Over the past four years, many communities have paused to remember the sacrifices of those who fell in the First World War. Anniversaries, particularly hallmark ones such as centenaries, are often afforded special meaning. However, those anniversaries associated with 1914-1918 have been particularly powerful, perhaps because we fear losing those memories and having the Great War become just another bloody conflict from our past. There are no living veterans and there are now only a handful of people remaining who would have any memory of the war. Yet, public ceremonies, artworks, and locations associated with the First World War have become increasingly popular, despite this temporal distance. One need only look at the public reaction to the Wave and Weeping Window sculptures across Britain, or the many pilgrimages which continue to the battlefields of Belgium and France, to see that the memory of the First World War remains. However, whether this interest remains following November 11 of this year has yet to be seen. In many ways, the commemoration of the Armistice centenary – when on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the First World War officially ended – feels somewhat like a natural break, like a kind-of ending. Certainly, interest in the First World War will remain though, perhaps, it will become more academic than emotive.
Over the past four years, recognition of many different groups of people who fought – and fell – in the fields of Europe have been part of the commemorations. Remembering sportspersons in particular, as well as moments such as the Christmas Truce football match, has been a significant theme in First War commemorations. Perhaps it is the comparison between the sportspersons of yesterday and those of today is part of why sport has been used. Similarly, the fact that sport can be a conduit to other forms of heritage, in large part because of its contemporary popularity, may also be one of the reasons sport has been used so frequently.
I wonder, however, if part of the reason is that athletic prowess involves speed, grace, balance, and beauty – and that those attributes inevitably are a part of youth. We can imagine strong, fit bodies playing sport – and, we can also think of those same bodies being cut down on the front or returning home mentally and physically mangled – and we weep for the injustice of it all. As Sassoon wrote, the front was “the hell where youth and laughter go.”
There have been many fine books published over the past four years which capture the connection between sport and the First World War, but none are finer than Andrew Renshaw edited collection of cricketers’ obituaries: Wisden on the Great War: The Lives of Cricket’s Fallen 1914-1918,. It is simultaneously an impressive feat of archival research, a moving tribute to a generation of sportspersons, and – given the immense size of the book – a sobering reminder of the cost of the war. It is this book in particular that came to mind when I received a surprising notification in my email last month.
London’s Armistice commemoration on November 11 this year will include something called “A Nation’s Thank You – the People’s Procession” where 10,000 members of the public were chosen by ballot to participate in the ceremony. I entered the ballot and found out last month that I was selected as one of the participants. I have long held an interest in the Great War, which has inspired numerous trips to sites across Belgium, but I do not necessarily have a personal or family connection to the war. Although the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists twelve Great War casualties named “Cosh” (my mother’s maiden name) and twenty-nine named “Ramshaw” (my father’s name via adoption), none that I am aware of are direct relatives. However, I felt that if I were to walk in the procession, I wanted to walk on behalf of someone. Given my research interest in sport heritage and my admiration for Wisden on the Great War, I decided to reach out to editor Andrew Renshaw. I noted in my message that I wanted to walk on behalf of a cricketer and wondered if he had any recommendations for someone he felt ought to be honoured at the ceremony. I also mentioned that I am Canadian (despite now living in the United States).
Andrew responded straight away and suggested Capt. Robert Leighton Moore Ferrie. In addition to being captain of his high school cricket team at Highfield School (now Hillfield Strathallan College) in Hamilton, Ontario, Capt. Ferrie was an all-around sportsman who was also captain of the hockey team, a football player, a rifler, and a lightweight boxing champion. He later attended the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. He was born on October 7th, 1898 and fell in action on January 3rd, 1918. He was only nineteen years old. It was announced on February 4th, 1918 that he was awarded the Military Cross and, on July 5th, 1918, the War Office issued the following description of Captain Ferrie’s accomplishments for the Royal Flying Corps:
He led his flight with great skill and determination in very bad weather, and dropped bombs on an enemy aerodrome from a height of 400 feet, destroying one shed and badly damaging another. On two later occasions he bombed villages and attacked enemy infantry with his machine-gun from a low altitude. He has brought down two enemy machines and assisted in destroying others. He has shown great courage and resource at all times.
He is buried at the Izel-Les-Hameau Cemetery in Pas de Calais, France. He is referred to at different points as both a Captain and Lieutenant, though Andrew feels he was posthumously promoted to Captain. He also appeared to be known as Leighton Ferrie, rather than Robert.
Capt. Ferrie’s obituary, listed on p. 397 of Wisden on the Great War, is deeply moving and demonstrates just how loved and admired he was:
Glorious boy, beloved of all, boy with the brave heart and the great soul, you have left us, and have not left your peer. Left us in the zenith of your vigour, your usefulness and your triumphs. Who that knew Leighton Ferrie will not drop a tear that the world has lost such a bright gem? So full of promise, so strong in character, so pure and lofty in soul, so formed for great and heroic deeds; so lovable and so admirable, so young and so beautiful. Is the world to be bereft of its best? Ought our hearts to break, or ought they to rejoice? If we were more than human, we might see in this decree of Providence the winning of a glorious crown; but being creatures of imperfect vision, we mingle more suffering than pride in our present feelings. We think too much of our own loss and too little of the hero’s triumph.
I am deeply humbled and honoured to walk in memory of Capt. Ferrie. He was a champion, a hero, a leader, brave, vigorous, and lost to us far too soon. Let us never forget this glorious boy.