Cricket in war-time

American servicemen watching baseball at Lord's, July 28, 1917
American servicemen watching baseball at Lord's in 1917 © Marylebone Cricket Club
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So long as war was an affair of professional armies, its incidence seems to have had but little effect on cricket.

The first match of which the full score has been preserved-- Kent v. All England--took place on the Artillery Ground, Finsbury (still the Headquarters of the H.A.C.), on June 18, 1744. England was then engaged in the war of the Austrian Succession, but the game was watched by a great company, and amongst them the Duke of Cumberland, destined to figure in the following year on the less glorious field of Fontenoy, and Admiral Vernon, seeking, we may conclude, distraction from the memories of his defeat at Cartagena. Nor did the claims of state disturb another great patron of the game, for in 1745 we read of the Earl of Sandwich writing "I'll to your board (of Admiralty) when at leisure from cricket." Again in 1778 when the Empire seemed hastening to dissolution in the War of American Independence, two eminent Privy Counsellors were violently attacked in a quite unprintable lampoon for continuing to play cricket regardless of the calls of state. Fortunately Mr. Churchill was never a cricketer! When the Grande Armée was lining the cliffs at Boulogne in 1804-05, Kent mustered its militia and the Coxheath cricket ground amongst others became a military camp. But so far from war stopping cricket in England, our soldiers took their bats with them; officers of the Light Division got up a match shortly before Busaco, whilst six days before Waterloo the Duke of Richmond was playing near Brussels, only to see the game summarily ended by the appearance of Wellington himself with the Prince of Orange. The terrain of the Crimea hardly favoured cricket, but there is a pleasant story of the Battle of Alma that shows how cricket was never far from some soldiers' minds; The Guards, Rifle Brigade and Black Watch were nearing the top of the rise when a round shot came bounding along and passed through the ranks which had "opened to avoid it in accordance with orders." Sir John Astley tells how "George Duff, a capital chap who was our best wicket-keeper, was just in front of me and I sang out 'Duff, you are keeping wicket, you ought to have stopped that one', and of how he turned and smiling quietly said, 'No, sir, it had a bit too much pace on. You are a long stop, sir, so I left it to you.'"

The most striking reflection on cricket and the South African war is supplied by the fact that no reference whatever is to be found to it in the editorial notes of the relevant "Wisden's". No cricketer of high repute was killed in the war, and of the players who died on service the only memorable names are those of that fine Yorkshire player, Frank Milligan, and the great Australian bowler, J. J. Ferris. I remember, as a boy, seeing pictures of our nurses in South Africa playing cricket, and during the siege of Mafeking one of the Boer Commandants suggested to Baden-Powell that there should be a Sunday truce during which his men might come in and meet the garrison in all amity on the cricket field. "B.P." replied that nothing would give him greater pleasure when the present match was over, but at the moment his men were 200 (days) not out and were enjoying their game very much indeed!

The outbreak of the European War of 1914-18 will always be associated in my mind with Lord's. I was up there watching the Lord's Schools v. The Rest match and can remember buying an evening paper on the ground and reading in the stop-press column the opening sentences of the speech which Lord Grey was then making in the Commons, and subsequently travelling down from Waterloo to Esher, where I was staying with the Howell brothers, and seeing in the blood-red sunset over the Thames an omen of the years to come. The younger Howell whose batting had dominated the match and for whom no honours in the game seemed unobtainable, fell in the Salient less than a year afterwards.

For most of that August county cricket was played much as usual, though the Military Authorities commandeered the Oval, and Hobbs' benefit match was staged at Lord's, but then a speech by Lord Roberts and a dignified letter to The Times by "W. G." brought the first class game to an end.

Though the 1915 "Wisden" envisaged the possibility of occasional county cricket in the coming summer, no such attempt was made or even seriously contemplated. Every county committee had encouraged the professional staff to join the forces or to engage in some form of war work, in most cases making up to them the difference between their Army pay and allowances and their cricket wage. Yorkshire took the lead in making such war service a condition of re-engagement. But cricketers everywhere needed no urging, and at the annual M.C.C. meeting in May, Lord Hawke as President could claim that 75 per cent of first class cricketers were serving in the Army or Navy (the R.F.C. being then of course a very small body of regular specialists).

At the same meeting he announced the M.C.C.'s intention to do all they could to help school cricket and his hope that the Headmasters would co-operate to keep the game going. This hope was realised and in one respect at least the war brought real benefit to school cricket; deprived of their usual club opposition the schools naturally turned to each other and many new inter-school fixtures were arranged. Winchester, for instance, who had for 60 years met only one school--Eton--now arranged matches with Charterhouse, Wellington and Bradfield, and this policy, continued after the war, has proved an unqualified success.

The M.C.C. played their part nobly by playing forty-four school matches, and if their sides were often rather long in the tooth this could be off-set by the youth of the school teams; for, in contrast with the far-sighted policy of to-day, no effort was made to prevent boys joining up at a bare 18 and many were fighting or had been killed in Flanders at a time when they would normally have still been playing cricket for their schools.

Of Club Cricket, in the ordinary sense of the word, there was virtually none, and the only clubs I have been able to trace as fielding sides, and then only in isolated fixtures against schools, were the Butterflies, Notts Amateurs and Herts C. & G. But there was plenty of military cricket and the county committees everywhere put their grounds at the disposal of the troops. In many cases too they had turned their buildings to war uses; Lord's accommodated various military units, whilst the staff that remained there spent part of their time in making thousands of hay-nets for horses; the pavilions at Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and Derby became hospitals, whilst the Leicester ground provided a headquarters for a Remount Depot and a small-bore rifle range.

At the end of the season a baseball match was played at Lord's between Canadians and London Americans for the benefit of Canadian soldiers' dependants.

But inevitably the chief and melancholy feature of the War issues of "Wisden" was the ever growing Roll of Honour of cricketers; the war was no more than a few months old when it had claimed two young officers who, as boys, had made cricket history--A. E. J. Collins, whose individual score of 628 not out, made when a boy of 13 at Clifton, still stands (in the same match he took eleven wickets), and John Manners, whose fearless hitting had alone made possible the epic Eton victory of "Fowler's year." But from the losses and tragedies of the War cricketers the world over were in 1915 twice distracted--by the deaths of "W.G." and Victor Trumper. I can remember reading of them in France and feeling no real sorrow for W. G. passing Homeric and legendary into the Elysian fields, but an almost personal pain that Trumper's gallant spirit and matchless grace should have been called so early from the world it had enriched.

In 1916 school cricket continued to develop on the lines followed the previous year and Winchester met Harrow for the first time since 1854. The M.C.C. though only able to play half as many schools as in 1915, wisely decided to revive the Lord's Schools v. The Rest match in August. This game saw the appearance of two future county captains in W. G. Lowndes and M. D. Lyon, and of a very young boy destined to play a great role at Lord's in later years, G. T. S. Stevens. Club Cricket received a notable reinforcement in the shape of the Artists Rifles XI, who played a number of matches, chiefly with schools, and thanks to the batting of D. J. Knight and the bowling of E. C. Kirk, carried all before them.

But it was in the north that cricket of first-class standard really survived. The Leagues there kept going and a number of professionals had gravitated to them: interest in their matches was keen, as well it might be with the chance of seeing Barnes bowling at Hobbs. In the four war years the former took 404 wickets in the Bradford League for about 5½ runs apiece, whilst Hobbs in 1916 had splendid batting figures, and took 59 wickets at very small cost.

The year 1917 saw a great change in sentiment about the game; the nation had by then re-adjusted its life to the state of war and no objection was felt to an attempt to stage some exhibition matches in the cause of charity. Yorkshire had felt their way in that direction the previous year and now played four big games, whilst the M.C.C. bestowed their official blessing by staging two matches at Lord's--The Army v. Australian Army, and Navy and Army v. Australia and S. Africa; these games, if they produced no outstanding cricket, were very popular. Charity benefited by over £1,000. Two Army Commanders, Generals Plumer and Horne, wired their good wishes, and Admiral Jellicoe himself came to Lord's.

No fewer than 119 military and school matches were played that year on the Canterbury ground, and Leyton, too, saw much cricket.

The outstanding feature in the school cricket of the year was the bowling of the Wykehamist J. D'E. Firth, who took 8 for 48 v. Harrow, all ten for 41 v. Eton, and with 7 for 27 in the last innings at Lord's, pulled the match out of the fire for The Rest. Stevens made further progress, Gibson of Eton and Rotherham of Rugby foreshadowed their future powers, whilst at Uppingham Percy Chapman, though only 16, averaged 111 for 10 innings!

The last year of the war saw a further extension of the policy of "Exhibition" matches, both in Yorkshire and in the South.

Three such games were played at Lord's, one at the Oval, and one in September at Folkestone, and if the cricket, as was natural, hardly reached peace-time level the large crowds that attended had their moments of rich reward, in one of Hobbs' very best innings, another, almost as good, by H. W. Taylor, a piece of hurricane hitting by Fender, and the heartening spectacle of "Plum" Warner in the familiar Harlequin cap batting almost as well as ever at the age of forty-four.

School cricket flourished exceedingly and the representative match at Lord's included, besides Stevens and Chapman of the previous year, and exceptionally fine all-rounder from Malvern in N. E. Partridge, and from Tonbridge that brilliant bat and cover-point Lionel Hedges. In a further game between a representative schools side and an eleven raised by Captain Warner, Lord Harris delighted everyone by batting for half an hour with relative ease when many, half his age, had been cheaply dismissed.

In this summer a little cricket was even played in France, principally at Étaples, where the old Essex player, Charles McGahey looked after some very respectable matting wickets. I remember one afternoon match in particular which included quite a galaxy of stars, Johnny Douglas, Nigel Haig, Dick Twining, Harry Longman, Donald Knight and poor Reggie Schwartz, who died of influenza just after the armistice. That fine batsman, Colonel H. S. Bush, motored some 100 miles from 2nd Army H.Q. at St. Omer, hit a beautiful four and then off an equally good hit fell to a miraculous catch by Knight at cover, and motored back again.

The game was also played in the Near East where I believe Rockley Wilson bowled the same length as he has bowled everywhere else; but Bernard Darwin at Salonika stuck to golf.

With the biographies of the fallen filling each year more pages in "Wisden," it would be impossible, and where the sacrifice of all was equal, it would be invidious to pay more than a general tribute to the contribution which cricketers made to final victory, but perhaps I may make one exception. There can never have been a great cricketer less military in temper than Colin Blythe: the artistry of his bowling was but the expression of his sensitive and highly strung temperament, his physique was never strong, but when the call came, he never hesitated, and every year at the Canterbury festival his county have paid tribute at the memorial to his sacrifice.

No one, as the summer of 1918 drew to its close, could have dreamt that next May would see county cricket in full swing again, but so it was. The Advisory Committee, faced in December with the unexpected task of getting the game on its legs again and very doubtful how far public interest would respond to a full-fledged revival, decided on the policy of two day matches, but the season was not many weeks old when everyone realised that the experiment was a mistake, that the fears were unjustified, and that cricket was as popular as ever.

To-day the horizon is again dark, and it is idle to try to look far ahead, but I believe there is a general feeling that the game can and should be kept going wherever possible. With the military service act in operation, and the nation mobilised as never before for its war effort, there is no room for the charge of scrimshanking, and where cricket can be played without interfering with the national effort it can only be good for the national morale. Of course anything like county cricket is out of the question, but the M.C.C. have arranged one or two big Charity matches at Lord's with a number of minor matches, and undertaken a long programme against the schools, with Lord's Schools and the Rest match to end the season at Lord's. The Club Cricket Conference have decided that, with the obvious reservations, the Clubs should keep going as much as possible, and with their short hours the northern League matches will justifiably continue to offer excitement and distraction to thousands of workers. In the last war the Universities, so far as under-graduates were concerned, virtually ceased to exist; to-day they are full of vigorous life, the undergraduates cannot join up until they are of age, and are very rightly making the best of war conditions. Cambridge, fortunate in having two old Blues in residence, mean to produce a University team and have already arranged a match for Charity at Lord's; the situation at Oxford is more difficult, but it is to be hoped that they will try to manage something on the same lines.

A visit to Lord's on a dark December day was a sobering experience; there were sandbags everywhere, and the Long Room was stripped and bare, with its treasures safely stored beneath ground, but the turf was a wondrous green, old Time on the Grand Stand was gazing serenely at the nearest balloon, and one felt that somehow it would take more than totalitarian war to put an end to cricket. Merses profundo, pulchrior evenit.

© John Wisden & Co