History of true sports heroes putting their lives on the front line during times of war

Former captain of the Ukraine rugby team Oleksi Tsybko has been killed during the Russian invasion.

Former captain of the Ukraine rugby team Oleksi Tsybko has been killed during the Russian invasion.

Published Apr 10, 2022


Durban - The death at the hands of the Russian army of a former captain of the Ukraine rugby team, Oleksi Tsybko, has highlighted the willingness of sportsmen to sacrifice themselves on the altar of patriotism, a selfless act that has been repeated as long as there has been warfare.

Tsybko was killed defending the city of Smela against the Russian invaders.

He was also a former mayor of the town and like so many other Ukrainians, he did not hesitate to pick up arms to defend his country when Russia invaded on February 24.

When the war broke out, the Russia and Ukraine rugby teams were coincidentally using the same training facility in Turkey ahead of Europe’s second-tier competition below the Six Nations, and the Ukrainians went straight back to their country to pick up arms.

As sportsmen, they were hardly alone. Former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko also joined the fighting, as did his brother, Vladimir, also a former world champion boxer, plus the renowned boxer Vasily Lomachenko

Also bearing arms is retired tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky as well as a host of soccer players, gymnasts and athletes.

The First World War of 1914 to 1918 is probably the best example of how sportsmen of many codes responded to their country’s call and many of them paid the ultimate sacrifice.

When that war broke out, it did not initially go well for the British Empire troops and a clarion call was sounded to all men of the Empire, from South Africa to New Zealand.

In an appeal to sports folk, Field Marshall Lord Roberts said: “This is not the time to play games, wholesome as they are in times of peace. We are engaged in a life-and-death struggle. Serve your country!”

The call to citizens of the Empire — of which South Africa was a colony — to fight the Germans resulted in the formation of what was known as ‘Pals battalions’ which saw the workers in various factories and companies form their own fighting units, and for sports teams, it made sense to do the same.

To give some examples, the Scottish soccer team Hearts signed up en masse to the 16th Royal Scots, and the London team Leyton Orient formed the 17th Middlesex Regiment.

According to the Independent newspaper of England, a Yorkshire Regiment comprised Yorkshire’s cricketers, athletes and footballers.

Reportedly, of 5000 professional soccer players in Britain at that time, 2000 volunteered to fight and several hundred were killed.

A good example of the sacrifice is Tottenham Hotspur, whose staff and players enrolled and 11 of them were killed. Newcastle United also suffered heavily, losing seven men on one day alone — the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916; while West Ham had five men killed.

Cricket also suffered terribly. Of 210 men playing on the County circuit when war broke out, 34 of them would be killed.

In that war, 250 000 South Africans served and about 8000 were killed.

Of that figure, four were Springbok rugby players as they joined their rugby union colleagues in enlisting in their hundreds.

By the end of the first year of that war, 1914, over 90% of players who had represented England had volunteered, and 27 of them were killed, including the England captain at that time, Ronnie Poulton-palmer, who was killed by a sniper in 1915.

Thirty men who had played Test rugby for Scotland were killed and 11 Welsh internationals.

The carnage spread across the British Empire, with 13 All Blacks and 10 Wallabies killed.

South African and Australian troops get stuck into each other in a game of rugby in Beirut, Lebanon, during World War II.

The four Springboks who died on the battlefield were Sep Ledger, Toby Moll, Tommy Thompson and Jackie Morkel. The latter is well remembered because he was one of the stars of the Springbok tour of Britain in 1913, which was one year before the outbreak of World War One.

The Boks won their first Grand Slam that year, beating Ireland, France, Wales, Scotland and England. At Twickenham, outside centre Morkel played against Poulton-palmer.

Two years later, they both were dead … Morkel was just 24 and Poulton-palmer, 25.

In the Second World War, sportsmen fared better and while no Springboks were killed, a number were captured by the Germans in North Africa and were imprisoned for several years.

Many South African rugby players enlisted in the 1939-1945 conflict and it is well documented that soldiers from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand played matches against each other during lulls in the fighting in the Middle East.

One of the South Africans captured by the Germans at the Battle of Tobruk in 1941, in Libya, was a Springbok in Bill Payn.

In his imprisonment camp in Poland, there were a number of New Zealanders, and with the brilliant Springbok series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand in 1937 still fresh in the minds of South Africans and Kiwis, Payn asked the camp commandant if a rugby match could be played between the two countries.

His wish was granted and the international Red Cross arranged for a rugby ball to be flown in from England. Great care was put into the build-up to the match.

The South Africans went to pain-staking lengths to achieve their green and gold colours — they boiled their white red cross vests together with olive Russian uniforms to obtain green and for the gold, they ingeniously boiled up a solution of anti-malaria tablets. It has not been recorded who won the series but the spirit of sport certainly prevailed.

IOL Sport