Meet Irish rugby’s first superstar

When he died on a WW1 battlefield Basil Maclear was an Irish rugby star and acknowledged by many of the early game’s greats

Meet Irish rugby’s first superstar

In the early hours of May 24, 1915, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were bunkered down in Mouse Trap Farm, a Flemish chalet about two and a half miles from Ypres’s Menin Gate in Belgium’s west corner.

Close to 3am, red lights speckled in the skies overhead. The Germans had started firing. But it wasn’t shells. It was worse. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant — Colonel Arthur Loveband yelled out, ‘Get your respirators, boys. Here comes the gas.’

That spring, the rules of war had changed and chemical attacks from the German side became commonplace. In April 1915, they debuted their new weapon of choice and obliterated the unsuspecting  Allied souls in a north-east corner of Ypres. Soon, the trenches filled with talk of the ‘thick, yellow-greenish vapour’, the silent killer that inflicted a slow, harrowing death upon its victims. It engulfed the insides and painstakingly cut the supply to the throat.

Years later, Wilfred Owen would paint the most vivid of pictures – “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”.

Decades later, Jack Campbell, an Irish veteran of the first World War, said: “It takes up to three hours to die from gas. It’s been said to me and others ‘For Christ’s sake, be a pal. Put one in me and finish me’.”

At Mouse Trap Farm on that fateful night, the gas took 45 minutes to drift over the Irish trenches.

The soldiers desperately attempted to evade the poison but it was useless. Many dropped instantly, the others were picked off by the advancing Germans.

But hours later, some of the Fusiliers still remained. Outnumbered, the situation was perilous. Captain Basil Maclear sent a message to battalion headquarters reinforcements were needed. Still, he continued to strategise. With the few soldiers left at his disposal, he sought to launch a grenade attack on the Fusilier trenches that had been taken by the Germans. As the assault began, he led the advance towards the enemy...

Born in Portsmouth in 1881, Maclear came from impressive stock and had strong Irish ties. His maternal grandfather, William Comerford Casey, was a Dubliner, while his paternal grandfather, Sir Thomas Maclear, was born in Newtownstewart in Tyrone, studied medicine at London’s Royal College of Surgeons before devoting the majority of his life to astrology. In 1860, Thomas was knighted for his scientific excellence.

Basil was educated at Bedford Grammar – a famed breeding ground for military types. He

excelled at sport, particularly rugby, captaining the school team for three of his six years there. Writing in The Old Bedfordians yearbook in 1929, E.A Rolfe describes Maclear as ‘a promising forward — tall, heavy, strong and fast, a resolute tackler and a reliable place-kick’.

He regularly turned out for club side Blackheath, again impressing onlookers with his performances. He was an eye-catching cricketer too while, owing to his well-regarded speed, he proved naturally adept on the running track.

But Maclear was academically gifted also. He attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst where he received the Sword of Honour – an award bestowed upon the best student. Soon, he put his training into practice and served in the Boer War as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. But in 1904, he was posted to Fermoy and it was there, on the banks of the Blackwater, that Maclear’s already-intriguing story took a fascinating turn.

It’s not definitively known why Maclear’s rugby talents were widely ignored by the country of his birth. But despite being a key member of a celebrated club in Blackheath, he never got further than Englandtrials. In Ireland, things were different. He was celebrated.

While representing Cork County FC, the calibre of his play soon piqued the interest of the national team and in 1905 he made his debut for his adopted land. Inevitably, it came against the bitter enemy. And there was a further twist. He was selected in the back-line, despite having made a name for himself as a forward.

Still, the script was set and in front of 12,000 at the Mardyke, Maclear played the role of matinee idol to perfection, scoring one try, creating two more and kicking over a conversion too. It was a memorable first cap.

Afterwards, The Times carried an impressive appraisal: “He stamped his authority and class on the match by creating two tries in the first-half and scoring another after the interval. His defence was very fine, he fitted in well to the passing game, displayed a fine turn of speed and was very difficult to stop.”

Maclear’s first Home Nations Championship proved a successful one, with Ireland finishing runners-up to Wales. His role hadn’t gone unnoticed and high-profile peers began to offer up lavish praise.

New Zealand, captained by Donegal-born Dave Gallaher, stepped outside the southern hemisphere for the first time in late 1905, extensively and exhaustively touring Europe and the US. In November, they faced Maclear and Ireland at Lansdowne Road, winning out 15-0. But Maclear was magnificent.

One newspaper report gushed over his performance. “Certainly he was the hero of the Irish three-quarter line and did a lot of brilliant saving, while he was often grand in attack. The outstanding figure in the line was Maclear. He was ubiquitous. When the New Zealanders attacked, it was Maclear who invariably did the bulk of the collaring. He was all over the field, and his fine turn of speed, his exceptional strength and the vigour of his style did much to harass the colonists.”

Just a few days later, they were in Limerick to take on Munster. Maclear played again and valiantly conjured an impeccable display. Allegedly, he crushed George Smith so hard with a tackle that the winger missed the remainder of the tour.

Despite the guests racking up eight tries, Maclear’s skill and grace drew admiration from the world’s finest. Full-back George Gillett identified him as his favourite player, ‘whose equal I have never seen either before or since’.

In 1906, Maclear helped Ireland to the Home Nations title, popping up with tries against England and Wales. The triumph was nice, welcome. But his focus soon shifted to something grander.

Just like the previous year, the pending visit of another elite team made him giddy with excitement. And, rather expectedly, a test against South Africa in Belfast would provide his greatest moment in an Irish shirt.

The try he scored that day at Balmoral stunned those in attendance. According to historian AC Parker, it ‘ranks as one of the greatest individual efforts achieved at international level.’

“The moustachioed Irish centre, picking up a loose ball inside his own ‘25’ beat man after man”, wrote Parker. “Twice he stumbled, perhaps by design, for his subsequent acceleration was such that Loubser could not overhaul him and Joubert, South Africa’s last line of defence was brushed aside.”

Plenty more breathless, excitable coverage quickly followed.

“There is no other player in Great Britain who could have scored such a try”, proclaimed the Daily Mail. “It was an epoch-making event, and it is safe to say that the run will live forever in the annals of the game.”

Following their inspirational playmaker’s intervention, the Irish side rallied but still came up short and lost by three points. Though he’d make a handful of further appearances for Ireland, Maclear would never score again.

Decades later, in ‘Rugger: A Man’s Game’, the esteemed rugby journalist E.H.D. Sewell wrote passionately of his admiration for Maclear.

“He was the making of those grand Irish sides of 1904/5 and 1905/6. He looked the part. A handsome, fair-haired, well built player, without an atom of side in his make up. In all his 11 internationals he never played other than well. He would tackle anything and go down to any forward rush. His was the hand-off. My ideal rugger man, for a man he was. Chevalier, sans peur et sans reproche.”

After such an intense and electrifying two-years with the Irish team, Maclear soon drifted from the game. At just 25, he played his final international in March 1907 – a thumping defeat to Wales at Cardiff’s National Stadium.

Some whispered his body was broken, yet, in 1912 he returned to Sandhurst to take up a role as Inspector of Physical Training, overseeing the fitness, stamina and character of the cadets under his command.

But, just like a decade before, war intervened in his life. In early 1915, Maclear rejoined the Dublin Fusiliers and travelled to the front. And it was there, in such grim, uncompromising circumstances, he re-discovered the sport he’d left behind.

Though it would prove nothing more than a brief dalliance. On April 13, before advancing towards Ypres, some soldiers gathered to play a rugby match in the tiny northern French village of Nieppe. One team was made up almost entirely of Gloucester players while the opposition, who arrived straight from the trenches, featured a handful of Irish internationals.

There was William Hinton, who later served as IRFU president and William Tyrell, who was selected on the first Lions tour in 1910. Maclear, by then in his mid-30s, served as the game’s referee. To all who took part, it was a welcome distraction. A brief, joyous interlude in an otherwise frantic, chaotic, depressing grind.

Ronald William Poulton, then-England skipper, recounted the episode in a journal entry. “After lunch we moved to Nieppe and I played rugger for the South Midland Division against the 4th Division. It was an amusing game. We had opposite us players like W J Tyrrell (Ireland captain), H J S Morton

(Cambridge and England), J G Keppell (Ireland trials), W P Hinton (Ireland full-back) and were refereed by Basil Maclear (Ireland). I had a goodish side, mostly 5th Gloucesters and we won 14-0 but they stuck it well considering their condition. It was splendid to see so many rugger players about.”

Just a few weeks later, Poulton, a star who had already won 17 caps for England and was still just 25, was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

Maclear didn’t last much longer.

On the morning of May 24, following the gas attack on Mouse Trap Farm that had decimated the Dublin Fusiliers, Maclear must have known his death was imminent. The bombardment showed no signs of letting up. It was hopeless. Perhaps, for a fleeting moment, he thought of his older brother, Percy. The previous August, while based in Nigeria, he had been killed under heavy German machine gun fire (another brother, Harry, would die at Pas de Calais in northern France in March 1916).

But perhaps Basil studied the men around him. He was, after all, about to lead them to their deaths.

Surely that responsibility weighed like a ton on his shoulders and his heart. His last message to battalion headquarters was one of desperation: ‘Very many of our men are surrounded. We must have reinforcements.’ None showed. There was little alternative but to wage one final, pointless, charge. ‘The old lie’, as Owen also wrote.

Maclear was shot in the throat. His body was never recovered. He was 34. Later, what remained of the battalion reconvened on the west bank of the Yser canal. 668 men had woken up that morning. By nightfall, 647 were killed, wounded or missing.

Maclear’s name, along with 54,000 others whose bodies were never found, is engraved on the Menin Gate at Ypres. One newspaper cutting described him as a ‘lion of the game’. Another suggested he was ‘one of the greatest three-quarter backs who ever played rugby for Ireland or for any other national XV’.

Yet, despite living such a full and vibrant and thrilling life, Maclear, like so many more, is defined by the circumstances of his death. He, like so many more, deserves better.

Thanks to Dr Tom Burke, chairman of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, for assistance in the research of this article.

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