Postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Into Battle, Hugh Salmon’s debut play inspired by the story of Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, one of England and Oxford’s greatest rugby players, is now scheduled for 7-31 October at Greenwich Theatre. A timely reminder of how people can be brought together by adversity, it will now be one of the Royal British Legion’s centenary events, with a special matinee and evening performance on Remembrance Saturday, the 9th October.
Hugh himself has faced his own battle, having had several surgeries for a fractured spine from a complex rugby injury, he wrote Into Battle despite chronic pain and lying on his back. He was inspired by Ronnie Poulton-Palmer England captain in their last match before World War One. The Great War was to take Ronnie’s life, those of five of his team mates in that Test match, and in total 27 England players who made the ultimate sacrifice.
To celebrate the life of one of England’s greatest rugby heroes, there will be a special performance of Into Battle on Tuesday 12 October which all rugby supporters are encouraged to attend. Tickets are available in advance of the Greenwich Theatre box office opening for the rest of the run. Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, Ronnie’s great-niece and other members of his family will be attending the play which features their forbear’s story.
The play begins set against the 1910 backdrop of one of the most divisive general elections in British history. After Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ was rejected by the House of Lords, Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, asked King Edward VII to create 300 new peers to overcome a potentially catastrophic political conflict. These national divisions were reflected at Oxford’s Balliol College, where 18 of 53 freshers in 1906, were Old Etonians. They formed an exclusive group engaged in a bitter feud with those who had not been to Eton. The play looks at how Ronnie tried to broker peace between the Eton Rowdies and the rest. By 1912, the feud had become a personal one between the Hon. Billy Grenfell and the more socially aware Keith Rae, who had dedicated his university career to the Balliol Boys Club, which aimed to help the underprivileged and underfed ‘scruffs’ from the back streets of Oxford. At Rugby School Ronnie played in the first XV with the war poet Rupert Brooke. He later became an advocate of social justice and, like his best friend Keith Rae, helped the Balliol Boys Club. As England captain, he put his position on the line by standing up for broken time payments, supporting players who could ill afford to lose earnings by representing their nation on the rugby pitch. Although the feud between the leaders of the two sides was so bitter, it was touchingly resolved on the battlefields of the First World War. By the spring of 1915 Lieutenant Ronald William Poulton Palmer was at the front in Flanders. While supervising engineering works in a trench just north of Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium he was shot by a sniper on 5 May. His last words were reputed to be: “I shall never play at Twickenham again.”
He is buried in the Royal Berks Cemetery, Hyde Park Corner, in Belgium. In recent years, soil from the Twickenham Stadium pitch was taken to the cemetery and, with the help of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, scattered on Ronnie’s grave by the RFU’s First World War Commemoration ambassador and former England captain, Lewis Moody, who brought soil from the grave back to be buried beside the Twickenham pitch.