Today the world reflects on those who served in the War to end all wars, and so we should. Sadly few lessons have been learned and wars still are being fought on the battlefields and in the minds of those who return from such conflicts.
At the time of the First World War Australia’s population was just around four million and a total of 416,809 Australians enlisted in the Australian forces, of which 32,231 were from Western Australia. Australia suffered its highest ever mortality rate, with 61,720 being killed and over 156,000 wounded, many of whom died within 18 months of returning home.
Sport has played a big part in keeping the sports up in war time. There was the famous rugby match played beneath the Pyramids in the Great War, as well as games of football between British and German troops during a ceasefire. In the second World War sporting events were used to keep everyone’s spirits up and war time internationals were held in Britain; caps of which are not on the official record.
According to Australian historians football, or soccer as it was then known, was regularly played by Allied troops at Gallipoli and also amongst Australian troops based at Lemnos in Greece in 1915. In fact Victorian Sports historian Dr Ian Syson has revealed that records show an extensive and co-ordinated soccer programme within the Australian forces – and there was even an Anzac “Ashes” series between Aussie and New Zealand troops. The prize was a silver razor tin case, containing cigar ashes from one of the soldiers who landed at Gallipoli.
There have been many sportsmen who deserve to be remembered for their heroics in the face of war. We thought we would share some with you.
Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC and bar, MC, RAMC. He is a man begging to have a movie made of his life. He is one of only three individuals to be awarded the Victoria Cross and Bar (Two Victoria Crosses). Chavasse was medical officer of the 10th Battalion, the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment and was initially best known as an outstanding athlete at Oxford University, going up to Trinity College with his twin brother, Christopher, in 1904. It was there that Noel studied medicine and was a key member of the Oxford University athletics and lacrosse teams. He represented Great Britain in the 400 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, finishing second in his heat which was not enough for him to qualify for the final.
Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame, VC, KBE, CB, DSO, Chevalier Legion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre (France), Croix de Guerre (Belgium). Neame is the only man to win a Victoria Cross and Olympic gold medal. He was a lieutenant in the 15th Field Corps of Royal Engineers. He was an outstanding sportsman at Cheltenham College, and was one of 14 old boys from the school to win the Victoria Cross. His Olympic gold medal came in the 1924 Paris Games in the four-man running deer team competition, when Great Britain won from Norway and Sweden.
From the world of football we have Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell, VC. Donald Bell was the first professional footballer to enlist for the First World War, with the 9th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, and he is the only professional footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Bell was a gifted all-round sportsman who played for Crystal Palace, Bishop Auckland and Newcastle before turning professional with Bradford Park Avenue in 1912. He died five days after the heroics that won him his Victoria Cross and many felt his efforts on that day warranted a second.
From the Equestrian sporting world came Brigadier General Paul Aloysius Kenna, VC, DSO. Paul was awarded the VC in 1898 after serving in Sudan and was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. He was thought by many at the time to be possibly the finest horseman of his age. In 1893/94 he was the top-rated polo player in the British Army in India. He was also a jockey and rode over 300 National Hunt and Flat winners before turning his attention to show-jumping. He led the Great Britain showjumping team on tour to North America in both 1910 and 1911. He was also selected to lead the Great Britain team at the 1912 Olympics. Unfortunately they arrived in Stockholm late, and performed very poorly. Kenna wrote an angry report to the British Olympic authorities on how British teams should be prepared and trained for future Olympics.
In Rugby League comes Second Lieutenant John ‘Jack’ Harrison, VC, MC. John Harrison was one of the greatest players in the history of Hull Rugby League Club. He first came to the attention of York but soon transferred to his native Hull, where he scored 106 tries in 116 matches, including 52 in the 1913-14 season, a club record that still stands to this day, and is unlikely to ever be beaten.
Rugby Union has contributed four Victoria Cross winners, three Irishmen and one Englishman.
Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison, VC. Harrison, was a promising England forward who had people talking about a long and fruitful career following his two appearances in the 1914 Five Nations Championship. He played in the back row against Ireland and then moved into the second row against France, when England won 39-13. He won his Victoria Cross posthumously for his part in the Zeebrugge raid of 1918,
The three Irishmen are remarkably all from the same Rugby club in Dublin, Wanderers, and are to be the subject of a documentary currently under production by Ashley Morrison called “Fight in the Dog.”
Robert Johnston was not only a team mate of Thomas Crean but also a great friend. The two played for Ireland and then toured South Africa together in 1896 with the British and Irish Lions when, like Crean, he decided to stay on. With the Boer War imminent they joined the Imperial Horse (Natal). Johnston was 27 and a captain when he was awarded his Victoria Cross at the Battle of Elandslaagte, Johnston was badly wounded and was nursed back to health by Crean.
Major Thomas Joseph Crean, VC, DSO. He was the Richie McCaw of his generation, although slightly more boisterous off the pitch, where he had a reputation as a hell-raiser. He was a key player in two championship-winning sides for Ireland. He trained as a doctor at the Royal College of Surgeons and received the Royal Humane Society medal for saving a fellow student from drowning in the sea,
Brigadier Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey, VC, MC. Harvey played for Ireland against Wales in 1907 and France four years later, before emigrating to Canada and embarking on a career in the military.
These are just some of the men from sport who won the highest military honour, there were many other unsung heroes, from the world of sport and from all walks of life.
Today we talk of epic battles on the sporting field, and of heroes coming to the fore, but today of all days we should put those words in context and recall those who really fought in epic battles or any battle, for all are heroes for giving us the freedom to enjoy life and sport the way that we do today.