……when Great Britain declared war on Germany at midnight on 4 August, crowds sang the national anthem in the streets, bands played ‘Rule Britannia’ in the cafes, and crowds cheered and sang in the theatres. A mob got out of hand in Melbourne and raided the Chinese quarter of Little Bourke Street, and at the University of Melbourne on the following day the students sang ‘God Save the King’ at the end of lectures. (“A Short History of Australia” by Manning Clark, pages 225-6)


For decades, every German child had grown up convinced that the British Empire was on the wane, and that a glorious era of German global supremacy was set to succeed it. This belief would sow the seeds of two world wars.


Prior to their unification as a single nation in 1871 the various German states had not harboured any large scale colonial ambitions because their navies were either small or non-existent. After unification, however, it was a different story, with many Germans in the late viewing colonial acquisitions as a true indication of having achieved nationhood. From 1884 onwards Germany procured a number of overseas colonies, mainly in Africa and the Pacific, and its race to do so produced tension with Britain, which had the largest empire in the world at the time. Britain, with France and Russia, formed a Triple Alliance, all members of which had different reasons to distrust Germany and her allies. The tension between the two sides was like an elastic band being gradually stretched until it reached snapping point. That snapping point finally came on 28th June 1914 when the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assasinated by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Austria regarded the assasination as giving it the right to invade Serbia which they duly did on 28th July. Russia then mobilised its forces in defence of Serbia.
Events over the next few days had a kind of domino effect with all-out war ultimately seeming like the only option.


Germany objected to Russia’s mobilisation of forces, and when Russ refused its demands to demobilise Germany declared war on 1st August. Fearing the worst, France ordered the general mobilisation of its troops the same day. On 2nd August Germany demanded that Belgium permit German troops safe passage via its territory into France. Belgium refused, so on 3rd August Germany invaded Belgium. This aroused consternation in Britain, which gave Germany an ultimatum to withdraw its forces. Predictably, this was ignored, and so on 4th August Britain declared war on Germany.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Australia’s participation in the horrors to come was taken as read, with the Governor-General, as the King’s representative, simply informing the Prime Minister that the war had started.[1] The Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook affirmed that “all our resources are in the Empire and for the Empire”[2] while his Labor counterpart, Andrew Fisher pledged “our last man and our last shilling”.[3] The fact that this enthusiastic support from Britain was not universally endorsed by the Australian population at large was not at first apparent, but dissent did exist, and as the war went on it would become more and more vocal.
Australia’s first military engagements took place shortly after the declaration of war at the behest of the British government. The wireless stations in the German Pacific colonial outposts of Rabaul in German New Guinea, Yap in the Caroline Islands and Nauru were targeted. The Australian forces met minimal opposition in Rabaul and Naura, both of which were occupied, but the Japanese - Allies of Britain at the time - got to Yap, as well as other German colonies north of the equator, first.


The ease with which Rabaul and Nauru had fallen produced a surge of optimism which one imagines must have impacted on the 50,000 volunteers who, by the end of the year, had signed up to fight abroad.[4] After training at Liverpool near Sydney and Broadmeadows near Melbourne the first 20,000 of these volunteers took ship from King George’s Sound at Albany in Western Australia bound - or so they imagined - for the frontlines of Flanders and France. However, there was to be a change of plan. Turkey had entered the war as an ally of Germany, and Lord Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, asked that the “colonial” force be diverted to Egypt. Once there, they were to undergo further training, and protect Britain’s interests around the Suez from the Turks. Longer term, however, there were other plans.

When war was declared, the third Australasian football carnival was underway in Sydney, involving all six Australian states. Enthusiasm for the war notwithstanding, people continued to go to the footy, and when Victoria and South Australia clashed on the final day of the Carnival the match attracted a substantial crowd (for Sydney) of 15,000 spectators. Victoria's 11.11 (77) to 5.10 (40) win saw them recapture the championship which they had won in 1908, and South Australia had claimed three years later.


​By the time of the VFL finals the public mood had changed, however. News of some of the horrendous and worrying events in Europe had reached Australian shores and many questioned whether, given these circumstances, it was appropriate for such "trivial" pastimes as football and other sports to continue to be played. The attendances at the 1914 VFL finals reflected this new attitude, with the grand final itself attracting fewer spectators than any of the preceding season's finals. It was won by a straighter kicking Carlton from South Melbourne, 6.9 (45) to 4.15 (39). The crowd of 30,495 was barely half that of the previous year's grand final.


In the SAFL Port Adelaide dominated as few teams in any competition, before or since, have done. The story of their dominance is told here.


​The WAFL premiership went to East Fremantle thanks to a 5.13 (43) to 3.6 (24) victory over local rivals South Fremantle. North Melbourne triumphed in the VFA, North Hobart in the TFL, South Sydney (NSWAFL) and South Brisbane (QFL).


Despite ever escalating criticism football would be back in 1915, but the game would be seriously denuded by the loss of key players to the armed forces, and the defection of many of its erstwhile supporters.



FOOTNOTES


[1] This procedure, or one very similar to it, was followed by virtually every nation and colony in the Empire. The single exception was Canada, whose intended participation in the war was not announced until ratified by Parliament.


[2] Quoted in “A Concise History of Australia” by Stuart McIntyre, page 157.


[3] Ibid, page 157.


[4] The Australian government had only pledged 20,000.


1914: For King and Empire

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