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In the Scrum: Rugby during the First World War

©AWM 03355
Teams of the 59th Battalion playing rugby football during a brief rest from the fighting at Barleux, France, 20 September 1918. ©AWM 03355


Posted on 25 August 2023

With the Rugby World Cup France 2023 fast approaching, the Sir John Monash Centre recently opened a temporary exhibition to share the history of rugby during the First World War.



While the harshness of war greatly affected the morale of soldiers, many took advantage of periods of rest behind the lines to play sports, particularly team sports such as football and rugby.

Rugby was popular in Oceania, and many Australian and New Zealand soldiers continued to play the sport extensively after enlistment.


It is estimated that of the 5,000 Australian rugby players who served in the First World War, 500 never returned home.

“THE AUSTRALIANS WARRIORS AND SPORTSMEN" - "It was during a rugby match, disputed recently in England, between two teams of Australian soldiers (Anzac) that this interesting shot was taken. We know that our Allies qualified the Australian and New Zealand troops that took such a brilliant part during the Dardanelles operations as Anzacs." - Illustration and text from the Excelsior newspaper of 20 November 1916 - Source BNF.

The In the Scrum, Rugby during the First World War exhibition uses press cuttings, propaganda posters and archive photographs and videos to tell the story of rugby during the war. From the propaganda used to recruit soldiers to the matches played behind the lines, visitors discover little-known aspects of the First World War, plus the story of the ten players from the Australian national team, the Wallabies, who died during the conflict.

The exhibition was officially opened on 19 August in the presence of Her Excellency, Ms Gillian Bird, Australian Ambassador to France, and the Australian national rugby union team, the Wallabies. The opening was attended by other guests, including the Australian Army’s Jonathan Church Good Soldiering Award recipients, the Vice-president of the Somme Departmental Council in charge of culture and sport and the Deputy Mayors of Villers-Bretonneux.

Following the speeches by Ambassador Bird and Ms Rebecca Doyle, Director of the Sir John Monash Centre, the Centre was presented with a jersey signed by the team, which is now on display in the exhibition room. ©Somme Tourisme
©Manon Cruz - Courrier Picard
After the opening, the Wallabies visited the exhibition and the galleries of the Sir John Monash Centre.

Earlier in the morning, a commemorative service was held in the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery, at the grave of former Wallabies player, Gunner William Tasker. Before serving on the Western Front, Tasker had been badly wounded at Gallipoli and repatriated. His will to fight drove him to re-enlist as soon as he could but he later died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Amiens, on 9 August 1918. A slouch hat, a Wallabies jersey and a wreath of flowers were laid at his grave during the service.

William Tasker (holding the ball) with the Newington College first fifteen in 1911. @Newington College Archives
©Manon Cruz - Courrier Picard
©Somme Tourisme

The exhibition In the Scrum, Rugby during the First World War is open to the public daily during the Sir John Monash Centre’s opening hours until 5 November 2023. For more information, please contact [email protected].


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