Reg Little tells the story of Ronald Poulton Palmer, one of the rugby greats of his day

There is no video footage of Ronald Poulton Palmer tearing through the French defence in his distinctive running style, nor YouTube clips of his exploits on the rugby pitch, that led many fans to judge him the best rugby player they had ever seen.

Those who wish to remember the record try-scoring England captain have to seek out a quiet corner of Holywell Cemetery in Oxford, and a wooden cross mounted into a wall.

The cross was brought to Oxford, where Ronald’s father was a university professor, from Flanders, where it had originally marked the grave of a sporting star, who was to die a war hero in 1915.

For, just a year after captaining England through an unbeaten Five Nations campaign in 1914, the last before the First World War began, he was killed by a sniper when standing on top of a dug-out and directing a working party near Ploegsteert, in Belgium.

It would be no exaggeration to regard him as a superstar of his day, not least because of his astonishing scoring record.

In 17 appearances for England between 1909 and 1914 he amassed 28 points.

In the last international before the First World War he set a record of try-scoring in a Test match, crossing the line four times against France.

The record was only equalled in 2011 by Chris Ashton.

His record of five tries in a Varsity Match, playing for Oxford in 1909, remains unequalled.

Some would always maintain that he had been deliberately targeted by the Germans, on the basis that with one bullet they could inflict heavy damage on the morale of the British forces.

Ronald’s death certainly caused an outpouring of grief among the men in the trenches and beyond.

The presence in their midst of a celebrity sportsman had been a source of huge pride to the units around Ploegsteer Wood in the spring of 1915.

Only three weeks before his death, Lieutenant Poulton Palmer, in a behind-the-lines break from trench duties, had steered a South Midlands Division XV to a 17-0 win over the 4th Division in a match refereed by Ireland international Basil Maclear.

Among those to have worked hard to keep Ronald’s memory alive is the economist and broadcaster Peter Jay, who lives in Woodstock.

Ronald was Mr Jay’s great-uncle.

Mr Jay, the former British Ambassador to the US, is now among those demanding that the peace of the cemetery is preserved, in the face of plans to build new student blocks nearby.

Merton College and McLaren Property upset heritage groups by setting out proposals to develop accommodation for 294 students in Manor Place.

He said: “People greatly value the peace and quiet of this spot. The thought of major building work just a few feet on the other side of the wall is very worrying.

“I am not saying any development should be stopped. It is Merton College land. But it should be done with sensitivity and respect.”

Last year Mr Jay edited a book, Our Island Story, a family history which put the great sportsman at the heart of the story.

Clearly too young to have met him, Mr Jay was nevertheless aware of the sporting colossus who had died on May 5, 1915, aged just 25.

“He was celebrated for having a magical swerve, that made him extraordinarily elusive,” said Mr Jay.

The rugby international’s father, Edward Poulton, was Hope Professor of Zoology, a Fellow at Jesus College and a considerable figure at Oxford.

“I remember visiting Edward when I was six at the family home. They lived at Wykeham House, 56 Banbury Road, where Ronald was born and brought up. It was an extraordinary house to have as a private dwelling.”

It was certainly to be a privileged upbringing, with the Poulton household comprising six servants. According to family legend, the famous swerve was developed playing hide and seek during visits to the family’s holiday home on the Isle of Wight.

From 1894, at the age of five, Ronald attended Miss Cobb’s and Miss Leather’s kindergarten in Polstead Road, three years later entering The Oxford Preparatory School, or The Dragon, as it is known today.

His promise as a great all-round athlete was shown at a young age. School records show him winning the 100 yards, high jump and gaining colours in cricket and football.

In a keenly anticipated rugby match away to St Edward’s Juniors he scored 15 tries in a 91-3 thrashing.

Fittingly, in 1903, he went to Rugby School, where in 1823 a lad called William Webb Ellis first ran with the ball and invented the game of rugby football.

It is a measure of Ronald’s impact there, that when he left the school, town citizens gave him a thank-you gift for the wonderful entertainment he had provided them in games on The Close, the scgool ground.

At Rugby he was a contemporary of the poet Rupert Brooke. These two famous Rugbeians were to fall within a fortnight of each other and the school would hold a joint memorial service for them in the school chapel.

Rarely had a first-year student been so eagerly awaited at Oxford as Ronald Poulton Palmer, who arrived in 1907 to read science engineering.

He was selected as a three-quarter for England in 1909, aged 20, even before winning an Oxford Blue.

His readiness as a centre to try the unthinkable, slipping through gaps with deceptive pace made him a favourite with crowds.

“Swerving and Poulton are almost synonymous terms” one sportswriter reported in Modern Rugby Football.

Two years before the outbreak of war he joined the 4th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment as 2nd Lieutenant, becoming Lieutenant in 1913.

Ronald was to be the second soldier of the 4th Royal Berkshires to be killed in the war.

Just eight days earlier the first, a 17-year-old private named Frederick Giles, also a sniper victim, had fallen, dying, into Ronald’s arms.

By Armistice Day the Royal Berkshire Regiment had lost more than 300 officers and 6,000 other ranks.

On its way to the Nunnery field ambulance, Ronald’s body passed through the lines of the 7th Warwicks, from where Sergeant A.C. Tomlinson wrote home: “You have no doubt heard of the death of Poulton Palmer. I can tell you it cast a gloom over the whole division.

“In our company he was looked upon as a personal friend and I think he was known by every man in the British Army. It cut me up terribly, the more so as he was carried through our lines.”

A memorial service was held at a packed St Giles’ Church in Oxford, just yards from the Poultons’ home.

Ronald’s biographer, James Corson, believes it was not just his ability as a rugby player that made him such a sporting hero.

“Besides his play upon the field, the public were drawn to him both by the glamour of his looks and his manner: even amidst the tension and pressure of a closely-fought match he always gave the impression of being relaxed, at ease and enjoying himself, almost as if he was fearless and confident that his instinctive skills would see him through.”

The Scottish international fly half George Cunningham, Ronald’s captain in the 1909 Oxford team, writing after receiving news of his old team-mate’s death, recorded: “He ran, as everyone remembers, with a curiously even, yet high-stepping motion, his head thrown back, the ball held in front at full arms’ length.

“Invariably cheerful, seldom without a beaming smile on his face, he was a welcome companion on the football field and everywhere else.”

Ronald lies below a simple white gravestone in the small, immaculate Hyde Park Corner cemetery in the village of Ploegsteert.

The original cross is now in the Poulton Corner of Holywell cemetery, where his parents, brother, sisters and nephew are also remembered.