Born: 6 December, 1870, Catford
Died: 29 July, 1917, aged 47
College: Merton College, Oxford
Blues: 1891, 1893
Commemorated: Dulhallow ADS cemetery, Ieper, West Vlaanderen, Belgium (Plot V111, Row C, Grave 11)
Cecil Baker was denied what would surely have been his greatest sporting moment when he was forced to miss the chance to lead Oxford University into the 1892 Varsity Match because of a chest injury sustained in one of the lead-in fixtures to the big day. In the end, he didn’t miss much. The game ended in a dismal 0-0 draw, only the second game in which there had been no score after 1879.
Born in Catford on 6 December, 1870, the third of son of nine children to Arthur Baker JP, a ‘Gentleman’ who lived off private means, and his wife, Clara, Baker learned his rugby at the Abbey School, Beckenham and then Sherborne and was a very good all-round athlete. He played in the Cricket X1 at both schools and was a prominent member of the 1st XV at Sherborne. One of his contemporaries at Sherborne, the future England forward Godfrey Carey, joined him on debut in the Varsity Match in 1891 and went on to become captain in 1894. In the school magazine of April, 1888, The Shirburnian, he was described in a section called ‘Characters of the XV’:
“C.D. Baker, 1887 – An excellent, heavy forward. Good at lining out, and especially serviceable in tight scrimmages; a fair collar. Has come on wonderfully this season. Is leaving. Weight 12st. 3lbs.”
Having gone up to Oxford in October, 1890, Baker found himself playing in the final throes of the era of nine forwards and seven backs. He played for Merton in his first season in residence before breaking into the Dark Blues squad in the 1891/92 campaign. The 1890 Varsity Match was postponed three times before finally being played on 3 March, 1891. The Oxford side contained eight former Blues and boasted three internationals. The Scotland and British & Irish Lions centre Paul Clauss was the captain for the 1891/92 season and his side enjoyed a run of eight wins – Blackheath, Richmond, Swansea, Cooper’s Hill, Harlequins, Edinburgh Academicals, St Thomas’ Hospital and Coventry – on their way to the 21st Varsity Match at Queen’s Club on 16 December, 1891. Clauss was one of seven Blues picked for the annual fixture and Baker was one of seven ‘seniors’ who made their debuts. The only ‘freshman’ was his fellow Old Shiburnian, Carey. Cambridge were by far the less experienced team, boasting only three former Blues and two current internationals to Oxford’s three, but they upset the odds and won the game 4-0 thanks to two, two point tries. In front of a crowd of 8,000, the Light Blues opted to play with the strong wind and they were able to keep Oxford at bay. It was 0-0 at half-time before the Cambridge pack wore down their rivals to allow Arthur Fforde and Scottish international three-quarter William Neilson to claim the match-winning tries.
Baker was honoured with the captaincy for the 1892/93 season at the age of 21 and had to press his Secretary, George Heinrich Frederick Cookson, into emergency service as acting captain. When the big day came, and the protective straw that had been laid to keep the frost out of the pitch had been removed, rain fell heavily to turn the pitch into a quagmire. Cookson minuted after the tedious 0-0 draw that it had been “a splendid game . . .and our forwards did better than they have ever done before but the wet was against our three-quarters.”
The 1893/94 season saw both Oxford and Cambridge follow the trend of using four three-quarters and only eight forwards. This was a system first used by Cardiff RFC in 1885 and then introduced into international rugby by Wales two years later. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the new system was installed at Oxford by Baker’s successor as captain, the Welsh international centre John Conway-Rees. He was one of eight former Blues who returned for the 1893 Varsity Match and had Carey as his Secretary. This year, though, it was Carey rather than his old school mate Baker, who was forced to sit out the Varsity Match through injury. Baker tasted victory at last as Oxford, thanks to a breakaway try from half-back, and future England skipper, Richard Cattell, to make it 3-0. There were no fewer than 15 current or future internationals on the two sides
Having graduated in 1893, Baker moved into the City and became a member of the Stock Exchange two years later and married his wife, Gwendaline Peyman, at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, on 6 October, 1898. They then lived in Station Road, Walton on Thames. He carried his love of cricket with him throughout his life, playing for Merton while at Oxford and then becoming a member of the MCC in 1895. He played for MCC one game in 1899, against Oatlands Park, when he shared in a decent second wicket stand with Arthur Conan Doyle.
When WW1 broke out Baker firstly obtained a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Anti-Aircraft Corps in September, 1914. Within a year he had transferred to the Grenadier Guards. Five months later he was promoted Lieutenant and a year later, January, 1917, he was Acting Captain in the Special Reserve of the 1st Battalion. He served in France and Flanders from 28 October, 1915 and was wounded in April, 1916.
At the beginning of 1917 the 1st Battalion was in camp at Maltzhorn, where it had retired after the usual tour of duty in the trenches, before moving on to Meaulte, Billon Wood Camp, Priez Farm and then Maurepas. Lieutenant Baker joined up with the Battalion on 24 January, the day before the move to Maurepas. The 1st Battalion moved into the line about fifteen miles north of St. Quentin on 30 January and all was fairly quiet for the first three days in the trenches. Just before it was due to be relieved the Germans attempted a raid on the advanced posts. After an intense, 35 minute bombardment there was an attack that, while easily repelled with rifle fire, led to one man being killed, two being wounded and a fourth going missing.
After four days rest at Maurepas, Baker and his men returned to the trenches, and the odd skirmish, but much of the month of February was spent at Mericourt, where training was carried on by companies. On 3 March the 1st Battalion moved to Bronfay Farm, and on the following day to the trenches at Fregicourt and Haie Wood, where it was employed in improving the dug-outs and then pursuing the retreating Germans.
The whole of April, and much of May, was spent in working on the railway and in training, with three companies on railway fatigue and one company training. At the end of May the Battalion went by train to St. Omer and then on to Campagne. After two weeks at the start of June in Campagne it moved to Zudausques and then Herzeele, where it remained until 13 July 13.
The 3rd Guards Brigade now moved up into the line in order to take part in the proposed attack by the Guards Division on the 31 July. The Battalion Headquarters were at Boesinghe Chateau, and all four companies had two platoons in the front line. On the 15th the 1st Battalion came out of the line, and retired to de Wippe Cabaret, where for 10 days it was employed in carrying up ammunition and war material to the front line. The trips to the front lines were always made under shell-fire and there were inevitably casualties.
On 29 July, the King’s Company under Lieutenant Pauling and No. 2 Company, under Captain Baker, left Forest Camp to take over on the front line from the Irish Guards. Baker’s men were able to take up an advanced position on the eastern side of the Yser Canal that had been seized and maintained by the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards. This meant Baker was able to get his men across the Canal without the threat of fire. The men made their way across on petrol tin bridges as soon as it got dark, but it was still hazardous. Some men fell into the water and German shelling continued.
Captain Baker and his servant were killed by a direct hit from a shell, and Acting Company Sergeant-Major Wheatley of No. 2 Company was wounded in addition to a number of other ranks. He was buried at the Dulhallow Advanced Dressing Station cemetery in Belgium where, at the age of 46, he is the second oldest soldier commemorated.