What happened to professional rugby league players who fought in the First World War?

The question for #AskExaminer follows recent stories about cricketers, footballers and other sports stars who fought in the Great War.

According to Chris Roberts, the Examiner’s rugby league writer, dozens of Northern Union (the forerunner to the Rugby Football League) players died in the Great War and many more were injured.

Carrying out research into the men who served is complicated by the fact that three of the Northern Union clubs – Bramley (Leeds), Broughton Rangers (Salford) and Runcorn (Cheshire) – no longer exist.

Somme victim Fred Longstaff to be honoured at Huddersfield Giants game

Chris, who has a passion for the history of the period, is researching the 25 Northern Union clubs who had senior players who served in the 1914-1918 conflict. He has been joined in the task by his wife, Jane, who is a qualified genealogist.

He has compiled a list of just over 100 senior, first team members who played in the 1913-14 season and then went on to become soldiers and were killed in the war.

Among those killed was Fred Longstaff, a member of Fartown’s legendary ‘Team of All Talents’ who was killed during the Battle of the Somme.

Longstaff was the only senior Huddersfield player who was killed, although the war did claim the lives of several second team players.

Fred Longstaff
Fred Longstaff

On July 17, 1916, Bradford-born Fred, who was serving with the West Yorkshire Regiment, was attacked by a German flame-thrower while on sentry duty and suffered horrendous burns. He was immediately transferred to a Casualty Clearing Station but died four days later.

He was 25 years old and is buried at the Commonwealth War Grave’s Cemetery at Blighthy Valley, Authuille Wood, in the shadow of the Thiepval Memorial in northern France.

Also killed in the Battle of the Somme was Rochdale Hornets captain Walter Roman who had fought in the Boer War. He was injured on July 1, 1916 – his 36th birthday – when he was taken to a field ambulance with hand, thigh and leg injuries.

He was evacuated from France and died of his wounds on July 28.

Chris’ research has also established that many rugby league players were so badly injured during battle that they were unable to play again.

Cuthbert Molloy, a miner and forward in the Wigan team, was blinded in battle, while Wakefield Trinity’s Benjamin Johnson lost a leg in the war.

Some Northern Union clubs had one or two players killed, while others lost many more.

According to Chris, Swinton lost around 10 senior players and Leeds had around eight killed.

His research is for a book due to be published next year in time for the centenary of the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.