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Ireland’s Call

Irish Sporting Heroes Who Fell in the Great War
Stephen Walker
Merrion Press


From the Introduction

This is not the time to play games.
- First World War recruitment poster

This is the story of forty Irish sportsmen who died fighting in the Great War. They were the heroes of their day, and entertained crowds in places like Lansdowne Road, Croke Park and Dalymount Park, as well as in events like the Open Championship and the London Olympics. As soldiers they saw action in the horror of the Western Front and in the carnage of Mesopotamia.

The majority were household names who came from every corner of Ireland, and the story of their lives presents a portrait of Irish society from a century ago. The worlds of sport and military brought them together, and they included rugby players, footballers, hockey players, cricketers, GAA players, athletes and a golfer. They represented the top tier of Irish sport, and had they survived they could have continued to contribute to their chosen disciplines.

All those featured in Ireland's Call are Irish internationals, with the exception of the three GAA players, who include two All-Ireland Finalists.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive account of all those Irish sporting stars who served in the Great War, but it is an attempt to capture the period of the time through the extraordinary lives of some of the country's leading sportsmen who made headlines before they went into battle.

Spanning seven sporting disciplines, the men whose stories are featured here all fought in the major theatres of the Great War, and today their names are remembered on memorials across Europe and Asia, in the Middle East and South Africa.

A large number of those who served were friends from university days, and many played together in the same teams before they enlisted. They included Robbie Smyth, who played rugby for Ireland and the British Isles team, and his brother Edmund, who represented Ireland at hockey. Three Ulstermen who were members of the Irish rugby team that beat France on New Year's Day in 1912 saw military action, each losing their lives in the Great War.

Similarly, three members of the Irish international hockey team that played Wales that year would be war casualties by 1918. Their number included Robert Morrison, an Anglican curate from Dublin, who died just weeks after he began his military service at the front.

Ireland's Call includes the stories of history-makers like Bohemians striker Harry Sloan, who was the first player to score a goal at Dalymount Park, and teenage rugby player George McAllan, the first schoolboy to be selected for Ireland. He lost his life in 1918, in the same year that golfer Michael Moran died in France. Moran was the finest Irish golfer of his generation, and the first Irishman to win prize money at the Open Championship. The list of cricketers included Frank Browning, an official with the Irish Rugby Football Union who helped to train recruits on the Lansdowne Road turf. Browning's role shows how sport and the military collided when the Great War broke out in August 1914. After an advertisement was placed in The Irish Times, hundreds of men, mainly from middle-class backgrounds, came forward to join a 'Pals Battalion' of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Many were rugby players, and the idea of a battalion of sportsmen was very similar to other units established in Britain. The links between sport and the military went directly to the heart of the debate about recruitment during the Great War. Recruitment posters were drawn up specifically aimed at sportsmen, and much pressure was applied to professional footballers to quit their profession and sign up for active service. The leading writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle criticised those who were reluctant to enlist, declaring that players should 'serve and march in the field of battle'. Lord Roberts, an army veteran, was particularly critical of footballers, who were showing some reluctance to enlist, proclaiming 'this is not the time to play games'.

This quotation was later emblazoned on a recruitment poster featuring a rugby player in his team colours and in military uniform. The message got through, and soon dozens of sportsmen enlisted,the ranks of the military swelling with athletes, footballers, rugby players and cricketers.

In England, the 17th and 23rd Middlesex recruited dozens of footballers, and the 13th Rifle Brigade included a number of golfers. The 16th Royal Scots, which became known as McCrae's Battalion, included leading players from Heart of Midlothian. During the Great War sport remained an important facet of life for those involved in front-line action. Inter-regimental games and contests were organised, leading sportsmen were encouraged to take part, and the resulting rivalry was often intense. It was an opportunity to keep fit and relax for a few hours away from the horrors of battle. In April 1915, safely away from the front line, the legendary Irish rugby international Basil Maclear, whose story is told in this book, refereed a game between soldiers. The match featured top internationals from Scotland, Ireland and England, and understandably created a lot of interest amongst the troops.

On a number of memorable occasions in December 1914, Allied soldiers engaged the Germans during the much documented football matches that were part of the unofficial Christmas truce. They were extraordinary moments of human kindness, and became an enduring image of the Great War.

At the Battle of Loos in 1915, members of the London Irish Rifles played football as they advanced on German lines. In 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, soldiers from the East Surrey Regiment kicked footballs towards enemy lines. One of the footballs bore the inscription 'The Great European Cup-Tie Final: East Surrey v Bavarians'.

Seeing the war effort as one big sporting contest was a theme the British military hierarchy were keen to exploit. One poster printed in Dublin with the intention of recruiting hundreds of Irishmen billed the war as a 'Grand International Match'. The advertisement stated that, 'Irishmen wishing to play in this - the greatest match the world has ever seen - should enter their names at once at the nearest Recruiting Office so that they may be thoroughly trained for the Great Day. Medals will be presented after the Match.'

Many of those whose stories appear here were decorated with medals for bravery, and a large number showed enormous courage and disregard for their own safety in the most appalling conditions. They showed the same leadership on the battlefield that they had first exhibited on the playing fields of Belfast, Dublin and Cork. They were family members, sportsmen and soldiers, and like the thousands of other Irishmen killed in the Great War they were denied the lives that once promised so much.

A century ago, Ireland lost a generation of sporting heroes.

This is their story.