A tribute to South Melbourne champion Bruce Sloss

Bruce Sloss                    

On January 4 1917 Lieutenant Bruce Sloss was walking behind the front line in Armentieres, northern France, when a German shell exploded nearby and killed him instantly. His loss was particularly felt thousands of miles away in Melbourne Victoria.

In his introduction to Farewell, dear People: Biographies of Australia’s lost generation, author Ross McMullin wrote. “For Australia, a new nation with a relatively small population, the death of 60,000 soldiers during World War 1 was catastrophic….That there must have been extraordinary individuals among them has been implicitly understood. But these special Australians are unknown today…..Their names and stories are unfamiliar to later generations.” This short story is an attempt to remedy this situation in the case of  Bruce Sloss, one member of Australia’s lost generation.

Bruce Sloss was born in January 21 1889 in Malvern, Victoria. Able academically and on the sports field, he became an engineer and inventor. Employed in a jam factory, he invented a method to cut melons into cubes to prevent the fruit being pressed to a pulp. At the time, his invention was said to have “revolutionised” the jam –making industry. A handsome- looking young man, the ladies loved him, especially when they heard his delightful singing voice, which occurred frequently occurred during South Melbourne’s social functions.

Although a talented cricketer, it was on the football field that Bruce achieved great fame. He first played with Malvern Presbyterians, his local church, and then moved to Essendon in the Victorian Football League (VFL) in 1906. He was unsuccessful playing only three games and in 1907 moved to Brighton in the Victorian Football Association (VFA), a level lower than the VFL.

During his time at Brighton, 1907 to mid-1910, he gained the reputation of being the best ruckman in the competition. He won selection for Victoria twice in those years.  His success caused him to be ear-marked as a player whose effectiveness had to be restricted  by any means, legal or otherwise. He felt that he was being unfairly targeted and moved to South Melbourne in mid- 1910, who, at the time, were the reigning VFL premiers.

The pre-war years were a boom time in the VFL. Writers referred to it as a Golden Age, characterised by great footballers and tremendous public support. Crowds of 20,000-40,000 were common at good matches which was amazing for a city of just half a million. Over 53,000 attended the 1912 Grand Final.Women were great supporters and workers only having to work half a day on Saturdays had contributed to the keen interest.

Bruce Sloss’s first game for South Melbourne was nothing short of sensational. The South Melbourne Record reported, “Sloss was South’s best man, and in following for three quarters, showed great stamina, and his last quarter was his best. South are to be congratulated in securing such a star, who….should shine for many a day to come.”

And shine he did, being named in the list of best players in every game apart from the final where Collingwood defeated South Melbourne.

1911 saw him surpass his good form of 1912. He was consistently one of South Melbourne’s best players and was named best on ground in at least three games including the first final against Essendon. Commentators focussed on his versatility. One wrote, “Sloss was equally at home, forward, flank and following.” The season was highlighted by him representing Victoria and being named Champion of the Colony, the equivalent of the Brownlow Medal which is awarded to the player named fairest and best during a season.

In 1912 South Melbourne was seen as one of the main premiership hopes, having finished in the top four in the previous two years. Sloss began the season slowly but in round five he played one of his best games. One commentator wrote, “Sloss shone like a star in the ruck.” From rounds 8 to 15 he continued to be named as one of the best players. At this time Sloss was switched from the ruck position, normally held by the tallest player to rover, usually the smallest. This was further testament to his aforementioned versatility causing one commentator to write that his “superior would be hard to find in Victoria.” Unfortunately South Melbourne was defeated twice by Essendon who became premiers.

South Melbourne remained optimistic in 1913 and hoped to win the elusive premiership.  However, Sloss continued to be successful, playing a great game for Victoria and being named in the best on 13 of the 18 games he played. Again South Melbourne failed in the finals being thrashed by St. Kilda to the tune of 12 goals.

South Melbourne was determined to do better in 1914. The club began the season well and were on top of the premiership ladder after nine rounds with eight wins. Sloss continued to play well, being named in the best in six games, culminating in him being selected in the Victorian side. His form continued throughout the season with commentators writing, “Sloss was a fine defender”, “Sloss, at the finish, was at his top as usual.” South won the last three games of the season with him being named in the best on all occasions.

World events then took a turn for the worse. Europe was slipping into conflagration with war being declared on Serbia by Austria –Hungary leading later to the outbreak of world war. However the significance of this event did not seem to have a great impact on the progress of the VFL as they moved on to the final series.

South won the first two finals games only to go down by six points to Carlton in the Grand Final. This was the last game that Sloss was to play in the VFL and he played the game of his life. The Australasian wrote that Sloss was best player on the ground, “…his glorious efforts in the last quarter stamped him as a great footballer. He possesses all the qualities, but is apt to attempt the impossible on occasions. He marked, kicked and ran like a champion, and almost pulled the match out of the fire by his brilliant efforts.”

So ended his VFL career.

Bruce Sloss decided not to play in 1915 and instead joined up with the 10th Machine Gun Regiment in May 1916. Being the youngest boy in a family of eight, he had watched his three elder brothers join up so it seemed automatic that he would do so as well. Although all were wounded and one was a POW for three years, his three elder brothers survived. Bruce sailed for Europe on May 25 1916.

However his playing days were not over. The Army regarded playing football as important, providing troops with recreation and a means of keeping them fit for active service. It was enthusiastically played, relieving soldiers of the rigours of front-line service and a link with home. Games were played in surprising settings. Undoubtedly the high point of football overseas occurred in October 28 1916 when an exhibition match was played between the Third Division and a training unit. The match was played at Queens Park Kensington in front of King Manuel of Portugal and the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) who had played the game at the elite level in Australia, and 8000 cheering Diggers. The match was notable for the numerous great players who played on both sides. At least sixteen of them were VFL topliners. Best on ground was Les Lee of Richmond, who Dan Minogue, himself a player in that match, believed would have become another Jack Dyer. Sloss captained the Third Division and played one of his last games. A jumper of each team and a report on the match is found in the National Museum of Sport at the MCG.

Nine weeks later Bruce Sloss was dead, killed in a German raid.

The football world was shocked at losing one of its greatest. The Sporting Judge concluded its eulogy on his death naming him as one of the state’s leading players and concluded, “A scrupulously fair footballer, Sloss’ demise is regretted throughout the entire football world.” The Winner commented on his sportsmanship and character. “For his quiet, modest and retiring disposition, for his wonderful ability on the football field, and for all his gentlemanly and unassuming manner under all sorts of conditions, Bruce Sloss was deservedly popular.” Team mate Mark Tandy who played 207 games for South Melbourne between 1911-1926 and was a member of the South Melbourne/Sydney Hall of Fame, said in 1933 that Sloss was the best player he played with. Carlton Football Club sent a letter to his mother saying that “….he was an ornament to the game of which he was an expert exponent.”

Bruce Sloss died at the height of his football career. Testimony to his football ability was seen in him being nominated in the South Melbourne/Sydney team of the century after playing only 81 games almost 90 years ago. Let Jim Main, co-author of Fallen, The Ultimate Heroes have the final word on Sloss when he says that he “would like to think of Bruce Sloss’ modern day equivalent as being James Hird, the former Essendon champion.”

Footballer, inventor, singer, leader of men, Bruce Sloss was only one of many who could have made rare contributions to our future in unsteady times. We were poorer for their loss.

Football Career

Games Essendon 1906 3 South Melbourne 1910-1914 81

Goals 44

Victorian Representative 1912, 1913, 1914

Champion of the Colony 1911

Nominated in South Melbourne/ Sydney team of the century 

Bibliography 

Fallen,The Ultimate Heroes: J.Main and D.Allen Melbourne, 2002

Plugger and the Mighty Swans: J.Main, Melbourne, 1996

Journal of the Australian War Memorial, Dale James Blair Issue 28-April 1996. Beyond the Metaphor: football and war, 1914-1918.

Australasian

Argus

Essendon Gazette

Inside Football

Southern Cross

South Melbourne Record

Sporting Judge

The Winner

Radio Program Sports Factor, Lest We Forget-Sport and War, ABC

 

Comments

  1. Good to read about such a great player from such an interesting period in football history. In the 1970s I had a neighbour who was one of the crew that mixed with the South Melbourne team. He told me that a regular tactic was for South to play very slowly in the first half. At half time the crew would place their bets on South and when the team came back onto the field, the crew would signal the players that the bets were on. South would then take the foot off the pedal and usually won. ( I dont mean any disrespect to Mr. Sloss here). There was a tradition of acceptance of gambling at South – in the 1880s, when other clubs banned bookies from the members enclosure, South welcomed them and they would shout their odds in front of the grandstand.

  2. A poignant and touching reminder. Thanks Richard. Read several WW1 memoir pieces this Armistice Day. All made me think of the waste and destruction for so little gain. I understand the Realpolitik and the ‘logic’ behind foreign wars like our current involvement in Afghanistan. It is hard to stand by and watch what happens in Syria or Zimbabwe or Sudan. But the cost of intervention is rarely worth the return. I’d rather they were winning Brownlows than VC’s.

  3. mark branagan says:

    Well done Richard – it’s very pleasing to see the memories of former greats recorded so well. I still find it difficult to comprehend the extent of loss that must have occurred during these war years – not just the 60,000 killed but all the wounded and maimed. Sloss was a star. I have been a member of the selection panel for the Swans Hall of Fame and became familiar with Sloss’ story when we were preparing and researching our initial induction group in 2008 and 2009. Jim Main to his credit had the full story on Sloss. It is well worth remembering and I am glad that we have done this through his inclusion in the Hall of Fame. However, I am grateful for your contribution as well – thanks again. MFB.

  4. Yes, in accord with the others – well done !

    However, an “entrenched error” has been repeated in the career record of Bruce Sloss [and numerous others as a matter of fact].

    Sloss did not win Champion of the Colony in 1911.
    No such award ever existed as far as I can tell, so the list of claimed winners (1856-1945) is untrue.

    Perhaps Sloss won an award in a particular paper that season. If so, his achievement should be recognised for what it was…e.g. “The Daily Citizen Trophy.”

    By the way, claims made in the past that he won The Argus “most popular player” award are also untrue. The Argus didn’t hold such a contest that year.

  5. Look where my snooping led me.

    I’m keen to find out whether Bruce Sloss was related to Sam Sloss who played for East Perth from 1906 to 1912.

    Any info welcome.

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