Sailors travel to Netherlands to mark First World War rugby match centenary

RNRU Vice President and Executive Committee Members with the Wilfred Henderson trophy
A memorial service was held at the graves of the sailors who died while in the internment camp during the First World War

Earlier this month two Royal Navy Rugby Union community teams travelled from the UK to the Netherlands to play their Inverdale Challenge match at Greate Pier Rugby Club in Leeuwarden.  Usually these matches are played in the UK however on this occasion an exception was made at the request of the Rugby Make a Difference Foundation, headed up by Ken Wright.  Inspired by the research of Mr Stephen Cooper, and detailed in the book 'The Final Whistle', Ken had heard about the Royal Naval Division who had been interned in a detention camp in the Netherlands during the First World War.  The camp became known as 'HMS Timbertown' and one of the many ways the sailors spent their time was in playing rugby.  In 1916 a demonstration match was played with members of the Royal Naval Division representing both England and Scotland.  The match was played in Leeuwarden, in front of several thousand paying Dutch spectators.  Such was the success of the match it sparked the imagination of the Dutch people and subsequent matches followed between the internees and Dutch students.  Shortly afterwards the first rugby clubs were established in the student towns of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft and The Hague.
It was Ken's intent that the hundredth anniversary of this match should be marked, and what better way than by re-creating the match with present day sailors.  So the RN East team, under the management of LCIS 'Pony' Moore represented England and the RN North team, organised by CPO Mark Mullen, represented Scotland. 

Greeted by a band of Pipes and Drums, the players were formally welcomed by the Mayor of Leeuwarden, Mr Crone, in the historic 'Orange Room' in Leeuwarden Town Hall.  The British Consul, John Cameron-Webb and the head of Netherlands Rugby, Janhein Pieterse were also keen to add their thanks to the teams for travelling to support this excellent cause.  Of course, no First World War commemoration would be complete without the attendance of the Royal British Legion who are represented in Holland by Ray Waller.  Commodore Nick Roberts, RNRU Vice-President, thanked the Mayor and Ken Wright and his team, (without whose dedication the event would not have been possible).  The welcome continued at the classic car museum in Leeuwarden.  The museum is home to a fantastic collection of classic cars, the majority of which have been painstakingly restored by the museum's owner, and an array of other objects, including photography equipment, radios, meccano constructions, model trains and a collection of antique textiles and hand-made lace.  Here members of the Royal Navy Rugby Union Executive Committee met with descendants of Commodore Wilfred Henderson.  It was Commodore Henderson who had made the decision to lead the Royal Naval Brigade from Belgium into the Netherlands after they were cut off following the siege of Antwerp to avoid becoming prisoners of war.  He was also responsible for ensuring that the sailors were properly occupied and looked after during their time at HMS Timbertown.  He was particularly concerned with their health and well-being and keen to ensure they were kept occupied with a focus on learning and physical activity during their time in the Internment Camp.  Andrew Biggs, the great-grandson of Wilfred Henderson, was accompanied by his wife, son and nephew and they have all been fascinated to hear of the courage, leadership and compassion of their ancestor.

The match itself was hosted by the local Leeuwarden Rugby Club and a large crowd were there to support the commemorative event and watch an entertaining game of rugby.  RNRU Director of Community Rugby, Lt Cdr Chris Roberts from RNAS Culdrose, willingly showcased the talent of the Northern and Eastern teams to RNRU Director of Rugby, Captain Roger Readwin.  By encouraging participation in rugby at the ship and unit level, a larger pool of players is available for selection to the regional teams.  From these regional teams the most able players are called up to play for the Navy's representative teams.  Read the full match report here.

The celebrations continued after the match in the Clubhouse with the players from the UK integrating with their Dutch colleagues and meeting the members of the Leeuwarden rugby club, in particular inspiring the younger members of the club.  This event can be seen as a continuation of the Rugby World Cup Legacy programme - 'Unity' where the focus was on encouraging the development of rugby in countries that had a burgeoning organisation to help them increase participation in the great sport of rugby.

The final event of the weekend was a memorial service at the graves of the nine sailors who died during their time in the internment camp in Groningen.  RNRU representatives joined descendants of Commodore Henderson, members of the British Legion and the Rugby Make a Difference Foundation to honour those who had lost their lives in the service of their country.

Much has changed since that first 'international' rugby match was played by the interned sailors of 'HMS Timbertown' during the First World War but the spirit of rugby is still the same, to encourage as many people as possible to join in with the excellent game of rugby, whether playing, coaching, officiating, volunteering and supporting, and to promote the key values of sportsmanship and respect across national boundaries.  That spirit is alive and well in both the Royal Navy and the Netherlands. 

Words by RNRU Director of Communications
Images © Crown Copyright LPhot Jenkins and POPhot Wade