Throughout the First World War rugby players from all nations and of all levels distinguished themselves by their bravery and conduct. In 1915 the British War Office produced a poster imploring other sports to following the ‘glorious example’ of rugby players by ‘doing their duty’ and enlisting with the armed forces. But that was just the start of the story.
From the Battle of Mons onwards these men were involved in every engagement on land, sea and the in the air. The distinctions came immediately with Irish-born England international George Dobbs being awarded the French Legion d’Honneur after he personally facilitated the retreat at Mons.
Days later Frenchman Alfred Mayssonnié became the first international rugby player to lose his life to the conflict, falling at the Battle of the Marne in helping to ensure that Paris and France would not be overrun. Before the year was out four further French players were lost, along with four Scottish internationals and three English.
As trench warfare took hold in 1915 the snipers took their toll. England captain Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, the outstanding talent of his generation, was shot and killed in May. A month earlier he had shared a rugby field with Irish international Basil MacLear who himself was killed before May was out.
On the other side of Europe the Gallipoli Campaign waged for almost a year. Australian internationals Teddy Larkin and Blair Inksip Swannell were killed on the first day of the landings at what is now known as Anzac Cove. Three months later New Zealand internationals Albert Downing and Henry Dewar were killed on the outskirts of Suvla Bay.
In the spring of 1916 it was the turn of the naval enlists. The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval engagement in human history. Scores of rugby players were involved. England international Sydney Coopper’s ship was sunk but he survived. Scotland’s Cecil Abercrombie remained at his post, firing his gun aboard HMS Defence to the last even as his ship slipped beneath the waves. He and fellow Scot, John Wilson, among those who did not return.
Then came the horrors of the Somme. Toby Moll and the South African Brigade made their stand at Delville Wood, just as the 38th Welsh Division, which included Welsh internationals Johnnie Williams and Dick Thomas, did at Mametz Wood. None returned.
Edgar Mobbs, initially refused enlistment on account of his age, had returned to the recruitment office in 1914 with a self-raised battalion of 264 men. He subsequently fought at Loos, Arras and the Somme. He was twice mentioned in despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1917. He was wounded three times but made a habit of remaining at his post. He was shot through the neck and killed on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as Passchendaele.
In the final year of the war, in the midst of the German Spring Offensive, England’s Arthur Harrison volunteered for a mission from which he understood he may not return. The Zeebrugge Raid was an audacious attempt to scuttle three ships in the mouth of the Bruges Canal to prevent the launch of German U-Boats that were wreaking havoc on British shipping. Harrison’s role was to create a diversion. Under the cover of smoke he was to land a small platoon on the Mole pier before launching a frontal assault on an enemy emplacement that included twelve seaward guns, two anti-aircraft guns, a machine gun nest and 1000 troops.
As it transpired the smoke lifted and Harrison was shot through the jaw before his ship had even made contact with the pier. Quickly regaining consciousness and in spite of the severity of his wounds he led his men on their fatal charge. He was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery.
Since 2014 the World Rugby Museum has marked the centenary of the passing of each and every one of the 131 international rugby players who lost their lives to this conflict. In the aftermath of war, memorials were created to pay tribute to all those who served and died. Former England international Bob Oakes remembered his fallen team mates and rivals by writing his book ‘In Memoriam’. In it he wrote, ‘…the most exacting, trying and awful conditions man has ever been called upon to face and endure. We now know how splendidly the Rugby Footballer, in common with every British soldier, fought – aye, and how magnificently he died’. One hundred years on, we still know.
The World Rugby Museum is extremely grateful to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth for allowing Arthur Harrison’s Victoria Cross to be displayed in our Wartime Gallery. Symbolic of rugby’s contribution to the Great War it will be on display throughout the period of commemoration in which we mark 100 years since the conflict’s end.
About the Author – Phil McGowan is Curator at the World Rugby Museum. This article is sourced from his book ‘Doing Their Duty: How England’s Rugby Players Helped Win the First World War’.