Lest we forget: WW1 and rugby in New Zealand

Ron Palenski / Onside Rugby Annual     06 Aug 2014

Lest we Forget

When the All Blacks play France, the Gallaher Cup is at stake. Every year, premier clubs in Auckland play for the Gallaher Shield. These are two examples of rugby remembering and honouring a revered figure from a dark time in its past. But it is more than just about David Gallaher, the captain of the 1905-06 All Blacks, who was one of thirteen All Blacks who died while serving their country during World War I.
       It is appropriate that they and all rugby men who served are remembered this year beyond all years, because 2014 marks the centenary of the start of “the war to end all wars,” as it was once hopefully described.  War was declared in August when the All Blacks were in Sydney. In fact, the momentous news was put up on the scoreboard at the Sydney Cricket Ground during a match against the Sydney team. On the ship home two weeks later, the players entered a pact that all would enlist. They did and among the first to die was an Auckland forward, “Doolan” Downing, cut down in the desperate Chunuk Bair assault on Gallipoli in August 1915. Downing carried his rugby pride with him everywhere – he had an image of the Ranfurly Shield tattooed on his left forearm.
       Gallaher was killed during the assault on Passchendaele, the 1917 series of battles synonymous with rain and mud. But All Blacks died also in the sun and sand of Palestine. Eric Harper, a 1905 teammate of Gallaher’s, died during an attack on Turkish positions not far from Jerusalem.
       Rugby was essential for the men of war. Authorities saw the game as beneficial to both morale and the troops’ welfare and games were organised whenever and wherever it was practical. Soldiers on a brief respite from Gallipoli had a game on the island of Lemnos against their Anzac partners. No rugby ball was available so they played with a soccer ball. As a result, all the scoring was in tries – thirteen to the New Zealanders and one to the Australians.
       During the three years of trench warfare in France and Belgium, men were regularly taken out of the line for some football. The best of them were taken to Paris in April 1917 for a 40-0 win against France for the Coupe de la Somme. One of the All Blacks in the lineup, Reg Taylor, went back to the trenches and was killed a few weeks later. Another of the New Zealanders, Tom French, was shot so badly his left arm had to be amputated. He was a coach and administrator for the rest of his life and a trophy bearing his name is awarded annually to the best Maori player.
       After the war, rugby became even more important as men waited to go home: so many men, so few ships. Many army teams played but most prominent of all was the team that won the King’s Cup tournament against the other Empire countries and beat France as well. On the way home, they became the first New Zealand team to play in South Africa.
       Another of the 1905 All Blacks, Ernie Booth, was actively involved in organising and writing about wartime rugby. He calculated that an extraordinary 80 per cent of New Zealanders “became active participants or close followers of their own brigade’s or battalion’s football stunts.”
Ron Palenski has written Last Post – Rugby’s Wartime Roll Call, which details the 216 rugby internationals who died as the result of service in the two world wars.