Growden: Anzac Day memories of Australia's footballers who served

The "Anzac legend" forged at Gallipoli is an important part of the national identity of Australia and New Zealand. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Family, admirers, historians and the curious headed to the Blue Mountains near Sydney in September 2015 to be involved in a special commemorative service for one of Australia's most admired sporting figures.

James Whiteside Fraser McManamey is not among the best known of this country's athletes, but he is cherished by those with a rich knowledge of Australian rugby.

The small church at the Woodford Academy, in which the McManamey family have been heavily involved, was at capacity as we heard of his feats, and his sad death, 100 years to the day at Gallipoli.

The audience, which included entrepreneur and family relation Dick Smith, was told of how McManamey played in the first New South Wales-Queensland rugby match, in 1882, before becoming the best-known referee in NSW. When World War I broke out, he was the NSW Rugby Union president.

One of NSW's most devoted and thorough of rugby historians John Mulford, explained at the service of the emotional moment when in 1997 he put a waratah on McManamey's grave. As another person who had served high office -- being the Sydney Rugby Union president in the 1990s -- Mulford said it was his duty to seek out his grave at the Hill 60 Cemetery while he was visiting Gallipoli.

The futility of battle was a constant theme that afternoon in 2015, as it will be this weekend as Australia immerses itself in everything that is Anzac Day. Australia's three winter football codes have been hit hard by war, and rugby league, rugby union and AFL at all levels will on this April 25 remember the many from their ranks who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

McManamey, the first Australian rugby player to serve his country, bobbing up in the Sudan with the NSW Contingent in 1885, had no hesitation, even though well into his 50s, in enlisting when Australian troops headed towards Europe for the Great War.

By mid-August 1915, he was in Gallipoli as second-in-command of the 19th Battalion 5th Infantry Brigade when he was involved in action on Hill 60.

On Sep. 5, McMananey was surveying the sight of a water well when a shell landed within metres of him. Syd Middleton, one of the original Wallabies of 1908-09 who became in 1910 the first Australian to captain a winning team against the All Blacks, witnessed the moment.

Middleton wrote later that day: "The Colonel and Major McManamey left here at about 7.30am to view the position preparatory to setting our men to work digging a safe communication trench to it and parafit around it, so that the risk of loss through shell fire might be avoided. It was while this inspection was in progress that a shrapnel shell burst and Major McManamey was struck down being practically killed outright -- part of the contents of the shell entered the body one side and came out the other -- piercing the abdomen -- and although the Major lived some 10 minutes, he was unconscious and never spoke. We buried him this morning at 10.30am just in rear of our lines, and so passed out one of my best friends and one of the finest soldiers on the peninsula."

Some months earlier, two of the most extraordinary characters to have appeared in NSW rugby colours died on the first day of the Gallipoli campaign.

"Ted Larkin was involved in an advance from the 400 Plateau when, pushing toward a second ridge, later to be known as Lone Pine, he was killed by machine gun fire. The stretcher-bearers went to rescue him, but Larkin waved them away saying: 'There's plenty worse than me out there.'"

Shortly after the landing, Blair Swannell and Ted Larkin were heading the Australian charge at the Turks on the Gallipoli clifftops.

Swannell, an English-born forward, who had toured Australia twice with British Isles teams before settling in Sydney at the turn of the century, had the unenviable reputation of being the ugliest man to have ever played the game. His face was said to be like a battered prune.

Swannell's personal hygiene was also of serious concern. His prized possession was a once-white pair of football breeches that he wore in every match and refused to wash. An incessant bore who boasted about his many alleged conquests, including hunting seals off the coast of Labrador, enlisting as a trooper in the Boer War and fighting among the insurrectionists in the Republic of Uruguay, Swannell would arrive on game day wearing a filthy cream sweater bearing on it the badges and dates of all the countries he had represented.

He was an everywhere man: NSWRU secretary for a time, a rugby referee, provocative journalist, swimming official and hockey coach.

And during his rugby playing days, he was an absolute mongrel. Herbert 'Paddy' Moran, the Wallabies' first captain and another NSW representative to serve, described Swannell as "a bad influence in Sydney football ... his conception of rugby was one of trained violence".

"In appearance, he was extremely ugly, but he could talk his face away in half an hour. He was popular with the fair sex; men, generally, disliked him," Moran wrote.

Swannell was renowned for kicking defenseless players, and belting those looking the other way. In an Australia-New Zealand match, no one went to his defence when an All Blacks rival kicked him in the face -- and it was said that several of the Australian players later congratulated their opponents for putting in the slipper.

Travelling to Egypt, Swannell was promoted to a 1st Battalion Major; and despite his high rank fervently believed in the hours before heading to Gallipoli that he was going to be killed in battle. He told his soldiers that he would approach war like he played rugby -- "with my whole heart".

Before heading overseas, he was asked by a Sydney friend: "Blair, are you going to the war?"

"Yes, and with the first lot," Swannell replied. "If I am to be killed it will be among gentlemen."

Swannell was involved in the original assault on Turkish positions at a hill named Baby 700, and he was among the first to fall. There was originally a rumour that his own soldiers, who were underwhelmed by his domineering manner, killed him. The real story is that Swannell forced the Turks higher up in the cliffs and into a safer trench. While kneeling to show his troops how to take proper aim at the Turks, Swannell was fatally shot in the forehead by a Turkish sniper.

Larkin was another to do much in a short lifespan. A front row forward who played one Test against New Zealand in 1903, a one-time journalist and policeman became the first full-time secretary of the NSW Rugby League before resigning to be the Labor Member of Parliament for Willoughby.

Larkin was involved in an advance from the 400 Plateau when, pushing toward a second ridge, later to be known as Lone Pine, he was killed by machine gun fire.

In agony, Larkin thought of his fellow soldier. The stretcher-bearers went to rescue him, but he waved them away saying: "There's plenty worse than me out there."

His bullet-riddled body was recovered several weeks later during an armistice arranged to bury the dead of both sides.

The VFL ranks were also hit heavily during World War I - including the flawed Gallipoli campaign. Among the many who died on the day of the landing was the first Collingwood player to enlist, Joseph Alan Cordner. He joined up in August 1914, the same day he played his last game for Collingwood. He was last seen on April 25, 1915 by a Sergeant Major about noon "charging over some hills". His body was never recovered.

Another to die that day was Rupert Balfe, who played for the University club which was part of the VFL from 1908-14. A masterful athlete, finishing runner-up in the Victorian long jump title, he was lured into playing football, which saw him involved in an all-Balfe centreline, with brother Harold on the wing, another brother Stan in the centre and himself on the other wing, which played for Brunswick in the 1908 VFA grand final against Footscray. The game turned when Harold broke his arm, and Footscray immediately rallied to win the final by 24 points in front of 40,000 spectators.

Balfe was a scholar, studying medicine at the University of Melbourne, where he became a close friend with a young law student, Robert Menzies, who later become Prime Minister of Australia.

As a member of the University Rifles, Balfe was a natural for a commission when he joined the Army, being appointed a Second Lieutenant with the 6th Battalion.

At the Gallipoli landing, he made his way to Pine Ridge where he was involved in hand to hand fighting with the Turks. One officer wrote of the moment: "I hear he [Balfe] was seen with a handful of men surrounded by a large body of Turks, and fighting desperately with bayonets until they were all killed."

Menzies was so devastated by the news of his mate's death that he wrote a poem, which was published in the Brunswick and Coburg Leader in July 1915.

"His was the call that came from far away;
An Empire's message flashing o'er the seas.
The call to arms! The blood of chivalry
Pulsed quicker in his veins; he could not stay.
Let others wait; for him the glorious day
Of tyrants tumbled and a world set free
Had dawned in clouds of thunder; with a glee
Born not of insensate madness for the fray,
But rather of a spirit noble, brave,
And kindled by a heart that wept at wrong.
He went. The storms of battle round him rave.
And screaming fury o'er him chants its song.
Sleep gallant soul!
Though gone thy living breath,
Thou liv'st for aye, for thou has conquered death."

In the rugby league ranks, Eastern Suburbs' Bob Tidyman was rated top-shelf. He made the Australian team in 1914, where he was recognised as one of the best attacking players who played against Great Britain, including the famous "Rorke's Drift Test" in which the visitors lost three players -- one damaging his leg, the second a collar-bone, while the third was concussed -- but still won.

The Referee newspaper described Tidyman's carefree 50 metre run in the Third Test as "the trickiest and cleverest run by an Australian in the match".

Two years later, he was in the trenches on the Somme. A member of the 19th Battalion he was at the centre of numerous horrendous battles at Pozieres.

In November 1916 he was among those involved in a charge at the German trenches at Flers. The Sydney Mail newspaper reported that Tidyman was sighted as the first man running, and due to his pace would have been among the first to approach the enemy. He was never seen again.

For some time there was confusion over what actually happened to him. One soldier said he had been taken away by stretcher-bearers. Another was adamant he was taken prisoner. Another was convinced he had been wounded, sent to England for repatriation and was later sighted in France. For around 12 months, Tidyman was listed as "missing".

The following year, Private R.B Fitzpatrick wrote to The Referee newspaper to provide stronger proof: "Two months ago, while going over some ground which had just been taken, I picked up an old Rugby Football League membership ticket, with the name R Tidyman on it. Another man and myself then looked around a bit and we discovered the body of one of our boys, and lying around near him were some letters R Tidyman just discernible on the envelope. There was nothing else to help in identification, so we buried him and marked the spot. Unfortunately, censorship prevents the name of the place being given."

To this day, the actual location of Tidyman's remains unknown, but his feats are recognised at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

We will remember them.

Bibliography

Guardians of the Game (The History of the New South Wales Rugby Union 1874-2004) by John G Mulford (ABC Books)

Fallen - The Ultimate Heroes by Jim Main and David Allen (Crown Content)

From Where The Sun Rises (100 years of the Sydney Roosters) by Ian Heads, Geoff Armstrong, David Middleton (Playright Publishing).

Gold, Mud 'N' Guts by Greg Growden (ABC Books)

Inside the Wallabies by Greg Growden (Allen and Unwin).