written by Sean Fagan

Lt George Pugh

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 war-time regulations had to be out of Sydney Harbour by sunset (or be made wait tied-up at the dock until sunrise the following morning).

The Wallabies that played in the final Test match on 15 August 1914 included nine players that enlisted during the war, four of whom would be 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.

By the Armistice on 11 November 1918 over 35 men who played for Australia since the first test in 1899 had seen active service, 10 of whom had fallen in battle or succumbed to injury or illness shortly after being removed from the front lines.

“Given his life for the Empire”

Australian players 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

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

Within weeks of war being declared many of the nation’s top Rugby footballers had enlisted in the ‘The First Australian Imperial Force’ (1st AIF). Others, including Wallabies Herbert Moran and Bryan Hughes, chose to “rally for the old flag” by joining British forces, while later Danny Carroll saw action with the US Army in Europe. Three of the 1904 British Lions tourists served with the AIF during the war: John Sharland (Victoria), J. Leeper Fisher (Queensland) and Blair Inskip Swannell (NSW).

Swannell had settled in Australia after the 1904 Lions tour (he had also been a member of the 1899 tourists), gained a Wallabies appearance in 1905, and at the age of 40 joined the AIF when war was declared in 1914. He had previously gone through the Boer war as a rifleman with the Buckinghamshire Imperial Yeomanry. At a send-off function in Sydney he told those gathered he felt he would never return. “I have dodged bullets for three years” he said, ‘but this time I suppose they will get me.”

In an unexpected move for a sitting member of a state parliament, Newtown’s 1903 Wallaby forward Ted Larkin volunteered for duty, enlisting as a private in August 1914 and leaving his wife and sons behind. “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.”

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 lead up to the Gallipoli landing Swannell  held the rank of major, but his pessimism (as it turned out rightfully placed) had not lessened, telling a comrade when they arrived on the shores of what would soon become ‘Anzac Cove’ on the morning of 25 April, to take the bottle of whisky from his bag as “I shan’t be coming through today.”

Different stories are told as to how these two famous Wallabies met their fate that day (now Anzac Day).

Larkin it is said was among a rush of Australians that advanced so far quickly over the first rugged hills that they were cut off from their support. When the Turks hit back Larkin was wounded by a bullet, and with his comrades unable to slow down to collect him, he was left behind. They found his body a month later, a bayonet wound suggesting the enemy had quickly finished him off.

Meanwhile Swannell, with hostile bullets coming from all directions, had spotted a sniper, gave the range to a rifleman alongside, and ordered him to shoot. He missed, Swannell snatched the solder’s rifle, dropped to one knee to take aim and shot the Turk dead. Barely moments later Swannell took a bullet through the head and it was over.

The loss of both men was deeply felt by those at the front and at home. Swannell was for a time secretary of the Sydney RU, a referee, involved in hockey, swimming and took a senior officer role when compulsory military training started. “Sydney has lost many prominent and wealthy men in Gallipoli but the greatest sorrow was reserved for the big-hearted international footballer” was one of the many newspaper tributes to Larkin.


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

The one Australian Test cricketer to be killed in action was Albert ‘Tibby’ Cotter, who had been a goal-kicking fullback in the powerful Glebe Rugby Club’s first grade team in the early 1900s.

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.


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

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.

Fred Thompson (Eastern Suburbs, Waratahs, Wallabies)
Fred Thompson (Eastern Suburbs, Waratahs, Wallabies)

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.

Arthur ‘Johnnie’ Verge (Sydney University, Waratahs, Wallabies):
A qualified doctor, Captain Arthur Verge was a medical officer of the 6th Light Horse Regiment. Remembered as one of New South Wales’ smartest Rugby fullbacks of the early 1900s, this King’s School old boy came into prominence as a University player, and was not long in winning state rep honours. Verge was fullback for two Tests against the 1904 British Lions. He enlisted late in 1914 and served at Gallipoli with his regiment until stricken down by dysentery so severe that, though taken to a military hospital in Alexandria (Egypt), he could not be saved.

Blair Swannell (Nth Sydney / Sydney)
Ted Larkin
George Pugh (Newtown)
Herbert Jones
Bryan Hughes (Nth Sydney) Brian D. Hughes, the North Sydney forward, and an Australian representative player, who made the trip to England to enlist, has a lieu tenancy in the Dublin Fusiliers. Lieut. Hughes is one of the famous brothers who left their mark on the Rugby game in this State. He gave a lot of study to military worK before leaving Sydney.

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

William Tasker (Newtown, Waratahs, Wallabies)
Corporal ‘Twit’ Tasker lost his life in France in 1918 after accomplishing a record of pertinacity matched by few soldiers. The brilliant Wallabies fly-half enlisted at the outbreak of the war in 1914, was seriously wounded at Gallipoli, invalided home and discharged. Restless to return, he was twice rejected by army doctors until accepted for the artillery. He got as far as Capetown where he was in hospital for some time and was to be shipped home. He managed to recover and reached London, where again he was hospitalised. Finally in France he reached the firing line. News telegraphed to Sydney confirmed he had been seriously injured, and most thought he would now give war service away, but another message six weeks later conveyed to all he was killed-in-action (meaning he must have once more got back to the battle). All up in France he was four times wounded and gassed before meeting his end. A very fine footballer, Tasker captained Newington College in 1910-11. He figured as five-eighth for Newtown in the three following seasons, and was captain in 1914. In each of these years he represented NSW and toured with the Wallabies in 1912 (North America) and 1913 (New Zealand). Tasker, ‘an original Anzac’, passed away from fatal wounds suffered in the Battle of Amiens on 9 August 1918, just three months before the armistice, ‘his duty nobly done’.

© Sean Fagan