Sport and Australian military life

Soldiers playing cricket at the side of a house

For Australians, the connection between sport and military service dates to the colonial era. Through more than a century of war, conflict and peacekeeping operations, military personnel have found enjoyment, exercise, competition and release in sport. Sport reaches across cultural and linguistic boundaries, bringing together people who may have little else in common, helping service personnel on deployment establish relations with their counterparts from other nations and with local civilians. Just as today's service men and women participate in or watch sporting contests at every stage of their military careers, so generations before hold memories of sporting moments as some of the happiest of their service lives.

Early views on sporting conduct and military service

In early 1900, Australian politician John Thomson stood before a gathering in Hamilton, Victoria. Declaring his pride in the guests of honour, local men bound for the war in South Africa, he singled out their officer Lieutenant Reginald Bree. Cheers rang out as Thomson reminded everyone that Bree was:

prominent in all manly sports ... there was no schooling that brought up a man for the battle field equal to that.

In the Australia of 1900 and for some years into the future, Thomson's views were widely shared. People believed that a man's keenness for sports, and his prowess in the water, on the field, the track, the ring, or on horseback, equipped him – and in times of crisis, obliged him – to join the colours.

With its participants generally being young and fit, and its emphasis on the outdoor life, on competition, courage, steadiness and skill, sport seemed a cousin to war – lacking the bloodshed, the danger and the enormously high stakes, but sharing certain similarities.

Diversionary benefits of sport in wartime

For Australians in uniform, it has been a diversion, an entertainment, a source of fun and fitness, a chance to gamble, and an opportunity to beat other units and sometimes other nations' teams. Sport feeds the competitive instinct, but there are also times when it brings together people who share little other common ground.

For civilians in wartime, sport has been a morale booster, a means of raising funds for war-related causes, and the centrepiece of recruiting campaigns.

It has also been the object of serious disagreement, particularly in the debates around shutting competitions down during the First World War. As clubs closed for want of players early in the war and the army's ranks filled with men for whom sport was already part of life, calls for sporting equipment like that made by a Queensland lieutenant colonel soon went out. Within weeks of the war beginning, he asked Brisbane's mayor to make an appeal for football jerseys in Queensland colours, along with ‘sets of boxing gloves, cricket materials and footballs' for his fledgling battalion.

Sport on board troop transport ships

As Australians have sailed to theatres of war and conflict, sport has often been a memorable part of the voyage.

A Victorian soldier just arrived in South Africa wrote of crossing the Indian Ocean in 1900, recalling that:

the sports on board were very successful, including all sorts of events, some of them causing great amusement.

In the first half of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Australians shared his experience. Sport and exercise kept men in shape during the weeks at sea on their way to First and Second World War battlefields.

Another generation of service personnel might recall sporting contests on HMAS Sydney's flight deck as they sailed to Vietnam. Decades later, sailors on HMAS Kanimbla played rugby on her flight deck en-route to the Persian Gulf in 2001.

Comparison of service personnel with athletes

Any man admitted into the AIF in 1914 met exacting physical standards for enlistment. After seeing members of the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF) contingent march through Sydney in 1914, one journalist wrote, ‘most of the sturdy figures bespoke the athlete'. In Egypt, the same journalist continued:

Everybody … talked about the “fine athletic type” of the Australian soldier.

The comparison with athletes must have often suggested itself, finding its most famous expression when English war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett dubbed the Australians who landed on Gallipoli a ‘race of athletes'.

Others went further. One sporting journalist wrote (as if military training had nothing at all to do with it):

The way the troops landed at night in boats, stormed an almost vertical sea cliff and then held their ground for fifteen hours, called for possession of swimming power maybe, running ability, general hardihood, and tenacity of purpose begotten of trained oarsmanship, playing in ruck, cross-country running and Warrnambool to Melbourne, Goulburn to Sydney pedalling.

Correspondents might have brought sport's association with war to a wide audience, but soldiers too drew the link in letters to friends and family. One describing an action for which a Victoria Cross was awarded called it ‘the best sport I ever had in my life'.

More florid but similar in sentiment was another soldier writing that a charge against the enemy was:

life itself to the Australian, born as he is … with fresh air as his daily medicine, and the spirit of sport surrounding him.

Over time, deeply held beliefs and assumptions that prevailed during the world wars, in particular, came to seem like relics from another era, none more so than the notion of fighting for Empire. But acceptance of the ‘spirit of sport' transcended the generations.

One newspaper article early in the Second World War said:

Camp life … has kept the AIF so fit that they are to-day as much like a team of trained athletes as an army of trained soldiers.

While in 1965, 50 years after Gallipoli, the Canberra Times ran a piece praising Australians as a race of athletes – Ashmead Bartlett's phrase – adding a British observer's comment that:

sport is just one activity at which the Aussies excel. Their soldiers bravely fight aggression in Borneo and Vietnam.

Wartime sport and games

When they are not fighting, Australians have been quick to organise games.

One man remembered a hastily arranged game of football played in ankle-deep mud behind the Western Front as ‘the hardest day's toil I've ever done'.

In March 1945, sporting equipment was dropped by parachute to men still in contact with the enemy in the forward areas on New Guinea, New Britain and Rabaul. At the time, Australia's armed forces in the South West Pacific Area were fielding dozens of teams, usually in safer climes, in everything from the various football codes, tennis, volleyball and baseball to water polo, basketball and cricket.

If they preferred to be less active during their hours of rest, many Australians were nevertheless enthusiastic followers of sport.

When a battalion in Korea was gripped by cricket ‘test fever', said one journalist, drivers returning to their units from rear areas where they could listen to radio news were pressed for the latest scores. The sports pages of weeks-old newspapers were passed around to keep everyone somewhat up to date.

In Vietnam also, Australians maintained their interest in domestic competitions. Australian newspapers and magazines were available, Radio Australia was on the air and Army Public Relations also provided scores.

With a long-term presence in Phuoc Tuy province and 2 large and comparatively safe base areas, Australians also had access to sporting facilities in South Vietnam. One reporter wrote:

Volleyball courts dot the area, and anywhere there is a grassy clearing Diggers can be seen playing all codes of football ... Unit rugby teams play competition games at the nearby provincial capita of Baria. The standard is remarkably high, considering such problems as 100 degree heat, tropical rain, the lack of goal posts and the tendency of local youngsters to steal the ball.

Sport during peacekeeping operations

Over the decades since the end of the Second World War, Australian peacekeepers have also recognised sport's importance in their work around the world.

In Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), an Australian officer arranged a cricket match between guerillas and local people as part of an engagement strategy and an acknowledgement of the sport's capacity to bring people together.

Cricket's popularity in South Asia and Afghanistan has offered peacekeepers a path into local communities for many years, in the same way that sports clinics run by peacekeepers in the Pacific foster friendships.

Links between sport and military life

The association between sport and military life has endured in Australia for more than a century. It continues to manifest in games, formal and informal, played by service personnel; in competitions between Australian service teams and those from other countries; in kick-arounds or cricket matches with young civilians in countries blighted by war; and in veterans' teams and games.

Among civilians, football codes play what have become ‘traditional' Anzac Day matches, annual contests surrounded by military ceremony, while test cricketers make public visits to Gallipoli and the Australian War Memorial.

Sport remains essential for maintaining morale and fitness, but its role has always been broader than this. It is present at every stage of service life.

From being a means of recruiting, sport then features in training, in garrison and barracks life, in the transport lines and in the forward areas, on the decks of ships, on airforce runways and bases, and in convalescent clinics. Its language is used to describe combat, and sport has been important in the lives of many veterans.

At the same time, war – as opposed to service life more generally, though often drawing on sporting metaphors – bears scant relationship to sport.

Former Rugby League player and national serviceman Bob Fulton was a physical training instructor on HMAS Sydney sailing between Australia and Vietnam in the 1960s. Decades later Fulton said:

Think of the toughest footballer you have ever seen, any soldier who goes to war is tougher than him … here we are talking about running onto the field to win a … game, but compare that with … going into a war that would determine whether you lived or died.

The association between sport and military service draws on a long history. However it is understood and to whatever purpose sport has been directed in Australia's military past, for many who have served it remains a fondly remembered part of their time in uniform.

Photographs of sport and military life

Soldiers playing cricket at the side of a house
Dressed against the Korean cold, a group of soldiers play cricket on an unpaved village street as the barrel of a tank’s gun looms over the pitch, late in 1950. AWM P04858.025
A group of women in uniform eyeing a ball in the air.

Members of the Australian Women's Army Service play a game of basketball at Melbourne's Middle Park. AWM 051892

2 soldiers sparring with boxing gloves while a third soldier watches

Two Australian officers spar outside their billet in a Belgian village at the end of the First World War. Boxing was among the most popular sports for Australians, with bouts taking place in camps, on troop transports, in base areas and closer to the front lines. The fact that money often changed hands during fights was part of the attraction. AWM P05182.101


A person swings at a tennis ball with a racket while seated in a wheelchair
An Australian Air Force officer competes in a wheelchair tennis match at the 2019 Warrior Games in Florida. Twentythree Australians took part in these international games for wounded, injured and ill former and currently serving military personnel. Dept of Defence 20190624adf8209508_103
A man shakes hand with an officer who is holding a trophy with men and boys watching in the background
An Australian sergeant receives a trophy after his rugby team won a British Commonwealth Occupation Force competition in Japan in 1952. AWM 147693
People in hats watch a horse race
Light Horsemen watch a race in 1918 at Belah in Palestine, part of a 4th Light Horse Brigade sports meeting. A few Light Horsemen might have honed their riding skills in Australian races, but most being from rural areas had mastered horse riding at a young age when horses were used as much for transport and labour as for sport. AWM J05997
A man in shorts and T-shirt about to hit a ball with a racket
A Royal Australian Air Force sergeant sets up a forehand shot in a match against a United States Army Air Force officer in London during June 1945. This inter-services lawn tennis contest, British Empire versus the United States, was played at Wimbledon. AWM SUK14551
Runners wearing shorts and numbers on their singlets are running throught the street
A crowd watches competitors in the 5000-metre Long Dien to Baria race in South Vietnam. Held on an important Vietnamese holiday in 1970, the event included runners from Australia, New Zealand and South Vietnam and was intended to foster good relations between military personnel and the people of Phuoc Tuy Province, where the Australians and New Zealanders were based. AWM FAI/70/0244/VN
A poster depicting a soldier surrounded by people in various sporting activity. The words 'Enlist in the Sportsmen's 1000 Play up Play up  & Play the Game' is displayed the bottom of the poster
Sport has long been an element in military recruiting campaigns. This 1917 poster urging men to enlist quotes a famous poem, Vitai Lampada, emphasising that war is the game, and features Albert Jacka, Australia’s first Victoria Cross recipient, whose aptitude for soldiering was said to come from his skills as a boxer. AWM ARTV05616
Players in a basketball game with 2 jumping in the air near the ring. The game is watched by a crowded audience
Prisoners of war and guards watch United States and Australian prisoners play a game of basketball at a camp in Korea in 1953, a propaganda exercise at which Chinese photographers were present. AWM P02758.001
A pole vaulter in mid air is watched by another person squatting on the ground
A member of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) clears the bar in a pole vaulting competition at a 1952 BCOF Athletics meeting in Japan. AWM DUKJ4337
Football players huddle in a circle with their arms around each others shoulders
In 2014 a tri-service team, the Guyala Seahawks, comprising Indigenous members of the Australian Defence Force took part in the Yannanayowoit Dullallally ‘Always Proud’ football carnival in Ballarat. Team members came from all over Australia, never having played together before, and though they brought skill and enthusiasm to the contest were unable to record a victory in the 25-team tournament. Dept of Defence 20171014ran8079057_033
Two men at a table with 2 trophies, one man is seating in uniform while the other is standing in shorts and T-shirt
Two former Australian prisoners of war pose in Holland in 1918 with the trophies they won in sporting contests. Sport was one means by which prisoners of war in the world wars and Korea passed the time, kept themselves occupied and kept fit. AWM P03236.203
3 men in swimmers stand on the beach in front of large surfboards
Three Australian servicemen pose with their boards at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, in 1968. While the tropical waters must have been inviting, the small waves might have left these surfers disappointed. AWM P11687.039
A person surfing on the ocean waves
Australian Air Force Surf Riders Association catches a wave at Lighthouse Beach, New South Wales, during the 2017 Air Force surfing championship. Surfing is a popular sport amongst military personnel, with the Australian Defence Force Surf Riders Association, of which some 700 individuals are members, administering the three services' individual associations. Dept of Defence 20170907raaf8227810_0149
Men playing cricket in a dirt area

Early in the Second World War Australian soldiers based in England play a game of cricket on a muddy pitch with a makeshift wicket and a considerable degree of enthusiasm. AWM 002326

A soldier helps boy hold a plank of wood as a bat
An Australian officer, using a piece of plywood for a bat, teaches a Vietnamese orphan the basics of cricket while another soldier acts as wicket keeper, November 1967. AWM THU/67/1168/VN
Football players chase after a red ball on a grass field
Royal Australian Navy personnel play a game of Australian Rules Football during the navy’s 2010 Eastern Area Sports Challenge Day. The day included several other competitions with male and female personnel taking part in rugby, volleyball, netball and softball matches. Dept of Defence 20100325ran8564392_099
4 men jump high to reach for a ball
Australian servicemen leap for the ball during a game of Australian Rules Football on Morotai Island, Netherlands East Indies, in early 1945. One of these men played at the state level and for Richmond while another played soccer for his state before enlisting. AWM OG2515
4 men on bicycles race on a dirt area with soldiers watching on the side
Soldiers watched by warmly dressed comrades strain at the pedals in a cycle race over rough ground during a 1941 Australian Imperial Force sports meeting in Syria. AWM 022812
A rider on a mountain bike jumps over a mound on a dirt track
Riders from the army, navy and air force gathered at Canberra’s Stromlo Forest Park in October 2018 for the Australian Defence Force Cycling National Carnival. Here, a Leading Aircraftman rides the mountain bike course. Dept of Defence 20181026adf8581099_161
2 people abseiling down a cliff
Sailors from HMAS Kuttabul undertake adventure training at Sydney’s Shelly Beach on a fine September 2019 day. Dept of Defence 20190904ran8578298_275
2 men abseil down a wall and is watched by others sitting on the ground
A member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam rappels down a tower alongside a South Vietnamese military instructor as soldiers look on far below, August 1971. The closeness of sport to some elements of military training is clear in exercises such as this. AWM CUN/71/0418/VN
Topless men playing near a soccer goal post on a dirt field
A few days after the end of the Second World War a team from HMAS Manoora plays football against men of the 5th Division’s headquarters and at least one member of the Australian Red Cross Society on a dusty New Guinea field in August 1944. AWM 075390
A soccer player about to kick the ball from the corner of the field
An Australian sailor about to launch a corner kick towards the penalty area in a friendly match against a combined People’s Liberation Army-Navy side in Zhanjiang, China in 2015. Dept of Defence 20151101ran8107930_583
2 opposing groups of soldiers huddle to get the ball on the ground between their feet
Among Australian servicemen gathered at Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan to watch a 2011 State of Origin game were some who, donning the colours of the Queensland and New South Wales teams, formed a scrum on a rocky field at the base. The men are wearing sidearms and other pieces of equipment as they try to win the ball. Dept of Defence 20110703adf8114832_040
Men playing football with others watching from the side of the field
Cheered on by their fellow soldiers, a Queenslander chased by a New South Welshman races away with the ball during a game of rugby in South Vietnam, August 1966. AWM FOR/66/0635/VN
A line of men on skis in the desert
Some Australians serving in Syria during the Second World War were assigned to specially selected units for ski training at a school set high in the Lebanon Ranges. Their purpose was deadly serious as they prepared for reconnaissance and fighting patrols, but elements of the training must have resembled preparation for winter sporting competitions. AWM 012202
4 skiers slalom down the snow around poles with red and blue banners
Australian Defence Force skiers slalom through the flags on the ski cross course at the Australian Defence International and Interservices Alpine Snow Sports Championship. Held at Perisher Valley in New South Wales during 2018, the games included a range of ski and snowboard events. Dept of Defence 20180823adf8526162_207
A soldier aims an arrow and is watched by 3 nurses while another soldier looks at the target in the distance
A soldier convalescing in Melbourne during June 1943 practises archery. Sport has long been part of the recovery process for wounded veterans, from inspiring stories of those returning to competition when it seemed their injuries would make this impossible, to men blinded in the world wars or Korea finding hope in learning to play cricket, bowls and tennis by sound. AWM 052307
A close up of archers holding bows and arrows
Archers prepare for competition in the 2018 Sydney Invictus Games for current and former defence force personnel who have been wounded, injured or become ill during their military service. These international games have played an important role in helping veterans recover from physical or psychological wounds since their inception in 2014. Dept of Defence 20181026adf8517500_0009
A group of people on mats in an open concrete area are on mats in yoga positions
Australian sailors take part in a group yoga session on the wharf at Fremantle before sailing on deployment to south Asia in March 2019. Yoga brings many of the same physical and psychological benefits as sport, and can be practised in confined areas such as a dock or ship’s deck, where opportunities for games might be limited. Dept of Defence 20190308adf8581277_033
3 rows of men on a ship deck passing a ball under their legs. They are being watched by others around them
On a voyage to Singapore in 1941 three teams of soldiers play tunnel ball on a ship’s deck. Most of these men went into Japanese captivity when Singapore fell in February 1942. AWM P02569.058
A line of people pull at a rope tied to a plane
Australian service men and women, members of one of thirteen teams, take part in a tug of war that requires competitors to pull a giant C-17A Globemaster III aircraft. This team emerged victorious in the event, held to raise funds for an Australian domestic violence charity, Friends with Dignity. Dept of Defence 20161013raaf8485160_0080
Men pull at a rope and is watched by others on the side
Light Horsemen watched by a large crowd take the strain in a tug of war at a Queensland fete in 1914. AWM P04604.012
A runner leaps to the finish line with 3 others close behind. They are being watched by viewers on the side.
Desperate finish to a sprint race at a combined Anzac sports meeting on Bougainville, January 1945. AWM P00001.022
A runner takes off at the starting block on a race track
A member of the ADF competes in a track and field event in the Northern Territory, May 2003. Dept of Defence JPAU18MAY03AR
4 white sail boats travel near a ship in the harbour
Sail boats are dwarfed by HMAS Choules in Sydney Harbour during the 2019 Australian Defence Force’s annual sailing carnival in 2019. More than 50 personnel from each of the three services took part in the three-day regatta. Dept of Defence 20191212ran8615597_425


Seven men in singlets and shorts standing on either side of a volleyball net watching the ball in mid air

The last volleyball grand final at the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) base, Nui Dat, October 1971, before the withdrawal of the Australians from Vietnam. The 1st Australian Psychological Operations Unit won the final against 106 Field Workshops. AWM FOD/71/0510/VN


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