The airplane pilots and men involved in ‘dog fight’ aerial combat during WW1 were (and often still are) portrayed as modern day knights, competing with gentlemen opponents under a chivalric code as the rules of engagement for something little more dangerous than a particularly “willing” game of Rugby…
Common words and themes are often used to compare the emotional and physical attributes of war to sport, but in reality the two share little. Sometimes war too, particularly during World War One, was uncomfortably compared to sport.
As for these WW1 pilots themselves, no doubt some on the British-French side (including the ‘Australian Flying Corps’ and New Zealanders), had been Rugby players.
The British Army’s ‘Royal Flying Corps’ (the RAF was not formed until 1918) is known to have had its own Rugby team during the war, playing against XVs from other military units as well as Oxford University.
Jack Allport, a member of the Mosman first grade Rugby team in Sydney in 1915 joined the AIF and then later the RFC, flying missions over the Western Front from early 1917 onwards. The son of Roland Allport who played for the Wallaroo FC and NSW Waratahs in the early 1890s, ‘Captain Allport’ was awarded the Military Cross in April 1918 ‘for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’, after undertaking four flight missions into enemy territory in four hours. The RAF’s Major Wilfrid R. Snow recalled after the war:
“Among others, I had ‘Sayers’ Allport, of Sydney, a splendid fellow. He was attacked one day, when he was in a slow old ‘bus [plane], by five German scouts [planes], whose machines were 50 miles an hour faster than his. But he accepted the proposition, and made it willing. He shot down two, and the other three cleared for their lives. Allport just carried on, and finished his job. That’s the type of men the colonial flyers are.”
The most prominent Rugby-aviator was France’s Maurice Boyau – six international caps 1912-14, he played for Dax, Bordeaux and Racing Club de France – the latter was during the war, as Frederic Humbert of Rugby-Pioneers.com explains:
“Boyau was to known to sometimes leave his unit without notice, fly back to Colombes, land close to the stadium and play with Racing CF before flying back to the battlefields.”
Boyau is credited with 35 victories in aerial combat, and a crack pilot in destroying enemy observation balloons. He was shot down and killed in September 1918.
Earlier another high profile French international, Russian-born Marcel Burgun, had quickly won repute for downing four German planes. However, in September 1916 his engine suddenly cut-out during an air fight above ‘The Battle of Verdun‘ in north-eastern France. While attempting to glide his plane home Burgun was stalked and then fatally machine-gunned by a German pilot in a ‘triple-decker’ Fokker, crashing to earth ‘between the lines’. The wrecked plane and Burgun’s body lay in ‘no man’s land’ for days afterwards.
Rosslyn Park RFC’s Arthur Tulloch Cull was brought down to earth in flames by machine-gun fire by one of Richthofen’s ‘Flying Circus’ in May 1917 – some accounts suggest that Cull may in fact have been a victim of Manfred von Richthofen himself.
What is certain is that the final victory of Richthofen (“The Red Baron”) was the downing of Rhodesia’s RG ‘Tommy’ Lewis. Before the war Lewis had represented his province playing Rugby.
In April 1918 his patrol was set upon by “the Circus”, and Lewis found himself singled out by Richthofen, and then very soon hurtling towards the ground as his plane was engulfed in fire.
Lewis got what was remaining of his plane down, but was flung out the cockpit on impact:
“Nothing more than being tackled at Rugby. I rolled over and stood up. My face was painful but what confronted me, behind enemy lines, was a group of German soldiers who had their rifles levelled at me – I was a POW!”
“At that instant the Red Baron flew back, waved and waggled his wings over me and went on his way, with me being his 80th downing!”
Another Rugby-playing pilot who ended up as a POW was France’s Marcel Nogues, after he was shot down in April 1917. He eventually escaped, and returned to active duty, ending the war with 13 victories.
The 24 year old Nogues resumed playing Rugby, but during a game in 1919 he was unfortunate to suffer a blow to the larynx, and died.
© Sean Fagan