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100 years on, match is on

In that lost Edwardian summer of 1914 before war was declared, the villagers of The Lee in Buckinghamshire gathered for the highlight of the August bank holiday weekend — the cricket match between the village and a team from the big house.

It was the climax of a week of merriment when the friends of Arthur Liberty, the founder of the Regent Street store, descended on the Manor House to dance, play tennis and cricket and generally enjoy themselves.

The match on Monday, August 3, was never finished because of rain. With the threat of war imminent, some of the players resolved to resume it just as soon as the conflict was over.

The men from the village, including many from the cricket team, did their patriotic duty and signed up to fight. Many never came back: 30 were killed in the trenches. By the time the war was over, no one had the appetite to think about a match that cannot have seemed important any more.

Now, 100 years later, the match that never ended is to be replayed on that same village ground next Sunday.

Patrick Walsh, vice-chairman of The Lee cricket club, said: “We thought that playing a game of cricket is quite an appropriate thing to do to remember those who died. If the war had been lost, a whole traditional way of life would have been lost. Things like village cricket might not have survived.”

That the match is being played at all is thanks to Mike Senior, who wrote a history of the village’s involvement in the war, originally called No Finer Courage but since republished, in honour of the battle in which so many of them died, as Fromelles 1916. The Lee Week, he said, was a week of “high jinks”: Ivor Stewart-Liberty, Arthur Liberty’s nephew who was at Oxford, was a key figure, and invited a number of his friends from university.

“There was talk of war,” wrote Senior. “Germany had already declared war on Russia two days earlier.”

During one of the showers that interrupted play before the match was abandoned at 5pm, Stewart-Liberty — the captain of the Manor House team — walked round the boundary with Albert Phillips, the village’s fast bowler, and G.D. “Khaki” Roberts, a friend playing for the Manor House team.

Why not, they said, carry on the match once hostilities were over?

All three volunteered for active service. Ivor Stewart-Liberty lost a leg: he later became chairman of Liberty, and died in 1952. Phillips was killed. Roberts, who played tennis for Oxford, rugby for Harlequins and England and golf for Surrey, survived unscathed, and would later become a prominent criminal barrister. He served as a prosecutor in the Nazi war crimes trial at Nuremberg.

Two other members of the village team lost their lives, the brothers Arthur and Ralph Brown. The 30 from The Lee whose names are inscribed on the village’s war memorial -- a high number for a village with a population of little more than 700 -- included nine serving with the 2nd/1st Buckinghamshire Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, killed in one attack during the battle of Fromelles in July 1916.

Senior said: “The story of The Lee and the First World War and the young men who joined up, the people who worked on the estate and were members of the local cricket club, is a story that would have been repeated all round the country.”

During the match next Sunday, the names of the dead will be read out, and a minute’s silence held. Among those present will also be the life president of the club: Elizabeth Stewart-Liberty, who married Ivor’s son, Arthur, in 1954.

A few years ago she visited Fromelles, dug some earth from the grave of every villager buried there and brought it back to The Lee. The match would be “a wonderful salute”, said Elizabeth Stewart-Liberty, 84.

And her late husband, Ivor”s son? What would he have made of the match? “He would have been thrilled.”

THE TIMES, LONDON