Last week marked Armistice Day. On the 11th hour of the 11th of the 11th month, both sides in the Great War lay down their weapons. The Netherlands was neutral in the war and thus the 11th sees children in the North and the West of the country celebrate St Martin’s Day, the day they carry lanterns and sing traditional songs at people’s doors, to be rewarded with sweets. In the South, that day marks the beginning of Carnaval season.
But this year a memorial took place in the Netherlands. Not on the 11th of November, but on the 5th, Guy Fawkes Night in England.
The history of rugby in the Netherlands dates back to Pim Mulier, the father of sports in the Netherlands. Fascinated by sports from an early age, he was one of the pioneers of sports in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He organised the first athletics competition in the country, laid the foundation for the Elfstedentocht, the gruelling skating race around 11 Frisian cities, and he introduced the country to tennis and hockey, in the latter of which the Dutch have come to excel.
He also founded the Haarlemse Football Club in 1879, the year of the first Calcutta Cup match. In 1883 the club switched to playing association rules, but the seed had been sown.
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It would be many years before there were any international matches though. That match came about under unusual circumstances, caused by the war raging across the border.
On the 5th of November 1916, Scottish and English players from the 1st Royal Navy Brigade squared off in Leeuwarden. The players were British servicemen interned in the Netherlands.
1500 of them had ended up at a camp in Groningen after the fall of Antwerp. Having to flee from the Belgian port, they chose entering Dutch territory instead of being captured when the first Bavarian Brigade cut off their retreat to Ostend. They would end up spending the Great War in the Netherlands.
The Dutch were neutral in World War One, which meant they arrested and interned all foreign combatants that trespassed in the country or its waters. They took them from the South of the country to the Northern city of Groningen, where they placed them in “het Engelse Kamp”, the English Camp. The sailors renamed the camp of wooden barracks HMS Timbertown.
Their senior officer, Commodore Wilfred Henderson, could do little but keep up morale. In order to do this, he organised education and a lot of games. Like Mulier, he organised athletics competitions, tennis, hockey, soccer and of course rugby games.
Many of the sailors had played team sports before entering service, and amongst them were a number of capped rugby union players. After they played a number of inter-battalion matches, Henderson organised a game between English and Scottish players.
There were two of these matches during the war. The first of these took place in Leeuwarden on the 5th of November 1916, in front of a crowd of 2500. The English team won a hardfought match with 19-7.
To commemorate this first international match, an English and a Scottish team from the Royal Navy will take to the field on Saturday the 5th at the grounds of RC Greate Pier in Leeuwarden. The Centennial Memorial Match is played as part of the Inverdale Challenge, under the watchful eye of Bill Beaumont, the head of World Rugby.
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