtsman Frederick, son of a Wearside timber merchant, was 26 when war broke out. He served with the 7th DLI and is thought to have won promotion to 2nd Lieutenant.
l HENRY CARRICK (Front row):
Whitley Bay-born Henry was living with his parents at Ashbrooke’s St Bede’s Park and studying marine engineering when war broke out.
“His father had been born in India, and it appears Henry moved there, as he is listed as a lieutenant in the Indian Army Reserve in 1916,” said Keith.
“He went on to work in Kenya in the coffee trade, as well as an engineer, between the wars – and after.”