The day an errant kick nearly brought World War I to Sydney

Paul Nicholls Roar Guru

By Paul Nicholls, Paul Nicholls is a Roar Guru

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    One Saturday afternoon in 1917, as an American mail ship steamed in through Sydney Heads, it took evasive action to avoid hitting a floating mine.

    Unscathed from its close encounter, the ship raised the alarm when it docked.

    There were no minesweepers in Australia at the time, so a naval cutter was sent out to investigate.

    Eventually the explosive was located, floating in the ocean off Sydney’s northern beaches. The crew of the cutter, with much care and a great deal of mirth, disabled and retrieved the ‘mine’.

    It was not a mine after all! How did the object get there? We have to go back a few hours, to around 3pm that same afternoon.

    At Lyne Park, near Sydney’s picturesque Rose Bay, a game of football was taking place between teams from the Navy and Drummoyne.

    Some time during the match, one of the players took an almighty swipe at the ball – perhaps a shot on goal, presumably by a defender – which sailed well over the goalposts all the way into Rose Bay.

    The players could only shrug and give up the ball as lost.

    The ball floated out of Rose Bay on the tide all the way to the harbour entrance where it ‘attacked’ the steamer coming in through the heads. Of course, footballs didn’t come in white or fluro colours in those days, they were tanned leather, which turned dark brown when wet, so in the water they could resemble anything really – even a German floating mine.

    Eventually the ball floated up the coast all the way to Narrabeen, where it was picked up by said sailors.

    The newspaper report I based this story on mentions, “at the time the Wolf was off the coast and she was blamed”. So what of this Wolf?

    The book The Wolf, by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen, describes the 451-day cruise of the German raider, SMS Wolf. Sailing from Kiel in late 1916, it sunk more than 30 ships in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, some in Australian waters.

    The Wolf also laid mines off the coasts of South Africa, New Zealand and Victoria. A freighter, the Cumberland, struck one of these mines just a few kilometres off the Victorian coast in July 1917.

    So it turns out that the Americans’ concerns may not have been completely baseless.

    Is this salty nautical tale a true story? Admittedly it was reported in a Sydney newspaper some ten years after the events occurred. And it wouldn’t surprise if those footballers from the navy and Drummoyne teams might have had a few ales after the game.

    Who knows, perhaps the story grew a few barnacles in the retelling. But sometimes a good story is like good wine – it gets better with age.

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    The Crowd Says (23)

    • January 17th 2018 @ 8:05am
      marcel said | January 17th 2018 @ 8:05am | ! Report

      Nice anecdote…I totally agree that facts are not a necessary ingredient of a good story.

      But at the risk of being a pedant….The ground at Lyne Park is about 50m from the shore…Rose Bay is not subject to harbour currents…If an object did make it to the heads , currents off the coast run south not north, so the ball would be at Cronulla not Narrabean….a cutter in 1917 was an unpowered sail boat, probably the last thing you would send out on a search mission…If any of this were actually possible..it would take about a week for the ball to travel that distance not a couple of hours.

      So no chance of it being in any way true..But cool little tale anyway..

    • January 17th 2018 @ 8:05am
      sheek said | January 17th 2018 @ 8:05am | ! Report

      Paul,

      Great yarn, thanks.

    • Roar Rookie

      January 17th 2018 @ 10:17am
      Grobbelaar said | January 17th 2018 @ 10:17am | ! Report

      A nice contribution.

      The well-known sports historian, Ian Syson, writes extensively about the importance of football to Australians at the time of WWI, and how the input of football in forming the ANZAC tradition has been largely written out of history.

      Over the years he has worked hard to re-educate Australians about how important football has always been to Australia.

      For years he has led a team of researchers: https://www.vu.edu.au/news-events/news/soccer-and-the-anzac-legend

      He opens this article: ” A team of researchers at Victoria University has found soccer was a major sport in the Victorian community and Australian armed forces during World War I. ”

      He goes on:
      “Australian rules, rugby and cricket were popular games,” he said.

      “But there is an argument to be made that soccer was even more prevalent…”

      “We found that there were probably more than 800 soccer players in Victoria in the pre-war period with a total figure of 1000 players not out of the question,” Dr Syson said.

      “Records show soccer players not only enlisted in high numbers, many of them also paid the ultimate price, either dying in battle or later from their wounds,” he said.

      The records show that Victorian soccer players enlisted at a rate at least equal to that of the general population (40 per cent) but probably at twice that rate (around 80 per cent).

      “This raises a vital question for us as sports historians,” Dr Syson said. “How did soccer seem to lose contact with the Anzac legend to which it had contributed so much?”

      We need to find a way to re-establish that historic link between football and the ANZAC legend, and re-educate Australians about the importance of football to their sense of identity.

      • January 17th 2018 @ 12:02pm
        Lionheart said | January 17th 2018 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

        Thanks Grobbelaar. Good link too, with layered links all interesting. That a large number of our Servicemen in WW1 and indeed in WW2, were British born is an indicator that football would have been a major sport played by them. It’s not unusual, when looking at Unit Association websites where you find the more personal photos rather than the official ones, to see photos of Unit football teams with several divisions. There’s a good book about WW2 POWs playing sport, The Sportsmen of Changi by Kevin Blackburn, which plays up Ausy Rules and Rugby (League more so), but both sports were banned within 12 months at Changi due injuries. Soccer then became the major sport, with cricket although as in your comment, I think more soccer was played more than the book indicates. Our forces were part of the British contingents after all, in both WWs.
        Historically, of the football codes, Rugby Union is the major one played by the Services mainly because of the strong influence of private school old boys in the Officer corps. When the enlisted men ran the show, as in POWs, rugby league more so.

        • January 17th 2018 @ 9:42pm
          Kanga Jardel said | January 17th 2018 @ 9:42pm | ! Report

          Warwick Daily News 26 September 1921, page 5.
          Sourced from Trove nla.gov.au
          Australian women’s football can be traced back over a century. They played informal games during WWI, the Great Depression and WWII. Organised games were reported in NSW and QLD during the early 1900s; in 1921 a Gabba crowd of 10,000 witnessed a game between North and South Brisbane. Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that women’s football took on a more structured form. This was the decade in which women’s football began to take a foothold worldwide. During this period the Matildas took their name.

          • January 18th 2018 @ 2:01pm
            Lionheart said | January 18th 2018 @ 2:01pm | ! Report

            nice, thanks Kanga

      • January 17th 2018 @ 3:19pm
        Midfielder said | January 17th 2018 @ 3:19pm | ! Report

        G

        You raise a hhhhmmmm the right word fails me but interesting [way to light a word] in that Football’s history across Australia is largely both unrecorded by say the media and key players in Australian culture…

        The Vietnam match is another the springs to mind….

        The control of the media and how that in turn plays out into how latter day academics think and study is an !!!???? not sure …

        In part no mainstream media network be it radio, TV or newspapers from say from the early 1920’s till maybe only a few years ago was often openly hostile to Football….. to my knowledge only the Hunter / Newcastle region maintained a balanced media over this time….

        SBS came along and they seemed to ignore pre 60’s Football history often openly stating it was the European migrants of the 50’s / 60’s / 70’s that grew and made the game… so even our own media ignored our history…

        A classic example of this media control was last night in the tennis… Australian (Russian immigrant) Daria Gavrilova wins her game and in the post match all the Channel 7 commentator wants to ask about is some relative that plays in the AFLW.

        Another was when Port Adelaide [I think] played a match in China the coverage was massive and in the news constantly yet A-League AFC matches and International matches receive a fraction of this coverage… On the Port match the morning host on channel 7 who is also a director of Port said on the 7 morning show that the match between in China would be the first truly professional sporting match held in China or words to that effect and like wow how he was not laughed off the air is amazing…

        So yer how we get our history known is IMO part of the evolution that needs to happen …

        • January 17th 2018 @ 3:38pm
          chris said | January 17th 2018 @ 3:38pm | ! Report

          MF I cringed when she was asked about AFLW. I mean talk about elite level sport and bringing backyard fumble ball into the same conversation. Ch 7 and their relentless cross promotion of their own “products” (as opposed to relevance and significance) is one of the reasons I stay away from msm as much as possible

          • January 17th 2018 @ 6:33pm
            Kanga Jardel said | January 17th 2018 @ 6:33pm | ! Report

            The tales of the pre 1972 Socceroos I read about, possibly from Johnny Warren book , but there is so much history of football in Australia pre dating ww2 immigration .

            I’ll do some research, but I think some good books have written about the evolution of football/ soccer around Newcastle with the British migrating to the coalfields throughout last century.

            I think football doesn’t celebrate how strong the game has been and still is …..I guess from a New South Wales heritage at least .

            And midfielder you are correct in saying that the Newcastle print and television media although highly supportive of rugby league has genuinely given football a very fair share of coverage during the last 30 years . …, I think it’s just a country / regional thing to do .

          • January 17th 2018 @ 6:35pm
            Kanga Jardel said | January 17th 2018 @ 6:35pm | ! Report

            The tales of the pre 1972 Socceroos I read about, possibly from Johnny Warren book , but there is so much history of football in Australia pre dating ww2 immigration .

            I’ll do some research, but I think some good books have written about the evolution of football/ soccer around Newcastle with the British migrating to the coalfields throughout last century.

            I think football doesn’t celebrate how strong the game has been and still is …..I guess from a New South Wales heritage at least .

            And midfielder you are correct in saying that the Newcastle print and television media although highly supportive of the breakers , kB United, and now the jets and has genuinely given football a very fair share of coverage during the last 30 years . …, I think it’s just a country / regional thing to do .

        • Roar Rookie

          January 17th 2018 @ 8:18pm
          Grobbelaar said | January 17th 2018 @ 8:18pm | ! Report

          Midfielder
          Rightly or wrongly, the answer to your question, at least in part, is continuity and longevity, or lack thereof.

          Many of the British clubs which existed pre-WWII are gone, at least in Melbourne, the original league may even be gone.

          New clubs arise post-WWII, then a brand new national league is established in 1977, clubs come and go, and then that comes to an end, and new league and clubs are formed.

          No continuity, no longevity.

          • January 17th 2018 @ 9:22pm
            Kanga Jardel said | January 17th 2018 @ 9:22pm | ! Report

            I severely doubt that all British born clubs are gone in Sydney, they just might play in the lower divisions nowadays

            The original club in Sydney were the Wanderers in 1880 , how’s that for longevity, Wanderers are still going in 2018

            Minmi rangers in 1884 in Newcastle
            Adamstown rosebuds are still going strong after 125 years , the rosebuds famously played Manchester utd . They have produced ray baartz and col curran .

            There are many football/ soccer clubs in Newcastle that are 100 years or older .
            They were in existence before any rugby union or league was assembled.

            Would be interesting to find out about which players / clubs in the region were affected by men going off to the war..

        • Roar Rookie

          January 17th 2018 @ 8:20pm
          Grobbelaar said | January 17th 2018 @ 8:20pm | ! Report

          Futher to what I just wrote, interesting article in latest 442:
          https://www.fourfourtwo.com.au/news/ffas-house-of-cards-481305

          FFA’S HOUSE OF CARDS…
          By Staff Writer Jan 17 2018

          The House of Cards built up by Steven Lowy and David Gallop is perilously close to collapsing after key state federations rebelled against the chairman and chief executive to demand change.

      • Roar Guru

        January 17th 2018 @ 9:34pm
        Paul Nicholls said | January 17th 2018 @ 9:34pm | ! Report

        Hi Grobbelaar. Was just chatting to Dr Syson via Twitter. He asked me to pass on his thanks for mentioning his work in your comment.

        • January 17th 2018 @ 9:54pm
          Kanga Jardel said | January 17th 2018 @ 9:54pm | ! Report

          Hi Paul

          Your work today , has just rekindled my interest in reading pre war football.

          I have just found some of mr Syson work , what a gem.

          I always thought Newcastle was the origin of football in the colonies, but Melbourne and Sydney can predate Newcastle I believe.

          I have copied some poems which hopefully add to the ww1 theme of your article today .

          Cheers

    • January 17th 2018 @ 10:47am
      Kanga Baartz said | January 17th 2018 @ 10:47am | ! Report

      Ww1. During the Christmas truce

      It is recorded that British and German soldiers played football on the infamous No mans land in France .

      • January 17th 2018 @ 11:17am
        Lionheart said | January 17th 2018 @ 11:17am | ! Report

        a picture of them playing was published just recently (over Christmas)

    • January 17th 2018 @ 10:48am
      Midfielder said | January 17th 2018 @ 10:48am | ! Report

      Enjoyed the read

    • Roar Guru

      January 17th 2018 @ 1:38pm
      Paul Nicholls said | January 17th 2018 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

      Cheers all. Not sure what pub those fellows were at after the game but it makes for a fun mid-week story 100 years on.

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