Extracts from history - lacrosse and the impact of WWI (1914-1918)
The Victorian people may not have realised fully the international implications of the declaration of war. Indeed the first shot of the Great War was fired at Port Phillip heads, when the fort at Portsea fired a shell across the bows of a German ship which was making a dash to escape the inevitable seizure of German assets. We, in retrospect, many years after that war, can realise that there was far higher proportion of immigrants from Germany established in compact communities in South Australia than there were in Victoria. These people might have felt far less enthusiastic of supporting "to the last man and the last shilling" a war against the fatherland. Sabotage of shipping and railway lines was something to be considered. The outlook in South Australia was very different from that in Victoria. Probably the decision to cancel was more the result of war hysteria than any reasoned argument, for it is difficult to see how the cancellation of an interstate lacrosse match could have any significant effect on Australian preparations for war. There can be little doubt that the South Australian decision arose from a sense of patriotism, and the Victorian reaction was unsympathetic and churlish.
By 1914 there were four women’s clubs in N.S.W., and there was a competition in place.
From the first report in 1915 it was evident that war was beginning to exert an influence. The season opened on Saturday, 1st May, and a full round was played, but there were many new faces in the teams. "Left Attack" expressed the view that no other sport had contributed as proportionately largely to the leaving Australia, he said, was taking with it a set of lacrosse sticks so that the men might have their athletic exercise. The camp team from Broadmeadows had done good work. "Let us hope," he continued, "that at the celebration of peace in Berlin, when Canadians and Australians march in together there may be an international lacrosse game between the two dependencies from overseas." This was the optimistic view generally held at the beginning of the war. It was a vast game, and the nation with the trust and bluest athletes would win. Lacrosse continued
to be played with enthusiasm, and it does not seem that the beginning of 1915 revealed an awareness of the dreadful things that were to come.
"Left Attack" wrote on 20 July 1915, "The lacrosse season is drawing to a close, and nearly the whole of the men playing are those who for one reason or another have not been able to enlist. This sport has certainly stood the test. So many lacrosse players have answered the call of Empire that clubs find it exceedingly difficult each week to put full teams into the field. Further enlistments during the recruiting campaign made their influence felt on Saturday's games, with the result that, in the senior section only one club, University, were able to put a full 12 into the field The total number of lacrosseurs who have now volunteered is upwards of 260, representing between 50 and 60% of those eligible for service. The casualty list to date includes 12 killed and 19 wounded. T.A. Donaldson, who was at one time Hon Assistant Secretary to the Victorian Lacrosse Association, and a prominent member of the South Yarra club, and has for two years been residing in Ocean Island, arrived in Melbourne last week. He left Ocean Island last month for the express purpose of enlisting, and travelled 3,500 miles to do so. He volunteered as soon as he reached Melbourne, and was accepted. He goes into camp this week. It was implicitly accepted among amateur sportsmen (and indeed the community generally) that no man who was qualified to enlist could retain his self-respect if he failed to do so.
The N.S.W. ladies competition was suspended in July 1915, presumably due to the outbreak of World War 1, with no further competition recorded after that date.
In 1916 the view with regard to being qualified to enlist became explicit. At the general meeting of the Victorian Lacrosse Association, held at the Amateur Sports Club, and reported in "The Australasian" on 22 April 1916 under the heading "Sport and War", the following motion was proposed by Mr. W.B. House: "During the season 1916, and for the currency of the present European War, or any extension thereof, no person shall be allowed to take part in any matches arranged by the association if over the age of 21 years, unless such person has volunteered for active service with the Australian Expeditionary Forces, and has been rejected by the Defence Authorities, or unless, in the
opinion of the sub-committee of the association to be appointed for the purpose, the circumstances of the person are sufficient for his failure to volunteer for active service, when such sub-committee shall give to such a person a certificate of permission to play for any period to be stated.
It was further resolved that no premiership games be arranged for the coming season, any games to be club contests only, and subject to the provisions of Mr House's resolution.
This now seems a severe and unnecessary intrusion into matters of conscience and privacy, particularly in view of the fact that the referendum on conscription had failed to gain a majority support. Feelings in 1916 were very different from those held today. Already the numbers of lacrosse players had been severely reduced. The social and political climate was such that any young man of military age who failed to volunteer was regarded either contempt, especially by women, and ostracized. The numbers of young men available to fill teams of the various lacrosse clubs was day to day growing smaller. The real decision before lacrosse administrators was whether the game should be played at all on any organised basis, or whether it should be suspended for the duration of the war, which was now seen as possibly several years. Many influential men held the view that the game should not be played. Mr Phillip Shappere, President of the Victorian Lacrosse Association, who was affectionately known as "the grand old man of lacrosse", resigned from his position on the ground that he was totally opposed to lacrosse being played while the war lasted. The lacrosse association, at a meeting reported in "The Leader", on 10 June 1916, decided that the game should "live". The executive took the view that the war would not last forever, and they realised that, if lacrosse was taken off the sporting calendar, it might be difficult to build the game up again. With friendly matches being played under the auspices of the association in the meantime, continuity would be maintained, and an effective organisation would have been preserved. Mr House's motion really gave respectability to those men who still played lacrosse. The world now knew the point of view of the lacrosse association, and realised that any man who had been given permission to play had fulfilled his duties to his country. The executive committee at this meeting established a non-premiership rota of matches in three sections, the age limit being 20, except for those players who had given satisfactory reasons for not having enlisted. The game was thus saved
from probable extinction, and little publicity was given to it for the next two years.
After the decision made by the Victorian Lacrosse Association to suspend pennant competitions, reported in the Australasian of 22 April, 1916 no further reports appeared for two years. This hiatus was a critical time. Though the Association made such arrangements as it could to keep the sport alive in Victoria, it remained to be seen whether the sport was moribund or merely hibernating. War raised more serious social and economic problems than mere sport, and the impact of these changes in mores and general civilisation meant that the future of the sport, as well as in many other activities could not be predicted with any certainty. The Second World War is alive in a few memories still. We have in our community a small and diminishing number of men and women who actually took part; and we may have more who, though unable to be actively engaged, lived through those times. The more thoughtful among us are still aghast at the fearful and abominable acts perpetrated in those years. But there are a very few now left among us who lived through the dark years of World War 1.
At its conclusion, people could not believe that such a horrible catastrophe could ever be brought about by human beings, and, in a slogan-conscious world, it was dubbed, seriously though romantically as "the war to end wars". The philosophy of the war of attrition, as demonstrated in World War I was that if the combatant groups killed each other fast enough and for long enough, the side that had the greater numbers must emerge as victors. Individuals were no longer important. When a man put on his uniform he became nothing more than a number, a statistic in a horrible collation of statistics. To those whom he had left at home he remained a man he was still a father or a son or a brother, a husband, a fiance or a friend.
There are still among us some who remember, if we are courageous to do so, the casualty lists of those killed, or missing in action (ie presumed killed), or wounded, or maimed. We can, if we will, remember those who were reduced to intellectual or psychological ruin. Many of these statistics thus completely destroyed or reduced to physical incapacity had been men foremost in their various sports before the war and no sport, it was claimed, had been more lavish in its contribution to the destruction of its male population than lacrosse. Its administrators must have wondered whether there would be enough able bodied men left to re-establish the game at the level it had so laboriously achieved.
It was certain that many returned soldiers, who before the war had been enthusiastic member of their various clubs, would not be available to render services to their pre-war clubs. There was some ground for optimism. Four years is not an eternity. Lacrosseurs who had exchanged the crosse for the cannon would, if they were spared, still be able to play the game efficiently, and their love for the amateur game suggested that they would return to it with unabated enthusiasm, many lacrosseurs were professional men, and would remain in the metropolitan area, where the headquarters of the legal, medical, architectural, engineering and like professions would be situated.
LEST WE FORGET