Northampton

Northampton Saints' rugby star who died at Gallipoli

Blair Swannell
Image caption Blair Swannell, centre, played 116 times for Northampton Saints between 1896 and 1904

One hundred years ago on Saturday, Allied troops landed at Gallipoli. Many of them would never return. Northampton Saints and England rugby union full-back Ben Foden traced the steps of one of them - the club's former star Blair Swannell.

Swannell was a Northampton Saints legend and both a British Lion and an Australian international.

As a man he was a renowned adventurer who fought with rebels in Uruguay and went searching for gold in Patagonia.

But when, as a major in the Australian army, he led his troops into action at Gallipoli he was killed within just 15 minutes of landing on the Turkish peninsula.

His story is not a fairytale, but it is inspirational.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ben Foden followed the journey of former Saints player Blair Swannell from Franklin's Garden to Gallipoli

I followed Swannell's footsteps to Gallipoli, where 100 years ago he fought against the Turks in the Australian army's most famous battle.

But what brought a man born in Weston Underwood, Buckinghamshire, in 1875 to the shores of Turkey and one of the fiercest battles of World War One?

My journey started at Franklin's Gardens, the home of Northampton Saints and my rugby home for the past seven years. It is a club with a rich vein of history.

As you eat your lunch, former players stare at you from their portraits on the wall of the Pavilion and in the Crooked Hooker bar.

One of the faces looking down at us belongs to Swannell.

People may not know his name but, as a man, as a rugby player and as a soldier, he should not be forgotten.

It is difficult to know where to start with such a remarkable and complex man.

An adventurer and traveller, Swannell seemed set for a life in the merchant navy, making his first trip to Australia as a 16-year-old.

Image copyright The Referee
Image caption Swannell, pictured right in scrum cap, played rugby in Sydney after settling in Australia

But he was destined to be a rugby union player and after a brief spell with Olney, he became a Saintsman.

Swannell was a forward, but more than anything else he was the team's enforcer; famed for his hard tackling. Looking at the pictures of him he does not look like a character you would want to bump into down a dark alley.

There are players in every team adored by their mates, but who opponents tell you are a nightmare. Those characters are always very inspirational, but outsiders look in and shake their heads.

Swannell was loved by the home crowd, less so by opponents - although it is unclear how team mates reacted to his habit of never washing his pair of old rugby breeches.

During his time at the Gardens between 1896 and 1904, he played 116 times. He could have appeared much more - and gained the England cap that always eluded him - if it had not been for his adventurous spirit.

Image copyright Australian War Memorial
Image caption Swannell, top left, trained his men in Egypt before fighting in Gallipoli
Image copyright Australian War Memorial
Image caption Blair Swannell, far left, was the first Northampton Saints player to represent Australia

As well as several trips to Australia, he visited America, Canada, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, where legend has it he fought alongside rebels.

His search for gold in Patagonia came despite warnings about the danger of cannibals living nearby.

And Gallipoli was not his first experience of war. He travelled twice to South Africa at the turn of the century to fight in the Boer War.

But there was still plenty of time for rugby and Swannell achieved one of the last few things on my rugby tick-list when he travelled to Australia to play for the British Lions in 1899.

He played in the second Test in Brisbane on 22 July making history for Saints by becoming the first in a long, proud list of Lions. He returned in 1904, playing in three wins against Australia and a defeat to New Zealand in Wellington.

His Lions Test record stands at six wins out of seven, but more revealing is a report in the Otago Witness: "He left the dominion with black eyes extending down to his neck, his mouth torn at the corners and minus many molars, but he still had the smile that could not be knocked off."

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Media captionBen Foden talks to historian Jon Cooksey about the last moments of Blair Swannell

Swannell eventually settled in Sydney, Australia in 1904. He played rugby for New South Wales and made Saints history again when he represented his adopted country in their first ever away match against New Zealand.

He loved living "Down Under", but his feelings were not always reciprocated.

Herbert Moran, who later captained Australia, said Swannell's "conception of rugby was one of trained violence".

It did not surprise me to find out that when war broke out in 1914 Swannell quickly enlisted in the Australian army.

By 25 April 1915 he was preparing to land at what became known as the Anzac Cove in Gallipoli.

The Allies attempted to secure the peninsula to break the resistance of the Ottoman Empire. They would end up fighting there for eight months, before the land campaign was abandoned.

Many thousands of troops died during the campaign, including on that first day.

Standing on Gallipoli beach I was struck by how picturesque and beautiful it is, but also the vicious nature of the terrain.

Thick gorse bushes lined the path as I climbed the cliff face. The soldiers who battled up that same route would not have had such a luxury. It would have been a very daunting task, clambering brambles and dodging bullets.

Image caption Ben Foden laid a wreath at the grave of former Saintsman Blair Swannell

Swanell was very much a rugby player in the thick of it; competitive with a willingness to fight for every yard.

As a rugby player we do pre-season hill runs when you think it will be impossible, but someone will lead the way. I think Blair would have been that man.

But despite his heroism and leadership, the war caught up with Swannell in the harshest way after just 15 minutes.

Pinned down by a sniper, he took charge of the situation, taking aim and shooting his foe. But the next second he was shot through the forehead. He died instantly.

When I heard how he had met his end I was saddened by how quickly it had happened. It was not a fairytale or the heroic ending I had expect.

Ben Foden penned and read the following message at the grave of Blair Swannell

From the turf of Franklin's Gardens where you stood,

To the shores of Gallipoli where you fell,

A truer Saintsman I know not,

Forever bleeding green, black and gold.

Rest in peace.

If I had a 10th of his bravery I would count myself a lucky man. Without men like Swannell we would not have been victorious on battlefields throughout the war.

I was honoured to be able to lay a wreath at his final resting place on behalf of Northampton Saints.

To stand there knowing I have played on the same turf he did and walked his final steps in his last battle was incredible.

When you talk about being a Saintsman there is a big belief the culture is one where we represent Northampton Saints wherever we are.

Swannell was the very essence of what being a Saintsman is all about.

At 17:30 BST on Saturday 25 April BBC Radio Northampton will be broadcasting a special programme on this subject.

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