Footy on the Front: AFL during the First World War




The AFL Grand Final weekend has rolled around quickly, with the mighty Hawthorn Hawks tuning up to battle it out against the West Coast Eagles for the ultimate victory in 2015.

This perhaps inspires a timely look at the impact of the First World War on the game, through the unique perspective offered by the Memorial’s collections.

During times of conflict, sport found its place equally on the battlefield and the home front. Cricket, Rugby, Aussie Rules, Rowing, Surf Lifesaving carnivals – all were familiar remnants of home, potent and poignant reminders of familiar activities and the fun, mateship and joy of more carefree days. The qualities of grit, endurance, fortitude, physical strength and aggression have been considered as necessary on the sporting field as on the battlefield.

The onset of the First World War impacted upon the game of Australian football; whilst the Victoria Football League (VFL) was still competitive throughout the years 1914 to 1918, it was not immune to the adverse effects of war on a nation that was still developing politically, socially and economically.

Whilst the VFL considered suspending the season due to the onset of war, the game went ahead and the season commenced on 24 April 1915, with nine teams competing. The 1915 Grand Final went to Carlton, who smashed Collingwood by 33 points in front of a crowd of approximately thirty-nine thousand spectators. The spectator count at the 1916 and 1917 the Grand Finals were drastically reduced on account of the war; by comparison, these finals attracted crowds of approximately twenty-one thousand and twenty-five thousand spectators respectively. The lowest point of the competition during the war years was in 1916, with only four sides contesting the VFL – Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond. The game soon revived, and by 1917 six teams were competing. By 1918 only the Melbourne Football Club was not playing the competition.

The most obvious factor affecting the game, of course, was the fact that many of the players enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Recruitment drives were targeted towards athletes, with many recruitment posters juxtaposing the importance of serving the nation against watching a football match.


Untitle1In early 1915, the State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in Victoria released a vivid recruiting poster aimed primarily at young sporting men. The image juxtaposed an image of an Australian soldier standing guard over his dead mate with a photograph of a VFL match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, suggesting where patriotic duty should truly lie.   Untitle2

Australians brought Aussie Rules to the battlefields of the Front as a means of escape and recreation. The most famous game was held at the Queen’s Club in London in October 1916. This display of the Australian style of football to the English attracted a crowd of 3000 spectators; whilst the English admired the fitness, skill and agility of the players demonstrated by the high marking, one news reporter preferred the “stoutness characteristic of the English game” to the “colonial exposition” he was spectator to.

The game was organised by Australian Olympic swimmer Lieutenant Frank Beaurepaire, and was in aid of the British and French Red Cross. The papers of Sir General Monash even contain a rare program pamphlet for the match, illustrated in the style of typical wartime cartoon humour by Cecil Hartt and Fred Leist.

(copy of program pamphlet below)


The Prince of Wales was in attendance to watch the Third Australian Divisional team (who played with a large map of Australia on their blue guernsey) battle it out against the Australian Training Units team (who played in a red guernsey emblazoned with a white kangaroo).

                                                                                                   Third Australian Division Team

Untitle5                                                                      Australian Training Unit Team

Organised by Australian Olympic swimmer Lieutenant Frank Beaurepaire in aid of the British and French Red Cross, an Australian football match was played at Queen’s Club, West Kensington.  The Third Australian Divisional team (top photograph) won the match with a score of 6 goals, 16 behinds (52 points).


Both sides were comprised of notable players of the day:

Third Australian Divisional Team

Lieutenant Bruce Moses Farquhar Sloss (South Melbourne), Captain

Lt John (Jack) Brake (University)

Dan Minogue (former captain of Collingwood)

Carl Willis (South Melbourne)

Leo Little (Melbourne)

William Isaac Sewart (Essendon)

J Pugh (Launceston)

H M Moyes (St Kilda)

P J Jory (St Kilda)

C Lilley (Melbourne)

L E Lee (Richmond)

Cyril Louis Hoft (Perth)

L Martin (University)

R Alley (Williamstown)

Hughie James (Richmond)

B H Mills (Brunswick)

J Foy (Perth)

Lt W Orchard (Geelong)

ustralian Training Units team

Captain (Capt) Chaplain Charles Julius Perry (played for Norwood), team captain

John Thomas (Jack) Cooper (former captain, Fitzroy)

PC Trotter (Fremantle)

J Donaldson (Essendon)

H Kerly (Collingwood)

J Hoskins (Melbourne)

H Boyd

S C Martin (University)

H C Cosnvi? (Association)

C Armstrong (Geelong)

J Scullin (South Fremantle)

Malfield (Fremantle)

T A Paine (Northam)

E Beames

J Bower (Port Melbourne)

McDonald (Essendon)

Lieutenant Colonel Jackson (South Australia)

H Moore (South Australia)