Rugby At The Front

On arriving in Egypt, the A.I.F. spent several months training in the desert around Cairo before leaving for the Gallipoli assault. It was not long before Rugby teams were formed and matches between Battalions began. Former Wallaby Tom ‘Rusty’ Richards was responsible for organising a series of Rugby matches between the First and Fourth Battalions, which he described as:

"Most of these matches before our soldiers travelled to Gallipoli were played under the shadows of the Great Pyramids, games that meant as much to the players and their keen followers as ever did an International at the Sydney Cricket Ground."

George Hill, a member of the Newtown Rugby Club, wrote of these matches to his brother:

"The rugby game is flourishing, and each unit possesses names that are well known in the mother State. The New South Wales Brigade and its attached units have been playing inter-brigade and international games. From these the A.M.C. has emerged victorious, with an unbeaten record. The games are played on beautiful flat, grassed land at the foot of the famous Cheops Pyramid, and our mutual friend, Tom Richards, has added a further country to the already long list in which he has played, the game which is so world-wide. Playing the game he loves more than anything else under the shadow of the Pyramid."

The popularity of sport, and Rugby in particular amongst the troops, was such that by October 1915 the following appeared in the London Press:

"The members of the Emergency Committee of the Rugby Union have received numerous applications from members of our Services, both at home and overseas for footballs to enable the men to obtain more varied exercise and relaxation. Feeling certain that any action which may render the lives of those fighting for our country more easy and bear able, it has been determined to open a fund for this purpose."

The first anniversary of Gallipoli was celebrated by the Australian troops in Egypt with the holding of numerous sports meeting.

Practically every Australian unit in the field participated in some sort of sports gathering, and despite the intense heat, scantily clad warriors could be seen everywhere enjoying their favourite pastimes. Football and cricket matches loomed largely in the day's list.

Australia’s official war historian, CEW Bean noted that ‘a ball of some description was always prominent whenever our troops were gathered together and there was always some sort in evidence. Games were played as close to the front line as possible’

Arriving in England in 1916 in preparation for deployment to the Western Front, Rugby matches soon became international affairs, with reports of matches against teams from South Africa, Wales, England, France, Canada and New Zealand.

On Foundation Day (now called Australia Day) in January 1916, the celebrations included a Rugby match between the Welsh Guards and Australia. Attracting a big crowd, the Welsh beat the Australian by one try to nil.

This match was soon followed by a match between the Australians and the Public Schools, this time Australia running out winners. Rugby games were often played as part of charity events and attracted large crowds while the teams received enthusiastic receptions from the local clubs. The earnings from these matches were often donated to charities that supported the improvement of conditions for mobilised man.

With the 1st Battalion in France, Tom Richards once wrote about the importance of Rugby to men at the front, “Rugby football matches have now become common amongst the Australian troops while resting after a spell in the trenches. For tomorrow they will be en route to the Somme again and the greatest hell ever thought of. But what care they for the morrow, let’s find out who are the best footballers while there is time still in hand.”

At first these matches were informal encounters between different military groups, but their significance was soon recognised by the military authorities and encouraged as a means of keeping soldiers fit and their mind away from what was happening in the trenches. With the arrival of soldiers from Australian and New Zealand on the Western Front, international wartime Rugby events really took off and by 1917 official matches were being held in Paris and other major towns.

In January 1917, a crowd of 5,000 gathered at the Parc Des Princes Velodrome, to watch a team made up from the best club players in France play against a team of ANZAC soldiers. The game was used by the French as a recruitment exercise to appeal to young men who were soon to be called up.

The success of this event led to a larger event which was organised a few weeks later. Two matches were scheduled on this day, both against an Australian Hospital teams. On 4 July 1917, Lieutenant E.E. Booth, Military Secretary to the YMCA, reported on football tours he had organised with soldier teams from London. As a result of this, a game was organised between an Australian Infantry team and a team from South Wales, which included six Welsh Rugby internationals.

The first official match between France and Australia took place on 19 January 1919, in front of 10,000 spectators at the Parc des Princes, where Australia were victorious one try to nil. It is these Rugby matches, played during the fighting in France and which included the best Rugby players from all around the world, that Waquet and Vincent claim, enabled France to become one of the elite Rugby nations.

During demobilisation, the British Army followed the initiative of the Australians and organised a Rugby competition with representative teams from the Armies of South Africa, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, together with a team from the Imperial Army and the Royal Air Force. The winner of this competition would then represent the British Empire Army in a match against the French Army at Twickenham, with the winner of that match getting an opportunity to be presented the King’s Cup by the King, in the presence of his four sons.

Meanwhile in Egypt, five Australian, four British and one New Zealand team were soon engaged in a competition to win the Moascar Cup, which had been donated by the Australian and New Zealand training depots. The Cup was named after the camp in which they were based, it was a silver and had a base made from a propeller from an enemy plane shot down in Palestine.

The winner of the Moascar Cup were then scheduled to play matches against teams from South Africa and Wales . It was eventually won by the New Zealand team, who donated it to the New Zealand Rugby Union for competition amongst Collegiate and Secondary Schools.

The King’s Cup, also in the possession of the New Zealanders whose only defeat during the tournament was at the hands of Australia, also holds pride of place at the New Zealand Rugby Union.

Officers of D Coy 1st Battalion AIF who took part in a football match against 2nd Battalion at Mena Camp, Egypt in March 1915. Sitting at back is Major B. Swannell (KIA - Gallipoli); Capt. A.J. Shout (VC, MC, - KIA Gallipoli) In Front: Lt Duchesne, (KIA) and Capt. H. Jacobs

Rugby match in Egypt – Richards Collection

Horseferry Road Rugby Team at Newsgate, Wales in 1918

116 Howitzer Bridgade Rugby Team featuring Tasker in front with the ball