Military history with the FT: Lewis Moody

Most international rugby players prepare for battle by listening to thumping music or making guttural war cries in the changing room, but former England rugby captain Lewis Moody maintained a more erudite approach. Before each game, Moody would harness emotions, strategies and inspirations drawn from a lifelong fascination with military history in order to quietly condition his mind for the contest ahead. It’s a surprising tactic for a player nicknamed “Mad Dog” and revered for his almost reckless commitment to the cause – a zeal that resulted in multiple injuries and his retirement in March. But Moody’s private studies fuelled his notorious on-field fire.

To discuss his passion for military history I’ve invited him to the Churchill War Rooms museum – the immaculately preserved subterranean headquarters of Britain’s war cabinet during the second world war, located in Westminster beneath the modern Treasury. Moody has travelled from Bath where he lives with his wife, Annie, and two sons, Dylan and Ethan. During his career, he earned 71 international caps for England, lifted the Rugby World Cup in 2003 and played 223 times for Leicester Tigers, with whom he won seven Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups, before joining Bath in 2010. But when Moody wasn’t clattering 18-stone rivals, he was wrestling with the weighty tomes of historians Antony Beevor, Richard Holmes and Max Arthur.

In these narrow corridors Moody’s 6ft3in frame seems at odds with his hushed voice and quiet manners. He is mesmerised by the Map Room, which has been left as it was when the lights were turned off on August 16 1945: it houses charts marked by thousands of pins used to trace the movement of convoys, dusty piles of “Most Secret” documents and boxes of precious rationed sugar cubes. Above all, he admires how the museum’s celebration of mundane detail humanises the lionised figure of Churchill. In the War Cabinet Room the armrests of Churchill’s wooden chair are scarred by scratch marks made by the prime minister’s fingernails. “The reason I’ve devoted so much time to exploring military history is because I am fascinated by how human beings deal with adversity,” he explains. “It’s really the human story that interests me. Here you get a sense of the man and his emotions. Those marks just show how much pressure Churchill was under but he somehow mastered it.”

Born in Ascot and educated at Oakham School in Rutland, Moody had a childhood fascination with Indiana Jones, archaeology and Egyptology, which was later his specialist subject during a faux-Mastermind contest at Leicester Tigers. “Half the team thought I was being ironic as I’m not renowned for my intelligence, but I beat all of them,” he laughs. However, it is military history, ranging from the first and second world wars to more recent conflicts in Vietnam and the Falklands, that he finds most compelling.

Moody has read widely in his field, but the connecting thread is his preoccupation with the human stories of war. He appreciates the individual experiences chronicled in Richard Holmes’ Acts of War: The Behaviour of Men in Battle and the respect for war’s impact on lives evident in Max Hastings’ second world war study All Hell Let Loose and Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad. He relishes first-person accounts, such as the gritty first world war memoir Somme Mud by Edward Francis Lynch and Max Arthur’s haunting interviews with first world war veterans in Last Post. He has also sought out memoirs from the Pacific, including Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow and Eugene Sledge’s With The Old Breed, and accounts from Vietnam, such as Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk. During our visit he also quotes lines from the war poems “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae and Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”.

“I have battled with these military accounts all my life because I cannot comprehend them,” he says, referring to the very enormity of war. “But I took a lot from military history when I was preparing for games, learning how soldiers survived from day to day, minute to minute, knowing that with any footstep their life could end. We had nerves before games, but for soldiers it’s about staying alive. It filled my time, much to my wife’s dismay. When I was injured I would lie on the couch with my leg up, reading We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young or watching the History Channel.”

Moody harnessed his military studies, as well as personal conversations with soldiers at charity dinners, to cope with difficult times, from reigniting dwindling motivation to dealing with ulcerative colitis – a debilitating bowel condition that has hampered him since 2005. “You can never compare war to sport, but I always learn something from soldiers in terms of how they deal with nerves, control their emotions, overcome hardship or just keep perspective in life.”

Models of the officers who managed the Map Room

In Somme Mud, Lynch writes that men enlisted not out of “love of country” but “because our mates did”. There are echoes of this sentiment when I ask Moody about his sense of patriotism when playing for England. His answer is surprising: “Your only sense of duty is to your teammates. There is always that perception of duty to your country, but never to the same degree as to the mates standing next to you.”

Moody’s great-grandfather and namesake, Lewis W. Moody, fought with the Royal Sussex infantry during the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. “One day my dad said, ‘I want to give you this’. He opened up his wallet and pulled out my great-grandfather’s first world war 1914 Star medal. It meant a huge deal to me because it had my name on it. I later used his Star medal as a way of getting ready for rugby games, just holding it and trying to imagine what he went through.” With the help of battlefield historian Paul Garlington he has been researching his great-grandfather’s movements.

Moody had planned to join the army when he left school, but he is thankful that rugby turned professional around that time so he could forge a career with the game. His family history inevitably contributed to his on-field passion: “I always felt a need to live up to my namesake and to not let my family down.”

Even in retirement, Moody is still seeking honourable pursuits: in February 2013 he is undertaking a 300-mile trek across the frozen Yukon, in aid of the charity HopeHIV. And he continues to look to the military for inspiration in his post-playing life. “As a rugby player for 20 years your life is completely organised and then it just stops. It’s hard. I took advice from soldiers I met when I attended a charity dinner for injured Marines who struggled when they came back from service. Finding a new life in your early thirties isn’t easy but in comparison to them I know I’m the lucky one.”

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