The 136th Varsity Match honoured the memory of two former captains who died 100 years ago serving King and Country in World War 1.
Cecil Baker, of Oxford, and John Argentine Campbell, of Cambride, were designated as the inaugural Varsity Match Icons for 2017. Their former schools, Sherborne and Fettes College, joined in with the commemoration a century on from their deaths in France by dedicating one of their fixtures this term to their former pupils.
And joining in the celebrations was the Campbell’s great granddaughter, Charlotte Revill, who travelled to the game from her home in Bristol with her husband, Barney, and eight-year-old son Luca. Also in attendance was the director of rugby at Fettes College, Duncan Harrison.
“It was a great honour to be invited to the game and to join in the celebration of the lives of both my great grandfather and Cecil Baker. It is amazing to think they have both been remembered so long after their deaths,” said Charlotte.
The official match programme carried details of the incredible lives led by both men. Here is the story of John Argentine Campbell.
VARSITY MATCH ICON – JOHN ARGENTINE CAMPBELL
(Fettes College & Trinity College, Cambridge)
Following on from the theme of commemorating the 55 Fallen Blues during the 100th anniversary of World War 1 in 2014, Oxford and Cambridge are this year remembering two former captains who died in 1917.
The tributes to Cecil Baker and John Argentine Campbell were launched on the playing fields of their former schools, Sherborne and Fettes College, and they have been designated as ‘Varsity Match Icons’ for the 136th meeting of the two universities.
Some people live normal lives, others enjoy an extraordinary existence. John Argentine Campbell’s 43 years definitely fall into the latter category. He won three rugby Blues at Cambridge, was a half-Blue in athletics, became the first Argentinean-born international rugby player, albeit for Scotland, and played cricket for Argentina.
He learned his sport at Fettes College, where he captained both the 1st X1 and 1st XV. His younger brother, Roderick, followed him to both Fettes and Trinity College, Cambridge. At Cambridge John earned a BA in 1890 having represented the University against Oxford in athletics and played in three rugby Varsity Matches. He was captain of the Light Blues in 1899 for the 22-0 record win, when he was in a pack of forwards that all won international honours, and a year later won his only cap for Scotland against Ireland.
In cricket he played for the East of Scotland against the touring South Africans in 1901 and represented Argentina in their first cricket test match against England, Lord Hawke’s MCC XI, in 1912. On top of that he became one of the best exponents of Polo in the world.
His famous pony ‘Old Boy’ was voted the best polo pony in the 1909 River Plate Championship and when the first handicap list was published in Argentina, John Campbell was at the top, rated at 9-goals. His Western Camps team won the River Plate Championship in 1907 and 1909 and in 1912 he was part of the El Bagual (Wild Horse) side that visited Britain and became the sensation of the London Polo season.
Campbell had returned to his native Buenos Aries after a brief spell as an assistant master at Loretto School to farm the 20,000 acres given to him by his father on the family ranch at Carlos Casares. Estancia El Jabalí is still in the family and is currently controlled by his grandson John Argentine Campbell III Campbell, another old Fettesian. ‘Jock’ Cambell’s niece, Charlotte Revill, her husband and their son Luca are at the game today representing the Campbell family.
John married Myra Robson in 1904 and the couple had three children. When WW1 broke out, despite being 7,000 miles away and aged 37, Campbell was quick to step forward to do his duty. In a letter to his Polo team mate. Lewis Lacey, on 5 August, 1914, he explained his feelings about war:
I have just heard that war is declared between England and Germany. Although possibly it may seem foolish, I would prefer not to play public polo while our people are at it over there; so I hope you will allow me to stand out. I feel that if one can go in for games at this time we shouldn’t be here but should be on the way to the other side. What I do hope is that the Almighty, on whom that big German emperor is always calling, will give the Germans such a hiding that they won’t rise up again for another 100 years!
Having returned to England at the outbreak of war, John volunteered in 1915 and was commissioned into the 17th Lancers and then the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons. His talent with horses may have influenced his choice of regiment and he would ultimately ride to his death in France in 1917.
He sailed for France on 17 February, 1916, and 11 months later was given special leave to return to Buenos Aires to resolve some urgent business. He travelled home with his wife, Myra, who had set up home in England with her children during the war, and spent five days at home sorting out his estate. On the return journey to Liverpool on the SS Drina, while 2.5 miles off Skokham Island near the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales, the ship struck a mine laid by a U-Boat and was then torpedoed. She sank, 15 lives were lost and John and Myra were forced to hit the lifeboats and row for their lives.
No sooner had they arrived back in London than John returned to the front line and became involved in a suicide attack on horseback by the cavalry at Villers-Guislain. The Lancers and Dragoons were supposed to have tank support, but it didn’t materialise. Instead, they were ordered to attack the German positions with the backing of only a few machine gunners. Sabres in hand, and rifles shouldered, John and his fellow ‘Skins’ charged at the enemy. They ran into German re-enforcements and found themselves involved in close-quarter fighting. John was wounded in the side, captured and died a day later on 2 December, 1917. The hopelessness of the attack was underlined when the final analysis revealed the Dragoons had lost 102 men and 150 horses. The machine gun section lost all 55 men and 87 horses.
It took until January before John’s death was finally confirmed to Myra at her London hotel base. She returned to Buenos Aires with her children. John was buried at the Honnechy British Cemetery, a small village in the Department of the Nord, France.
The connection with Cambridge continued when one of John’s sons, JD ‘Tony’ Campbell, won his Blue as a scrum half in the 22-14 win over Oxford at Twickenham in 1927 The auld enemy had been beaten once more by a Campbell!