World War One: The story of Scotland's rugby stars

Scotland rugby team, 1914 Image copyright Scottish Rugby Union
Image caption The Scotland team that played England in March, 1914. Six did not survive the war.

Thirty-one Scottish international rugby players died in World War One, more than from any other country.

Eric Milroy's mother Walteria used to give her son some sage advice before he took to the rugby field. "Don't get hurt today. Remember - keep well back."

For the Watsonians and Scotland scrum-half, his mother's thoughtful instructions were a little impractical as he was never far from the action.

On 13 July, 1916, Milroy found himself in the thick of it again - in the trenches of the Western Front. He wrote to his mother: "We are in some slight trouble to-morrow. So I am just warning you that there is to be no 'keeping well back' then."

Five days later, Lieutenant Milroy was killed in the Battle of the Somme.

Now, a century on, their story will be remembered by Scotland's War - a new project highlighting the country's role in the conflict.

"His [Milroy's] mother never believed he was dead," says Sir Eric Kinloch Anderson.

"She nourished the hope for years that he would come back. She left the light on in the front room where they lived for years and years, in case he should come back during the night and not find his way up the path."

Sir Eric - a former Gordonstoun and Fettes teacher, who was headmaster at Eton and taught Prince Charles, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Tony Blair over the years - is the great-nephew of Milroy, and is very proud to be associated with "the hero of the family".

His brother Douglas Kinloch Anderson, chairman of the Kinloch Anderson highland dress specialists in Edinburgh, feels the same.

Image copyright Eric Kinloch Anderson
Image caption A section of Eric Milroy's letter to his mother, written a few days before he died

He says: "They were real beacons on the way life should be and the responsibilities that people should take."

Eric Milroy's last game for Scotland was as captain in the 16-15 defeat by England at Inverleith in March 1914.

Of the 30 men who took to the field that day, 11 would not survive the war.

Image copyright Scottish Rugby Union
Image caption England went on to win the Five Nations championship after beating Scotland in March 1914 (pictured)

The man behind the research on the rugby players for the Scotland's War project is Alistair McEwen.

Read Alistair McEwen's research on all 31 Scottish international rugby players who died in the Great War (PDF)

"Scotland had a higher proportion of deaths per head of the population than any other nation in the UK," he says.

"It is not surprising that there were more rugby players than any other nation. It is just a reflection of the casualties that occurred within Scotland in all spheres of life."

Scotland's War

  • 690,000 Scots served during World War One
  • 65% of those Scots volunteered between 1914-16, compared with 52% in the rest of the UK
  • Estimates of Scots who died range between 75,000 and 182,000

Source: Ewen Cameron, Professor of Scottish History at University of Edinburgh

In the years before World War One, the men who played for Scotland were amateurs who tended to be educated at private schools such as George Watson's in Edinburgh.

The rugby stars, along with their counterparts in football and cricket, were celebrities to the other soldiers. When war broke out many of these educated rugby players found themselves in the officer ranks, which was not a safe place to be.

As historian Dan Snow has highlighted, around 12% of the British army's ordinary soldiers were killed during the war compared to 17% of its officers.

Of the 31 Scottish players to die, 26 were officers.

Nigel McCrery, who has created television programmes including Silent Witness and New Tricks, wrote a book about the rugby internationals killed in WW1 called Into Touch.

Image copyright Scotland's War
Image caption David Bedell-Sivright (left) and Eric Milroy were two Scottish rugby stars who died in the Great War

He says: "When I was doing the chapter on the Scottish players, you read the way they were killed - 'leading from the front, in the enemy's trench'.

"They were remarkable men. I don't think we will ever see their like again."

Nick Oswald, who co-wrote The Essential History of Rugby Union: Scotland, added: "I think the rugby players - along with everybody else who gave their lives for their countries - should be remembered and held in huge esteem.

"The rugby players as a group, particularly with the high amount of officers - they were leading from the front."

Scotland's War, a University of Edinburgh-led project, received a £75,000 funding boost from the Heritage Lottery Fund last week.

At the beginning of next year, a website will be launched featuring the stories of the rugby players and many more Scots, including Victoria Cross winners and others from every corner of the country.

One of the most famous players highlighted is David Bedell-Sivright.

Capped 22 times for Scotland, he was also the captain of the British Isles - a precursor of the British and Irish Lions. He is renowned as one of the hardest men to ever play the game, and a pioneer of the wing forward position.

Rugby internationals who died in World War One

Image copyright World Rugby Museum, Twickenham
Image caption Five members of this England squad from March 1914 were among 28 England players who died in the conflict
  • Scotland - 31
  • England - 28
  • France - 21
  • Wales - 14
  • Ireland - 12
  • New Zealand - 12
  • Australia - 9
  • South Africa - 5
  • British Isles - 2
  • United States of America - 1

Source: Nigel McCrery, Into Touch

He played in three Triple Crown winning sides in 1901, 1903 and 1907 and also became the Scottish heavyweight amateur boxing champion in 1909.

When not terrorising the opposition on the pitch, he studied medicine and served as a surgeon in World War One. At Gallipoli, he was bitten by an insect and suffered acute septicaemia. He died, aged 34, in September 1915.

The stories of the rugby players also reflects the pointless waste of life that occurs in war.

Image copyright Scotland's War
Image caption Walter Sutherland, who was killed a month before the war ended

Second Lieutenant Walter Sutherland, a Hawick man who was capped 13 times for Scotland, was killed in October 1918 - a month before the war ended - when he was hit by a stray shell as he cycled back to his men.

Another international who is sometimes not included in the list of players killed in the war is John Dods, a forward who won eight caps. He worked as a factor [estate manager] for a civilian contractor to the Royal Navy.

While at anchor, a party was held on board HMS Natal and Dods attended with his wife and three children. An unexplained explosion destroyed the ship and claimed the lives of at least 404 people, including Dods and his whole family.

For the Scottish Rugby Union, the sacrifice of those men who died in WW1 is remembered on a memorial at Murrayfield.

Isobel Irvine, Scottish Rugby media manager, says: "Scottish Rugby is massively proud of the contribution made by all the Scotland internationalists who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country in all conflicts.

"We especially remember the 30 internationalists who never returned from active service in the First World War, and those who lost their lives before and since, every year at a Remembrance Day service at the Memorial Arch within Murrayfield's ground.

"This year's service, of course, held a special poignancy, underlined when looking at the team photograph of the last international before the war, against England on 21 March 1914, and seeing the number of players who never returned to pull on the international jersey."

Image copyright SNS
Image caption Remembrance services now take place at the war memorial at Murrayfield Stadium.

The Scotland's War website - a collaboration involving a number of organisations including councils and the National Library of Scotland - is expected to go live at the beginning of 2015.

It will be added to until 2019, and is then expected to be preserved by the National Library.

Yvonne McEwen, the project's director, says: "I am hoping that people will have a very different perception about Scotland's role in the war by the time we are finished this.

"Anecdotally, we have talked about how Scotland gave so much to the war effort. There has never been a real concerted effort to find out how much Scotland gave.

"I am hoping that by the time we have completed this project people will realise how much this little nation gave to the war effort."

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