In the second part of our special First World War sports features, Chris Waters looks back at the tragic impact it had on Yorkshire county cricket.
ONE hundred years ago, county cricket was in abeyance due to the Great War and would not resume for another five years.
When it did, Yorkshire regrouped to win the County Championship, a feat they repeated in 1946 – the first season after the Second World War.
Like all counties, Yorkshire were hit hard by the horror of World War One. Three Yorkshire cricketers lost their lives – Major Booth, Fairfax Gill and James Rothery, the latter in 1919 from wounds received in action.
Major Booth (Major was his first name, rather than his rank), died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
One of 20,000 British soldiers to perish on that day alone, he was killed going “over the top” while serving as a second lieutenant in the West Yorkshire Regiment.
In his final moments, Booth – one of the game’s most promising all-rounders – was nursed by Abe Waddington, a future Yorkshire cricketer, who was himself injured and rescued from their rat-infested crater.
Unable to accept the fact he had died, Booth’s sister, Anne, kept a candle burning in the window of their cottage in Pudsey in the hope that he would come home, the flame flickering until her own death in the 1950s.
Fairfax Gill, affectionately known as “Fairy”, is just a footnote now in the county’s rich history, a Wakefield-born batsman who played two first-class games in 1906.
A clerk at the West Riding Registry of Deeds office in Wakefield, he was considered good enough to have forged a long cricketing career but preferred the security of his regular job.
Gill was shot in the head while serving as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery in France and died at a hospital in Boulogne.
The Wakefield Express called him “a true sportsman” who was “never carried away by success”.
James (Jimmy) Rothery, another long-forgotten figure, played 150 first-class games for Yorkshire between 1903 and 1910, scoring 4,614 runs with his stylish strokeplay. The Staincliffe-born batsman never quite established himself in the first team, despite glimpses of what the legendary Yorkshire potentate Lord Hawke called “sparkling moments”.
Rothery joined the Royal Fusiliers Sportsman’s Battalion and later served with the East Kent Regiment as a private.
He had been at the Front three months when he was shot in the left arm, and although he was able to make it back to England, he remained in great pain and died at Beckett Park Hospital, Leeds, in the summer of 1919.
How strange that summer must have felt to those who returned to first-class cricket.
On the one hand, the nightmare of war was finally behind them; on the other, it could scarcely have ventured far from their thoughts.
At least 210 English professional cricketers (out of 278 registered) are believed to have signed up, including much of the Yorkshire squad.
“It’s our duty, Mr Pullin,” Major Booth had told the Yorkshire cricket writer AW Pullin when he enlisted along with Yorkshire left-arm spinner Roy Kilner, who was wounded in the right wrist in the same attack in which Booth was killed.
In his notes in the 1919 Wisden almanack, editor Sydney Pardon described “a keen determination to carry on the game as if it had never been disturbed by the War”.
It encapsulated the irrepressible spirit of those who perished, and nowhere was that determination more evident than in Yorkshire.
The early feeling that the war would be finished by Christmas was quickly replaced by the harsh reality of a protracted conflict – one in which county clubs had to seriously consider their finances and facilities.
Yorkshire members responded so well that the club were able to collect more than £5,000 in subscriptions (around £220,000 today).
This enabled Yorkshire to stay afloat and maintain the upkeep of their various grounds, while it also helped them give allowances to their players when they participated in charity games.
The club sent around 500 parcels of cricketing materials to military camps at home and abroad, while it was estimated that more than £20,000 (around £880,000 today) was raised for war charities through the playing of matches. Yorkshire, therefore, could be rightly proud of their efforts in the war. In benighted times, they did all they could for the national cause.
When county cricket resumed, some things changed, and some things stayed the same.
At Yorkshire, the great all-rounders George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes carried on taking wickets and scoring runs as though the war had never happened, but the make-up of the side significantly altered.
For a start, Yorkshire had a new captain, David Burton, who first played for them as a Cambridge undergraduate in 1907. A useful middle-order batsman and brilliant fielder, he had served with the Northumberland Fusiliers before succeeding as captain Sir Archibald White, who led Yorkshire to a fourth-placed finish in 1914.
However, the loss of Major Booth, along with that of Alonzo Drake, who died from heart disease in February 1919, aged 34, meant Yorkshire were without their two opening bowlers from before the conflict. Booth had been Yorkshire’s leading wicket-taker in the 1914 Championship with 141 and Drake the second-highest with 135; they also both scored over 700 runs.
However, Abe Waddington – the man who nursed Major Booth at the Somme – formed a productive partnership with another incoming pace bowler in Emmott Robinson, while Yorkshire discovered a batting partnership that would go down in history.
In June, 1919, Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe opened together for the first time in first-class cricket, going on to form the most prolific opening partnership.
As though echoing the pervading uncertainty of life after war, the Championship underwent a short-lived experiment in 1919 of two-day games and 7.30pm finishes.
It proved hugely unpopular with players and public, Sydney Pardon writing in Wisden that “the advocates of the two-day match overlooked the needs of the human stomach”, while a league table determined on percentage of wins to matches played was also deemed unsatisfactory.
Yorkshire, who played more games than any other county, won 12 of their 26 fixtures to achieve the best percentage.
But Kent, who won six of their 14 fixtures, so nearly pipped them in a summer in which some clubs played as few as 12 games.
Without Booth and Drake, Yorkshire had not been expected to challenge strongly, although no-one had reckoned on the new opening combinations of Holmes and Sutcliffe, Robinson and Waddington.
Rhodes, in his 42nd year, also performed better than anticipated, finishing the country’s leading wicket-taker with 142 at 12.42, his career continuing until 1930.
Sutcliffe, who debuted in the opening match of 1919, topped Yorkshire’s batting with 1,601 runs, while Holmes came second with 1,470. David Denton, a pillar of the batting before the war, and now in his mid-40s, scored just over 1,000, while Waddington’s 95 wickets at 17.64 was a key factor.
Yorkshire found out they had won the Championship in quaint fashion to say the least.
They were at London’s Victoria Station, on their way back from their final game of the season against Sussex, when the news came through at 9pm.
Kent had needed to beat Middlesex at Lord’s to pip Yorkshire, and it was only when the aforementioned AW Pullin telephoned The Yorkshire Post that the result was determined.
Kent had been held to a draw several hours earlier, and Yorkshire were champions.
Truly, it was a different world, one in which Yorkshire’s cricketers were just glad to be alive.