20130727

Tragic story of the cricketer who inspired P G Wodehouse's most famous comic character

The Real Jeeves: The Cricketer Who Gave His Life for His Country and His Name to a Legend, by Brian Halford

By conservative estimates, the Battle of the Somme claimed the lives of more than one million soldiers, to be remembered as one of the great tactical mistakes in the history of warfare, its name becoming a byword for pointless, indiscriminate slaughter.

Among them was a cricketer whose name would become famous, not for anything that happened in the horror of the trenches but because of a fictional character in a series of comic novels that are still read - and indeed adapted for stage and television -- to this day.

Jeeves was the name chosen for the valet devised by the author P G Wodehouse to act as a foil for his comic lead, Bertie Wooster, in a series of novels and short stories, making his first appearance (without meeting Wooster, as it happens) in Extricating Young Gussie, which was published in the United States in September 1915 in The Saturday Evening Post.

Wodehouse was a cricket lover, a member of the Authors XI, a cricket team made up entirely of writers that included also Arthur Conan Doyle and AA Milne.  He named his character Jeeves after Percy Jeeves, a Warwickshire player he had seen in action at the Cheltenham Festival in August 1913.  He is said to have been charmed by Percy's demeanour on the field and impressed with his bowling action. The name stuck.

By the time the name appeared in print for the first time, Wodehouse having chosen Reginald as the first name for his Jeeves, Percy had already put his cricket career to one side in order to join up.  In November 1915, having signed up to a battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment that became known as the Birmingham Pals, he was on his way to France.  The following July, three weeks into General Haig's misguided attempt to push back the Germans' Western Front, during an assault on a German position that was futile even by Somme standards, Percy Jeeves perished.

His story intrigued the Birmingham Mail journalist Brian Halford, who is a both cricket writer and a student of First World War history.   "I became aware of the Jeeves story soon after I began working here in 2000," Halford said. "I've always been interested in the First World War and began to wonder why the story had never been told.

"It was a slow burner for a number of years, mainly because the day job had to come first, but the more I learned about Percy the more I admired him.  With the 100th anniversary of the First World War coming up, I thought that if there was a time to do it, now was that time."

Once he had begun researching in earnest, Halford soon discovered that there was not much to go on.  There were records of his cricket career -- a Yorkshireman, Jeeves was a medium-fast bowler and handy batsman who had played for Goole Town and Hawes, in Wensleydale, before undergoing an unsuccessful trial with Yorkshire and subsequently joining Warwickshire -- but filling in the other details proved more challenging.

"The statistics of his two full years at Warwickshire suggest he would have gone on to become an exceptional player," Halford said. "He was good enough to dismiss batsman of the calibre of Jack Hobbs, Philip Mead and Plum Warner for example.  After he had represented the Players against the Gentleman in 1914, bowling his team to victory, Warner earmarked him as the coming thing.

"But finding out about the man behind the figures was more difficult.  Interviews with sportsmen were quite rare in his day and as far as I could see he only ever gave one, to a magazine called Cricket - A Weekly Record, after his first season.  He came across as a modest fellow.

"After he had been killed, the Yorkshire Post said he would be missed as much as a person as a cricketer.  It seemed he was a smashing bloke."

Almost 100 years after his death, locating anyone who could corroborate this estimation proved difficult. There would be surviving relatives, but locating them was another matter. It turned out that help was on the doorstep.

"My nextdoor neighbour, as it happens, is interested in family trees and it was through his research that we tracked down a great nephew in Aberdeen, Keith Mellard.

"I didn't know what to expect when Keith first took a call from this bloke asking him about his great uncle but it turned out that not only was he aware of his relative but he was very proud of him, having been told about him by his grandfather, Percy's brother, Alick.

"Keith's assistance was invaluable and it was great to have a member of the family involved."

Halford did not have to travel far to research Jeeves's military career, or at least the records of the 15th Warwickshires, the battalion to which he was attached.  They are preserved at the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum, in Warwick.

"They allowed me to go through the battalion diaries, enabling me to follow their movements from the day he joined up to his time on the trenches."

Jeeves joined up, in fact, almost immediately he could after war was declared on August 4, 1914.  "He fulfilled his obligations to Warwickshire by completing the season but volunteered for the Royal Warwickshires as soon as he could after the season," Halford said.

The new recruits were based at Sutton Park in Birmingham and over the next year were trained for combat.  From Sutton Park, Jeeves and his comrades moved to Leyburn in Yorkshire -- somewhat ironically only 15 miles from the idyllic cricket field in Hawes that had been his once home ground -- and then to Codford Camp, on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain.

Finally, on November 22, 1915, Jeeves found himself sailing out of Folkestone Harbour on the SS Invicta, bound for Boulogne.  His cricket career had been suspended, his record from precisely 50 first-class matches an impressive one -- 199 first-class wickets at an average of 20.03, plus 1204 runs, including four half-centuries.  It was a record on which he had ambitions to build.  In fact, the receding view of the cliffs as the SS Invicta chugged out into the channel would be his last sight of England.

Jeeves lost his life in the summer of the following year, only three weeks into the Battle of the Somme, a campaign that was to last four and a half months, and in which the British Fourth Army suffered 60,000 casualties on the very first day, July 1.  Initially part of a reserve company, Jeeves was part of an assault on a strategically important diamond shaped wooded area of 75 acres, in a lofted position, known as High Wood.

"It was as it sounded, an elevated and heavily guarded, densely wooded area," Halford said. "It was a hopeless offensive.  The British soldiers were ordered to walk towards the enemy up an open slope, flanked by German positions.  They were cut down in the crossfire en masse.

"Percy disappeared without trace, either blown to bits or buried alive in the mass of bodies.  His name is on a memorial at Thiepval but no remains were recovered that could be said to be his."

In the author's judgment, the assault was tantamount to murder, not by the Germans, who were engaged in the legitimate defence of their positions, but by the British officers who sent their men to their inevitable fate.

The story of Percy Jeeves is just one story, unique to him but with the characteristics of countless others, of young men with everything to live for who were simply slaughtered.  In Halford's words, it is "a microcosm of the sickening waste entailed in the conflict."

Hugely talented, immensely popular, with the potential to make a real impact in his lifetime, Percy Jeeves was the kind of man his family, friends and colleagues might have called 'one in a million'. In death, tragically, he was just that.

The Real Jeeves: The Cricketer Who Gave His Life for His Country and His Name to a Legend, by Brian Halford,  is published by Pitch Publishing

Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Leave a comment or submit your own sports book review