The all-conquering South Africans were impressed by Johnnie Williams. The speedy Cardiff winger had just bamboozled them, condemning them to only their second defeat on their first tour of Britain.
Springbok opponent shook his hand after try
The Springboks shook up the rugby world with their 1906 visit, just three years after the Boer war had torn apart their country. In 29 games over three months, they lost only to Scotland and Cardiff and announced themselves as an international force. After Williams sped over to score in a 17-0 win at a boggy Cardiff Arms Park on New Year’s Day 1907, South Africa full-back Arthur Marsberg walked over to him and shook his hand.
John Lewis Williams, born in 1882 in Whitchurch, Cardiff, was a prolific try scorer, grabbing a hat-trick on his debut for his hometown side in 1903. He later helped Cardiff win another famous victory against another mighty touring side, scoring twice in a 24-8 win over Australia at the Arms Park in 1908. Using his blistering pace and devastating sidestep, Williams scored 17 tries in 17 games for Wales as they claimed Triple Crown titles in 1908, 1909 and 1911. He made his debut in 1906 against the touring South Africans, when the defeat was one of only two he suffered playing for his country. Partly because he could speak French, was made captain for the 15-0 Five Nations win over France in Paris in 1911. In 1908 Williams had toured Australia and New Zealand with an Anglo-Welsh side, now know as the British Lions, and wrote articles on the trip for two south Wales newspapers.
4,000 casualties to take the wood
Williams, a partner in a coal import company, joined one of the public school battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in September 1914 before becoming a 2nd lieutenant in the 16th “Cardiff City” Battalion of the Welsh Regiment.
He was a captain again for the 38th (Welsh) Division’s bloody attack at Mametz Wood on the Somme on July 7, 1916. They had been expected to capture the area in a few hours but were beaten back by machine guns and shelling. The 16th lost 400 men before it even reached the wood and the attacks were to cost the division 4,000 casualties.
Also in the 16th battalion that day was Company Sergeant Major Dick Thomas, who played four times for Wales, and was alongside Williams in the 1906 defeat against the South Africans.
Edward John Richard Thomas, a policeman from Mountain Ash who was born in 1883, would have had more games for Wales but for illness, which cost him two seasons at the peak of his powers. A forward, he played 20 matches for Glamorganshire, including a starring role when the county lost by a point to the All Blacks in 1905.
A natural leader, Thomas had been unable to join up immediately because of his police job but once with the regiment he was rapidly promoted. The 35-year-old was killed at the front of his men on July 7, the first day of the Mametz Wood battle. His body was never found and his name is on the memorial at Thiepval.
Dick Thomas the Fiery Chariot
Welsh Rugby Union official T. D. Schofield wrote a tribute: “Perhaps his great value as a player is best summed up by... a member of the Monmouth League team who [said he] would sooner face any man that Dick Thomas The Fiery Chariot. He was beloved by both players and spectators and his loss to the rugger code in Wales is as irreparable as it is greatly deplored.”
Thomas’s teammate Williams, the 34-year-old leader of C Company of the 16th Welsh that day, was hit in the leg and died five days later at a casualty clearing station. The 38th (Welsh) Division, which counted poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves among its number, finally took Mametz Wood but at the terrible cost of 4,000 men. It was heavily criticised by top brass for lack of communication among its senior officers but was later to redeem itself at Passchendaele and become one of the army’s elite divisions.
At Mametz, Robert Graves reached the wood and described the scene: “It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.”
Williams is buried in Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension. The words on his gravestone, chosen by wife Mabel, read: “Till the resurrection morn”. A memorial to him stands in the Whitchurch, the area of Cardiff that produced another great Welsh sportsman, Gareth Bale.
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 Captain John Williams or Company Sergeant Major Edward Thomas 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.