Percy Jeeves. Photo Courtesy – The Cricketer International.
By Julian Guyer
London: June 20, 2014
It promised to be another glorious summer for one of England‘s most celebrated poets, the ‘real’ Jeeves and a cricket-playing curate.
Yet 1914 saw all three plunged into the maelstrom of World War I, far removed from the comforting sounds of leather on willow, polite applause for a well-struck shot and a break in play for tea.
Along with millions of other men they would never return to the pitches of home.
But their contribution to the war and the game has been painstakingly recalled in a new book, “Wisden on the Great War — The Lives of Cricket’s Fallen 1914-1918″.
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote that the English “are not a very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity”.
If that’s the case, then Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the sport’s annual of record published every year since 1864 — even throughout both World Wars — fulfils the role of the ‘Bible’.
A hundred years after the start of World War I, journalist Andrew Renshaw has delved into the Wisden archives and beyond to record the heroism of hundreds of cricketers killed in the conflict.
One was Percy Jeeves, a promising all-rounder who gave his name to the valet who served buffoonish Bertie Wooster’s gentleman in the books by English comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse.
Wodehouse was “impressed by his demeanour when he saw Percy Jeeves playing in a county match at Cheltenham in 1913″, Renshaw told AFP in an interview.
Jeeves died serving with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1916. Recording his death, Wisden said England had lost a cricketer “of whom very high hopes had been entertained”.
If cricket is often regarded as quintessentially English, so too is understatement and Wisden’s obituary notice for the poet Rupert Brooke, who died in 1915, is a fine example.
“In 1906 he was in the Rugby (School) Eleven, and although he was unsuccessful in the Marlborough match he headed the School’s bowling averages with a record of 19 wickets for 14.05 runs each. He had gainedconsiderable reputation as a poet,” the notice read.
War meant attendance meagre
The advent of war soon saw all first-class matches in England suspended, although some matches in progress were allowed to be played to a finish.
Not that Wisden got too carried away. Its account of a match between Kent and Northamptonshire on August 4, 1914, concluded: “Owing to the outbreak of the war, the attendance was extremely meagre.”
Rather than a record of cricket as such, the Wisdens of 1914-1918 were a prolonged series of obituaries for a generation cut down in their prime.
But the tone, in keeping with the standards of the time, remained of the ‘stiff upper lip’ variety.
Its record of Lieutenant Arthur Collins of the Royal Engineers, killed in the slaughter of Ypres, recalls how he “came suddenly into note by scoring 628 not out in a junior house match at Clifton College in June 1899, when he was only 13 years old”.
It remains, Renshaw says, the highest score ever recorded.
One of the new stories unearthed in the research is that of Reverend Rupert Inglis, a forces chaplain whose original Wisden obituary was a brief entry focused on his career as a schoolboy cricketer.
A rector in the Kent village of Frittenden, Inglis wrote regularly to his parishioners from the front at Ypres and the Somme where, in breaks from the fighting, he helped organise games for the soldiers.
In one letter he described how MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club), the owners of London’s Lord’s Cricket Ground and still to this day responsible for the sport’s ‘Laws’ or rules, “have sent me some splendid cricket things”.
“I can’t imagine what you’d want with bats or pads in a trench, but it just goes to show the impact the game had,” Renshaw told AFP in an interview.
Inglis died on September 18, 1916, when, searching for wounded soldiers in ‘No Man’s Land’, he was hit by a shell and killed instantly.
Plenty of cricket
Cricket, being a sport played mainly in the countries of what was the British Empire, has no equivalent of the celebrated football match said to have taken place between Allied and German troops on the Western Front during the Christmas truce of 1914.
But Allied soldiers continued to play cricket amongst themselves, sometimes in unlikely venues.
In 1914, Jack MacBryan scored 61 for Somerset against Gloucestershire, but in August that year was wounded at the Battle of Le Cateau, in France.
He “spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, latterly in Holland, where he was able to play plenty of cricket,” according to his Wisden obituary.
Jack’s brother Edward, who played for Oundle, Jesus College Cambridge and the county of Wiltshire, was killed aged 22 in 1916.
After the war, Jack was selected to play for England in the fourth Test against South Africa at Old Trafford, “but the match was ruined by rain and he did not bat”.
It was to be the only England appearance of “a neat and polished batsman” who, at the time of his death aged 90 in 1983, was England’s oldest-living Test player.