Cecil Halliday Abercrombie – a promising career cut tragically short by war
Tuesday 31st May marks the 100th Anniversary of the largest sea battle of World War One – the Battle of Jutland. During the engagement more than six thousand British sailors lost their lives, including the former Lymington cricketer Cecil Halliday Abercrombie who played for the club during the 1906 and 1907 seasons. Lieut Abercrombie would go on to star for Hampshire as well as represent Scotland at rugby union and still holds two significant records in Hampshire cricket history. Firstly, he was the first of six men to score a century on debut for Hampshire when, against Oxford University at Southampton in 1913, he scored 126. Later in the summer, in his fourth Championship match, versus Essex at Leyton, he came in for the second innings with Hampshire, following on, 186-5 and still more than 100 behind. He scored 165 sharing a seventh wicket partnership with George Brown which remains a Hampshire record of 325. It saved the game.
How and why the 20 year old Abercrombie came to play for Lymington is unknown. However, we do know that he enjoyed a pretty successful season for the club in 1906, taking part in around a half of the club’s fixtures, boosting an already powerful Lymington side which included local cricketing luminaries such as HC Heppenstall, Dr Hill, Sam Hooton, Charlie Down and WR Beesley. Abercrombie’s stunning bowling performances in 1906 included 9-39 against French touring side Stade Francais at the Sports Ground and 8-84 against Trojans at the County Ground. There were also five wicket hauls against Ringwood, New Milton and King’s Park. Abercrombie averaged 33.8 runs with the bat with a top score of 94 in the Stade Francais fixture, and he later scored a half century for Lymington at the County Ground against a Deanery side who lost just two matches during 1906. Perhaps it was the two performances against Trojans and Deanery at Hampshire’s Northlands Road headquarters which made the county selectors take note for future reference.
Abercrombie came to first class cricket relatively late because he was a serving officer in the Royal Navy. His time at Portsmouth allowed him to be picked up by Hampshire, although he had already made a name for himself on the rugby field, playing for Scotland on six occasions between 1910 and 1913. He played in the pack, scoring a try in a narrow 16-15 French victory at the Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir in the Five Nations match in 1911. Abercrombie played his last international match against the legendary Welsh pack, the so-called “Terrible Eight”.
The powerful physique which made Abercrombie a force on the rugby field also helped him forge a reputation as a big hitter on the cricket pitch too. He once landed a six on the player’s balcony at Lord’s, a feat which would be seen as pretty remarkable today, let alone a century ago when bats were much lighter. In 14 matches in 1913 Abercrombie was just short of 1,000 runs with three centuries and he received his county cap. Sadly, 1913 would prove to be his only full season for Hampshire.
After the declaration of war in late summer 1914, Abercrombie’s ship HMS Defence joined the main fleet at Scapa Flow. In the decade leading up to the outbreak of war the British and German governments had built up the most powerful fleets the world had ever seen, with both sides boasting many of the heavily armed new dreadnoughts. However, the German High Seas Fleet was fewer in ships and consequently their tactics were to ‘pick off’ their Royal Navy opponents in small scale engagements rather than risk all in a major battle. Their use of U-boats was a particular problem for the British, who were also reticent about committing their entire fleet. However, in late May 1916 the new German fleet commander Reinhard Scheer, believing his ships and men to be superior to the British, decided it was time to go on the offensive and the High Seas Fleet finally ventured into the North Sea from its base at Wilhelmshaven. Off the coast of Jutland in the North Sea the two fleets finally met. Defence was escorting the main body of the Grand Fleet. Rear Admiral Sir R K Arbuthnot, in charge of Defence, reportedly made a foolhardy run towards the German fleet and attempted to engage a disabled German light cruiser. The ship was quickly under heavy fire from a German battlecruiser and four dreadnoughts and was struck by two salvoes which detonated her rear magazine. The fire from that explosion spread to the ship’s secondary magazines, which exploded in turn. A German officer watched the engagement and described a series of hits on Defence, followed by a massive explosion. “We could see no sign of a ship at all – Defence had gone,” he said. Subsequent investigations showed that the explosion was probably caused by the supplies of cordite stacked up near the guns, rather than in sealed compartments, to speed up firing rates in combat. The result was that Abercrombie and all his colleagues were killed in that one cataclysmic moment.
Had the war not intervened, who knows what heights Abercrombie’s cricket career might have reached. Had he continued his prolific form of 1913 he may well have joined that exclusive club of ‘dual internationals’ who have played two sports at international level. As far as we are aware, he is the only rugby international to have played cricket for Lymington, and even though he only spent a couple of seasons with the club he must surely be ranked as one of the most talented all-rounders in its history.
Cecil Abercrombie’s name appears on the National Naval Memorial on Southsea seafront and also on the honours plaque at Murrayfield in Edinburgh.
Thanks to Hampshire CCC archivist Dave Allen and author Peter Jones for much of the information in this article. Peter Jones’s book on Hampshire Cricketers in WW1, ‘A Torch in Flame’, was published by Natula in the summer of 2014.