Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Anzac Day Footy

An edited version of this article Anzac sport celebrates a unity that didn't exist was published in the Age on Anzac Day 2013.
To write about sport and war is to risk censure: Why bring sport into it? Why bring war into it? Why combine the two? Moreover, in trying to balance personal attitudes towards war and military institutions with feelings of sympathy for the individuals and families killed and maimed by war, writers invite contradiction and ambiguity into their argument. The writer’s taste for one can turn sour because of the lack of appetite for the other. So why bother to struggle with this dilemma?

Like it or not, in contemporary Australia, in late April, it becomes necessary, if not mandatory, to contemplate sport and war. Our leading football codes put the connection front and centre. The AFL and the NRL both conduct highly publicised and highly popular Anzac Day matches. It’s a new tradition to which supporters of both codes have been drawn in large numbers. Since 1995 Collingwood and Essendon have battled for Anzac supremacy at the MCG. St George and the Roosters commemorate the day in the NRL. In recent years a cross-Tasman NRL game between Melbourne Storm and New Zealand Warriors has also been added to the Anzac Day mix. This year sees the first instance of Anzac footy in New Zealand, where the Sydney Swans will take on St Kilda.

And there’s something to be said for it. Both codes provided a number of troops who served at Gallipoli and across Europe, many of whom were never to return. Collingwood lost six players, Essendon seven. So these clubs’ own histories add to the solemnity of Anzac commemorations.

Yet something is missing in these memorialisations. Many things in fact. Whole segments of a bloody and divided story are left out of the tale we are usually told.

We were not a nation united in support of Britain’s prosecution of the First World War. Many Australians were set against it. The voting patterns in the conscription referenda, first in 1916 (the ‘Yes’ vote lost narrowly) and again in 1917 (‘Yes’ lost by a wider margin) make it clear that most Australians were against conscription. Many of them would have also been against the war.

Opponents to conscription came from many quarters. Catholics, republicans, the Irish, socialists, unionists and pacifists all had reason to be anti-war and anti-conscription. And they came together as a united force. The ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland web site claims:
One reason why so many opposed conscription was that it provided a focus for a lot of different points of view about the war. Some people opposed the war; others were opposed to conscription as a principle; others were saying that they were hurt by the economic situation of the war, and were protesting against that; still others were voting to protect unionism; others were protesting at the British treatment of the rebels in Ireland. Normally these people might not have agreed with each other on many things, but they all agreed on the conscription question, and the issue gave them all a chance to express their opposition.
As Melbourne’s dominant sporting code, Australian Rules football reflected that diversity and opposition. One of the leading figures in the anti-conscription movement, Archbishop Daniel Mannix, happened to be a cultural and spiritual powerbroker within the Irish-Catholic community of Collingwood and his opinions and instructions carried great weight for many supporters of the Collingwood Football Club. He came increasingly to speak out against the war and conscription, especially after the Easter Rising on 1916. While Mannix’s influence was counterbalanced by Collingwood Football Club patron, John Wren’s support for conscription (even while Wren's own newspaper was against it), this tension underlines the point that there was little collective sense of unity of purpose in relation to the war.

In a fascinating piece of writing in 1916, ostensibly a letter to Oriel (writer of ‘The Passing Show’ column in the Argus), a strange and ambiguous attitude to the war is taken by a Victorian ‘sport’. The correspondent answers the frequent calls for footballers and barrackers to give the game away and join up to support their brothers in the trenches.
Abandon football! Give up our glorious winter pastime, which affords us the very best opportunity of exercising our lungs, in shouting objurgations at our brave boys’ opponents over the fence! No, no; the proposal is likewise ‘over the fence.’ Can we forego the intellect-stimulating pleasure of instructing the umpire in the rules which he ought to know but doesn’t? You ask us to go to the war; but if we did who would advise Dido Denver, that bonzer ‘wing’ man, as to his play? Dido should go too, you say? Well, that’s the limit. Who’s to feed the forwards if Dido goes? Unpatriotic? Who’s unpatriotic? You should hear us sitting at the tailboard of the van singing ‘Australia Will Be There.’
No, mister; if the Germans come here they’ll soon have the sense to know that the Australian game is the best – better than all your Rugby, or Soccer, and all those. Supposing all the footballers went to the war, what would become of the old game? Supposing all the ‘barrackers’ went, the sport would go bung just the same. The crowd makes the ‘gate,’ and the ‘gate’ makes the game. What you ask is out of the question; but we’ll tell you what we’ll do. Appoint a German as umpire, and we’ll show you what loyal Australians we are. We’ll call him everything we can lay our tongue to, and deal with him after the match. There’s a fair dinkum offer. We’re sports, we are. (22 January 1916)
Bristling away behind the attempts at humour and the wanting to appear good-natured might be a sarcastic anger that questions why we are fighting in this war. Perhaps it also puts the suggestion that this war would best be fought by the exponents of “Rugby, or Soccer”, the Poms. On the other hand, maybe the piece is simply an ironic ‘white feather’ attack on those who refused to enlist. One way or the other, it points to a social resentment that runs deep.

The problem of the contemporary remembering of ANZAC is that the narrative it drives is wrong, one of an already united nation forging its identity on a Turkish beach. When we see the Collingwood and Essendon players lining up before the clash we are led to see them in unity, as different factions of one overarching national brotherhood. We are encouraged to believe in a myth.

Pies and Bombers players run through the Anzac Day banner. (Getty Images: Mark Dadswell)
A mature and sophisticated Anzac Day footy narrative would see the teams as representing divergent positions across the Catholic/Protestant, republican/imperial divides. It would tell stories of both protest and loyalty. We would be asked as viewers/spectators to reflect on how diverse and antagonistic communities came to see themselves as united (or not) through the sacrifices made in war. It might even encourage the radical idea that our presently diverse and divided communities are similarly capable of establishing symbols of unity.

Nowhere does the myth as it stands acknowledge that at the time of the Gallipoli landing many Collingwood supporters (and supporters from many of the Catholic inner-city football clubs in Melbourne and Sydney) would have been very strongly against what they saw as the British imperialist war. Nor does the myth reveal the fact that the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) was largely made up of protestant soldiers. The embarkation lists in 1914-15 indicate that a small percentage were Catholic. In the three nominal rolls I looked at around 12 per cent of the initial enlistments were Catholics. And while Catholic enlistments increased in the later stages of the war, there was an initial reluctance, especially in the inner city.

Another point lost in the telling of Anzac is that between 20 and 25 per cent of troops in the very first Australian troop ships were British born, many of them recently arrived migrants. (Now revisit a crucial vehicle in the re-building of the legend, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and see if the soldiers’ accents reflect that statistic.) The first to fall at Gallipoli (from the 11th Battalion) were in about equal measure Australian and non-Australian born.

If it is important to commemorate Anzac Day then it is important that we remember it well and not just via slick commercialised performances. We should remember it in as much detail as we are able. We need to remember who was there, who wasn’t, why they were there and why many refused. Until the commemorations do this they will remain evasive moments of myth-making. We need to remember all, or nothing.


  1. Hi Ian, fine article indeed. Our understanding of Anzac Day and its remembrance ought to be more nuanced and less parochial.

    In terms of sport, you might find this chapter interesting: McKernan, Michael (1979) Sport, War and Society: Australia 1914-18. In Cashman Richard & McKernan Michael (Eds). Sport in History: The Making of Modern Sporting History. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

    When I used to teach history, I started discussion about Anzac Day with some crude statistics. Pretty gruesome stuff about deaths and casualties. However, I did so with the intent of drawing attention to all of the nations in the conflict, thereby trying to move it from a nationalistic frame. The following numbers are approximate only and focus solely on deaths. They also vary slightly depending on which source one consults.

    Turkish: 66,000
    British: 43,000
    French: 10,000 - 15,000
    Aust: 8,000 - 9,000
    NZ: 2,700
    Indian: 1,400

    Once the students saw these figures a common question was: why do we in Australia (and to some extent NZ) put so much emotional capital into Anzac remembrance as though it were a national tragedy for us in particular? The answer is complex, but lies at least in part in the powerful work of historian Charles Bean and other war correspondents:
    Kent, D. A. "The Anzac book and the Anzac legend: CEW Bean as editor and image–maker." Australian Historical Studies 21.84 (1985): 376-390.
    Fewster, Kevin. "Ellis Ashmead Bartlett and the making of the Anzac legend."Journal of Australian Studies 6.10 (1982): 17-30.

    Cheers, Daryl

  2. Ian, I'm informed that 'sport and war' will be a key theme of the forthcoming Sporting Traditions (ASSH) conference in Canberra, 2-5 July 2013. I understand that there will be a day at the Australian War Memorial to discuss the sport-war connection. I have few details other than this:

    I'll probably attend the conference. Might be a good place for you to do a paper on Anzac and sport? Would be nice to see you in person, too!

    Cheers, Daryl