Who was the greatest sporting star who fought in the first world war? It is a difficult argument to settle at a century’s distance, with nobody still alive who saw them play and only fleeting glimpses from the very first steps of the newsreel era. The names are less familiar now, but contemporary accounts of their exploits and the sporting record books prove that they belong in the first rank of British sporting history.
British Future has selected an inevitably subjective ‘1st XI’ of the fallen, to help to bring the names of these sporting greats back into our public consciousness. In our new essay How should sport remember, published this weekend, Matthew Rhodes and I argue that the story of how sport went to war, with players and supporters signing up together in ‘fans’ battalions’, could prove an accessible starting point for the next generation of schoolchildren and sports fans to understand the nature of the conflict. The scale of sporting sacrifice in the war, with the closest modern analogy being Jonny Wilkinson, Wayne Rooney and Andy Murray going to war and not returning, should also begin a discussion about how sport should play its part in national civic commemorations in 2014.
Which of these forgotten greats might top the list? It is an inevitably subjective judgement.
Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, England’s rugby union captain, has a strong claim. He scored four tries in Paris to clinch a Five Nations Grand Slam for England in the final international before the war. He led England to a 16-15 victory against Scotland in the 1914 Calcutta Cup, one of eleven of thirty players who started the game that day to die in the war. The England and Scotland teams should consider undertaking a joint battlefield visit ahead of the 2014 Calcutta Cup game to remember their predecessors.
Footballer Alex ‘Sandy’ Turnbell might be the most recognisably modern sporting competitor among those killed – winning the FA Cup for both Manchester City and Manchester United, and two league championship medals, in a controversial career. His goals helped Manchester City to the second division title before fines over illegal payments to players broke the team up and saw him join rivals United. His 25 goals the next season were crucial to Manchester United’s first ever title and he picked up two goals and a red card in the Manchester derby, the first ever player sent off in the game. A match-fixing scandal over the Liverpool-Manchester United fixture in 1915 saw Turnbell among the players banned for life from the game, though this was posthumously rescinded by the FA in 1919.
But perhaps the leading claim belongs to tennis star Tony Wilding, the only man until Bjorn Borg to win four consecutive Wimbledon titles, from 1909-13 before losing the 1914 final, and winning four doubles titles as well. Wilding helped to shift tennis from a gentle pastime to a modern sport, introducing methods such as physical and weight training. Though he was a New Zealander, who won the Davis Cup as part of an Australasia team, the fact that he lived in England, and was a prominent member of the Cliveden set, meant that the British press treated him as one of their own, and, as he did not return home after his title victories, the New Zealand press tended to agree. Wilding signed up when war broke out and was killed near Neuve Chapelle in 1915.
Memory is important to sport – creating communities of identity and allegiance to our favourite sports and teams. Sports bodies should begin to engage players and supporters in how we will want to remember, in 1914, those who died.
First XI of the fallen
Tony Wilding – the only man to win four successive Wimbledon singles titles before Bjorn Borg. Ronnie Poulton – the England Rugby Union captain who scored four tries in Paris to clinch the Grand Slam in his final match.
Jack Harrison – Rugby League great who still holds club record for 52 tries in a season, and who was awarded Victoria Cross.
Sandy Turnbell – Top scorer in United’s first ever league championship side in 1908, and FA Cup winner with both Manchester clubs.
Wyndham Halswelle – Scotland’s first gold medal Olympian on the athletics track after controversial 400m triumph in 1908.
Colin Blythe – Kent and England bowler. His 15 wickets for 99 against South Africa at Headingley in 1907 set an English Test record which stood for 49 years.
David Bedell-Sivright – Surgeon, Scottish rugby international and British Lions captain, whose no nonsense style on the field showed why he was Scottish national amateur boxing champion.
Reggie Pridmore – Gold-medal winning hockey star who scored a hat-trick in every game at the 1908 Olympics, and bowled for Warwickshire in county cricket too.
Tom Gracie – Leading goal scorer from Hearts great table-topping 1914 team, one of seven team-mates who died during the war.
Walter Tull – Spurs and Northampton star who was second black professional footballer and first black army officer.
Basil Maclear – Irish rugby hero whose 70 yard run against South Africa was hailed as the greatest ever try in this era.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.