For the historian, contemporary sources provide an immediacy and vitality that the fog of time obscures. Yet in an era of vast social upheaval, it is no surprise that accuracy can be a casualty. Like every other long-running publication, Wisden has got many things plain wrong - errors that can have a fascination of their own.
When the Great War stopped play 100 years ago, the Almanack's slim volumes were soon largely devoted to obituaries of the ghostly ranks of soldiers, sailors and pioneering airmen who gave their lives for king and country. Many had just made joyful appearances in the public school averages.
One of Wisden's own foot soldiers, Ernest Allen, an editorial assistant, rallied to the colours in the first week of the war; his death notice graphically records he was shot through the head at Cuinchy on New Year's Day, 1915. As the casualties mounted, the reduced staff did their best to cope, but errors crept in. A book of record needs to make corrections, even if the best part of a century has elapsed, and a new volume, Wisden on the Great War: the Lives of Cricket's Fallen 1914-1918, does just that, casting light on some remarkable characters.
Jack Poole led a full life. He was taken prisoner by the Germans in both world wars, received the DSO from King George V, wrecked a Sopwith Camel in a bravado display of aerobatics - somehow surviving the crash and a subsequent court of inquiry - incurred losses as a Lloyd's underwriter, and served as an administrator in Sudan where, for 35 cows, he bought a bride, with whom he had a son.
He was also a talented schoolboy athlete, enjoyed country-house cricket, and was due to make his first-class debut for MCC against Oxford University at Lord's in July 1922, but had to cry off after being injured in a club game; Patsy Hendren took his place. "An inspiration to all who knew him, not just behind barbed wire but throughout a life full of friendship and shared laughter," wrote Terence Prittie, a fellow captive during World War Two, in The Times after his death in July 1966. So it is remarkable that Poole's obituary appeared in the 1916 Wisden:
2ND LIEUT. J. S. POOLE (4th King's Royal Rifle Corps) was killed in action in the second week of May , aged 19. He was brilliant in the field and a good slow left-hand bowler. In 1913 and 1914 he was in the Rugby Eleven, and was captain-elect for last year…
Poole must not have seen his premature Wisden obituary, or - given his sense of humour - he would surely have used it in his autobiography. Instead, Undiscovered Ends, published in 1957, begins on the cricket pitches of Rugby, where his team-mates included C. P. Johnstone, J. L. Bryan and M. D. Lyon,all future first-class players. Poole was stripped of the captaincy in 1914 after a prank involving a fire hydrant, staying on at school only because he was about to take his exams for Sandhurst.
The following May he was captured, one of the few in his battalion to survive 26 continuous days in the Ypres trenches. On May 21, 1915, The Times reported him as "missing", so it is unclear how Wisden - which relied on the paper for much of its information - got it so wrong. Poole escaped three times and was twice recaptured, eventually making it back to England in late 1916.
Twice he met the King. The first time, in a borrowed uniform, he had a halfhour private audience to recount his exploits. "The King asked me to sit down and offered me a cigarette, thus putting me at my ease immediately. What a shame to smoke it, I thought: I would have preferred to keep it as a souvenir."
Six months later he was back at Buckingham Palace to receive the DSO. After service in north Russia, his war was not over until June 1919: "On arriving home, I found an official document awaiting me. It was a certificate from the War Office, informing me that the circumstances of my capture by the Germans in 1915 had been investigated and that no blame attached to my conduct."
Between the wars, Poole worked in Rhodesia and then in the Sudan Political Service, where he had an unofficial marriage to a Sudanese woman named Aneege. In May 1940, Major Poole was captured during a rearguard action at Calais; the rest of his war was spent in POW camps, where he was a valued member of escape committees. He selected a team designed for their ability to cause maximum disruption to their captors; among them were Douglas Bader - "always to be relied upon on a sticky wicket" - Roger Mortimer, the future racing correspondent of The Sunday Times who, as wicketkeeper, "would let nothing go by", and Charlie (later Marquess) Linlithgow, who "would bowl fast ones, though sometimes apt to pitch them a bit short - bodyline stuff". Poole died in a London hospital on July 5, 1966, half a century after his Wisden obituary.
However, the record for longevity after a premature Wisden send-off belongs to Wilfred Shaw. He died 70 years after the 1919 Almanack listed him as "killed March 23. Captain of the XI at Borlase School, Marlow". The Times had indeed published an obituary on April 10, 1918, after the regimental diary recorded Shaw as killed during the Bedfordshire Regiment's stand against the German spring offensive. His parents received a letter of condolence from the battalion chaplain but, as the Bucks Free Press reported on May 17, they later received "splendid news": a War Office telegram explained that their son had been captured. Shaw won many athletics trophies at school, and his fitness may well have helped him survive the rigours of battle and ill-treatment in captivity. After the war, he played for Little Marlow CC. He worked in the furniture trade, and died on November 9, 1989, eight days short of his 92nd birthday, a lifetime after his Wisden obituary.
Another survivor had received a sketchy obituary: "Mr George R. Alpen," said Wisden 1917, "one of the best-known cricketers of Belgium, has been killed in the War, but no particulars are obtainable." George Alpen was born in Albury, New South Wales, in 1878, and worked in Brussels as the representative of a British firm. Alpen, who had married a Belgian Red Cross sister when he was taken prisoner, was secretary of La Fe´de´ration Belge de Cricket in the 1930s, and was selected to play for Belgium against France in Brussels in July 1934. However, no details of the game exist, as all Belgian cricket records were destroyed during the Second World War. In 1943 Alpen, who had fled the country with his wife three years earlier, died in Australia.
Wisden did admit some errors. The Rev. Archibald Fargus, "a stout hitter, a good hammer and tongs bowler and a hardworking field" for Cambridge University and Gloucestershire, was given an obituary in 1915. It stated that, as acting-chaplain on HMS Monmouth, he went down when the ship sank in the Pacific on November 1, 1914. But it transpired he had missed his train: the ship had sailed without him. The error was corrected two years later, but Wisden then missed his actual death in 1963, aged 84 - an oversight itself not remedied until 1994.
Wisden 1916 recorded 2nd Lt R. M. Chadwick as having died of wounds the previous May, which was accurate, though this artillery officer was not the one who, as a schoolboy, had bowled for Rugby and scored 46 against Marlborough at Lord's in 1904. Wisden acknowledged the inaccuracy in 1920: "Mr Chadwick is happily alive and well. The mistake probably arose through some confusion of initials." That was understandable: two men with similar names served in the Royal Garrison Artillery. The officer who died was 20-year-old Richard Markham Chadwick, while the survivor, who became the Rev. Rohan Mackenzie Chadwick, had a second, brief, obituary in 1969, aged 82; there was no mention of the earlier notice.
The Almanack attempted to make amends after publishing an obituary in 1916 for Rifleman Paul Hilleard, "a useful all-round cricketer" who played for Essex Second XI in 1914. He was stated to have died in May 1915 of wounds received near Ypres, but a "correction" in 1917 said he had been reported to be a prisoner. Sadly, the original obituary was not far wrong: he was killed in action on April 24, 1915, and his name is among the 54,400 on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial to the Missing.
A few entries above Hilleard in Wisden 1916 lies an obituary for Captain C. B. Hayes. But, as the Almanack explained a year later, he "was not the Campbell College cricketer of the same name". In fact, Charles Bianconi Hayes, who died at Gallipoli, was aged 43 and so could not have been the C. B. Hayes who appeared in the batting and bowling averages for the college for 1911 and 1912. The college student was Charles Berry Hayes who, after serving as a gunner during the war, became a solicitor and died in 1948, aged 54.
Another case of mistaken identity has remained buried in the pages of Wisden for almost 100 years. Lt C. G. Clarke, listed as having died in October 1915, was recorded as being "in the Bradfield Eleven in 1914, when he scored 27 runs in three innings". But the schoolboy Christopher Garrard Clarke continued to appear in the Bradfield averages for 1915 and 1916, when he left to join the navy. In 1925, at the age of 26, he died of illness, unremarked by Wisden. Coincidentally, the Cyril George Clarke who had been killed in 1916 was also 26.
The proofreaders did not pick up two similar entries for Lt-Col Frederick Robson in Wisden 1919, perhaps because the first entry wrongly gave his name as Frank. In the same volume, Percy Bryden Watt also has two obituaries, while Reginald Gregory appeared in the 1919 and 1920 Almanacks. A total of 289 first-class cricketers are listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's roll of honour. Of these, 89 did not receive a Wisden obituary. Many had played only once or twice, in countries largely beyond Wisden's horizons at that time. Among them are Claude Newberry, who appeared in four Tests for South Africa against England in 1913-14; Tony Wilding, a New Zealander better known as a four-time Wimbledon champion; Leonard Sutton, who played 17 matches for Somerset; Norman Callaway, who scored 207 in his only innings, for New South Wales; and Hampshire's Harold Forster, the recipient of more medals for gallantry than any other county cricketer.