Into Battle, a new play being premiered at London’s Greenwich Theatre from 27 April – 21 May, tells the true story of political and social divisions tearing Britain apart prior to WW1 reflected in a bitter feud at Balliol College, Oxford.
In 1906, of 53 new Balliol students, 18 were an exclusive set of Etonians, including war poets Julian Grenfell and Patrick Shaw Stewart, whose poems feature in the play. On the other side, fighting for human rights and social justice, were Keith Rae and his best friend Ronald Poulton, already an England rugby international, having been selected at just 19.
Ronnie went up to Balliol in 1908 after leaving Rugby School, where he achieved distinction in cricket and rugby. Intent on social justice, his dedication to helping those less fortunate than himself saw him become a keen contributor to the Balliol Boys Club for children of the industrial class, whose secretary was Keith Rae. The play features the pair taking on the ‘Eton Rowdies’ and their very different attitude. In the production, Ronnie also refers to his famous letter to The Sportsman, published on 2 December 1912. As England captain, he put his position at risk by standing up for ‘broken time payments’ because poorer England players were suffering financially by playing for their country.
His obituary in the Daily News and Leader on 8 May 1915 said : “It was a very courageous thing for a man in his position to do. He was up against the crusted traditions and his action, to many of his closest friends in the game, must have seemed a violation of the most scared principles of rugby football. Whether one agreed with his advocacy or not, it was certainly a very fine thing that Poulton did then.”
On 5 May 1915, Ronnie Poulton was killed by sniper-fire in a trench south of Ypres. He was 25 and his last words were reputed to be that he would ‘never play at Twickenham again’.
There will be a special tribute performance to celebrate his life on 5 May 2020.
Says playwright Hugh Salmon: “In many ways, my play ‘Into Battle’ was born out of rugby when a Harlequins member, James Corsan, asked me to help him publish his book ‘For Poulton and England’ (2009). This inspired me to read the book ‘The Life of Ronald Poulton’ (1917) by Ronnie’s father, the Oxford don Edward Bagnall Poulton. It was a particularly moving and poignant four pages of this book, about the Balliol Feud, that inspired me to write this play.”
The production team is particularly keen for young people over the age of 16 to see the play.
Tickets available here: https://ticketing.greenwichtheatre.org.uk/single/SYOS.aspx?p=80493