NICK RICHARDSON The Game of Their Lives. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
The Game of Their Lives is a compelling account of Australian Rules football and the men who played it in a time of war.
Central to this story is the exhibition match played between teams from the Australian Imperial Force’s 3rd Division and the training units at Queen’s Club, West Kensington, London, on 28 October 1916.
None of the players (many of whom had represented major league clubs in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania) in what was regarded as ‘a showpiece for the Australian game’ had yet been to the front.
Before opening this book I tried to imagine it, and TS Eliot’s lines in ‘The Hollow Men’ about the Shadow that falls between the intention and the act came to mind.
I imagined Nick Richardson having a great idea about constructing a book around the reality of a single footy match and providing details of the players’ lives before and after the event. The strength or weakness of the Shadow would be determined by the ability of the narrator.
A number of lower-case shadows were certainly cast over the game. The advent of the First World War spoiled the Australasian Football Council Carnival held in Sydney in August 1914 and the evangelising efforts of Australian football officials to make inroads into rugby territory. But even worse were the attacks on football in its own stronghold. While athletes, and footballers especially, were lauded as ideal soldiering material, and many took up the call to arms, many were not enough.
In Richardson’s account football’s fight is on two fronts. The soldiers experience various degrees of boredom, dread and exhilaration. Football is among the activities used to maintain morale as well as fitness in the training camps and temporary relief behind the lines. At war’s end shipping shortages mean delays of up to a year before the troops return home. Sport again gives the men something to do. Football carnivals are organised in Charleroi (France) along with Inter-Allied athletics games in Paris and the AIF cricket tour of England during the summer of 1919.
War politicises people and this book reminds us how, in the euphoric rush of Empire loyalty on the eve of the conflict, Australia’s political leaders outbid each other in the election campaign of 1914. At Horsham, Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook declares, ‘Remember that when the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war’, only to have Labor Leader of the Opposition Andrew Fisher up the ante at Colac on the same day with, ‘Australians will stand beside the mother country to defend her to the last man and the last shilling’.
Many men rush to join up for the ‘greatest adventure of their lives’ in the optimistic belief that the war will be won by Christmas. However such belief is soon dashed as the war expands on many fronts. Footballers are among the early recruits and of those who die in the first day’s carnage at Gallipoli are Collingwood’s Alan Cordner, Melbourne’s Joe Pearce, South Melbourne’s Charlie Fincher, University’s Rupert Balfe, Fen McDonald (Carlton, Melbourne), Claud Crowl (Carlton, St Kilda) and Norwood’s Phil Robin. As Richardson writes:
It was a sombre reminder that, despite all the mock-heroic sentiments, sportsmen were not invincible creatures who could outrun bullets and shrapnel.
When casualties mount few families are left untouched and attitudes harden.
Footballers and those who watch the game come to be unfairly stigmatised. Prime Minister Billy Hughes (who replaced Fisher in October 1915) and Defence Minister George Pearce display a maniacal intensity in their efforts to raise additional troops for overseas service.
The Victorian Football League comes under attack when it votes to continue its competition. Divisions operate largely on class lines with figures like lawyer, pastoralist, politician and Victorian Cricket Association president Donald Mackinnon and Wesley College headmaster Dickie Adamson (a prime proponent of muscular Christianity) unable to understand those who don’t enlist. They are abetted by the Argus journalist RWE Wilmot, who contrasts the men who stormed the foothills at Gallipoli with others who continue to play and watch football on Saturday afternoons. Melbourne’s other morning newspaper, the Age, supports this position.
The truth lies elsewhere.
Richardson shows that while football, boxing, racing and cricket were all targeted by community pressure groups, football bore the brunt of the criticism. The Collingwood, Carlton, Richmond and Fitzroy clubs, which continued playing, may have mainly represented the working class but at the end of 1915 football had a better record than cricket in supplying recruits.
The great irony of the main football match of the title is that it is played on the same day that the first conscription referendum is held in Australia:
The legitimacy of the shared qualities between Australian football and soldiering was an esoteric argument few of the soldier-footballers had any great inclination to acknowledge. For them, the Exhibition match was like their football life on rewind, spooling back to the time when they could play the game without the fear of conflict and mayhem that beckoned them.
There’s nothing hollow about the mainly men in this history, whether on football fields or at the battlefront, and figures such as Bruce Sloss, the Reverend Charles ‘Redwing’ Perry, Hughie James, Dan Minogue, Carl Willis, Stanley Martin, Percy Trotter, Leslie ‘Leggo’ Lee, Thomas Hewitt and George Barry are among the players and umpires, the details of whose lives and (in some cases) deaths are skilfully interwoven throughout the text.
It might be said that it takes all sorts to make an army but among these footballers the contrasts are sharp. Former South Melbourne captain Sloss, a fitter and turner, had faced family hardship during childhood following the loss of a farm at Naringalingalook and a house in Balaclava burning down; Norwood’s Perry had been a mobile ruckman at Prince Alfred College and sees sport as a testing ground before beginning his league career and continuing to play as a Wesleyan clergyman; James, a bricklayer from Ascot Vale, had represented Essendon in the Victorian Football Association before rucking for Richmond; Trotter is a Fitzroy star who moves to East Fremantle and works on the Fremantle docks as a stevedore after facing his own share of family tragedies; Willis is a Wesley College footballer/cricketer who qualifies as a dentist while representing the University and St Kilda clubs; and Martin, also from Wesley and from a professional family, plays for University for five years while mucking around failing all his subjects in both medicine and dentistry.
One of the pleasures of reading this book is to note how the author fleshes out the lives of a vast array of characters, providing drama and context to their various worlds. As he draws on an enormous range of sources, perhaps that which is employed most impressively is the Sloss family archive. Bruce Sloss is the 3rd Division captain in the exhibition match and his elder brother (James) and younger brother (Roy) are also in uniform. James is a Turkish POW so the information on him is scant, but Bruce is a lieutenant in the 10th Machine Guns when he is killed by a shell:
It was the news Christina Sloss had dreaded … Bruce had been the one connection between her boys overseas. And Bruce had discovered something liberating about military life: the sense of order, the joy of command, the adrenalin of danger. He had told them at home he had never been happier. But he had a life planned for when the war was over: he and Glad [his fiancée, Gladys Hamilton] would be married and then move into the house at Nyora Street, Malvern. Glad was bereft at the loss of the man she loved. They had been together eight years. What would become of her now? What would become of the house her father had built? After all the hardships of the Slosses’ family life, this was another hammer blow.
This is simple, direct prose, perfect for its purpose in conveying one family’s tragedy. Importantly, Richardson doesn’t miss a beat but immediately takes up the story of Bruce’s sister Tullie, who has been living in New Jersey and narrowly escapes death on the SS Laconia when it is torpedoed off the Irish coast as she is on her way to service with the Women’s Legion in Britain. Subsequently we learn of correspondence between Tullie and Glad, who joins the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps at home in the hope of getting to France to serve. By this time (March 1918) we also discover Glad’s politicisation, her disgust for ‘degenerate males’ – eligible men who fail to enlist – and loathing of Archbishop Mannix for his opposition to conscription.
Richardson’s book highlights the exhibition game and the men who took part in it but is also the catalyst for a much more ambitious project. At the end the argument runs that the players from the Queen’s Club encounter should be seen as ‘footballers first and soldiers second’ – a puzzling conclusion. The Game of their Lives is a panoramic history of sport and war, so the book’s great strength, its breadth of vision, almost inevitably means that the exhibition game is somewhat lost, left half in shadow, half in light. It’s probably where it deserves to be.
Nick Richardson The Game of their Lives Pan Macmillan 2016 PB 352pp $34.99
Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and most recently edited a cricket anthology, Baggy Green: A selection 1998-2010.
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