The Last Test

Former England cricket captain Mike Gatting holds a photograph of Yorkshire all-rounder Major Booth, from Pudsey, who was killed at''the Battle of the Somme.
Former England cricket captain Mike Gatting holds a photograph of Yorkshire all-rounder Major Booth, from Pudsey, who was killed at''the Battle of the Somme.
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A century ago this week, Yorkshire lost one its most famous sons at the Battle of the Somme. Grant Woodward reports.

RELAXING with a smoke outside their tent as one of their number washes up, they look like friends enjoying a scenic camping trip.

Leeds Pals at their training camp in Colsterdale in 1914.

Leeds Pals at their training camp in Colsterdale in 1914.

In fact, the sepia-tinged photograph captures the members of the Leeds Pals as they prepare for war.

These brothers in arms would swap their training camp amid the sweeping hills of Colsterdale in North Yorkshire for the carnage of the Western Front and a fight that would live on in infamy – the Battle of the Somme.

Officially named the 15th Battalion (1st Leeds), The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment), they were just one of a number of volunteer battalions raised across Yorkshire following the outbreak of the First World War.

The only major power not to begin the conflict with a mass conscripted army, it quickly became clear that Britain would need huge numbers of volunteers to wage war.

Amid a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands came forward.

Then it was realised that many more men would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates in so-called ‘Pals battalions’.

Well-known names from the world of sport also did their bit. Leeds City footballer Evelyn Lintott, later to head the Professional Footballers’ Association, became the first professional player to gain a commission in the Army.

Hundreds of first-class cricketers joined up and among them was Yorkshire’s Major William Booth, a charismatic, good-looking all-rounder who twice played for England.

Yet as he lay wounded in a shell hole on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago this week, he knew the game was up.

With him was Private Abe Waddington, a rising star bowler for Yorkshire who would go on to get more than 800 first class wickets.

Booth, 29, was a hero to young Waddington, who held the mortally wounded lieutenant in his arms until he died.

Behind the lines sat Booth’s closest friend, Yorkshire batsman Roy Kilner, who would play nine Tests for England and become one of the most popular stars of his day.

He was being treated after his wrist was shattered by shrapnel minutes before the attack.

Corporal Kilner had no idea that Second Lieutenant Booth, best man at his wedding 21 months earlier, was already dead.

The “Major” in Booth’s name was not a rank but his first name. Born in Pudsey in 1886, he had joined up as a private with the Leeds Pals, telling friends: “It is our duty, we cannot do anything else.”

Between 1908 and 1914 Booth played 144 games for Yorkshire, scoring 4,213 runs and taking 556 wickets, including a double century against Worcestershire.

His career was at its height in 1913-14, when he played in the last Tests before the war on England’s tour of South Africa and was named one of Wisden’s cricketers of the year.

Booth rose to sergeant with the Leeds Pals before being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and posted to Egypt in December 1915.

Back in France, he was in charge of No 10 machine gun at Serre on July 1, 1916.

As his men advanced he urged on a comrade who had been hit, then was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder and chest.

Abe Waddington was rescued that night but Booth’s body was left in the shell hole and not found until the next spring, identified only by the MCC cigarette case in his tunic. He was buried at Serre Road No 1 Cemetery in Beaumont-Hamel.

Yorkshire President Lord Hawke paid tribute, saying: “England lost one of the most promising and charming young cricketers it was ever my lot to meet.”

Booth’s sister Anne refused to believe he was dead. Despite a visit from Waddington, who described his last moments, she left his room as it was and for 40 years kept a light in the window of their cottage in Pudsey in case he should ever come home.

The service and sacrifice of sportsmen like Major Booth is now being recognised through a campaign launched by the Royal British Legion.

Sport Remembers the Somme 1916-2016 calls on the nation’s sporting organisations, associations, clubs, teams and individuals to commemorate the role played by sportsmen on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

It is backed by sporting legends Sir Nick Faldo, England Rugby World Cup winner Josh Lewsey, England’s all-time record cap holder and former goalkeeper Peter Shilton, Olympic gold medal winner Sally Gunnell and former England cricket captain Mike Gatting.

Gatting said: “Twelve Test cricketers and more than 200 first class players were killed during World War I. Hundreds more, men from big old county grounds to village green clubs all over Britain, fought and survived.

“I find it humbling that so many players of the game I love sacrificed so much for their country. I would urge anyone connected with a cricket team or club to join the Legion’s campaign and organise a commemorative event to mark the 100th anniversary of the Somme. Let’s remember the cricketing soldiers who fought and died.”