Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 28 

Beyond the metaphor: football and war,1914-1918

Author: Dale Jame Blair

{1} Sport and war have long been synonymous with Australia's national identity and the 'ANZAC' legend provides one of the great pillars upon which that identity has been built. Of equal, if not greater standing, is the nation's penchant for sport. Given the extent to which Australia's First World War experience permeates the national psyche, it is somewhat surprising that the implications of and influence of sport during this period have been largely neglected. The focus of Australia's First World War experience is firmly rooted in its military achievements rather than the social aspects. Of the twelve volumes of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, only one is dedicated to Australia's home front, and throughout the series sport is rarely mentioned other than as a metaphor for war.[*]

{2} Australian football, one of the most fanatically followed sports of the period, was a game which lent itself to warlike metaphor. Examination of football's history shows that, beyond the metaphor, a tangible and interesting link exists between football and military history, particularly during the period of the First World War.

{3} The military in Australia and other parts of the British Empire had a long tradition of involvement in sport and football. Tony Mason has suggested that, along with exercising and drilling, sport was one of the few other activities for British troops posted in far-flung colonial settlements in Australia and India. Consequently, the Army patronised sport in many ways -- including creating facilities and ovals and organising regimental teams and competitions -- because sport enhanced fitness, boosted morale, provided a physical outlet and countered boredom. [1] Military involvement helped play a role in the emergence of many sports, including horse-racing and the various football codes. The matches between British garrison regiments and local Victorian teams in the 1860s were an important feature of the early development of Australian football, or Victorian Rules as the local Melbourne version was then known.[2]

{4} The relationship between the military and sport appeared a natural and convenient one for both institutions; however, there were occasions when this relationship became strained. While Federation saw a rapid growth in football's popularity, due mainly to increased working-class involvement in the game as players and spectators, it also heralded an increased commitment to Australia's defence. The introduction of universal conscription throughout the nation in 1911 led to an awkwardness between military authorities and the various football bodies because all youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty (senior cadets) were required to undertake compulsory military training. By this time, large crowds were regularly attending football games in Melbourne: a problem occurred because Saturday afternoon was generally the nominated day for drill but was also the day on which football was played. From the outset, absenteeism plagued the conscription scheme and football undoubtedly contributed to some of the scheme's problems.

{5} A former trainee, who was eventually sentenced to fourteen days' detention at Fort Queenscliff, recalled finding it 'hard to pass the Collingwood football ground'. Labor heavyweight, Frank Tudor -- Federal Member for Yarra and Richmond Football Club president -- was approached by several youths, and the father of one of them, who urged him to convey their disenchantment with the scheme to the Government because it clashed with the only day on which they could 'enjoy football'. Tudor took up the issue with the Minister for Defence, Senator Pearce, who in turn raised the matter with the Adjutant-General, Colonel Chauvel. Chauvel dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the senior cadets generally had two Saturdays a month free to themselves.[3]

{6} Football players were also affected. Arthur Roy Leach, who played for St Kilda in the post-war period, was fined 1 for being absent from military duty. He had fallen 57 hours behind in his drill attendance due to the fact that he was playing for a Victorian Football Association (VFA) club at the time. Percy Ellingsen, who started his Victorian Football League (VFL) career with Richmond club at age sixteen, was a constant defaulter and achieved some notoriety with his flagrant neglect of his military training. He preferred to play football on Saturdays.[4]

{7} Conflict between the Army and football interests did not prove intractable, and in some instances there was a compromise on both sides. An agreement was struck, for instance, between the South Australian League (SAL) and military authorities in that state. It was agreed to devote one Saturday each month to the military so that football demands would not conflict with the cadets' drill. The military agreed, in return, not to conduct training in districts hosting football matches. This compromise was planned to take effect in 1915 but by then, owing to the outbreak of the First World War, the SAL had decided to abandon football from the end of that season until the war's end.[5]

{8} With the outbreak of the war, a vigorous debate ensued over the merits of playing sport, including football, in wartime. There were two sides to the football debate: the middle/upper-class view (or amateur view) and the working-class view. The former was underpinned by a powerful ideology, generally referred to as 'muscular Christianity', essentially, the notion that man could enhance his moral character through physical endeavour. It was a fusion of ideas with notions of imperial duty, national identity and military imperatives combining to form a complex ideology. As team sports such as football and cricket developed, they were considered to foster the essential characteristics of Christian manliness: loyalty, courage, self-discipline and teamwork were all desirable attributes seen as being promoted on the playing-fields in readiness for something higher. Implicit in this philosophy was an expectation that sportsmen would be among the first to hear the call of duty when it sounded. The popular metaphor of football as war clearly intimated what that duty was.[6] This was a view espoused in the public schools, amateur sporting clubs and the daily press. C.E.W. Bean, Australia's most celebrated war historian and the author of the first six volumes of the Official History, believed fervently in the concept. He clearly believed a correlation existed between the Australian attitude to sport and war. His use of sporting imagery and metaphor is a distinct feature of his writings and a clear proof of the influence of the doctrine of muscular Christianity in shaping his perceptions.[7]

{9} The working-class view was less quixotic and it pragmatically held sport to be recreation, a distraction from the rigours of the working week and, in the case of 'professional' footballers, an opportunity to supplement the week's wages. Perceptions of the role of sport was one area which clearly delineated sections of the community.

{10} Up until the eve of the opening round of the 1915 Victorian football season, opposition to playing the game had been kept to the periphery of public debate. The publication of a speech by L.A. Adamson, the headmaster of Wesley College and president of the Metropolitan Amateur Football Association (MAFA), changed the nature of the debate and helped to galvanise the game's opponents. Its content was tantamount to a declaration of war against professional football and its adherents.

{11} Adamson was a champion of amateurism, a living embodiment of the theory of muscular Christianity. Schooled at Rugby, he had absorbed the traditions and ideology of that famous institution. While senior resident master of Wesley College, Adamson had sought to fashion Wesley into a 'Rugby in the Antipodes', introducing awards of colour and codes of privilege.[8] In his speech, Adamson assailed the poor contribution of professional football to enlistments while extolling the excellent record of amateur sports clubs. He argued that professional football was a deterrent to recruitment and pointed to the treasonable effect of the game, asserting that a patriotic German could make no better gesture than to 'support our paid gladiators to perform in the League and Association circus'. He appealed to his students to resist their inclination to attend football matches as the sixpence they paid for admission was an indirect inducement for men to stay away from the war and 'cheerful crucifixion'.[9]

{12} In the best traditions of the 'old school tie', the Argus's football scribe, 'Old Boy', greeted Adamson's speech with approbation. 'Old Boy', who was in fact R.W.E. Wilmot, the MAFA's vice-president,[10] followed with an attack on the mercenary nature of professional football. He argued that professional football did not improve the calibre of man and did nothing to improve the sport and, as such, was of no value to the community.[11] Pivot, the football writer for the Age, expressed a more sympathetic view of the predicament in which football was placed. He attributed a lack of volunteers from senior teams as being largely due to many of their players being married and suggested that the discussion of whether sport should be continued during war had almost become 'a hackneyed subject'. He defended football as being good for a community by providing some relief between work and war.[12]

{13} Much as many in the football community hoped to see the games continue, the seriousness of the war, coupled with the pressure exerted by the patriotic and anti-football sections of society, generally did not allow it. Attendances at both Victorian Football Association (VFA) and VFL games dropped. Amateur competitions were abandoned for the duration of the war. The VFA cut short its season in 1915 and did not resume until 1918, when six sides from predominantly working-class suburbs opted to play after threatening to form a breakaway competition if the VFA did not heed their wish to resume.[13] In a farcical season, only four sides contested the VFL in 1916 -- these being Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond, all representing large working-class areas of the city. On reaching its nadir, the competition began steadily to regain support, and by 1918 only the Melbourne Football Club was refusing to play.

{14} Despite the constant beating of the war drum by patriotic zealots, a tenuous spirit of cooperation developed between the VFL and military authorities. The previous conflict between military duties and football during pre-war compulsory training had perhaps left its mark. Rather than antagonise the football public, the military sought to accommodate them in their recruitment planning -- although there were exceptions. During the recruitment campaign of July 1915, a poster was widely displayed showing a soldier standing over a dead mate looking towards a vision of a football crowd with the caption, 'Will they never come?'. While the recruitment drive was an outstanding success, the campaign organisers ran the risk of alienating a large section of society. The specific targets of the poster, footballers and barrackers, could easily have become embittered by such an attack and strengthened in their resolve to continue the game.

{15} Recruitment activities were permitted at VFL fixtures, however, and games to assist war funds were held between military and League teams. Richmond had played a game against the Pioneers as part of their preparation for the 1916 season and, a fortnight after the 1915 grand final, Carlton played a military combination at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Attired in Collingwood colours, the military side -- which comprised a number of League players, among whom were several of Carlton's premiership side -- eventually lost to Carlton after a close contest. Such games, which attracted large crowds, provided a convenient forum for recruitment officers who were able to address the spectators.[14]

{16} Cooperation between the VFL and the military usually prevailed and was most clearly evident when the League cancelled a round during 1917 to assist a recruitment drive. This may have been done for pragmatic reasons rather than idealistic reasons and the move was, perhaps, a concession by the League designed to placate the anti-football sentiment in some sections of the community, rather than a genuine display of patriotism. Earlier in the season recruitment officers had allegedly been given hostile receptions at three League grounds, which prompted cries of outrage in the daily press.[15]

{17} Much as anti-football patriots railed against the game, their protestations were weakened by the absence of any overt support from government or military authorities. The most compelling factor which undermined the patriots' campaign was the war itself. By late 1916, the war had purged the public of much of its earlier enthusiasm. Death was a frequent visitor to Australian homes, including those of footballers and football supporters. As war weariness set in, football began to re-establish itself.

{18} While there was divisiveness associated with playing football at home during war-time, there were no qualms about the game's value within the Army. Football, and sport in general, were seen as providing troops with recreation, as well as keeping them fit for active service. It is not surprising that football was enthusiastically played and supported by the soldiers overseas: apart from the obvious relief from the rigours of front-line service, the game provided a tangible link with home through the memories it evoked in homesick soldiers. For soldiers from the southern and western states, the unique nature of the Australian game might also have further underscored their view of themselves as distinct from the soldiers of other nations. Lieutenant G.H. Goddard, of the 59th Battalion, wrote:

It was possible to make a good guess at the State from which a certain man hailed by the vehemence with which he supported a certain brand of football ... The patronising manner in which a supporter of one particular game would ask another to 'come and see a real football match' was quite amusing.[16]

{19} A popular portrayal of the game as played during the war is contained in Peter Weir's film, Gallipoli, which includes a scene in which a game of Australian Rules is played beneath the great pyramids. The incongruity of the game's setting, as well as the men's passion, is highlighted by a conversation between one of the heroes, Frank, and his mate, Bill. Gazing at the pyramids, Bill is moved to comment on the magnitude of the Pharaohs' attempts to beat death. His observation is lost on Frank who replies: 'Thanks Professor. Look, can you get your mind back on the game. Let's think about the West Australians' first attempt to beat the bloody Vics [Victorians]'.

{20} The passion many soldiers felt for the game certainly saw it played in some strange settings. Even the confines of the position at Gallipoli, it would appear, could not dampen the men's enthusiasm. T.J. Richards, who was a member of the 1st Battalion (from New South Wales) and a former rugby international for Australia, recalled one of his sporting experiences:

Football matches were out of the question at ANZAC; yet, one afternoon when I came over from Brown[s] Dip towards White's Gully I was surprised at seeing a football floating through the air. I set off down into the blind valley, and joined in with a number of Victorians who had brought the ball from Egypt with them.[17]

{21} The lack of proper playing fields, particularly of the large size required for Australian football, was always a problem. The 40th Battalion, a Western Australian unit, resolved the problem by devising their own game which they called 'mobbing'. It was played with a hessian bag filled with straw, and the game had no rules other than that the bag could not be kicked. The basic object of the game was to force or throw the bag through the opposition's goal. The beauty of the game was that it could be played 'on any old ground'.[18]

{22} Undoubtedly the high point of Australian football overseas was a match held at the Queen's Club, London, before a crowd of 3,000 and in the presence of the Prince of Wales, on the last Saturday of October, 1916. This match was played between sides representing the 3rd Division and the Combined Training Units and was notable for the numerous top players on both sides.[19] Padre C.J. Perry, vice-captain of Norwood (South Australia), led the Combined Training Units team, and Bruce Sloss, the former South Melbourne star and 1911 Champion of the Colony, captained the 3rd Division team. It was one of the last games of football Sloss played. He was killed in Flanders a little over two months later, during a German raid upon his Battalion's trenches.[20]

{23} Most of the games played overseas were in very different conditions from the London match. A description of an encounter on the Somme, near the village of La Boiselle, between the 27th and 28th Battalions is indicative of the conditions often endured by the soldiers:

The ground was situated amidst the heavy system of entrenchments that had constituted the German front line ... Practically surrounded by trenches, the ground frozen and strewn with pieces of barbed wire and fragments of shells. Sheltering from the cold wind, the spectators viewed the game from the trenches, their heads just visible above the ground. A few plucky volunteers held the goal posts in position during the game.[21]

{24} Lieutenant L.G. Shout, a former staff member of the Argus, wrote home giving an account of a match played upon a pock-marked field within shell range of the main firing line. The match was one between officers and NCOs in which sheepskin jerkins and cardigans were worn as playing shirts:

But the saddest and most realistic touch of all lay behind the goal-posts on the southern end. It was a small heap of earth -- the grave of dead soldiers -- with the simple but sublime superscription 'To unknown British Heroes'.

{25} The war could never be forgotten. Nevertheless, Shout felt that the game had given the men fresh heart for it, and 'had carried their thoughts vividly back to those happy days when football was played in certain Melbourne suburbs they had called "home"'. [22]

{26} Recognising the important role which sport could play, in 1919 the organisers of the British Expeditionary Forces sports scheme issued specific guidelines for the conduct of sports, and attempted to elevate the purpose of play by including ideals borrowed from amateurism. One of its objectives was to 'instil the root principle of true sport, viz: "Play for your side and not for yourself"'. This was to be achieved by abolishing money prizes, providing individual winners with trophies of 'little intrinsic value', and presenting team trophies.[23]

{27} This article has suggested that while there were occasional differences between the Army and the organisers and players of football, there was rather more cooperation than conflict, particularly at the front line. Given the appalling circumstances of life behind the trenches and the lack of entertainment, sport was seized upon by both military organisers and the ranks as a means of maintaining morale and normalcy. Playing even the most primitive games was a reminder of home. Since sport was such an integral element of Australian culture, playing it in most inhospitable circumstances was a way of asserting identity on the war-front.

{28} The irony of wartime football lay in the mock tragedy of the game against the genuine tragedy of war. While players and spectators pondered the 'what ifs' of near misses on the football field, near misses at the front had a sharper edge and constituted the fragile line between life and death in the trenches. Awkward as this fact was, there was a need for games. To support football while supporting the soldiers at the front was not a contradiction to large sections of the community.

{29} Experience did strip away one of the myths of sportsmen and war, that sportsmen would make the best soldiers. The early deaths of Melbourne's 'Joe' Pearce and Collingwood's Allan Cordner on the day of the landing at Gallipoli, before their sporting prowess could be put to the test, and the manner in which Carlton player George Challis was literally 'blown to bits' in France, provided conclusive proof that athleticism was rendered impotent in the face of modern war.[24]


[*] An earlier version of this paper appeared as 'The Greater Game: Australian Football and the Army in Melbourne and on the front during World War I', Sporting Traditions, vol. 11, no. 2, May 1995, pp. 91-102.

[1] T. Mason, 'Football on the Maidan', in J.A. Mangan (ed.), The cultural bond: sport, empire and society, Cass, London, 1992, pp. 142-3.

[2] G. Blainey, A game of our own, Information Australia, Melbourne, 1990, pp. 52-3.

[3] J. Barrett, Falling in: Australians and 'boy conscription' 1911-1915, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1979, pp. 247, 142-3.

[4] Ibid., pp. 200-202.

[5] Australasian Football Council, Minutes of Council Meetings, Laws of the Game, Constitutions. etc, Australian Gallery of Sport, Melbourne. See Minutes for August 1914, pp. 36-42.

[6] D.W. Brown, 'Muscular Christianity in the Antipodes: some observations on the diffusion and emergence of a Victorian ideal in Australian social theory', in Sporting Traditions, vol. 3, no. 2, May, 1987, pp. 173-5.

[7] Bean's educational background is discussed in Didley McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme: The story of C.E.W. Bean, John Ferguson, Sydney, 1983, pp. 25-6, 36-47; A good example of Bean's penchant for sporting imagery is his description of Major Bill Swannell's death at Gallipoli, 'he realised he would play this game as he had played Rugby football -- with his whole heart', The Story of ANZAC: from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli campaign, May 4, 1915, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1818, vol. 1, 10th edn, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1940, p. 297; Another example is contained in his description of the men awaiting the Lone Pine assault, 'The men chaffed each other drily, after the manner of spectators waiting to see a football match', while offciers checked their watches as if they were 'starting a boat-race', The Story of ANZAC: from May 4, 1915, to the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1818, vol. 2, 10th edn, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1940, pp. 502 & 503.

[8] G. Blainey, J. Morrissey & S. Hulme, Wesley College: the first hundred years, Melbourne, 1967, p. 104.

[9] Argus, 22 April 1915.

[10] Joseph Johnson, For the love of the game: the centenary history of the Victorian Amateur Football Association, 1892-1992, Hyland House, South Yarra, 1992, pp. 41, 51.

[11] Argus, 23 April 1915.

[12] Age, 23 April 1915.

[13] Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 12 April 1918. The six sides were Brunswick, Northcote, Port Melbourne, Footscray, North Melbourne and Prahran.

[14] Essendon Gazette, 4 May 1916; Sporting Judge, 2 October 1915.

[15]Argus, 19 and 21 May 1917.

[16] Lt G.H. Goddard, Soldiers and sportsmen, AIF Sports Control Board, London, p. 17.

[17] Sydney Mail, 13 September, 1916.

[18] Capt. C. Longmore, 'Eggs-a-Cook', Colourtype Press, Perth, 1921, p. 79.

[19] G. Hutchinson, Great Australian football stories, Viking O'Neil, 1983, pp. 6-8. Some of the players were: Dan Minogue (Collingwood); Hughie James (Richmond); Jack Brake, Carl Willis, Leo Little, Stanley Martin (University); Billy Stewart, Clyde Donaldson (Essendon); Charlie Lilley (Melbourne); Harold Moyes, Percy Jory (St Kilda); Ted Alley (Williamstown); Billy Orchard, Lou Armstrong (Geelong); Jim Foy (Perth); Jack Cooper, Percy Trotter (Fitzroy); George Bower (South Melbourne).

[20] AIF Nominal Roll; the history of the Thirty-ninth Battalion, AIF, G.W. Green & Sons, Melbourne, 1934, pp. 83-4.

[21] Lt Col W. Dollman & Sgt H.M. Skinner, The blue and brown diamond, Lonnen and Cape, Adelaide, 1921, p. 81.

[22] Argus, 10 May 1917.

[23] Goddard, op.cit., pp. 13-14.

[24] Challis' death is described in the diary of David Doyle and cited in R.S. Corfield, Hold hard, cobbers: the story of the 57th and 60th and 57/60th Australian Infantry Battalions 1912-1990, Volume One 1912-1930, 57/60th Battalion (AIF) Association, 1992, p. 29; Pearce's death is mentioned in Football Record, vol. 4, no. 12, 3 July 1915, p. 11; and Cordner's is reported in Football Record, vol. 4, no. 10, 19 June 1915, p. 3.

©: Dale James Blair

About the Author

Dale James Blair was a summer scholar at the Australian War Memorial in 1994 and is currently undertaking a PhD in military history at Victoria University of Technology (Footscray Campus).