Heeding no advantage, asserting no virtue, claiming no righteousness, the August volunteers marched away, the vanguard of a generation doomed to die untimely …
There was no estimating the extent to which creative thought was depleted, or the cost to learning, literature and science of the destruction of so many strong and cultivated intelligences.
Reginald Pound (Great War veteran and author of The Lost Generation (Constable, 1964))
Sunday November 11 marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, the bloodiest conflict in British history. Having spent the past few years writing a book on some famous historical figures who fought in the war, the overwhelming sense I had was that of waste: so many talented individuals who were unable to fulfil their lives and contribute to civilisation as they would undoubtedly have done. Amongst their number were many talented cricketers, most of whom had only begun to show their skills on the playing fields before they were sent to the killing fields. A few had had great cricketing careers but had barely reached middle age before signing up.
Some who donned khaki never returned. Some returned but with wounds (both physical and mental) that would never heal. Even those who were apparently unscathed lost years of their lives while going through events no human should ever have to experience. The same pattern has been repeated in every war before and since.
Here, drawn from both world wars, is an XI of cricketers who wore their country’s colours with the same distinction as they had worn flannelled whites beforehand.
1. Len Hutton (Eng) (Captain). One of England’s greatest ever batsmen, Hutton was near the peak of his career when the Second World War began, having not long broken the world record test score when he made 364 at the Oval. It remains the highest test score by an Englishman.
Doubtless with an eye to his sporting prowess, he joined the Army Physical Training Corps as a sergeant-instructor. In March 1941, however, during a commando training course, he fell and suffered a fractured left forearm with his ulna dislocated at the wrist. After numerous operations, his left arm ended up almost two inches shorter than the right. Nevertheless, his cricketing days were far from ended: he played test cricket for a decade after the war, and finished with the formidable average of 56.71. Notably, and not without controversy, after the war he became England’s first ever professional test captain, and achieved the rare feat of an Ashes win in Australia.
2. Kenneth Hutchings (Eng). In choosing Hutchings as one the cricketers of the year in 1907, Wisden declared ‘Batting so remarkable and individual as his, has not been seen since Ranjitsinhji and Trumper first delighted the cricket world’. He was selected for England in 1907. Although he went on to score a test hundred, it is fair to say he did not really come close to fulfilling the talent Wisden had described. He was dropped after 1909, and by the time cricket was curtailed for the First World War, his first class average was only a modest 33.62.
As befitted a gentleman amateur of his age, Hutchings enlisted within days of war breaking out. He reached the rank of lieutenant in the King’s Liverpool Regiment before being killed in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.
3. Over a century after his playing days, Gilbert Jessop (Eng) ‘The Croucher’ remains a cricketing legend, with a reputation as a big hitter at least as impressive as Richards, Botham or Gayle. One of my favourite stories about him comes from the benefit match of the seamer nonpareil SF Barnes. Jessop set out to entertain the crowd (rather than Barnes) by belting him all around the park. Eventually, fed up with every other delivery disappearing out of sight, Barnes uttered a remark sounding like a cross between Fred Trueman and WG Grace: ‘Oi Croucher, this is my ruddy benefit, not thine.’
During the First World War, Jessop volunteered and immediately displayed his matchless athleticism by throwing grenades (usually called ‘bombs’ at the time) in training much further than the other recruits and without having to expose himself above the parapet whilst doing so. But he was destined never to see the front line. In 1917, suffering from severe back pain, he underwent experimental treatment in which he was immersed in a sort of metal coffin, with the temperature raised to alarming levels. Unfortunately the catch slipped and the person who was supposed to have been guarding him had left the room. By the time he was released he had suffered a heart attack. Although he made a partial recovery and lived for many more years, his sporting days were effectively over.
4. Jack McBryan (Eng). A pub quiz answer for well over half a century, since in his one and only test he did not bat or bowl, and only fielded for about 10 minutes before the game was rained off. He has therefore left us with an entertaining imponderable about what might have been. (His first class equivalent is Frederick J Hyland, the subject of a superb portrait by Ronald Mason in the book Sing All a Green Willow.)
McBryan served during the First World War, in which he was wounded and captured during the early engagement at Le Cateau. One is therefore left wondering what sort of career he might have had if Europe had not plunged itself into disaster during what would have been his peak years, which brings us neatly to the next selection.
5. Norman Callaway (Aus). One man who encapsulates the utter futility of war even more than McBryan is the Australian Norman Callaway. He was able to play in a single first class match before the war, aged 18, in which he scored 207 in his only innings. In all probability, therefore, he will remain the player with the highest first class average in history.
After war began he signed up and was killed in May 1917 during the Second Battle of Bullecourt. His portrait was hung at Waverley Oval with lines underneath by the poet Robert W Service:
And though there’s never a grave to tell,
Nor a cross to mark his fall,
Thank God! we know that he “batted well”
In the last great Game of all
(A kindred spirit for Callaway would be the Englishman AEJ Collins, who as a Victorian schoolboy scored 628 (‘give or take twenty’) in a single innings, a record for organised cricket which stood for 116 years. Collins did not really build upon that uniquely impressive start to his career, and like Callaway was killed on the Western Front.)
6. Keith Miller (Aus). One of Australia’s greatest-ever allrounders, Keith Miller gave rise to one of its best-ever anecdotes as well when he was asked about the pressure of playing test cricket. ‘Pressure’, Miller corrected his interlocutor, ‘is a Messerschmitt up the arse’. Miller flew aircraft including the famous De Havilland Mosquito during the Second World War. He crash-landed once, walking away from the wreckage with the wistful remark ‘Nearly stumps drawn that time, gents’.
One effect of his wartime service was the lack of respect it engendered in him towards his post-war captain, Don Bradman, who had never left Australia and instead served for a time in New South Wales as a PT instructor before being discharged on medical grounds. Moreover, Miller played cricket for fun, while Bradman was deadly serious. Nonetheless, Miller as an opening bowler in tandem with Ray Lindwall provided Bradman with the weapons to inflict some belated revenge on the Old Enemy for the Bodyline series over a decade earlier.
7. Les Ames (Eng) Acclaimed upon his death in 1991 as the greatest keeper-batsman of all time, a hundred first class centuries and over a thousand dismissals as keeper gives a measure of his achievement with bat and gloves. In the years since, Gilchrist and Sangakkara have eclipsed his record at test level, but there is a good argument that it was Ames who invented the concept of the wicketkeeping-allrounder. Before Ames, there had been just two centuries by wicketkeepers in over 50 years of Test cricket. Ames scored eight.
During the Second World War, he served in the RAF, and rose to the rank of squadron leader, the equivalent of major in the army or marines. Few players or servicemen would have achieved the same esteem in either field.
8. Bob Crisp (South Africa). ‘The most remarkable man ever to play test cricket’ was Wisden’s striking verdict in its obituary of Robert Crisp. Studies of men under fire reveal that even the bravest will usually break eventually, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Crisp consistently showed bravery throughout the Second World War that bordered on unbridled lunacy, such as when he commanded a Stuart tank in a headlong charge against roughly 70 Panzers in the Western Desert (on paper the Stuart was not even a match for a single German tank). He won the Military Cross and reputedly was only turned down for a Victoria Cross because his overall commander, Field Marshal Montgomery, thought him too ill-disciplined (intriguingly, they both later became members of the same London club).
Crisp was no mean cricketer either. He is the only bowler in history to take four wickets with consecutive balls on two occasions in first class cricket. In test cricket his record was unexceptional – 20 wickets in 9 tests – but one imagines him livening up any team atmosphere, to put it mildly. Crisp’s attitude to life – and death – was the same on and off the cricket pitch or the battlefield. He was a legendary womaniser, doubtless the cause of his repeated failure to hold a steady job or hang around for his family.
9. Hedley Verity (Eng). Unlike most cricketers who fell in the two world wars, Verity was able to enjoy a genuinely great test career before the call to arms. His record of 144 wickets at less than 25 during one of batting’s golden ages was a phenomenal achievement, and he earned both the wicket and the respect of DG Bradman.
Verity was equally highly rated in his conduct as an officer with the Green Howards as part of the Eighth Army in wartime. During the invasion of Sicily, he was mortally wounded and then captured whilst leading an assault. He underwent surgery after being taken prisoner but died shortly afterwards, and was buried by his captors with full military honours. His last reported words to his men were ‘keep going’.
10. The Englishman Colin Blythe was another Wisden cricketer of the year, in his case in 1904. A slow left-armer, he had a genuinely great career, taking more than 2,000 first class wickets at 16.81 and sharing with Tom Goddard and Hedley Verity the record for the highest number of first-class wickets (17) taken in a single day’s play. He started as he meant to go on, with a wicket with his first ball. Blythe played an era when there were many fewer international fixtures than today, so made only 19 test appearances, but took exactly 100 wickets at the frankly astonishing average of just 18.63.
Even though he suffered from epilepsy, Blythe signed up as soon as the First World War began, and announced his retirement from cricket shortly afterwards (he had intended to retire at the end of the 1914 season anyway). To begin with, he served with the Kent Fortress Royal Engineers. In 1917, however, with the army short of infantry after the Somme, he transferred to the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and was promoted to sergeant. He was killed in November 1917 near Passchendaele, during the iconic eponymous battle.
11. Claude Newberry. ‘Perhaps the most piteous of all’ of all cricketers who fell in wartime was the verdict of the historian Michael Jones on the South African Claude Newberry. Newberry was born in the late nineteenth century, but was abandoned almost at birth and few details of his birth parents exist. A fast bowler, he made his first class debut in the 1910/11 season, playing for Transvaal against the touring Australians, and three years later played four tests against England. His first match was memorable for his first wicket – Jack Hobbs – and for Newberry becoming the first player to be stumped in both innings on debut. Those four tests were all time allowed before the Great War broke out. Newberry signed up for the South African army at the outset and died at Delville Wood in August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. In common with so many of his comrades in the great industrialised killing machine of the Great War the time of his death was not precisely recorded since he was the victim of shellfire which left no trace of him, meaning no-one ever knew exactly when he was born or exactly when he died.
12th man: CB Fry (England). Fry is remembered today not just as one of England’s greatest cricket allrounders, but all round sportsmen full stop, excelling at athletics. He was an obvious choice for 12th man, since he could easily replace a batsman or a bowler. Off the pitch he had a remarkable life as well, among other things being offered the throne of Albania (though that might have been a windup by his friend Ranjitsinhji). During the Great War, he ran a training ship for cadets. But the reason for his inclusion is here that he represents one of the most malevolent effects of that conflict. Like many others he became desperate for Britain never to go to war with Germany again – to the point where he chose only to see the positive things about the new German regime from 1933 and for years blinded himself to its failings. In the first edition of his autobiography he had much praise for the Führer, and left the passages in reprints as late as 1939, by which time most people in Britain had seen what the Nazis were about. As with his fellow appeasers, he was tragically misguided with his good intentions.
© James Wilson 2018
James Wilson is the author of Court and Bowled: Tales of Cricket and the Law (WSH, 2017) and Noble Savages: The Savage Club and the Great War 1914–18 (JH Productions, 2018). His website is here.