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Think Piece – From footy field to battle field.

Thursday 24 September, 2015

Michael Coligan head  shot_Edited_Colour_copy2As the players representing the Woodville/West Torrens and West Adelaide football clubs run onto the Adelaide Oval this Sunday in the SANFL Grand Final, media commentators will no doubt talk about what a real battle the game will be and how the players will go into combat and show great courage to win the holy grail for their club and supporters. When the final siren sounds one team’s players will be lauded as premiership heroes. Courage is a word often overused by modern day football commentators. But the stories of SANFL footballers who volunteered for WW1 shine a light on the real courage shown by a group of young men who no doubt discussed their plans and dreams in the footy club change room before volunteering to serve on the battlefields of the Middle East and Europe.

‘…there is hardly a team in the league which has not suffered through players having gone to the front … undoubtedly the principle sufferers have been the Norwoods, and the flower of their team are now playing with ball cartridge instead of the inflated sphere…’

The Mail (Adelaide, SA: 1912-1954) Saturday, May 1, 1915

Having recently published a book on Norwood footballers who enlisted to serve their country in the Great War (1914-1918), I am reminded of their raw courage in going into battle at Gallipoli and in various campaigns on the Western Front. Many of these men were club champions, leading goalkickers, and State representatives. One was the club doctor. Some only played one or two league games and many played for the Norwood Seconds team. Half of these men were wounded to varying degrees in combat and later returned to the battlefield in extreme conditions to continue the fight with the enemy.

Every league football club in South Australia lost young men but of all the prices paid, Norwood’s was the heaviest. By war’s end, of the 81 Norwood league and seconds players and one official who enlisted, 14 had paid the ultimate sacrifice with a further 39 seriously wounded or severely ill. Philip de Quetteville Robin was the first South Australian league footballer to be killed at Gallipoli on 28 April, 1915.

Club doctor, Colonel Arthur Shepherd was responsible for medical arrangements in the battles of Mont St.Quentin, Peronne and the attack on the Hindenburg line, and later was appointed Senior Medical Officer to the Australian Troops.

Prisoner of war, Norman Collings twice escaped from the Germans, arrived safely back in Adelaide, and on March 24, 1920 died from burns received in an explosion in the kitchen of his restaurant on King William Street along with his wife Martha, three year old son Norman, business partner Leslie Collings and waitress Hazel Robinson. It was a devastating toll for a football community that provided a significant number of war servants.

In the same way that these courageous and daring young men did extraordinary things serving their country, our league footballers next weekend, and on AFL Grand Final day the following weekend, will do extraordinary things on the field. I hope that in so doing, they will honour the memories of those who went before them.


NORWOOD MEN WHO SERVED (2015) by Michael Coligan is available from Dillon’s Norwood Bookshop, 166 The Parade, Norwood or from the Norwood Football Club, Woods Street, Norwood.


Michael Coligan played 83 games and kicked 269 goals for Norwood between 1969 and 1975. He was the club’s leading goalkicker in 1970, and the club and SANFL’s  leading goalkicker in 1972. After a 30 year career in sports management he now volunteers as a researcher for the Norwood Football Club History Group while Chairing the Club’s Hall of Fame Committee.
Michael researched the acclaimed book 1878, which details the club’s first season of league football. His second book, ‘The Norwood Men Who Served’ was launched prior to Anzac Day this year.

To read more about the first SANFL player to be killed at Gallipoli, Philip de Quetteville Robin, click HERE.

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