A European tour by New Zealand’s famed national rugby squad included on Wednesday an unusual stop: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris, where players honoured the memory of former All Blacks who gave their lives during World War One.
Wednesday was not like any other day for New Zealand’s world-renowned rugby squad as players laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris and participated in a decades-old ceremony to honour those who died in World War One by re-lighting a flame at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe.
While the Great War seems far removed in time and distance from the island nation in the south-western Pacific, the conflict is intimately tied to its history and that of its feared rugby side.
Thirteen former “All Black” members were among the thousands of New Zealanders who died during the four-year war that engulfed Europe and the globe starting in 1914. Four of them (Georges Sellars, James Baird, Reginald Taylor and James McNeece) were killed within a two-week span in June 1917 as part of the Battle of Messines in north-western Belgium.
“I think it’s special for us as New Zealanders, because in our country we have a lot of respect for our people who came over here to fight for others,” said hooker Keven Mealamu, who was part of the 2011 Rugby World Cup team that took home the trophy.
“It’s a good way to remember what those guys did for their countries,” agreed team mate Liam Messam. “Obviously it’s a bit different now. They put their lives on the line and we’re going out there to play.”
Over 100,000 New Zealanders fought on the Western Front, in Turkey or the Pacific during World War One. More than 18,000 of those soldiers never returned home.
The hero Dave Gallaher
Among New Zealand’s fallen WWI heroes, perhaps none is more famous than Dave Gallaher. Considered the first great captain of the All Blacks, the player of Irish origin was part of “The Originals” (main picture, above) who embarked on a celebrated world tour in 1905.
Twelve years later, aged 44, Gallaher returned to Europe, but this time as a sergeant in the New Zealand Division, which suffered huge casualties in the Allied campaign for key positions in west Flanders.
On October 4, 1917, during an episode in the infamous Battle of Passchendaele, the former rugby star was mortally wounded during an offensive.
He was buried at the Nine Elms British Cemetery near Poperinge, only a few kilometres from the French border.
100 years on
All Black teams have visited the former captain’s Belgian grave in recent years.
“He’s someone that we learn about when we first come into the All Blacks, one of our pioneers,” noted Mealamu. “He’s one of the reasons that motivate us to play well over here.”
Since 2000, the Dave Gallaher Cup has been awarded every year to the winner of the first rugby test between New Zealand and France.
And as the world prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI next year, Gallaher’s spirit seems to be as strong as ever among rugby men.
In addition to Wednesday’s solemn ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, New Zealand rugby players will wear a jersey featuring a poppy – a symbol among Commonwealth countries to honour those who died in war – when they take on France in a test match on Saturday.
Date created : 2013-11-06