Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens.com
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald as ‘Rugby Answered the Empire’s Call in World War 1‘.
“No omissions by the selectors on this trip,” wrote Lieutenant George Pugh in a letter home to Sydney from war-torn France in early 1916. “It puts you in mind of a football tour, as they all seem to be here.”
A member of the 1912 Wallabies that visited North America, Pugh was now a rifle-carrying Digger dressed in khaki and slouch hat, making his contribution to the Great War. In September 1916, in some nameless muddy trench in Belgium, a German mortar bomb exploded and took Pugh’s life.
By the Armistice on November 11, 1918, more than 35 current or former Wallabies had seen active service. Ten had not survived the conflict, including four from the final Test against the All Blacks in August 1914.
At the war’s end The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the NSWRU “had 4000 members, of whom 3872 had enlisted, and 382 of them had died on active service”. The Land noted “Rugby went out of service in 1914 when 97 per cent of the men engaged went on active service in the greatest game of all”.
Rugby was “the Empire game” and the Empire had called.
“The war has broken out, Europe is ablaze, we in Australia as a patriotic portion of the Empire are endeavouring to do our best to assist the Mother Country in her time of need,” was the simple explanation for the rush by rugby men to recruiting offices.
Blair Swannell, a 1904 British Lion who stayed in Sydney and played for the Wallabies, was 40 when war was declared. A rifleman in the Boer War, Swannell told friends he felt the odds of his return were long as “I have dodged bullets for three years, but this time I suppose they will get me”.
Despite being a family man and a sitting member of the NSW Parliament, 1903 Wallaby forward Ted Larkin, enlisted. “I consider this a critical time for our Empire,” he said “and I deem it the duty of those holding public positions to point the way. That is what has actuated me in taking this step.”
In one of life’s odd coincidences Larkin (league) and Swannell (union) had been opposing administrators in charge of Sydney’s club football competitions in the years leading up to the war. Now they were on the same troopship heading initially for the Middle East, and for both ultimately a fateful ending on April 25, 1915, at Gallipoli.
Sergeant Larkin was among the gallant but impetuous wild charges of the first Anzacs that advanced too far too quickly from the shore. When the Turks hit back with fire bursts of lead and shrapnel Larkin was felled, and with his comrades unable to collect him, was left behind.
Meanwhile, Major Swannell and his contingent were pinned down in the midst of a blaze of hostile bullets coming from all directions. His experienced eye spotted a Turkish sniper, pointed him out to a rifleman alongside, and ordered him to shoot. He missed. Swannell snatched the soldier’s rifle, dropped to one knee, aimed and then shot the Turk dead. Revenge was swift, as seconds later Swannell took a bullet through the head and it was over.
In the days that followed the Allied forces and Turks were at death-grips in a ceaseless ground battle. In the middle of it were Bill Tasker, Harold George, Fred Thompson and Jimmy Clarken who had made Wallabies tours together. Now they were soldiers fighting alongside each other in a Gallipoli trench.
A fortnight after the landing, Private Harold George carried a wounded sergeant across more than 300 yards of open ground and Turkish machinegun fire back to the safety of the Australian line. However, just as George flung himself into the trench an enemy bullet flew into his side, fatally clipping his spinal cord. He never regained consciousness and a few hours later the sergeant died, too.
“Thompson, well, he was after a few Turks after that,” said Clarken later. “His sole thought was getting even, no matter what it meant to him.” For the next 18 days a fiercely angry Thompson never missed a chance to engage the Turks.
“Then came the great rush of the Turks, and Fred stood up there, potting them off one after another,” explained Clarken. “We called him to come down, but his only reply was, ‘It is the only way to stop them’. For a time he seemed to bear a charmed life, for the bullets were landing all around him. Then one went through his head.”
Later the same day Private ‘Twit’ Tasker was the victim of a German or Turkish artillery shell burst that left him wounded and half-buried in displaced ground. They dug him out, but with a badly wrenched back and metal shrapnel fragments in his feet, he was invalided back home and discharged from the army. Tasker told sports reporters in Sydney of the loss of his Wallaby teammates, “they are both dead, but I can tell you I would not mind being where they are, if I could leave the same record for bravery and grit behind me”.
All told, five Wallabies gave their lives in the Gallipoli campaign, and another five in western Europe. Among the list of fallen is Tasker.
After recuperating at his family’s home in Condobolin he tried to re-enlist, was twice rejected by AIF doctors, but somehow by late 1916 worked his way into an artillery unit headed from Sydney to Europe. Tasker suffered fatal wounds in the Battle of Amiens, three months before the Armistice.
Reflecting upon the war’s dreadful toll, Sydney’s The Arrow suggested, “the only bright spot in all this, apart from the fact that the Allies have the Germans hard on the defence, is that the response by rugby footballers has shown that their game is as fine a preparation for war as anything in the line of sport the world has invented”.
“The response has come from all grades of players, from the juniors to the first graders of ordinary powers to the representative men, and to the men who have retired from play for many years. It is a great thing to dwell upon in this hour of the world’s carnage.”
A soldier writing from ‘Anzac Beach’ in 1915 said “I see where a great crowd [25,000] turned up to see Balmain and Glebe play the rugby league match. It is up to a lot of them to ‘take a tumble’ and come over here.”
In newspapers across Australia “the Wallaby Captain” Dr Moran, who was a surgeon on a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea serving the Gallipoli wounded and dying, made an impassioned plea for men to enlist.
“You must all come over if you want to win this war,” implored Moran. “It is fighting all-in now, and the slacker and the shirker merit only a noose of rope. It is the only game worth playing at present, and they are in our twenty-five. If we lose we are out of the competition forever, and when we win we shall despise those who looked over the fence when our line was in danger.”
As it was explained at the time, rugby stopped as “the spirit of the Union game was such as made it impossible to carry on during the war”.
When the NSWRU announced it was suspending the 1915 club competition, it was more procedural than a directive, as the great majority of rugby players had already gone (reported as 241 across the Sydney clubs).
The stern uncompromising words of “the Wallaby captain” weren’t meant for rugby men, but the “stay-at-home brigade” and “parlour patriots”.
The focus today does not belong on what gains other codes made at rugby’s expense. Emblematic of the ethos of amateur rugby preceding the war, the self-sacrifice the sport made to practically enlist en masse was more than a badge of honour, it served as an exemplar for the generations of rugby players and supporters that have followed.
“The occasion produced the men,” declared Cyril Towers, the great Wallabies, Waratahs and Randwick centre who had become a radio and TV commentator.
“All of us, both inside the arena and looking over the fence, who gain any measure of entertainment from the rugby game in Australia, owe a debt of gratitude.”
© Sean Fagan
WALLABIES WWI ROLL OF HONOUR
(Date of death & where serving)
Major Blair Swannell (Nthn Subs) – April 25, 1915, Gallipoli
Sergeant Ted Larkin (Newtown) – April 25, 1915, Gallipoli
Private Harold George (Easts) – May 10, 1915, Gallipoli
Private Fred Thompson (Easts) – May 29, 1915, Gallipoli
Captain Arthur Verge (Sydney Uni) – September 8, 1915, Gallipoli
Lieutenant George Pugh (Newtown) – September 5, 1916, Belgium
Private Herbert Jones (Newcastle) – November 4, 1916, France
Captain Clarence Wallach (Easts) – April 22, 1918, France
Captain Bryan Hughes (Nthn Subs) – August 6, 1918, France
Gunner William Tasker (Newtown) – August 9, 1918, France