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
On the Wednesday afternoon of 5 August in 1914 telegraph wires flashed back and forth across Australia with news that Britain had declared war on Germany, and therefore Australia was also at war.
When the third Test between the Wallabies and All Blacks was held a week later, the match had to be moved to a 2pm kick-off so the New Zealanders would have enough time afterwards to board their ship home, which under new wartime regulations had to be out of Sydney Harbour by sunset (or be made wait tied-up at the dock until sunrise the following morning).
Within weeks many of the nation’s top Rugby footballers had enlisted in the ‘The First Australian Imperial Force’ (1st AIF).
“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’, March 1916
By the end of the war eleven Wallabies had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Wallabies killed in action or fatally wounded:
A short paragraph in a letter from a prominent International player to Mr. J. R. Henderson (NSWRU) sums up the situation: ‘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.’
– ‘The Referee’, March 1916
Fred Thompson (Eastern Suburbs, Waratahs, Wallabies):
Thompson got into big football in 1911, when he played his initial games with Easts, being about 6ft high he was always prominent in line-out work, and possessed remarkable pace in following a ball. Member of the 1913 Wallabies tour to New Zealand, a highly regarded back-rower played in the two Tests held in Sydney against the All Blacks in 1914. Sailed with his AIF unit from Sydney in mid February 1915, but on 29 May was among the fallen at Gallipoli after being shot through the head.
Clarence ‘Doss’ Wallach (Eastern Suburbs, Waratahs, Wallabies):
Played in all three Tests in 1914 against the All Blacks, after playing them twice on the Wallabies 1913 tour of New Zealand. Leaving Sydney with the rank of private, “he went right through Gallipoli without a scratch”, and was one of the last to leave the Peninsula. From there he went to France, was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry”, and was promoted to captain. Wounded in action he had both legs amputated in what proved to be a forlorn effort to save his life, passing away on 22 April 1918.
Harold George (Eastern Suburbs, Waratahs, Wallabies):
A prop forward and stalwart of the game, George was ever present in Waratahs and Wallabies teams from 1910 until the war broke out days before the final Test against the All Blacks in 1914. “It is hard to imagine anyone playing a harder, tougher game than he did. Perhaps never super-brilliant, he always played himself out to the last ounce, and was an awfully hard man to beat for the ball in the front rank of a scrum” wrote The Arrow of George. Enlisting in the AIF, and just two weeks into the Gallipoli campaign, he undertook a “heroic rescue of a wounded comrade, whom he carried several hundred yards under hot fire, a deed that might have won the V.C.”, only that before George could then get himself back into the trench he was shot. He died on a hospital ship on 10 May 1915.
The Wallabies that played in the final Test match on 15 August 1914 included nine players that enlisted during the war, four of whom were killed in action:
Bruce Beith (enlisted), full-back; Ernie Carr (enlisted), Larry Wogan, Larry Dwyer, Monty Massy-Westropp, three-quarters; Bill Tasker (killed), five-eighth; Fred Wood, half-back;
Fred Thompson (killed), Harold Baker (enlisted), Pat Murphy, ‘Doss’ Wallach (killed), Ted Fahey (enlisted), Harold George (killed), David Williams (enlisted), Clarrie Prentice, forwards.
© Sean Fagan