ANZAC DAY: Rugby men from the front

Sean Fagan Columnist

By , Sean Fagan is a Roar Expert

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    From the distance of 100 years since the start of World War One it is difficult for us today to fully appreciate why men, particularly rugby men, so willingly rushed to join the AIF and went ‘over the top’ when the officer’s whistle blew.

    Perhaps the words of the Wallaby captain can give us some insight and context.

    When a man who has led the Wallabies into battle speaks, the game listens. In the darkest hours of World War One, Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran delivered a rally call that emboldened many rugby players and supporters to come forward and enlist.

    Moran captained the Wallabies on their 1908-09 tour of Great Britain and France, and was instrumental in steering the team away from accepting being tagged the ‘Rabbits’ in favour of adopting ‘Wallabies’.

    Though he missed the game through injury, Moran’s team are also remembered for winning the gold medal in rugby at the London Olympics by defeating England (represented by the Cornwall county XV).

    In his streetwear the bespectacled Moran, who did not possess a large physique, looked anything but the rugby football terrier he was on the playing field.

    Studying medicine at Sydney University he moved into the Varsity’s first-grade team in 1905 and quickly gained a solid reputation, rewarded with his NSW Waratahs debut in 1906.

    In 1908 Moran moved north to take up a the medical superintendent position at Newcastle Hospital. He was selected from the East Newcastle club for the Wallabies tour in July 1908.

    The form shown by Dr. Moran was most remarkable [playing for Northern Branch XV versus Hunter selection in Newcastle]. He was here, there, and everywhere, and was easily the best player in the 30, being sound in both defence and attack. And his line-work [line-outs] was a revelation; it took three of the Hunter players to mark him and then he often beat them. (‘The Referee’, 27 May 1908)

    Staunchly grounded in the ideals of amateurism and sport for its own sake, Moran declared upon the team’s arrival in England that he was “thankful to say that they themselves (in the face of rugby league starting in Sydney) had remained strong adherents to amateurism, and although they might be beaten in forthcoming encounters they could never be robbed of their amateur status”.

    Moran did not sail home with his team via North America, opting to stay behind to obtain his ‘Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons’ at Edinburgh University.

    While there British Lions and Scotland captain David Bedell-Sivright invited Moran to play for the University’s rugby club, but he declined, revealing the shoulder injury he suffered during the Wallabies tour had ended his career.

    Following a brief stint working in hospitals in Dublin and London, Moran worked his way from Plymouth to Sydney late in 1910 as a medical manager on the Marathon ocean liner.

    He was welcomed home at dinner arranged by James McMahon (1908/09 tour manager) and “a dozen of the loyal Wallabies”, who had stayed with the amateur code in the face of huge financial offers to switch to league.

    After setting up a medical practice in Balmain, Moran accepted the position of president of the Balmain Rugby Club.

    He also took up the whistle on Saturdays, officiating grade matches in the Sydney district competitions.

    The 1908-09 Wallabies in Britain. Looking at the photo Moran is left of team manager James McMahon (in suit).

    When the war came in August 1914, Moran was immediately intent on making a contribution. He wrote later in his biography Viewless Winds:

    The ardently loyal [to the King and Empire] and the adventurous at once flocked to enlist. The more cautious sought to justify their hesitation by declaring that no one leaving Australian shores would ever smell the powder of battle; it would all be long over before their training finished. The more cunning were already scheming to draw profit from a well of trouble.

    What stirred me most was the arrival, after the first six weeks, of English illustrated newspapers in which two central pages were crammed with photographs of officers who had already fallen; the flower of a race, so rapidly being cut down. Sometimes I recognised the name of a man who had figured in contemporary sport or of a medical graduate of my own time. Their images murdered my sleep.

    Moran found a buyer for his medical practice, but it took until well into autumn of 1915 to complete the transfer. The prospect of spending weeks or longer in a military training camp in Australia held no appeal for the impatient Moran, so he (and his wife) left for England via the USA.

    After news reached Sydney that a German U-boat had sunk the Lusitania in the North Atlantic heading from New York to Liverpool, the rugby community held grave fears that the Morans were likely to have been aboard. They had in fact made the crossing on the St Louis ten days earlier. In a letter home to let all know they had arrived safe and well in London, he observed that:

    When a nation sinks to torpedoing a ship full of women and children, it is like the boxer who, realising the end, raises his knee – when he does it, we all know why.

    Of what he observed of England’s sporting men enlisting, he made reference to Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Islanders’, which had caused a public stir during the Boer War, when many took it to infer cricketers and footballers were holding back on joining the British Army:

    The flanneled fool is now stonewalling on a sodden wicket near Ypres; the muddied oaf, more muddied still, is fighting for a greater goal than ever before. Those games, and the discipline of sport, have provided the material which the wand of Kitchener is transforming into a great army.

    [A colleague] told me he was glad to get into uniform, for when going about London in mufti he felt the eyes of everyone on him, silently rebuking him for not being at the front. And, indeed, every man with any self-respect must feel like this.

    Moran was accepted in the British Army’s ‘Royal Army Medical Corps’. After “wasted months” at a Connaught Hospital at Aldershot, he was eventually posted on various hospital ships, which included periods in the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles straits.

    He saw from a distance the action taking place at Gallipoli in August 1915, and treated injured soldiers brought to his ship. He wrote:

    The sons of our pioneers have initiative and resource. When I thought of those who had fallen and pictured them lying with faces to the ground, clutching at the earth of which they had become tenants in perpetuity, I felt sure of one thing: that their heads lay forward towards the enemy. Only their bodies had faltered; their spirits were still rushing on.

    A letter from Moran appeared in Sydney’s The Referee in November 1915:

    I am meeting quite a lot of footballers. We are coasting up and down near the front receiving wounded men in dozens, and all our staff nurses and doctors are working overtime. They fall down exhausted, some of them, and just sleep where they are, wake up, and begin again. The opponent whom I gave my jersey to in Western Australia after the Wallabies’ match there, recognised me. He said he knew my knees. I don’t know what they had been up to to make him remember them. I was afraid to ask him. Nearly all the doctors here are old Cambridge or Oxford Rugger men. We often get a chance to go over ‘past deeds’.

    The hospital ships themselves, overwhelmed with the injured, the dying and the dead, became cesspits of ill-health to all on board. Dysentery was rife, and the medicos were not immune. Moran, in his own words, “rather shamefully”, fell victim and was soon in a military hospital at Imtarfa in Malta.

    He was then “sent to convalesce in the rich green peace of the Isle of Wight” at Osborne House, and “felt guilty of self-indulgence” while “others were not shunning hard ways”.

    It was from here that Moran wrote a withering call-to-arms to Australia’s men, particularly those of the rugby kin, imploring ‘cold-footers’ not to shirk, but to join the effort. Published in newspapers across Australia, he wrote:

    I came here yesterday from Malta, and am now convalescing in the palace where Queen Victoria died. One can almost forget the war in this place of shady walks and the quiet of country lanes.

    You must all come over if you want to win this war – ‘every man Jack’ [all] of you.

    It is fighting all-in now, and the slacker and the shirker merit only a noose of rope.

    It is the only game worth playing at present, and they [our enemy] are in our twenty-five.

    We want all the young men, and the old men, too, to put it in with vigour.

    Send us men, men, men, and more men.

    It is the best game in history. There are no rules, and the only referee – posterity – has a whistle that cannot be heard.

    Yes, they’re in our twenty-five at present, but when we heel out our ammunition more cleanly we shall move forward.

    Meanwhile, we want men – men with fierce, relentless eyes, and men with ruthless hands; men of the Anzac breed.

    There is no let-up and no begging pardon.

    If we lose we are out of the competition forever, and when we win we shall despise those who looked over the fence when our line was in danger.

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    In a postcard to E.S. Marks in Sydney, a prominent official in amateur athletics and swimming, Moran made a similar plea:

    Here at the old palace [Osborne House] where Queen Victoria died, and am convalescing and feeling like a giant restored … Send all the men over – stop games until the greatest bout of all times has been settled. We want men so badly of the type that stops at nothing until they are over the line, and if they can use the boot so much the better.

    Moran was soon after posted as chief surgeon at a military hospital on “the Mesopotamia front” at Basra in what is now Iraq. Again he became the victim of dysentery, and was shipped to India.

    His sentiment now seemed weary and tempered as the war continued to take its heavy toll on the men of the AIF, writing to Harry Grose, the Balmain rugby club secretary he did not this time call for those at home to enlist, instead closing his letter with:

    Remember me to any of the boys you see. I am always hearing of a few more who have paid the price of liberty with their lives, and it makes one very sad.

    By early 1916 Moran was back in Sydney and commenced working at St Vincent’s Hospital. Meanwhile, the last of the Anzac troops had been evacuated from Gallipoli, and Australia’s forces were beginning to arrive in France.

    More than 295,000 Australians would serve on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918. It is estimated that 46,000 Australians lost their lives, and 132,000 were wounded.

    Sean Fagan is one of Australia’s foremost sport historians, who has written books on both rugby and rugby league. This article originally appeared on Sean’s website Saints and Heathens.