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David Watts

 

David Watts

David Watts was born the 14th of March 1886 in Maesteg to a typical Welsh coal mining family. From census returns it appears that he was raised by his grandparents Samuel and Phoebe Jones in Talbot Terrace, Maesteg but more recent evidence shows he had moved to Garn Road in Maesteg.

David remained loyal to his birthplace and never moved from Maesteg. It was inevitable that he would follow his forbears into the hard, dark and dirty coalmines of the region and did so probably before the age of 14 following his schooling. David would initially have served as a dram filler, clearing the stall and roadway or other manual jobs. He would learn the ropes and assist a senior hewer (possibly a family friend or relative) before he was given his own section to work in. Once he showed he could handle the independence he would be responsible for erecting pit props as he dug further into his own stall with a lad to assist him. He was certainly a Coal Hewer in 1901 aged 16, a profession that constituted working long hours in extremely cramped conditions at the coal face. The day or night shift began long before he began to earn any money. There was the walk to work, the preparation of going underground and once at the heading it was common to walk miles before reaching the coal face. He would hack at the seam using manual tools to extract the coal. Only then when the drams were being filled did he begin to earn his money. Every day he would face the danger of flooding, gas, rock falls and if your entire career was in this environment then face the prospect of the debilitating black lung disease caused by the coal.

This profession shaped David’s early years. He was extremely fit and as hard as nails, just like his peers who he worked alongside. But Dai stood out from the others, he was good at rugby!  

Why go anywhere else to play rugby when you lived only a short walk from the home ground. Maesteg initially played their rugby on the cricket ground and it was later they moved to the Llynfi Road .  David would have already been aware of Maesteg RFC and rugby but we can only speculate if it was something he was extremely keen on at a young age or was it something he was introduced to when he was older. There are no records to substantiate when his playing career began but we do know that when it did his natural talents were to take him right to the top in his short playing career.

Maesteg were one of the forerunners of Welsh rugby, established in 1882 (some records state 1877) and as every South Wales town grew with the demand for coal, steel, iron and copper so did the demand to watch sport, particularly rugby. Large crowds were recorded at games and the rivalries between the towns were intense. The game developed but owing to the physical side of the game it was often recorded that fights broke out between players quickly followed by the supporters wading into each other. Those chaotic early days of Welsh rugby soon gave way to established fixtures and cup competitions. The likes of Cardiff , Swansea and Newport were the big boys and other industrial town teams such as Mountain Ash, Abertillery were never a pushover. By the beginning of the 20th century Wales ’ national game was rugby.

David’s priority would have been work and the wages he brought into the home. He would have been aware that a successful 1905 Wales recorded their first ever win over the conquering All Blacks and won their 4th triple crown. This was the start of a golden period of Welsh rugby and it is likely around this moment in time that his playing career had already begun at the age of 19.

1910 was the beginning of “unfashionable” clubs making a revival in Wales in contrast to typical strongholds such as Cardiff , Swansea and Newport . In “Fields of Praise” the official history of the WRU it states, “the 1910-11 season began with a heartening revival of rugby interest in Maesteg.”  I would like to think that David Watts was a part of this as it goes on to describe “the super excellence” of their pack. It was in the pack that David Watts, who developed his strength down the mines, was to play in his position of lock.

Maesteg had become a formidable team and in 1912 they won the Glamorgan challenge Cup; however no Maesteg player would get the opportunity to represent his country as the Welsh national side were an established team with the likes of Jack Bancroft, Billy Trew and the great Dicky Owen. It was unusual for an international player to reach double figures for caps in this era, after all rugby was an amateur sport and a balance needed to be found between work and rugby. A chance of a cap would always be a possibility to a player from a successful club team but Maesteg players would be overlooked until 1914 when David Watts was finally given the nod.

 

WALES TEAM V ENGLAND 1914

David Watts had the honour of receiving the first international cap whilst representing Maesteg rugby club. The was a fantastic achievement; Maesteg had not replicated their cup winning year of 1912 but Watts had remained with the club and his performances since then were evidence and worthy enough of his call up.

David travelled to Twickenham to make his international bow. On the 17th of January 1914 Wales introduced 5 new caps including David Watts. Wales ’ entire team only numbered 56 caps.  England were also experimenting and gave debuts to 6 players but were more experienced with 80 caps in all and had in their team the supreme trio, Poulton-Palmer, Cyril Lowe and Charles “Cherry” Pillman.

  ENGLAND V WALES , TWICKENHAM

 

In front of a crowd of 30,000 the match was a close affair with England taking the win (10-9) after Wales gifted them a try with eight minutes to go. The Welsh forwards had taken the England eight to the cleaners and done enough to get the away win and their season up and running. With Wales leading 9 – 5 and nearing Willie Watts of Llanelli (No relation to David), a first and only cap at centre fumbled the ball on the Wales try line. Cherry Pillman the exponent of wing forward play pounced and scored the winning try. There were some anxious moments for England as Wales battered their lines in an attempt to claw back the match but it was all in vain and England won their first ever match at Twickenham by that single point. Had it not been for this mistake Wales ’ last season before the start of the Great War would have resulted in a grand slam. But it was not to be and England went on to complete their second grand slam after their first the previous season.

Wales ’ loss was not all doom and gloom; they had discovered a magnificent pack of forwards led by the powerful and intelligent Revd Alban Davies. David Watts was to keep his place among this pack that remained together for the championship and this pack of forwards came to be known as the “Terrible Eight” by the end of season.

Wales played their next game on the 7th of February at Cardiff Arms Park against Scotland . Scotland had not won in Wales in 9 previous attempts and they were thoroughly beaten, metaphorically speaking too, on this occasion. The final score was 24 – 5. The Scottish captain David Bain received 6 stitches to a head wound and claimed at the end of the match “The dirtier side won!”  It was a rough match and the Scottish centre Walter Sutherland spent most of the second half limping about the field. The Revd Davies continued as captain and leader of the ferocious “Terrible Eight”. He was asked whether he was ever offended by the “colourful language” of the other seven to which he replied “I always wear a scrum cap!”

France arrived to take on Wales on a Monday afternoon at St.Helens, Swansea in March. It was a totally one sided affair and the Welsh forwards destroyed the French pack. The speed of the Welsh backs compounded the French efforts and Wales ran in seven tries resulting in a 31 – 0 scoreline. Unfortunately Watts did not get on the scorecard but so successful were this pack proving to be that they were selected en bloc again for the final infamous match against Ireland two weeks later.

The Ireland game, held at the Balmoral Showground’s in Belfast on the 14th March 1914 went down in Welsh folklore and it was the Irish Press post match who dubbed the Welsh forwards the “The Terrible Eight!”  There have been many tall stories said of the pre match meeting of the Irish and Welsh packs but the one that appears to hold most water is that the Irish pack visited the Welsh team hotel the previous night of the match. This was a good natured visit and the Irish pack leader Doctor William Tyrell told Welsh forward Percy Jones: "It's you and me for it tomorrow." Jones, a colliery foreman, smiled and answered: "I shall be with you, doing the best I can." Another Wales forward asked: "Can anyone join in?" And so they did! What appeared to start as good natured banter turned into a full-blooded contest during the match. Jones took several early knocks, not just from Tyrell but from other members of the Irish pack. At half time the Welsh pack decided to pay the Irish back and the game descended into running fist fights and the match is remembered as being one of the most violent in international rugby. Players fought when the ball was not near them and some should have been sent off, but Mr Tulloch, the referee from Scotland , took little notice. It was one of the all-time best punch-ups and Jones said: "The fun just went on and on."

As for the rugby match itself, Wales commenced in the mud by attempting to play a passing and running match but soon gave up. Owing to the pitch conditions it resulted in a forward slog that Watts was described to have been “in the heart of everything the men in red did”. Wales outscored the Irish by three tries to one and took the match 11 – 3.

This was the first ever time a pack had remained unchanged through a home championship but the “Terrible Eight” would never play complete again. Bedwelty Jones signed a contract to play league rugby with Oldham and the rumblings of war were on the horizon which put a stop to rugby for the duration. For the record Tyrell and Jones became firm friends and died 6 months apart when they were both aged 82. The leader of the infamous eight Revd Davies died in Los Angeles in 1976 age 90.

 

TERRIBLE 8

Standing (l-r) Percy Jones, Ted Morgan, Harry Uzzell, Tom Lloyd, David Watts

Seated (l-r) Tom Williams, Alban Davies, Walter Rees (RFU Sec), Bedwelty Jones)

  There would be one more appearance for Watts in a Wales shirt. Following the outbreak of hostilities with Germany frequent fund raising and recruiting opportunities took place throughout the British Isles . The Barbarians XV put together a team captained by Edgar Mobbs and played against Wales ; this was the first ever Barbarians encounter with an international team. Watts teamed up with 5 of the original Terrible Eight in the forwards, Tom Williams (withdrew late) and Bedwelty Jones being the only two of the missing. The Barbarians won the match in Cardiff that day 26- 10 but the result was immaterial as two hundred pounds was raised for the local war effort and 177 men enlisted into the Welsh Guards.

David chose to join the army and enlisted in Maesteg. Following his basic training he was posted to the 7th Battalion Kings Shropshire Light Infantry, part of the 3rd Division. He had been in a reserved occupation and could have avoided the killing fields of the Great War but instead chose to go. Could this have been through patriotism and adventure? Many of his rugby friends had enlisted including the Reverend Alban Davies who was an Army chaplain with the Royal Artillery. Alternatively David may have seen this as an opportunity to leave the rigours of coal mining and in those days there was not much chance of leaving coal mining if that’s all you had ever done in your life, even for an international rugby player.

The battalion were posted overseas and landed in Boulougne on the 15th of October 1915 . They saw service in and around the Ypres salient in 1915 and 1916 but were soon required to move south to prepare for the Somme offensive. The regiment were in reserve on the 1st of July 1916 and it was only two weeks before they were required to move up the line and take their part in the offensive to capture Bazentin Ridge. The war diary records the following.

03:30hrs 14th of July 1916 “The Attack”

“Battalion advanced towards German trenches and were held by barbed wire. Remainder leaped into shell holes and consolidated along road 200x (sic) from German trench. 11am. we were informed the 2nd Royal Scots were bombing along German trench on our left which had been taken. At 12pm Battn again charged and captured both 1st and 2nd trenches and also 250 prisoners”

The official war history of the Regiment recorded the following;

“The night assembly and deployment of the assaulting battalions went without a hitch and by 11pm on the 13th of July the battalion was in position in No Mans Land waiting for dawn. The objectives were the enemy front trench and support line running through Bazentin le Grand, a distance of 1,500 yards. Owing to the undulation of the ground the enemy trenches were not visible. At 03:20 there was a brief preliminary bombardment, lasting 5 minutes, which was very short, and caused a number of casualties amongst our own men. Unfortunately the attack ran into exceptionally strong, and quite uncut, wire about 600 yards from the front enemy trench. Not one man of the first wave succeeded in getting through this wire, of which there were two rows, each ten to twenty yards deep. The succeeding waves of attack closed on first and the enemy had an easy target. After vain attempts to penetrate the wire, the remnants of the attacking force fell back to the shelter of the sunken road about 200 yards from the enemy trenches. About 11am. The remnants of the battalion attacked again and assisted by bombing parties from the flanks, succeeded in cutting their way through the wire, reaching the enemy trenches”

Sixteen officers were either killed or wounded. 147 other ranks killed outright, 278 others wounded (16 of which subsequently died) and 16 men were missing.

 

GROUND WHERE SHROPSHIRE ATTACKED

BAZENTIN –LE – GRAND (At right)

  Nobody knows what part of the day David was killed or how he died. His service record was destroyed in the second war, there are no witnesses to his death and the war diary does not list him individually. David was a corporal and comes under the diary term “other ranks”. David Watts was killed in action aged 30, his body was never recovered from the battlefield.

His life was fraught with danger, from the young age as a coal miner, eventually becoming one of the many whose ultimate sacrifice was a fruitless and wasted gesture being killed hundreds of miles from home.

His name is recorded on the Thiepval memorial to those who have no known grave of the Somme battles. His name also appears on the memorial stone at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and most proudly at Llynfi Road , Maesteg where his photograph resides above the bar in the members lounge. One place it is missing from is in EHD Sewells Rugby Football Internationalists Roll of Honour book, it is inexplicable why his name is not present.

David’s life and rugby career was cut short by the war, it would have been likely that he could have added to the 4 caps he received in the season of 1914, there should have been more seasons for Maesteg he played with pride for club at the very least. It is quite right to take for granted that his friends in that terrible eight would never have forgotten him and nor shall we.

SOURCES

Godwin, Terry.       The International Rugby Championship 1883-1983, Collins-Willow Books

Mortimer, David;   Classic Rugby Clangers. Robson Books, pg 34

Smith & Williams; Fields of Praise “Official history of the WRU 1881-1981. University of Wales Press

Evans, Howard:      Welsh Internation Matches: 1881-2000. Mainstream Publishing.

Griffiths, John:       The Book of English International Rugby 1871-1982:  Collins-Willow Books

Wood, W. De B;      History of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry in the Great War 1914-1918

War Diary of the 7th Battalion Kings Shropshire Light Infantry. PRO Ref – W095/1421

 

© G Rees, 2011
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