2014 – AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL

When discussing the place of recreation, sport, entertainment and study as part of the Prisoner of War experience there has been comment on how these activities were possible in a time of war and particularly for prisoners of war. The question is often posed in the context of prisoners of the Japanese in Asia. The reality is that circumstances vary quite widely depending on the phase of the conflict. In the case of the Burma Thailand Railway it was not possible during the railway construction phase but prior to that and to some degree, after, after, it was. The playing of Australian Rules was significant regardless of location. Australian Rules football, a uniquely Australian sport, and more significantly, a Victorian state sport, identified players in terms of locality as well as class and nationality. Australian POWs from other states who identified themselves as rugby union and/or league players put aside former prejudices to the sport, reflecting that they too wanted to be part of the one game that linked them integrally to nationhood. Evidence suggests that wherever Victorians were held as POWs, in either Europe or South East Asia, Australian Rules football was played. In the absence of suitable equipment they often had to use rugby balls to play and records indicate that 'Aussie Rules' became well known as the Australian sport in Europe and in particular one of 'the leading body and character building sports of Stalag 383'. In Stalag 383, Australian POWs were particularly keen to get a competition going and it was up and running just one month after the first Australians had entered the camp on 15 September 1942. Corporal Ryan recorded the early beginnings of these matches in One Year: ‘When, in 1878, a Victorian, H. C. A. Harrison, formulated the rules of a new code of football to be known as Australian Rules, he doubtless nourished hopes that the game might spread beyond Australia, but I'll lay a shade of odds that Bavaria did not enter into his calculations. It did not enter into ours either, but after events unforeseen had landed us secure behind the barbed wire boundaries of Stalag 383, the possibilities of a game dawned in more minds than one. There did not appear to be much stopping us. These first games in Stalag 383 were twelve-a-side matches, and played on a soccer pitch of 100 x 50 yards. By the following year, in March 1943, when the weather once again made football possible and numbers of Australians in the camps had swelled, a larger and more official body was set up. A committee was formed and a general meeting called to select the four sides that would form a competitive football league. They were named 'Kangaroos', 'Emus', 'Kookaburras' and 'Wallabies', and a further two teams known as 'Snakes' and 'Crows' were formed to look after the less familiar players of the game and to provide opportunities to any man in the camp 'wishing to know his capabilities'. Australian POWs started what would become a yearly event, a game between 'Eastralia' and 'Westralia'. Jerseys were screen-printed and manufactured from old Army singlets, black swans for Westralia, and a marked V for Eastralia. Betting began on the sidelines at the ever-present totalisator, and the first game kicked off on 29 March 1943. According to One Year, 'All but three of the"Sandgropers" were members of the 2/11 Bn., and of the opposition, fifteen were Victorians. Westralia won with 10 goals 8 behinds (68 pts) to Eastralia, 8 goals and 19 behinds (67 pts)’. R. L. Hoffman summed up what this game and quite possibly what most sports meant to Australian POWs in Stalag 383: The game was dedicated to 'Bluey' Truscott, whose brilliant star, with tragic splendour, flared across the sky as a symbol of sportsmanship in its best traditions. There are others like Wing-Commander Truscott, of whom we involuntary exiles have not yet heard, but we salute them all in this reproduction of the national game played in these alien surroundings. It was an Australian occasion — flashback to sunnier days of the past, a pre-view of sunnier days to come: and for the brief exciting while of a football game Australians here in Stalag 383 existed between the warm familiar parallels of latitude south of the equator. Australian POWs in Changi were also keen followers of Australian Rules football and despite the lack of food, and the increasing incidence of ill health, were determined to play and to follow all the rules and traditions of the game, forming a league in late 1942. They adopted the names of their favourite teams and inter-club rivalries extended to buying and selling players who could be traded for the sum of four ounces of rice. Footballs were obtained from the Chinese and POWs also made some themselves 'using old boot leather and bladders from wild pigs some of the blokes sneaked into the jungle and killed'. Les Green, a former POW interviewed for Football Life in 1969, told the story of 'Football Behind Bamboo': ‘For the first six months we were more or less confined to barracks in Changi. Then the Japanese allowed us to play sport. By that time the football season in Melbourne was underway so we decided to run our own. Names chosen for the teams were Melbourne, Collingwood, Geelong, St. Kilda, Essendon and Richmond ... There were three matches every week - sometimes two on Saturday and one on Wednesday ... Believe me, they weren't picnic matches. It was very serious football. And the standard wasn't bad considering the difficult conditions we had to play under. Occasionally there were fights on the field. The umpires had the power to report players and an independent tribunal heard any reports of misconduct, on or off the field, just as it would in the VFL. The Japanese guards would watch our games. They would laugh at us, and think we were silly to be bashing ourselves. For each match the umpires cast three votes for the best and fairest player award, which we called The Changi Brownlow Medal’. These six teams ran a hard-fought competition that culminated in an end of- season final — Australia versus the Rest in January 1943, when a Victorian eighteen played a team representative of the rest of the Commonwealth. Les Green also mentions the thrill for Australian players and spectators alike when champion footballer, and 1933 Brownlow medallist for Fitzroy, Wilfred 'Chicken' Smallhorn, ran on to the field to umpire this memorable game. Even though Smallhorn did not actually play football, his presence certainly inspired other POWs to achieve their best by getting involved in the organisation of their games. At the end of this match, team captain Peter Chitty, a former St Kilda player and captain of the Changi Victorian team, was awarded the 'Changi Brownlow Medal'. Back in Australia, the award of the Brownlow Medal was suspended between 1942 and 1945 so this medal has special significance for Australian sporting history as well as for the Australian Rules followers in Changi in 1943. The medal was, and remains, a symbol for Australian footballers, representing fair play and good sportsmanship. The medal and its recipient represented an ideal that went beyond sport and was played out in the wider POW experience. Chitty carried his Brownlow with him throughout his fifteen months on the Thai-Burma railway, where his leadership and bravery resulted in his also being awarded the British Empire Medal for carrying a dying mate some 50 kilometres on his back through the jungle. In an interview in 1994 before his death, Chitty stated, 'It was a great honour to lead that side ... A lot of great careers were cut short by the war. They were good sides that played that match in Changi'. This final match of the season would be the last formal football game that POWs in Changi would play and indeed that some would ever play or see again, for work parties were already beginning to be taken to the Thai-Burma railway.

Comments are closed.