More than 40 young rugby players from London Scottish will take part in a unique World War One Centenary event in Laon, France this weekend – 100 years to the day since former London Scot and Scotland internationalist Lt Ronnie Simson perished in the Great War – the first British rugby internationlist to be felled during the war.
The events commemorate the opening battles of the Great War in France where the first international rugby players were killed in September 1914.
Stade Toulousain's French half-back Alfred Mayssonnie was the first rugby internationalist to be killed on September 6, 2014 during the early stages of the Battle of Marne.
Eight days later a shell took out Lt Ronald Francis Simson, age 24, and his horse, on September 14, 1914 during the Battle of the Aisne on the Chemin des Dames ridge.
Another London Scot and Scotland internationalist James Huggan died the next day and Charles Wilson of Blackheath and England fell a day later.
The Chemin des Dames is the ridge between Arras and Reims that the Germans took straight after the Battle of the Marne, perhaps finally avenging Blücher’s defeat by Napoleon at the same spot exactly 100 years earlier.
The British and French together tried and failed to take it back in September 1914. Both sides dug in, literally, creating the Western Front's first trenches.
Players and officials from London Scottish will be joined across the channel this weekend by colleagues from Blackheath Rugby Club – a former club of Ronnie Simson who was a career soldier who entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1909.
Eighty-seven international players from the British Isles lost their lives during the Great War; 31 of them were Scots; 27 are on London Scottish's or Blackheath’s roll of honour, including four named on both.
In all London Scottish lost at least 100 members of their club, Blackheath losing 60.
Hosted by the Conseil Général de l’Aisne and the town of Laon in association with other rugby clubs in the region, this weekend will culminate in a rugby tournament connecting current players with those of the past who gave their lives in WW1.
Blackheath and London Scottish U15s will play a Flandres Select XV, organised by the Comité Départemental de Rugby de l’Aisne and the Comité de Rugby des Flandres, with the support of Laon Rugby Club.
The next day will see the two main events: Blackheath U17s v Flandres Select XV, followed by London Scottish U18s v Racing Metro U18s.
On their shirts, each player will bear the name of a WWI player from his respective club.
London Scottish players will also visit Lt Ronnie Simson’s grave in Moulins and Blackheath players will visit Wilson’s in Paissy, each laying wreaths.
On Saturday morning, September 13, players and officials will attend a commemorative service at the Basque Memorial, at Craonelle on the Chemin des Dames, on the site of the Front.
They will then take part in a walk alongside serving soldiers from the British and French Armies, from Vendresse to Cerny en Laonnais, following in the footsteps 100 years to the day that so many British lives were lost, in an attempt to take the plateau.
At Vendresse there will be a short service where the names of the fallen of both clubs will be read.
At Cerny the final act of reconciliation will take place with the laying of wreaths in the British and German war cemeteries by the British and German Ambassadors.
HRH Prince Charles, Angela Merkel and François Hollande will attend events over the same weekend.
President Hollande's grandfather died on the Chemin des Dames and visited in July as the Tour de France passed along this ridge, the cyclists commemorating the three Tour winners killed in the war.
Paul McFarland, Honorary Secretary of London Scottish, said: “This will be no ordinary battlefield tour but will provide young players at both clubs a unique perspective on the Great War and the opportunity to identify with the young men who wore the same jersey before them.
“Sportsmen with rugby players to the fore, volunteered in disproportionate numbers and inevitably formed a disproportionate number of the killed and wounded.
“It sounds trite but is true that the values of comradeship which attract young people to our game today are those that attracted their predecessors a century ago to join our clubs and then inspired them to join up to fight the war.”
He continued: “In July, I was on the Chemin des Dames – where a 'trench' of cornflowers – the French equivalent of the poppy – flanked the road for 40km, alongside François Hollande as the Tour de France passed.
“It was a privilege to be there as cyclists remembered their fallen predecessors and it will be an honour to represent our club at the Rugby Trench.”