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The sporting heroes who answered Ireland's call on the field of battle

A new book by Stephen Walker shows the vital role played by sport stars during the First World War

Published 19/09/2015

Over there: a number of sports men from Ireland, north and south, fought in the conflict
Over there: a number of sports men from Ireland, north and south, fought in the conflict
A.L. Stewart
Robbie Smyth
Frank Browning
Michael Moran
Dick Moore
Soldiers during the First World War

My new book Ireland's Call is the story of 40 Irish sportsmen who died fighting in the Great War. They were the heroes of their day and they entertained crowds in stadia like Lansdowne Road, Croke Park and Dalymount Park, as well as in events like the Open Championship and the London Olympics.

As soldiers, they saw action in the horror of the Western Front and in the carnage of Mesopotamia.

The majority were household names, who came from every corner of Ireland, and the story of their lives presents a portrait of Irish society from a century ago.

The worlds of sport and the military brought them together and they included rugby players, footballers, hockey players, cricketers, GAA players, athletes and a golfer. They represented the top tier of Irish sport and, had they survived, they could have continued to contribute to their chosen disciplines. All those featured in Ireland's Call are Irish internationals, with the exception of the three GAA players, who include two All-Ireland finalists.

It is not intended to be a comprehensive account of all those Irish sporting stars who served in the Great War, but it is an attempt to capture the period of the time through the extraordinary lives of some of the country's leading sportsmen, who made headlines before they went into battle.

Spanning seven sporting disciplines, the men whose stories are featured all fought in the major theatres of the Great War and today their names are remembered on memorials across Europe and Asia, in the Middle East and South Africa.

A large number of those who served were friends from university days and many played together in the same teams before they enlisted.

They included Robbie Smyth, who played rugby for Ireland and the British Isles team, and his brother, Edmund, who represented Ireland at hockey.

Three Ulstermen who were members of the Irish rugby team that beat France on New Year's Day in 1912 saw military action, each losing their lives in the Great War.

Similarly, three members of the Irish international hockey team that played Wales that year would be war casualties by 1918. Their number included Robert Morrison, an Anglican curate from Dublin, who died just weeks after he began his military service at the front.

Ireland's Call includes the stories of history-makers like Bohemians striker Harry Sloan, who was the first player to score a goal at Dalymount Park, and teenage rugby player George McAllan, the first schoolboy to be selected for Ireland.

He lost his life in 1918, in the same year that golfer Michael Moran died in France.

Moran was the finest Irish golfer of his generation and the first Irishman to win prize money at the Open Championship.

The list of cricketers included Frank Browning, an official with the Irish Rugby Football Union, who helped to train recruits on the Lansdowne Road turf. Browning's role shows how sport and the military collided when the Great War broke out in August 1914.

After an advertisement was placed in The Irish Times, hundreds of men, mainly from middle class backgrounds, came forward to join a "Pals Battalion" of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Many were rugby players and the idea of a battalion of sportsmen was very similar to other units established in Britain.

The links between sport and the military went directly to the heart of the debate about recruitment during the Great War.

Posters were drawn up specifically aimed at sportsmen and much pressure was applied to professional footballers to quit their jobs and sign up for active service.

The leading writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, criticised those who were reluctant to enlist, declaring that players should "serve and march in the field of battle". Lord Roberts, an Army veteran, was particularly critical of footballers, who were showing some reluctance to enlist, proclaiming, "this is not the time to play games".

This quotation was later emblazoned on a recruitment poster featuring a rugby player in his team colours and in military uniform.

The message got through and soon dozens of sportsmen enlisted, the ranks of the military swelling with athletes, footballers, rugby players and cricketers. In England, the 17th and 23rd Middlesex recruited dozens of footballers and the 13th Rifle Brigade included a number of golfers.

The 16th Royal Scots, which became known as "McCrae's Battalion", included leading players from Heart of Midlothian.

During the Great War, sport remained an important facet of life for those involved in frontline action.

Inter-regimental games and contests were organised, leading sportsmen were encouraged to take part and the resulting rivalry was often intense. It was an opportunity to keep fit and relax for a few hours away from the horrors of battle.

In April 1915, safely away from the frontline, the legendary Irish rugby international Basil Maclear, whose story is told in Ireland's Call, refereed a game between soldiers. The match featured top internationals from Scotland, Ireland and England and, understandably, created a lot of interest among the troops.

On a number of memorable occasions, in December 1914, Allied soldiers engaged the Germans during the much-documented football matches that were part of the unofficial Christmas truce. They were extraordinary moments of human kindness and became an enduring image of the Great War.

At the Battle of Loos in 1915, members of the London Irish Rifles played football as they advanced on German lines. In 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, soldiers from the East Surrey Regiment kicked footballs towards enemy lines.

One of the footballs bore the inscription "The Great European Cup-Tie Final: East Surrey v Bavarians".

Seeing the war effort as one big sporting contest was a theme the British military hierarchy were keen to exploit. One poster printed in Dublin with the intention of recruiting hundreds of Irishmen billed the war as a "Grand International Match".

The advertisement stated that, "Irishmen wishing to play in this - the greatest match the world has ever seen - should enter their names at once at the nearest recruiting office, so that they may be thoroughly trained for the great day. Medals will be presented after the match."

Many of those whose stories appear in Ireland's Call were decorated with medals for bravery and a large number showed enormous courage and disregard for their own safety in the most appalling conditions.

They showed the same leadership on the battlefield that they had first exhibited on the playing fields. They were family members, sportsmen and soldiers and, like the thousands of other Irishmen killed in the Great War, they were denied the lives that once promised so much.

A century ago, Ireland lost a generation of sporting heroes.

Ireland's Call is their story.

  • Adapted from Ireland's Call: Irish Sporting Heroes Who Fell in the Great War by Stephen Walker (Merrion Press, £19.99)

Albert Lewis Stewart: Rugby star was recommended for the Victoria Cross

Irish international Albert Lewis Stewart, who had come through the ranks of schoolboy rugby and was a member of the 36th Ulster Division, joined the 10th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles in September 1914, just a few weeks after war broke out.

He was born in Belfast in February 1889, to James and Isabella Stewart and he attended Royal Belfast Academical Institution (‘Inst’), where he played at full-back and centre.

In 1909, he was part of the North team that won the Ulster Senior League and, a year later, he was in the side that won the Charity Cup.

His performances for North brought him to the attention of the Ulster selection committee and, not surprisingly, he was chosen to play for his province. It was only a matter of time before he was selected to play for his country.

In February 1913, Stewart was one of five new caps chosen for the trip to Wales.

Stewart made an impressive debut the following month, scoring a try.

Even though Ireland lost, the selectors were particularly impressed by Stewart and he went on to distinguish himself in the green of Ireland.

On September 24, 1914, Stewart decided that he should join the Army. He signed up with the 10th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. The regiment was part of the 36th Ulster Division and Stewart was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

In October 1915, he travelled to France. He saw action in the winter of 1915 and into 1916 and witnessed the carnage and bloodshed on the first day of the Somme in July 1916.

He showed enormous courage during the opening days of the fighting and was recommended for a Victoria Cross (although it was never awarded). He was promoted to captain and given the command of the 22nd Machine Gun Company.

In January 1917, another promotion came his way and he was given the rank of major and was mentioned in despatches.

On October 4, 1917, Stewart and his comrades were in Glencorse Wood near Ypres and were involved in an ongoing operation to seize ground from the Germans.

It was there that Albert Stewart lost his life. Little is known of his final moments, except that he was killed in action.

Dick Moore: Renowned Blues hero died just a few weeks before end of conflict

In 1886, Linfield Football Club were formed by a group of textile workers in south Belfast. The team quickly developed a tradition of playing attractive football and, in 1891, they secured the double, winning the Irish Cup and the League Championship.

A stalwart of the Linfield side was 21-year-old Dick Moore, a talented left half. At first glance, Moore looked like many of his contemporaries. However, it was his presence on the football field and skill with the ball that set him apart.

Brought up as an Anglican, he was the son of a rope merchant and came from the Shankill area of Belfast, where many of Linfield’s supporters came from.

A full-time soldier, he combined a footballing career with life in the military and served for 21 years with the Royal Irish Rifles. When war broke out in 1914 he wanted to go back into uniform, so he turned up at a recruiting office in Lisburn and offered his services.

Moore was 46 years old when he signed up and, after a medical, he was accepted back into the Rifles. He became a regimental quartermaster sergeant with the 11th Battalion and saw service with them until 1917 when he was recommended to be admitted into an officer cadet unit. In July 1917, he joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers and was made a 2nd lieutenant.

By the autumn of 1918, as the war was coming to end, he was in Salonika in Greece and, in October of that year, he fell ill. On October 17, he had a serious bout of diarrhoea and exhibited dysenteric symptoms and began to pass blood and mucus.

Four days later, he was admitted to the 42nd General Hospital with dysentery and, although he initially improved, his condition then deteriorated and he was placed on the “dangerously ill” list.

On October 29, he became drowsy, slipped into semi-consciousness and then died. On November 5, 1918 — just six days before the Great War ended — a telegram arrived in Belfast addressed to his widow, Ellen Moore, and she was informed that her husband had “died of dysentery”.

She was also given precise details of her husband’s final resting place in the military cemetery in Kirechkoi-Hortakoi, around 15km north east of Thessalonica in Greece.

Belfast Telegraph

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