War, the VFL and the South Melbourne Football Club  


2018 is the centenary of the 1918 South Melbourne Premiership. A relatively unimportant event to all but South Melbourne supporters, its meaning rises as it was set against the backdrop of the First World War and its inevitable effects upon the Victorian Football League (VFL).


On the 28thJune 1914 Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot in the streets of Sarajevo, an event which is universally proclaimed to be the catalyst to the First World War. In Melbourne round eleven of the VFL home and away games was being played and interest was high as the competition was reaching its finals phase. Although events in Serbia were reported, their significance was not recognised by the reading public who were more interested in football and local politics where a double dissolution of the Federal Parliament was about to occur. It was only when the possibility of war was raised that indifference turned into feverish concern.  “All Europe Ablaze”1. Three days later Britain declared war on Germany and Australia was automatically at war. Readers were overjoyed. The Governor-General cabled London. “There is indescribable enthusiasm and entire unanimity throughout Australia in support of all that tends to provide for the security of the empire in war…”2


The 1914 finals came and went. The First AIF sailed to Egypt for training and the VFL prepared for season 1915. However a bitter debate conducted along social class lines ensued over the merits of playing sport during wartime. The middle class view was that mass spectator sport be abandoned and  L.A. Adamson, headmaster of Wesley College and President of the Metropolitan Amateur Football association, vigorously articulated his view that schoolboys might continue with their games, even in wartime because it equipped them for the greater struggle on the battlefield but sport, as a whole, should be curtailed if enthusiasm for it affected recruiting. He particularly pointed his finger at the VFL, “Again and again it had been before them by selfish and impulsive partisans that their services as fit and powerful men might be of use at the front but nothing had shaken them. They had been trained to play football and play football they would.”3


The opposing view was put by Wideawake the football correspondent for the…. who argued that it was the working class who was bearing the brunt of the fighting. “No good reason can be given why there should not be some recreation for those who are unable to go to war… Those who can ought to go as quickly as possible, but those who are left here to carry on the country should be permitted to have their recreation on Saturday afternoons, if there is nothing else for them to do.” He concluded saying “enlistment should come from all classes,”4 and bemoaned the hypocrisy of racing continuing at full strength and the crowds seen at the public school boat races.”5


The reason for concern in April 1915 was that recruiting had slowed to a trickle and was slower than at the beginning of the war.”The landing at Gallipoli occurred one day after the 1915 season began. When news of the landing reached Melbourne in mid-May, recruiting rose spectacularly from 1,735 in May to 21,698 in July, the largest number in any state in any month of the war.This challenged the claims that professional sport was affecting recruiting.


It was against this background that the 1915 VFL season continued, however, understandably, by midseason attendances had declined. Players were enlisting and the pool of available players evaporated. Consequently, in July, the VFL voted on whether to curtail the season. It was lost 4 to 5, and, in an attempt to pacify opposition, the equivalent of $3854 earned from games was given to the Patriotic Fund. In the Grand Final Carlton won the premiership defeating Collingwood by 33 points with 40,000 attending compared with 30,495 in 1914.


1916 saw the ANZAC forces entering the conflict on the Western Front after evacuating Gallipoli in December 1915, and opposition to the playing of AFL football continuing. Yet players were enlisting in great numbers and as a result only four teams participated in the competition: Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy, and Richmond.  It was a farcical season of twelve games with teams playing each other three times. Fitzroy, who had finished last with only two wins and a draw, found form in the finals defeating Carlton in the Grand Final. 21,000 attended which was half the previous year’s number. To prove their patriotism, teams played games outside the premiership program, giving freely of their time and raising funds for patriotic purposes.


At the beginning of the 1917 season, a hard- fought Federal election campaign returned the Hughes Government and later the Conscription plebiscite was rejected by a narrow margin. Recruiting was on the decline but the announcement that America was about to join the conflict had a positive impact, relieving the general feeling of despondency and suffering being experienced  on the home front with everyone hoping for the end of the war. Hoping not strong enough or leave the sentence out.


Season 1917 saw South Melbourne and Geelong return to the competition with only St.Kilda, Essendon, University and Melbourne not playing. South Melbourne returned to the competition despite being aware that they would not be competitive.8 Optimism was higher in football circles and attacks on the VFL continuing to play and being a hindrance to recruiting abated temporarily. The Football Record reported “a renewal of public interest in such “inconsequential” activities as football.”South Melbourne surprised itself by qualifying for the finals despite fielding  a very young team. Collingwood won the grand final defeating Fitzroy with an attendance of 28,512 an increase of 8000 on the previous year.


Nevertheless in 1918 criticism of the VFL continued with The Argus again in the forefront, arguing that  “The VFL , in deciding to play matches for the premiership this season, in the face of the awful crisis through which we are passing, and in the face of the overwhelming indignation at their action in so doing, has justly earned the contempt of every right-thinking person in the community.”10


The crisis to which The Argus referred occurred on the Western Front where a German offensive in March, “rolled across the old Somme battlefield and threatened to break through where the French and British armies joined.”11 It was on this occasion that “Field-Marshal Haig issued his famous appeal to his army, “No other course is open to us but to fight it out… With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.”12 They did and the crisis passed. The worm had turned and soldiers or people at home were praying for the war to end. For those on the home front, any diversion from the war was welcomed. Moreover the VFL was now fully co-operating to aid recruiting and Mr. Charles Brownlow, at the Annual Meeting, remarked that “Football is a secondary consideration in these days; recruiting is the first.”13 The other belief that professional footballers were unpatriotic was also laid to rest as the enlistment of VFL players increased.


The 1918 season was the best of the war years. Only Melbourne and University did not play14 and although the football played was not of a high quality, the game regained its popularity. The Victorian Football Association re-commenced competition and the Victorian Junior Football Association continued to play as it had in 1917. Attendances steadily rose with 20,000 seeing South Melbourne played Carlton in August15.  Finding players continued to be difficult, and consequently South Melbourne sought only ineligibles, returned soldiers and under-age players. By May a great number of juniors flocked to training and prospects for the season looked distinctly good. Jim Caldwell was elected captain, Vic Belcher vice-captain.


South Melbourne began the season brilliantly defeating Geelong, Fitzroy and Collingwood. Before surprisingly losing to St.Kilda on the King’s Birthday weekend. The players had spent the weekend enjoying the hospitality of a club patron at his holiday home in the Dandenongs and were worse for wear when they arrived at the ground. Accordingly they were defeated by five points.


As the Allies won a series of victories at the Front, only Carlton, Geelong and Collingwood threatened South Melbourne during the home and away games. Collingwood, St.Kilda, Carlton and South Melbourne made up the final four, with Collingwood defeating St.Kilda in the first semi final and South Melbourne defeating Carlton in the second. The Australasian correspondent was not excited by this match. “I have not seen a less exciting match… there were foul incidents by the score.”16 


The Grand Final was the best game of the final series. The weather was magnificent and a crowd of 39,000 attended which was the best crowd since 1913. 400 men from military hospitals were invited to the game. At half time twelve recruiting sergeants urged eligibles to enlist and were granted a splendid hearing. The match itself was very close and exciting. Collingwood led at half time by sixteen points. The third quarter was goal for goal and at three quarter time Collingwood still led by twelve points. The South Melbourne Record described the final quarter in this way. In the last quarter captain Caldwell (the captain) put Vic Belcher17 into the ruck. This move was decisive as Belcher marked everything that came near him. Ryan reduced the lead to six points and with nine minutes to go goaled again making the scores level. For five minutes neither side scored. Collingwood scored a point and Dick Lee the champion goalkicker of the era had a shot for goal where Belcher marked Lee’s kick on the line to save a further score and with half a minute to go, with Collingwood leading by three points , Tandy,17 fifty metres from goal, raced past three opponents and kicked the ball half a metre short of the goal. Out of a scrimmage in the goal square, Laird managed to kick the ball off the ground and it rolled through for a goal. South Melbourne won by three points. 18 The Australasian said, “South scored the most remarkable victory ever witnessed in a VFL final match”.19


Whether the VFL should have continued to play games is arguable, yet they raised the equivalent of $18,720 for the Patriotic Fund, the highest of any Australian sporting group, ninety-four VFL players made the supreme sacrifice and by playing, the VFL  created a diversionary interest for those at home or at the War.20 After more than four years of war the guns fell silent on November 11. With a population of less than five million, 416,809 enlisted, 60,000 were killed. 21


“In Melbourne last night the glad news that the German delegation had signed the armistice terms spread like wildfire. It reached the country almost as quickly as the more distant suburbs, and it kindled a blaze of feeling such as the State has never known before. People from the suburbs poured into the city when the news broke late in the day. Thousands rejoiced in the heart of Melbourne.”22. 


The next morning the world looked to the future.






1 Australasian: May 1 1914.

2 Patsy Adam Smith: The Anzacs. Melbourne, 1978, P17

3 Australasian: April 10 1915 P721

4 The Football Record: May 15 1915 P3

5 Ibid: P3

6 L.L.Robson: The First AIF. A Study of its Recruitment 1914-1918, Melbourne, 1970, P23

7 Ibid: P49

8 South Melbourne Record: April 14 1917

9 L.Sandercock and I.Turner: Up Where Cazaly? London, 1981, P77

10 Argus: April 15 1918 P23

11 L.L.Robson:The First AIF. A Study of its Recruitment 1914-1918, Melbourne 1970, P191

12 Argus:15 1918 P23

13 Football Record May 11 P5

14 Melbourne were an amateur team and University had left the competition in 1915.

15 Australasian: July 27 1918 P164

16 Australasian: August 7 1918 P454

17 Vic Belcher played 226 games and was named in the South Melbourne/Sydney Team of the century. Mark Tandy, also mentioned in this story, played 207 games and was also named in the Team of the Century.

18 South Melbourne Record : September 14 1918

19 Australasian: September 14 1918, P503

20 G.McFarlane

20 Australian War memorial website, www.awm.gov.au

21 G.McFarlane: Jock.The Story of Jock McHale Collingwood’s Greatest Coach, Melbourne 2011,P192

22 Argus: November 1918




South Melbourne Record


The Football Record


Patsy Adam Smith: The Anzacs, Melbourne,1978

L.L.Robson:The First AIF. A Study of it’s Recruitment 1914-1918.Melbourne,1970

G.McFarlane:Jock: The Story of Jock McHale Collingwood’s Greatest Coach, Melbourne, 2011

L.Sandercock and I.Turner: Up Where Cazaly? :the great Australian game, London,1982


copyright Richard Davis.



  1. Very interesting article. Thanks. I’ve heard many varied versions of the 1918 Grand Final, passed down through our family. Jim Caldwell was my great uncle and one of 13 children. My maternal grandmother was his sister. Before moving to South Melbourne in 1909 (he didn’t play in the Grand Final
    that year as he was suspended in the Preliminary Final), he played for Williamstown, and returned
    there in 1921 to win another premiership as captain coach. He went back to South in 1929 as coach, but sadly, died that year, aged 41.
    Thanks again.

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