From The Vaults

12 November 2023
#FromTheVaults - Newspaper Cutting, 1915

newspaper cutting, 1915

This newspaper cutting from 1915 features a photograph of three international rugby players in their military uniforms on the Western Front. The headline runs: 'THEY PLAYED THE GAME EVEN IN THE FIRING LINE'.

From left, the players are England captain Ronnie Poulton-Palmer (whose face is obscured), Ireland's Billy Hinton and Ireland captain, Dickie Lloyd. The image is captioned: 'Three famous Rugby footballers off for a game at the front […] Poulton-Palmer has since been killed, and the other two wounded.'

This brief and abrupt coverage cut from an unknown newspaper is believed to refer to a remarkable game played between the 4th and 48th (South Midland) Divisions of the British Army at Nieppe, near the Franco-Belgian border, on 14th April 1915. It is thought to have been the first time a representative rugby match was played in such close proximity to the front line, within range of enemy fire, between teams of soldiers briefly withdrawn from the trenches in order to play.

Among the units of the 48th Division was the 1/5th Gloucestershire Regiment, containing eighteen members of Gloucester rugby club. Rugby was valued as a means of improving fitness, discipline and decision-making; a match which brought together some of the rugby stars of the day would be a morale-booster, a brief diversion from the horrors of war.

The commander of the 48th Division tasked one of the Gloucester men, Captain Gilbert Collett, with organising a team to play against the 4th Division. Collett contacted England captain Ronnie Poulton, who was serving nearby with the 1/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, and invited him to captain the 48th team. Their side would be built around eleven Gloucester players. Ireland forward Lieutenant William Tyrrell captained the 4th Division team, whose line up included three more internationally-capped players, among them Lieutenant Billy Hinton, who had played 16 times at fullback for Ireland.

England team, 1914

In his last match for England, Poulton had captained his team to a Five Nations Grand Slam in Paris. His involvement, along with several other international players, heightened interest in this match. Several of Poulton's teammates from Liverpool FC came to watch, including Ireland captain Dickie Lloyd, who was serving in Ypres with the Liverpool Scottish regiment. A talented goal kicker, the fly-half was Ireland's leading points scorer at the time. Another Ireland international, Captain Basil Maclear of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, refereed the match.

The players changed into their kits behind the army lorry in which they had arrived. As the 4th Division had recently returned from the trenches, it was decided that each half would last only twenty-five minutes. It was a hard-fought contest, despite a seemingly one-sided result - the 48th Division won, 17-0. Many of the players immediately returned to the front line.

The photograph captures a rare moment when friends and teammates, serving with different regiments, were reunited briefly by the game they loved. One month later, Lloyd was severely wounded in the second Battle of Ypres and newspapers reported that he was missing, presumed dead. However he survived the war and captained his country twice more in 1920, later becoming a referee. Hinton also survived the war, but did not play further international rugby. He served as President of the Irish Rugby Football Union in the 1920-1921 season. For Poulton, the match at Nieppe would be his last. Three weeks later, the England captain was killed by a sniper at Ploegsteert Wood. It is reported that among his final words he said: 'I shall never play at Twickenham again'.