Christopher Warner on sporting figures in conflict

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

In his poem ‘Dulce et decorum est’, Wilfred Owen reflects upon his experiences in World War One to capture the horrors of trench warfare. The haunting imagery describes an especially chilling glimpse of those afflicted by poison gas – men such as Welsh rugby star ‘Clem’ Lewis.

The crafty outside-half from Newton Nottage would ultimately recover from his wounds, giving John Morris Clement Lewis the rare achievement of playing for his club, university, and country before and after the war.

At the turn of the 20th century, the first ‘Golden Era’ of Welsh rugby ushered in the national team’s rise to dominance and infused ‘rugger’ into the country’s lifeblood. Lewis, for his part, embraced the game body and soul.

Clem Lewis
Clem Lewis

Despite his small stature, he established a reputation as a quick and clever player for provincial clubs in Glamorgan County. Rugby historian Gwyn Prescott notes that ‘Clem possessed all the skills of a typical Welsh outside-half and was a master of the unexpected.’

Lewis made the jump to top-tier Cardiff RFC in 1909 and eventually went on to tally 229 appearances with the capital city side in a career spanning three decades. In 1912, he earned his first cap for Wales, lining up against England in the Five Nations Championship.

Lewis enrolled at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge the following year, winning his blues in the Varsity Match against Oxford. But after leading his team to victory, 13-3, he would have to wait six years before playing for the Light Blues’ XV again.

CALLED UP

By November 1914, most elite British rugby players had answered Lord Kitchener’s call to arms and joined their local Pals Battalion. Lewis was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant into the 16th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment – troops that became known as the ‘The Cardiff Boys’.

The unit held a particularly strong link with Cardiff RFC, which also claimed Welsh internationals Fred Smith, Bert Winfield, and their team captain, Johnnie Williams. Not lacking in confidence on or off the pitch, they wore a solid brass collar badge, bearing the arms of the city with a small scroll of the Welsh motto: ‘Y ddraig goch a ddyry gychwyn’ (‘The Red Dragon shall lead’).

In Wales, army training camp lasted nearly nine months, during which Lewis joined his countrymen in a rugby match against the invitational side, Barbarians FC. Held at Cardiff Arms Stadium, the event helped raise ‘patriotic funds’ for the war effort, providing a much-welcome distraction for fans and players. The Baa-Baas triumphed, 26-10.

Such regimental competitions featured prominently throughout the war as a way of keeping soldiers occupied and fit. In addition to rugby, inter-service contests included tug-of-war, boxing, athletics, football, and even bomb-throwing.

The spring of 1915 saw the battalion form with 115 Brigade 38 (Welsh) Division. The troops later moved to Winchester, Hampshire, for further training before finally receiving orders to mobilise, landing at the port city of Le Harve in Normandy on 4 December 1915.

The Welshmen spent most of the following winter and spring in the relatively quiet Givenchy and Festubert region, gradually adjusting to military life while getting a taste of combat experience before ‘the Big Push’. But nothing could have prepared them for the hell that awaited at the Battle of the Somme.

A team
photograph of
the 1920-21
Cardiff RFC
squad. Lewis
is seated in
the middle row,
holding the ball.
A team photograph of the 1920-21 Cardiff RFC squad. Lewis is seated in the middle row, holding the ball.

Although spared from the first-day carnage, 4,000 men from the Welsh Division were killed or injured at Mametz Wood. The Cardiffians suffered the highest battalion casualties – almost half its fighting strength – after being tasked with a hopelessly ill-conceived attack on 7 July.

While charging up a slope towards the ‘Hammerhead’ section of the forest, they encountered fierce resistance and enfilade fire from German machine guns nestled in Flatiron Copse and Sabot Copse. Among the dead were Welsh rugby internationals Dick Thomas and Johnnie Williams.

The decimated unit gradually rebuilt over the following 11 months, zigzagging their way north for their next major action: the Third Battle of Ypres. Unlike the previous two battles fought in and around the ancient Flemish city, the British took the initiative with an ambitious plan to smash through the well-fortified German line.

However, the campaign, known as the Battle of Passchendaele, would be remembered for two disparate events: unprecedented rainfall and the first use of mustard gas by enemy forces.

The opening attack began just before dawn on 31 July 1917 with a barrage of 3,000 Allied guns targeting key enemy positions and concrete pillboxes along Pilckem Ridge. Having been recently promoted to lieutenant, Lewis and his fellow Welsh soldiers formed part of XIV Corp in Lt General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army.

The Allies’ initial thrust managed to achieve substantial gains before torrential rain halted the advance and turned the battlefield into a muddy abyss. Tanks floundered. Men became trapped in knee-deep mud. And the freshly churned ground unearthed a stockpile of floating corpses that were left over from previous battles. Conditions only got worse.

Delays and flooding of ‘biblical proportions’ eventually allowed the enemy to counterattack and fire shells filled with C4H8Cl2S – a chemical agent better known as mustard gas. As a vaporised liquid, the yellow-hued mist (hence the name) was designed to maim, rather than kill, creating an insidious psychological effect.

Gas masks provided limited protection against blindness, scorched lungs, and excruciating burns. The powerful vesicant had the potential to contaminate everything in its path, and would quickly soak through heavy woollen uniforms.

After a gas shell burst near his dugout, Lewis was taken to a battlefield aid post, then to a casualty clearing station (CCS), where he received additional treatment for a separate injury. Few doctors at the time possessed knowledge of how to treat mustard gas attacks, especially cases involving severe pulmonary damage. As a result, military physicians took an extremely cautious approach, emphasising rest.

RETURN OF THE WIZARD

Lewis remained in the Army for the duration of the war, slowly recuperating in a variety of hospitals before returning home.

A cigarette card featuring
Lewis from the 1913-14 season.
Despite being gassed, Lewis
remained fit enough to play his
favourite game after the war.
A cigarette card featuring Lewis from the 1913-14 season. Despite being gassed, Lewis remained fit enough to play his favourite game after the war.

But his chances of ever playing top-flight rugby again appeared highly unlikely. As the Cambria Daily Leader reported in April 1918: ‘Clem Lewis, the famous Cambridge Blue and Welsh Rugby international… will probably be compelled to give up the game. He has been anything but fit since he was gassed and wounded in the leg last summer…’

Following the armistice, an ‘Inter-Services and Dominions Forces Rugby Championship’ was held among all rugby-playing nations still stationed in Britain. The round-robin competition began in March 1919, featuring teams from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and the newly formed RAF.

Hailed as the ‘King’s Cup’ for the trophy to which King George V lent his name, British soldiers competed for the Mother Country. Lewis, having regained his strength, was named to the 1st XV. The event, won by New Zealand, came to be known as ‘rugby’s first world cup’. It also marked the return of the ‘Welsh Wizard’ to the main stage.

Later that year, Lewis resumed his studies at Cambridge, where he once again led his team to victory in the Varsity Match over Oxford. The Graphic newspaper offered this glowing account: ‘To attempt to set forth the perfections of Mr Clem Lewis is like gilding gold, or painting the lily, or adding another hue to the rainbow.’

Additional post-war highlights included three more caps for Wales while assuming the role of captain in his last two internationals. On 3 February 1923, he scored a try against Scotland in a game that featured Olympic champion sprinter Eric ‘The Flying Scotsman’ Liddell, whose heroics were depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.

Lewis would eventually settle down in South Wales with his wife, Winifred, and become a schoolmaster. He also wrote a sports column for the Sunday Chronicle newspaper and served in the Civil Defence during the Second World War.

On 25 October 1944, Lewis died unexpectedly at his home. He was 54. Although the cause of death remains unknown, exposure to mustard gas had put him at a higher risk of developing cancer later in life. The rugby legend was laid to rest in a family plot at St John the Baptist Cemetery in Porthcawl.

This is an article from the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.




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