My grandfather was born in 1899. Just right to serve in two world wars. He was a talented sportsman (played international rugger in the 1920s), and saw many of the best members of his school XV go straight from school into the army, and on to the endless casualty lists. When he left school in the summer of 1917, he went straight into the Durham Light Infantry, and by Armistice Day he was a German prisoner of war.
For years, I thought that the photograph above was taken when he was in his mid 20s. It is only very recently that I discovered he was 18 when it was taken; he had just left school, just swapped his Marlborough uniform for that of the Durham Light Infantry. My younger son goes to the same school, plays rugger on the same pitches, and is also a fly half. I cannot imagine - I have tried, but I cannot cannot - what it can have felt like to be at school, watching the older boys enlist and be killed, week by week, month by month, year by year, knowing that soon it would be your turn. One family lost three sons in quick succession; my grandfather played games in the same team as two of them - these were boys he knew well.
During the second world war, my grandfather joined the Royal Artillery, and just before Christmas 1941 died on active service in Wandsworth, where he ran a searchlight battery. Not very glamorous. This morning I visited his memorial at Mortlake Cemetery, where I was unexpectedly overcome with an intense feeling of grief for a man I've never met, but whose birthday I share.
This afternoon, I was at Twickenham, home of England rugby, and home of the Harlequins at the time my grandfather played for that great club. There I found a team photograph taken before my grandfather's first match for England, against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1922. He looked strangely vulnerable - a mixture of apprehension and excitement. The photograph below was probably taken during that match. V.G. Davies - my grandfather - is on the left. Heaven knows what treatment the spongeman is giving his unfortunate team-mate!
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