The Role of Sport for Australians in the First and Second World Wars
Amanda Smith: It's been said that 'Sport is war minus the shooting', but what happens to sport when the shooting is real?
Today, sport in wartime.
MUSIC: Durufle Requiem
Reader: Batavia, 26th December 1942. Tremendous sporting enthusiasm prevails. I find myself running against Ron Ramsay Rae, playing basketball, and so on. Relay Race. 440 laps each on a terrible track with hazards of drains, wires, etc. and real tropical heat and humidity - assorted footwear. My team won their heat: time --
Reader: Chungkai, 12th April, 1944. Camp sports today, in which I competed in the high jump, the long jump, and the hop step and jump. I won the latter but came third in the other two --
13th April, 1944. One death, two extensive skin grafting operations --
Amanda Smith: A few snippets there from 'The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop'.
Hi, I'm Amanda Smith, and on The Sports Factor, because tomorrow is Anzac Day, we're talking about the role of sport, and in particular, cricket, in both the First and Second World Wars: for allied troops, for prisoners-of-war, and for the folks at home.
Well this week, with Anzac Day coming up, I've been browsing through Charles Bean's History of Australia in the First World War, as you do, and I came across a photo in one of the volumes that's captioned 'The evacuation of Anzac'. The weird thing is though, that this is a photo of a cricket match in progress. So why were these diggers playing cricket when they were supposed to be withdrawing from Gallipoli?
For the story behind the picture, here's Bill Gammage, author of 'The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War'.
Bill Gammage: Yes I know the photo, it's one Beam himself took actually, and it's one that was taken when the Australians had already started to evacuate the Anzac position. And the idea was that the people who were still on shore would pretend that things were going on as normal to deceive the Turks. Every night more and more Australians were withdrawn. And as more were withdrawn, there were more activities out in the open to pretend that everyone was still there and no evacuation was planned. That way the Turks wouldn't attack at the last minute and the chances of a successful evacuation were increased.
And this cricket match is one of them. I've heard references to other cricket matches on Anzac, but they couldn't have been very common. There's two reasons for that. Most places in Anzac you got shot at. And there weren't too many flat places. So what you've got is a photo of about the only flat place on Anzac where you wouldn't be shot at by the Turks.
Amanda Smith: Yes, and the place where the cricket match is going on is Shell Green, which is, as you say, a flat, open space in front of a hill. So where was that?
Bill Gammage: Shell Green is, I supposed the easiest would be to say behind Lone Pine, where the famous attack in August 1915 took place. Which meant that although the Turks could see it, they could only see it from a long way away. And so you're going to be shelled but you weren't going to be shot at by snipers.
Amanda Smith: Well I did want to ask you how dangerous it would have been for those diggers to be playing cricket on Shell Green at that time.
Bill Gammage: They would have been shelled. But people on Anzac were used to being shelled, and they'd hear the noise of the shells coming, they could work out from the noise whether it was going to land near them or not. A shell coming directly at you makes a different noise from one going past, and if it was heading directly at them of course, they would have scattered for cover.
Amanda Smith: What is the background to how that evacuation was planned?
Bill Gammage: Well essentially, although nobody said so in these words, essentially it was quite clear that the Australians and New Zealanders and British were not going to succeed in driving the Turks off the Gallipoli Peninsula. In other words, that the Turks had won. And there was winter coming up, a northern winter, which meant that the allies were going to be buried in snow, and they were in a very difficult position on the edge of cliffs, and they didn't have winter uniforms or equipment, and so it was decided that the best thing was to withdraw.
Actually the allied generals thought that as many as half of the troops would be captured by the Turks, when the garrison was weak and the Turks would attack and capture the rest. And so they went to great trouble to try and pretend to the Turks that they were not evacuating. And that's the cricket game. And there were people told to stand around and whistle, and you can imagine how pleased they were at doing that in an army.
Amanda Smith: Yes, there's another photo in Bean of a kind of "smoking fatigue", where there's soldiers hanging around looking up into the sky, whistling, smoking a cigarette, and generally loitering.
Bill Gammage: Yes that's right, I'm sure they thought it was great fun. For nine months they would have been told to work. You know, if they weren't fighting they had to carry stores or water up to the trenches. And now they're told to do nothing. But it's the same idea: fill in the empty spaces and makes the Turks think that the full garrison was there.
Amanda Smith: From the photo, these blokes look very intent on their game of cricket. The irony of the mock battle of a sporting contest going on amidst the real battle of the war, it seems?
Bill Gammage: Yes, it's quite symbolic that way, isn't it? A lot of Australians, and Turks, described the campaign as being fought in a sporting manner, and Australians would call the Turks sportsmen, because of the way the fighting was conducted. It was very tough, and very serious, but there was a touch of gentlemanliness about it, and here are these people playing genuine sport in the midst of a war.
Amanda Smith: Perhaps there was a sense then that the Turks would be sporting enough not to shoot while the lads were playing cricket. But are there any other references to this match in other diaries or letters of the time, Bill?
Bill Gammage: Well I know of one, which came from General Ryrie, who was the Brigade Commander of the Lighthorsemen who were playing the cricket match. And he says that they were playing a cricket match on Shell Green on the last day that they were there, just to let the Turks see, 'we were quite unconcerned, and when shells whistled by, we pretended to field them. The men were wonderfully cheerful and seemed to take the whole thing as a huge joke'.
So they might look serious in the photo, but they were obviously enjoying themselves.
Amanda Smith: Yes. Well I think it is a fascinating thing that cricket formed part of a safe and successful evacuation from the site of such wartime disaster and tragedy for the Anzacs.
Bill Gammage: Yes, well two-up would have been the most common sport, if I could call it that, on Anzac, for obvious reasons. You could start and stop it quickly and you didn't need much space. So this is quite an exceptional thing.
Amanda Smith: Bill Gammage, who wrote 'The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in The Great War', and who lectures in Australian history at the University of Adelaide, with an intriguing sporting footnote there to the history of the First World War.
Well, during the First World War, as Bill Gammage mentioned, there were a lot of parallels drawn between fighting a battle and playing sport. And particularly for Britain and her dependencies, sport was promoted as a preparation for war, and war was a game, an adventure (well, initially anyway).
But according to sports historian John Harms, by the time of the Second World War, this attitude had shifted.
John Harms: I think there had been an evolution in the thinking by the time of the Second World War. During World War I, the lessons of history hadn't been learnt so well, and so there was a definite confusion of sportsfield and battlefield. And that's demonstrated clearly in Peter Weir's movie, 'Gallipoli', and in a lot of literature of the time. And so there is this terrible confusion that the battlefield is an extension of the sports field, as demonstrated in that sort of poetry like, 'Play up, play up, and play the game'. But perhaps by World War II the realities of the First World War, and of the Somme, are very clear to a lot of people, and the situation is very grave. I think people had learnt that lesson of World War I and they were seeing the situation far more grimly, in its grim reality, than they had done in World War I perhaps.
Amanda Smith: Sport is often also used as a metaphor for war; and the language of sport is itself often riddled with that language. You annihilate or decimate or blitz or blow away your opponent, your enemy. But what happens then, and we're talking about the Second World War, what happens to sport when the war is real? Does sport become irrelevant in that situation?
John Harms: No, it doesn't become irrelevant, in fact it becomes just as important but in a different way because cricket, if we take cricket as the example, became the symbol for everything British or everything Australian that the troops were fighting for, and it became a symbol in that way. And so that things like fair play, or the rule of law, and accepting the umpire's decision and playing within the rules, and the never-say-die attitude which cricket was seen to represent, was clung to very firmly, and well, I suppose, lovingly. And that was demonstrated at various times during World War II. It's understandable I think that these important cultural symbols are going to emerge at a time of crisis, and I think there's no greater crisis of course than war. But within that crisis of war there's perhaps even greater crisis in, say, a POW camp.
Amanda Smith: One of those who spent the years 1942 to 1945 in various POW camps was Ernie Toovey. Before the war, Ernie had played first-grade cricket for Brisbane. Later, he went on to play for Queensland, and then was a State selector. But during the war, Ernie was in the Navy, serving on HMAS 'Perth'. 'Perth' was sunk off the coast of Java; Ernie survived to make it ashore, was captured, and spent the next three years as a prisoner-of-war, working on the Burma-Thai Railway. He was in camps in Batavia (now Jakarta), Singapore, then along the railway line in Burma, moving south-east into Thailand as the work progressed.
Ernie Toovey: Then I went to a big camp called Tamarkan, which was a magnificent big camp in Thailand, and that's where we sort of had a bit of a chance to play a little bit of sport. Not much because once again we had very little equipment. I had I think one American fellow made us a sort of a cricket ball.
Amanda Smith: Oh yeah, what was it made from?
Ernie Toovey: Oh a bit of material, a bit of leather off this, and something off that, a bit of canvas off one of the Army boy's kitbags and things like that. But we had a bit of a game; the ground was rough, it was terribly rough.
SONG - Our Eleven
Amanda Smith: And tell me more about the cricket match in Tamarkan. What did you use for a bat?
Ernie Toovey: Oh it was some old bit of timber they stuck together or bound together, there was a bit of bamboo in the back of it, and a bit of everything, you know. The wicket was only sticks, bamboo, or some old, foreign stumps were used. There was no bails because they wouldn't sit on anyway, and the ground was as rough as billy-o. And I just can't remember the score, of course we didn't keep a score book. I think some bloke was adding up. It just lasted a few hours until the Japs thought we'd had enough. They must have thought it was a silly game we were playing, and that was it. That was the only game of cricket I ever played in the whole camp.
Amanda Smith: There really must have been very little time or energy left for playing sport in that period?
Ernie Toovey: Yes, well you're so right, because we only got a day off about once every ten days or something like that, and in that time the Japs spent most of the time searching. You know, parading and searching your huts. Not that we had much stuff of course, being the Navy blokes. I mean when I got ashore I only had my birthday suit on. With other things, we didn't get much time for sport at all.
Amanda Smith: Did you talk about it though, Ernie? Did you talk about sport?
Ernie Toovey: Oh yes, for sure. I think sport was one of the things that kept us going, because we had people from all walks of life. There were fellows interested in boxing and there were the racing fellows.
Amanda Smith: Well with the little bits of sport that you were able to play, and also just in the act of talking about it, did sport play a role in your lives as Australian prisoners-of-war?
Ernie Toovey: Well I think it did, because it kept your brain working, and your memory.
REPRISE - Our Eleven
John Harms: Cricket is there as the symbol, as if it is something that's being fought for, and so we have the example of Wampo, which is one of the prisoner-of-war camps in South East Asia, where the men had worked very hard without a day off for three months. And at the end of that three months they celebrated their first day off with a game of cricket. And that's recorded by Swanton, E.W. Swanton, who's a well-known cricket writer, in his article 'Cricket Under the Japs' which appeared in the 1946 Wisden.
There were other games of cricket too, held in other camps, although often the men were far too frail. 'Weary' Dunlop, in his memoirs records a game which Swanton also records, which was held around about December 31st 1944 in Nakom Patom. In that game, the camp stopped and there was a match between eight Englishmen, and eight Australians led by 'Weary' Dunlop.
Reader: 30th December, 1944. Incongruously, I was asked to captain Australia in a 'Test' match (cricket) Australia versus England. It was played with a tennis ball and odd local rules. Single wicket, 18 yard pitch, no running, no stumping, eight per side. All scoring by strokes to particular objects. Over the hut 'six and out', etc. We got the father of a hiding, licked by four wickets, an innings and about 60 runs.
The English team included 'Fizzer' Pearson and Norman Smith (Yorkshire Second XI and Colts). Fizzer Pearson, the star turn, absolutely annihilated us with his fast bowling. There was an awed silence as I went to the wicket and some talk of 'an international' (Rugby!). I ingloriously just broke my duck both innings, and almost entirely shed the remaining skin on my blistered feet. Now I can hardly walk.
John Harms: In Swanton's story, he refers to some culturally specific Australian elements to the match. For example, he says that the Australians 'congregated at long-on to formulate what was the equivalent of the Sydney Hill, bringing their own Australian enthusiasm to their barracking'. So he records that Australian-ness in his article, and his memoirs.
Amanda Smith: Well you mentioned national identity, and what you're saying I guess is that cricket was clearly one of the most tangible things that united British and Commonwealth troops. And it was something that was drawn on - for example the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, I think drew on cricket as a symbol.
John Harms: That's right. He in fact, whilst watching cricket at Lord's, I think in 1944, said 'You Englishmen will always be able to find enough Australians to defend those 22 yards of yours out there. Lord's and its traditions belong to Australia just as much as they do to England'. And this cultural link, this political link, is still very strong in 1944 despite the speech that he made on December 27th 1941 where he said 'Australia must look to America'.
Amanda Smith: With the war, all international sporting competitions ceased. But what about within Australia, was there any use of cricket on a domestic level, for example as a way of lifting morale at home?
John Harms: Very much so. But it didn't come until later in the war. In 1944 it was decided that perhaps a team of first-class cricketers, or first-class cricketers from before the war, should form an RAAF touring side which should go and play cricket matches in the north of Australia. And that side, under Jack Chegwyn, which included great cricketers like Stan McCabe, Clarrie Grimmett, and quite a few other well-known cricketers of the time, started with a match in Brisbane. Then they played matches in Townsville, in Cairns, in Charters Towers, Cooktown, Atherton, Iron Range Camp, Higgins Camp which is right at the top of Cape York, and Horn Island. Now if you take the example of Charters Towers, 3,000 people turned up to the All Souls Ground in Charters Towers, the small town of Charters Towers, to watch this cricket match, and it was really well received as it was in all of the camps and in all of the towns. It was the first opportunity for a lot of people to see cricket that they hadn't seen for years. They were the top cricketers playing terrific games of cricket, and if you consider, say, someone born in 1931, like my father, the first really top cricketers they would have seen would have been at the age of 13, in 1944.
Amanda Smith: Sports historian, John Harms.
Now, another cricketer, Col Hoy, was stationed in New Guinea, with the Army, during World War II. Col went on to become one of Australia's most respected Test umpires, including standing at the famous 'Tied Test' between Australia and the West Indies in 1960. But as a soldier in New Guinea (and he was just a teenager at the time) Col met and served and played cricket with some of his heroes, including the great wicket keeper, Bert Oldfield. But where had they managed to play cricket in New Guinea?
Col Hoy: In a number of areas grounds had been there before the war when the British and the Australians were around the place. And it's quite interesting: when we got to Alexishaven, which is just down from Madang, here's the cricket oval and all around it were Japanese. We'd pushed the Nips back, and all around were trucks, oh I'd say about 60 or 70 trucks, and right in the middle, surrounded by barbed wire, was this concrete pitch. I don't know whether the Japs thought that if they touched the concrete it might blow up or something like that, but they had barbed wire all around it.
Amanda Smith: So they'd obviously thought there was something either sacred or dangerous about a concrete cricket pitch?
Col Hoy: It looks like it, doesn't it? Sacred or dangerous, you could say that again.
Amanda Smith: Well, Col, John Harms, from the University of Queensland says it was just as well you were never captured by the Japanese in New Guinea, because they would have possibly been very suspicious of a strange code you kept in your journal?
Col Hoy: Well actually you know, you weren't supposed to write about various things, or keep a little diary, or a booklet, you weren't supposed to keep those sorts of things. But I was so mad on cricket, mad on sport, and to sort of rub shoulders with some of these great players, they were great players in those days. And there was no television or anything like that, and to suddenly see a fellow where used to get his photo on a cigarette card or something like that, and now you're meeting them, really meeting them. And I had my little code, who I met and all this sort of thing. But unfortunately I lost that booklet, I wish to heck I knew where it was because there was a heck of a lot of things about sport in New Guinea. Not so much, well, all cricket matches, a little bit of Aussie Rules, Rugby League and I was a mad sporting freak you know. We all were in those days, actually we were only a bunch of kids, 18, 19, 20, and that's all.
Amanda Smith: And Col in your journal were you keeping record of matches played as well?
Col Hoy: Oh yes, kept matches played, scores and everything. I lent it to a chappie and he's never returned the darned book.
Amanda Smith: Yes, oh that's a shame.
Col Hoy: Yes it is a pity.
Amanda Smith: Well for a non-cricketer, a cricket record of numbers and strokes and declarations (that's an interesting one in wartime), and all-outs, does seem like a secret code. But you could imagine in wartime this looking like a very suspicious piece of allied army intelligence had it fallen into the enemy hands.
Col Hoy: Oh, definitely suspicious, you have no idea. Really suspicious!
Amanda Smith: Did being able to play cricket and other sports make a difference, being in a strange place and a dangerous and difficult situation?
Col Hoy: Well yes. See cricket is an interesting game. I suppose part of the British Empire, and we'd been born and bred with cricket. With the football, the codes, like, there were a couple of interstate soccer players with us too, but with football they were split up. Rugby Union was never played, so it was just Rugby League, very, very little soccer, and of course Aussie Rules. And of course you'd always have the arguments. With cricket there was just a sort of a, well shall we say a 'masonry' amongst the chaps, everybody played cricket. Nobody tried to get out of it, they really didn't. It was a few hours of enjoyment, happiness, team spirit and all that sort of thing, and just a lot of fun.
SONG - Back in circulation again.
Amanda Smith: John Harms, was cricket as well a means of raising morale, also in some way an emblem of normality, whether it was among those troops in New Guinea or in the prisoner-of-war camps or back on the home front?
John Harms: Oh I think very much so. That idea of business as usual, or trying to create that impression that business was as usual, was very important. And it was dangerous to have troops sitting around contemplating their position, down on life, down on their situation, down on the fact that some of their mates perhaps had been wounded or even killed. And it was important then to occupy the time through sporting fixtures or through lectures or some sort of organised event. For example in New Guinea, Bert Oldfield who had been an Australian Test cricketer before the war, he was invited to lecture to the troops on cricket and to talk about cricket.
It wasn't just cricket, there were other sports talked about, and there were also lectures concerning what a bank manager did, or what a schoolteacher did, or just anything that would occupy the time to create a situation where the morale wasn't drifting too far down.
Amanda Smith: Now, the Japanese might have surrendered in August 1945, but it was some time before all the allied service personnel dotted around the Pacific could get back to Australia. Was sport in that circumstance a way to fill in the time waiting to get home?
John Harms: It was. At the end of the war it was definitely a way of filling in the time, and there were always sports competitions on the go. But there was one especially important competition that was established by Bert Oldfield after World War II. He decided that there should be an interstate cricket competition held on Bougainville, and this became known as the Bougainville Sheffield Shield, to be played for the Bougainville Cup, which was a nine-inch shell. And four teams were organised: Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, and they played each other once on fields dug out of the jungle, or bulldozed out of the jungle with, very basic cricket equipment and playing in jungle greens at some time. And wouldn't you know, Queensland won the Bougainville Sheffield Shield!
Amanda Smith: Yes, there's some strange justice or irony there.
John Harms: Shakespearean irony, I think! And that trophy, the nine-inch shell, a 25-pounder, was on display at the 'Gabba there for many years, where the real Sheffield Shield hopefully would one day eventually sit side by side, both very proudly.
Amanda Smith: Which did, of course, finally happen in 1995, when Queensland won the Sheffield Shield for the first time.
And speaking of Queensland and the Sheffield Shield, Ernie Toovey, the former POW who we met earlier in the program, went on to play for Queensland, although he almost didn't, because he only narrowly avoided having to have his leg amputated in one of the camps.
Ernie Toovey: Colonel Coates was my great pin-up doctor, Sir Albert Coates, and he said he was so pleased that he didn't take my leg off in one camp I was supposed to have it taken off. And when I walked through the ground at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to play my first game in Melbourne, I was pleased too.
Amanda Smith: What was wrong with your leg that you almost had it taken off?
Ernie Toovey: I had a tropical ulcer. I went back to this infamous camp called 55 Camp, and that's where Colonel Coates did about 200-300 amputations of legs and arms. He was a magnificent man and you never hear much about him.
Amanda Smith: And why did he decide in the end not to whip your leg off?
Ernie Toovey: Well there were worse ones than me, and after all, equipment was very scarce. We only had the anaesthetic, it was home-made stuff and it didn't last that long. So I was pleased too.
Amanda Smith: Ernie Toovey, former Queensland cricketer, and prisoner-of-war. And also sharing his recollections of wartime sporting experiences was Col Hoy, the former Australian Test umpire.
And that's The Sports Factor for this week, on the eve of Anzac Day 1998, and this year being the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
I'm Amanda Smith and I hope you'll join me for The Sports Factor again next week.
The Sports Factor can be heard on Radio National, 8.30am Fridays (Repeated Friday evenings at 8.00pm).