On the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross, John Ledger reveals two more rugby league players who won medals
FOR almost 90 years, Jack Harrison has held a special place in the sporting pantheon as the only rugby player to have been awarded the Victoria Cross.
Harrison, a free-scoring centre with Hull, was posthumously awarded the highest British honour for bravery in battle in 1917 after being killed in action fighting in France.
However, the Yorkshire Post has learned that two other Yorkshire rugby league players received the Victoria Cross during the First World War, Thomas Steele and Thomas Bryan, both of whom survived and returned home to be presented
with their medals by King George V.
While the playing careers of Steele and Bryan were not as distinguished as that of Harrison, whose 52 tries in the 1913-14 season remains a club record for Hull, their experience with Broughton Rangers and Castleford merits their ranking as bona fide rugby league heroes.
The news, which has emerged at the end of a year which marks the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross, was met with delight and incredulity by the Rugby Football League's executive chairman Richard Lewis.
"It's fantastic to hear that the sport has unearthed another two national heroes and incredible that such important aspects of rugby league's history have remained hidden until now," said Lewis.
"Jack Harrison has been a very familiar name to me for some time and the news that his achievement was not unique does not diminish his stature in the slightest."
Born in the then West Riding village of Springhead, near Oldham, Steele played three matches as a professional for Broughton, one of rugby league's founding clubs, and enjoyed a distinguished career as an amateur with his local club, Healey Street.
A sergeant in the 1st Seaforth Highlanders, he was awarded his VC for action at Sanna-I-Yat in Mesopotamia – now Iraq – on February 22, 1917 when his regiment were attempting to lift the Turkish siege of the town of Kut-al-Amara, 500 miles from Basra.
His citation reads: "At a critical moment, when a strong enemy counter-attack had temporarily regained some of the captured trenches, Sgt Steele rushed forward and assisted a comrade to carry a machine gun into position. He kept the gun in action until relieved, being mainly instrumental in keeping the remainder of the line intact.
"Some hours later, another strong attack enabled the enemy to reoccupy a portion of the captured trenches. Again, Sgt Steele showed the greatest bravery and, by personal valour and example, was able to rally troops who were wavering. He encouraged them to remain in their trenches and led a number of them forward. On this occasion he was severely wounded."
Steele was wounded on 11 other occasions during the War but continued to play rugby league for Healey Street after being demobbed. He died at his home in Springhead in 1978, aged 87.
Bryan, who moved to Yorkshire from Stourbridge, Worcestershire as an infant, played for Castleford in the 1906-07 season, at the end of which the club withdrew from the Northern Union for financial reasons.
A miner, he enlisted in April, 1915 and was drafted into the Northumberland Fusiliers, who were to become deeply indebted to the adopted Yorkshireman on April 9, 1917 during conflict with German troops at Vimy Ridge near Arras in France.
Bryan's citation, which was met by "thunderous applause" by a 40,000-strong crowd at St James' Park in Newcastle when the King presented him with his VC two months later, states: "Although wounded, this non-commissioned officer went forward alone, with a view to silencing a machine gun which was inflicting much damage.
"He worked up most skilfully along a communication trench, approached the gun from behind, disabled it and killed two of the team as they were abandoning the gun.
"As this machine gun had been a serious obstacle in the advance of the second objective, the results obtained by Lance Corporal Bryan's gallant action were very far-reaching."
After the War, Bryan returned to the pits before becoming a greengrocer at his own shop in Bentley, near Doncaster. He died in October 1945, aged 63.
The gallantry of Harrison, Steele and Bryan is marked by separate memorials in Hull, Oldham and Castleford, but author Tom Mather, whose book Missing In Action tells the story of 13 rugby league players who lost their lives fighting for their country, is urging the RFL to officially recognise the sport's greatest heroes.
"Although the RFL are working on it, we haven't yet got an official rugby league museum and until that comes off I feel it's imperative the sport's governing body acknowledge and celebrate the deeds of these three men," said Mather.
"Even if it's only three blue plaques at Red Hall, their bravery and the honour they brought to rugby league needs commemorating."