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Think Piece: A unique Game of Football: and the tradition continues

Thursday 14 April, 2016

claire_woodsIt is Football season. It begins earlier and earlier so it seems. As a child I associated Anzac Day and April with the start of the SANFL season.  We have loyalties and passions for our teams, particularly for the showdown between our local AFL teams – the Crows and the Power.  So it was too, during World War 1, for the men fighting on the Western Front. Athletics contests and Australian Rules football games provided relief from the horrors of the front line, serving as a reminder of ‘ordinary’ life as it was lived at home. What many may not be aware of is, that like home, there was fierce rivalry between AIF units, with much pride in their achievements in games played during snatches of rest and respite behind the line.

The unit history of the 27th Battalion is punctuated with mentions of team victories over brother battalions in the 2nd Division and other Brigades. Yet, where and how the matches were played was very different from the local football ovals at Norwood, Unley, West Torrens or Adelaide.  One game played by the 27th Battalion in April 1917 was described as ‘the most unique game of football ever contested.’  The following passage provides some insight into why…

… The ground was situated amidst the heavy system of entrenchments that constituted the German front line prior to the great Somme offensive in July 1916. The famous La Boiselle crater, the blowing up of which was the signal for the advance, was about 1,100 yards away. Practically surrounded by trenches, the ground was frozen and strewn with pieces of barbed wire and fragments of shells. Sheltering from the cold wind, the spectators viewed the game from the trenches, their heads just visible above the ground. A few plucky volunteers held the goal posts in position during the game.[1]

The 27th defeated the 28th Battalion on that day; one more victory that added to a total ensured the 27th Battalion would become the champions of the 2nd Division.   Their brother, South Australian Battalion, the 10th, became champions of 1st Division.  Both of these teams would meet just once on the Western Front. Again this event was memorable and described in detail in the 27th Unit History.  The troops spectating had to route march 12kms to get to the site. The football teams were transported in wagons to save them for the game. When the troops met, one soldier reported that it was ‘like a miniature South Australia.’  The 27th won the day by 2 points, in a match described as being close to League standards.

This friendly rivalry continued in the years after the War.  In July 1919, the first post-war match was played within a Peace Day event. Thereafter, it became a traditional Anzac Day event at Adelaide Oval.  A local businessman, Mr Heylen, donated a trophy, and for some ten years that followed, the 10th, 27th, 43rd and an Artillery unit, provided ‘double header’ matches for keen supporters.

By 1929, the football players decided they ‘were getting a bit past it’ and the Anzac Day Shield was presented ultimately to the 27th Battalion, because it had been the most successful team over the years.

Whilst on the Western Front, the 27th had played 36 matches, winning 31 of these and losing just 5. Thus, the 27th was the champion team of the 1st and 2nd Divisions during and after the War. The Anzac Day Shield subsequently became an efficiency award for the citizen military forces.

The AFL commemorates Anzac Day with a match at the MCG between two traditional rivals. There is appropriate acknowledgement of all the men and women who have served their country – including those football players who went away and never returned.  In South Australia, many of the crowd who will have watched the Anzac March will wend their way to Adelaide Oval for the Grand final rematch between West Adelaide and the Eagles.  They will be following in the footsteps of a long held SA tradition.

Imagine what it must have been like in the post–war years for recently returned AIF men, particularly those who had played football on the battlefields of the Western Front. As they ran onto the Adelaide Oval into friendly post-war contests they were bearing memories of army life and the trauma of war.

In photos taken on those Anzac Day matches, you’ll see a weary acceptance in the eyes of the players who had survived. They had come home. Many of their mates had not.  They marched on Anzac Day thinking of these mates, then changed into football kit to relive old rivalries. No frozen, shell-strewn ground here, but a land at peace where they could play as serious rivals, with a mateship borne of hard service but without the fear of more mates being lost.

Lest we forget.

[1] The Blue and Brown Diamond – History of the 27th Battalion (AIF) on Active Service, W. Dolman, H.M Skinner, Adelaide; Lonnen & Cope, 1921, p. 81


Claire Woods is a former Professor of Communication and Writing and leader of the Narratives of War research group at the University of South Australia. Her research interest is both professional and personal. She is the daughter of two people who served in the Australian Army. Her father was Capt. Stan Woods MC, 27th Battalion, a Gallipoli and Western Front veteran, and OC 2/10 Ordnance Field Park 8thDivision 2nd AIF, taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942. Her mother was Belinda Skeat, AANS 2/13 AGH evacuated from Singapore on the Empire Star, one of the last ships to leave before the Fall of Singapore.

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