Heroes of League – The Great War VCs

I have made the point many times that rugby league is a brutal sport. The players who play the game are the fittest and bravest athletes in the world. 

As I have said many times before in this ‘paper, I have come to respect and admire the players more than ever before following my appointment as the Chief Executive of League 13. My regard for them previously had already been high, but to see the effort they put in and the sacrifices they make to entertain us, all the while dealing with the same stresses and strains as the rest of us, is truly inspiring.

We all love rugby league and we will all have had our own heroes throughout our lives who have pulled on the shirt of our club. As a youngster it was Eric Ashton, as an adult it was Shaun Edwards; players who epitomised the way we would want to play for our clubs or who had a God-given talent that transcended the sport. Shaun famously played the vast majority of the 1990 Challenge Cup Final with a fractured cheekbone and risked losing his sight altogether with one more tackle. When asked why he did it he simply replied that he didn’t want the opposition “to know that they could hurt me”. That is the bravery we expect from our heroes and they become almost like deities to us, men to be praised and worshipped in equal measure.

This is something that I am sure we have all experienced at some point in the time that we have stood on the terraces. Yet, are they really heroes? Are they really the bravest of the brave?

2014 marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War. It became known as the “Great War”, due in large part to the vast number of casualties that it claimed. Huge numbers of men gave their lives to their respective cause and many families were left without husbands, fathers and sons. The incredible amount of blood spilled was only matched by the tears shed for those that fell.

It should be remembered that the men who fought in the war were not all professional soldiers. The majority of men who joined up had little or no choice in the matter and had to swap life in the pits, the factory or the office for a very different one in the trenches. Luckily, this is something that not many of us have or will ever experience.

Yet, despite those awful conditions and the hardships suffered by those men, we have lost sight, over time, of the true heroes of our sport. It is understandable, with the “Great War” a distant memory and many of those around at the time no longer with us, that the true legends of the game have been forgotten. I believe that it is our duty as a sport, especially one that celebrates its past, to remember the true heroes and preserve their stories for future generations.

You may, or may not, be aware that rugby league has the great distinction of having 3 holders of the Victoria Cross, the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a soldier, within its ranks. I am sure that we have all seen Don Fox’s missed goal-kick at Wembley many times before, but I have no doubt that many of you will be unfamiliar with the stories of 3 men who put their bodies on the line for Queen, country and rugby league. I must admit that I was unfamiliar with them prior to writing this piece and that is something we must change.

In many respects, the names of Jack Harrison, Thomas Steele and Thomas Bryan have been airbrushed from rugby league’s history. This is a crying shame. These men should be revered and honoured as three of the bravest men to ever play the sport. It would be a crime to allow their actions to have no legacy that places bravery and spirit as two of the most important qualities a player needs.

Jack Harrison is the most famous of the three and still holds the Hull FC record for most tries in a season, having scored 52 tries in the 1913-14 season. Harrison was also responsible for scoring one of Hull FC’s two tries in their Challenge Cup Final victory over Wakefield at Halifax and went on to score 106 tries in 116 matches for the club until 1916.

After completing his training, Harrison was commissioned as a probationary second lieutenant in the East Yorkshire Regiment and, after being posted to 6 Platoon, 11th Battalion, he led a patrol into no man’s land on 25th March 1917. Despite darkness and smoke from the enemy, Harrison repeatedly led his company forward under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire without success. The London Gazette reported that “this gallant officer single-handed made a dash at the machine-gun, hoping to knock out the gun and so save the lives of many of his company. His self-sacrifice and absolute disregard of danger was an inspiring example to all.”

Second Lieutenant Jack Harrison was awarded the Victoria Cross although his body was never found.

Thomas Bryan played rugby league for Castleford in the 1906/07 season but the club withdrew from the Northern Union, as it was then known, at the end of that season for financial reasons. Bryan was a lance-corporal in the 25th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers and was present at the Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917. Bryan had been wounded in an attack but, despite this, went forward alone, along a communications trench to try and disable a machine-gun that was inflicting significant casualties upon the Allied forces. Bryan successfully disabled the gun and killed two of the team operating it single-handed.

Lance-Corporal Thomas Bryan was awarded the Victoria Cross and was presented with his honour by King George V.

Thomas Steele played three matches for Broughton as a professional rugby league player and had a successful career with his local amateur club, Healey Street. On 22nd February 1917 in Sanna-I-Yat in Mesopotamia his regiment, the 1st Seaforth Highlanders, were attempting to lift the Turkish siege of the town of Kut-Al-Amara. 

Steele helped carry a machine-gun into place and helped keep the same gun operating under heavy fire to maintain the Allied line. In the same battle he later led a further push forward and was severely wounded, as he was on 11 other occasions during the war.

Sergeant Thomas Steele was awarded the Victoria Cross and was presented with his honour by King George V.

Those are the three men who have played rugby league and earned the highest military honour that can be bestowed upon someone in this country. The stories are frightening enough being re-read nearly one hundred years after they have occurred, so it is inconceivable to how frightening they were for the men involved. They are truly the bravest of the brave and the best that this sport has to offer. As I have said above, it is scandalous to think that they have been largely forgotten over time.

And these three are only the very tip of the iceberg.

There were a great many more rugby league players who, although they did not win the Victoria Cross, played a part in the Great War and gave up their lives so that we can enjoy the freedom we do today. The list of these men is significant, yet it is not recorded anywhere and they do not receive the praise that they should, all these years later.

Rugby league prides itself on the values of the sport, honesty, integrity, bravery. It cannot be right that the bravest amongst us are not remembered for their sacrifices they made. We need to right this wrong for them, for ourselves and for those who will come after us. 

To not honour the greatest of the great is a crime. 

To forget them would be worse.

It is for these reasons that League 13 is proud to honour each of these brave men as a Hero of League© and additionally announce the creation not only of its own Hall of Honour but also proudly inducts Jack Harrison, Thomas Steele and Thomas Bryan as its inaugural entries. We will seek to mark this in an appropriate way at the point of the WW1 Centenary. 

I would like to contact the immediate relatives of the three Heroes of League in question if someone reading this article can put us in touch.

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