Explore the History of australian football

Over There

by Greg Brooks

Over there, it's in the air,

​The smell of death is everywhere,

Unburied bodies lying 'round,

​Bits of flesh upon the ground.

Grotesque shapes of shattered bone

​Stand like sentinels alone;

Where once were living breathing men,

​Now hidden, now turned up again.

Tiny flags of flapping rags

Flutter in the air,

Or stiff with mud and dried in blood,

Mutely cry, "Beware!"

Beware of man for he has been,

​And look what he has done.

Before another moon does rise,

Once more man will come,

Leaving death and darkness

Ever in his wake.

In December 1914 the British General Staff came up with a plan to weaken Turkey, one of Germany’s principal allies, by forcing a passage through the Dardanelles and bombarding Constantinople. They also hoped that this action might divert some of Germany’s and Turkey’s attention from Russia, which had suffered a defeat at Tannenberg.

Among the troops earmarked for involvement were the Australians and New Zealanders training in Egypt. These men were split into the 1st Australian Division and the New Zealand and Australian Division and were collectively known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs). Although the number of British forces involved in the Galipolli campaign greatly exceeded that of the Anzacs the name “Galipolli” has a much greater resonance in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else. Perhaps the main reason for this is that Galipolli represented the first ever time since independence that Australians and New Zealanders had engaged in open military conflict. Many more Anzacs would die and be wounded in western Europe than at Galipolli, but the Turkish campaign brought the horrors of war coupled with the courage and resourcefulness of so many of those involved into the national consciousness of both Australia and New Zealand for the first time. Whatever the cold truths in terms of facts and statistics there is a sense in which, completely outside the boundaries of mundane experience, the quintessential Australian spirit was born out of mateship forged in fire, terror and adversity. Anyone who has watched an Anzac Day parade in any Australian city will know that such things can no more be explained than doubted.

Getting to the real truth of what happened at Gallipoli is probably impossible as so much is enshrouded in myth, uncertainty, bias, speculation and blind, unreasoned supposition and wishful thinking. But the reality of war is probably impossible to convey meaningfully to those who have not endured it at first hand. That, rather than modesty or reticence, is perhaps why so many combat veterans are reluctant to speak about their experience.

The Gallipoli Campaign, also known as the Battle of Gallipoli, took place on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Ottoman Empire between 25th April 1915 and 9th January 1916. Troops from all over the British Empire as well as France attempted to secure the peninsula, and in doing so obtain direct access by sea to Russia. They launched a naval attack followed by an amphibious landing on the peninsula, intending to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The naval attack was repelled and after eight months' fighting, with many casualties on both sides, the land campaign was abandoned and the invasion force was withdrawn to Egypt. The humiliation of the withdrawal was tempered by the impressively efficient way it was carried out. Indeed, the withdrawal was undoubtedly the most impressive undertaking of the entire campaign with the allies sustaining just one death.

In the wider scheme of things, the events at Galipoli were comparatively insignificant. Galipolli, indeed, “is hardly recalled in European accounts of the First World War”.[1] Moreover, the stark, brutal reality of the matter is that Gallipoli “was a bungled defeat, probably unnecessary, a tragic waste of life, and (from the standpoint of the Anzacs) someone else’s fault”.[2] Or is that actually the case? Others would have it that the Anzacs “did not consider they had been defeated; it was a loss in the tradition of a hard-fought game. Many in Australia saw the episode in the same way they regarded sport - showing that the country still had more than enough of the right stuff”.[3] By contrast, in Turkey Gallipoli - or the Battle of Canakkale as it is known there - is viewed as a great victory and a defining moment in the country’s history.

What is hard to refute, however, is that the Anzacs have claimed the Gallipoli campaign as their own. Even in Britain, if Gallipoli is mentioned, those few people who have heard of it tend to think of it in terms of its assocaition with Australia.[4]

In 1915, the horrors of Gallipoli must have seemed distant to the inhabitants of Australia, but distance if anything accentuated the emergence of a semi-mythological view of things. The first Anzac Day commemorations took place on 25th April 1916, exactly one year after the first Gallipoli landings. It is easy to imagine people even then embellishing or embroidering facts in order to construct a heroic national identity for themselves in a world where national identity - be it British, German, American, French, Japanese or whatever - was becoming, if anything, increasingly important.[5] At the same time, many would doubtless have enjoyed the fact that, for the time being at any rate, Australia was not being directly threatened in a military sense (unlike during the second global conflict), and it was still possible to enjoy such distractions as sport. All states except Queensland ran their major competitions more or less as usual in 1915, although VFL club University elected to disband. Perhaps unsurprisingly attendances were well down on those of 1914, and there were some comments in all states to the effect that the standard of play had been reduced following the enlistment in the AIF of many players. Nevertheless, there was still much to enjoy, both for those at home, and those fighting abroad, with many of the latter avidly looking forward to news each week of how South Melbourne, East Fremantle or Norwood had got on.

Following University’s withdrawal the VFL became an eight team competition, removing the need for a weekly bye. The premiership decider saw Carlton re-assert the superiority over Collingwood they had enjoyed for much of the preceding decade. The two teams actually played one another on three occasions during the 1915 season with the Dark Blues merging victorious on every occasion. One of the minor round meetings between the sides is reported on here.

In the VFA North Melbourne achieved the memorable distinction of winning all 14 matches contested during the season to secure their fifth senior grade premiership. Had the VFA competition not been suspended in 1916 it is intriguing to speculate on how much success North might have achieved, especially in light of the fact that they would win the first post-war VFA premiership in 1919.

Although the SAFL was much depleted by the enlistment in the forces of top players the 1915 season was nevertheless significant in that it marked the first time since their admission to the competition in 1901 that Sturt had headed the list. The fact that the premiership was won at the expense of Port Adelaide rendered it all the more noteworthy. The Blues overcame the Magpies, who were minor premiers, in by 13 points in a tense, low scoring challenge final having earlier over come both South Adelaide by 24 points and West Adelaide by 20 points.

The climax of the WAFL season is discussed here. It was generally maintained that while the standard of football produced during the minor round was disappointing, the three finals were on a par with anything seen during the immediate pre-war years.

Other state premiers in 1915 were Leroy (TFL) and Paddington (NSWAFL).


[1] Australia: a Biography of a Nation by Phillip Knightley, page 72.

[2] Ibid, page 73.

[3] Australia: a History by Mike Walker, page 130.

[4] In the popular eighties British sitcom “Blackadder Goes Forth” Lieutenant George, recalling the fates of those with whom he had enlisted, mentions that one of them had died “at Gallipoli with the Aussies”, despite the fact that the Aussies constituted a comparatively small percentage of the troops involved in the campaign.

​1915: The Dardanelles