Alex Massie Alex Massie

The Flower of Scotland Lies Cold in Flanders Clay

Back in the days when the Edinbugh Evening News printed a “Saturday Pink” edition, it used to be said that there were two headlines on hand for whenever Scotland played England for the Calcutta Cup. Occasionally the sub-editors could scream “It’s Bannockburn!”; more often they were left to lament “It’s Flodden”. The latter, as always when the game is played at Twickenham, seems the more probable result tomorrow.

Still, talk of ancient battles is merely tabloid hyperbole. Other conflicts loom larger. Frank Keating had a characteristically lovely piece in the Guardian this week, recalling the terror of the First World War and the calamitous toll it took on rugby:

The war had left rugby with a grievous inventory. From these islands alone, 75 capped international players had been slain in the conflict – eight from Ireland, 11 from Wales, 26 from England and, almost unbelievably, 30 (two whole XVs) from Scotland. Of the 30 young men who played in the 1914 Calcutta Cup match at Inverleith, more than a third of them perished– six Scots and five Englishmen. Only six (two Scots and four English) would play in the next Calcutta Cup match, at Twickenham at the end of the 1919-20 season.

Even 90 years on (or perhaps especially 90 years on) the war retains a capacity to chill the marrow. For instance:

Of course all the world’s sports clubs were mourning their dead through the winter of 1918-19. In British rugby, no black-creped sorrows can have been heavier than those of the ancient and fabled London Scottish club based at Richmond Athletic Ground a mile or so up the road from Twickenham. On 13 April, the last Saturday of the 1913-14 season, London Scottish 1st XV beat Blackheath on a day when the club fielded a further three XVs, a total of 60 players.

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