Bygones: Now we can finally honour the Northern Division’s fallen heroes

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AS England completed the Test series against New Zealand on Armistice Day yesterday, imagine if Jake Connor, Elliott Whitehead and Jonny Lomax now joined the army and headed off to war.

Some members of Great Britain’s 1914 summer tour to Australia and New Zealand did just that.

Unfortunately, Leeds player Billy Jarman, Huddersfield’s Fred Longstaff and Rochdale’s Walter Roman all then perished during World War One.

With more than 2,500 senior and junior players having volunteered, there were many other idolised players from the Northern Union – soon to become rugby league – that suffered the same fate, too.

Most sports over the last 100 years have produced rolls of honour or similar memorials to honour and remember their brave fallen heroes.

Strangely, though, rugby league never did – until now.

Fittingly, this remarkable, untold story has finally been written in a wonderful book called “The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union”.

The level of painstaking research undertaken by authors Jane and Chris Roberts to complete this work is staggering but what a rewarding, worthy and important piece it is.

In total, they detail 69 players, from Batley Rifleman Walter Johnson to St Helens Lance Sergeant James Flanagan, Hull Second Lieutenant John Harrison to Wakefield Trinity Private Gordon Simpson, Warrington Private George Thomas to Bradford Northern Lance Sergeant James Ruck.

Through a combination of piecing together newspaper cuttings from the day (many of which are used, reprinted in their original format), speaking to family members of those who died and working with club historians, the book develops into a fascinating account.

In addressing each player individually, a picture is painted, from their childhood, to achieving rugby stardom, the decision to enlist into the Army and, ultimately, the greatest sacrifice of all.

Reading the tales of these young men, at one point bringing crowds to their feet across the country with their exploits on a rugby field, to soon after often being simply listed as war dead in their local papers, is another timely reminder of the sheer brutality of war.

Amid it all, there are valuable descriptions of what they were like as players, the skills and talent they brought to the myriad clubs they represented.

Juxtaposed with that are their feats on the battlefield, with accounts of their bravery and such like weaved into essentially a potted history of the war itself.

As it reads in the book’s introduction: “These men were in the peak of physical condition and at the very top of their profession, adored and idolised by thousands throughout the northern heartlands.

“They were the sporting superstars of their day. Yet, in the blink of an eye – forgotten.”

Thankfully, and rightfully, that is now no longer the case.