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Regimental History

Rugby Football and the King's Own by Colonel Howard Green

(Accession Number: KO1119/01)

The story of the King's Own and Rugby Football is incomplete without the inclusion of a third name, Alfred Aslett.

Aslett, leaving Clifton in 1918 where he had played rugger for the school for three seasons, spent two years at Sandhurst. Here, playing for the college of course, he was also selected to play for the Army in one match and thus became one of the very few Gentlemen Cadets to achieve this honour.

Commissioned into the Regiment in 1921 he was at once given the captaincy of the team, although the most junior Second Lieutenant in the Regiment, and started to build the famous team that was to win, in the next eighteen years, the Army Cup twice, be defeated in the final once, and in another semi-final.

During these eight years Aslett was to play for the Army twenty-three times and eventually in England in six International matches. It was said that, in his prime, defending "threes" did not tackle Aslett, they bounded off him.

The First Battalion had returned from France and Germany in 1919 where it had served in the famous 4th Division since Le Cateau in 1914, and was posted to Dublin where, during the years 1920-23 it was much implicated in the political troubles and disturbances.

Rugger in the battalion was started in 1920 by two outstanding personalities. The Commanding Officer, Colonel Hugo Headlam, brought in from the York and Lancasters, was almost a fanatic about the game and, it is said, played rugger himself at 42 while C.O. - and the adjutant, Raymond Somerville, another fanatic. These two had prepared much ground for Aslett when in 1921 he joined from Sandhurst.

During these years in Dublin and despite the frequent calls for Internal Security duties, Aslett's team grew together. Outstanding players during this period were Sergt. Whelpton, popularly and affectionately known as "Johnny Clock" on account of his physique and style of play, Band-Sergeant Morton, the finest hooker Aslett ever knew and 2nd Lieutenant Haynes, all of whom continued to play for the Regiment for several years.

In addition to Aslett's six International and numerous Army caps, Morton was to play for the Army seven times and Whelpton once.

But the story of The King's Own and Rugger must go back nineteen years before the Dublin days of 1920-23. In 1901 a young officer from a militia commission in the Cameronians was posted as a regular officer to the Regiment, 2nd Lieutenant J. M. Young, who as a boy captained Sedbergh. As perhaps the first of several rugger fanatics in the Regiment he formed a team in the First Battalion at Aldershot on its return from Singapore in 1900. All the "other rank" players had to be taught the game, mostly by Jim Young; yet a year later, with this very inexperienced young team he challenged the remainder of the Aldershot Command. It was entirely a "friendly" these being no Army Cup competition, or an Aldershot Command Cup, in those days. The King's Own won but, unfortunately, no record survives of the score.

In 1903 Jim Young was selected for a Scottish trial but owing to being posted abroad to Malta to the First Battalion which had now returned to Foreign Service, he was unable to accept the invitation. Jim Young eventually commanded the First Battalion in Aldershot, Palestine, and Cairo from 1929 to 1933 when he retired.

The Regiment's first essay in the Army Rugby Cup in 1922 was not auspicious. The team was beaten 48 - 0 by the Welsh Regiment, and again in the following year by a smaller margin. By now the team had emerged from being just a good regimental side into being a well-known one. It was getting accustomed to big crowds, big occasions and limelight. But Aslett kept his head, insisting on military duty first, rigorous training, and modesty.

In 1923 the Battalion moved to Shorncliffe and in the absence of urgent calls for Internal Security and the cost of bringing the team over from Ireland, it was able to arrange many more fixtures, with cheaper travel. Aslett was now approaching the peak of his career and with the valued and brilliant support of his Army and International team mates, The King's Own became a great power in the land.

by 1926 the Regiment got into the semi-final of the Army Cup losing 8 - 3 to the Welsh Guards. It won the semi-final in 1927 against the Dukes, only to lose the Final against the South Wales Borderers. The South Wales Borderers were leading 15 - 11 with a minute to go. Almost on "time" Private Abbott, the left wing three quarter, scored a try, making the score 15 -14. Whelpton took the kick, from the identical spot from which earlier in the game he had converted a try, also scored by Abbott. Amidst a deathly silence the ball touched the cross-bar and fell back into the field, and the South Wales Borderes had won.

In 1927 the Regiment moved to Aldershot where fixtures against the many units stationed within a five-mile radius were easily arranged. In the tree years at Aldershot the Army Cup was won at last, the Welsh Guards going down 21 - 4, and in the following season the Cup was son for the second successive year when the Royal Engineers were defeated 6 -3.

In the Aldershot period Sergeant Morton, who had joined as a boy in 1916, was capped for the Army n 1928, 1929, and 1930. He eventually became Regimental Sergeant Major and, later, Quarter Master. He died in 1971 aged 71.

Sergeant Whelpton was now a Company Sergeant Major and continued to play for the battalion until it went abroad. He was granted a Quarter Master's commission in 1946 he was appointed Director of the Army Sports Control Board.

Mention of the battalion's successes so far have only concerned the Army Cup. But when at Shorncliffe the Kent Cup was won twice, and the Aldershot Command Cup also twice while the battalion was stationed there.

During the years from Aslett's advent up to 1930, Sandhurst continued to supply new officer-player material in the names of John Breenan and Hugh Wright, while in the following decade Anderson and Burke joined the Second Battalion, both Regimental players-to-be.

Few of the "other ranks" enlistments knew anything about Rugby football on joining the army and had to be taught the game. In the Aldershot period, more than 50% of the team had been playing for only three years.

By 1929 the end was drawing near. In 1930 the battalion was due to go on Foreign Service, probably to a hot and dry climate where rugger would not be possible. So it turned out when the first Foreign station was known to be Palestine and then Cairo. Had the new station been Rangoon, as was hoped, where the 2nd Battalion had built an excellent side in 1922 to 1926, the 1st Battalion's team could have been kept together. The climate, hot and humid, allows rugger for six months a year, and the playing fields are always soft except in January and February. Naturally there would have been little opposition in Burma. The Indian and the Burman do not take kindly to the game, although brilliant at hockey, and the only two teams to meet were the other British regiment and the Gymkhana Club. But Cairo with its hot dusty climate and iron-hard ground, make the game impossible, and the team, as a team, disintegrated.

But although the Regiment's wonderful side disintegrated after leaving Aldershot in 1931, individual players did not. A few were left behind purposely to await the homecoming of the 2nd Battalion to Lichfield from Burma.

The Battalion had spent five years in Burma, its first Peace-time station after the 1914 - 1918 War. Two years in Maymo, 3,500 feet up, permitted little rugger and the Adjutant, Captain R.C. Matthews, started to build up a side during the rains. On the Battalion moving to Rangoon in March 1922, Matthew's work blossomed, and a good side developed. Some outstanding players were Lieutenant Hargreaves, (who also played for the Battalion at Soccer, both as goal-keeper or centre forward, and hockey). Lieutenant Card, despite his stature, was a great little three quarter and he, too, represented the Battalion at rugger, soccer and hockey. In the same season Captain de Cordova took over the captaincy when Matthews, having finished his adjutantcy, was posted home. de Cordova was a bustling forward and a year previously, when a Captain at the Depot, had played for Lancashire. He eventually commanded the 1st Battalion in Madras from March 1937. Sergt. Kilbride, the massive Master Cook, and Sergeant Ward were outstanding players. In 1924 the team went over to Calcutta, a three day voyage, to play in the Indian Army Rugby Cup, and reached the Final, when it was beaten by the Gloucesters.

On leaving Burma, the battalion spent five years in the heat and on the rock-hard ground of Rawalpindi and one in Khartoum, immediately prior to its return to Home Service. Its rugger side had also disintegrated since its excellent days of Rangoon, and it seemed that both battalions of the Regiment must look elsewhere for laurels.

But not so. Lieutenant R. N. Anderson (later to be Lt. General Sir Richard, and Colonel of the Regiment for 15 years), and Lt. Burke took over the building of a side at Lichfield. Anderson head a few players available from the Rangoon side of six years previously, and from Aslett's side, left in England, Segt. Cooney was still serving. Drummer Turner, who also played in the Regimental Soccer side when it won the Army cup in 1936, Sergt. Evans the "three quarter" who was to be tried for the Army side, Lieutenant Robins, younger brother of the All-England cricketer, W. V. H. Robins, and Lieutenant Lugard, were all outstanding players. In its first season the team was to astonish the Army, and itself, by reaching the fourth round of the Army Cup.

In 1934 and 1935 the Final of the Army Cup was achieved, but on both occasions the Regiment was defeated. Nevertheless the fact that the two battalions between them played in the Army Rugby Cup Final four times in eight years and, in addition, one was a semi-final loser once, is a fact which research would probably show to be unique.

In the Final of 1934 Aslett, now an instructor at Sandhurst, played for the Regiment for the last time, his last big game. Now aged 35 he had lost some speed and played full-back. It is sad that his swan-song did not end in victory.

It is but fair to the 2nd Battalion to tell the story here of the other kind of football during this battalion's time at Lichfield and Aldershot between 1932 and 1938. Between these years while the rugger side was following the 1st Battalion's footsteps, the Regimental soccer side reached the Army Cup Final twice, winning it once.

In winning the Army Cup in 1934, the King's Own became only the second regiment in the British Army to win both the Army cups, Rugby and Soccer, and for the same battalion to appear in both the rugger and soccer Cup Finals in consecutive three seasons is an achievement that may never be equalled. From this great team Lieutenant Robins and five other ranks played for the Army, Robins being captain. (For one battalion to provide more than 50% of the Army team must surely be a record.) Of these six great players, two Sowerbutts and Eastham, also played for England, Eastham playing in the Olympic games. Lyness played for Ireland and to complete the picture Robins captained the United Services team that toured South Africa in 1936. Early in 1938 the 2nd Battalion went to Palestine on temporary duty. It was to remain on this temporary duty until 1945, and so in the two years immediately preceding the 1939-1945 War both battalions were on Foreign Service and unable to win cups.

But to return to rugger. Sir Richard Anderson recalls that after the 2nd Battalion's rugger team's successful, and surprising, first year at Lichfield after its return from the Sudan, he did not again make fixtures with other regimental teams and only with civilian clubs. He argued that to play a "friendly" with some other regiment, and possibly be beaten, would give his team an inferiority complex if it happened to be drawn against that same regiment in the Army Cup. He topped off his argument by believing that the civilian clubs, mostly filled with ex-University players, though not necessarily "blues", played a more scientific game than the military sides and that his team even when defeated would gain much skill, and learn more finesse from the civilian masters of the game. If playing in the rough and tumble of military rugger, tactics and technique might not be considered so important.

Since 1945 the Regiment, now amalgamated with the Border Regiment to become The King's Own Royal Border, has served in many different stations in nearly 30 years. They cover a wide field, from the Cameroons to Colchester, from Barnard Castle to British Guiana from Korea to Honiton. During these moves into and out of such varying climates, Rugger has rarely been possible, and Soccer from a Regimental stand point not much more so. It is impossible to predict when Army life will again become so stable as to admit of these big Army occasions.



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 You must seek permission prior to publication of any of our images.

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