At 11am on November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent. The Great War was over. Some 167 000 Australians were in Europe and the Middle East with no more war to fight. The decision was made that Australians would not be part of the occupying forces in the defeated central powers nations so that demobilisation and repatriation could begin immediately. Lieutenant General Monash made the decision that rather than repatriating entire units, a more democratic repatriation based on first to arrive, first to leave, would be employed.
However, bringing over 150 000 troops, nurses, and auxillery personel, not to mention the numerous ‘war brides and babies’, from Europe to Australia in 1919 was no simple matter. In a time before air travel, each service member had to take the six week journey by sea, either through the Suez canel or around the cape of good hope on a mix of military transports and converted merchant navy vessels. To complicate the matters even further, the great demand for intercontinental trade to open up again put further strain on the available resources.
So the military command of the Australian Imperial Forces was left with a quandry – what to do with the masses of men and women eager to leave the war behind them and return home to start ‘getting on with it’. A series of camps were set up on Salisbury Plains, just near the ancient monument of Stonehenge, to house the troops. Authorities were rightly concerned that so many mostly men camped out in the one spot with not a lot to do was a recipe for disaster, so activities to fill the days waiting had to be arranged. Many signed up for the British Army and joined the occupying forces. Others (usually those with the requisite educational and ‘social’ qualifications) took the opportunity to enrol in university courses. The AIF itself set up a vocational training scheme, teaching diggers to be farmers or motor mechanics or numerous other trades so they had some useable skills to employ when they returned to Australia – remember that many of these men had left Australia as teenagers – being a soldier was the only career they had known.
But, being Australians, of course there was sport. Football leagues – of the northern, southern, and English varieties were set up. Rowing and shooting squads were organised. The world of Tennis immediately got back into full swing – the first post-war Wimbledon was held barely six months after the armistice. And of course there was cricket.
First class cricket had been on hold the world over. The Sheffield Shield, Currie Cup, and County Championship had all been on hiatus during the war. This isn’t to say there was no cricket, local leagues generally kept running where they could. Nor was there no cricket of high quality, military matches between England and Australia or England and the Dominions had been held at Lord’s throughout the war. And of course, sports of all forms were played in barracks and on battlefields throughout the war – the famous Christmas Day Truce football match between the Germans and the Allies just one of many, many examples.
From the soldiers awaiting repatriation at Salisbury, many teams were formed to take part in the local London league that had been running throughout the war. But some men had bigger ideas. As early as January 1917, just months after the disaster of the Somme, the president of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Lord Martin Bladen Hawke, had raised the idea of an Australian cricket team coming to England at the cessation of the war to help rebuild English cricket. Despite it being England’s turn to travel for the Ashes, the idea was well received in all quarters as not just a show of Empire solidarity, but an opportunity to provide a fillip for the mother country that had been devastated by the war.
In Australia, Jack C. Davis, who wrote under the nom de plume ‘Not Out’, probably the most prolific and notable Australian cricket journalist of his day, took Lord Hawke’s suggestion and ran with it, raising the idea that the team should not be an ordinary Ashes side, but should be made up of military men. For a start many of the best cricketers in Australia already serving, while in England, where conscription had been in place, most of the greats of the day, being fit men of age, had served. To quote Davis:
Several noted Australian players have won military distinctions in battle, and if such men were in an eleven playing a series of matches for the purpose of giving English cricket a fresh start, the [sic] would fire the imagination of the people and give to the national game a grander significance than the ordinary Englishman ever associated with it in the lazy pre-war days
Not Out, When Clem Hill and Victor Trumper Were Young, Referee, Wed 14 Feb 1917, p. 12. Wed 14 Feb 1917
Over the following two years the idea was kicked about, thrashed out, and put through the mill. There were concerns on both sides that their team was at the disadvantage – the Australians would be too weak, or the English would be too weak, one of them was sure to be embarrassed, and the whole mission of rebuilding cricket would fail.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine an Ashes tour being a failure – but it has to be remembered that the last Ashes before the war was the disastrous triangular tour where Australia and South Africa both travelled to England for a series in what was essentially a world championship of cricket. But 1912 was one of the wettest English summers on record, the South African side was a mere shadow of its ‘golden generation’ of the first decade of the century, and the English spectators showed little interest in seeing Colonials battle it out against each other. There was a real and genuine fear that the triangular tournament was the end of Test cricket. Not to mention, the fact that 275 first class cricketers died during the war, which gave rise to serious concerns about the quality of the play.
Once the war had ended, the idea of a ‘military Ashes’ sprang into full force. Letters and telegrams between the Marylebone Cricket Club and the fairly new Australian Board of Control for International Cricket bounced back and forth across the globe. The tour was going to go ahead, all that had to be decided was whether or not they would be official Ashes Test matches, and, perhaps more importantly, who would pay for it.
Now, the actual facts of what happened over the northern winter of 1918-19 are murky and convoluted. Sport journalism of the time is not like it is today. Rumours weren’t tweeted about, and even things people knew as facts were often only slyly referred to.
It is clear that both the Australians and English were terrified of losing money. It’s also clear that the men in England appointed to organise and select the tour by the Board spent long, unexplained periods incommunicado. It is a known fact that in January 1919 the AIF agreed to fund the tour. It’s true that the state boards had also been nominated to fund the tour. Also known is that if it were to be an official Test series – and we know that both boards agreed to it being so – any losses incurred by the Australians would have to be made up by the M.C.C.
What I can’t tell you for certain, is that the officers like Charles Kelleway, were not happy with the idea that they would be paid the same as privates. I can’t tell you for certain that Kelleway, and some other officers, told the selectors he would be unavailable for the tour, meaning it wouldn’t be a representative side, meaning the M.C.C. wouldn’t be on the hook for any losses. I can’t tell you which players it was who were sourcing journalists about the unacceptability of the Board’s chosen manager, and their resolution to elect their own captain. I can’t tell you that the timing of the Board of Control announcing the abandonment of the tour, and the AIF announcing they were taking over the tour, was co-ordinated, even if they happened suspiciously close to each other, suggesting the arrangements were all in place before the announcements were made.
So what happened over that winter of 1918-19? I don’t really know. But I can tell you that by the end of it the MCC and the Australian Board of Control were off the hook financially, the tab being picked up by the AIF. I can tell you that Kelleway was selected as captain, but Major Barbour, Major Campbell, and Captain Park had all returned home. I can tell you that although this was a strictly ‘amateur’ tour, to most of the English public this was an Australian tour. And I can tell you that at the start of the English summer of 1919 anxieties were high in all of the three Test playing nations, that the future of international cricket was bleak.
What will follow is a weekly series of podcasts, telling the story of the AIF XI, from the perspective of a soldier/journalist who was embedded with the team. Each week will celebrate the 100th anniversary of each diary by reading them to you and discussing the tour as it goes along. Cow Corner, as he is known by his nom de plume is not a real person, but a fictional character. His tour diary is made up. However, the conceit of this series is that this is ‘found history’. We will pretend we have found these articles after a century in the dark.
But they are not entirely a fiction. Each diary has been carefully crafted using contemporary sources, so most of the language you will hear is real historical writing from the time. You can follow along with us each week on my website anthonycondon.com where each diary will come alive, showing you where all of the quotes come from in their direct context. Frequently, you will be able to click through to the articles themselves to read them as they first appeared in Australian newspapers (for English newspapers, you will have to pay the British Newspaper Archive around 80 squids and look them up yourselves – I could rant on about the privatisation of national heritage, but that’s a different podcast). Also embedded in the website are photos of players and places, explanatory notes, audio files, and links to archival footage (again, just links, because copyrighting 100 year old material is OK in the UK).
All of this makes up just one part of my PhD thesis on the AIF XI. I am presenting a historical bricolage. This is an experimental, and quite possibly risky, method for the presentation of history, and by the time this series ends, I will (hopefully) be nearing the end of my PhD. As such, any feedback and encouragement will be more than welcome to help me through the dark winter nights of furious writing that sits ahead of me. I can be contacted through twitter @AnthCondon or through the emails at Anthony@AnthonyCondon.com
I hope you get as much joy out of listening to this series as I have gotten out of researching and producing it, thanks, and game on gentlemen.
Music used in this podcast: