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Semper Fidelis

June 16 2016

Continuous rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire. In the distance, the rattle of machine gun fire was a reminder that the day’s attack was not yet finished. Across the pock-marked landscape, a powerfully built, red-headed soldier crawled on hands and knees towards the safety of the British trenches. 

On his broad back he bore an unconscious figure. As the two men reached the parapet, a cheer went up from those watching and willing hands extended to receive them. The wounded man was stretchered away and praises rang in the ears of his rescuer.

"Best scrum half we've ever had. Can't let the boys down," he whispered and, without warning, he slumped heavily to the ground. Only then did his companions notice the dark stain spreading across the front of his tunic…

The Vikings' Clubhouse 1995: 11am Monday

"We need all this junk cleared out, Dave. This club is going places and it needs a clubhouse to match. At last we've got the money to refurbish the place. Let's start by dumping this lot." Bob Morgan, Head Coach of the Vikings RFC waved his hand at the dusty shelves which served as a trophy cabinet in the shabby clubroom and stalked out towards the changing-rooms.

Dave Rogers, the Bar Steward, watched him go and looked at the shelves: a few tarnished shields, some dog-eared programmes and a couple of faded pennants hardly suggested a glittering past, but the Vikings was a proud old club which had seen better days. Now it was on the way up once more: a win on Saturday against Rotherly Raiders would mean promotion back to a higher league. A windfall from the local lottery also meant a new look clubhouse at last.

"No wonder he's feeling grumpy," he thought to himself. "He's got a lot on his plate at the moment. Rotherly isn't the easiest prospect. We've never beaten them yet." He dragged a plastic dustbin from behind the bar and started emptying the shelves. "Should have done this years ago," he thought. "Nothing here worth keeping."

As he stretched to check the furthest recess of the top shelf, his fingers closed around a small wooden frame. It was covered in dust and cobwebs clung tenaciously to its corners. Dave rubbed the frame on his sleeve and looked at it more carefully. Through the dirty glass he could make out the distinctive shape of the club badge with its familiar motto Semper Fidelis. It looked as if it had been cut from an old player's jersey, but the blue flannel was darkened with a brownish stain in the bottom corner. "Mud or blood by the look of it," thought Dave. "What an odd thing to keep," and he moved towards the bin. "Hey, what are you doing?" called a voice from the doorway. Dave paused. "I'm having a clearout. Bob's orders."

A young man in training kit clattered across the worn lino, ignoring the "No Studs in the Bar" notice. He took the little frame from Dave. "My great granddad showed me this, the first time that he brought me to the club. He said it was very special, but I can't remember why. I think it was meant to be lucky." He handed it back to Dave. "Can't stop. Bob's waiting."

Dave watched him go, looked at the badge and then tossed it into the bin. As it dropped, he heard the glass crack.

Looking back on the events of that week, it was clear that things started to go wrong from that point. The day's training session resulted in a twisted ankle and a dead leg. Then the weather changed for the worse and two days of torrential rain turned the pitches into quagmires. The fly-half took to his bed with a temperature and both props went down with stomach-bugs. To cap it all, Bob Stewart was notified that the referee on Saturday would now be Wayne Maybury – not a favourite with the Vikings.

By the time that Saturday came, the confidence of the home side had reached rock bottom and the mood in the clubhouse bar was subdued. Nobody took much notice of a powerfully-built, red-haired young man who sat quietly by the empty trophy cabinet. Hunched in a khaki greatcoat, you might have taken him for a student. Apart from the extreme pallor of his face, you wouldn't have given him a second glance.

Dave Rogers only noticed him when the bar emptied before kick-off. By then, the stranger was looking around the shabby room as if searching for something. "Alright mate?" queried Dave. "Lost something have you?" The young man stared at him. "Looked right through me," Dave said later. "I'm looking for my badge," he said hoarsely. Dave frowned, " Your badge?"

Just then a groan from outside, followed by a chant of "Ro-ther-ly" told them that the Raiders had scored. Dave sighed. "Our luck seems to have run out this week. Illness, injury and a muddy pitch. The heart seems to have gone out of the boys. I've never seen them so low."

"I've seen worse," said the young man. "They need to trust each other. They'll be alright then."

Dave nodded agreement and bent down to retrieve an empty can. When he straightened up, the stranger was nowhere to be seen. "Gone to watch the slaughter," thought Dave, but he couldn't shake off the uncomfortable feeling that something was not right. "What did he mean? What badge was he looking for?" Suddenly, he remembered the dirty old frame. Maybe it did belong to someone and he had thrown it away. With a thumping heart he pulled the plastic bin from the corner of the bar and felt down through the empty cans and crisp-packets. It must be there somewhere…At last his fingers closed around the small wooden frame and he pulled it into the light.

At that moment the whistle blew for half-time and Dave propped his prize on the shelf behind the bar and prepared to dispense gloomy pints to the downcast Vikings supporters who had seen their team struggle to hold Rotherly to a 0 – 7 score. "This is just the start," remarked the club's chief pessimist. "Our lads haven't got off the bus – if they had one. This one could be a cricket score unless we pull off a miracle."

Despite this damning prediction, however, the second half began with a flurry of activity from both sides. Things were looking more promising until the Vikings conceded a penalty. 0 – 10. Dave braced himself for a miserable post-match wake. Then there was a sudden roar from the touchlines which rose to a crescendo of cheering: the home team had scored and the brisk wind which was drying out the soggy pitch suddenly veered in their favour and eased over the tricky conversion.

It seemed that the Vikings had finally recovered their self-belief and they battered at the Rotherly defence as if determined to find a way through. When the home scrum-half left the field with a twisted knee, his young replacement played with a maturity which belied his 18 years. With the score at 7 – 10 and only 3 minutes left to play, the Vikings prop picked up the ball from broken play and forced his way through the Rotherly defenders like a man possessed. Carrying 3 men with him, he staggered across the line and grounded the ball under the posts. It was an easy conversion, but the kicker would not be hurried: 14 – 10. The whistle shrilled and Mr Maybury's arm pointed towards the clubhouse. The Vikings had done it; promotion was secured.

Later that evening, a weary Dave Rogers was collecting dirty glasses after a high-spirited post-match celebration . The clubhouse was almost empty now except for old Ed Brewer in his usual corner. "What's happened to Jim's badge?" said Ed suddenly, looking towards the bar. "It's a bit the worse for wear."

Dave looked around. "Jim's badge? Do you know about it? Of course, I should have asked you before."

Ed Brewer was a club institution. What he didn't know about the Vikings wasn't worth knowing. At 81, he was their oldest supporter and his grandfather had been a founding member. His father, Henry, had worn the No.9 jersey until he was 40 and, in his heyday, had been a County player. Club mythology said that Harry Brewer would have been capped for England if it hadn't been for the Great War. The whole of the Vikings' first XV had enlisted together in 1914, but only 3 returned unscathed from the battlefields of France. Harry Brewer was one of the lucky ones.

By 1995, only Ed and a few of his friends remembered the heroes of their youth and he jokingly referred to himself as the "club archive". Now he frowned as he looked across at the cracked glass and the dirty frame. "Jim Wilson deserves better treatment than that."

"Come on, Ed," encouraged Dave, knowing that the old man liked to be persuaded into reminiscence. "What's it all about?"

Ed paused. "Jim Wilson was a prop forward – a giant of a man and hugely popular with the team. Rugby was his passion. In 1914 he signed up with all the others and was sent to the Western Front. Even took his Vikings shirt with him. "Just in case," he said. He was killed at the Somme, saving my father. Although he was wounded, he crawled into No-Man's-Land to bring him back. My dad kept Jim's shirt and, after the war, he had the badge framed and given to the club. That kind of comradeship shouldn't be forgotten. Jim would have loved to-day. Especially that last try. Had ‘Ginger Wilson' written all over it."

Before Dave could react, the door burst open and Bob Stewart rolled in, still drunk on the day's success and the media interest it had generated."Well done, Bob. The boys did a great job to-day," said Ed. "I don't know what you said to them at the break, but they were new men in the second half." "Can't take the credit for that, Ed," replied Bob. "By the time I'd fought off a local radio interviewer, the job had been done for me."

"How come?" queried Dave.

"The boys said a former player had been in and given them a pep talk. Odd really, because nobody could quite remember him. Not that it matters because he made them feel that they were a winning team. They went out and played as if their life depended on it. I'd like to say thank you to the guy, but I don't know who he is." Dave Rogers looked very serious. "Don't you know anything about him?" he asked anxiously.

"A big bloke. One of the lads reckoned he must have been a prop. In his late twenties. Ridiculous that I can't place him, especially as he had bright red hair." The colour drained from Dave Rogers' face, but Ed Brewer only smiled to himself.

The Vikings Clubhouse, 2005

Lights, cameras and technicians had transformed the new clubhouse into a TV studio. The latest team to join the élite ranks of the Premiership was hosting the first Rugby Nation of the new season. An invited audience of die-hard supporters had filled the clubhouse, proudly sporting new blue shirts with the club badge and motto embroidered in gold. In the centre of the front row, Ed Brewer was given pride of place. A nervous Bob Stewart kept mopping his face with a striped handkerchief as presenter John Healey ran through the sequence of events. Tucked away at the back, Dave Rogers looked around the room and considered how far the club had come. "It all started with that promotion game against Rotherly," he thought. Then his attention was caught by something in the centre of the new trophy cabinet. Although the polished wooden frame gleamed and the glass shone, Jim Wilson's badge still looked grubby and worn. "Been in the wars has it?" visitors often quipped with a laugh. "Semper Fidelis" thought Dave as he looked across at the little emblem of the club. He caught Ed Brewer's glance and smiled. "It all started long before Rotherly."

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Semper Fidelis (IP Logged)
16/06/2016 13:49
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Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2016:08:15:11:03:40 by Powick Eastander.

Re: Semper Fidelis
A38 (IP Logged)
16/06/2016 16:11
An excellent piece.

For my wife's family the 1st of July is always poignant as her uncle was killed in the very first attack. He was only 17. Along with so many others, he has no known grave.

A visit to Flanders and to the Somme is very worthwhile and thought provoking - the graveyards and memorials are so very well kept - and I would very much recommend the experience.

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