Sport and Australian military life
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
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