Explore the History of australian football

​Port Adelaide's unbeaten 1914 SAFL premiership and Australian championship winning team.

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And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Now when I was a young man, I carried me pack, and I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback, well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said son, It's time you stopped rambling, there's work to be done.
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun, and they marched me away to the war.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as the ship pulled away from the quay
And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli
And how well I remember that terrible day, how our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he'd primed himself well. He shower'd us with bullets,
And he rained us with shell. And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda, when we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs, then we started all over again.
And those that were left, well we tried to survive, in that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive, though around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head, and when I woke up in my hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead. Never knew there was worse things than dyin'.

For I'll go no more waltzing Matilda, all around the green bush far and free
To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs-no more waltzing Matilda for me.
So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia.
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be.
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, to mourn, and to pity.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda, as they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away
And so now every April, I sit on me porch, and I watch the parades pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march, reviving old dreams of past glories
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore. They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda, and the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear. Someday no one will march there at all.
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by that billabong, who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Lyrics of a song written in 1971 by Scottish born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle

The war in Europe between August 1914 and November 1918 wrought dramatic and enduring changes on Australia. It has also been argued that it did more to shape the nation's distinctive character and the attitudes and demeanour of its peoples than any events before or since. At the end of the war Australia’s ties with Britain had been discernibly and irrevocably weakened. During the course of the war two separate referendums were held over the question of compulsory conscription. Conscription for local defence was already in force, and had been for some years, but international conflict was another matter. In both referendums the Australian public, appalled at the number of their countrymen’s young lives that were being lost - arguably needlessly - on the other side of the globe resoundingly rejected making conscription for service in the killing fields of Europe compulsory. Australia was the only major combatant in world war one whose forces, land, sea and air, were all volunteers. 

Those in power were not necessarily in accord with the population as a whole on this, and other matters.  As far as most members of the government, and indeed politicians as a whole, tended to view the primary purpose of the nation’s efforts as having been to preserve national security and, in so doing, reinforce the central idea on which they believed the nation had been built, which is to say “racial purity”. One year after the conclusion of the war Australia’s Labor Prime Minister, William Hughes, used these carefully chosen words to describe the recent conflict:

We went into this conflict for our own national safety, in order to ensure our national integrity, which was in dire peril, to safeguard our liberties, and those free institutions of government which, whatever may be our political opinions, are essential to our national life, and to maintain those ideals which we have nailed to the very topmost of our flagpoles - White Australia, and those other aspirations of this Young Democracy.[1]

Examining the situation through twenty-first century spectacles it seems apparent that, rather than producing beneficial change and a desire for progress, the war actually hardened old attitudes and prejudices. “White Australia” became more of a clarion call than ever before. The country’s indigenous peoples became more marginalised and in many instances persecuted. Paradoxically, however, white Australians were much more egalitarian than perhaps any other English speaking peoples in the world. Tales told by returning soldiers of what they regarded as the puerile class system adhered to by the British only served to reinforce the general sense of estrangement from Britain. Field punishments were a case in point:

There was a Tommy in the lines of the next camp tied to a wooden cross. Everyone crowded round and started asking questions. It transpired that the poor devil had abused a lance-corporal and had to do two hours morning and afternoon for his trouble. Someone suggested cutting him free. The suggestion was no sooner made than carried out. The poor beggar kept saying, “Don’t cut me free, chum, I’ll only get more.” The raiders assured him he would not get any more while they were around. Having destroyed the cross, pelted the officers’ huts with bricks and jam tins and named them for a lot of Prussian bastards, the raiders returned to our lines.[2]

The absence of conscription meant that there remained sufficient able-bodied men in the country for football competitions such as the VFL and WAFL to continue. Indeed, the VFL can claim the distinction of having run continuously, albeit on occasion with a reduced number of teams, every year since the competition’s inception in 1897. 

After the war, football provided a much-needed antidote to its horrors, and attendances in all states soared. Moreover, just as in the years immediately preceding the conflict the standard across the southern states remained remarkably even, at least for a time. Western Australia, for example, emerged victorfious from the 1921 interstate carnival in Perth, while South Australia defeated the might of the “Big V” in 1920 in Melbourne, 1922, 1923 and 1925 in Adelaide, and 1926 in Melbourne. But more of such things at the appropriate time.


[1] Quoted in A Short History of Australia by Manning Clark, page 237.

[2] From a letter quoted in The Broken Years by Bill Gammage, and quoted in Australia: a History by Mike Walker, page 135.

The Great War