Rugby in History

May 08 2020

Letter to Editor - October 27 1918

Rugby in BC During the Fall of 1918: Part 3 - Coexisting with a World War, a Global Pandemic and Prohibition

In the first two parts of this series we covered the coming of the Spanish Influenza to Victora. Victoria never saw the pandemic in its first wave during the summer of 1918, it watched the second wave slowly come west starting in the east and hitting Victoria in early October. The city's Health Officer, Dr Price, had already formulated and communicated a strong lock down policy ahead of the arrival so Victoria was relatively prepared. Open air sports were allowed, including rugby. In previous articles we covered the initial rugby planning meeting and the first league practice match that was only attended by 20 players, in Part 3 we cover the first club vs club practice game and the first league game. All this during a World War, a Global Pandemic, and Prohibition.

Part 1 - Pre October 2018 - Before Influenza Contact

Part 2 - First Half of October 1918 - First Influenza Contact

Friday October 18th

The front page headline was "The Germans Drop Many Prizes", "Ostend, Lille and Douai Fall Into Hands of Allied Forces Through One Day's Operations". The war was going well for the Allies, the Germans were in full retreat and the war would soon be over.

On the influenza front, advertisers were enticing readers to protect themselves by buying their disinfectants that "are ten times stronger" than carbolic acid. There have been 592 cases of the Spanish Flu reported to date in Victoria but the city was very much focused on the war, the influenza was a secondary issue. Victoria's numbers are changing daily, 72 cases were reported on this day which was half of the previous day, perhaps a sign for optimism.

Nanaimo had stepped up lock down efforts after more cases appear in their city, they announced the closing of schools and all public places. The Provincial Health Officer, Dr Young, was not pleased with the influenza situation in Vancouver and was heading over to consult with that city's authorities.

On the rugby front, there's talk of arranging an inter-city game between Victoria and Vancouver, proposed by Vancouver. Victoria replied that since they can't have meetings, due to the influenza, a definite answer can't be given at this time but "that there is little doubt, unless the ravages of the influenza increase, Victoria will raise at least one team which will be able to take up the proposal of the Mainland Rugby men and engage in one or two inter-city games".

It's stated emphatically that any of the pre-war trophies such as the McKechnie Cup will be left on the shelf until the Victoria Rugby Union resumes operation at the end of the war. It's proposed a "Rugby war championship trophy" could be a possibility.

Meanwhile in other sports, Soccer was moving ahead with limited success, the newspaper reports only two games of the several scheduled would proceed - "The latest game to be called off owing to health regulations being the match which was to have been played by the Victoria Wests and the Garrison".

Sunday October 20th

The front page headline was "Belgian Troops Are Marching Through Portion of Country Freed from Hordes of Enemy". The Spanish influenza was very much in the news and it included our neighbours to the south. Camp Lewis, a large army camp in the Tacoma, Washington area was put under quarantine with 35,000 men in camp, guards were posted preventing entry to and exit from the camp.

The provincial health authority had to impose further measures on Vancouver as it seemed they were lax in implementing closing regulations, Victoria and Dr Price were lauded for their early actions.

Prohibition was in effect from 1917-1921 in British Columbia. The police had large stashes of confiscated scotch and rye whisky which was now being requisitioned by hospitals as alcohol was commonly prescribed by doctors during the Spanish Influenza. The newspaper reported prescriptions for alcohol were projected to triple from September to October 1918 as the influenza took hold.

The number of cases in Victoria had risen to 761 and military camps were especially hard hit due to the large numbers and close quarters. Willows Camp in Oak Bay had over 200 cases alone.

Some of the recommendations from the health officer 100+ years ago hold true today, avoid crowds and seek fresh air. Nurses were in demand and hospital capacity was a major worry.

In Rugby matters, the first full "practice" match took place at Royal Athletic Park between Victoria & Island Athletic Association (V.I.A.A.) and the Imperial Munitions Board. Former Welsh rugby league professional Dai Thomas changed sides at half time to equalize the match. VIAA won 4 tries to a goal, 12-5. Tries at this time were 3 points and what, in the modern era, is considered a converted try was referred to as a goal in 1918, it was worth 5 points. Also interesting in the match report (appended below) is the term touchdown, not a scoring play but a touch down in the defending in-goal. Modern rugby laws still use the term, "A defending player grounding the ball in in-goal results in a touch down." - Law 21-6.

The report indicates there "was quite a fair sprinkling of spectators on the ground" - perhaps using the common sense prevalent in that era and practicing some form of social distancing. An amount of $8.35 was collected to donate to the Red Cross, this would be roughly equal to $120 today.

The local Soccer league was now 4 games into their schedule.

Sunday October 27th

The front page headline took a short break from the war to announce the largest maritime disaster in BC. The passenger liner, Princess Sophia, run by the Canadian Pacific Railway sunk off the coast off Juneau, Alaska with all 343 on board losing their life.

The war still took part of the front page with a subheading, "French Army Smashes Forward Between Oise and Serre Rivers Capturing Number of Villages".

Influenza also hits the front page reporting on the large numbers coming in from Great Britain and Ireland, 250 persons buried in Dublin since last Monday, 152 deaths in Leicester during the week, 1,000 cases reported in Newry.

Closer to home there was concern about rural areas on the mainland and the province sent out Dr Newton to take the Pacific Great Western Railway (PGE) from Squamish to Clinton with medical supplies and to report on conditions in the interior. We learn there were 40 centres in BC under "closing regulations.

In Victoria 69 cases were reported the previous day, Medical Health Officer, Dr Price, "believes that the epidemic is now at its height."

A building at 1124 Fort St. (Fort & Cook) is taken over by the province as an emergency hospital.

Dr Price again reiterates the basics, avoid overcrowded assemblies, isolate yourself if you have the symptoms, get sufficient food, rest and exercise.

One novel suggestion was to use Glyco-Thymoline spray on the nostrils and throat several times a day, an alternative was to "draw up through the nostrils" a salt water solution (a teaspoon of salt to a pint of water). Glyco-Thymoline according to the National Museum of American History "was An alkaline cleansing solution for soothing mucous membranes". It's still marketed today as, "the Original Alkaline Mouthwash – Patented Formula Since 1894".

A short paragraph gives influenza figures for Minnesota, 18,867 cases of Influenza to date, death statistics were not available. Officials in the state declared the epidemic is subsiding.

The local obituary column for Nanaimo listed several dead from the influenza, ages were relatively young between 14 and 38, the total deaths in Nanaimo due to influenza was listed at 12.

In Rugby the first league match kicked off with the Foundation, a team from the dockyard, defeating V.I.A.A. 5-0 in torrential rain. There were 50 spectators at the game played at Royal Athletic Park so social distancing wasn't an issue. The journalist at the time bemoans the backline kicking skills, some things never change, "kicking was poor, even allowing for the weather". The commonly referred to 22 metre line was the 25 yard line in 1918.

One point of interest is the tactic of dribbling the ball, "their forwards were seen in a fine dribbling rush soon after the resumption of play, which took the ball within five yards of the V.I.A.A line". A forwards dribbling rush is a lost art in the modern game and basically is a strategy employed in wet weather when the forwards move the ball forward using their feet. More information on this long lost tactic can be found here (link courtesy of Rob Nichol). The video below is from the 1950 British Lions tour to New Zealand and at the 14 minute mark there's an example of the Maori forwards using this tactic against the Lions.

On the same page as the rugby report was a letter to the editor, where the writer expressed his view on the debate going on about professionalism in sport, he also touched on the benefit of sport in troubling times. "Sport was the thing unmentionable in the early days of the war, but it was soon seen that that was a wrong point of view, and since then everything has been done by the military authorities as well as civilians to try and keep going that which is responsible to such a large degree for the fine morale and qualities of endurance and courage shown by our splendid fighting men. Professionals and amateurs have worked together to this end and in most quarters the amateur sport authorities have taken the wise course of broadmindedness."

In the next article we'll step into November 1918 to see how rugby is faring as the world war officially comes to an end but the global pandemic continues.


Friday, October 18th

Sunday, October 20th

Sunday, October 27th

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