From The Vaults

03 July 2023
Allez les Bleus illustrations

The illustrations and cartoons reproduced in our current exhibition, Allez Les Bleus, chart the growing popularity of rugby in France during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This week's blog explores the stories behind some of these illustrations. The images were kindly supplied by Frederic Humbert.

This illustration appeared in a French magazine in 1890. Originally a black-and-white print, watercolour has been added subsequently. The match depicted is thought to be one of the earliest rugby games played in Paris. In 1890, students from Janson de Sailly college in West Paris played against a team of students visiting from a college in Kensington. It took place in the Bois de Boulogne, a public park in the city.

The artist summarises the day's events by including several small overlapping images, like a storyboard. Some of them show action from the match itself, including a scrum (and its collapse). In another sketch, players are seen helping an injured participant; another shows spectators - men, women and children - dressed in their finery, flocking to see the game.

Parisian colleges played an important role in the growth of rugby in France. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, was a powerful advocate of the game and, having visiting Rugby School, he promoted it in French colleges. In 1890, he joined the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA), which administered several sports including rugby football. Its membership included eight colleges, whose teams contested the first French rugby championship - two years before the first 'senior' tournament was played in 1892.

This illustration shows rugby as a growing sport - popular with schoolboys but still very much a curiosity to the Parisian crowds.

La Grande Equipe du Midi, 1914

This French propaganda postcard from 1914, shows five generals playing rugby with the Kaiser's head in place of a ball. The title translates as 'The Great Team of Southern France' - all of the generals caricatured came from the South of France and they are each shown wearing the rugby strip of their local team.

The team captain is Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front. Wearing the colours of Perpignan, he kicks the ball high into the sky. The face on the ball has a moustache and it wears a German helmet. Another four towering figures follow behind Joffre. First is Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander (representing Stade Tarbais) and then Édouard de Castelnau, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (representing Stade Toulousain). Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, Commander-in-Chief of France's Mediterranean forces, stands with each foot on a warship. He wears the jersey of FC Auscitain, in Auch. Joseph Gallieni, Military Governor of Paris, appropriately stands atop the Eiffel Tower, wearing the strip of Stade Saint-Gaudinois.

Produced early in the war, this propagandistic postcard depicts an unlikely rugby team, but reflects a region proud of its rugby and conscious of the strengths and values it cultivates: leadership, teamwork and fighting spirit.

Le rugby au Stade de Colombes, by Georges Leroux. From ‘L’Illustration’, 11 April 1925

This watercolour, depicting a match between France and Ireland at Stade Colombes, appeared in L'Illustration in April 1925. L'Illustration was the first illustrated newspaper in France, printed between 1843 and 1944. The image is by Georges Paul Leroux (1877-1957), a French painter and engraver.

The image caption describes this match as the 'the first big international meeting of the season'. The match took place on 1st January 1925 and ended in victory for Ireland, 9-3. France were defeated in all of their matches during this Five Nations championship; Scotland took the title, recording their first Grand Slam.

A helpful French caption describes the scene for those unfamiliar with the sport:

'An Irish forward (in green jersey) grabs the ball heading for the try line; the French players (blue jersey, white shorts, red socks) are on his heels and one of them is going to tackle him. The referee follows, ready to stop the game with a whistle. The touch judge, with his flag, watches the line to mark the exit point if the ball goes out of play.'

A substantial crowd looks on from the stand - the attendance at this match was estimated at 30,000. A major sports venue, Stade Colombes had been the main stadium for the Paris Olympics the previous year. The photographers in the foreground reflect a wider interest in the game, and a desire to record the days' events for posterity.

Allez les Bleus

These French cartoons and illustrations reveal a fascination with rugby union and a growing interest in the sport over the course of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. They trace rugby from a schoolboys' game which drew curious crowds, to a sport with a substantial following, played all over the country.

Allez Les Bleus: The History of Rugby in France will be on display at the World Rugby Museum until 31 August 2023.