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Sportsmen take up the fight

Teams of the 59th Battalion, mainly from country Victoria, playing rugby at Barleux, 1918 (AWM E03356)

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Posted on March 10 2018

Today’s sports coaches risk criticism if they equate sport with sacrifice in war, yet 100 years ago recruiting campaigns actively linked the two in an effort to encourage enlistment.

In 1917 Australians were urged to join the Sportsmen’s 1000 and fight on the Western Front with the promise they would train together, embark together and fight together.

Posters featured Victoria Cross recipient Albert Jacka whose physical prowess and skills as a boxer were said to be central to his celebrated status as a fighting soldier.

They even borrowed the famous words ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’ from the 1897 English war poem Vitai Lampada by Sir Henry Newbolt, a school friend of British Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

According to the Australian War Memorial the campaign to enlist sportsmen was fueled by a strong belief that playing sport developed specific skills and qualities that young men could use on the battlefield.

Rowers were urged to ‘pull together to victory,’ sailors to ‘weather the storm,’ and golfers to ‘take their caddy and enlist’.

In fact, from the early months of the First World War, thousands of Australians who had excelled across many sports enlisted.

Five young cricketers who survived the war went on to play a total of 127 Tests from their debuts in 1920-21.

They were 15th Field Ambulance stretcher bearer Bert Oldfield, Field Artillery Lieutenant Jack Gregory, 27th Battalion Captain Nip Pellew, 10th Army Service Corps Lance-Corporal Herbie Collins and 101st Battery gunner Johnny Taylor.

One wonders what Waverley batsman Norman Callaway could have achieved in the game if he was not killed by a shell at Bullecourt in 1917, aged 21.

Months before enlisting in 1916, Callaway played his only first class innings for New South Wales, scoring an amazing 207 in 214 minutes and winning praise that he was ‘like Trumper’.

Tom ‘Rusty’ Richards from Tenterfield was a 1908 Olympic rugby gold medallist and the only Australian to have played for both the Wallabies and British Lions.

The London Times wrote: “If ever the Earth had to select a rugby football team to play Mars, Tom Richards would be the first player chosen.”

Richards signed up in August 1914 and recorded acutely observed entries about the brutality and humanity of the front lines.

Biographer Greg Growden wrote that Lieutenant Richards found himself “in the gaping jaws of hell” at Bullecourt in 1917, earning the Military Cross for leading a bombing party against German positions, inflicting heavy casualties and thwarting a counter-attack.

About 100 Victorian Football League players died in the First World War, including Geelong Team of the Century halfback Joe Slater at Bullecourt, Launceston and Carlton premiership champion George Challis at Armentieres, and Fitzroy and Victorian captain Jack Cooper at Polygon Wood.

Tom MacKenzie, a three-time South Australian fairest and most brilliant footballer, was wounded at Fromelles and newspapers reported he was a delayed casualty of war when he died in 1927.

His West Torrens team-mate Dave Low, South Australia’s best player in 1912, was a 32nd Battalion infantryman who died of wounds in August 1916.

Captain Dervas ‘Dave’ Cumming, who played senior football for Perth at only 15, earned a Military Cross at Messines before dying of wounds after the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.

Other sportsmen killed included 1913 Australasian Open tennis champion Ernie Parker, who died under shellfire near Hazebrouck in 1918, and Australian Test rugby league fullback Ted Baird, a casualty at Passchendaele in 1917.

Champion swimmer and 15th Battalion Lieutenant Cecil Healy was among 40 past and future Australian Olympians to enlist.

Healy is the only Australian Olympic Gold medallist to die in battle. He was killed by machine-gun fire near Peronne in August, 1918.

This story was published as part of the Road to Remembrance series developed in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Fairfax Media.

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