"... Rather hoped I'd get through the whole show, go back to work at Pratt and Sons, keep wicket for the Croydon Gentlemen, marry Doris." Thus, Captain Kevin Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth outlines the future he knows he will never have.
Rather like Richard Curtis and Ben Elton's situation comedy Wisden on the Great War is a work that transcends its category. The cover has Eric Ravilious' famous woodcut at the top but it also features a prominent red font and a poppy; the sombre, poetic subtitle, "the lives of cricket's fallen", completes the carefully designed effect. You can tell this book by its cover.
Not that this makes the contents any less moving. By careful scholarship Andrew Renshaw has assembled brief, often very brief, lives of the cricketers who died in the First World War. He has taken their obituaries in Wisden as the substantial base for the book but has deftly edited those entries and has frequently added further information about careers and families inside and outside the game.
In addition, the first section of this fine work is taken up mainly with an account of how the first-class counties coped during the war. One notes the initial reluctance of some to stop playing cricket in the summer of 1914 and the unease of almost all about playing again in the aftermath of a conflict that had affected every club in the country.
There are also tabulated lists of the first-class cricketers who died in the war and of the 407 who received gallantry awards, these sections being compiled by Steve Western and Mike Spurrier respectively. Almost at the end of the book there is a photograph of the Oakham School team in 1914: five of the XI were to die in the imminent conflict; three others also served in World War Two; Percy Chapman went on to captain Kent and England.
This last section illustrates one of the book's many strengths: Renshaw has shown a commendable willingness to depart from his strict brief, not only by supplying obituaries of the 89 first-class cricketers whose lives and deaths were not mentioned by Wisden, but also by explaining biographical links and adding photographs. In the torrent of births, averages and deaths, we never lose sight of the human.
Inevitably, of course, some of the longer obituaries are those of famous cricketers: Colin Blythe, Kenneth Hutchings, "Tibby" Cotter, RO Schwarz. But many of the most interesting are taken up by players of whom one may never have heard: for example, we have Hugh Montagu Butterworth, a master at Wanganui Collegiate School, who had played three first-class games in 1906. Butterworth's wry letters from Flanders are given a page and a half, allowing us a glimpse into the character of the captain who stares rather impassively into the camera on page 112.
Readers will find their own favourites. There is the Reverend Rupert Inglis, Chaplain to the Forces, who told his Frittenden parishioners of his departure in a letter and asked them simply to pray that he might be a help to those to whom he had to minister. Or there is 2nd Lt John Howell, "for whom no honours in the game seemed unobtainable," according to HS Altham. An Old Reptonian, Howell was apparently destined to play for Surrey, if not England, when the war intervened. He died in Flanders, aged 20.
Curiously some of the most powerful entries are also the briefest. 2nd Lt Donald Tremellan of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry had been a member of the Highgate School team for three years; aged 19, he was killed on April 23, 1917. Lt George Reid was, according to Wisden, "the best field in British Columbia". Although born in Greenock, he played for Coquitlam CC and was a member of the Canadian Infantry. He was killed on April 9, 1917, the day after his 32nd birthday.
Given the importance attached to cricket in the public schools, it is, perhaps, to be expected that many of the dead should have been educated in the independent sector; given the number of men sent to the war by the Dominions, it is not surprising to find the large number of cricketers who came from Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
A fresh discovery for this reviewer was the Australian-born Surrey batsman Alan Marshal, one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year in 1909. He died in Imtarfa Military Hospital, Malta, on July 23, 1915 after serving in Gallipoli. Or there is Norman Callaway, who made 207 for New South Wales in his only first-class innings, and died at Bullecourt on May 3, 1917, aged 21.
Every careful reader will find his own way around this book. Those looking for specific individuals would have been helped by an alphabetical index at the end of the work, but that is the only serious criticism one would wish to make. Certainly it is not a book to be read in conventional fashion; rather, readers might want to dip into the major sections before going off to do something both trivial and important like buying a loaf of bread or walking the dog. Wisden on the Great War helps one to value the simple joys of being alive.
There could, of course, be other books on very similar themes. The fallen on the Western Front included German footballers and Austrian skiers. In due course, perhaps, Renshaw can be persuaded to assemble and enlarge upon the lives of the cricketers who died in the Second World War. For the moment he deserves a break and can relax in the confidence that he has given us one of the books of the year.
Few cricket writers produce a work that makes the game seem both irrelevant and essential. By putting together Wisden on the Great War, Renshaw has called his almost 2000 subjects to report for duty once again and remind us of the lives they had no chance to lead. Included in their number is the member of the Canadian Infantry who was wounded at Neuve-Chappelle and died in London on April 19, 1915. His name - wouldn't you guess it? - was Captain Darling.
Wisden on the Great War: The Lives of Cricket's Fallen 1914-1918
by Andrew Renshaw