Francis Eckley Oakeley
07/04/2000
The day a sporting light was cruelly snuffed out

Hereford Cathedral School stages special days when it remembers former pupils who give their names to its houses. They were killed in the First World War and here, Nigel Heins recalls one such hero - Francis Eckley Oakeley.

Known as the "Warrior Sportsman", Francis Eckley Oakeley played scrum-half for England in the last international to be played in Britain before the horrors of the First World War - the ex-Cathedral School lad helped his country to a narrow victory by 16 points to 15 against Scotland at Inverleith.

It gave them the Championship and the Triple Crown for the second successive season.

Oakeley's stirring efforts on lush playing fields were followed by deeds in oceans deep - and death - the outstanding sportsman - he was as brilliant at fencing as he was at rugby - died in Submarine D2 in the winter of 1914.

Lieut Oakeley was born on February 3, 1891, the 5th son of the Vicar of Holy Trinity, the Rev James Oakeley, and his wife, Frances, who was descended from the Eckleys of Credenhill Park.

After leaving the Cathedral School, he attended the Osborne and Dartmouth Royal Naval Colleges. He was one of a batch of cadets entered under what was described as "the new scheme" and passed out from Dartmouth in 1908 - his naval career progressed rapidly in tandem with his success on the rugby field. He represented the Royal Navy and the United Services and was capped by England three times.

But the bright star of sport was destined to be snuffed out and his demise in the cruel sea is described by Edwin Gray in his book A Damned Un-English Weapon.

"On November 23 while the submarine was running on the surface in heavy seas, a wave washed her commanding officer, Lieut-Cdr Jameson, overboard - the traditional shout went up and Lieut Oakeley, D2's Second-in-Command, dashed to the conning tower to take over.

The submarine swung around and the men leaning over the conning tower stared out through the gale-driven rain for their captain. But they knew that it was impossible for anyone to survive in those wild seas and, after two hours, the search was called off.

Oakeley brought the submarine back to Harwich and reported the sad news of Jameson's loss to his Flotilla Commander at Maidstone.

The very next day D2 left Harwich for another patrol and, as the submarine glided slowly past Maidstone her new commanding officer, Lieut-Cdr Head, raised his hand in salute.

D2 was never seen again. She vanished somewhere in the North Sea and no evidence was found to indicate her fate."

A wonderful tribute to Oakeley was paid in an article under the headline "Warrior Sportsman" in the Windsor Magazine - it stated: "Oakeley's was a beautiful character - indeed his features told one as much - and when his shipmates and clubmates used to chaff him about his saintlike expression, they knew the meaning of what they said."

A brother officer who shared his room on the occasion of some big match recounted - "Last year a great friend of Oakeley's was lost on board the submarine that went down off Plymouth. Oakeley took it absolutely fearlessly and quietly, said my friend, but he was on his knees for over an hour that night before he turned in and he was not asking that he might be spared a similar death.

"But it was all simply to the end that the men might be spared the agonies of a lingering death. No wonder the men all loved him .... he was a fine boy and a very fine gentleman. In this brief peep into the intimate life of one of our leading rugby men - a lad who had a few hours before been applauded for his straight and plucky play on a football field - we are permitted to see the finest type of man breathing - that simple, plain, honest being, the British officer."
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