The Man United star who was never seen again

Oscar Linkson’s mother refused to accept he had been killed on the Somme. Rebecca Linkson, who had already lost four sons, chose to believe the title-winning Manchester United player had run away to escape an unhappy marriage to the 16-year-old granddaughter of a famous Victorian actress.

Rebecca’s was an unlikely theory, especially for the soldiers who had experienced the terrifying attack that cost 28-year-old Linkson his life. Of the 300 or so men of the 1st Football Battalion who charged at ZZ Trench on August 8, 1916, 45 went missing, 115 came back wounded and 38 did not come back at all.

Spotted on tour with the Pirates

Born in 1888 in New Barnet, Herts, one of nine children, Linkson worked as a decorator like his father. Three brothers and a sister had died as children and another brother, Sidney, died in 1901 from an illness after he fought in the Boer War. As well as decorating, the family had a business making and selling wardrobes.

Linkson was a good left-back, playing for Barnet Alston, later Barnet FC, a team at the dental factory where two of his three surviving sisters worked. On a tour in Europe with amateur side Pirates FC he was spotted by scouts from Manchester United and snapped up.

He played 59 games between 1908 and 1913, helping United to their first FA Cup in 1909 and their second league title in 1911.

Went on playing with a broken jaw

The Athletic News called him “a nicely built lad, nimble on his feet, and kicks well and has the makings of a fine back”. He was tough, too; one match report told how he broke his jaw in the first half but carried on.

In 1912, Linkson married his sweetheart Olive Fenton, just 17 days after her 16th birthday. Olive was the granddaughter of Kate Hodson, an actress who trained Lillie Langtry, mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. The next year Linkson signed for Dublin’s Shelbourne FC, helping them to two cups.

‘The physical strain has been very great’

He and the 17th Middlesex were worn out and emotionally fragile after seeing their first serious fighting and heavy losses at Delville Wood. But just a few days later they had been tasked with helping to capture the village of Guillemont. The 6th Brigade commander wrote to 2nd Division HQ with his misgivings:

“I hope no misinterpretation will be placed on this report. I merely wish to bring existing facts to notice. The fighting spirit of the Brigade is entirely undiminished but numbers are reduced... An attack undertaken now is, with all the will in the world, a different proposition to what it would have been a week ago with all battalions intact. The physical strain of the last six days holding Delville Wood has been very great and there is no use blinking one’s eyes to the fact.”

Brigadier General Arthur Daly’s plea changed nothing.

Along with battalions from Liverpool and Yorkshire, the 17th were up against it. Two previous attempts to grab Guillemont had failed and the 27th Division they faced was heavily fortified and one of the best German units on the front.

There was hand-to-hand fighting in the dawn attack as the 17th Middlesex also came under withering artillery fire, the lack of action elsewhere allowing German guns to concentrate on Guillemont.

Great-­granddaughter retraced his last steps

The battalion managed to capture ZZ Trench but in a counter attack all but one who had briefly secured the position were killed, wounded or captured. The Liverpool and Yorks battalions failed too, many caught in unbroken wire and some surrounded at Guillemont station. Major Harry Carter, who days earlier had taken command of the 17th after Major Frank Buckley was badly wounded, was awarded the DSO for his leadership in adversity.

Linkson was one of four footballers who lost their lives as a result of the attack: Strikers Allen Foster of Reading and William Gerrish of Aston Villa would die of their wounds and Clapton Orient defender George Scott was wounded, captured and died several days later. Two England rugby players were also killed, fighting with the Liverpool Scottish. Linkson was at first reported missing but nothing was ever found of him. His name is on the memorial at Thiepval.

On a chilly October morning in 2010, Zoe Linkson, an AFC Wimbledon fan, retraced her great-grandfather’s last steps across the fields of Delville Wood and Guillemont.

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 Private Oscar Linkson 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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