ANZAC LETTERS FROM RUGBY SOLDIERS

Fred Thompson and Harold George.
Fred Thompson and Harold George. “The New South Wales Rugby Union International Footballers, who have given their lives at the Dardanelles.”

“When the bugle-call to arms was sounded in 1914 he put aside the jersey for the khaki, the football for the rifle and the bayonet.

To Gallipoli he went, and fought grimly by the side of gallant comrades of the football field, some to fall before his eyes.”

A collection of letters and newspaper clippings from World War One written by or about Rugby players from Australia.

“Whenever I look up my photographs of footballers now I do so with no pleasure, for I am reminded of the number of truly grand men who have gone under in this fight of the nations. Rugby football must surely put every other sport into the shade in the matter of providing fighters who have made the supreme sacrifice.”
– ‘The Referee’, Sydney, 1916

“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.”
– ‘Arrow’, Sydney, 1916

Wallabies who died while serving with Australian
or British forces in WW1:
[date of death & where serving]

Blair Swannell (Nth Sydney / Sydney) – 25 April 1915, Gallipoli
Ted Larkin
(Newtown) – 25 April 1915, Gallipoli
Harold George
(Easts) – 10 May 1915, Gallipoli
Fred Thompson
(Easts) – 29 May 1915, Gallipoli
Arthur Verge
(Sydney Uni)– 8 September 1915, Gallipoli
George Pugh
(Newtown) – 5 September 1916, Belgium
Herbert Jones
(Newcastle) – 4 November 1916, France
Clarence Wallach
(Easts) – 22 April 1918, France
Bryan Hughes
(Nth Sydney) – 6 August 1918, France
William Tasker
(Newtown) – 9 August 1918, France

“I have dodged bullets for three years, but this time I suppose they will get me.”
– Blair Inskip Swannell (member of the British Lions in 1899 & 1904, had served during the Boer War. In 1905 he settled in Sydney, played for the Wallabies, and enlisted with the AIF in August 1914) 

“It was sad about poor young Pockley … he was in the same football team as I was in Sydney .. Only those who can ride and shoot are wanted, as we have no time to train raw material. I can hardly realise that we shall be at the front so soon. I don’t mind as long as I have a good horse, rifle, and plenty of ammunition I shall be able to take care of myself and If they get me I hope you will be able to say he died well doing his best to preserve our Empire and for the future of our beloved Australia … I only hope for one thing and that Is that in years to come the young people of Australia will not forget about those lonely graves in Belgium of men who sacrificed their lives freely and gaily in order that those same young people may live and prosper In freedom and carry on the Empire we loved and fought for, not under the savage domination of the Prussian bullies of Potsdam.”
– Richard Granville Waddy, who played Rugby for Sydney University in the early 1900s (his brothers were famous Australian cricketers), moved to England late in 1908 to study medicine at Oxford University. He had enlisted with the ‘King Edward’s Horse’ a cavalry regiment comprised of colonials. The letter was written from London in late 1914.

Sydney University first XV player Brian Pockley. Earlier was captain of the Rugby team at Sydney Church of England Grammar School ('Shore').
Sydney University first XV player Brian Pockley. Earlier was captain of the Rugby team at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (‘Shore’).

“I consider this a critical time for our Empire, 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.”
– Edward ‘Ted’ Larkin, MLA, in the NSW state parliament, August 1914. Larkin played for the Wallabies against the All Blacks in 1903.

“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.”
– ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, 12 May 1915, at farewell to James McManamey – a member of the first NSW team in 1882, he had been part of the military contingent to the Sudan, a first class referee and incumbent NSWRU President.
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Near Cairo, March 1915. Major Blair Swannell (left) with Captain Alfred Shout, who later was awarded the Victoria Cross and Military Cross for service at Gallipoli. Both were killed in action.
Near Cairo, March 1915. Major Blair Swannell (left) with Captain Alfred Shout, who later was awarded the Victoria Cross and Military Cross for service at Gallipoli. Both were killed in action.

“In the football world how immortal will be the names of E. R. Larkin and B. I. Swannell. No braver hearts ever beat even in the heat of strife on the battlefield; no more patriotic spirits ever existed. Fresh with the early laurels of political life, E R Larkin threw away his comfort and joined the ranks, because he realised that a patriot’s duty was more than mere talking. He did what parlor patriots have asked others to do. But at what cost to the social, political, and sporting life of Australia! It is consoling to the football friends of these two heroes to realise that they have given up their lives in the interests of the liberty, freedom, and justice we all enjoy, and which has been built upon centuries of suffering by the sacrifice of lives and fortunes by the flower of the British race.”
– Keith McClymont, Western Districts (Orange) player early 1900s, writing ‘from Heliopolis’ May 1915.

“The training we went through was characteristic of Blair [Swannell] in all his doings. He was the most thorough man alive, as all who ever played football under him know only, too well. No detail was missed, and as a result he had us all up to concert pitch when the time of the great landing occurred.  The major was a wee bit disappointed that we were not selected to land first. He considered we were the best of the companies, and should have had that honor; but that again was characteristic. He wanted to be in it. We will never forget the rush he made leading us up to the first rest after landing. There certainly was no fear in that man’s make-up. Unfortunately, his end came soon. He was, I think, a little too anxious for it. Spying a sniper, he ordered a man alongside him to shoot him, and gave him the range. The next thing we knew Blair himself was having a shot, and got his man. The next second he got one through the head, and went the same as many other great, brave fellows have gone in this war. We all felt it very much, for he made some staunch friends among the men under him. They all knew he would do a thing himself if he ordered any of them about, and they willingly do things for a man like that. It must have been a shock to all his friends here [Sydney], but it was a greater one to us, as he seemed so powerful and knowledgeable, and had waited many dreary months for the chance which lasted only a few minutes.”
– Sgt H. Mitchell (first grade player for Manly and North Sydney), The Referee, 27 October 1915

Lt George Pugh
Lt George Pugh, had played for the Wallabies in North America in 1912

“… the manner of Swannell’s death. It appears that Blair was under cover and being fired at. One of his men fired at a scout and missed, when Blair took his rifle from him and knelt to have a go — the end of poor Blair — I believe he went straight out.”
– Lieutenant Sydney Middleton, writing from Port Said (The Referee, 29 September 1915) . Middleton was member of the 1908 Wallabies, and captained Australia against the All Blacks in 1910.

“I have joined my battalion. Have met lots of old friends, including Rugger men … The list is too long to remember. It puts you in mind of a football tour, as they all seem to be here. No omissions by the selectors on this trip.”
– George Pugh in a letter to ‘The Referee’ in March 1916. Pugh played for Newtown in Sydney and was a member of 1912 Wallabies tourists who visited North America

“All the R.U. men are doing well and keeping fit. Now that we are having a rest in Egypt, one realises how many of the devotees of the old game are in the ranks, and it is good to know so many have answered the call. Unfortunately, some of the best have gone, but that was part of the bargain when we all signed on.”
– Unidentified international player, letter to the NSWRU in ‘The Referee’, March 1916

Harold George (Eastern Suburbs, Waratahs, Wallabies)
Harold George (Eastern Suburbs, Waratahs, Wallabies)

“We arrived at Heliopolis about three weeks ago. We have been in some pretty solid work, but expect to go into the real stuff next week. All the Rugby Union men are well here, from the Major down to the privates. ‘Twit’ Tasker told me how Harold George died the death of deaths — a hero’s — never beaten till the whistle went.”
– Clarence ‘Doss’ Wallach, writing from Gallipoli, August 1915.

Capt Wallach (SMH 20/5/1918)
Capt. Wallach

“We have been here nearly two months now, and I am still going strong, so is Sid Middleton, although we have both lost a bit of weight, and will continue to do so until we get out of this. I notice by the papers that Eastern Suburbs are still going strong, and toweled Uni. up pretty badly, but considering the number over here, I suppose they are all scratching for a team.’‘
– Clarence ‘Doss’ Wallach, “writing from Gallipoli (10/10/’15)”

“Your letter took three months to get me … I am back in the ranks again. It seems that all reinforcements on N.C.O.’s in the artillery revert to the ranks on joining their unit at the front; a bit hard on us, but they contend that those who enlisted first should get precedence in the way of promotion. I suppose they are right. Anyhow, I guess I’ll do my bit just as well as a gunner as a sergeant. Only stayed in Egypt a fortnight before coming on to the front, but that was quite long enough for me. When I joined our brigade they were at Cape Helles, where the British landed, and I was there for two months; now we are at Anzac with our own boys … This war is a slow affair; here we are in practically the same position as the day they made the landing. I tell you this is a tough proposition, and nothing like what the Australian Press makes it out to be. Our boys can fight, but so can the Turk and this system of trench warfare make it terribly hard to advance. Sorry to say this Suvla Bay landing was only a partial success; we gained very little good ground and increased our front enormously. Anyway, next time I write I hope to be in Constantinople. I saw Fred Thompson’s grave to-day. He was buried in the military cemetery at Anzac, and it was in splendid condition, with a large white cross, with his name, etc., in black letters. I am in a dug out about 8 x 2, and it’s raining like old fun outside.”
– Willie Watson (Wallabies prop, 4 Tests), Gallipoli, 22 October 1915

“I had a yarn with some of his trench-mates, who said that Harold George and [Fred] Thompson went out like men. They both left great reputations behind them for daredevil work.”
– Willie Watson writing from the ‘3rd AGH’ (Australian General Hospital) Lemnos Island, Greece, late 1915.

“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 … Those two fellows never worried about the risk. They just wanted to bog in for all they were worth from the first … Nothing was too big or dangerous for them. Harold George earned the Victoria Cross nearly every day. He met his death in a way that any man would feel proud to die. A call was made for volunteers to cross a dangerous piece of ground and occupy an enemy trench which had been vacated. Four men were wanted. Harold and Fred were the first in,   though when volunteers are called for, instead of an order being given to certain men to carry something through, the occasion is regarded by all as extremely dangerous — almost a case of suicide. Fred was not taken, but Harold was. The party of four and a sergeant were hardly out of the trench when one was settled. Then the sergeant was bowled over, and the men had to vacate the position and retire. Harold picked up the sergeant and carried him fully 300 yards on his back under heavy fire. It was the grandest thing you ever saw. He got him safely to the trench again and put him under cover, but before he could get there himself a bullet entered his side, and went right through him. He never regained consciousness, and did not know Fred or myself, though we tried to bring him round. I think the bullet must have hit his spine, for he kept mumbling something about the weight of Cotterill, the sergeant whom he had carried back, and who also died. About four hours after they took him away we heard of his death, and let me say this: We all knew his pluck on the football field – well, multiply that one hundred times, and you would not get within coo-ee of the grit Harold George showed in that dash for safety with his dead pal on his shoulders … Somehow it does not seem right, that we three should go away together, and these two not come back, while I am here alive to-day. Perhaps I should have been where they are, and if it comes to my lot to go back I would like to go out leaving something accomplished behind me comparable with what they did.” 
– William Tasker, interview in ‘The Referee’ (13 October 1915), speaking about his Wallabies team-mates Harold George and Fred Thompson

“On my return to the battalion I found that Tasker had been wounded by a bomb during an attack on Quinn’s Post on the night of May 29. Poor Fred Thompson, too, met his death about the same time. He was shot through the head, and dropped in the trench. To someone who wanted to move him, he remarked that he ‘hadn’t far to go’, and died very soon afterwards. To everyone who knew them, Harold [George] and Fred [Thompson] have always been known as men, good sports who ‘played the game’ good and hard, and never shirked. By their noble and gallant conduct when they doffed the jersey and donned the King’s khaki they have proved their manhood, and shown the world that the Australian Rugby Union player is a man right through. It is indeed gratifying to know that the players at home are following their fine example.
– Stuart Perry, Gallipoli Peninsula, 16 July 1915 (Manly fullback 1911-14)

“We have now been here about nine weeks, at Cape Helles [Gallipoli] where the first lot landed [25 April]. Life is very pleasant here, but it is hard to keep alive, as one man put it. What with shrapnel bullets, drain holes and the fear of cholera and gas, to say nothing of typhoid, you will see it is somewhat hard. We are hanging on, not being able to advance much as yet, and the Turks can’t get rid of us, nor we of them. We have had a good number of fine chaps killed and wounded in our regiment (6th L.H.) … Down at Cape Helles they are advancing slowly. It is going to be a long job … It is awfully hard, this life; living underground, terribly hard to keep clean. Water is scarce, and not good, and the food, though good and plentiful, deadly monotonous. Bully beef and biscuits, with an occasional onion and potato and occasionally some bread … when you are here and see the awful difficulties you can realise what these gallant chaps did [landing 25 April]. Oh! for a bath and a clean bed and a decent feed. It is very hard on the men, they work like navvies, but, considering everything, are very happy. Mails are very few and far between, and very welcome. Egypt was getting unbearable when we left, with the flies and heat, but the rotten flies seem to have followed us here, and are in millions … I miss the golf and the surf at Manly. The men used to go into the sea in thousands here, but it had to be stopped as there were so many killed and wounded by shrapnel. The Turks shell the beach all day. They appear to be fighting quite fairly, and treat prisoners well. It is 4.3o[pm] now, and we are just waiting for the ‘Evening Hate’ in the shape of shrapnel. They generally chuck a bit of iron about from now on until dark. We get into our dugouts as soon as the first shell comes over, and so save our skins … Recruiting appears to be very satisfactory, and, by Jove! we want all we can get. The men get knocked up after a month or two of this joint, and want a spell. Sydney must be pretty quiet with so many men away … To-day I have been inoculated for cholera. That is the thing we fear most at present, and it is very prevalent about these parts. It is an awful disease. … Hoping to see you some day soon.”
– Dr Arthur ‘Johnnie’ Verge, Gallipoli, mid 1915

Sergeant Edward Rennix Larkin, MLA; Lieutenant Colonel George Frederick Braund and Lieutenant Colonel John Brady Nash MLC before Gallipoli, [Egypt, 1915]
Sergeant Edward Rennix Larkin, MLA; Lieutenant Colonel George Frederick Braund, MLA, and Lieutenant Colonel John Brady Nash MLC before Gallipoli, [Egypt, 1915]. Both Larkin and Braund had played for the NSW Waratahs, Larkin for the Wallabies.

“Just a line to say that Mr. Larkin’s body was recovered and buried on the 24th [May 1915]. Bayonet wound. Thought you might like to know. Our fellows have done magnificent work. The only fault is they are too daring.”
– Lieutenant Pary Okeden, Gallipoli

“… the late Sergeant Larkin, Member for N. Sydney, was supposed to have been horribly mutilated, but I saw him the day he was buried, and the only marks on him were bullet wounds.”
– George A. Morris, Gallipoli (The Globe 9 October 1915)

“Sergeant Larkin, the Labor member, had hard luck. He was wounded in the leg the day of the landing while our men were retiring [retreating], and of course, no one could stop to pick him up, as the fire from the Turks was like hell, and after advancing a couple of days later they found he had been settled with the bayonet.”
– Private Charles Brian, ‘Gallipoli Peninsula. Turkey, June 13, 1915’.

“During an armistice on Monday we buried 200 of our men and about 3000 Turks. We found poor Larkin’s body that day. I can assure you that the tales about the mutilation in his case are lies. I had a talk with the clergyman who read the prayers and the men who were at the burial. The legislator-soldier must have been killed instantly. His wrist-watch had not been touched, and his ring and his money were found on him. I have written a comforting note to Mrs. Larkin, which I hope she will get.”
– Colonel Ryrie, M.P., Braund’s Hill, Gallipoli, May 31,1915.

“I was wounded on May 9, so have not had a rosy time. But it is good to know that it is not permanent, but I will be useless as a fighting unit for at least three months more. Still I am very lucky to be alive when so many fine fellows have gone under. I have just heard of poor old George’s death [George Hill, brother of NSWRU official W. W. Hill]. It is out of all proportion that such fine chaps as he should be killed. The luck of things, I suppose … am now in London. A big, busy place, but give me Sydney. I am able to get about a bit now, so will try and see some of it … King George also personally congratulated myself, among others, on our promotion. It makes you feel you have at last done something worth while. Writing is a difficult matter for me with my arm, so excuse poor letter. Major I. G. Mackay (of Church of England Grammar School) is here, and asks me to send his kind regards to you and all Rugby folk.”
– Lieutenant H.R. Hill, London, mid 1915 (Hill played for Newtown, Warialda and NSW Country)

“I am meeting quite a lot of footballers. We are coasting up and down near the front receiving wounded men in dozens, and all our staff nurses and doctors are working overtime. They fall down exhausted, some of them, and just sleep where they are, wake up, and begin again. The opponent whom I gave my jersey to in Western Australia after the Wallabies’ match there, recognised me. He said he knew my knees. I don’t know what they had been up to to make him remember them. I was afraid to ask him. Nearly all the doctors here are old Cambridge or Oxford Rugger men. We often get a chance to go over ‘past deeds’.”
– Dr Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran (captain of the 1908/09 Wallabies tour) writing from a British Navy hospital ship, late 1915.

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,
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,

“Long before this reaches you you will have heard the sad news of Jim McManamey’s untimely death … This morning, at 6, in company with the Colonel, he left the trenches … to consult with him as to the best means of protecting a well, which, owing to its exposed position, has proved a source of danger to those drawing water there. The enemy’s artillery have the range to a nicety. Arrived at the well, they commenced their inspection. Jim was standing some 10yds from the Colonel and staff officer when a shell burst just above them. The 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.”
– Lieutenant Frank Coen, 5 September 1915, Gallipoli (Coen was a fellow NSWRU official who had played for Sydney University).

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

“Before noon a plaintive cry came back along the communication lines from man to man. ‘More ammunition and reinforcements wanted on the left.’ I hope I will never hear such a significant sentence again. It told us that John Turk was no longer being driven. Our small gallant boys were weakening, and in difficulties. The request for men and ammunition, sickening though it was to all of us, was answered by the fine soldiers from New Zealand pushing their way in single file up steep hillsides, sweating and scrambling with heavy boxes of ammunition, sent to the relief of the ‘death or glory’ boys of the famous Third Brigade. Men wounded, thirsty, and hungry could not be coaxed away for repairs, being afraid that the Turks might come at them any moment. Counter-attacks were beaten off time after time by sheer doggedness, and a dozen times throughout the day and night our men stood with bayonets fixed and a determination not to recede one yard; with grimed, unflinching faces set, those born fighters were prepared to fight to a man rather than go back. There were hardly any officers left. Had there been any a retreat may have been ordered, and I for one was glad that the men had to rely upon their own initiative.”
– Tom ‘Rusty’ Richards (Wallabies 1908=12, British Lions 1910) stretcher-bearer with 1st Field Ambulance at Gallipoli (‘Richmond River Herald’ 10 September 1915)

“I am glad to know that, despite the big response to the colors, the Rugby Union season was a successful one … I am sorry I did not have more time in England. If I live this thing through I will re-visit it, I think, and see some of the football heads. Poor old Harold George! With regard to Fred Thompson. Well, he was after a few Turks after that, and never missed a chance to knock some. His sole thought was getting even, no matter what it meant to him. Every day he did some fine things. Then came the end of another great man. There were only a few of us left in the trench, and we were taking all the cover possible, all except Fred, who never missed a chance at the enemy. Then came the great rush of the Turks, and Fred stood up there, potting them off one after another. 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, and he lived just long enough to say to us all: ‘Good-bye! I am sent for! Good luck to you all!’ It was a touching scene, and we were all cut up, for he was so brave and strong, and knew what he was doing right up to the second he succumbed. As a matter of fact, he shook hands with the man next to him as he fell and uttered the last sentence. Well, both those game fellows left us behind to admire them, and I am sure that everyone who had the luck to be with them in those great days will never have the deeds I speak of wiped from memory.”
– Private James ‘Jimmy’ Clarken, writing from Lemnos (The Referee, 13 October 1915). Clarken played for the Wallabies between 1905-12

The Waratahs' Herbert Jones passes to Clarence Wallach during a match against the All Blacks in 1914. Both were killed in World War I. Photo: Sydney Mail
The NSW Waratahs’ Herbert Jones passes to Clarence Wallach during a match against the All Blacks in 1914. Both were killed in World War I. Photo: Sydney Mail

“‘Ere this reaches you, perhaps, the ardent supporters of conscription will have carried their point, and we shall be honored in our midst with the splendid presence of some of those sportsmen who, we read, are advocates of this principle. Well, their views are not taken to heart by the general sporting public of New South Wales; at least, we here [Gallipoli] hope not. No, sir, the men who left Australia as volunteers would, I think, rather give their all than have to say that the honor of our land was so little that we had to conscript our manhood before the ultimate issue was reached. If the men who are left behind had ties of family, ties of business needs, then surely they can sink them for the ties of nation. All these ties will be broken, crushed by the oppression of German hate, if we go under. And surely the men of the type whom we learned to honor and respect are not going to advocate and look for compulsion. What grand men the voluntary army has put forth! And what nobler example could be needed to spur on laggards than the gallant — nay, heroic— deaths of some of these Spartan volunteers? Twenty-seven Rugby Internationalists from Great Britain alone! And added to these, those great names of amateur sport (using the word amateur as defining voluntary sport), Swannell, McManamey, George, Rosenthal; and numerous others mentioned in your columns from time to time, have writ their names large on the scroll of heroism. All the magnificent glory which the Australians and New Zealanders covered themselves with was acquired by volunteers, and we ask you not to let it be tarnished by our own men folk. It will be a grand heritage for Australians in future to hold, and a grand page in history to look back on and to say: ‘Here our own blood was given by the volunteers from Australasia, and the iron despotism of the Conscript Lord smashed by our armies in which our free men played their part.’ There are the men in Australia who won’t come. Well, do not send them to help us here. The men who have not their souls in this bitter struggle are a menace to the whole souled lads here. We have had many malingerers who, when asked to do their share, failed utterly; and it is useless to saddle us with more. Do you personally think that a man who is forced to do his bit will do it with a whole-souled thoroughness and ardor, or will he shirk the hard and do the easy? I ask you this because of your knowledge of Australian manhood. If they are forced to come here, where the roar of guns strike them, will their courage be any greater than it was when they refused to come? Many men of old age and family responsibilities cannot come. We don’t ask them to. But we appeal to all the young men of Australia to shoulder the gun and try in some way to carry on to an end the worthy efforts of their volunteer brothers already accomplished, rather than have those who have already died be as a silent mockery of their want of manhood. Be typical of our grand country; be free voluntary men, and let not the arm of conscription sweep across our country and pluck the unwilling, the cowards, for forced service when the volunteers have died like the heroes on Gallipoli.
– Sapper Archie L. Ogilvy, Manly Rugby Club, writes from Gallipoli 18 October 1915

“Doubtless you have had many descriptions of Egypt, the varied and sundry sights which are to be seen there … I managed to see round Cairo in a hurried manner and also the Pyramids. Strange to say, at the Pyramids I encountered Jim McManamey, both of us being perched on camels. His death was a great shock to all of us who knew him, and also the men he had come in touch with. Everybody had a wonderfully high opinion of him, and deservedly so; he was just on the eve of an important promotion, which would have given him fuller scope for his abilities. I wish you would convey to the Union my sympathy for the loss they have sustained in such a sound and well-versed president, and such an enthusiastic supporter of the game … Over here Rugby Unionists are continually meeting, and it is truly remarkable that the game should have been kept going [in Australia] during the past season, owing to the great number who are in the Northern Hemisphere …  as regards officers, this is a veritable Union strong hold … I have not seen Sid Middleton since we landed, but he has also moved up now, and carries three stars. He is camped about half a mile away, but we do not wander about very much and half a mile here in certain directions would lead to a very swift finish … I have been very fortunate since landing as regards health, and this is rather surprising, considering the number of young, strong fellows who have gone over to dysentery and other sickness. Everyone seems to be better now that the cool weather has come on, and all are hoping that the number of cases of sickness will become very small in the near futuie. We live very much better here than in camp at Liverpool [Sydney] or Egypt; the food, so far, has been very good and well varied, while a good dug-out is much more comfortable than a tent … A happy Christmas and pleasant, prosperous, and peaceful New Year.”
– Sam Beddie, writing from Gallipoli, 1 November 1915 (a member of the NSWRU Management Committee, who left Sydney as sergeant and won promotion in the field to lieutenant).

“I am O.K. I joined my unit here some weeks back, after a long stay in Egypt. Whilst there I read in ‘The Referee’ of the death of Sergeant Ted Larkin and his brother Martin, known to the boxing world as Paddy Martin, two of the best. I was a member of the same club, the Newtown Pastime, which had some of the cream of Australia’s boxers as members at different times. There you would see some real ding-dong fights, not spars, whilst we were training for our contests … often get ‘The Referee’ here, and I am really glad to learn all the news. I see where a great crowd 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.”
– Private Tom Williams (aka Tom ‘Bull’ Nicholls, pro boxer) writing from ‘Anzac Beach’ Gallipoli (‘The Referee’ 3 November 1915). Williams had also played for Newtown Rugby Club.

“You must all come over if you want to win this war — ‘every man Jack’ [all] of you. 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 [our enemy] are in our twenty-five. We want all the young men, and the old men, too, to put it in with vigour. Send us men, men, men, and more men. It is the best game in history. There are no rules, and the only referee — posterity — has a whistle that cannot be heard. Yes, they’re in our twenty-five at present, but when we heel out our ammunition more cleanly we shall move forward. Meanwhile we want men — men with fierce, relentless eyes, and men with ruthless hands; men of the Anzac breed. There is no let-up and no begging pardon. 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.”
– Dr Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran letter to Australian newspapers November 1915

“There are dozens of footballers of lesser fame and lower grades knocking about. I meet them every day. A man is always taking a bit of a risk here, and there’s plenty of sickness about: but I’m still going strong, and hope to be for some little time yet. I haven’t killed a Turk yet, but they have gone pretty close to me far too often. The damage we do one another in the style of warfare is mainly from shells and bombs, and we never see the results in these cases, but there’s plenty evidence of former willing hand-to-hand goes lying about all round us, far too close to be pleasant if one’s at all delicate.”
– Lieutenant Sydney Middleton, writing from Gallipoli (The Referee, 15 December 1915)

“Your very welcome letter to hand. I am grateful for news of the Rugby Union and good old Sydney. I receive ‘The Referee’ and other papers regularly, and see all the news, and, of course, the R.U. Notes are always first read. I am very pleased to see the game is still going, as it is for the right purpose, and I always read with delight the names who have answered the call. Gee, it makes one think and bite his lip; still, enough said. Like you, I regret the departure of such men as George and Thomas, and ‘Blair I.,’ [Swannell] besides many others too numerous to mention. However, we will still keep having a go.”
– Private James ‘Jimmy’ Clarken, writing from Mudros (Lemnos) (The Referee, 15 December 1915). 

“It’s heart-breaking at times to see one’s friends being knocked over, but one becomes resigned to the fact that it may be his turn at any moment … Bert Boardman keeps fit; he has not changed, although he looks older. Reg. Hardcastle, to, is O.K. The strain seems to have left a more serious look in all our faces, I think. I do not know how long they intend to keep us away from the firing line, but all the Australians earned this spell, and it was wanted, for continual fighting has a tendency to play on a man’s nerves … Bert Boardman played football yesterday afternoon, and I may be able to have a go at the good old game again one of these days. It is rather on the warm side yet, but I would like a game. It would make one forget for a time that we have more serious work to do yet. I will be glad if you will remember me to any of the old football crowd, and trust that I will be spared to return to good old Sydney and be able to strip again and hear old Ernie Keary’s ‘keep on side, Curly’ again. With best wishes.”
– Sergeant GT ‘Curly’ Rogers, Wentworth Rugby Football Club, writing from Gallipoli (The Referee, 15 December 1915)

“I expect you heard of the evacuation of the Peninsula [Gallipoli]. It was carried out marvellously. Old Jack Turk never knew we had gone and left him in peace until we were all away. 1 was lucky enough to have the honor of being amongst the last few to remain behind after the Brigade had moved off at intervals. The last four hours on the Peninsula were the longest four hours of my life. With only 25 of us in the line that the battalion held, it was a very good job that the Turks did not know about it. But everything went off like clock work along the whole line, and old Jack must have got an awful surprise when day broke to find we had done a ‘moonlight flit’. It was a grand military success, but to leave the place where we have worked so hard for those months, and the good fellows who will never come off the place, it hurt. No doubt its for the best, for it was practically an impossible position to advance from without awful casualties. But I can honestly say with all the old hands I think we would far rather have had the orders to go ahead. One thing we are proud of is that the Turks have never taken a position from the Australians and held it for any time. Anyhow, its finished there now, as far as we are concerned, and I hope we shall still keep up our name in whatever they give us to do in the future. This camp life does not agree with me; I don’t like it after the old genuine article.”
– Sergeant GT ‘Curly’ Rogers, writing from Egypt (The Referee, 15 March 1916)

“I am out here in the wilds of the Persian Gulf — a place which I hardly knew anything about until I came — but it is very similar to your last adventure at Rabaul [now in Papua New Guinea] as regards malaria and mosquitoes. Thank goodness, that part of the work does not fall to my care, for I have complete control of the surgical cases, and they are most interesting. It is very hot. The rainy season ended last month, and the hot season begins in May, when it is never under 120 deg. in the shade … We shall be home in July. I’ll be sorry to leave here, but we have made all our arrangements. I suppose the war will be over by the end of the year, and I don’t see how we can lose. The only point is — can we win outright? The Persian Gulf place is sure to come under British Suzerainty, and they say it is another Egypt, and that British capital and commerce will make it a great place to exploit. They say it has a great future, and will be a great field. Personally, it would be too hot for me; but I rather think, in the days to come, it might be a good and prosperous country. I saw a number of Australians coming through Egypt. Their physique seems so much superior to the others, and they are a tough lot. They have done wonderfully. Remember me to any of the boys you see. I am always hearing of a few more who have paid the price of liberty with their lives, and it makes one very sad.”
– Dr Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran writes to Harry Grose, Balmain Rugby Club secretary, April 1916.

“‘We have a thousand beds, the hospital situated under date palms by the side of the Tigris River, close to a little township whose inhabitants sell things by day to our men, and by night sneak out to snipe us. We are very busy; we are at present trying to take Kut, and the ‘wastage’ [wounded men] comes floating down the river to us in slow, shallow old barges. I have charge of all the surgical side of the hospital, and as we are at present practically all surgical, you can see I have plenty of worry … The wounded, however, heal well — quite a contrast after the cases from France and Gallipoli, and we see no gangrene to speak of here, and very little ‘trench-foot’. But it’s a sad business, and I’d rather be in the very thick of it than patching up the debris … The world is very small. My servant is a school teacher from South Wales, who sang ‘Sospan Fach’ at us [1908/09 Wallabies] in Llanelly, and he remembers it as plainly as yesterday. I hear him at times singing, ‘Who beat the Wallabies?’ Good luck and cheer oh. Depressed with the hard work and the misery of these poor beggars.”
– Dr Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran writes to E.S. Marks from 23rd Stationary Hospital, ‘Tigris River in the Persian Gulf’, May 1916.

“Worst of it was we could not get anyone to come up and play us, and as you get tired of playing among yourselves they kidded me to learn Rugby, which I tried to do to my sorrow, as the first game I played was nearly my last. They nearly killed me. It’s play the man at that caper, and the more you kick it out of bounds the better the player you are. It’s not a game, and I would sooner play two-up any day.”
– Private Jim Stewart, Buckinghamshire, England late 1917. A South Melbourne FC Australian rules player, waiting with his regiment to be sent to France.

“Soldier-footballer W.G. Tasker has fallen in France. He was a young representative Australian Rugby Union five-eighth, who played against New Zealand, America and Queensland, and won honors for his school, Newington College. When the bugle-call to arms was sounded in 1914 he put aside the jersey for the khaki, the football for the rifle and the bayonet. To Gallipoli he went, and fought grimlv by the side of gallant comrades of the football field, some to fall before his eyes: unbeaten Harold George and fearless Fred Thompson. He spoke of the deeds of these true men as a little brother talks of big brothers who do things that thrill. ‘Twit’ Tasker came back [to Sydney] wounded badly, but in time recovered sufficiently to induce the keen-eyed military masters to pass him again for active service. In France another of the 1914 Blues of NSW who had been a hero with him at Gallipoli, Captain C. Wallach, M.C., recently fell, and now ‘Twit’ Tasker, the youngest of the lot, has gone down with the colors flying. His spirit is that which will permeate the men and women destined to make of Australia the salt of the earth in days to come, when few here now will be here to see the greatness come to the land and its people — a greatness born of the turmoil of the war.”
– ‘The Referee’, 28 August 1918

William Tasker (Newington, Newtown, Waratahs, Wallabies)
William Tasker (Newington, Newtown, Waratahs, Wallabies)

“Rugby Union footballers continue to pay the price of war. Corporal W. G. Tasker, the latest to give his life, did so after accomplishing something that few soldiers have equalled. The brilliant International five-eighth enlisted at the outbreak of the war and was seriously wounded at Gallipoli. Invalided home and discharged, he was restless to return, and after being twice rejected managed to be accepted for the artillery. Even then he had difficultly in getting away, and narrowly missed being returned from Capetown, where he was in hospital for some time. A similar experience befell him in London, but he was determined, and eventually got to France. About six weeks ago news arrived that he had been seriously wounded, but as the message received last Saturday states, he was killed in action, he must have successfully made another attempt to get into the firing line. It is one of the many remarkable instances of pertinacity the war has furnished.”
– ‘The Referee’, 28 August 1918

“The N.S.W. Rugby Union became busy on the conclusion of hostilities. At a meeting of the council on Thursday it was decided to forward the following cable to the King through the patron of the Union, the State Governor: ‘The members of the N.S.W. Rugby Union desire to convey to his Majesty the King their expressions of loyalty on this historic occasion.’ The following message was also wired to the Rugby Football Union, London, South African Rugby Board, N.Z. Rugby Union, and Queensland Rugby Union: ‘Greetings on the cessation of hostilities. We are proud of the part Rugby Unionists have played in the war.’ Though the war work of Rugby Union footballers was magnificent, and the game will be taken up again with hundreds of grand fellows gone to their fathers, the old game itself had to fall back in public eye, save when the schools were on the field, and it will require all the enthusiasm and business push to rehabilitate it in anything like the flourishing condition of a few years back. However, if a few changes in the game itself can be engineered and the strong support of New Zealand is given, as in the past, with the co-operation of that body in matters of international concern, especially with respect to touring, there is reason to believe that the old game will come back into its own, and that Rugby Unionists of the future will be as brilliant muddied oafs as the gallant men who have so nobly done their duty in the time of national stress.”
– ‘The Referee’, 20 November 1918

© Sean Fagan

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