Cunliffe-Owen was a challenging woman. It began at her birth, which was said to have taken place at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
One day towards the end of summer 1914 she was challenging a group of men friends, asking them why they were not yet in khaki.
They challenged her back: To raise a battalion of her own.
‘Lord Kitchener, will you accept my battalion?’
So she marched to the nearest post office and sent a telegram to Lord Kitchener: “Will you accept complete battalion of middle- and upper-class men men, physically fit, able to shoot and ride, up to the age of 45?” The reply was quick: “Lord Kitchener gratefully accepts complete battalion.”
It was the beginning of a whirlwind. Cunliffe-Owen’s patriotic band of men, many of whom had been rejected for army service elsewhere, became the 23rd and 24th battalions of The Royal Fusiliers. And many who joined them would fight and die at the Somme.
Recruiting at a hotel on The Strand
Emma Cunliffe-Owen was born in 1863, the sixth of ten children. Her father Philip was boss of the South Kensington Museum, which in 1899 became the V&A. Her mother Jenny was German, descended from a Bavarian dynasty of knights. In World War II, one of her family commanded a Waffen SS Panzer regiment on the Russian front, where he killed himself in 1943.
Emma was an “all round sportswoman” but suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, often using a wheelchair, and her struggles influenced her quest to give a chance to men who would normally be cast aside as too decrepit for war. She married her cousin Edward, a barrister, and lived in a comfortable terraced house near Hyde Park with four children and six servants.
Emma was estranged from Edward and developed a friendship with a surgeon who, after her husband’s death in 1918, she would marry. But the Cunliffe-Owens were united in mind and money for the war effort.
After the Kitchener telegram they set about their task with rare vigour. They hired the grand India Room at the 800-room Hotel Cecil on The Strand and corralled 12 retired army men as recruiting officers. Adverts were placed in newspapers and recruiting events held all over the country. The ad in The Times said:
Sportsmen, aged 19 to 45, upper and middle class only. Wanted at Once. Entrance fee 3 guineas, or kit. No other financial obligations. Head Recruiting Office, E. CunliffeOwen, Hotel Cecil, London. Hours 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Peers, peasants, a pilot and a poultry farmer
In just four weeks Cunliffe-Owen had her first battalion. Training at first took place outside the hotel on The Strand itself, regularly stopping the traffic. But she paid a contractor to build a camp in just 19 days at Hornchurch, Essex, and in the autumn of 1915 the 24th Sportsman’s were cheered by crowds as they marched in their finery behind a band to Liverpool Street station.
Despite the advert stipulating “upper and middle classes only”, the mixture of recruits was extraordinary. It was described by Fred Ward, a captain in the 24th, who after the war created a history of the battalions.
“It was cosmopolitan,” he wrote. “Practically every grade of life was represented, from the peer to the peasant; class distinctions were swept away, every man turned to and pulled his bit. In this hut [of 30 men at Hornchurch] the first bed was occupied by the brother of a peer. The second by the man who formerly drove his motor-car. Other beds were occupied by a mechanical engineer, an old Blundell School boy, planters, a mine overseer from Scotland, a man in possession of a flying pilot's certificate secured in France, a photographer, a poultry farmer, an old sea dog who had rounded Cape Horn on no fewer than nine occasions, a man who had hunted seals ‘with more patches on his trousers than he could count’, a bank clerk, and so on.”
...and a 64-year-old big game hunter
There were also sports stars of past and present. England cricketers, league footballers, boxers, a top golfer, rugby players, an Olympic archery champion whose ancestor had fought at Agincourt, rowers, a Wimbledon umpire, athletes. The definition of a “sportsman” was somewhat wide; the battalion took in explorers and adventurers, big game hunters, old soldiers, lawyers, council officials, gamekeepers, builders and tradesmen, a former mayor of Exeter, stockbrokers, a baronet, scholars, artists, shopkeepers, gamblers, actors and comedians, teachers and journalists. Anyone, in essence, who was a good sport.
At Hornchurch, men who had never held a broom or used a washing up bowl in their lives learned the ways of military life; spud peeling, kit cleaning, drills and the rest. When some complained, their ageing instructor – who in 1880 fought with legendary Field Marshall Lord Frederick Roberts at Kandahar – was delighted, saying grumbling was an important step towards becoming a proper soldier.
Many of the Sportsman’s volunteers lied about their age to be accepted, but not quite in the usual way; they had to say they were younger than they were to meet the 45-year-old limit. One of the most famous recruits was 64; Frederick Courteney Selous, big game hunter, conservationist, explorer, inspiration for the King Solomon’s Mines stories and friend of US President Teddy Roosevelt. He won the DSO and was killed fighting German forces in East Africa with the 25th “Frontiersmen” Battalion of the Fusiliers.
Lawyers.. they know how to charge
Newspapers mentioned “notable recruits”, although some reports were less than serious. The Gazette ran a story:
A London solicitor who joined the Sportsman’s Battalion received the following telegram from an old client: “Accept my congratulations on your gallantry in joining the Sportsman’s battalion. Anyway, you know how to charge.”
And they were not all heroes in the 23rd. Harold Midgley Metcalfe, accountant to Herne Bay Council, left his Kent home to join the Sportsman’s in September 1915. The Whitstable Times reported: “His general smartness soon won a corporal’s stripes, but about a month ago he deserted and has not since been seen.” After the council books were examined an arrest warrant was issued and a £20 reward offered for Mr Harold Midgley Metcalfe and “particulars of his whereabouts”.
Cunliffe-Owen had more than enough volunteers, so created another battalion, the 24th, in March 1915, pressing her 17-year-old son Alexander into it as a 2nd lieutenant. She was pictured with him and his father on the day he received his commission. When the War Office took over three months later, Emma Cunliffe-Owen had gathered and trained 1,500 men for war. She prompted one newspaper to compare her with Jane, Duchess of Gordon, who more than a century earlier had raised a Napoleonic war battalion “with a kiss”, passing a shilling held between her lips to each recruit.
Tragic hero of The Fighting Delaneys
The 23rd and 24th Sportman’s went to France in November 1915, serving in the Somme alongside the 17th and 23rd Middlesex, the Football Battalions.
Boxer Jeremiah Delaney, one of a Irish family from Bradford, West Yorks, known as “The Fighting Delaneys”, was on the verge of a world title shot when he joined the 23rd. Luckily for the war effort his three brothers and his father all joined up too. Delaney, undefeated in 35 fights, showed his toughness in January 1915 in France when, despite being shot in the leg, he hauled a wounded comrade back from no man’s land. Delaney, a corporal, was awarded the DSO but six months later, on July 27, was killed on a bombing raid at Delville Wood aged just 22.
The same day, Lance Corporal Jack Hendren died, aged just 21. He was one of three cricketing brothers from Chiswick, West London, and played for Durham and Middlesex. His brother Elias, known as “Patsy”, also joined the 23rd but was transferred to work in a munitions factory, rejoining the battalion towards the end of the war. Patsy became one of England’s great post-war sportsmen, playing football for Brentford, QPR, Manchester City and Coventry and scoring more than 57,000 first class runs for Middlesex and England, the third highest aggregate ever. He played 51 tests, averaging 47.63. Patsy Hendren died from Alzheimer’s in 1962, 46 years after his brother was left on the fields of France. Delaney and Hendren’s bodies were never found and their names are on the memorial at Thiepval.
‘Furious I’m wounded and can’t have a fight’
Six days later at Delville Wood, champion sculler Corporal William Albany died of wounds. The 30-year-old oarsman from Hackney, East London, who lived with wife Mary by the Thames in Putney, had won the English sculling title in 1911. He won a posthumous Military Medal for his bravery and is buried at Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension.
Amid the devastation, some Sportsman’s men managed to keep up their “good sports” spirit. Major N. A. Lewis recalled a conversation with a man badly wounded by a shell on the way up to the front:
“It’s hard lines,” said the soldier.
“I know it is,” said Lewis, “but you’ll soon be all right. The stretcher-bearers are coming.”
“Oh! it’s not that,” replied the man “It’s being hit just now! Here have I been all this time in France without having a real go at the b*****ds and now the chance has come, here I go and get knocked out.”
In two days at Delville Wood, 72 men of the 23rd died and 288 were wounded, many of whom would never play sport again. Both the Sportsman’s battalions went on to fight at the Battle of Ancre, the last action of the Somme, at Oppy Wood in 1917 and the Somme again in 1918. By then many of Cunliffe-Owen’s originals were gone. Throughout the war the 23rd saw nearly 5,000 men pass through its ranks and suffered more than 3,200 casualties, 944 of which were fatalities. It won 173 bravery awards.
Emma wrote to every wounded soldier
Emma Cunliffe-Owen never lost touch with her battalions, writing to every sick and wounded man. When the 23rd was disbanded she was presented with one of its drums from that first march to Hornchurch. In January 1920 she was awarded the OBE and died aged 87 in 1950, outliving her second husband, son Alexander and two daughters.
Here are the stories of just a few of the sportsman who served with the 23rd:
An Olympic archery champion whose ancestor Sir Anthony Dod was knighted at the Battle of Agincourt by Henry V. It was apt that he should go to war in France, despite being nearly 50. Dod, from Bebington, Cheshire, and heir to a vast cotton and banking fortune, won an archery gold medal at the 1908 Olympics. He also found time to become a scratch golfer and big game hunter.
Dod enlisted in the 23rd Royal Fusiliers as a private before transferring to the Royal Navy Air Service as an admin officer. He settled with his sister Lottie at Westward Ho!, Devon, and died in London in 1954 aged 87.
Lieutenant Beauchamp Rochford Day
A middle-distance runner born in Ireland in c.1879, he created the first 440-yard record at Perth, Australia, in 1907. He was timed over the distance at 47.8 seconds, an achievement which stood until it was broken by Eric Liddell, of Chariots Of Fire fame, at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Day ended the war as a lieutenant in the Graves Registration Unit after serving with the Sportsman’s.
Corporal John “Jack” Harrison
A British middleweight boxing champion born in Bozeat, Northants, Harrison was a farm worker and labourer and started boxing at fairs, taking on all-comers.
An army regular, he joined the Grenadier Guards in 1907 and fought in more than 100 bouts. He won the middle-weight Lonsdale Belt in May 1912 in a 200-round contest at the National Sporting Club, Covent Garden. After five more wins Harrison went to New York, working his passage on the S.S.Adriatic as “an athlete”.
The Pittsburgh Press reported: “Having no other men to conquer in his own country, he is here to meet the best we have at the middleweight limit.” Harrison had several fights and, amid allegations of doping, was KOd in the first round of two of them, including one at Madison Square Garden where his opponent Eddie McGoorty afterwards declared himself world champion.
Harrison joined the 23rd Sportsman’s in May 1915 and later transferred to the Labour Corps. His brother Edward, a Boer War veteran, was killed with the Worcestershire Regiment just two months into the war. Harrison retired from boxing in 1924 and worked as a council labourer in Rushden, Northants, where he also ran a boxing club. He was fit well into his 70s, often walking 20 miles a day, and died in 1970 aged 82.
Pte Andrew Sandham
The cricketer from Streatham, South London, was one of three Surrey players to join the Sportsman’s and escaped the horrors of the Somme with appendicitis. In 1930 he wrote himself into the history books, becoming the first Test triple centurion with 325 out of England’s 849 all out against the West Indies at Kingston, Jamaica. The match, on which there was no time limit, lasted nine days and ended in an agreed draw.
Opener Sandham’s record lasted just three months, beaten by Don Bradman’s 334 for Australia against England at Headingley. Sandham played for Surrey before the war and received an England call-up in 1921, playing 14 tests. He scored more than 41,000 runs for his county at an average of 44.82 and was coach as Surrey won the County Championship for seven straight years in the 1950s. Eventually he became club scorer and died in Westminster in 1982 aged 92.
Alfred Henry Toogood Sr
A golfer from St Helens, Isle of Wight, who worked as pro at clubs in London, Leeds, Essex, Kent and Ireland. He finished fourth in the windswept 1894 Open, the first outside Scotland, at Royal St George’s, Kent, winning £7 with scores of 84-85-82-82. In 1904 he lost in the final of the News of the World PGA Match Play Championship at Royal Mid-Surrey, West London.
Toogood was 42 when he joined the 23rd in 1915. He died aged 58 in South Norwood, South London.
John William “Bill” Hitch
A cricketer from Radcliffe, Lancashire, served as a private with the 23rd and before the war was the fastest bowler in England. One of the three Surrey men to join up, his brilliant catching and cavalier tail-end batting made him a favourite of the crowds. Hitch played seven tests for England and was a Wisden cricketer of the year in 1914. After retiring in 1924 he coached at Glamorgan and became an umpire. He died in Cardiff in 1965 aged 79.
Ebenezer Harold Fuller “Ginger” Owers
A formidable centre forward from West Ham, East London. Before the war Owers played more than 120 games for West Brom, Chesterfield Town, where he scored 40 goals in 1909-10, Bristol City, Blackpool, Darlington, Clyde FC and Celtic. His football career was ended after he was wounded with the 23rd Sportsman’s. He died in Bristol in 1951 aged 62.
William Ederick Bates
A cricketer and footballer from Kirkheaton, Yorks. Before the war he had 113 games for Yorkshire and played football for Bolton Wanderers and Leeds City. After serving with the 23rd Sportsman’s he was a batsman and useful left-arm spinner for Gloucestershire, playing 283 first class games and scoring 10 centuries.
The first Gloucester player to score a century in both innings of a match, Bates became a coach and later a groundsman in Northern Ireland, where he died in 1957 aged 72.
His son Ted was a legend at Southampton FC as player, manager, director and president over 66 years, becoming known as as Mr Southampton. In 2007 a statue of him was unveiled outside the main entrance at St Mary’s Stadium but it was ridiculed by fans and replaced a year later.
Ernest George Hayes
From Peckham, South London, was nearly 40 when he went to France with the 23rd, one of the three Surrey cricketers who joined up. The all-rounder, who won the MBE for his war service, had scored more than 1,000 runs every season in 15 years up to the war.
He played for England and later for Leicestershire, where he was called from his coaching role to turn out five times for the first team aged 49. His career ended with 27,318 runs, including 48 centuries, and 515 wickets.
He was landlord of the Paxton Arms in West Norwood, South London, for 20 years and died in 1953.
Remembering the Somme
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.
Make your own commemoration to Corporal Jeremiah Delaney, Corporal William Albany, Lance Corporal John Michael Hendren or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.