The extraordinary Edgar Mobbs - rugby star and leader of men

Edgar Mobbs was devastated - the charismatic England rugby star had been turned down for a commission because he was too old at 32. But Mobbs had other ideas. He enlisted as a private soldier and issued a rallying cry to the crowd after a game at Northampton. It was the beginning of the extraordinary infantry company known as Mobbs Own.

Mobbs, in a straw boater, asked the Franklin Gardens crowd to join him at a recruiting office the next Monday. More than 400 men turned up and 264 of them were passed fit for service. Mobbs, a car salesman with no military experience, would rise to lieutenant colonel and become a genuine Boy’s Own hero, giving an interview to the magazine. He was also mentioned in dispatches, won the DSO and was wounded three times before losing his life leading an attack on a machine gun at Passchendaele.

First ever England try against Wallabies

Son of a car salesman and the third of six children, Edgar Roberts Mobbs was born in Northampton in 1882 and grew up in Olney, Bucks. At Bedford Modern School he excelled at sport and played rugby for Olney, Weston Turks and Northampton Heathens. In 1905, he joined Northampton Rugby Union Football Club, now Northampton Saints of the Premiership. Mobbs was 6ft 1ins, fast and had a famous hand­off; as his wartime fame spread, postcard cartoons portrayed him handing off the Germans.

He captained Northampton from 1906 to 1913, scoring 177 tries. In January 1909, on his England debut, he scored the first ever try by an Englishman against Australia. He went on to earn seven caps and played for Toulouse before retiring from rugby in 1913. Mobbs followed his father into car sales and in 1914 was manager of the Pytchley Auto Car Company, Market Harborough.

Wounded as battalion lost half its men

The men of Mobbs Own formed D Company of the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, with their creator quickly moving up the ranks as sergeant, sergeant major and captain. Arriving in France in September 1915, they saw fierce hand-to-hand bayonet combat with Prussian guards at Loos. Leading his men on several charges, Mobbs escaped unscathed, although his uniform was torn to shreds by shell blasts and wire. The battalion lost nearly half its men; killed or wounded.

After a spell of leave, Mobbs returned to France in early 1916, promoted to major and then lieutenant colonel commanding the 7th battalion. An hour into an afternoon attack at Guillemont on the Somme on 18 August, Mobbs was hit in the ribs by a shell splinter and, doubled up in pain, reluctantly retired to a first aid post. More than 350 of his men were killed, missing or wounded. The attacks at Guillemont also claimed the lives of footballers Oscar Linkson, Allen Foster, William Gerrish and George Scott of the 1st Football Battalion, the 17th Middlesex. England rugby stars John King and Lancelot Slocock also died, fighting with the Liverpool Scottish.

The next month, a football match was held to mark Mobbs’s return to action. Already mentioned twice in dispatches for his exploits at the Somme, he was awarded the DSO in the New Year’s Honours of 1917.

For God’s sake sir, get down!

Mobbs was wounded again at Arras and in June 1917 was sent back to England after being hit yet again at Messines. The war was taking its toll and he was physically weaker and less confident. While convalescing, he surprised family by saying that he thought he would not survive the war.

His fears were justified. On July 31, Zero Hour 03:50, the 7th attacked Ypres Salient at Zillebeke, Passchendaele. A German machine gun at Lower Star Post was cutting apart 35­ year-old Mobbs’s men from the flank, so he decided to take it out.

Battalion commanders almost never took part in such dangerous missions and fellow officers begged Mobbs not to lead the assault. But he was determined and charged out with his men into withering fire. One of his 2nd Lieutenants shouted: “For God’s sake sir, get down!” but Mobbs was hit and fell wounded into a shell hole.

His body was lost but his memory lived on

2nd Lieutenant Spencer, who had been at school with Mobbs, later wrote: “I was perhaps one of the last to speak to Mobbs and we talked about Bedford. In the tornado of shelling he got ahead and seeing a number of his men cut down charged it to bomb it – and he went down. For a man of his standing and rank it was magnificent... I saw the old three-quarter in his own 25 yards get the ball from a crumpled scrum and get clean through and on. One of England's finest rugby players, in the greatest game man can play.”

Mobbs’s body was never found and his name is among the 54,000 on the Menin Gate at Ypres. Of more than 400 men who served in the Mobbs Own D Company, only 85 came through the war unscathed.

The battalion history says: “The fact that his body could not be recovered and buried, as all ranks would have wished, was perhaps a good thing, as it helped keep alive his memory in the battalion, and inspired in everyone the resolve to avenge his death and to end the war that had already caused so much misery and suffering.”

More than £2,000 was raised in an appeal to commemorate Mobbs. His bust is on a memorial in Abington Square, Northampton and from 1921 to 2011 the Barbarians played at Northampton in the Mobbs Memorial Match. In 2006, a new link road to the A45 was named Edgar Mobbs Way.

Josh Lewsey Remembers Edgar Mobbs

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to Lieutenant Colonel Edgar Mobbs or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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