It was a series of long-forgotten letters in The Cornishman that revealed – 100 years later – one of the most remarkable untold stories involving Cornishmen in World War One. They said that, incredibly, in the midst of the carnage and horror of their working lives, and amidst preparations for one of the biggest battles so far in the war, that men from Camborne and Redruth in the 25th Field Ambulance had the courage to organise three games of rugby against west country rivals – soldiers from Devon.
It was won by the Devon team and played some time before 10 May 1915 and near their base in Estaires.
“The Devon boys managed to beat us by two tries but we hope to have own back next week,” he wrote. “Before we could start we had to fill up a ‘Jack Johnson’ hole in the ground, and there was a chance of a few more holes being made during the match. The Germans, however, left us alone, as perhaps they did not want to spoil our game.”
In the Cornish team: R. Brown (St Austell), E. Fletcher and R. Chinn (Camborne), J. Solomon and W. Bosanko (Redruth), Rule and F. Negus (Camborne), Westcott (Bodmin), W. Trimm (The Woolwich Infantry), Wills and F. Head (Camborne), Bray (Pool), Allen and Bazley (Porthleven) and Dunstan (Newquay).
Cornwall wins the second match
The Cornish side did get their own back, a few days later after the unit moved down the line to La Bassee in preparation for battle.
Solomon once again reported home. The Devon team was defeated by two tries to a drop goal, he said.
“The match was well worth watching, and much better and harder than many I have seen at home. There was a fierce crowd, including our colonel and his staff of officers. Rugby seems to have taken all the sting out of the soccer game since it was started here…..There is nothing like a game of football to brighten up the chaps’ spirits. While the match is in progress you take no notice of the roar of cannons, and think you are only out here for the game.”
The third match
But there had to be a wait before the third match. News of this arrived back in Cornwall via a letter in the West Briton written by Camborne bandsman, Ernie Fletcher.
Fletcher was aged just 19 when he signed up the year before. He had played percussion (side drum) with Camborne Town Band at Crystal Palace in 1910 at the National Brass Band championships. They had lost – but it had been a significant triumph to perform on a national level.
And writing about the rugby, the bandsman in Fletcher came out.
The last match had been played on Whit Monday, he said, but instead of the music of the Bands in Camborne, they had played to ‘the music of the guns’. Five words that showed how much the Cornishmen were missing home – and the close-knit life of Camborne and Redruth with their famous rugby and music.
“The first match proved a victory for the Devons by two tries to nil. A week later we shifted down the line near La Bassee and played a return match, which proved a win for the Cornish lads by two tries to a dropped goal. Captain W Blackwood, of Camborne, kicked off in each match. After having a few days in the trenches we earned the final, which ended in a victory for the Cornishmen by a try to nil. The Cornishmen well deserved their win as in the last match they were handicapped by Brown, their back, having to retire within the first fifteen minutes. This match was played on Whit Monday and instead of having the privilege of listening to the bands in Camborne, we had the music of the guns.”
A change in the line up
Tragically, but not surprisingly, there was a forced change in the team for the final game, Private Fletcher records soberly.
“One of the best Cornish forwards, Penhorwood of Newquay, late police constable of Bodmin, was killed after the second game during our stay in the trenches. The teams for the final match were:
Cornwall – Back, R. Brown: three-quarters, W. Bosanko, R. Chinn, J. Solomon, R. Treeby; half-backs, E. Fletcher and Paltridge; forwards, L. Pentecost, A.J. Williams, F. Head, E. Bray, W. Trimm, F. Negus, A. Young and Dunstan.
Devon – Back, F. Lovell; three-quarters, G. Lovell, Sergeant. Pike, E. Curtis, F. Williams; half-backs, W. Eliott and C. Evans; forwards, Mullins, Reed, Sergeant. Cross, Downing, Walters, Whitford, Pepperell and Sergeant. Patey.
Linesmen, W. Brookes and E. Rule. Referee, Sergeant. J. Phillips (Camborne). ”
The death of Thomas Penhorwood
Thomas Penhorwood, who was killed between the second and third matches, was a former policeman from Newquay. He died in the battle of Aubers Ridge, one of the worst conflicts of 1915. A short report from an anonymous correspondent in The West Briton on 31 May 1915 said that the whole unit turned out for the funeral in the graveyard at Sailly-sur-la-Lys.
More than 100 years later, on 25 August 2018 the Last Post was played again at his graveside.
To mark the centenary of the end of the war, Camborne Youth Band travelled back to Estaires and Sailly-sur-la-Lys. In the band was the 13-year-old Corey Williams, who had a bugle – carefully preserved by the family – brought back from the war by his great grandfather Fred Negus, who had played in the rugby matches.
Further tragedy hits the Cornishman
In just two years, the jubilant Cornish rugby players were hit by further tragedy. The brilliant rugby star Jack Solomon was dead, dying of septic fever at Heilly Casualty Clearing Station on the Somme.
A year after that, Oliver Allen, a domestic gardener who had played in the first match, was killed on the hellish battlegrounds of Passchendaele on 7 July 1917. He was a long way from his home in Porthleven where his father, John, was a fish merchant.
Devon man S Walters had died of his wounds a fortnight later – on 30 July 1917.
And sadly from this time local papers stopped publishing letters from the men. Perhaps they were discouraged from writing. Perhaps they had no time to write.
What we know for sure is that the truth was often too terrible, or too painful, to tell.
Extract from THESE MEN WERE OUR GRANDFATHERS by Susan Roberts with Alison Pooley. Copyright Bridging Arts