All is fair in Rugby and War
FEATURE: Acclaimed @rugby365com writer Paul Dobson takes us back in a time of soldiers and rugby players.
A surprising number of top rugby players were involved in the South African War that ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902. Included in their number are two Irishmen awarded the Victoria Cross.
There was even a future Springbok who learnt to play rugby when a British prisoner of war in the South African War.
The two Irishmen played for the Wanderers club in Dublin, then for Ireland. They were in the 1896 touring team, not yet called the British & Irish Lions but often referred to as such for convenience’ sake. After the tour, on which Dr Tommy Crean was the big character, the two settled in Johannesburg and played for Transvaal. At the outbreak of the South African War, they both joined the Imperial Light Horse to fight the Boers, even though most Irishmen sided with the Boers, Both were awarded VCs – both at the Battle of Elandslaagte.
Also in that team was the first South African to play for the B&I Lions – Cuth Mullins, an Old Boy of St Andrew’s in Grahamstown who was a medic in the South African War. His brother Charles was also awarded a VC in the war.
Another member of the team, who stayed on in South Africa was Walter Carey who became the Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontein. He wrote of Crean: “He was the most Irish, the most inconsequent, the most gallant, the most lovable personality one could ever imagine and he made the centre of the whole tour.”
Alf (real name Arthur) Larard, an Englishman who had come to South Africa in 1888 to join the army, was also in the Imperial Light horse in the South African War, but his 1896 experience was different from that of the two Irish VCs. Larard was playing for Diggers and Transvaal, and was chosen at halfback for South Africa to play against the Lions – in days when halfbacks played left and right, rather than scrumhalf and flyhalf. In the third Test at Newlands he scored the only try of the match, and South Africa won 5-0 – the first time they had won a Test. South Africa lost the series. The next time they lost a home series was in 1958.
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There was something of the civil war in the South African War. But the British certainly regarded the Cape and Natal as British. If a man in the Cape supported the Boers he was liable to be accused of treason and executed for it.
There were others active in the war who had played international rugby or were going to.
On the side of the Boers: Japie Louw (1891) and Paul de Waal (1896), whose son Pieter was born in a cave in the Maluti mountains, whence his wife had filed for fear of being put in a concentration camp. Then there were the Morkel brothers. Veldcornet Andrew Morkel (1903), whose wife Grace had a tough time in a concentration camp. Their daughter, Mary Lyall-Watson, was a founder member of the Black Sash, the anti-apartheid women’s movement. Sommie Morkel (1906) was in the Boer force that besieged Ladysmith and was with General Dew la Rey on a trek from Ladysmith to Paardekraal when he was taken prisoner by the British at Abrahamskraal. He was a prisoner of war on St Helena where he organised rugby matches. Boetie McHardy (1912-13) became the first Free Stater to become a Springbok and the first Springbok to score a hat-trick in a Test match – against Ireland in 1912.
Two Scots internationals came out, stayed and played for South Africa during the reconciliation tour of 1903. William McEwan (1903) of Edinburgh Accies, nicknamed Saxon, played 16 times for Scotland then came to South Africa to fight in 1900 and stayed to play against the Lions, in a winning South African team that won a series for the first time.
Dr Alexander Frew played three times for Scotland in 1901 and then came to South Africa to help the suffering inmates of concentration camps between Prieska and Bloemfontein. He settled in Johannesburg and, like McEwan, played for Transvaal. He not only played for South Africa in 1903 but captained in the drawn first Test of the series, that after captaining Transvaal to a victory over them. McEwan died in Cape Town, Frew at his home in Hout Bay.
In Frew’s team was a Welshman – Lieutenant JEC Partridge of the Welch Regiment. Nicknamed Birdie, he stayed on for a while, played for Pretoria Harlequins and Transvaal, and also in that third Test in 1903. He went back to Wales and died in Newport at the age of 86.
There were men from the Cape who had immediate British connections and who fought for the British – Dan Smith (1891) of the Cycle Corps who was in the siege of Kimberley,Jimmy Sinclair (1903), who was a Boer prisoner of war, Charles Brown (1903), Allan Beswick (1896) of Queenstown, George Merry (1891), the Marsberg brothers, Arthur (1906-07) and Archie (1910), of Kimberley.
Jackie Powell (1891-1903), also of Kimberley, also fought for the British. His parents had migrated to Kimberley as his father Stephen, a carpenter, had a job on the mines. Jackie’s mother was about to give birth and they waited in Cape Town till the son was born. Baby Jackie was so weak that he was expected to die and the family stayed on in Cape Town but after six months their money ran out and they set off by mule train for Kimberley. At one overnight stop, an “Afrikaner lady” suggested that they feed the baby boy donkey’s milk because it is the nearest to human milk. Luckily there was a donkey in milk on the trek, and they did what the lady suggested. Jackie Powell survived all right.
Billy Millar (1906-13) was a schoolboy at SACS. He ran away to join the Cycling Corps in the South African War. He was wounded and nearly lost arm. He worked as a labourer to strengthen his arm and went on to captain South Africa on their Grand Slam tour of 1912-13, the first team to beat England at Twickenham.
Oh – and the prisoner of war who learnt rugby and played for South Africa? Koot Reyneke was 18 years of age when captured by the British near Fauriesburg in the Eastern Free State and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Ceylon (now SriLanka). It was there that he learnt to play rugby. He then played for Maties when a theological student and then for Western Province and then for the Free State. In 1910, a 28-year-old Matie, he played in the third test against the Lions at Newlands – and scored a try in South Africa’s 18-5 victory. He had to break his studies to earn money, eventually graduating at the age of 30. He was a dominee in Vrede in the Orange Free State and became a farmer after retiring. He was 88 when he died in 1970.
The South African War ended in 1902, and in 1903 the B&I Lions came on a tour of 22 matches, including three Tests. It was very much a tour of reconciliation, an aspect emphasised by Paul Roos on the first Springbok tour of 1906-07.
Reconciliation is a process, and there were many South African situations which have been in need of reconciliation in a most diverse nation. The process still exists to this very day, and rugby is certainly playing its part in trying to get people with differences – sometimes angry, hurtful difference – to get on in a friendly and helpful way. The differences are numerous – racial, economic, linguistic, religious, geographic, historical. South Africa is a rich breeding ground for animosity, but then think of the wonders of recent years – the election of 1994, the World Cup of 1995 and, most recently, the World Cup of 2019, and you know that rugby football can play a leading role in reconciliation, and you think about great men who have wanted to play their part in reconciliation through rugby, from Paul Roos to Danie Craven and on to Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar and on to Siya Kolisi.
Nelson Mandela said: ““Sport has the power to change the world. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”