Almanac Books: Review – ‘Not Playing The Game: Sport and Australia’s Great War’


 Not Playing The Game

Xavier Fowler

Melbourne University Press




Gunner Frank Conrick, 3288A,  KIA 23/5/1917 was my grand uncle. He is buried at Bapaume  Military Cemetery in France.  Grand uncle Frank was one of more than 60,000 Australians who died during the ‘Great Trade War’. Why did he, and four of his of brothers, set out from Corowa in the Riverina, to travel across the world to fight a war? From a nation of nary five million, 416,809 enlisted, no conscription, to see action. As well as the 60,000 + Australians killed, the global death toll from this conflict is estimated to be over 20 million  This was known as, the war to end all wars. Sadly, it was nothing of the kind.


Frank and his brothers were active in local sports, with some of the family playing for Buraja football club. War, sport; what role did sport play in this conflict? Aah, obviously I’m not the only one to have this thought. I’ve recently been lucky enough to obtain a copy of  Not Playing The Game by Xavier Fowler. This book looks at sport in Australia during World War One. Australia then was  a newly independent nation, a part of a British Empire with all the trappings of a white colony in the Asia-Pacific region.


Fowler takes us back over a century to a vastly different Australia.  This was a time of a growing militarism with young men being conscripted for service on Australian shores: not a universally popular scheme with some of these conscripts clearly more interested in the sporting field, compared to the marching ground.  Alongside of this the Australian sporting world was vastly different to its modern corporate contemporary. It was not the professional world it has become, as the power of amateur sport, usually reflecting the ideas and benefits of the wealthy establishment, was a key player in developing a national character.


Fowler’s ability to highlight the role of amateurs in sport with their associated influence is important. Amateur sports were the pastimes of those who had money; sailing, bowls, tennis, Rugby Union, were among these sports. A lot of the amateur sport was linked with the exclusive private schools, who Fowler somewhat confusingly calls public schools, a northern hemisphere term rarely used in Australia. Many of the amateur sports went into recess, or at the very least scaled well back, during the war years.


Amateur sport then had a role/position in Australian society far beyond what it is a century later. Amongst its administration(s) a very, vocal pro-war position was prominently expressed with it being a very public player in supporting the conflict. To many of this grouping it was Australia’s patriotic duty for sport to cease for the duration of the war. There were comments made by amateur sporting leaders re the higher enlistment rates of amateur footballers compared to VFL players, the latter group almost considered treasonous.  Interestingly the pro-war rhetoric from many of those involved in the various amateur sporting groupings contained sporting metaphors, when talking about the life and death struggle on the battle arenas. Is there not a contradiction between using sporting images, slogans in extolling the virtues of fighting the war, whilst simultaneously  condemning the professional sporting codes who continued playing?


However, many sporting competitions such as the Victorian Football League (VFL) continued during this time, albeit in truncated way. Not too dissimilar to this current pandemic, sport, football, gave the populace an escape from the mundanity, and horror of this enormous conflict. The divisions in  VFL ranks in 1916 saw only four clubs competing that season: the four neighbouring inner-city clubs. The other clubs felt it their patriotic duty to cease playing. Over the next few seasons, the other clubs bar University returned.


The leadership of the Melbourne Cricket Club, with its footballing equivalent, the Melbourne Football Club (MCC/MCC) were quite vocal and active in advocating the reduction, cessation of sporting pastimes while concurrently emphasising the primacy of Australians supporting the war effort. Not long after the outbreak of conflict they sought several times to win the agreement of the VFL to annul the competition whilst the war was in progress. For example, on the eve of the 1916 season, they insisted again the competition must cease. Though they couldn’t muster majority support among the clubs the 1916 season was reduced to a four-team competition, which included Fitzroy winning the wooden spoon the same season they won the 1916 premiership. Interestingly, during this period the MCC were happy making money from leasing the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for the VFL finals.


The book is comprehensive in its coverage of the wars impact on Australian sport during this tumultuous time. We hear about the attempts of recruiters going to sporting events aiming to recruit : this did not always go well for the recruiters. There is of course, the sad tale of Boxer Les Darcy, the game young fighter lambasted as a shirker by pro-war forces yet was dead long before the end of the war to end all wars. We see of the loss of revenue experienced by John Wren as his gambling empire was impacted by new restrictions on horse racing, something Wren did not accept easily. The cricketing divisions where different states were supportive of ceasing on field cricketing activities, then had different interpretation of how to best prove their patriotism,  reflected much of the confusion across Australia.


The book has introduced me to the Patriotic Football Association (PFA). This popped up in South Australia as that state’s competition went into recess. The PFA donated money to a Wounded Soldiers Fund. Despite ongoing pressure from the political and sporting establishment, the PFA teams continued playing, bringing crowds through the gates. Another footballing episode I wasn’t aware of until reading the book was talk of some VFA-VFL clubs coming together to form a new league. This in response to a greatly scaled down VFL, with the VFA having gone into remission from the end of 1915.


A criticism of the book is the index. For example, trying to find the Victorian Football Association, (VFA), it is not listed under V but as part of the package of subjects encapsulated  in the World War 1 and Australia index entry. This is not the only subject that is difficult to find. The Melbourne Cricket, and Football, Clubs also don’t get separate entries despite their importance among the pro-war advocates. I’m also unsure of the use of the term class, with Fowler speaking of the working class, also the middle class. For there to be a working class you must have an employing class, but it doesn’t seem to  get much attention. Especially so when this war saw great amounts of money being made by the already wealthy. Truly it was a ‘Great Trade War’.


This criticism of the book is secondary to my overall appraisal. It’s a well-researched work providing much in new interesting details, as well as confirming a great deal of our what we knew from this turbulent time.  It’s certainly worth having in your Xmas stocking !


In closing I need to give credit where it’s due by giving a big thanks to JTH. Ta!




To purchase the book click HERE.


You can read the media release for the book  HERE.


You can read more from Glen Davis Here.



We’ll do our best to publish two books in the lead-up to Christmas 2021. The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020  and the 2021 edition to celebrate the Dees’ magnificent premiership season(title is up for discussion at the moment!). These books will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers and Demons season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from these two Covid winters. Enquiries HERE


To return to the  home page click HERE


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.


Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE
One-off financial contribution – CLICK HERE
Regular financial contribution (monthly EFT) – CLICK HERE








  1. Thanks Glen. I always thought of “The War to End All Wars” as largely fed by the naivety and lack of information available to the farm boys who enlisted. Now we see an excess of social media hate and exploitative use of emotive news creating the same results around the world.
    Maybe “Lord of the Flies” is all we need to read. Community sport and activities is the only antidote I find to the dystopian (my word of the year/decade) world of politics and professional sport.

  2. Ta PB. Dystopian is a word that has been part of my vocabulary since Trump was elected as president.

    We’re in a fairly unpleasant space currently. Interregnum is the word most apt for our dystopian world. Have a look at Antonio Gramsci for the definition of interregnum.

    It can’t be all gloom & doom for you. Western Australia is doing well on the cricketing field.


Leave a Comment