The declaration of war, when it came at 11.00 am on Sunday 3rd September 1939, was of course hardly unexpected. The preparations for war had accelerated over the previous two or three weeks but were, not it seemed, matched on the sporting front.
Unlike soccer and rugby league, sports that traditionally began their season in late August, the rugby union season, apart from one or two practice matches hadn’t really got underway. I imagine that sportsmen who sat and listened to the broadcast by Neville Chamberlain, in which he announced the beginning of World War Two, may well have thought that there would no further action on the sporting field. The expectations probably were that the hostilities would begin immediately and that most young men involved in amateur sport would either be called up to the forces or would be working long hours, in reserved occupations, helping the war effort. Sport and, games of rugby in particular, did not seem at all likely to be taking place given the situation that Britain was now facing.
The Yorkshire Rugby Football Union’s reaction, at an emergency meeting held at the Metropole Hotel, in Leeds, on Monday 4th September, seemed to confirm every rugby union player’s worst fears about the future. ‘All fixtures were to be cancelled until further notice and no additional fixtures should be arranged.’ This ruling was to apply to every club in membership. The gloomy scenario painted by the Yorkshire RFU announcement meant that many young men will have assumed that their rugby playing days were over for the foreseeable future.
Yorkshire’s decision was mirrored nationally as it appeared, from all the newspaper reports that the sport of rugby union, certainly at club level, was not going to take place during World War Two. The Rugby Football Union at a meeting on 12th September of the London based members of the committee, travel restrictions meant members based outside of London did not attend, made the following resolutions:
- All fixtures already arranged be cancelled
- A moratorium on all outstanding loans be declared
- All subscriptions and season ticket payments made in advance be repaid
- The Honorary Treasurer and Honorary Secretary were authorised to incur minimum expenditure to maintain Twickenham
The situation seemed very clear from both the RFU and Yorkshire announcements. Rugby union was not going to be played during the Second World War. The country was focussing on the war effort and the sport should not be played until the war was won. However, despite all the official announcements to the contrary club rugby union in Yorkshire did begin to be played again. The Yorkshire RFU had decided to distribute the 1939/40 handbook despite the fact that they had announced that none of the fixtures contained in the handbook should take place. Perhaps it was assumed that as the handbook had been printed it should be sent to clubs and county members in the hope that the war would soon be over and that clubs could resume their activities and may even be able to play some of the fixtures they had organised later in the season. That did not, of course, happen and the 1939/40 handbook is now a unique record of what might have been. Many clubs did gradually restart activities but the sport and fixtures were very different to that envisioned when the Yorkshire handbook went to print in August 1939.
Mr R.F. Oakes, the Yorkshire RFU Secretary, made an announcement that seemed to be the reason for the resumption of activities when he said ‘At the moment there is little than can be done officially, but if thirty people can find a football and a field then let them play by all means’ This statement appeared in the Yorkshire Post on 13th September 1939 and was supported by comments made by the rugby union representative J.M. Kilburn who said ‘It should not be thought that the playing of rugby union football is forbidden or would meet with official disapproval. Clubs in evacuated areas are not allowed to open their grounds to the public but in areas where public entertainment is permitted rugby union football can take place along with every other organised sport’. On Saturday 16th September club games re-started. The response to Mr Oakes announcement seems to have been fairly rapid. The reality was that although the planned fixtures appeared to have been ruled out by the Yorkshire RFU many clubs still had players and officials and arranging a fixture at short notice would not have proved too difficult. The fixtures that were arranged were not of course those listed in the 1939/40 handbook. Most of the fixtures that did take place were local derbies. Those games arranged at very short notice obviously had to take account of the travel restrictions and the petrol rationing that came into force on the 16th September. Ironically following the announcement from the Yorkshire Secretary, Bob Oakes, the RFU reversed their position and announced that, following another meeting of the London members, clubs would now be allowed to carry on playing if they wished or were able to.
Following the stuttering start in mid- September the 1939/40 season began in earnest. Many Yorkshire clubs found that they had sufficient players and officials in order to plan fixture lists for the first few months of the season. Other clubs decided to play on a ‘week to week’ basis agreeing a fixture only when they were sure of having fifteen players available. There were clubs that did not make any attempt to arrange fixtures and others that had initially planned to play fixtures but then discovered that the loss of many of its leading players meant organising a representative team was going to be impossible.
The initial optimism of some clubs was unfortunately short lived and when the reality of War and, in early 1940, the impact of one of the coldest winters on record was felt many of the clubs that re-started activities in September 1939 decided to close down for the duration of the War.
Rugby in Yorkshire did continue to be played throughout the War. Some clubs organised fixtures on a week to week basis while others managed to organise full fixture lists. There were amalgamations and a few new clubs appeared that only existed during the War. What happened to Rugby Union in Yorkshire between 1939 and 1945 was described as ‘a matter of improvisation’.
Baildon and Huddersfield Old Boys were two of the clubs that continued to play regular fixtures during World War Two.
The other clubs that also continued to play regular fixtures were:
- Harrogate Old Boys
- Headingley Old Boys
- Hull and East Riding
The story of Yorkshire Rugby Union in World War Two is told in ‘Let Them Play By All Means’ available from ypdbpooks.com