Christopher Sandford: The cricket season when needs of war stopped play

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ON the Monday morning of August 10, 1914, Somerset should have begun a three-day County Championship cricket match with Northamptonshire at Taunton. The Wisden almanack remarks simply that the fixture was “abandoned owing to the War’, and more specifically to six of the home team having rejoined their military units over the weekend.

It was much the same story up and down the country. Surrey were forced to hurriedly rearrange their remaining home matches when the War Office requisitioned The Oval, and there were similar disruptions for Hampshire and Kent. On August 17, Middlesex decided to continue with their tie against Nottinghamshire at Lord’s, although when they arrived at the ground the five paid players in the Middlesex side found an envelope awaiting them on the table in the professionals’ dressing room. It contained a white feather and an anonymous letter accusing them of cowardice.

Despite all this, first-class cricket continued until nearly the scheduled end of the season in September. Even an open letter written by the sport’s grand old man, WG Grace, asking that “all players set a good example and come to the help of their country without delay” failed to bring an immediate end to the proceedings.

On the final day of August, 81-year-old Earl Roberts, Colonel of the National Reserve, gave a speech in London praising a newly-raised battalion of stockbrokers and bankers. “How different is your action to that of the men who still go on with their cricket as if the very existence of this country was not at stake,” he said.

The following day’s Press drastically reduced its coverage of all sports fixtures. As the first casualty lists appeared from the Western Front, the Championship-leading Surrey opted to forfeit their two remaining games. The season came to an end at the stroke of teatime on the sunny afternoon of September 2 at Hove when Yorkshire’s Edgar Oldroyd wafted almost absent-mindedly at a ball from George Cox of Sussex, which turned and lifted enough to hit the top his off stump.

During the interval, the captains agreed to abandon the match as a draw. After that, it would remain only for the newspapers to note the names of the large number of cricketers who were killed, wounded or decorated for gallantry fighting for their country.

Not every player rose immediately to the challenge. Jack Hobbs, England’s leading batsman, was spared active service by working in a munitions factory while continuing to appear as a professional in the northern leagues. Sharp-eyed critics weren’t slow to point out that most of his wartime cricket was played for a team called Idle.

But elsewhere, cricketers of every class and background swiftly responded to the call. Hampshire’s Lionel Tennyson, the poet’s grandson, was one of those who went almost overnight from the playing field to the mud and blood of the Marne campaign. Tennyson’s diary has survived, and it makes compelling reading as it charts the steady descent of a trip that at first had some of the characteristics of a French summer holiday into the full horrors of war.

Many Yorkshire cricketers made the ultimate sacrifice. Probably the most poignant was that of Major Booth, who was mortally injured when advancing through No Man’s Land at the Somme in the early hours of 1 July 1916. (Somewhat confusingly, Major was his name, not his rank). Booth was 29, and had played twice for England as a bowler who could vary it from orthodox finger-spin to a lively medium pace. He died in the arms of 23-year-old Private Abe Waddington, who himself went on to play as a fast bowler for Yorkshire and England in the 1920s.

It was a particularly cruel twist that Booth’s body then remained in place until it could be recovered nine months later, and that it was identified by an engraved cigarette case given to him after a successful cricket tour of South Africa.

No fewer than 11 of the Leeds Pals’ sub-battalions of the West Yorkshire regiment were involved in the assault that morning on the heavily fortified German position at Serre ridge. Booth’s county colleague, Roy Kilner, was wounded and eventually sent home to convalesce.

After the war, Kilner played nine Tests for England, but later died of enteric fever aged just 37. The Bradford footballer-cricketer Evelyn Lintott, 32, fell in the same action as Major Booth. It has been estimated that of the 750 Leeds Pals who went over the top that first morning at the Somme, 680 were killed or wounded. Serre was not taken.

Not every wartime casualty came as a result of enemy fire. There was the peculiarly tragic case of Frederick ‘Percy’ Hardy, who played 100 first-class matches as a professional for Somerset and MCC from 1902 to 1914. Hardy fought bravely in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, and was eventually sent home with his unit to prepare for deployment on the Western Front.

On the morning of March 9, 1916, a railway porter found Hardy’s body lying on the floor of the men’s lavatory at King’s Cross station in London. He had cut his throat rather than return to what he called the ‘bloody shambles’ of the war.

He was 34 and he left behind 8 shillings in coins, which was about the equivalent of a week’s pay.

• Christopher Sandford is the author of The Final Over: The Cricketers of Summer 1914, published by history Press, price £18.99.