Explore the History of australian football


by Frederick Manning

We stumble, cursing, on the slippery duck-boards,

​Goaded like the damned by some invisible wrath,

A will stronger than weariness, stronger than animal fear,

Implacable and monotonous.

​1916: The "Little Digger"

In October 1915 Andrew Fisher accepted the position of Australian High Commissioner in London, and attorney-general William Hughes, a renowned orator of Welsh extraction, though actually born in London, replaced him as Prime Minister. Early in 1916 Hughes was invited by the British government to visit England, and he accepted. He was popularly received everywhere he went, particularly by those who had prospered from the war, and after his tour of England was complete he made his way to the western front, where he enhanced his reputation as a “man’s man” still further. The troops christened him the “Little Digger”, a label that would stick.

Hughes returned home convinced that Australia needed to increase its contribution to the war effort. In particular, he became a staunch advocate of conscription for service overseas, despite the fact that his party was fundamentally opposed to it. When he announced that he planned to order a referendum on the issue he was expelled from the Australian Labor Party. The referendum, however, went ahead. On 28th October Australians were asked to answer yes or no to the question: “Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this war, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?” A total of 1,087,557 voted “yes”, while 1,160,037 voted “No”. Among the repercussions were that Hughes was sacked, extremely acrimoniously, as leader of the Australian Labor Party. In some ways this represented a shot in the foot as it effectively split the party, and Labor would remain in the political wilderness for more than a decade. Hughes and his supporters subsequently forged an alliance with the Liberals and early in 1917 a new political party, the Nationalists, was established with Hughes as leader and, because the party had a working majority, Prime Minister.

Following the debacle of Gallipoli the AIF forces had been evacuated back to Egypt for rest, recouperation and further training. Between March and June 1916 four Anzac infantry division were shipped to France, with the cavalry units remaining behind. Three of the Anzac infantry divisions ended up being used in the first Battle of the Somme, which began on 1st July, and lasted five weeks. By that time 23,000 Australian troops were dead or had been wounded. And for what? This was the question many Australians were now asking. As a result, conscription numbers began to falter. By the second half of 1916 at least 7,000 new volunteers were wanted each month, but only half that number were coming forward. Roman Catholics in particular were becoming more and more vociferous in their opposition, if not always to the war per se, then most assuredly to the involvement of Australians on the other side of the globe. The brutal putting down by British troops of the Irish Easter rebellion of 1916 inflamed opinions still further. Why, many people wanted to know, should yet more Australians be sent to the front line with the effect of freeing up additional British soldiers for policing duties in Ireland?

The cavalry unit which had remained behind in Egypt when the other Anzac forces departed would play a comparatively unsung but important role in helping oust Turkey from the war early in 1918, but more of that at the appropriate time.

Back home, the war’s damaging impact on sport was at its peak in 1916. The SAFL disbanded its competition, as did the VFA and all three senior Tasmanian competitionsL. The VFL, WAFL and NSWAFL continued, but in atrophied form. Attendances in all three competitions were greatly diminished. The VFL had just four clubs, which farcically played twelve rounds of home and away matches followed by a finals series in which all four teams participated. Fitzroy, which had finished a distant last after the near meaningless minor round, went on to claim the premiership. Quite a number of players from the VFL clubs which had elected not to continue saw service with one or other of the four remaining sides in 1916.


In the WAFL, from which North Fremantle had withdrawn never to return, South Fremantle broke through for the first flag in the club’s history, achieved by downing arch rivals East Fremantl;e 7.12 (54) to 5.5 (35). Paddington won the NSWAFL flag with a 3.14 (32) to 1.8 (14) defeat of Balmain in the decisive match of the year.

William Morris Hughes