Edgar Mobbs, who died 100 years ago on July 31, 1917 leading his men at Passchendaele, belongs like William Webb Ellis to the company of men most associated with something that they almost certainly did not do.
Numerous rugby books (guilty m’lud) have recounted the legend of Mobbs kicking a ball ahead of him into no man’s land. It is a compelling image of devil-may-care and laughing in the face of death, although with the serious downside of conflating sport with war. One of the things we do know about Mobbs is that he was a serious and highly proficient soldier, who saw war as anything but a game.
“New Zealand were better tactically, and there was a certain ruthlessness about them, and we were not ruthless enough.” — Huw Richards rewinds to the 1950 Lions tour.
As the dust settles, we run the numbers to look at where the 1-1 draw against the All Blacks sits in Lions heritage.
Graham McKechnie, BBC Northampton’s indefatigable chronicler of sporting and World War I memory, co-author with military historian Jon Cooksey of a forthcoming biography of Mobbs, says that there is “no substance whatsoever” to the legend, and adds that there is equally little truth to reports that he played for Toulouse.
What both stories do, in the spirit of the fables about cricketers devised by Neville Cardus, is to say something about the man and the way he was perceived. And where Webb Ellis was an all-but blank sheet on to which the fabulists of the nineteenth century and after could project their invented tradition, there is substance aplenty in what Mobbs did.
Mobbs played seven times for England, but was the archetypal local hero, a towering figure in Northampton, arguably the most rugby-conscious town in England. A local boy from Olney, he was not necessarily predestined for the Saints since he went to Bedford Modern School and played for Bedford against the 1905 All Blacks.
But once landed at Franklin’s Gardens, he built a club legend which would have endured whatever else became of him — five consecutive seasons as captain [a club record since matched by Tim Rodber and Dylan Hartley], 234 matches at wing or centre and 177 tries.
His style was calculated to appeal. Townsend Collins and EHD Sewell, whose vignettes supply compelling pictures of the players of this era, did not always agree. But the image they offer of Mobbs is clear and vivid.
To Sewell he was a “never-say-die wing or centre-threequarter, with a high knee action well known to the chins of would-be tacklers”. Collins recalled “a big-built, big-hearted threequarter who usually seemed to be doing a man and a half’s work”.
He was an emblematic figure of his times. Judged on results only, the first years of the twentieth century look like a lost era for English rugby, still reeling from the amputation of its strongest clubs and counties in 1895. There were five wooden spoons, and three whitewashes, between 1899 and 1907.
Yet these were years of regeneration, with the clubs of the West and Midlands beginning to fill the gap left by the secession of the North. Between 1901 and 1908 England capped their first players from Northampton, Bristol, Leicester, Coventry and Bedford.
Mobbs was not the first Saint selected — that was Harry Weston, whose son Bill would also play for England, in the Calcutta Cup match of 1901. But four of those clubs who contributed so much to the substance of English rugby in the twentieth century were represented when Mobbs made his England debut, against the touring Australians at Blackheath in January 1909.
Mobbs’ name is one of 54,896 inscribed on the famed Menin Gate. Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images for Premier League
At 26 he was something of a late developer, but had forced himself upon the capricious attention of the selectors with his performance as wing and captain in the Midlands’ victory over the tourists. England fielded 10 new caps including an all-new threequarter line in which Mobbs lined up alongside fellow-Midlanders Frank Tarr [Leicester and Oxford University] and Edward Assinder [Birmingham Old Edwardians], with the magnificently-named Cornishman Barzillai Beckerleg Bennetts on the other wing.
He could hardly have started better, crossing within three minutes for a try Sewell would recall as “one of the best ever scored, being perfect in execution from the moment Tarr first received the ball to the moment Mobbs touched it down for the try.”
Australia hit back to win 9-3, but Mobbs was launched on a debut season which would certainly — had such awards then existed — have seen him named England’s player, or at least rookie, of the year. He played in five matches and scored in four of them, missing out only in the 8-0 defeat at Cardiff, becoming the first Englishman to score in four matches in a season.
He was left out of the first international at Twickenham, against Wales in January 1910, but recalled for the subsequent 0-0 draw with Ireland and made captain when England won 11-3 in Paris. That, though, was the end — an international career of seven matches on seven different grounds, scoring four tries.
Sewell certainly felt he had been discarded prematurely, writing of his caps that ‘there should have been 20 more’. It was not as if he had lost form — there were 29 tries for Northampton in 1909-10 and big roles in momentous victories at Leicester and Swansea the following season.
But this was an era of fleeting international careers, born of goldfish-like selectorial attention spans. Mobbs was the only one of the 10 men given their debuts against Australia on 9th January 1909 still in the team three matches and five weeks later when England won 11-5 in Dublin.
He continued to play for Saints and East Midlands, captaining both teams, until 1913 as well as giving his county forthright representation on the Rugby Football Union committee, speaking out for player rights against fundamentalist interpretations of the rules on amateurism.
Former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies lines up a kick during the 1996 Mobbs Memorial Match. Aubrey Washington/EMPICS via Getty Images
Mobbs was 32 when war broke out in September 1914, running a motor dealership and contemplating emigration to Canada. He volunteered immediately, was refused a commission on age grounds and joined up as a private.
He poured his energy, local standing and charisma into recruitment, raising a 264-strong Sportsmen’s Battalion. His distinctive contribution to infantry tactics may be a myth, but he was clearly a natural on the battlefield, rising from the ranks to earn the commission he had been denied at the recruiting office.
By the summer of 1917 he was a Lieutenant-Colonel, twice mentioned in despatches and decorated with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). As a company commander only recently recovered from wounds, he was not expected to lead men ‘over the top’.
But with his battalion short of officers, he insisted on leading an attack on Zillebeke, the Belgian village near which Frank Tarr had been killed by a shell splinter in 1915. Mobbs too died there.
His body was never recovered, but his name — one of 54,896 inscribed on the famed Menin Gate — lived on. He was commemorated by a statue erected in Northampton in 1921, in Mobbs Way close to Franklin’s Gardens and for 90 years by the annual Mobbs Memorial Match between the Barbarians and East Midlands, now a fixture between the county and the Army.
As with all of the war dead, the question remains ‘what if?’. What might he have done with the second half of a life truncated at 35? He might still have gone to Canada. But the more tantalising thought is what he might have done for the town and club of Northampton, and maybe for rugby as a whole, had he stayed.
Might he might have anticipated the forthrightly effective trajectory in public service and rugby administration of a later Saints giant, Dick Jeeps? We cannot, of course, know. But what he did achieve in those 35 years was surely more than enough.
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