One of the most remarkable matches in the history of international rugby took place between France and Scotland in Paris on 1st January 1920. This was the fifth time these two countries had met on the rugby field and the first match since their infamous encounter in Paris in 1913. This had ended with the English referee (James Baxter) leaving the field with a police escort due to the crowd’s anger at his decisions. So incensed was the Scottish Rugby Union at this attack on the referee’s integrity that the projected match in 1914 between the two countries was cancelled. With the war intervening, there had been no further opportunity for the rivalry to be resumed until the opening of the 1920 rugby championship.
This was not only the first official international played after the 1st World War but was also a match in which a number of players on both sides were making their re-appearance for their countries after serving in the 1st World War. On the French side, four of the 15 players had played for France before the war, and on the Scottish side there were seven pre-war internationals.
The match was played in mud and driving rain which undoubtedly prevented a free-flowing game and the play was fractured and unremarkable in scoring terms. Scotland won 5-0 through a try in the second half by Gerard (GB) Crole, the Oxford University winger, converted by ‘Podger’ (Arthur D) Laing from the Royal High School Former Pupils club (although some sources credit Finlay Kennedy with converting this try).
So what was it that made this match so unique? The clue lies in the title of this article. The number of players with wartime experience was not unusual in the make-up of international sides of the early 1920s, but what was quite unique about the sides in this match was that five of the 30 players on the field have always been believed by French sources to have lost an eye in the war – the French forwards Marcel–Frederic Lubin-Lebrere from Toulouse and Robert Thierry from Racing Club de France and the Scottish half back John (Jenny) Hume and forwards, ‘Podger’ (AD) Laing and Jock (Andrew) Wemyss.
Lubin-Lebrere (1891-1972) had already won 3 caps in 1914 and scored a try against Ireland. In addition to losing an eye, he suffered numerous wounds and became a German prisoner of war. He went on to win a remarkable 12 further caps in the French front and second row, including the Olympic Final against the United States in May 1924, before his final match against Ireland in January 1925. Thierry (1893-1973), uncapped before the war but a veteran of 8 wartime internationals, played four full international matches during the 1919-20 season including the match played following the 1920 Olympic Games against the United States of America. He also played for Racing Club in their losing Championship Final against Tarbes in April 1920.
The three Scottish players had won their initial caps before the war. The scrum half Jenny Hume (1890-1969) had won his 1st cap against France in 1912 and went on to win 6 further caps, scoring a try against Ireland and captaining Scotland in three of their four matches in 1921. Hume and Podger Laing (1892-1927), a rumbustious forward who played in four internationals after the war to give him a total of 7 caps, both played for the Royal High School FP club. Jock Wemyss (1893-1974) had won two caps before the war as a highly promising Gala forward, but he was now playing for Edinburgh Wanderers. Jock Wemyss earned a sort of notoriety as he had the temerity to ask a Scottish selector for a new jersey for the match against France. He was immediately asked why he had not brought his Scotland jersey from the 1914 season. His reply is not recorded but he went on to win four further caps after this match and then become a well-known journalist and commentator and a pillar of the Barbarians rugby club.
French sources have always called this “Le match des borgnes” but is it a myth that five of the thirty players were one-eyed and if so, which of the five did not lose an eye in the war? The injuries to Jock Wemyss and the two French players are well documented but I have been unable to find any supporting evidence of the injuries to Hume and Laing? Not even the Royal High School centenary brochure of 1968 deems these injuries worthy of a mention which is puzzling. Surely at least one reader must know the answer…?
- A Portrait of Scottish Rugby (Allan Massie – Polygon Books – 1985)
- Dans la mêlée des tranchées (Francis Meignan – Le Pas d’oiseau – 2014)
- Encyclopédie du Rugby Français (Pierre Lafond & Jean-Pierre Bodis – Editions Dehedin – 1989)
- Les Capes du Matin (Georges Pastre – Midi Olympique – 1970)
- Royal High School RFC Centenary 1868-1968 (Bob Ironside & Sandy Thorburn – Neill & Co Ltd – 1968)
- The History of Scottish Rugby (Sandy Thorburn – Cassell Ltd – 1980)
- World Rugby Museum Archive
- Personal correspondence with Stephen Cooper, John Griffiths and Frederic Humbert
About the Author – A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has had a life-long love of sport. He has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005.