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Navy rugby players mark First World War match

2 November 2016
Royal Navy rugby union players are this weekend marking the centenary of the first wartime rugby international match to be played in the Netherlands.

A RNRU squad is travelling to Leeuwarden for four days of commemorations, the highlight of which will be a centennial memorial match between RNRU teams from England and Scotland.

In October 1914, 1,500 men of three battalions of the Royal Naval Division under the command of Commodore Wilfred Henderson were cut off after the siege of Antwerp.

Rather than become prisoners of war in Germany, they crossed the border into neutral Holland and were accommodated in wooden huts known as HMS Timbertown, which was a camp in Groningen.

As the Great War raged and many of their comrades fell at Gallipoli and later on the Somme, men from Benbow, Collingwood and Hawke battalions formed a thriving British colony in the Netherlands.

This Centennial Memorial Match is a wonderful opportunity to recall the extraordinary story of how rugby was introduced to the Netherlands, but also to remember this forgotten aspect of the First World War

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones

In 1916 the first wartime rugby International was played in the Netherlands town of Leeuwarden, which allowed the players a rare release from captivity and the teams were formed from the Scottish contingent (Scotland) who played against a team from the English contingent (England) and produced a fast open game with plenty of passing movements and one of the best games seen, according to local reports. 

This was followed up by a second match between the two teams and the excitement around these matches led to the formation of the first rugby clubs in the Netherlands, the oldest being Delftsche Studenten Rugby founded in October 1918.

This Saturday the commemorative game will kick off at RC Greate Pier, with the victors receiving the Commodore Wilfred Henderson Trophy.

Among the crowd will be guests from rugby clubs in Holland, who will travel to the game in a fleet of classic cars.

President of RNRU First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones said: “Earlier this year the nation paused to remember the Battle of Jutland, the largest and most significant Naval action of the First World War.

“But thousands of sailors and marines also fought ashore as part of the Royal Naval Division, 1,500 of whom were interned after the fall of Antwerp.

“This Centennial Memorial Match is a wonderful opportunity to recall the extraordinary story of how rugby was introduced to the Netherlands, but also to remember this forgotten aspect of the First World War. I know that when the whistle blows, today’s sailors and marines will do their forebears proud.”

On Sunday the players will travel to Groningen where, along with descendants of Commodore Henderson, they will lay a memorial wreath at the nine graves of the Navy men who died in the camp.

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