Book review: A fitting tribute to Northern Union’s ‘Great War’ fallen

Billy Jarman
Billy Jarman

IN AN interview with the Athletic News, in September, 1914, Leeds rugby league star Billy Jarman spoke of his experiences on Great Britain’s triumphant tour to Australia and his forthcoming service in the conflict with Germany.

He told the newspaper: “I am hoping to gain as good honours there [on the battlefield] as we have done in Australia, and my prayer is that I come safely back to my wife and children and to take part again in the sport I dearly love.”

Two years after that interview, Jarman, a member of the Second Battalion Scots Guards, was returning to the front line of the Somme battlefield when his position in Wolfe Trench was shelled by German artillery. Jarman was among those killed. With no known grave, he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

A territorial reservist at the time hostilities began, Jarman was among 69 Northern Union players killed during the First World War. The story of those who did not return home is movingly told in The Greatest Sacrifice, the first full account of rugby league’s contribution to the Great War.

Previously, there had been no roll of honour listing all those Northern Union players who fell in battle.

Authors Jane and Chris – a Batley fan and former rugby league journalist – Roberts have rectified that and their painstaking research highlights the high price paid by the 13-a-side code.

Leeds lost nine first-team players, three of them – David Harkness Blakey, Joseph Pickles and Joseph Henry Hopkins – falling on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive.

Arthur Clarence Cockcroft died the same day, one of four Wakefield Trinity players killed during the war. He had signed on the same day as Wakefield legend Jonty Parkin, but on far more lucrative personal terms.

No club was unaffected. Five Batley players were killed between 1914 and 1918, Hunslet each lost four senior men, Bramley two and Dewsbury one.

All deserve to be remembered and The Greatest Sacrifice is a fitting tribute.

n The Greatest Sacrifice. By Jane and Chris Roberts. Scratching Shed Publishing, £14.99.