Life is short but remembered destiny is long. That truth is at the heart of the Anzac commemorations, especially on the occasion of the 100 years commemoration of the Australian and New Zealand troops landing at Gallipoli.
As long as the lives of those troops are honoured, they have never really passed away from our collective memory.
There is hardly a family in Australia and New Zealand that is not marked in some way by what happened to earlier family members in World War I and World War II.
My wife Judy’s grandfather, for instance, was a school teacher who could not bear hearing about the young men he had taught dying in World War I. At the age of 40 he enlisted and was killed on the Western Front only a month or so before the Armistice.
This sense of a profound personal relationship with those who served has rightly been invested in the various communities these troops participated in their sunshine days.
So it is fitting and proper that the rugby community pays tributes to those who lost their lives during World War I. Many of the Anzacs were rugby players who had a passion for the game and for its values.
It will be a poignant time at Waikato Stadium (and at all the other venues) to mark the start of Round 11 of the 2015 Super Rugby tournament when the Ode is read, The Last Post is sounded, the silence falls, then the Reveille resounds and the 100-strong Haka group for the Chiefs Maori Toa group chant for the Chiefs. The Force will come out together with the Chiefs – as the descendants of Anzacs should.
At Christchurch, fans are invited to lay poppy tributes on the field following the Crusaders-Blues match.
There will be an Anzac March to Suncorp Stadium, led by the Australian Army Band and mounted horses of the second/14 Light Horse Regiment, down Caxton Street Street, before the Reds-Hurricanes match.
Ten of the Queensland Reds will be wearing jerseys that feature the name of a former Queensland rugby representative who served in World War I.
Adam Korczyk, a flanker making his starting debut, will honour Tom ‘Rusty’ Richards. Rusty was the world’s best loose forward in his day and he played four games for Queensland and Tests for Australia and the British Lions. He was one of the first men to land at Gallipoli and among the last to leave, and the winner of a Military Cross on the Western Front.
Rusty was a prolific diary writer throughout World War I. These diaries are a national treasure and an essential document to understanding the Australian experience at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Greg Growden has transcribed the 23 notebooks in a labour of love and scholarship and published them under the title Wallaby Warrior.
Just before the landing at Gallipoli, Richards noted: “Tomorrow is the all-eventful day. We have our bully beef and biscuits with a full water bottle for two days or more. There is no water on the Gallipoli landing place at all. At 3.30am the first landing parties comprising battalions of the 1st Brigade will face the music, which will probably be poured out to them from the trenches only a few hundred yards from the open beach.”
“At 8am the Engineers and the 1st Field Ambulance go ashore in small barges and rowing boats. Of course, our landing will be free from fire but there are two huge forts 800ft high and back two and-a-half miles with a clear range on to the landing place.
“The fleet which includes the Queen Elizabeth, London and Prince of Wales may hold these forts up and keep them busy. Let’s hope …”
A folorn hope, unfortunately. But Richards’ bravery in facing the music was typical of the rugby men who were with him on Gallipoli.
About 5,000 rugby players from Australia signed up for overseas war service from 1914 to 1918.
During the Dardenelles campaign, thoughts about their rugby experiences and their mates on the field of play, the ethics of the game, the mateship, the courage needed under pressure and the exhilaration of playing the full 80 minutes, were a constant element of comment in their letters back home.
Here is Clarrie Wallach, a Wallaby against the All Blacks in 1913. “We arrived at Hellopolis about three weeks ago. We have been in pretty solid work but expect the real stuff next week. All the rugby union men are well here, from the Major down to the privates.”
“Twit Tasker told me how Harold George died a death of deaths – a hero’s – never beaten until the final whistle.”
I am using the research of Sean Fagan on the Fallen Anzac Wallabies for this next section.
Harold George was a tough Wallabies forward from 1910 to 1914. Two weeks into the Gallipoli campaign, George rescued a wounded comrade ‘whom he carried several hundred yards under hot fire.’
Just before he reached the safety of the trenches, George was shot. He died on the hospital ship a few days later.
William ‘Twit’ Tasker, a nippy fly-half, died of wounds on the Western Front in France in 1918. He had been seriously wounded at Gallipoli, invalided home, returned to the Western Front, gassed and wounded four times before being killed-in-action.
The Major was Major James McManamey, a leading NSW rugby official. He died a few weeks after Wallach’s letter was written.
Clarrie Wallach survived Gallipoli ‘without a scratch’. He went to France, was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in action before he died, after having both his legs amputated.
Among the little-known facts about Gallipoli is the knowledge that among the New Zealand Expeditionary Force there was a Maori contingent. The Maori All Black, captain Pirimi Pererika Tahiwi, along with captain Roger Dansey, commanded this force into the battle of Sari Bair. Tahiwi and Dansey led their men as they charged with the famous Te Rauparaha haka used by the All Blacks since 1905, ‘Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka Ora, Ka Ora …’
Captain Tahiwi was one of 89 Maori wounded in the attack. He saw out the war on the Western Front and died in Wellington in 1969, aged 78.
Throughout all the dreadful experiences of Gallipoli the Anzacs retained their good humour, showed resilience and courage, and enjoyed for a crowded hour or so the fun of being young and alive and playing the football games they loved.
Here is the diary entry William Dalton Lycett, a survivor of Gallipoli and the Western Front, for December 25, 1915 – after the evacuation from Gallipoli.
“Christmas morning. No Reveille this morning, got up about 7.45 a.m.and had breakfast. Paraded at 9a.m. for roll call and orders, then dismissed until 9.45 a.m. when fell in for church parade.”
“After church parade sat about smoking and talking until dinner time. About 11.30a.m. an enemy plane flew over the island and dropped a bomb, doing no damage at all.
“After dinner, steak and onions and pumpkin, our corps played 16th Battalion a game of football (Australian rules) our side was defeated. I watched three quarters of the game and there was plenty of fun in it.
“A rugby football match followed and provided more excitement. Christmas pudding between two men at about 6.30 p.m. had a sing song and into bed at 11 p.m.”
While the Anzacs were training for their attack at Gallipoli at Zeitoun, a group of rugby enthusiasts approached General Godley and asked him to act as their patron.
The Hawera Star May 1, 1915 takes up the account of what happened from one of the Anzacs: “General Godley replied rather cuttingly asking what they meant and what something-or-other they thought they were here for.
“Then it was discovered that no club or union or league is allowed in the Army. Hence ‘teams’ were formed. The Turks rather interfered with the arrangements, and had the indecency to advance towards the Suez Canal before our game with the Wellington Regiment could be played. Consequently we were shipped off to Ismailia to play the Real Game.
“But after ‘the fun’ (as it was always called), football came up again… With the despair of hungry men, the Third Platoon challenged the Fourth Platoon for its day’s ration of jam.
“Great interest was shown in the match – principally, perhaps, on account of the stakes – and a large crowd collected in the Domain. Ismailia possesses only one ground, and when we got there we were rather surprised to find hundreds of other people wanting to play!
“The match was keenly contested, and proved a great battle and good exhibition of rugby…
“Rugby footballers, having learnt the discipline and the art of attack and defence in the game, make, with all the courage and resource that is called for, the best soldiers. However, that may be, the soldier is none the worse for having been a footballer, and in most cases he is better.”
This is a fair judgment. General Godley’s inability to see the element of truth in this assertion endorses the savage comment that at Gallipoli and on the Western Front the soldiers had the savage, disastrous experience of “Lions being led by Donkeys.”
Lest we forget.
Wallabies killed in World War I
Harold Wesley George, died on 10 May 1915, aged 28
Bryan Desmond Hughes MC, died on 6 August 1918, aged 32
Hubert A.Jones, died on 9 July 1918, aged 28
Edward Larkin, died 25 April 1915, aged 34
Blair Swannell, 25 April 1915, aged 39.
William Tasker, died on 9 August 1918, aged 26
Fred Thompson, killed in action on 29 May 1915, aged 35
Jack Verge, died on 8 September 1915, aged 28
Clarrie Wallach MC, died on 22 April 1918, aged 28