Nov 06, 2018
Remembrance Day: Saracens WWI Project
With thanks to Colin Veitch & Tom Weir for their research – for more details head to www.saracensrugbyww1.com. Fans can read more in this weekend's matchday programme.
Upon the outbreak of war on 4th August 1914, Saracens 1st XV forward Walter Cairns Black wrote to his parents, confirming his decision to enlist with the London Scottish Regiment:
Dear Father and Mother,
I am writing this letter on the eve of what may be the greatest war the world has known. I have been thinking seriously and have come to the conclusion it is my duty to join the Territorial Force. I know you have another two sons there, and you may consider it too big a sacrifice to have half your family on active service, but the way I look at it is this: I am healthy, strong, unmarried, and beyond you two have no ties in the world. It is men like myself to whom the country ought to look for help…
Black’s evocative letter continues to both inspire and move the modern reader and typifies the patriotic commitment of so many young men from this era. ‘Wattie’ was swiftly deployed to France with his Battalion on 16th September. He sent letters back to his family on a regular basis, describing the action he was facing on the Ypres and Messines frontline, imploring them ‘Try and not worry about me, just leave matters in the hands of God, and if all is well I will be back safe and sound’.
Tragically, Wattie was killed in action, shot in the forehead by a German sniper on 22nd December, 1914. He remains, to-date, the first Saracens player to lose his life in the service of his country in the First World War. Sadly, he was not to be our final casualty.
Our research project, to identify former players of Saracens Rugby Football Club who served in WW1, relied initially on a solitary piece of information. The club history, written in 1926, listed six players of the 1913/14 season 1st XV known to have lost their lives. However, Saracens had been fielding three or four sides each week in this era, and such a low casualty count amongst our young players appeared unlikely. Piecing together fragments of information gleaned from clubhouse photos, membership books, newspaper obituaries and match reports, we have so far definitively confirmed the fatalities of 11 Saracens players, and have many other casualties still being researched.
On this centenary of the 1918 Armistice, however, we should point out that our research has not simply been about uncovering and recording the deaths of our WWI players. Some of the project’s best tales have emerged from our interaction with the descendants of our Saracens who survived the 1914-18 conflict. These include the story of Sydney Sylvester - a 16-year-old scrum-half debuting in the first team in 1911 - whose grandson shared with us his war diary and photos, some of which took pride of place in the ‘Lest We Forget’ exhibition at the World Rugby Museum, Twickenham.
The Saracens WWI project is not over. Our research will continue with the ultimate aim of identifying all our former Saracens who gave their lives during the conflict. Our website will stay online and will continue to display our findings as we uncover their stories www.saracensrugbyww1.com
On Sunday we will join together with the Saracens Professional and Amateur Clubs to record the names of those players we have identified to-date. A memorial board carrying their names will be unveiled and will be mounted in the clubhouse, so that their sacrifice in the 1914-18 conflict may continue to be acknowledged by future generations of Saracens players, fans and families.