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Navy rugby players mark First World War match

7 November 2016
Royal Navy rugby union players marked the centenary of the first wartime rugby international match to be played in the Netherlands.

A RNRU squad travelled to Leeuwarden for four days of commemorations, the highlight of which was a centennial memorial match between RNRU teams RN North and RN East representing Scotland and England respectively.

The teams were vying for the Commodore Wilfred Henderson Trophy, named after the Royal Navy officer commanding the Royal Naval Division in WW1.

The team from RN North comprehensively beat their counterparts from RN East 22-8 at RC Greate Pier.

In October 1914, 1,500 men of three battalions of the Royal Naval Division under the command of Commodore 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.

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.

The weekend’s commemorations were attended by Commodore Henderson’s great grandson Andrew Biggs, along with his wife, son and nephew.

As well as descendants from Commodore Henderson’s family, guests included representatives from rugby clubs throughout Holland as well as members of the Royal British Legion and the Rugby Make a Difference Foundation.

The day after the match saw the players travel to Groningen where they laid memorial wreaths at the nine graves of the Navy men who died in the camp.

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