The Legendary All Blacks Captain Who Served at Passchendaele

Dave Gallaher was a national hero when he went to war. He had captained the legendary All Blacks side of 1905-06 on its tour of Britain. A hard-as-nails sergeant with a quiet nature, he inspired fear, respect, and in some quarters, a little loathing. They were attributes he would take to the battlefield at Passchendaele.

Dave’s start in life was as tough as he was to become. Born in 1873 in Ramelton, Co Donegal, he was five when his parents, a shopkeeper and a teacher, took the family to New Zealand. With nine brothers and sisters, the Gallahers struggled on a small farm in a community of Northern Irish immigrants in the Bay of Plenty.

Dave Gallaher
Dave Gallaher. Credit: Photographer: Herman Schmidt – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

After they moved to Auckland, 6ft 13st Dave proved a natural at rugby, playing 26 times for the city’s team. In January 1901 he served for 18 months in the Boer war, removing three years from his age to join the 10th New Zealand Mounted Rifles.

The experience gave Dave the discipline required of a top rugby player. He was nearly 32 on his international call-up, playing in the first match between Australia and New Zealand, a 22-3 win for the Kiwis. In their isolation the All Blacks had developed a unique style of rugby; intense fitness training, set plays, dummy passes, codes for moves, and, for the first time, wing-forwards. Gallaher was called The Rover – the first modern, mobile flanker.

He told his players: “Give nothing away, take no chance.” But his tough methods did not endear him to all of his team.

On the 1905 voyage to Europe, in a vote on whether he should continue as captain, 11 of the 29-strong squad went against him. All was forgotten on the tour. The All Blacks stunned the superpowers of England, Scotland, Ireland and France, losing only once – to Wales – in 34 games, scoring 976 points and conceding just 59.

Dave was the most controversial sportsmen of his time, pilloried by the British press who considered his side’s brand of rugby unfair. But the team, since christened ‘The Originals’, was welcomed home to New Zealand in triumph. A nation of less than a million people had established itself as a world sporting power.

Dave, who worked as a foreman at meat processors the Auckland Farmers’ Freezing Company, carried on in rugby as a selector and coach. He married the sister of a fellow All Black and in 1908 had a daughter.

Despite being too old, he enlisted in May 1916. He was a few weeks short of his 44th birthday when, on 4 October 1917, he led his men as a sergeant in 2 Battalion Auckland Infantry Regiment in an attack at Gravenstafel Spur. He was hit in the face and died later that day at No 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station.

Next to Dave, a priest was giving the last rites to another soldier and told him: “Do you know who that is on the next table?”. The man said no. “That is Dave Gallaher, captain of the 1905 All Blacks.”

Dave, who is buried at Nine Elms, Poperinge, was among 13 All Blacks killed in the war, including four in a fortnight in June 1917. He was the third Gallaher brother killed on the Western front; another brother was badly wounded at Gallipoli.

The Sportsman newspaper reported: “Gallaher was a veritable artist, who never deserved all the hard things said about him. A great player, a great judge of the game”. In 2015, Dave’s 1905 All Blacks strip sold for £180,000 at auction.

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