- Australian Rules Football during the First World War by Dale Blair
Dale Blair and Rob Hess have presented a fascinating manuscript looking at one of Australia's favorite and most enduring pastimes: Australian Rules football. This well-researched book greatly contributes to the field of sports history during an important period in world history. Its chronological structure provides the reader with an easy-to-follow analysis of one of the more underexplored time periods in Australia's sporting history. The book includes a series of photographs, which adds to its depth.
Throughout the manuscript, Blair and Hess also focus on the role of class and its attitude to sport and the wider war effort in Australia. They state, "On the eve of the first world war, Australian football had firmly established itself as a popular form of entertainment in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and throughout Tasmania" (9) because of its appeal to working-class males, but also through its attraction to a significant minority of women. An entire chapter is set aside for women and Australian Rules football, including that the first women's competitive game of Australian Rules football took place in Perth in 1915 (55). By 1916, "novelty football matches involving females, with funds raised to be forwarded to such charities as the Soldiers Fund begun to be reported in a number of newspapers" (58). These examples provide a useful context to life in Australia during the war.
The book also places the game in the broader conscription debate in Australia. Blair and Hess argue that the prospect of the introduction of conscription posed a significant threat to the ability of football clubs to maintain playing rosters. Voting patterns from the conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917 are analyzed and are a useful barometer of sentiment, also showing that many of the clubs that continued to play throughout World War I were situated in anticonscription areas and suburbs that at the time were classified as being distinctly working class (89).
Blair and Hess demonstrate that the effect of the outbreak of war on the domestic competition was not immediately apparent, although soon crowd sizes diminished. For example, in Victoria, attendees at the VFA semi-finals reportedly dropped by half (10). The book has useful comparisons with other sports. The authors contend that clubs throughout Australia were conscious of the calls to abandon football for the duration of the war and looked to the example set in Great Britain: "There the English Football League consulted with the War Office and upon finding no objection decided to continue with its programme of matches" (13). Despite continuing to play, calls to halt matches became louder following the loss of Australian life at Gallipoli. However, on the eve of the 1915 football season, most players continued to compete. Blair and Hess cite useful statistics throughout to support their arguments. For example, just before the Gallipoli landing, fifty-one (or 13 percent) of Victorian Football Association (VFA) and Victorian Football League (VFL) players from the previous season were reported as having enlisted, in contrast to the overall enlistment figures of 38.7 percent of eligible males between the ages of eighteen and forty-four who enlisted during the entire war (21).
Blair and Hess provide in-depth detail in Chapter 2 about the effects of football following the Gallipoli campaign, which was an essential event in fostering a sense of identity [End Page 404] in both Australia and New Zealand, but it would have been useful to provide a little more context about that campaign. While Blair and Hess argue that "national pride swelled as Australian soldiers were said to have performed heroically" (25) at Gallipoli, there is no mention of the casualties inflicted on Australian and New Zealand troops or placement of the campaign into the broader war context. While readers from Australia and New Zealand are familiar with the Gallipoli disaster thorough ANZAC Day services, other readers are left to deduce the importance of Gallipoli to Australia.