I hope by now that most of you will have heard of Freddy Turner, an Old Sedberghian and Captain of Scotland in 1913 and 1914. Likewise you will no doubt know of his great friendship with Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, the then Captain of England. Both died in the trenches within months of each other.
It is a story that so evokes the spirit of Sedbergh that it is in many ways timeless. Over the years and through my time as Chairman I have read about or heard of so many examples of aspects of his short life amongst Old Sedberghians. But Freddy’s story is so complete; the all rounder, the brilliant rugby footballer, the gallant officer, an outstanding leader of men.
I won’t retell the story here, but when Neil McKerrow first approached the OS Club with a suggestion that we play a match against Flanders, and in Flanders, in Freddy’s memory I had little notion that such a small kernel of an idea could have such an impact upon the Club.
The FH Turner Memorial weekend was in tended to commemorate and celebrate the life of Freddy Turner and all those Members of the Sedbergh School Football Club who perished in the War.
Our tour party, fifty or so of us, included Old Sedberghians, members of staff, parents, friends, and the Chairman of Governors, the Headmaster, and the Bursar. Our guest of honour was the very charismatic Graeme Marrs. We descended upon Flanders on the weekend of 4thth/6th June.
Now, I have to say that the subject matter is a serious one and indeed we were always conscious of why we were about to take on the French at the game of rugby. But the Tour was also a celebration. At times and when appropriate, we stood in reverence with our heads bowed, but at other times we drank the night away in friendship; and after all it is friendship that underpins the Turner/Poulton story. Of course you will all understand ‘what happens on tour stays on tour’ but let me give you some selected highlights which have passed the censor’s red pen or for which I haven’t received enough cash in brown envelopes to ‘forget’.
Arriving on the Friday we first descended upon Lijessenthoek Military Cemetery to pay homage to three OSS who are interred within its walls. The younger members of our party took part in our now well rehearsed ceremony which included a few well chosen words, reading from the prayer cards, the placing of soil from Winder, and finally the Cross of Remembrance. It was, as always is, very moving and brought home to us all the reason why we were in Flanders. Interestingly a relative of Neil McKerrow was also buried there and it was an additional personal moment for Neil and his son Ian to be pictured at the graveside.
Then, with formalities complete we headed to Armentieres Rugby Club for a training session. So, here’s the thing. What a kind and hospitable lot the French are. They had laid on food, coffee, plenty of smiles, and most importantly had opened up the bar. The language barrier, which exists for those who didn’t pay too close attention in the language lab in Powell Hall buildings, was bridged with a few bows of the head, demonstrative gestures, and shrugs of the shoulders while tilting the head to one side. Not quite sure what this conveyed but it resulted in handshakes and laughter all round. Yes, Armentieres you were fun, hospitable and generous, on that day, and the next.
At dinner that night Neil McKerrow, who by now was much relieved that we had all made it thus far, gave a very moving speech. He has a great gift for such things anyway, but on that night he was really on form. His words put the weekend in context. His tribute to the fallen made many of us who weren’t playing want to go out and buy a pair of boots. But as the shops were shut Graeme Marrs and myself had to console ourselves with another bottle of claret. Not to make light of it all but such was the spirit engendered in our youth of the Tour Party that they agreed to only have a further six pints each after dinner and they were, mostly, in bed by two am.
The next morning we departed for Kemmel Church and the final resting place of Lieutenant Frederick Harding Turner. Neil McKerrow, who by now you will have come to realise was the architect of the whole Tour, had arranged for a representative party from the local British Legion to attend, with ‘pipers’ who led the way from the gates of the church to the graveside. It was a grey, still, morning which gave the remembrance service an added quality of serenity and peace. Our President began proceedings and in an uncanny coincidence, or call it what you will, the bell of the church tower struck eleven just as John Walford spoke the name ‘Frederick Turner’. He paused, while we all gently patted the hairs on the backs of our necks.
During the service those in the Tour party who had played for the 1st XV read out the names of all their forbears who had perished in the War. It took quite a long time, with each name a life, which is sadness itself.
Many of you will know that the grave of Freddy Turner and Percy Dale Kendall (a former Captain of England) are side by side, being in life the best of friends. While we laid our Cross of Remembrance on the grave of Freddy Turner, Graeme Marrs, on behalf of the Rugby Football Union, placed a Cross on the grave of Percy Kendall. Thus two great men were honoured that day, by the School, and by the sport of rugby football.
Of course the day would not have been complete without a visit to the grave of Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, former pupil of Rugby School and Captain of England. So, following our service at Kemmel Churchyard we stopped at Hyde Park Corner Military Cemetery and performed a brief service, with the Headmaster placing the Sedbergh Cross of Remembrance on his grave.
Formalities once again completed we headed back to Armentieres for the game itself. Just as on the previous day the local rugby club were most hospitable and had put on a fine spread, and with such pride. This set us up nicely for a fine game in the afternoon.
Such an important match could not go ahead without due ceremony and we were most fortunate to have the brass band from Edinburgh University in attendance who just happened to be on tour themselves and in town. While they played the two teams lined up in all their splendour, led by a representative of the British Legion. Handshakes and anthems complete, the game begun.
The game itself was an excellent example of how the game should be played. It was entertaining, open, sportsmanlike, and a chance for all twenty six or so of the squad to take part. At times Flanders were ahead and at times we were ahead so it was close, it was thrilling, and it was befitting of the great man Freddy himself whom I like to imagine was sat somewhere in the crowd in his ethereal form. The final score 43-19 shows what a great game it was.
That night we celebrated. Not because we had won but because of the success and significance of the Tour itself. Our President John Walford spoke with profundity at dinner and all agreed that the tour had been fun, and it should not be the last. Part of the success was the way everyone gelled. Even the Headmaster Andrew Fleck, away from School life, showed a more relaxed side and at 2.00am was seem pulling some –oh, but what am I saying, ‘what happens on tour stays on tour’. (Okay, before I get into trouble, he was only pulling pints and what a fine job he did too. The barman, whose arms had been working like Bazalgette’s great pistons at Crossness pumping station, had long since collapsed of exhaustion and the HM showed great leadership in difficult circumstances. This is one of the reasons he is an honorary OS).
The next morning, and with everyone reassembled, we headed for the service at St George’s Chapel in Ypres. Unfortunately our coach driver had clearly been watching the film ‘Speed’ the night before whereby an explosive device arms itself if you exceed 40 miles an hour. To be on the safe side he kept well under the said 40mph and thus we arrived intact, but a few minutes late. C’est la vie! It was difficult for fifty people to quietly sneak into St Georges while a service was going on, but we were welcomed anyway by the Chaplin who was most relieved we had pitched up, especially as the sermon centred on our Tour Party.
Afterwards we spent some time in Ypres, and then began our journey home. While on the way back to Lille Jason Duffy asked everyone to sign the match ball, and having smuggled it about the coach so as not be seen he presented it to Neil, who was extremely grateful and touched by the gesture. In response Neil passed out song sheets of what the soldiers sang during the war. Quite fruity by all accounts but we sang them with gusto and concluded with a fine rendition of Winder which made the coach driver swerve from side to side as he tried to cover his ears.
So what do we make of it all? Did we achieve what we set out to achieve? Certainly. Was it great fun? Definitely. Will we arrange another tour? Absolutely.
All very emphatic and I’ll explain why in a minute; but first a few ‘thankyou’s’. Many people made this tour a success and since space is limited I will just mention a few. Firstly Hugh Blair, the Chairman of Governors; he is a man of high emotional intelligence and someone with great stamina. He entertained most generously each evening and into the early hours. We, the OS Club, felt much supported by Hugh and therefore by the School. Thankyou.
Secondly, our Club Secretary Ben Collins, who has worried, worked, and done some more worrying about this tour with the complexity of everything that had to be arranged. It was flawless Ben, well done; you are a great asset to the Club.
And finally Neil McKerrow, the architect of this Tour and of the Pilgrimage itself. After the tour I wrote to Neil and said:
Well, you pulled it off, so to speak; a most excellent trip away, and with excellent people. All well arranged, with good timings; no one got bored, there were no dissenters, and it has created a platform, a foundation even, for us to build upon, this year and in the years to come. In my official capacity as Club Chairman I thank you on behalf of the Club. As a friend I shake your hand and bow my head reverentially in recognition of all the work and foresight that went into this Pilgrimage for one of our finest brothers in arms.
The tour has done many things. It has engaged the younger generation; it has demonstrated to the School that we are capable of organising a spectacular occasion. It has inspired the Common Room Staff such that they are now more likely to attend future events. It has given us a further event which can be held annually in London and biennially abroad. It will have set people talking around their dinner tables and living room fires.
Most of all however it paid homage in such a manifest way to Freddy Turner and all those who were members of the SSFC, uniting this generation with the past through our connections with Sedbergh and with the sport of Rugby. Well done indeed, and thank you.
So I come to my final thank you. Freddy, I hope in your celestial home you can read this. In years to come we will undoubtedly have other tours, in the UK and around the world. They will probably be called the Freddy Turner Tour. Through you, and through the sport of Rugby Football, we will remember the camaraderie, loyalty and friendship that we discovered in our youth during out time at Sedbergh. Your name now belongs as much to the future as to the past. After all, great men leave an enduring legacy. And you were a great man.
Jan van der Velde
Chairman, OS Club