Today marks 100 years since the end of the Battle of the Somme. The following is a passage written by RF Oakes, the Hon. Secretary Yorkshire Rugby Union, in the YRFU handbook of 1919-20 and is reprinted so that we never forget those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
THE Yorkshire Rugby Union are proud—yes, mightily proud— of the glorious part their players have played in this ghastly world war which has just been so bitterly and doggedly fought— and so handsomely won.
Today, every schoolboy must have read, and read, I am sure, with a great glow of pride, of that wonderful headlong rush the Rugby men made when the call to arms was sounded— when every “Rugger" club in the British Isles immediately closed its doors to its beloved Rugger— "Rugger" for which, year after year, sacrifices had been cheerfully made in order to keep the flag flying and the great and glorious game going, healthy and strong.
We all now know of their great deeds of "derring do" on that greater field—their indomitable courage, their healthy cheerfulness under the most exacting, trying, and awful conditions that man has ever been called upon to face and to endure. We now know how splendidly the Rugby footballer, in common with every British soldier, fought—aye, and how magnificently he died!
All this is, today, glorious history—history unparalleled in the whole annals of the world—history which will never be surpassed—history which will become an intense part of every British boy's education. Yes—and history which will be cherished and held sacred by every Rugby lover for all time.
And the Yorkshire Rugby Union man played his truly, faithfully, and well in this ghastly tragedy.
Yorkshiremen!! Be proud of your sons—and you women of Yorkshire, be proud that you bore such sons, for nobler sons never breathed.
Today, Yorkshire is all the poorer by these terrible losses— aye, but all the richer for the glorious example they have set us, by their wonderful courage and devotion.
But there was another magnificent side to the lives of these wonderful boys, which, except perhaps to their own intimates, hardly ever saw the gleaming light of publicity—their everyday life.
It is to this side I would now wish to refer, and in so doing endeavour, in simple language, to pay my humble and heartfelt tribute to their memory—a memory of which, thank God, nothing can ever rob us.
I cannot claim to be a Yorkshireman—not, indeed, that I would ever wish to, for that little County of Durham is as dear to me as I know Yorkshire is to a Yorkshireman. But it has been my great privilege, for some years now, to occupy the position of Hon. Secretary to the Yorkshire Rugby Union, and by virtue of that office I have been brought into constant contact, into close and intimate relationship, with these very boys whose photographs appear in these pages—many were my close personal friends.
So I claim to know, not from a superficial knowledge, but from actual experience, something of these boys—that "something" which, I timidly venture to say, was perhaps not known, or more probably imperfectly understood, even by their parents themselves. That "something" which comes to light, gradually at first, and then slowly develops as the restraining and refining influences of home life partially cease— when the boy becomes the man. Yes, that "something" which is at once a terrible fear and a fervent hope—the fear which catches at the heart strings of every mother—the hope which she has silently built up within her from the moment her boy first saw the light of day, when she realises that this great big world, with all its joys and sorrows, its great hopes and bitter disappointments, its enormous temptations so easy to succumb to, so terribly difficult to evade, are opening out to her boy.
We, of the Yorkshire Rugby Union, see these boys at what is undoubtedly the most critical period of their lives. It is with this knowledge of these boys that I say, and say truthfully and without fear of contradiction, that cleaner, nobler, more wholesome boys never lived. We have seen them on the field when play has been keen and exciting—they were clean. We have seen them off the field, in their cooler, collected moments—they were straight. Clean on the footer field, they carried that cleanliness of the sporting instinct into their everyday life until it became cleanliness of soul.
They have left to the younger generation—aye, to posterity for all time—a shining example of heroism, duty, and sacrifice unequalled and unsurpassed.
When I look back over the vista of those last five agonising years, there comes to me that indescribable twinging of the heart when I think I shall never see these boys again—for somehow one grew to love them with a greater love than one ever thought possible. Their kindness, their courtesy, their joyous enthusiasm for the game, their eager desire to lighten one's work, their splendid sense of fairness and sportsmanship, and, above and beyond all, their wholesome cleanliness of everyday life, was such that they endeared themselves to everybody with whom they came into contact. To know them was an education—an education in its highest sense. To get amongst them made one feel cleaner and better.
In all this one finds all the elements that go to make the man—and men they were.
These boys have left a glorious and imperishable memory to Rugby footballers.
That is why I say the Yorkshire Rugby Union are proud of those players of theirs who have crossed the line for the last time, in the greatest game of their lives.
We will for ever cherish their memory.
Well may the mothers of these boys be proud of their sons. They can truly lift up their bowed heads, and through those anguished tears—tears the cost of which only a mother knows—be proud indeed that they bore such sons—sons who died as they lived—clean, straight, wholesome, and true.
R. F. OAKES.