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A Rugby Club Remembers: Rosslyn Park Pays Tribute to Its WWI Dead

07/04/2014 14:41 BST | Updated 04/06/2014 10:59 BST

It began with a missing war memorial at a rugby club. Rosslyn Park, founded in 1879 had a clubhouse plaque to those killed in the 'Second Great War', including Prince Obolensky, England's Russian winger who crashed his RAF Hurricane in 1940. No memorial existed for the first Great War, 1914-18. In that terrible time, any sporting club with young, physically fit players would surely have paid an unfair share of the butcher's bill. Why no memorial to them?

Was it somehow lost in the 1956 move from Old Deer Park, Richmond to its present ground, Roehampton? A few short miles but a careless slip by clumsy movers and a slab of broken marble consigned to a skip; without a memorial, there was no Roll of Honour, no record of the club's pain and pride.

So began the first work to piece together the list of men who died. The only clue was a yellowed cutting in a 1919 scrapbook, headed 'A Magnificent Record', reporting 72 dead and countless decorations for bravery - but no names.

Thankfully, the club's membership records survive: handwritten copperplate entries for name, address and school were checked against Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records of deaths. Some took hours' more trawling through census, school and university records, newspaper microfiche and archives to achieve conclusive matches. 89 were found, easily surpassing the reported 72; several more - in rugby parlance - sat 'on the bench', tantalisingly short of the perfect match of name, address or initial that would select them definitively for the side lost in history.

Rosslyn Park WW1 memorial

Names were not enough; the stories of these men deserved to be told. Inspiration came on a junior tour to Compiègne, where the Armistice was signed in 1918, and a visit to the Somme battlefields. A French army officer addressed 14 year-old players on both sides: 'rugby and warfare often share a common language, but we must remember they are very different', he said. The idea was born.

'The Final Whistle: the Great War in Fifteen Players' was the result. This book tells of fifteen lives cut short, and touches on many others. Few of these mostly young men had time to marry and father children who would live after them and tend the flame of memory. If they wrote letters home, as surely they did, only a few have survived: those glimpses into the minds of British Lion Alec Todd or soldier-playwright Guy du Maurier are precious. Many did not even leave mortal remains: 45 bodies - three entire teams - were never found and have no known resting place.

A few achieved youthful fame before the war, but rarely did it last, overwhelmed by the cataclysmic wave that washed away their world. None lived to write the memoirs which flooded onto the market in the 1920s and by which we know of survivors' experiences. None were interviewed in their declining years by historians rushing to preserve their accounts. The book and a new memorial might restore their place in history.

A chance discovery of another scrapbook, kept by a Park skipper who survived, added another 19 men to the roll, bringing the total to 108. The story needed one more chapter; if the only true death is to be forgotten, it was time to remember these men again.

On 29 March, Bill Beaumont, RFU Chairman and Putney MP, Justine Greening unveiled a new memorial at Rosslyn Park. 108 voices from 7 year-old minis to 88 year-old England international J V Smith read those names aloud. The Last Post sounded and a minute's silence was observed. The sun shone as it did in that last summer of 1914, but this time with no clouds of war on the horizon.

A final act of commemoration followed in true rugby style: 44 players including RWC winner Josh Lewsey, in specially commissioned baggy cotton jersey and shorts, played a memorial match with leather ball under the 1914 Laws of Rugby. Referee and touch-judges wore Edwardian attire, and our physio was a Red Cross nurse.

Those 108 men of Rosslyn Park were remembered again, at the club that brought them together a century ago or more. The result didn't matter; it was a victory for the game of rugby.