Remembrance Sunday: The Great War's unknown rugby stars

Image copyright Getty Images

It is the Welsh rugby story that has echoes of the epic Hollywood war film Saving Private Ryan.

Four of the five Humphreys brothers served in World War One. Two never came home.

A fifth brother died on his way back to England to enlist for the Great War. He was killed aboard the ocean liner HMS Lusitania after it was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo in May 1915.

But it is Noel Humphreys who is Welsh rugby's forgotten war hero.

The former fly-half, who won the prestigious Military Cross for "conspicuous gallantry", does not appear on Welsh Rugby Union's Roll of Honour for war heroes despite playing international rugby.

The reason? For while Mr Humphreys had the distinction of being picked for the British representative team on their 1910 tour to South Africa, he never represented Wales' national side.

Image caption A postcard from Herbert Humphreys on the World War One front line in France to Mrs Humphreys

Mr Humphreys, one of seven children, was born at Llangan Rectory, near Bridgend, where his father, Rev Henry James Humphreys, was the rector.

But Mr Humphreys moved to the north east when his father relocated and starred for a Tynedale side that won 15 trophies in the decade up to World War One.

The former Durham School student was one of seven Welsh players on the first official British Lions tour to South Africa in 1910.

He, in fact, became the youngest Welshman to play for the Lions on that tour after making his debut in a 17-0 win over Pretoria while still a teenager.

World War One broke out in July 1914 and within three months Mr Humphreys had signed up for what was to become a distinguished military career.

The 23-year-old articled clerk initially started his service as a despatch rider before receiving a commission two months later.

Mr Humphreys was made temporary second lieutenant in the Motor Machine Gun Services and later became a captain in the 10th Battalion of the Tanks Corp.

He lost elder brother Henry in the Lusitania tragedy on 7 May, 1915, as the 29-year-old was returning to the United Kingdom to enlist after emigrating to Canada to work as a farmer.

Image caption The Humphreys brothers are remembered in the roll of honour of the County Durham village of Tow Law

Mr Humphreys was mentioned in despatches and was awarded the Military Cross on 18 June, 1917.

The Army bestowed the honour "for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. His tank becoming stranded, he commenced to dig it out, and though wounded, he completed his task and continued in action the whole day, finally bringing his tank out of action to the rallying point".

But the following month, tragedy struck again for the Humphreys family.

Mr Humphreys lost his younger brother, John, when the second lieutenant was killed in action at the Battle of Mgergeri in Narumgombe on 19 July, 1917.

The 21-year-old had been serving with the Indian Army in east Africa but after leading his men out of a stream, where they had been exposed to machine-gun fire, he was returning to help his commanding officer when John Humphreys was killed.

His colonel wrote to his family saying: "He was considered a brave officer and a good comrade, and that was the best that could be said of a soldier."

But after great pain for the Humphreys family, came more recognition as a second Humphreys brother won the Military Cross in 1917.

Herbert, who had returned from Canada to enlist for his country, was commended "for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty" when acting as forward observation officer under "most trying circumstances".

The note from the forces continued: "In spite of exceptional heavy gun fire he succeeded in laying and maintaining a telephone line for a distance of 5,000 yards, and although it was constantly cut during two days and a night, it was immediately repaired in every case and most valuable information was sent back. For a long time this line was the only means by which the infantry could get any information back to the rear. The success of the operation was very greatly due to the magnificent example set by this officer and his complete disregard of personal danger."

Noel Humphreys continued fighting along with his two remaining brothers but on 24 March, 1918, he was wounded in battle in northern France.

Image copyright Getty Images

The former British Lion died of his wounds three days later aged 27 and is one of 11,500 former service personnel buried in the Etaples Military Cemetery near Boulogne and the English Channel.

Both Herbert and A. Owen Humphreys survived World War One while the three lost Humphreys brothers are commemorated on the Thornley War Memorial Cross in the County Durham.

Meanwhile, rugby's governing body wants to honour every rugby player who lost his life during the war.

A specially-commissioned memorial, designed by the former French Grand Slam skipper Jean-Pierre Rives, will be unveiled in France in 2017 dedicated to the ultimate sacrifice made by former rugby players.

A Rugby Players' Book of Remembrance will be opened with the aim of recording the names of as many fallen players as possible.

There are almost 150 international players from countries across the world who are known to have died during World War One and an ongoing appeal to clubs hopes to reveal more names.

The World Rugby Memorial committee wants to ensure every player is honoured and remembered.


World War One

Eng Cpt. Charles Taylor, Royal Navy (HMS Tiger)

  • Died: 24 January, 1915 at Dogger Bank
  • Age: 51
  • Wales caps: Nine
  • Club: London Welsh

2nd Lt. Billy Geen, Kings Royal Rifle Corps

  • Died: 31 July, 1915 at Hooge
  • Age: 24
  • Wales caps: Three
  • Club: Newport

Sgt. Louis Phillips, Royal Fusiliers

  • Died: 14 March, 1916 at Cuinchy
  • Age: 38
  • Wales caps: Four
  • Club: Newport

Sgt. Major Dick Thomas, South Wales Borderers

  • Died: 7 July, 1916 at Mametz Wood
  • Age: 32
  • Wales caps: Four
  • Club: Mountain Ash

Cpt Johnnie Williams, Welsh Regiment

  • Died: 12 July, 1916 at Corbie
  • Age: 34
  • Wales caps: 17
  • Club: Cardiff

Sgt. David Watts, Kings, Shropshire Light Infantry

  • Died: 14 July, 1916 at Bazentin Ridge
  • Age: 30
  • Wales caps: Four
  • Club: Maesteg

Cpt. Charlie Pritchard, South Wales Borderers

  • Died: 14 August, 1916 at Chocques
  • Age: 33
  • Wales caps: 14
  • Club: Newport

2nd Lt. Horace Thomas, Rifle Brigade

  • Died: 3 September, 1916 at Ancle
  • Age: 26
  • Wales caps: Two
  • Club: Swansea

Lt Col. Richard Garnons-Williams, Royal Fusiliers

  • Died: 27 September, 1916 at Loos
  • Age: 59
  • Wales caps: One
  • Club: Newport

Lt. Brinley Lewis, Royal Field Artillery

  • Died: 2 April, 1917 at Boesinghe
  • Age: 26
  • Wales caps: Two
  • Club: Swansea

Pte. Dai Westacott, Gloucestershire Regiment

  • Died: 28 August, 1917 at Wieltje
  • Age: 35
  • Wales caps: One
  • Club: Cardiff

Lt. Phil Waller, Royal Garrison Artillery

  • Died: 14 December, 1917 at Beaumetz-Les-Cabine
  • Age: 28
  • Wales caps: Six
  • Club: Newport

Lt. Fred Perrett, Welsh Guards

  • Died: 1 December, 1918 at Boulogne
  • Age: 27
  • Wales caps: Five
  • Club: Neath

World War Two

Sq Ldr. Cecil Evans, RAF

  • Died: 24 December, 1941 in northern France
  • Age: 32
  • Wales caps: One
  • Club: Cardiff

Lt. John Evans, The Parachute Regiment

  • Died: 8 March, 1943 in Tunisia
  • Age: 32
  • Wales Caps: One
  • Club: Newport

Mjr. Maurice Turnbull, Welsh Guards

  • Died: 5 August, 1944 near Montchamp
  • Age: 38
  • Wales caps: Five
  • Club: Cardiff

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites