For the Fallen – Rugby Remembers

The First Sea Lord and the RFU President unveil the Rose and Poppy Gates
Matt Harvey, Ben Chambers and Oli Mason - part of the RNRU representation at the ceremony
A time for thought. Admiral Sir Phillip Jones KCB ADC and Jason Leonard OBE study the gates
The evocative symbols of a drumhead in front of the gates before the dedication service
From roses to poppies. The poppies made from German Artillery shell cases at the top of the gates

The link between rugby and the Services is well established and based on shared values which hold respect, discipline, courage, teamwork and integrity in high regard.  Every year the Rugby Football Union has its own ceremony to mark those England Internationals who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars.  Whilst at Northampton Saints a wreath is placed at the small statue of Edgar Mobbs who raised his own ‘sportsman’ company during the Great War, as he was deemed too old to join the Army.  He was to be killed in the Third Battle of Ypres.  In Bristol the city paid its own tribute to their rugby players killed in the First World War with the opening of Bristol Rugby Club’s Memorial Ground in 1921.  In more recent years the RFU and Twickenham have hosted two ‘Help For Heroes’ matches involving professional and Service rugby players from around the world to raise much needed funds for those suffering from today’s high intensity operations.

On the eve of the 99th Army Navy match the latest, and in many ways the most visible, tribute to those Service rugby players who lost their lives in war was unveiled by the President of the RFU, Jason Leonard OBE, and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Phillip Jones KCB ADC.  The Rose and Poppy Gates, designed by Harry Gray, are a fitting tribute to all they represent, provoking deep thought, perhaps at times a little guilt, but remaining understated so that they allow life to go on around them. 

On Friday night when speaking to Harry Gray about his work I didn’t fully understand what he meant by this.  Yes I could understand the fifteen roses as worn by Ronnie Poulton Palmer’s Grand Slam winning England team on the year that later saw the outbreak of World War I; how these roses transform themselves to poppies at the top of the gates above the bronze horizontal bar to symbolize the going ‘over the top’, but not fully why gates?  Functional, breath taking in their beauty when studied, but still understated when viewed from afar. 

I understood more when leaving Twickenham some 24 hours later.  The Army Navy match long over but on the concourse on either side of the gates the revelry continued.  At times looking at the shared bonds between the supporters in red and blue it was difficult to know who had won or who had lost, and never had I seen such emotion from a draw.  To them the gates were just gates and it recalled one of the lines from Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen.

"They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;"

Yes Harry Gray had managed to encompass a great depth to his memorial gates.  Study the gates and they can provoke as strong a sense of remembrance as any parade on Armistice Day, walk through the gates as a player and I’m sure you share those same feelings that players before have experienced; anticipation, trepidation, excitement, the bonds that only exist amongst a tight knit team.  Yet then when the gates are closed and the game is over they blend in to the background as the match is recounted one last time because as John Edmonds captured so well in one of his four epitaphs “Freedom, we died for you”.  Gray has managed to capture a memorial that grants us the freedom to carry on around it, exactly as those who fought would have wished.

For many the abiding memories of the First World War are the battlefields of France and Belgium from which the internationally recognisable symbol, the poppy grew.  The poppies on the gates are made from German artillery shells that were fired at the Allied troops.  Those same German engineered shells were also to take their toll on Royal Navy players in the defining Naval battle of the War, at Jutland.  The battle was to claim the life of Scottish internationals and Navy players, Cecil Abercrombie and John Wilson, Abercrombie having played in the very first Army Navy match of 1907.  Jutland also affected the lives of 6 other capped Royal Navy players including Percy Royds who himself became President of the RFU, (but didn’t go by the nick name of ‘Fun Bus’).  Times change but in unveiling the Rose and Poppy Gates, Jason ‘Fun Bus’ Leonard, today’s President, and the First Sea Lord have once more reaffirmed rugby and Service life’s strong and fruitful bonds.

Article by Geraint Ashton Jones
Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones