Football and War: a Not-So Dinky Di History

Every year around ANZAC Day, football audiences are saturated with images and analogies drawn between war and footy. Since the first ANZAC Day match was held in 1995 the Australian military have been embroiled in foreign war zones from East Timor to Afghanistan to Iraq. The promotion of ANZAC Day in the sporting context is generally divorced from any critical analysis of those engagements. The discussion—to the extent it occurs at all—has collapsed into hackneyed language where football and war are said to share courage, mateship (as though that is a peculiarly Australian virtue) and teamwork. A concerted effort to skirt over or bowdlerise the reality of World War One in Australia—one of the bitterest chapters in Australian history—has virtually become an industry, in politics and in sport.

In 2006, under the auspices of the Australian War Memorial’s Travelling Exhibitions Program the federal government funded a touring exhibition entitled Sport and War. Festooned with medals, photos and stories about the significance of sport among Australian soldiers fighting overseas, one particular poster stood out.

Made in 1915 in response to flagging military enlistments and plastered over 250 railway stations and 400 city hoardings, the poster depicts a soldier standing over a dead comrade asking ‘Will they never come?’ as a football ground looms in the background. It was a pointed message but not the first time that football and militarism had come into conflict.

A few years earlier in 1911, the federal Labor Party introduced compulsory military training (known as Boyhood Conscription) for males between aged between 12 and 26. But the scheme proved unpopular and absenteeism was rife—with 10,153 prosecutions registered in 1913 alone—and football was ascribed much of the blame. Military drills were hampered by the fact they often conflicted with footy regimens.

In South Australia military authorities were forced into a compromise with the state’s football league (the SAFL) in 1914, agreeing to reduce drills to once a month and to not hold them in regions hosting football matches. In Victoria a young boy admitted he found it “hard to pass the Collingwood football ground” on his way to drills, despite the threat of a 14 day sentence at Fort Queenscliff, which he duly received.

It should be remembered at this time that there was a mistrust of the military, which had been used as strikebreakers in the 1890 maritime strike. In fact John Hancock—who would become the first Labor member for Collingwood in 1891 and provide a rousing speech at the creation of the Collingwood Football Club one year later—stated he hated the sight of a soldier. So when an anti-Boyhood Conscription advocate, J.P. Fletcher, turned up on a Richmond street corner he noted:

“Some lads came up and said they had come to hear me… I soon had a crowd of about 200 round, and when I got started in about the use of compulsory troops in case of strikes, I got a fine hearing. This is a good thing to deal with in working class districts.”

Indeed these working class districts—notably Collingwood, Richmond, Port Adelaide, Fitzroy and Carlton—would prove most resistant to jingoism and conscription during WWI, sometimes violently so.

When war broke out in Europe on 4 August 1914, it was met with an orgy of nationalist fervour all around the world. From the streets of Berlin came cries of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”, in London crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace, in Paris shouts of “To Berlin! To Berlin!” and in Melbourne mobs smashed windows and looted Chinese businesses up and down Lt Bourke Street. Voices like those of the Australian Miner’s Association in Broken Hill, who viewed the war as “a display of civilised savagery and reversion to barbarism engineered by the financial interests of Europe”, were drowned out in the chorus.

With wild patriotism in the ascendant, before the gory realities of the enterprise came home to roost, football continued unabated. But when letters, reports and bodies came back, recruitment dried up and soon a war was waged at home to enlist young men—whether by exhortation or attempts to institute conscription.

An exemplar of imperial and manly virtues was Wesley headmaster Lawrence Adamson, who also happened to be President of the Metropolitan Amateur Football Association. Adamson, who opposed professionalism (i.e. payment to footballers) had long held grievances with the VFL so when he got the opportunity to impugn the VFL he pointed to the poor enlistment numbers of VFL players as compared to the apparently more virtuous participants in the amateur league who did not cleave to money and fulfilled the call to Empire.

The political chasm between football clubs at this time is remarkable. At the start of the 1915 season, Essendon suggested players donate all their payments to patriotic funds (which was fine if football wasn’t your only source of livelihood) while Melbourne’s delegate Dr McClelland (who had previously called for a ‘Sportsmen’s Brigade’ to be sent to Europe) called for the abandonment of the season in order to not distract attention from recruitment. A vote was put to the annual meeting in March to suspend the competition but was voted down 13 votes to 4.

That wouldn’t be the end of the matter by a long shot. As historian Dale Blair has noted, football was under a relentless barrage:

“newspaper editors used their layouts to shackle sport to the issue of recruitment. The enlistment of footballers was always considered newsworthy… Letters or articles to do with the contentious issue of playing during wartime… were placed close to casualty lists and other war news.”

Professional football was being singled out and in the context of declining wages, wartime sacrifices and wartime profiteering, this encroachment on a working-class cultural outlet became another source of resentment.

By July 1915, the proposal to suspend the season was put forward again but did not achieve the ¾ majority required—with four clubs: Collingwood, Richmond, Fitzroy and Carlton voting to play on.

Following publication of casualty lists from Gallipoli, appeals for enlistment increasingly fell on deaf ears. And once again, rather disingenuously, the finger was pointed at football where it was suggested:

“We need only keep our eyes and ears open in places where youth assembles to realise the unhappy fact that the professional footballer… not the patriotic and gallant soldier lavishing his life on Turkish ridges—is still their idol, professional football still their daily theme.”

In the pro-continuation camp, the journalist ‘Free Kick’ from the Football Record decried “the ‘maudlin’ reaction of the daily press.” Collingwood secretary, E.W. Copeland supported continuation, arguing football was “the working man’s relaxation on his half-holiday. It is a cheap amusement for thousands of people.” In 1916 that same position was affirmed by Collingwood President (and distant relative of Paul Seedsman) Jim Sharp when he defended football as ‘a poor man’s sport.’

The defence of football was put in more astringent class terms by the Truth which suggested the argument to send footballers to the front lines was a case of “Toorak urging the toilers to go forth and defend their property interests.” “What” asked the Truth “about the golfing gawks and tennis toffs?” Indeed professional football was being singled out and in the context of declining wages, wartime sacrifices and wartime profiteering, this encroachment on a working-class cultural outlet became another source of resentment.

By the 1916 season five of the remaining nine clubs withdrew, leaving only Collingwood, Richmond, Fitzroy and Carlton to field teams. It has been argued that the clubs merely continued in order to play themselves out of financial difficulty but the logic doesn’t stack up. Collingwood had a healthy surplus of £1,961 pounds while Carlton a deficit of £1,650. The more logical explanation is that the working-class clubs didn’t appear overly keen on being hectored to by high-toned parochials and Empire loyalists. In South Australia, working-class Port Adelaide shunned an SAFL ban on football and formed their own—somewhat provocatively titled—Patriotic Football Association where games were organised between teams from industrial suburbs. During this period Port Adelaide held their meetings at the Adelaide Trade’s Hall – Trades Halls being the centres of opposition to conscription – which you’d imagine might have given the football meetings a strong political aroma.

Port Adelaide FC, back in the day

Exactly the same class fissures occurred in Sydney between Rugby Union—which abandoned the season—and League, which continued. In the ranks of the VFA, it was Port Melbourne, Brunswick, Footscray, North Melbourne, Northcote and Prahran who called for a return to play in 1918—a move opposed by Brighton, Essendon, Hawthorn and Williamstown.

When conscription was put on the agenda from 1916 it had a polarising effect. Both referendums—held in October 1916 and December 1917 – were narrowly defeated, suggesting that sentiment was tight across the board. But drilling down to the Victorian results it is clear that opinions varied wildly depending on location. In industrial suburbs like Batman, Melbourne Ports and Yarra, the NO votes were 63.7/65.55%, 65.32/68.85% and 70.19/72.63% respectively. In wealthy seats like Balaclava, Henty and Kooyong the YES votes were 64.87/64.23%, 68.23/67.98% and 66.96/66.93%.

It’s no surprise to find that in the seat of Yarra—the most staunchly opposed to conscription at over 70% against—also was home to the four active VFL clubs of 1916. The presence of recruiting sergeants at games—a move instituted by league administration to placate military authorities—proved to be increasingly unpopular with crowds. As Blair notes:

“At Fitzroy, Lieutenant R.H. Maskell reported that he and his staff were forced to leave the ground after being ‘attacked by many men and women.’ At Collingwood’s Victoria Park, Sergeant W.H. Durrand also abandoned his attempt to speak to his hostile audience. Sergeant Kilpatrick claimed he was forced to leave the South Melbourne ground under threat, with the crowd urging he had no right to be spoiling their sport.”

After the defeat of the 1916 referendum and on the eve of the 1917 season, Fitzroy and Carlton felt that other club administrations were at odds with the wishes of their players and supporters. They sought to compel them to return to the competition, which South Melbourne and Geelong did.

Having failed in his first conscription bid, Prime Minister Billy Hughes turned up at the MCG in support of the second one. According to historian Stuart Macintyre “the Prime Minister had received a warm reception from the members, while in the outer the air was thick with bottles and stones.”

Unlike the Second World War—which was universally supported by all shades of politics—the first was certainly less so. What advantages were accrued from it are highly questionable, and its ramifications include revolutions, millions of deaths and an environment which helped pave the way for Nazism. These things were questioned and fought over in their historic moment and there is no reason they shouldn’t be now. And that includes the often spurious connections between sport and war which are advanced today in mawkish tones and by the trowel.

*Originally appeared in Vice