Today’s sport coaches risk criticism if they equate sport with sacrifice in war, yet 100 years ago recruiting campaigns actively linked the two in an effort to encourage enlistment.
In 1917 Australians were urged to join the Sportsmen’s 1000 and fight on the Western Front with the promise that they would train together, embark together and fight together.
Posters featured Victoria Cross recipient Albert Jacka whose physical prowess and skills as a boxer were said to be central to his celebrated status as a fighting soldier.
They even borrowed the famous words ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’ from the 1897 English war poem Vitai Lampada by Sir Henry Newbolt, a school friend of British Field Marshal Douglas Haig.
The Australian War Memorial says the campaign to enlist sportsmen was fuelled by a strong belief that by playing sport young men developed specific skills and qualities that could be used on the battlefield.
Rowers were urged to ‘pull together to victory,’ sailors to ‘weather the storm,’ and golfers to ‘take their caddy and enlist.’
In fact, from the early months of the First World War, thousands of Australians who had excelled across many sports, were potential champions or played club sport joined up.
Five young cricketers who survived the war went on to play a total of 127 Tests from their debuts in 1920-21.
They were 15th Field Ambulance stretcher bearer Bert Oldfield, Field Artillery Lieutenant Jack Gregory, 27th Battalion Captain Nip Pellew, 10th Army Service Corps Lance-Corporal Herbie Collins and 101st Battery gunner Johnny Taylor.
One wonders what Hay-born, Waverley batsman Norman Callaway could have achieved in the game if he was not killed by a shell at Bullecourt in 1917, aged 21.
Months before enlisting in 1916, Callaway played his only first class innings for NSW, scoring an amazing 207 in 214 minutes and winning praise that he was ‘like Trumper.’
Tom ‘Rusty’ Richards, born at Vegetable Creek near Tenterfield, was a 1908 Olympic rugby gold medallist and is the only Australian to have played for both the Wallabies and British Lions.
The London Times wrote: “If ever the Earth had to select a rugby football team to play Mars, Tom Richards would be the first player chosen.”
Richards joined up in August 1914 and recorded acutely observed entries about the brutality and humanity of the front lines in his leather-bound diary.
About 100 Victorian Football League players died in WWI including Ballarat-born, Geelong Team of the Century halfback Joe Slater at Bullecourt; Launceston and Carlton premiership champion George Challis at Armentieres; and Fitzroy and Victorian captain Jack Cooper at Polygon Wood.
Champion swimmer and 15th Battalion Lieutenant Cecil Healy was among 40 past and future Australian Olympians to enlist. Healy is the only Australian Olympic Gold medallist to die in battle - when he was killed by machine gun fire near Peronne in August, 1918.