It is dark. It is cold and it is starting to rain. I’m standing in a churchyard in the village of Paissy (which, quite frankly, is in the middle of nowhere) with former England rugby captain and world cup winner, Lewis Moody, and journalist Martin Fletcher.
Thankfully, the churchyard isn’t locked (my wall climbing days are behind me) and we’ve two torches between the three of us as we search for the reason we’ve come here – the grave of Captain Charles Edward Wilson. I’m equally grateful that the village seems deserted. I’m not sure my French is up to explaining what three men are doing here on a Tuesday night in January.
So why are we here? Why this particular grave? Well, for the answer you have to wind the clock back to November 2017 and the launch of the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation at Tower Hill in London.
Following our partnership with the Rugby Football Union in 2017, Lewis had very kindly agreed to be an Ambassador for our new Foundation. Before the launch we were chatting with Martin. I don’t know how we got there but we started talking about the possibility of visiting the grave of every former England rugby international who died during WW1, commemorated by the CWGC in France and Belgium (22 in all out of the 27 who died). After all, their incredible stories are exactly what the foundation has been set up to do – discover, preserve and use the stories of the men and women the CWGC commemorates to engage a new generation in the importance of remembrance.
Enthused by the idea, Martin goes off to “sell” the story to the Times, and I go off to work out the practicalities.
And so we meet in January at the Rose and Poppy Gates at Twickenham – a fitting place to start our pilgrimage. And pilgrimage feels like the right word to describe our trip. All three of us are rugby fans at heart and over the course of the next few days, as we drive from site to site, sharing the stories of each man along the way, there are moments of laughter, deep emotion and reverent silence.
The car’s full of fuel. The sat nav is programmed and we have a boot full of mini rugby balls to lay at each memorial site.
On the journey, as Martin questions Lewis for the article he’s writing, it is fascinating to listen to this England great tell of how these men have always inspired him and how the story of his own family’s war service and sacrifice helped motivate him as player, captain and person.
On that first day we tackle (no pun intended) Boulogne, Etaples and Roye with relative ease, but at Roye it is already dusk and at least another hour and a half to Paissy. In the gathering gloom we agree that we can’t simply miss a site and so we head off into the dark.
It is almost 9pm when my torch illuminates the grave of Charles Wilson. The grave is well-kept and is in a corner of the churchyard with four other CWGC markers. There is nothing to indicate his illustrious sporting past, or that his son was to lose his life in World War Two and is commemorated by us in Tunisia.
We are quiet as Lewis writes a tribute on the rugby ball we’ve brought with us and lays it, reverently, at the graveside.
When we get back in the car and head to Arras for the night, there’s no sound, no talking. Each of us lost with our own thoughts.
Early the next morning in thick fog we make our way to Thiepval, given we couldn’t make the site the night before.
At Thiepval four England internationals are named. In fact the memorial bears the names of sporting heroes from many nations and sports. Among the England players is the oldest international to die (Rupert Edward Inglis), the youngest (Alfred Frederick Maynard) and two whom I sense Lewis has a particular affinity (John Abbott King and Lancelot Slocock).
King was the shortest man to wear an England jersey. His height of 5ft 5in (1.65m) was in contrast to his chest measurement of 46 inches, giving him the nickname of “Pocket Hercules”. In his last letter home he wrote, “So long as I don’t disgrace the old Rugby game, I don’t think I mind”.
He died on 9 August 1916 at Guillemont. His Battalion colleague and fellow England international Lancelot Slocock died fighting alongside him on the same day. One imagines they perhaps died side by side, as they played side by side on a different field of battle.
At Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery the mood changes completely thanks to the photograph and stories of the man we’ve come to visit – Alexander Findlater Todd. He’s smiling in the photograph and wearing a stripped blazer and a hat at a jaunty angle. It matches the stories of him on a tour to South Africa with what would later become known as the British Lions.
"I went to lunch with the rest of the team to Cecil Rhodes’ place. Miss Rhodes, his sister, presided and gave us a very good spread, with Veuve Cliquot ’89 to drink. It was a good job that we had an hour or two to spare after lunch before playing."
Sensibly, he restricted himself to just the four glasses! I just wish I had a bottle at hand to toast him at his graveside. I think he’d like that.
At each site we visit, Lewis leaves a personal message on one of the mini rugby balls. At the Menin Gate they catch the eye of a visiting school. The students crowd round Lewis as he explains what we are doing and once the obligatory selfies are taken, they too read the names and, I hope, are inspired to find out more – not just about our rugby players, but all those named and remembered by the CWGC. If they do, then the words just repeated after the Last Post “We will remember them” will have true meaning and my job’s done.