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The Great Game 1914–1918

140207 rugby poster 1914With the upcoming 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “Great War”, it’s a good moment to reflect on the contribution rugby players made.

The game’s Victorian values were to be tested fully on the outbreak of World War One. In the war English rugby’s senior officials found the ultimate expression of the values they held so dear: an ethos of individual strength and teamwork born on the playing fields of early Victorian public schools.

Rugby players made good soldiers, and soldiers made good rugby players.

The Rugby Football Union sent out a circular urging all its players to enlist. Entire rugby clubs joined up en masse, and rugger would soon acknowledge its own war heroes.

The likes of Edgar Mobbs of Northampton & England. He was over age but, raising his own sportsman company, used to lead his men “over the top” by punting a rugger ball into no-man’s land ahead of the attack. Mobbs was killed at Ypres in 1917 and since 1921 the Barbarians have played a team from the East Midlands in the annual Edgar Mobbs Memorial Game.

And then there was the flaxen-haired Ronnie Poulton of Rugby, Oxford & England, who ran in four breath-taking tries from centre on his last international appearance for England in 1914. He became Poulton Palmer (the name change being an inheritance requirement of his Uncle George, a partner in the Huntley & Palmers biscuit firm). He joined the 4th Berkshires and was shot dead by a sniper in Belgium in 1915.

There is now a Memorial Stadium in Bristol (previously known as The Memorial Ground and opened in 1921 as the home of Bristol Rugby Club) dedicated “to those who played in the Great Game during the season 1914-1918″. It became a custom for visiting team captains to hang a wreath on the gates in an annual ceremony to remember the dead of World War One.

Today, the ground remains a focal point for the wider Bristol community, and a minute’s silence is held annually before the game which is played closest to Remembrance Sunday. On 11 November a service of remembrance is held at the Memorial Gates with players and officials from both Bristol Rugby and the local soccer team, Bristol Rovers, attending each year. In this centenary year, the event will have a special poignancy.

Image: from “Thomas Cook’s Rugby Club“, by John Dann

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