Honouring Our Rugby Fallen

Written by Ross Baker, military veteran

Alongside the epic 300-mile challenge being undertaken by the elite cyclists, a group of military veterans and ex professional rugby players went on a journey of commemoration with World Rugby Museum curator Phil McGowan.

First stop was the Lijssenthoek Cemetery where Phil spoke of two England internationals; George Dobbs who was one of the first internationals to see action at the Battle of Mons before being killed at Messines Ridge. Only a matter of five metres away lay his team mate John Raphael who was also killed at Messines Ridge. Phil brought the players to life telling of their achievements on the rugby pitch, and detailing their bravery and commitment during the fighting. Of note was the tale of Raphael’s mother who after speaking with the cemetery’s gardener secretly had her ashes scattered over her sons grave. It left many of those in the group deeply moved. Next came Nine Elms Cemetery where the legendary All Black Captain Dave Gallaher was to be found. He made his name with the ‘Originals’ as the captain and the first modern day open sides. He was lost at the Battle of Passchendaele after distinguishing himself throughout his military career.

The group then moved to Ypres where the legendary Edgar Mobbs can be found alongside the 52,000 missing souls remembered at Menin Gate. Initially rejected from joining the Army, Mobbs famously addressed the rugby crowd at Franklins Gardens, before raising a crowd of 200 fighting men to join the Northamptonshire Regiment. Climbing from Private soldier to Lieutenant Colonel, where he distinguished himself, receiving the Distinguishes Service Order beofre his death at the Battle of Passchendaele.

Our first day ended with a visit to the imposing Vimy Ridge Memorial where the great grandfather of one of our riders had fought. Powerful and awe inspiring, it was a fitting end to a thought provoking day.

Day two saw the group visit the Somme Battlefield starting at the incredible yet harrowing Thiepval Memorial where 72,000 missing soldiers are remembered. Here we were met by Commonwealth War Graves Commission Intern and rugby fan Olivia Smith, who at the age of 21, took us through a detailed and bespoke tour of the site focusing on the rugby players Jack King, Lancelot Slocock, Rupert Inglis and Alfred Maynard who were commemorated on the memorial. The group were left staggered by the sheer scale of sacrifice. The group left Thiepval where the England Internationals were commemorated, to move onto Guillemont, the site of the battle in which they were lost. Here Phil McGowan was able to talk us through the battles and the deaths of each international rugby player. Truly humbling.

The penultimate location was the Guards’ Cemetery at Lesboeufs, where we had the honour to see our charity’s patron Mike Tindall be introduced to his relative Harry Tindall who had been killed during the fighting. Phil talked through the action in which Harry had been killed and it highlighted to us all the impact of the war upon every family in British society, and the ubiquitous nature of the First World War.

The final site that was visited was the South African Memorial at Delville Wood, where the South African Division distinguished themselves. Historian Peter Jones took the group through the action which saw the South African Division holding a wood which was overwhelmed by German artillery leading to a 80% casualty rate of all units entering the wood. It was here that the multi-national nature of the forces involved on the Western Front came to life with rugby players from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand showing the same bravery, leadership and selflessness that had been common to all those rugby players we had commemorated. We were then shown the sole surviving tree from Delville Wood. It now stands protected, yet growing and green with leaves. A perfect way to end what had been two days of moving and emotional accounts of bravery and sacrifice, signifying that throughout the destruction and hell of war, life will find a way to continue and renew.

As we commemorate the Armistice Centenary, we remember and say thank you to all those who gave everything in the First World War. In this important anniversary year we must also remember and understand the challenges faced by those who survived the war and their families. 100 years on, a generation of soldiers today face the transition into society after experiencing the horrors of war…. the challenges haven’t changed!