Army-Navy match balls tour Gallipoli's fields of honour to raise money for veterans

The balls being used at this year’s Army-Navy rugby clash have been on a pilgrimage to the Gallipoli battlefields ahead of being kicked at Twickenham on May 5.

Naval officer Lt Cdr Michael ‘Doc’ Cox and three soldiers – WO2 Adam Finch, Capt Hugo Engelbrecht and Sgt Sid Ney – carried the balls during a day-long trek around the Turkish peninsula, which was soaked with British and Commonwealth blood during the ill-fated campaign of 1915-16.

The Gallipoli Gallop set out to honour the dead of the Dardanelles, raise money for the Royal British Legion and remind today’s generation of the sacrifices sportsmen made in the Great War: 17 Commonwealth International rugby players died in Gallipoli alone and 106 during the entire conflict, including seven of England’s 1914 Grand Slam-winning side.

One hundred and two years after the guns fell silent in Gallipoli, Doc and his comrades from NATO Land Command in Turkey set off with the sun rising over what was V Beach in 1915.

From there they continued west and then north around the peninsula, completing their trek at 7th Field Ambulance Cemetery near Suvla Bay.

The 34-kilometre (21-mile) trek over the challenging terrain of the peninsula via 14 Commonwealth War Graves sites – including the imposing Helles Memorial, Lancashire Landing Cemetery and the ANZAC monument to Australian and New Zealand troops – took them just short of eight hours (ten minutes was spent at each cemetery laying RBL crosses) in temperatures reaching 26˚C.

The whole occasion was possibly the most humbling experience of my life. Getting prepared to walk as the sun is coming up with birds twittering away and the wash of the shore was amazing, and one that will stay with the team for a very long time.

Lt Cdr Michael ‘Doc’ Cox

Now the trek is over, Doc will return to the UK to present the balls to match officials in front of the 80,000-strong sell-out crowd at Twickenham; the match balls will also be used in the subsequent clashes between the UK’s combined Armed Forces team and Oxford and Cambridge universities.

“As the centenary of the Great War is coming to an end, we tend to forget those that fought out here,” said Doc. “Recently I spent a weekend cycling the war graves and was truly humbled at the loss of life during the campaign.

“The whole occasion was possibly the most humbling experience of my life. Getting prepared to walk as the sun is coming up with birds twittering away and the wash of the shore was amazing, and one that will stay with the team for a very long time.

“I carried both balls in my rucksack the whole way around the walk and it’s only after returning to Izmir that the enormity of the event really has hit home of what we did and why we did it: remembering the past, supporting the future.”

Doc was partly inspired by the fate of a player he used to coach when head of the U23 team, Mne Aaron Moon, whose rugby career was cut short by life-changing injuries suffered on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“The RBL provided help and support to him and his family during the initial dark days of his story, after which he has proven to be one of life’s amazing, inspirational and courageous people,” said Doc.

“He’s now looking to become the first amputee professional golfer in the UK.

“For me, remembrance is not about one day of the year, it’s everyday.”

Doc and his colleagues have set a £2,000 target and are nearly two thirds of the way there. You can support their efforts at: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Team/GallipoliGallop20172018