Sport Remembers The Battle of the Somme 1916-2016

Tennis ace’s dad built Wimbledon - And mum won six titles

Jack Hillyard, like millions of others, thought the war would end quickly. The talented tennis player wrote to his father and told him so in 1914 after joining up. But Hillyard, whose father helped create the modern Wimbledon and whose mother won six ladies’ singles titles, was to fight throughout the war in France.

Jack Montagu Hillyard was born in 1891 in Harpenden, Herts, son of a county cricketer, Wimbledon tennis player, rower, gambler and navy officer who had been sent to sea by his father at the age of 13.

Scored 62 in ‘greatest cricket match’... but lost

Hillyard went to Harrow School and played in the legendary Fowler’s Match against Eton at Lord’s in 1910, described as “what might just be the greatest cricket match of all time”. Hillyard scored 62 to help put Harrow way ahead until Eton captain Robert Fowler took eight wickets on a turning pitch to clinch an incredible win.

After the war Hillyard became a successful player on the tennis circuit, competing at Wimbledon between 1920 and 1934 and winning doubles titles in the south of France. In 1911 aged 20 he was working as a journalist and living at a boarding house not far from Lord’s in Hampstead, North London.

Hillyard joined the Royal Artillery as a lieutenant and wrote home with his verdict on the war, addressing his father George, who was by then serving as a navy commander, as “Daddy”. “In my mind the war is, to all intents and purposes, over now” he said, and in a series of loving letters to his family went on to describe his life at the front-lines.

‘Our guns are like a heavy breaking sea’

Hillyard’s precise army career is unclear but during four years in France it is almost certain that his Royal Artillery battery saw action at the Somme. He described one bombardment in a letter to his mother on November 14, 1914:

“Second day of the fight, mad jolly good fun yesterday, very, very busy and interesting. Our infantry did awfully well and got on a good way [to] getting all their objectives. My part of the show was inglorious. All our guns going now and making a noise like a heavy sea breaking on the shore. Thick fog and not able to see a thing. There are several of our batteries just behind us. One battery blazing away 70 yards away and over our heads. No more news, am taking care of myself. Love to everyone, Your loving, Jack.”

His mother Blanche, née Bingley, was one of the most successful woman tennis players of her day, competing in the first ever Wimbledon ladies singles in 1884 and reaching the final 13 times between 1885 and 1901, winning six titles. Hillyard’s father, who in his early Royal Navy days had been a shipmate of the future King George V, won a tennis gold medal at the 1908 Olympics. Between 1907 and 1925 he was secretary of the All England Club and instrumental in moving the Wimbledon tournament to its current site.

Suffered from a violent temper

The family were famous for social gatherings in Thorpe Satchville, a village near Leicester, where before the war they entertained a procession of tennis stars at their nine-bedroom house surrounded by two courts and a nine-hole golf course. Hillyard saw much action in France and his letters tell of being shelled and losing comrades.

In 1917 he became major and in October 1918 was sent an officers’ home in Paris to recuperate from illness. He can’t have been too ill – he wrote to his father inviting him out for a game of golf.

Hillyard suffered from a violent temper in later life and always blamed his relative lack of tennis success for the years he had missed while at war. He married twice and ended up living at Blarney Castle, home of the famous stone just outside Cork, which he inherited after the death of his second wife. He died there in 1983 aged 92.

Top players killed in action

Several leading tennis players were killed in war. The most eminent was four-times Wimbledon champion Tony Wilding, who was born in New Zealand of British parents and joined the Royal Marines then the Royal Armoured Car Division, which was equipped with reinforced Rolls Royces. Serving as a lieutenant, he died when a shell hit his dugout at Neuve-Chapelle, France, in May 1915.

That year Australian doubles expert J. J. Addison was killed by a shell, whilst Cambridge University tennis captain Private Kenneth Powell, who had played seven times at Wimbledon and competed for Britain at the 1908 Olympics, was shot dead at Ypres while serving with the Honourable Artillery Company. Robert Powell, 36, captain of the Canadian Olympic tennis team and a regular at Wimbledon, was killed while serving as a lieutenant with the 48th Canadian Battalion at Vimy Ridge, France in May 1917.

Ernest Parker, 34, Australasian champion of 1913, was killed in May 1918, while serving as a gunner with the Australian Field Artillery at Caëstre, France. His countryman Arthur O’Hara-Wood, a 28-year-old major in the Royal Flying Corps, died when he crashed with another aircraft on patrol at Saint-Quentin a little over a month before the end of the war. Arthur Wear, 38, who played for the United States at the 1904 Paris Olympics, was killed just five days before the Armistice in an advance at Argonne Forest, France.

Another Cambridge captain, Hope Crisp, who with Agnes Tuckey had won the first Wimbledon mixed doubles in 1913, lost a leg at Ypres fighting as a captain with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1915. He returned to play in the 1919 championships with a prosthetic leg.

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from our daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to one of the casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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