Explore the History of australian football


by A.D. Hope

Stranger, go tell the Spartans

we died here obedient to their commands.

                 Inscription at Thermoplae

​Linger not, stranger; shed no tear;

Go back to those who sent us here.

We are the young they drafted out

To wars their folly brought about.

Go tell those old men, safe in bed,

​We took their orders and are dead.

This year saw the adoption by the German high command of the disastrous policy of unrestricted submarine warfare - disastrous in that it brought about the USA's entry into the war within the space of a couple of months, and ultimately led to her downfall the following year. Meanwhile the British launched a major offensive at Passchendaele in autumn 1917: as at the Somme the previous year it proved a highly costly failure. In 1917 Russia's exited the war after two revolutions, the first in February and a second in October.

In Australia, the matter of whether or not conscription should be extended to include service overseas once again assumed centre stage in September 1917. This time the motion was rejected even more emphatically. Among those opposed to conscription for overseas service were most of the soldiers fighting in France one of whom wrote home in December that that “we are all waiting for the result of the referendum to see what sort of time Mr W Hughes has got for his trouble. He won’t get a yes from the boys over here that’s sure.”[1] Perhaps the Australian troops’ apparent affection for Hughes, as displayed during his visit to the Western Front,  was, in truth, somewhat less than skin deep.

Hughes was a strange character, of whom Manning Clark opined “It may be doubted whther he loved any man”.[2] His loyalty was first and foremost to the British Empire rather than to Australia as an independent nation. The main reason for this was that he doubted Australia’s ability to stand up for itself alone in what he perceived as a fundamentally hostile world. Consequently, he actually wanted Australia to surrender some of its independence to Britain in order to ensure Britain’s full protection in the event, say, of a Japanese invasion, something many Australians at the time feared.[3]

In Australia, the general mood in 1917 has been described as deflated and somewhat cynical - in stark contrast to the feelings of ebullient patriotism so many had espoused when the war began. Not even the Americans’ entry into the war could assuage the feelings of hopelessness and resentment. Why on earth should Australians, in their thousands, sacrifice their lives on the other side of the world in defence, not of their own country, but of Britain and France? Hughes’ answer - that Australia’s and Britain’s destinies were inextricably intertwined - was most emphatically not the view of most Australians.

Still, there was always sport, and if attendances at major sporting events remained deflated compared to the immediate pre-war years, for many it afforded something of a panacea, an escape route back to normality. In Victoria the VFL remained active in 1917 with six clubs - two more than in 1916. Collingwood ultimately triumphed, although not before a scare. Minor premiers, they lost the final by a goal to Fitzroy before making amends a week later with a 9.20 (74) to 5.9 (39) win. 

For the second season in succession, South Fremantle overcame local rivals East Fremantle in the premiership decider, this time by the slightly narrower margin of 15 points, 6.5 (41) to 3.8 (26). Other premierships went to Paddington in the NSWAFL and Wanderers in the newly formed Northern Territory Football League. The SAFL, VFA, TFL and QFL continued in abeyance.


[1] Quoted in Australians: Eureka to the Diggers by Thomas Keneally, page 353. News, needless to say, travelled much more slowly a century ago than it does today.

[2] A Short History of Australia by Manning Clark, page 226.

[3] Japan had, of course, comprehensively defeated Russia in a war just over a decade earlier, while during the Great War she had, seemingly effortlessly, captured a number of German overseas colonies in the Pacific, and later provided an extremely efficient and effective escort service for British ships in the Mediterranean. 

​1917: Death Without Glory