War games, Ron Palenski

War Blacks: The Extraordinary Story of New Zealand’s World War 1 All Blacks
Matt Elliott
HarperCollins, $45.00,
ISBN 9781775540366

Tom Ellison has a lot to answer for. One of the early All Blacks of erudition and original thought, he wrote a small book in 1902 in which he described rugby as a soldier-making game. Here was the link, some people thought, and all the more emphatic because it came from a practitioner’s pen: rugby is a game that prepares young men for war. Here was tangible evidence which another original thinker, but a cricketer rather than a rugby player, George Orwell, was able to put into his articulate words more than 40 years later when he described international sport as war without the shooting.

As both comments have been repeated and sometimes embellished over the years, the contexts have been forgotten, overlooked, or just plain ignored. Ellison wrote at a time when jingoism was in the air and the South African War was winding down. He did not live long enough to elaborate on the comment (he died in 1904), but what he probably meant was that rugby produced fit men of precisely the type needed to ride horses in the open warfare that applied in South Africa. As clever as he was, he could not have envisaged the industrial scale of total war that came just over a decade later.

Orwell’s comment came after a Russian soccer team, Dynamo, played four matches in England after the war in 1945. There was a great deal of rancour and ill will, not from the players, but from spectators and journalists, and it was this which prompted Orwell to write that international sport fuelled by nationalism mimicked warfare and was war minus the shooting.

There is also an English-led academic view, challenged in recent years, that the English public school system and its games were ideal training for the officers of tomorrow. This drawing together of cause and effect sidesteps a rather obvious point: games are played, by and large, by young people. Wars are fought, by and large, by young people.

The view that somehow good sports people make good soldiers has always slightly discomfited me. One reason is that New Zealand sports people are generally just typical, unexceptional New Zealanders, with the one exception that they happen to be good at a particular sport. To lift them above the fray as exemplars to the rest denigrates all the others. Footballers, for example, became All Blacks because they were deemed by selectors to be among the best. But those All Blacks who served in WWI – or any war, come to that – did so not because they were good footballers; their reasons were the same as everyone else’s: a sense of duty, a sense of adventure, a free trip to the other side of the world, or because they were conscripted.

So, what to make of a book called War Blacks, a book that gives name, rank and serial number, and quite a lot more in some cases, of every rugby player who served in the war who was either an All Black before it, or became one after it? The author, Matt Elliott, does me a kindness in his author’s note by saying that no one knew how many All Blacks there had been until I counted them. Perhaps so, but counting was easy. Deducing how many saw active service and then downloading screeds of documents about them required a great deal of effort and patience, not to mention commitment. It would have been a frustrating task, as well, because Elliott would have realised just how scant some of these soldiers’ service records are (through no fault of the soldiers themselves, or the present carers at Archives New Zealand).

Elliott has form in this area. He wrote a book about probably the best known All Black soldier of them all, Dave Gallaher, the 1905-6 captain, one of the 13 to die. The idea for this book, it appears, came from the publisher rather than the author. There is, therefore, a marketing reason for the book; something about soldiering All Blacks would sell, a book about the cricketers or the track and field athletes or rowers who fought, much less the ordinary Joes, would not.

The format of the book comprises small stories about all the players in the date order in which they enlisted or were conscripted; there are further stories about the same men later in the order if they were killed. And, while it includes those players who became All Blacks after the war, a convenient retrospection, it obviously could not have a word to say about those potential All Blacks who went to war and never came home, their potential fame denied them.

It has to have some sort of structure, but it means a reader has to indulge in something of a lucky dip to find the highlights in the absence of chapter headings. The story about Brian McCleary, a boxing champion as well as an All Black, is one that has rarely been told and worth the book price alone. If readers think a modern-day player, Sonny Bill Williams, has broken new ground by combining top-level rugby with top-level boxing, they will get a pleasant surprise when they read this. Another story worth the retelling is that of “Beet” Algar’s time in the Sinai Peninsula and Palestine as a member of the little-known Imperial Camel Corps. Perhaps Elliott had to limit what he could say about many of his subjects, but it would have added to the story if he had been able to recount how Algar was, for a time, in the personal bodyguard of that desert eccentric, T E Lawrence.

It was not all war-making. There was also some rugby. Elliott tells the now-familiar stories about the games between units which happened on an official basis from late 1916 onwards and, in particular, the games by the New Zealand Division on the Western Front that led to winning the Somme Cup in Paris in 1917. These games had a serious purpose, but the soldiers went back to their temporary day jobs afterwards. One, Reg Taylor, played in the Somme Cup match and was killed at Messines. Another, Tom French (not an All Black, but could well have become one), had an arm amputated. Elliott says the whereabouts of the Somme Cup were not known. Perhaps the timing of the book worked against him, because early this year the “cup” – in fact, a small statue of a bombardier throwing a grenade – was found to be where it always had been since the war: on the mantelpiece in a private home when, as government property, it should be in the army museum at Waiouru.

The retelling of matches also includes the King’s Cup that followed the war in 1919 and the sorry episode of army authorities bowing to the prejudices of the South African Rugby Board by not allowing Arthur Wilson, who inherited the complexion of his Barbadian father, or a Māori, Parekura Tureia, to go on the on-the-way-home tour to South Africa with their army mates. Elliott blames the South African high commissioner, but it wasn’t W P Schreiner, the most liberal and understanding of men. The fault lay in South Africa. Rugby history could have been different if the army men had said: we all go, or none go.

At least half a dozen books have been produced in the last couple of years, mostly in Britain, about games-playing soldiers. This ranks well with them.

Ron Palenski is a Dunedin author and historian, and is chief executive of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.

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