Wisden on the Great War

Published: 2014
Pages: 544
Author: Renshaw, Andrew
Publisher: John Wisden & Co
Rating: 5 stars

Wisden on the Great War

There is no publishing phenomenon like Wisden anywhere in the sporting world. This year’s edition is the 151st, and with a back catalogue like that to call on it is hardly surprising that in recent years attempts have been made to use again the content that his filled the “Cricketers’ Bible” over the century and a half of its existence.

After a disappointing start to that process in the early 1980s, with four poorly put together and not very well thought out anthologies covering extracts from the first 119 years, the bar was raised by a more recent and much better anthology, covering what was decribed as Cricket’s Age of Revolution 1978-2006, as well as more specific volumes covering Wisden on India, Yorkshire and The Ashes.

In 1986 the late Benny Green, known primarily as a jazz saxophonist, but also a lifelong cricket tragic who was the man responsible for the original anthologies, also undertook a much easier task, and edited the Wisden Book of Cricketers’ Lives, a huge collection of obituaries from the archive. Always one of the most rewarding sections of the Almanack that project simply couldn’t fail, and duly didn’t, and up until now remained, the good book itself apart, the only volume bearing the familiar Ravilious woodcut that I have had any time for.

In some ways Andrew Renshaw has revisited Benny Green’s work, in that Wisden on the Great War does contain every single one of the tributes that were the main content of the slim volumes that appeared from 1916 to 1919. But there is a great deal more to Wisden on the Great War than a simple regurgitation of old material.

The language of the time, and the not dissimilar stories of so many of the fallen are as evocative now as they were when I first acquired the then elusive originals a quarter of a century ago, and the entries in relation to the biggest names are largely as they originally appeared. The essay of then editor Sydney Pardon on the life of the most notable player to die in the conflict, Kent and England left arm spinner Colin Blythe, is wisely left wholly untouched, and despite in recent years two full biographies of Blythe having been published Andrew Renshaw still chooses to add nothing. Similar volumes in respect of two other fallen Test players, Major Booth of Yorkshire and England, and Australian quick Tibby Cotter, have also appeared, but despite the consequent availability of additional information, only footnotes are added to both of their entries.

By far the greater part of the book lies in the 1,800 obituary notices, but unlike the early anthologies this is a fully rounded book, with the scene set by an introduction that begins on the day in August 1914 when war was declared. It must have been tempting to set out some of the historical context, as Patrick Ferriday did so successfully in his book on the 1912 Triangular Tournament. But who knows how big the book might then have been, so the background information is confined to the state of the game, rather than the state of the nation and the wider world.

Where Andrew Renshaw has worked tirelessly, and we all reap the rewards, is in the stories he has managed to uncover of the less well known cricketers. An example is William Benton who was 43 when he died in 1916. The original obituary of a man who had played twice for Middlesex when almost 40 consisted of three sentences, and missed a story that would go a step too far if presented as fiction. Benton’s early career was in stockbroking, but then he joined the Royal Marines from where he deserted. A coward then? Not a bit of it – he “ran off” to Australia and joined up there and served throughout the South African War.

After that war Benton chose another difficult calling, working at a leper colony on Robben Island, before finally surrendering himself to British authority. Not surprisingly he was pardoned, and returned to England. He then went to theological college, became a curate and later an Army chaplain in France. Initially therefore his role in the Great War was a pastoral one, but special permission was subsequently given to enable him to become a combatant, following which he died from wounds sustained whilst heroically going to the aid of a fallen colleague.

In much the same vein is the tale of Jack Poole who, as a 19 year old subaltern, received five sentences in the 1916 edition. He gets an additional five pages here. In fact he had not been killed but was taken prisoner by the Germans. At the third time of asking he successfully escaped. He then enjoyed an unconventional existence between the wars before having the ill luck to be taken prisoner again in the Second World War, and during a four year incarceration he assisted in many attempts by others to escape. He actually died in 1966 at 70, after a very full life indeed, and he is not alone – also present are the stories of two other men who read their own obituaries inWisden, years before the great umpire finally raised his finger to end their innings.

At the end of the book is a list, the magnitude of which in some ways I find difficult to take in. It comprises the names of those First Class cricketers, both the fallen and those who survived, who were decorated for gallantry. It runs to 11 pages and there are more than 400 of them. And these are not the medals that are issued, essentially, for being involved in a conflict. These are awards for heroism rather than mere participation, in the main the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.

When the amount of First Class cricket played in those days is considered the list really is a remarkable catalogue of bravery and sacrifice by such a, in relative terms, small body of men. Would I, in the same position, have reacted in the way that Benton, for example, did? If I am honest I very much doubt it, yet time and again men took enormous risks for the benefit of King, country or comrade. It is a humbling thought that individuals who were essentially ordinary citizens like myself, routinely showed such great courage on the battlefield.

And perhaps that list is part of the reason why, where cricket and cricketers are concerned, the Great War seems to be viewed rather differently from the Second World War, and why cricket does not lay such a claim on the emotions in respect of the second great conflict of the twentieth century. In a war which, overall, had something like double the number of casualties all told cricket lost less than half as many men from its top tier between 1939 and 1945 as it had between 1914 and 1918. It is a factor also of course that the Second World War had to be fought in order preserve our way of life. It could not be avoided, whereas the Great War is often portrayed as an exercise in futility, and the loss of so many young lives a tragic and needless blight on a generation.

Wisden on the Great War is one of thoses rarities in a cricket book in that it has everything going for it. Its subject matter is such that it was always going to be interesting, but when the breadth of the research that Andrew Renshaw has done adds such fascinating new insights, all beautifully written by a man who has spent many years in journalism, it becomes an enormous pleasure to read. The book may, hopefully, inspire others to go out and try and dig even deeper into the stories of the men whose memory it perpetuates. The author invites further material from anyone who can add to his store of knowledge so perhaps, on the centenary of the armistice in four years time, we could have a second edition, or at least an addendum?

There can be no question but that Wisden on the Great War is a cricket book, albeit one that might be said to be rather narrow in scope. On the other hand for every potential reader from the cricketing community who will not be interested in the book because it deals with events of a century ago, there will be someone else it will appeal to who would not, without the context in which it is written, ever otherwise consider buying a book about the game. But for whoever picks the book up the bottom line is that they will enjoy it immensely and be fascinated by the stories that it contains. They will experiences moments of shock and disbelief, and at the same time feelings of pride, admiration and gratitude. This is undoubtedly a five star book, and is highly recommended.

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