[First published 14 March 2022—Updated 25 March 2023]
Last week the Six Nations Rugby tournament finished. Ireland won the tournament and the grand slam. The previous champion France came second.
I came across a story of a former French Rugby player, I am surprised that so little is known about him.
Allan Muhr was murdered on December 29 1944, he was starved to death at Neuengamme Concentration Camp near Hamburg.
Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Philadelphia in 1882, Allan, who had recently come of age, travelled on his own to France around the turn of the century. “Allan Muhr planned to fully devote himself to sport in Europe,” explains Fréderic Humbert, an expert in rugby history and the curator of the World Rugby Museum who has researched what happened to Allan Muhr. “He could afford to do that as he lived off his family’s assets and never needed to work. Sport, therefore, became the central element in his life.”
He appears in the 1900 US Census but made a rapid impact on his adopted homeland.
A profile written in 1907 recorded that the newly arrived Muhr enrolled at the prestigious Lycee Janson—taking elementary French classes—purely for the purpose to play rugby, but injured his shoulder during his first match. Despite this setback, he was rapidly a force at Racing Club, playing second row or prop and earning the nickname “The Sioux” for his origins and distinctive profile.
Evidently, he had the time and money necessary to devote himself to a range of sporting activities. While his professions are listed as translation and sporting journalism, he does not appear to have been encumbered by the pressing need to earn a living. That 1907 profile reported that “He amazes us because he is not the slave of any bureau chief or other boss or editor, still less of the rulers of the USFSA (the French sporting authorities of the time). He does what he pleases when he pleases.”
At the same time, the profile noted, he was “a slave to his passion for rugby,”, besides which his enthusiasms for motoring and tennis were mere pastimes. That passion was rewarded when he was chosen for France’s first-ever test match—against the All Blacks on New Year’s Day 1906. Muhr appears at the back of the French team picture, a skull-capped figure alongside touch judge Cyril Rutherford, the Scot who played such a huge part in the early development of French rugby.
At the same time, Allan was a successful tennis player – even participating in the French championships in 1909. In February 1913, he was an active founding member of the International Tennis Association in London. He also took part in car racing as an amateur and played in a Parisian soccer club. Allan even attempted to establish baseball in France, but this was unsuccessful.
Playing second-row alongside the French Guyanese Georges Jerome, one of two black players in the team, Muhr did well enough in the 38–8 defeat to retain his place for France’s first-ever match against England, on March 22 that year. France lost again, 35–8, but Muhr claimed France’s first try against the old enemy, crossing after brilliant work by Stade Francais centre Pierre Maclos.
During World War I, Allan led a voluntary unit of ambulance drivers who transported the wounded soldiers from the front to the American Ambulance Hospital, which had been founded by Americans in Paris when the war broke out. When the USA entered the war in 1917, this organization was integrated into the US Army, and so Allan also became an officer in the American armed forces.
In 1920, Allan ended his career as an active sportsman and dedicated himself to organizing international competitions and developing the French teams in rugby and tennis. He became the vice chairman of the first European Omni Sports Club, Racing Club de France, and captain of the French “Davis Cup” tennis team, which led to international success. He also managed the rugby department of the Racing Club and selected the players for the French national rugby team. When the Olympic Games were hosted in France in 1924, Allan was responsible for organizing the competition and conducting international negotiations.
When war came again in 1939, Muhr reprised his volunteer role with the Red Cross. He was 57 at the time and was married to his Belgian wife, Madeleine Braet.
After the USA entered the war in 1941, he had to go underground to flee from the German occupying forces. He took his son. Philippe with him. Together with other US citizens and members of the French Resistance, they stayed in Sayat, a small village in the Auvergne, for a year before being captured by the Nazis on 21 November 1943. They were taken to the camp at Compiegne where they were interrogated. Allan and Philippe were deported to the Neuengamme in May 1944, where Allan had been starved to death, and died on 29 December 1944. His son Philippe survived the war.
Allan’s services to France were not forgotten. After the war, he received a posthumous award of the Legion d’Honneur—the least he merited for a life which, while it ended under unspeakably grim circumstances, was one of the most varied and eventful in rugby’s annals.
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