17 December 2015
Basil Maclear (1881-1915), Irish Rugby
superstar with Comerford ancestors
We are still in the middle of commemorations of the events surrounding World War I and other landmarks in history that make this a decade of commemorations. Before we move onto events in 2016 marking the centenary of a related set of events, including the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and before 2015 comes to an end, it is worth recalling a descendant of the Comerford family who has been described as “Irish rugby’s first superstar” and who died at the Battle of Ypres in 1915.
Captain Basil Maclear (1881-1915) of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who died on a battlefield in Belgium in 1915 at the height of World War I, was an Irish rugby star and acknowledged by many as one of the early greats of the game. He won 11 caps between 1905 and 1907. One newspaper described him as a “lion of the game.” Another suggested he was “one of the greatest three-quarter backs who ever played rugby for Ireland or for any other national XV.”
Basil’s mother, Mary Comerford Casey Maclear, was born in 1845 in Liverpool, the daughter of a Merseyside soap magnate and the descendant of the Comerford family of Co Wexford and Cork. Her grandmother, Jane Comerford, daughter of Peter Comerford, a wine merchant in Cork in the late 18th century, married her cousin Edwards Casey of Cahirgal and Elmgrove, Cork, in 1792, and the Comerford name was continued through their descendants for many generations.
Edwards Casey, who died in 1827, and his wife Jane Comerford had six sons and three daughters. One of their sons, William Comerford Casey, was a freeman of Cork, and voted in the 1827 election. Soon after, he later moved to Wavertree, Liverpool, and was a soap manufacturer in Liverpool, where he was partner with his brother George Casey in the firm of WC and G Casey.
William Comerford Casey married Susannah (born 1815), daughter of John Hawkins (1791-1877), solicitor, of Hitchin, Hertfordshire, and his wife Susannah Theed Pearse (1791-1847). Her brother, Sir Henry Hawkins (1817-1907) was a barrister and judge, and became Lord Bampton. Susannah and William Comerford Casey were the parents of four sons and four daughters.
William Comerford Casey died in 1852. His daughter, Mary Comerford Casey, was born in Liverpool in 1845, and baptised in Holy Trinity Church, Wavertree, 25 April 1845. In June 1870, she married her cousin, Major Henry ‘Harry’ Wallich Maclear (1845-1911), an officer in the 3rd Buffs who practised as a doctor in Bedford.
Harry Maclear was born in Cape Town on 31 October 1845. His father, Sir Thomas Maclear, was the Astronomer Royal in Cape Town. Sir Thomas was born in Newtownstewart, Co Tyrone, and studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. But he spent much of his life working as an astronomer and in 1860 he was knighted for his scientific excellence. He was a close friend of David Livingstone, and they shared a common interest in the exploration of Africa. The crater Maclear on the Moon is named after him, as are Maclear’s Beacon on Table Mountain, the town of Maclear, South Africa and Cape Maclear in Malawi.
Dr Maclear’s brother, John Fiot Lee Pearse Maclear (1838-1907), was an Admiral in the Royal Navy, known for his work in hydrography and as the commander of HMS Challenger. He has given his name to Maclear Island and Mount Maclear in Queensland.
Dr Harry Maclear died on 6 February 1911. Mary Comerford Casey and Harry Maclear were the parents of five sons; four of their sons were army officers, and three were killed in World War I:
1, (Lieutenant-Colonel) Harry Maclear, DSO (1872-1916). An officer in the East Lancashire Regiment, he was killed on 15 March 1916 while commanding the 13th Royal Scots at the Pas de Calais, France, and is buried at Mazingarbe Communal Cemetery.
2, Arthur Maclear (1873-1945), a miniature painter.
3, (Lieutenant-Colonel) Percy Maclear (1875-1914). He was killed on 30 August 1914 in the Cameroons while commanding the 2nd Nigeria Regiment of the West African FF. He married Ethel Pethean and they had a daughter:
1a, Eileen Mary Maclear (1910-1989); she was born in Bolton, Lancashire, and died in North Tawton, Devon.
4, (Lieutenant-Colonel) Ronald Maclear, OBE, MC (1877-1932), Registrar of Bodmin. He too was noted Rugby player – he played rugby for Bedford and the East Midlands, played 48 county matches and played for England v The Rest of England. In 1907, he married Emma Grizel Stronach, daughter of John Stronach of Ceylon and Bedford; she died in Bognor Regis in 1940.
5, (Captain) Basil Maclear (1881-1915).
When their fifth and youngest son, Captain Basil Maclear, died on a battlefield in World War I, he was an Irish rugby star and acknowledged by many as one of the early greats of the game.
Basil Maclear was born in Portsmouth on 7 April 1881. He was educated at the Priory School, Bedford, and Bedford Grammar School (1893-1899). During his schooldays, he lived with his mother in the ‘Crescent’ district of Bedford. At 15, he played club rugby for Blackheath. He was in the School 1st XV in 1895-1896, 1896-1897, 1897-1898 (Captain) and 1898 (Captain). In the Easter Term 1899 he was still captain, but was prevented from playing because of an operation.
His obituary in the 1915 edition of Wisden recalled that in 1897 and 1898 he was in the Bedford Grammar School XI. In 1898, the side did not lose a school match, and he took the most wickets – 35 – at a cost of 13.91 runs each. Besides being a good bowler, he was also an excellent batsman, and made 133 against the MCC.
An all-round athlete, he also ran the 100 yards at the Bedfordshire County Sports in 10 seconds. He was nicknamed ‘Shiner’ at school and was the Deputy Head of the School.
From Bedford, Basil went to Sandhurst where he represented the Royal Military College at Cricket, Rugby and athletics. At Sandhurst, he received the Sword of Honour – an award for the best student. He played in an England trial but was rejected as “not good enough.”
He was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1895, promoted Captain in 1900 and Brevet Major in 1901. He served with his regiment in the Boer War (1899-1902), taking part in the operations in the Orange River Colony from December 1900 to February 1901, and in the Transvaal from February 1901 to January 1902. He was mentioned in despatches and was awarded the Queen’s Medal with five clasps. He saw further active service at Aden in 1903. He was appointed second in command and Adjutant of the Lagos Battalion WAFF (1903), and to the full command 1905.
Meanwhile, in 1904, he was posted to Fermoy, Co Cork. In Cork, he continued to play cricket, and made 143 for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers against Cork, and 98 against Cork County.
He also played rugby for Monkstown and Cork County. While playing for Cork County, he was selected to play for Ireland against England in 1905. He was qualified to play for Ireland both by birth and by residence. He was selected in the back-line, despite having made a name for himself as a forward.
Playing in front of a crowd of 12,000 at the Mardyke on 11 February 1905, Maclear scored one try, created two more and kicked over a conversion too. It was a memorable first cap, and Ireland won the game 17-3.
The Times reported his impressive performance: “He stamped his authority and class on the match by creating two tries in the first-half and scoring another after the interval. His defence was very fine, he fitted in well to the passing game, displayed a fine turn of speed and was very difficult to stop.”
Maclear’s first Home Nations’ Championship proved a successful one, with Ireland finishing runners-up to Wales.
In 1905-1906, the original All Blacks were the first New Zealand national rugby side to tour outside the southern hemisphere. Captained by the Donegal-born Dave Gallaher, they toured Britain, Ireland, France and the US and became known “The Originals.”
Maclear played a record four matches against the All Blacks, playing for Blakheath, Bedford, Munster and Ireland.
In November, they faced Maclear and Ireland at Lansdowne Road, winning 15-0. But Maclear was magnificent. One newspaper reported: “Certainly he was the hero of the Irish three-quarter line and did a lot of brilliant saving, while he was often grand in attack. The outstanding figure in the line was Maclear. He was ubiquitous. When the New Zealanders attacked, it was Maclear who invariably did the bulk of the collaring. He was all over the field, and his fine turn of speed, his exceptional strength and the vigour of his style did much to harass the colonists.”
A few days later, on 28 November 1905, when New Zealand took on Munster at the Markets Field in Limerick, Maclear lined out again as the captain of Munster. It is said he crushed George Smith so hard with a tackle that the winger missed the remainder of the tour. The match was played before a crowd of 3,000, and Munster was defeated 33-0.
Despite the guests scoring eight tries, Maclear’s skill and grace were admired by all. Full-back George Gillett identified him as his favourite player, “whose equal I have never seen either before or since.”
In 1906, Maclear helped Ireland to the Home Nations title, scoring tries against England and Wales.
The test against South Africa on 24 November 1906 in Belfast provided his greatest moment in an Irish shirt. The try he scored that day at the Balmoral Grounds stunned all, and according to the historian AC Parker, it “ranks as one of the greatest individual efforts achieved at international level.”
“The moustachioed Irish centre, picking up a loose ball inside his own ‘25’ beat man after man,” Parker wrote. “Twice he stumbled, perhaps by design, for his subsequent acceleration was such that Loubser could not overhaul him and Joubert, South Africa’s last line of defence was brushed aside.”
“There is no other player in Great Britain who could have scored such a try”, the Daily Mail claimed. “It was an epoch-making event, and it is safe to say that the run will live forever in the annals of the game.” However, the Irish side still lost by three points.
Although he had a handful of further appearances for Ireland, Maclear never scored again. In 1906, he also played as a half-back against England in Leicester, Scotland in Inverleith, and Wales in Lansdowne Road. The try he scored against South Africa at the Balmoral Showgrounds in Belfast in November 1906 after an 80-yard run was unforgettable. As a player he has been described as “forceful rather than subtle … he was dangerous in attack and formidable in defence, running straight and hard, and handing-off with a force which was only equalled by the tremendous vigour of his tackling.”
In 1907, he played against England at Lansdowne Road, Scotland in Inverleith, and Wales at Cardiff. The match against Wales on 9 March 1907 was his last Test. In all, he won 11 caps for Ireland.
Unfortunately, persistent knee trouble diverted his energies from Rugby to Hockey, in which he also excelled.
Decades later, in Rugger: A Man’s Game, the rugby journalist EHD Sewell said Maclear “was the making of those grand Irish sides of 1904/5 and 1905/6.”
In 1912, Basil returned to Sandhurst as Inspector of Physical Training. At the beginning of World War I, he asked to rejoin his regiment, but in a confidential report General Capper wrote: “This officer is too valuable to be spared for active service.” But Maclear’s request was later accepted, he left Sandhurst at the end of February 1915 and took a large draft of men to the Front around 24 March.
When the Second Battle of Ypres began, the Dublins were rushed to the front line where Basil took part in all the heavy fighting. For much of the time he was second-in-command of the regiment, and for four days he was in full command.
Every day, in brief intervals snatched from the fighting, he wrote to his mother. His last letter to her was dated 23 May 23, the day before he was killed.
On 13 April 1915, before advancing towards Ypres, some soldiers gathered to play a rugby match in the tiny northern French village of Nieppe. One team was made up almost entirely of Gloucester players while the opposition, who arrived straight from the trenches, featured a handful of Irish internationals, including the Ireland fullback William (WP) Hinton, later served president of the IRFU, and the Ireland captain William (WJ) Tyrell, who was selected on the first Lions tour in 1910.
They played only 25 minutes each way as the 4th Division players had come from active duty in the trenches. By then, Maclear was in his mid-30s and refereed the game. The Irish side lost 14-0.
Other players included Ronald William Poulton-Palmer, the England skipper who had already won 17 caps for England, HJS Morton (Cambridge and England) and JG Keppell (Ireland trials). Just a few weeks later, Poulton-Palmer, who was still just 25, was killed by a sniper. Maclear did not survive much longer.
Early on 24 May 1915, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were bunkered down in Mouse Trap Farm, a Flemish chalet about 2½ miles from the Menin Gate in Ypres, in Belgium’s west corner.
At about 3 a.m., red lights speckled in the skies overhead. The Germans had started firing. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Loveband, yelled out: “Get your respirators, boys. Here comes the gas.” The rules of war had changed that spring, and chemical attacks from the German side had become commonplace. Soon, the trenches filled with talk of the “thick, yellow-greenish vapour,” the silent killer that inflicted a slow, harrowing death. It engulfed the insides and cut the supply to the throat.
Years later, the poet Wilfred Owen painted a vivid picture: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” An Irish veteran of World War I, Jack Campbell, recalled: “It takes up to three hours to die from gas.”
It took 45 minutes for the gas to drift over the Irish trenches. Desperate attempts to evade the poison were in vain. Many died instantly, others were picked off by the advancing Germans, but hours later some of the Fusiliers still remained. They were outnumbered, and the situation was perilous.
Captain Basil Maclear sent a message telling battalion headquarters reinforcements were needed. With the few soldiers left at with him, he tried to launch a grenade attack on the Fusilier trenches that had been taken by the Germans. As the assault began, he led the advance towards the enemy.
Maclear must have known that death was imminent. Perhaps, for a moment, he thought of his older brother, Percy. The previous August, while based in Nigeria, he had been killed under heavy German machine gun fire. Another brother, Harry, would die later at Pas de Calais in northern France in March 1916.
Basil’s last message to his battalion headquarters was desperate: “Very many of our men are surrounded. We must have reinforcements.” None showed up.
Captain Basil Maclear was shot in the throat. His body was never recovered. He was 34. Later, what remained of the battalion regrouped on the west bank of the Yser canal. That morning, 668 men had woken up. By nightfall, 647 were killed, wounded or missing.
One of the 30 or so survivors of his battalion wrote of him: “No words can describe his loss; he was a man every single one of us would have risked our lives to save. There is a blank in our regiment now which will never be filled.”
He was mentioned in Despatches seven months later: “Captain Basil Maclear, who showed great coolness in handling the Reserve Company of the Battalion, which he was able to bring up almost intact under very heavy fire; and also the great power of command which he showed himself to possess when suddenly called upon to command the Battalion for four days during a trying situation.”
Basil Maclear’s name, along with 54,000 others whose bodies were never recovered, is engraved on the Menin Gate at Ypres.
Anthony Hope Hawkins, author of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, was a second cousin of Basil Maclear
On the Maclear side of the family, Basil’s cousins included Canon George Frederick Maclear (1833-1902). He was the select preacher, Cambridge (1868, 1880, 1886), and Oxford (1881-1882); Ramsden preacher, Cambridge (1890), Headmaster, King’s College School, London (1867-1880), Warden of Saint Augustine’s Missionary College, Canterbury (1880-1902), and a canon of Canterbury Cathedral.
Basil Maclear’s mother, Mary Comerford Casey Maclear, was a first cousin of the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906), Vicar of Saint Bride’s, Fleet Street, makin Basil was a second cousin of Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (1863-1933), author (as Anthony Hope) of The Prisoner of Zenda.
In 1928, the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Irish International Players presented his mother with a ‘Maclear’ football that had been used in an international trial match and that bore the signature of all the senders, telling her how the name of Basil Maclear was still remembered with love in Ireland, and asking her “to do them the honour of accepting it in memory of her illustrious son.”
The Basil Maclear table and chair in the Bedford School Memorial Hall were given in 1928 by an Old Bedfordian “in affectionate admiration of a devoted son, a gallant solder and a great athlete.”
In his rugby career, he scored four tries and three conversions during 11 international games for Ireland. EH Dasent wrote in the Ousel on 20 July 1932: “He was perhaps the greatest athlete of his day and with it all a man so modest and unassuming that none would ever have guessed it.”
Three months ago, he was one of the 25 legends inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame [No 96] at Wembley Stadium, London, on 20 September 2015. He also features in the first chapter of Stephen Walker’s recent book, Ireland’s Call – Irish Sporting Heroes who Fell in the Great War (Dublin: Merrion Press, 2015).
The Ousel, 8 June 1915, December 1906, 20 December 1906, 25 February 1907, 8 June 1915, 20 July 1932.
The Daily Mail, 26 November 1906.
Bedfordshire Standard, 4 June 1915.
EA Rolfe in the Old Bedfordians Year Book, 1929.
Old Bedfordians Year Book, 1930.
EHD Sewell, Rugger: the Man’s Game (1944).
OL Owen, Rugby correspondent of The Times and editor of Rugby Football Annual, writing ’), writing in the programme of the England v Ireland match, Twickenham, 13 February 1954.
Eoin O’Callaghan, ‘Meet Irish rugby’s first superstar,’ Irish Examiner, 26 February 2015.
Stephen Walker, Ireland’s Call – Irish Sporting Heroes who Fell in the Great War (Dublin: Merrion Press, 2015).