It has been a hectic week or so since the publication of The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union about those professional rugby league players killed in the Great War. It has also been far more tiring and emotionally draining than anticipated. I’m more used to being closeted away in archives or working on my laptop at home ferreting through records and writing research reports with only my trusty four-legged friend to keep me company.
Dealing with media interviews and attending high-profile launch events isn’t normally on my to-do list. So I’ve found it exhausting.
Imperial War Museum North, Poppy Wave – by Jane Roberts
But it was a huge honour and privilege to go to The Imperial War Museum North to attend the unveiling of the England Rugby League commemorative jersey. This shirt will be worn on 11 November 2018 in the Third Test in the series against New Zealand. It will also raise funds for the Royal British Legion as part of their ‘Thank You’ movement, recognising all the First World War generation who served, sacrificed and changed our world, be it those lost their lives, those who returned and those on the Home Front.
More details of the shirt launch, including where to buy one, can be found here. Details of the ‘Thank You‘ campaign are here.
Chris and I with Tom and George Burgess in the England Commemorative Shirt
As part of the launch Jamie Peacock, former England and Great Britain captain, along with Yorkshire-born South Sydney players Tom and George Burgess were presented with copies of our book. The book will also be used to provide context to the England Rugby League team’s visit to the Western Front on 20 October 2018.
Chris presenting Tom and George Burgess with copies of The Greatest Sacrifice
In between there have been media interviews with national and local radio, plus TV and press.
I have copies of The Greatest Sacrifice, which can be signed and dedicated if required. I can also drop off locally around Batley and Dewsbury areas. If so the cost is £13.50. Post within the UK increases the cost to £14.50. Payment can either be via cheque (UK) or bank transfer. My contact email is email@example.com.
On Saturday I saw my book for the first time. The finished product looks amazing.
As the publisher said:
What began as an idea in the press box at Huddersfield is now one of the definitive history books about rugby league. Scratching Shed Publishing is honoured to publish a tribute to the 69 men who fell in WWI by Chris & Jane Roberts….
Chris and I echo these sentiments. It has been a real privilege to be able to research the lives of these men.
The publishers have done a fantastic job, supporting us throughout the process of writing this long overdue and important rugby league history book. But above all this is more than a rugby league book, a sporting history book, or a World War One book. It is the story of the impact of war on individual men and their families from across Great Britain.
I also have copies for sale, which can be signed if required. I can also drop off locally. If so the cost is £13.50. Post within the UK increases the cost to £14.99. Payment can either be via cheque (UK) or bank transfer. My contact email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The book will also shortly be available from the usual book retailers.
If any family history, rugby league or local history groups would like Chris and I to do a talk, please contact me on the above email address.
The final countdown is on and I can finally reveal the title and cover of the book I’ve been working on with my husband Chris for what seems like forever. ‘The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union‘ about rugby league players who were killed during the 1st World War will be published towards the end of August.
Seeing the cover has made it all seem very real.
If anyone tells you writing a book is easy, don’t believe them. It’s been month upon month of hard work. I didn’t realise how it would take over my life. From the endless research to redraft upon redraft and then the proof reading stage which went on for an eternity. The final version was never actually the final as each time we read it we’d make changes. I’ve gone through it that many times I was even reciting it in my sleep! Pregnancy and giving birth was far quicker and easier.
But it has been a labour of love. The more I researched the lives of these men the more I wanted to learn about them and my determination that this should be a fitting tribute to their lives increased. I hope the final version does them justice.
This is the latest update about progress on my Great War Rugby League book. And it is positive. The admin logjam of January has been broken. There are still issues, but not on last month’s scale.
As January drew to a close, I called a temporary halt on player research. Instead, as planned, during February I once more concentrated on a mixture of family history research for others and Pharos Advanced Certificate coursework. I still have about 15 men left to research for the book. This work is now scheduled for late March/early April.
That’s not to say my book work was shelved entirely. February included three notable book-related pieces of work.
The major event was a mid-month visit to London, which included time at The National Archives. As you can see from the picture, on my days there I didn’t leave until late. But even here, my visit was a combination of book research, coursework and research for others. Chris accompanied me, and he focused on the officers’ records. I chipped in as and when required. And yes, the list was drawn up in advance and the appropriate files pre-ordered.
I was also keen to look at the records associated with the HMS Osmanieh, torpedoed off Alexandria on 31 December 1917, with in the loss of almost 200 troops, sailors and nurses. One of those to loose his life was a player we are researching.
I’ve also been busy helping source photographs. I’ve had a lovely response from families linked with the men. I’ve also had fantastic help from those with no personal connection, but who are simply keen to ensure those men whose lives were cut so tragically short a century ago are still remembered today.
The final notable event was a talk at the Huddersfield RL Heritage Group to gauge what people felt about the direction we were taking. The response was extremely positive and confirmed we were doing the right thing in embarking on this project.
Our Rugby League Great War book is due to be published in the summer. So each month, until publication, I’m doing a brief update. This is the January review.
First off: I’ve learned my working style is a total contrast to that of my co-author and husband. One year on and my inner civil servant is still alive and kicking. Administration, organisation, project planning, milestones. Red/amber/green traffic lights. A need for proper, documented information so anyone picking the work up knows exactly what’s been done and what needs doing.
Then there’s Chris. Laid back to permanently snoring sums it up. As long as he’s writing and chatting he’s happy.
I’d blocked January off for book research, based on the numbers of remaining men he’d given me. Only for him to reveal early in the month that he’d underestimated. Significantly. The number remaining was almost double what he’d told me before Christmas. To him, this was but a minor issue, of absolutely no consequence. For me January proved a period of mild panic.
And as January drew to a close, with over 30 men completed in the month, I find I’ve still 16 more men to research. The panic ratchets up a further notch. Hence the dearth of blog posts. In fact a lack of anything else, including social life and leisure time. Meanwhile my co-author feels it’s all going swimmingly.
I’m doing the research. Chris is doing the administration, co-ordination and writing. Except, ever the journalist, he’s focussed on writing. Anything else doesn’t matter.
If only I could step back from research, I’d take over all but the writing. As it is, I simply don’t have time….because of the numbers miscalculation.
Every week I go over the same “to-do” list with him, which consists of:
a list of officers which we need for our visit to The National Archives (based on my research);
a list of newspapers to consult at the British Library, again based on and extracted from my documented research;
a list of photographs to take on our next battlefield visit, or player-related ones left to source. Once more it’s all in my notes, which he has and needs to pull together; and
playing career start and end dates to aid my research.
Every week he tells me he’s done it. Then I realise he hasn’t done it. Then he says he meant to do it, but got distracted. Then I say it needs doing. And so it continues in ever decreasing circles.
The upside: he’s a fantastic writer and his love, enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject shines through. Today though is his admin day, or so he’s promising. The photo below is the evidence.
Maybe it’s a false dawn though and I can save myself a blog post, as my end of February update will be the same.
I am very pleased and excited to announce that I am working on a new book. The scary thing is I have a partner in this venture – my husband.
Chris is a rugby league journalist, covering the sport for over 30 years. He also shares my interest in World War 1 history and has spent many years studying the conflict. He recently completed an Oxford University online course “The First World War in Perspective” and decided to channel his knowledge into a new project.
Many sports have produced books to commemorate their Great War fallen. To date there has been nothing produced to honour all the professional players of the Northern Union, the forerunner of the Rugby Football League. Chris decided to remedy this, and has enlisted my help.
Somme Poppies – Photo by Jane Roberts
It is a huge undertaking. Having written a book for charity about the 76 men on the Batley St Mary’s War Memorial a few years ago I know what a big challenge it will be.
Chris is currently identifying all those players on club books at the outbreak of war. In this endeavour he has received fantastic help from the rugby league community, with in excess of 100 players who died now identified. I have started work on the genealogical research angle.
It is hoped the book will be published later in 2018, the centenary of the Armistice.
If anyone has any information they wish to contribute, Chris can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively my email address is email@example.com
Some debate occurred in the Yorkshire press in March 1915 as to who was the first Northern Union player in Yorkshire and beyond to obtain a commission in The Great War.
The “Huddersfield Daily Examiner” and “Yorkshire Evening Post” declared that in Yorkshire the accolade fell to Wakefield Trinity’s William Lindsay Beattie who was appointed temporary 2nd Lieutenant in the Border Regiment on 15 March 1915. He lost his life on 27 January 1917. Lancashire-based Wigan’s Gwyn Thomas was reputed to be the first commissioned Northern Union player. However, I believe this event occurred towards the end of 1914. Thomas survived the war and joined Huddersfield in 1919.
Both papers overlooked Batley winger, Robert Randerson.
Robert, (or Bob as he was known according to the local press), joined the Leeds University Officer’s Training Corps (OTC) shortly after Britain’s entry into the War. “The London Gazette” of 25 August 1914 lists Robert as amongst those OTC cadets and ex-cadets appointed as temporary 2nd Lieutenants. Promotion quickly followed. In January 1915“The London Gazette” announced his appointment to temporary Lieutenant with effect from 10 December 1914. Only months later, on 15 May 1915, he became a temporary Captain as notified in a June edition of the same official journal.
Letters of correction to the papers followed; and the Batley Club itself was adamant the honour belonged to its player. In its Annual Meeting of May 1915 it pronounced:
“Randerson…..was the first N.U. player to receive a commission. This honour has been claimed by others but it belongs to Lieut. Randerson and the Batley Club”
Within weeks of this discussion, on 7 August 1915, Robert was to lose his life in the “Yorkshire Landings” at Gallipoli.
Robert was born in York in late 1890, the son of Robert and Annie Randerson (neé Wilkinson). His siblings included Annie (1886), Benjamin (1889), William (1892), John Wilkinson (1897) and George (1899).
The family were comfortably off with Robert senior earning his living as a master corn miller then as a grocer and corn merchant. By 1901 the family lived on Haxby Road, York and remained here at the time of Robert’s death.
They were an old Catholic family with strong religious convictions and connections. After training at Ushaw, Robert’s uncle Benjamin served as a priest initially briefly at St Patrick’s, Leeds, then St Charles Borromeo, Hull and lastly, until his death in 1897, at St Hilda’s, Whitby. In the 1911 census Robert’s sister, Annie, was a nun residing at St Wilfrid’s Priory, Arundel. She was employed as a head mistress at the town’s St Phillip’s Infants’ School. His younger brother, John, was a boarder at the Franciscan College at Cowley, Oxfordshire.
The 1911 census shows Robert, a former pupil at Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School in York, following his sister Annie’s educational career path. A student at St Mary’s College, Hammersmith, the objective of this establishment was to train Catholic men to serve as teachers in Catholic schools throughout the country. Robert demonstrated his sporting ability whilst studying here. In an inter-College sports contest he broke all previous records for the 100 yard flat race, covering the ground in a shade over 10 seconds.
Robert came to Batley in around 1913 as an assistant master at St Mary’s school. He soon became involved in the wider Parish community, holding the role of choirmaster at St Mary’s church.
But he became known beyond the town’s Catholic population when he started playing rugby for Batley. Initially in the reserves, he made his first team debut in a cup-tie at Halifax on 14 March 1914. His career was limited by the outbreak of war, but in this short time he made five appearances for the Batley first team scoring four tries.
At the declaration of war Robert’s strong sense of duty kicked in. He was the first Batley player to enlist and was quoted as saying:
“I am not a fighting man; I don’t like to fight, but I ought to go and fight at a time like this”.
He served with the 6th (Service) Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment), one of Kitchener’s New Army battalions. His enlistment necessitated a re-arrangement of the St Mary’s Boys Department school timetable, an event noted in the school log book.
It was whilst serving with the Yorkshire Regiment based at Belton Park, Grantham, that he made his final appearance for Batley against Keighley on 10 October 1914. He told the club secretary Kershaw Newton that it would be his last game with the Gallant Youths until peace was signed as, with his exhaustive training programme of marching, drilling, lectures and special studies as an officer on top of his ordinary duties, he was “about played out by the weekend”.
Additionally, with his officer responsibilities, he could not afford to risk a rugby playing injury.
“….I have 60 men under me and am responsible for them, and will have to lead them in war. To make them and myself efficient requires all my time and energy, and I do not think it would be right to risk laying myself up with an injury….”
Poignantly he wrote:
“…..I will come and hope to see many of my old friends round the railings as a sort of good-bye until we get the serious business through and when honour and justice are satisfied I trust to have many a jolly game on the hill”.
Robert scored one try in Batley’s 19-0 victory. But, ironically given his concerns about injury before the game, he suffered the misfortune of a kick to the head. This blow confined him to a darkened room for a few days on returning to Belton Park.
At the beginning of July 1915 Robert and his Battalion left Liverpool bound ultimately for the Dardanelles. Initially landing at Mudros they moved onto the island staging post of Imbros to acclimatise and practice night landings and attacks. On the evening of the 6 August they left Imbros and at around 11pm that night they finally disembarked on the Gallipoli peninsular, south east of Nibrunesi Point on B Beach. The aim was to take Lala Baba, a low hill between the southern side of Suvla Bay and the Salt Lake.
As the men moved off from the sea shore they were immediately engulfed by the darkness of the night, it being impossible to see a body of troops at a few yards distance.
Lala Baba was eventually taken, but the Unit War Diary records a heavy price paid with 16 officers and about 250 other rank casualties (killed and wounded) in the fighting during those first hours of the night of 6/7 August 1915. This was out of a total of 25 officers and 750 other ranks that set off from Imbros only a short time earlier.
Robert was amongst those officers killed. He died on 7 August 1915 within hours of landing. According to a fellow officer he met an instantaneous death as a result of a gunshot wound to the head. In a letter to Robert’s father he wrote:
“We made our landing of the evening of the 6th August below the Salt Lake. The 6th York’s covered the landing of the rest of the Brigade. At about 10a.m we disembarked from the barge with little opposition and started up the peninsular to take a hill called Talla Baba, and there we lost a lot of men. I got there just before 12 midnight. Some of our men had gone over and some were held up by the Turks entrenched on top and there were several of our officers wounded and killed there, I was told your son had been killed there and the sergeant who told me said that he had been shot through the head, so his death seems to have been instantaneous”.
The first news of Robert’s demise reached Batley around the 12 August when Mrs Power, with whom he had apartments in Norfolk Street before the war, received a brief note from his father informing her that he had been killed in the Dardanelles.
Local tributes poured in for him, newspapers referring to him as “Gentleman Bob”.“The Batley Reporter and Guardian” praised his “manly character and sterling qualities” concluding he “was a true sportsman and a most popular player on the field and a perfect gentleman in private life”.
The Batley News eulogised his virtues saying:
“A pattern of good conduct on the football field, handsome appearance, of excellent physique, and a splendid teacher, his demise removes from the Heavy Woollen District one whose manifold example commends itself to the rising generation”. 
The members of the Batley Education Committee were equally fulsome with their tributes to Robert in their meeting at the end of September 1915. They expressed sympathy with his family and appreciation for his work in the town. Alderman H North said that:
“Captain Randerson was a typical gentleman; an ideal leader of boys and a man appreciated by his scholars and school managers. …… His death had removed from Batley a most capable servant of the education committee….. The town was poorer by his demise”.
His death was also noted in Catholic newspaper “The Tablet”
I will leave the final word on Robert from the school in which he worked. Almost exactly one year to the day from the St Mary’s log book entry about timetable changes forced by Robert’s enlistment, the same log book has an entry on 16 August 1915 announcing that school re-opened after the midsummer holiday. It went on to say in a restrained, understated way:
“News received that Captain Randerson, Assistant Master from this school, was killed in action at the Dardanelles on August 7th”.