One hundred years ago...
True Grit
Huw Richards
February 5, 2014
Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison VC, taken approximately 1915
Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison VC ©

Next week will see the centenary of Arthur Harrison's debut for England on February 14 1914. Once known largely as the answer to a quiz question - 'Who was the only England rugby player to win the Victoria Cross ?' - Harrison has been rescued from this comparative obscurity by current coach Stuart Lancaster choosing to name an honours board to his bravest players after him.

While much has been made, not least by EHD Sewell in his book on rugby's war dead, of the speed and unanimity with which rugby players flocked to join the forces in 1914, Harrison had no need to join up. He was already a career naval officer, 12 years on from enrolling as a cadet at Dartmouth Royal Naval College.

Son of an officer in the Royal Fusiliers, he might perhaps have been expected to head for the army on leaving Dover College. But a childhood in Devon - he was born in Torquay in 1886 - appears to have induced a fascination with the sea.

A Devon childhood might also, had school not done the job, have been calculated to inspire interest in rugby. The late 1890s and 1900s were a golden area for Devon, which played in seven County Championship finals, winning five and sharing another with perennial rival Durham, between 1899 and 1912.

It was also a time when the Navy played a considerable part in the national game, although service duties could sometimes conflict with representative calls. England centre Percy Royds, later to be an Admiral, an MP, president of the RFU, IRB member and chronicler of the history of the game's rules, was unable in 1900 to add to the caps he had won in the previous two seasons because he was instead winning medals for his assistance in putting down the Boxer Rising in China.

Royds and his turn of the century contemporary James 'Bim' Baxter were to follow playing lives with long, influential careers as administrators. England's first Grand Slam in 1913 was won under the leadership of Norman Wodehouse, cousin of P.G and yet another admiral-to-be.

And when Lieutenant Arthur Harrison was called as England's sole debutant against Ireland on Valentine's Day 1914, he joined three team-mates from the United Services, Portsmouth club. These were the Navy half-back pairing of WJA 'Dave' Davies and Francis Oakeley and the soldier Harold Harrison.

Arthur Harrison, described by Sewell as 'a very sturdy and tireless forward', appears to have been something of a late developer as a rugby player. It perhaps did not help that there was no Hampshire county team until 1910, but Harrison did not break into it until 1912. Nor, although the Navy team which played annual matches against the Army from 1907 was still officers-only, did he make it into that team until after he had played for England. When on leave he played for Rosslyn Park, giving as his address "HM Torpedo Boat no 16, Portsmouth".

The Ireland match, England's second of the season following a 10-9 win over Wales, was noted for the presence not only of King George V, visiting Twickenham for the first time since ascending the throne in 1910, but Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, currently engaged in the tricky business of trying to pilot Irish Home rule through Parliament. They saw Ireland take an early seven point lead, before England fought back to win 17-12, with wing Cyril Lowe - later a notable RAF air ace - scoring twice. The naval contribution did not go unnoticed, with the Times reporting that 'The English forwards, stiffened in the scrums by the two Harrisons, did better than against Wales'.

Three weeks the two Harrisons were adversaries, introduced to the King again when, along with Prince Albert (later George VI), he attended the Army v Navy match at Queen's club. Afflicted by one of the fogs which were a feature of Queens' notorious micro-climate, this was a less happy occasion for Arthur as the Army won for only the second time in eight seasons.

Arthur Harrison did not play in the Calcutta Cup match in which England clinched the Triple Crown. Stephen Cooper, who describes his life in Final Whistle, his chronicle of 15 Rosslyn Park players killed in the First World War, implies that he was unavailable, writing that "the Calcutta Cup match was sacrificed to the Royal Navy's call".

But he was recalled for the final match against France, which England won 39-13 in Paris and in which the dominance of their forwards made possible a blizzard of scores by a brilliant back division including Lowe and skipper Ronald Poulton-Palmer. France's forwards included Jean-Jacques Conilh de Beyssac, who had played for Rosslyn Park.

Harrison's charge down that narrow gangway of death was a worthy finale to the large number of charges which, as a forward of the first rank, he had led down many a rugby football ground

Less than six months later Harrison was involved heavily in far more consequential international conflict aboard the battlecruiser HMS Lion. His ship was one of the leading protagonists of the Battle of Heligoland on 28th August, sinking the German ship Koln. As the flagship of Vice- Admiral David Beatty, Lion also went through the Battle of Dogger Bank (1915) and in 1916 the Battle of Jutland, the main naval engagement of the war.

Harrison was mentioned in despatches after Jutland. He appears in photographs of the time as a cheerful, evidently determined figure with his cap at the jaunty angle popularised by Beatty and a jutting, determined jaw. He was, as Stephen Cooper points out, evidently proud of that jaw - choosing on one occasion to be photographed in profile - and giving a clear air of 'a man who led with his chin'.

He continued to play in rugby matches at Old Deer Park - in those days Rosslyn Park's ground - in which, Sewell reported, he showed that he was "so fit that he would have played many times for England but for the war".

That evident fitness helped determine his role in the Zeebrugge Raid on April 23 1918, described by Winston Churchill as 'the finest feat of arms of the Great War'. This was a volunteer-only mission devised by Roger Keyes, later Admiral of the Fleet, whose aim was to stop the Germans using the Bruges-Zeebrugge canal as a route to get U-boats into the open sea .

Harrison, who was promoted Lieutenant-Commander in 1916, was put in charge of training the 1700 participants to peak fitness, then given the task of commanding one of the landing parties whose task was to disable the German machine guns mounted on the mole in Zeebrugge harbour.

Coming alongside the mole exposed HMS Vindictive, the ship to which Harrison had been seconded, to withering German fire. A number of officers were killed while Harrison was so seriously wounded that he was taken for dead and hauled below deck with that prominent jaw shattered.

Shortly afterwards he amazed both medics and his men by appearing on deck and insisting on leading his landing party. He charged up the ship's gangway and was shot down, as were all but two of his party. The wounded survivors were unable to retrieve his body.

Alfred Carpenter, captain of Vindictive was later to write that "Harrison's charge down that narrow gangway of death was a worthy finale to the large number of charges which, as a forward of the first rank, he had led down many a rugby football ground."

He was the 25th of the 26 England players killed during the war - cricketer Reggie Schwarz completed the list as an early victim of the influenza epidemic, shortly after the armistice in November 1918. He was also among the 84 Rosslyn Park players definitely established as war casualties by Stephen Cooper's remarkable research - among whom Captain Charles Tuckey was also a Zeebrugge victim.

Eight Victoria crosses were awarded for an action which cost 188 lives, but achieved its objective by blocking the canal. Two, including Harrison, were awarded posthumously. The citation spoke of his 'indomitable resolution and courage of the highest order' in pressing the attack when already seriously wounded and in great pain The medal, presented in 1919 to his mother, has been since 1967 on display at Dartmouth.

It made him the fourth international player to be awarded the VC, following a trio - Robert Johnson (1899), Tom Crean (1901) and Fred Harvey (1917) - who were all, by a remarkable coincidence, not only Irishmen but members of the same club, the Wanderers of Dublin.

Harrison stands alone as an English international winner and, Stuart Lancaster hopes, an inspiration to a generation of players who, he and we can only hope, never have to face anything scarier than George North in full flight.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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