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August 30 , 2009

Wisden on the Great War

The Lives of Cricket's Fallen 1914-1918


Readers of the 1917 Wisden Cricketers' Almanack were advised by the editor, Sydney Pardon: "Its chief feature is a record of the cricketers who have fallen in the War – the Roll of Honour, so far as the national game is concerned.†? By the time the conflict was over, Wisden had carried almost 1,800 obituaries. Test players like Colin Blythe were far outnumbered by men with a lesser claim to fame, as schoolboy cricketers were sent out to the battlefields fresh from their playing fields.

Amid the carnage and confusion, errors inevitably crept in: names were wrong and there were cases of mistaken identity. Some mistakes have lain buried in Wisden's pages for a century: as this book discloses, three men outlived their obituary by many years. All the obituaries have been updated in Wisden on the Great War with new information about the subjects' lives and deaths, their families and memorials, and ordered by the year of death. There is a listing of the 289 men who had played first-class cricket, while the 89 who did not get an obituary in Wisden are now recognised. The book also lists for the first time the 407 first-class cricketers who were decorated for gallantry, of whom 381 survived.

Among the men included is an officer who as a boy was an inspiration for J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, and one whose agonising death on the battlefield is movingly described in Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That. These men now receive proper tribute, along with literary names that are already well-known, such as Rupert Brooke, who headed his school's bowling averages in 1906 and received an obituary in Wisden that mentioned that, at the time of his death, he 'had gained considerable reputation as a poet'.

The wartime Wisdens have long been cherished by families whose relatives are commemorated in them, but the originals are scarce and command a high price. Now the lives of the men are properly celebrated, enhanced by many remarkable stories of courage and coincidence. The result is a poignant insight into the cohorts of cricketers who played the ultimate game for their country.
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