Many Rugby players from Australia have served in war. A little known though significant story is that of Sydney University forward James McManamey – a man that was there at the beginning of both the NSW Waratahs in Rugby and Australia’s military history, and, at an age of life when warm slippers and a quiet brandy seemed the logical choice, made the ultimate sacrifice at Gallipoli.

At a farewell function held by the NSWRU, “Major McManamey stated that if it was right for sons to go to the front it was also right for those fathers who had had military training to go also, to be of what service they could in protecting those sons.”

James McManamey - rugby footballer & soldier

Born in Glebe (Sydney) in 1862, McManamey was raised in central western NSW towns of Wellington and Bathurst, where his Irish-born father was stationed as a policeman. Schooled at All Saints’ Bathurst, then at Sydney University, he graduated with a BA in 1881, took up teaching, and eventually became a prominent Sydney lawyer.

Standing at over 180cms tall with well proportioned frame, McManamey was literally a big man at that time, and excelled as a forward in the University pack. It was no surprise that the now 20 year old McManamey was duly selected in 1882 in the first ever NSW Rugby team.

Held at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the home XV over-powered the visiting Queenslanders by “Four goals and four tries, to one goal.” The match proved a great success, with a Sydney newspaper declaring, “There can be little doubt about the preference of the people of this colony. It is decidedly Rugby.”

The press were also at this same time carrying news reports of a growing uprising against the British-backed Egyptian government in the Sudan. The ongoing struggle of the British forces in what is now called the Mahdist War, led in early 1885 to the NSW colonial government, under significant local public pressure, cabling London with an offer to raise a contingent of troops.

The British accepted, and amid much enthusiasm, little difficulty was found in bringing together a party of 770 men, The Australian War Memorial’s account stating “It was seen as a historic occasion, marking the first time that soldiers in the pay of a self-governing Australian colony were to fight in an imperial war.”

Amongst the force were footballers from the city’s clubs, including McManamey. When the “NSW Contingent” were ready to depart, a crowd something beyond 200,000 people crowded Circular Quay and other Harbour advantage points to see them off.

Few Australians today would even know of the conflict, though a mention of Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier in Hollywood’s Khartoum may trigger some context to the war and location.

Though the NSW forces were at various stages fired upon, their stay was barely a few months long, with the British opting to bring the Sudan campaign to an end. Three men were wounded in action, however, nine died due to illness and disease, and their names are the first displayed on The Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour in Canberra.

By the 1890s McManamey had become Sydney’s most prominent Rugby referee, and in 1892 founded the NSW Rugby Referees Association. A passing note in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1896 recorded McManamey was awarded a gold whistle by the NSWRU’s referees body in recognition of “services both as president and as champion of referees throughout Australia.”

McManamey continued to coach schoolboy Rugby teams, and under his steady hand the referees association didn’t suffer the extent of defections to rugby league that were felt elsewhere in the game. He also oversaw the selection of Australia’s first international referees, beginning with the 1899 Wallabies versus British Lions series, through to the last pre-WW1 Test against the All Blacks in 1914. When the war came in August of that year, McManamey was the incumbent President of the NSWRU.

1899 gathering in Sydney of referees from the colonies
“Pillars of the whistling brigade.” An 1899 gathering in Sydney of referees from the colonies to discuss playing rules uniformity and suggest changes to the RFU & IRB. Back row: James McManamey (NSW), A E Sefton (NSW) / front row:  Roland Kean (NSW), Alf Faulkner (Queensland), William George “W G” Garrard (New Zealand)

Estimates vary, however something towards 90% of Sydney’s Rugby footballers enlisted in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) between August 1914 and April 1915 – in the latter month, well before the Gallipoli landing, 53 year old James McManamey volunteered and was accepted for military service.

Many have stated that at the outset of the war the NSWRU suspended the playing of Rugby, so that the players and officials could enlist. The making of such a claim does no honour to those that did volunteer, as it infers that if the NSWRU competitions had gone on, the Rugby men would have stayed at home to keep playing. The NSWRU decision was made in April 1915, and was largely a symbolic declaration, the result of so many players having gone.

Though the NSWRU called off the playing of premiership competitions, it did not stop all Rugby matches. For example, in August 1915 The Sydney Morning Herald reported club Rugby games featuring University, Eastern Suburbs, Balmain, Manly, Glebe, Northern Suburbs, Mosman, Newtown, St George and Randwick . In effect, this competition-less arrangement was no different to the way that all club Rugby was traditionally organised and played in England until the 1970s.

The split with rugby league in Sydney had left neither code as representative of the varied views of the city’s wider public on the war.

McManamey was an exemplar of the sentiment that flowed through the Rugby community – they had been raised on a model where Rugby was more than a game, that its ultimate purpose was to prepare young men for the day when a greater contribution and sacrifice might be required.

Well, that day had come.

Seeing McManamey enlist, despite his age, would have been a great catalyst to many Rugby men wavering on whether to join up.

As Second in Command of the 19th Battalion 5th Infantry Brigade. McManamey arrived in Gallipoli in mid August 1915, and saw action on ‘Hill 60.’

On 5th September McManamey was surveying the site of a water-well the men were in the habit of congregating around away from the lines, but which was within the view and range of the Turkish artillery. In an effort to avoid further unnecessary loss of life, McManamey was working out where to lay a trench to afford some safer access for his men.

Unfortunately just at that moment the Turks landed a shell within metres of McManamey. His abdomen pierced by the exploding shrapnel , the wounds quickly proved to be fatal.

Lieutenant Frank Coen, a fellow NSWRU official who had played for Sydney University, wrote a letter home:

Poor chap, he received the full contents in the back. Fortunately, he knew nothing of it. He lived for a quarter of an hour after, but was unconscious from the first. No one else was touched. We have buried him here, just in the rear of our position.

A good man, a grand soldier, has gone to his rest.

The sad news of his death this morning cast a gloom upon us all. He had gained the respect, aye, the devotion, of every officer and man in the battalion. In a very special way he had won the hearts of the men. On all sides this morning they were unanimous in their expressions of deep feeling at the loss of one they all regarded as a friend.

When time permitted he would spend all day, and night, too, passing through the trenches, chatting with the men, giving them the benefit of that cheerfulness of spirit which increased as our difficulties and inconveniences became greater. All those good qualities of character and temperament which won for him such a high place in the hearts of all with whom he came in contact in civil life were magnified in him as a soldier.

His fact, his great sense of justice, his indifference to his own personal feelings, have kept many a bubble from bursting. It is hard to think a chance shot should rob him of his one great wish, i.e., if his life was to be forfeited he wished it to be so when engaged in active operations against the enemy.

HEROES OF THE DARDANELLES. MAJOR JAMES FRANCIS McMANAMEY, M.A., Barrister-at-law, President of the Rugby Football Union. Killed In action.

Thirty years on another generation of Australians were finally seeing the end of WW2, and thoughts soon turned to recommencing sport. In 1947 international competition was resumed with the All Blacks playing against the Waratahs at the SCG.

Realising the significance of all the hardships and sacrifices that had come before, stretching back to NSW’s Rugby footballers in the Sudan, the referee that afternoon had been given use of a certain Rugby gentleman’s gold whistle.

“Twas always well to be a footballer,” wrote the Town and Country Journal in 1885 when McManamey and the NSW Contingent returned home, “but to be a footballer and a soldier combined is the summit of all ambitions.”

© Sean Fagan