Field of Shadows by Dan Waddell; Wisden on the Great War edited by Andrew Renshaw


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The Independent Culture

Field of Shadows might be considered a minor contribution to the vast library on Nazism or a major addition to the equally prodigious shelves of cricketing volumes. It starts with a cheering cameo from the wrecked Berlin of 1945 when five shabby Germans approached a British checkpoint. “Can we help?” a wary officer demanded. One of the Germans replied, “Yes. Could we play a game of cricket against you?” Though very much a minority interest, cricket has enjoyed a following in Germany since the 1880s. During the First World War, Hitler organised a match against British officers in his PoW hospital but subsequently rejected the game as “insufficiently violent”. In a characteristic aside (no joke goes uncracked), Waddell notes, “Had he played a team of Australians, he might have formed a different opinion.”

While cricket was “barely tolerated” by the Nazis, a three-match series was played in Berlin in 1937 by a team called the Worcester Gents. This unlikely encounter stemmed from a well-oiled visit to the Lords pavilion by the Nazi sports minister Hans von Tschammer und Osten, a bluff aristocrat who “knew next to nothing about sport”. News of the tour was broken by a figure straight out of Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Sir Home Seton Charles Montagu Gordon, 12th Baron Gordon of Embo, made the announcement in his weekly “In the Pavilion” column for The Cricketer magazine.

 Faced with the brevity of the tour and taciturnity of the participants – the letters of a young team member (“The country is quite flat and there are no hedges and plenty of corn”) do not suggest a rival to Patrick Leigh Fermor – Waddell omits no detail to plump out his account to book length. We learn, for example, that he was helped in tracking down one of the Gents, a demon bowler called Peter Huntington-Whiteley, when he spotted a photo of “comely” model Sophie Huntington-Whiteley while thumbing through a magazine in his doctor’s waiting room. She turned out to be the bowler’s great-great-niece.

 Led by the pompous Major Jewell and the diffident aristocrat Robert George Wilmot Berkeley (the parallel with Dad’s Army is stressed by Waddell), the Gents skittled the opposition despite the best efforts of rotund batsman Felix Menzel, whose “devotion and quiet bravery” kept cricket alive in Hitler’s Germany (it was him looking for a match in 1945). The home side was not helped by the bullying Nazi bowler Gerhard Thamer, who felled a butterfingered fielder, or the omission of Germany’s “finest home-grown player”. Waddell speculates that Arthur Schmidt might have been Jewish. A man of that name was gassed in Auschwitz in 1943.

 Aside from one lapse (Hitler “didn’t even have the decency to wait for the end of the cricket season” when he invaded Poland on 1 September 1939), Waddell maintains a deft balance between amiable cricketing encounters and the encroaching horrors of Nazi Germany. Concluding a narrative that blends the amusing, touching and chilling, he reveals that the Gents acquitted themselves as honourably on the battlefield as they did on the playing fields of Berlin. Peter Huntington-Whiteley, who took three wickets in 10 minutes, became an officer in the Royal Marines. Adored by his men for his “light, almost whimsical nature” (he sang Lear’s Owl and the Pussycat to his own banjo accompaniment), the 24-year-old was killed while displaying outstanding bravery at Le Havre soon after D-Day.

 Contrary to its bucolic image, cricket is a tough, demanding game that, at its best, involves the same combination of cool head and courage required for close-combat warfare (many matches fulfil the celebrated description of war as “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror”). This view is supported by Wisden on the Great War, an impressively annotated collection of the 1,788 obituaries that packed the almanac during the war years. The editor of the 1917 edition laconically remarked that it was “of necessity rather a mournful volume”.

 Brave cricketers include Lieutenant William Beaumont Burns, “a dashing, hard-hitting batsman” for Worcestershire, who led a defence of a village on the Somme “until all were overwhelmed”, Major Harold Forster, a Hampshire bowler who once took five MCC wickets for 38 runs before winning four gallantry medals (the last posthumous) and Roland Boys Bradford, who played regimental cricket for Durham Light Infantry, gained a VC for “fearless energy under fire of all description” and was promoted to Brigadier-General at 25, just 10 days before his death in November 1917   

 Among the many who fell from disease rather than bloodshed is Sub-Lieutenant Rupert Brooke, who headed Rugby School’s bowling averages with “19 wickets for 14.05 runs each”. Though Wisden said the poet died from heatstroke in April 1915, it was actually blood poisoning following a mosquito bite. Even better known is the name of Private Percy Jeeves. Killed in July 1916, this “brilliant” all-rounder for Warwickshire would have played for England but for the outbreak of war, As Andrew Renshaw notes, “P.G.Wodehouse was impressed by his demeanour when he saw Jeeves playing in a county match at Cheltenham in 1913 and took the name for Bertie Wooster’s valet.” A photograph confirms that he looked the part.

 His obituary is one of the few from the lower orders. At least in this book, death is not “the great leveller”. The vast majority of entries stem from Wisden’s assiduous coverage of public school cricket. Among a handful of exceptions are Sergeant Colin Blythe, a slow bowler for England and Kent, whose death in November 1917 was described as “the most serious [loss] that cricket has sustained during the war”, and Private Frederick Percy Hardy, a “left-handed batsman and useful bowler” who played 99 matches for Somerset. On the brink of returning to the Western Front, he was, according to Wisden, “found dead on the floor of a lavatory at King’s Cross station (GNR) on 9 March 1916. His throat had been cut and a blood-stained knife was by his side.” As the cricket historian David Frith subsequently reflected, he was a “war casualty many miles from the trenches”.