by Damian O’Donnell
It’s a fabulous photo. Four blokes dressed in ragged shirts and shorts, one with a hat on, all in their boots, are dashing across what looks like a paddock. They all have eyes for an object that sits up in the middle of the photo like a candle in a dim room. Their faces are smiling but determined. They all want what they are looking at. They are all charging recklessly towards it.
One bloke is coming in from the right of the photo whilst the other three are more or less coming straight at the camera. The bloke on the right looks like he is changing direction in his chase. He is mid stride with one leg lifted high and the other stretched out behind him. He is giving it his all, running like the wind. 
The photo is very old, probably 92 years in fact, so the detail is lost somewhat in a grainy brown stain as age creeps in from the edges. The blokes are probably young. It’s hard to tell but the circumstances in which the photo was taken suggest they are. They appear to be running with the energy of youth and the freedom of young men without worries.
So what is it that these men are chasing? What has so captured their attention?
It’s a football.
That’s hardly remarkable. Men have been chasing footballs across empty paddocks for over 150 years. But what is remarkable is that these men are playing football in a field in France in the middle of September 1918.
The war was still raging perhaps a kilometre from where they are playing. At the time of this photo the allies were gradually pushing the Kaiser’s wretched starving men (who by now were largely young boys) back across France to the German border. The fighting was brutal and up close. Bayonets were regularly used to dislodge the last of the German resistance from the trenches. The Germans had been given orders not to surrender. Those who did risked being shot by their superiors; hence they often fought a fruitless and senseless rear guard action. And the AIF was in the middle of it all.
The caption under the photo says members of the 5th Division (of the AIF) fresh from the frontlines, playing football. 
This an incredibly powerful snapshot.
These men are playing football. These men fresh from the killing and the blood and the mud; these men with rags for clothes who have seen mates getting killed and wounded just hours before, have chosen to take up a football and play a game. And they look like they are playing with gusto.
Does this say something about our game or is it simply a case of these young soldiers turning to something familiar in a time of grief and turmoil? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. However there are records of conversations with dying soldiers on the Somme and in Passchendale and Dernancourt and Villers-Bretonneux, who asked who won a recent VFL game being played in faraway Melbourne; a game that we might today call a blockbuster. Sometimes their queries about a game’s result would be their last utterance.
I would love to know what these men were thinking as they dashed across that field in France chasing the football. Were they after the ball or were they running away from their nightmares? As Les Carlyon says at the start of The Great War, we will never know what these men were thinking because that generation was largely lost to us. We never saw them. We never knew them. All we can do now is remember them.
This weekend the AFL will conduct commemoration services for ANZAC Day. There is no question that football, of all codes, and the ANZAC spirit are intertwined, because football was the game that the young men of the early 20th century played. They played it in Australia, on the Somme and on the Gallipoli Peninsula. It could be one of the few things that this modern generation still has in common with the generation of the 1914 – 1918 war.
I always look forward to the ANZAC Day clash at the MCG. It carries a certain something extra with it. I just hope the AFL doesn’t lose the earnestness and solemnity of the occasion in their eagerness to put on the best ANZAC “show”. Thus far they have done the job well.
I wonder if the blokes in the photo made it home. I wonder if they played footy when they got home. Did they become a legend at their local club or did they reach a higher level? I wonder if they thought of the fields of France every time they chased the ball.

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Simply magnificent, Dips.

  2. Peter Flynn says


    Like you, I wonder what became of them.

    Ripper piece.

  3. I can’t find a link for the photo. Any help would be appreciated.

  4. Ian – there is no link to the photo – see p660 of Les Carlyon’s The Great War.

  5. Andrew Starkie says


    I only realized I hadn’t seen the photo upon reading Ian’s message. You describe the shot beautifully. A magnificent, humble and honest piece. Loved it.


  6. Cheers Andrew – get a hold of the book, its got some super shots in it. Most aren’t very “nice” but telling nonetheless.

  7. Here’s a link to a terrific photo of troops clearing a battlefield for a game of football:

    This, I think, is the photo in question:

  8. This photo does my head in:

    Feuquieres, France. 3 January 1919. Presentation of medals by Commanding Officer (CO), 35th Battalion to C Company (Coy) “soccer” team, winners of inter-company football competition played at Merelessart Chateau, on steps of the Mairie [Town Hall] in the village square. Left to right: Major H. J. Connell DSO MC & Bar, Second in Charge; Lieutenant Colonel H. F. White DSO Croix de Guerre, CO; Private (Pte) D. Lee; Captain R. V. Lathlean MC & Bar, OC C Coy; Corporal (Cpl) H. Randall; Cpl L. Whittaker; Pte Yarrow; Lance Corporal J. Mitchell; Pte J. Thraves. At left, foreground, is “Chick” the mascot of the Battalion transport section presented by a Flemish woman in January 1917 at Pont De Nieppe.

  9. Hard to tell what they’re playing here:

  10. Ian Syson says

    In case anyone is bemused by my dislocated post above — it’s because two prior ones haven’t been moderated yet. I’ve found what I believe is the image under discussion in the War Memorial photo section.

  11. Ian – great photos you’ve got here. The one above (comment 7)you think is the one in question, is not the one I wrote about. Similar but not the one. The photo that so inspired me is taken from a distance further back and the ball is higher in the air.

    The one that does your head in has the same effect on me. Can you imagine their state of mind?

  12. Ian Syson says

    Dips — are they the same blokes. I thought it was the same photo because of the hat. I’ve ordered the Carlyon book from the library and I’ll see it Thursday.

  13. Ian Syson says

    Dips — are they the same blokes? I thought it was the same photo because of the hat. I’ve ordered the Carlyon book from the library and I’ll see it Thursday.

  14. Ian – not the same blokes. You’ll enjoy the book if you have an interest in this. I’ve read it from cover to cover but I also pick it up and just read slabs of it from time to time – especially the first chapter, brilliant.

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