April 2021

When rugby league clashed with war

World War One didn't spare rugby league, with players and administrators fighting and dying in the war.

“The Titanic was a tragedy, the Ethiopian drought a disaster and neither bears any relation to a dropped catch.”

That famous quote by Richie Benaud was aimed at commentators too eager to launch into hyperbole or too keen to draw a comparison between the relatively sheltered world of competitive sport and real life.

Rugby league is no stranger to this. Commentators, coaches, administrators and players all too easily lapse into talking about trenches and troops without a single fox hole, string of barbed wire or artillery shell in sight.

But 106 years ago, rugby league and war collided in tales of tragedy and heroism on the hills of Gallipoli and in the muddy trenches of the Western Front, down into Africa and across to the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, those same young men who were happy to play the brutal game of rugby league, were equally prepared to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force and become ANZACs.

By August 1915 it was estimated that more than 1,000 players from across all grades in New South Wales had enlisted in the war. 

Some had already fought and died on the shores of Gallipoli, while others were in training or being shipped to the front.

The tale of each man is unique. Some perished in war, others wounded while a number of them managed to survive the meat grinder of the Western Front to return home and continue playing rugby league.

Frank Cheadle, Ted Larkin and John Stuntz were all rugby league men who perished in the First World War.

John Stuntz

Stuntz is a man whose name will remain forever etched in the rugby league history books. A member of the NSW team that played the New Zealand All Golds in 1907, he was one of the players who helped to establish the professional game in Australia.

He was also a member of the NSWRL’s inaugural premiership match, turning out for Eastern Suburbs against Newtown and scored four tries on debut. A mark not matched again until 100 years later when Jordan Atkins would also cross four times for the Gold Coast Titans.

He played for four clubs during his career from 1908-1913 – Eastern Suburbs, Western Suburbs, Warrington and South Sydney. He also recorded one match for Australia and five games for NSW.

While he only played a total of 35 first grade games, 19 of those were with Warrington in England from 1909-1910, where he signed for £125 and was paid £3 and 25 shillings per week. Which was a substantial wage given the average man in England in 1910 earned £70 per year.

In 1912 he signed up to the NSW Fire Brigade and served at both Headquarters in Sydney and at Kogarah.

He played his final season in 1913 for Western Suburbs and was awarded NSWRL life membership in 1914.

In 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a Private and was assigned to the 17th Battalion which was part of the 5th Brigade in the 2nd Division.

By the time Stuntz enlisted he was part of the 14th reinforcement of the battalion after it had been involved in heavy fighting during the Gallipoli campaign. 

The 17th Battalion was involved in the battle for Hill 60 and was then deployed for defensive duties at Quinn’s Post. The battalion was withdrawn at the end of the Gallipoli campaign and was sent for further training in Egypt.

In March 1916 the 17th arrived in France on the Western Front via Marseilles and became involved in the meat grinder of the Somme campaign at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm.

Stuntz departed Sydney on 22 August 1916, avoiding the Somme offensive, and arrived as part of C Company in France on 21 April 1917.

In May 1917 the 17th was part of the assault on the Germans stationed on the Hindenburg Line at Second Bullecourt. During this offensive when the AIF charged German positions, Stuntz was killed on 3 May 1917 by machine gun fire at the age of 30. It was the only battle Stuntz took part in.

He became one of the 845 men killed from the 17th Battalion during the First World War.

His body was never recovered and as such his name has been etched on the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

Frank Cheadle

Cheadle was a teammate of Stuntz’s when the pair were part of the NSW team that faced the All Golds in 1907. He is believed to have been the first rugby union player to defect to rugby league in Australia.

He was a Newtown junior, first playing rugby union for the club and then heading to league. He played 17 games for the club from 1908-1910.

A skillful centre he was selected to tour with Australia in 1908-1909 and is listed officially as Kangaroo number 2 in the history books.

He won a premiership with Newtown in 1910, although was only limited to three matches due to knee injuries which prematurely ended his career that same season.

Despite retiring he was a popular member of the rugby league community and in 1914 was one of four players to be honoured with a testimonial match while also being made a life member of the NSWRL.

With the outbreak of war, Cheadle left his career as a furniture salesman and signed up to the AIF. He too joined the 17th Battalion, enlisting on 4 January 1915. He departed Sydney on 12 May 1915 and arrived at Gallipoli in August that same year.

Although enlisting as a Private, he was quickly promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major. 

During his time at Gallipoli he was promoted to Lieutenant.

He survived Gallipoli and was part of the successful withdrawal in December 1915.

Redeployed in France in 1916 he joined the front line trenches at Armentieres.

Whilst leading a night time scouting party in May 1916 he was shot through the head and evacuated to the 7th Australian Field Ambulance where he died of his wounds.

Australian historian Charles Bean wrote of Cheadle:

“Lieutenant Cheadle of the 18th Battalion, when boldly scouting with the moon nearing the full, was seen by the enemy, fired on and fatally wounded as the patrol withdrew over the parapet.”

He is buried in Erquinghem-Lys Churchyard, 1.5km from Armentieres.

Edward “Ted” Larkin

Unlike Stuntz and Cheadle, Larkin was an administrator of the NSWRL when war broke out in Europe. 

He began his playing career in rugby union where he represented St Joseph’s College in Hunters Hill as a member of the First XV in 1896.

By 1903 he was a Wallaby when he faced a touring New Zealand All Blacks side in 1903. That same year he joined the NSW Police Force.

While a rugby union man, he sympathised with many of the players complaining about a lack of compensation and when the NSWRFL was formed in 1908 Larkin was a keen supporter.

In 1908-09 the Australian Kangaroos toured to Great Britain in what became a financial disaster leaving the new code on the brink of collapse. 

In June 1909 he left the police and was elected as the NSWRL’s first full time secretary. His spell in charge of the game saw it saved from financial ruin. Under Larkin, rugby league saw a crowd of 42,000 attend a Test match between Australia and Great Britain at the Agricultural Oval (modern day Moore Park).

Larkin’s administrative skills then saw him elected to NSW parliament in 1913 as the member for Willoughby.

When war broke out, Larkin enlisted in the AIF, saying “I cannot engage in the work of recruiting and urge others to enlist unless I do so myself”.

Larkin joined C Company in the 1st Battalion of the 1st Division as a Sergeant.

The battalion was part of the first division formed upon the outbreak of World War One and departed Sydney in October 1914, landing in Egypt on 2 December that same year.

1st Division was originally set to travel to the Western Front, however with the decision to launch the Dardanelles campaign it would be part of the landing at Gallipoli.

On the 25th April 1915 1st Division supported the landing of 3rd Division at ANZAC Cove. Sergeant Larkin was among the men rushing ashore that morning.

The battalion managed to pry the hill known as Baby 700 from the Turks and it’s here that it’s believed Larkin was fatally shot by machine gun fire.

In the memoir Imperishable ANZACs author Harold Cavill writes of Larkin:

“Wounded and dying he lay, yet when the stretcher-bearers came to carry him in, he waved them on, saying ‘There’s plenty worse than me out there’. Later they found him dead”.

Killed alongside Larkin was his older brother Martin. Their bodies were never recovered with their names inscribed on the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli.

A requiem mass was held at St Mary’s Cathedral upon the announcement of Ted’s death which saw both the Premier and Governor of NSW attend. Ted and Martin were both posthumously awarded the 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

In death Larkin left behind a wife and sons. The Sydney City Cup Final in 1915 was held as a testimonial for Larkin’s widow and children while St Joseph’s organised a bursary to allow his sons to attend the college.

While the Larkin family declined the offer, the Old Boys’ Bursary has survived.

H.C. Douglas penned a poem in honour of Larkin:

Vacant for ever his old place by our side;

For, shod with silent sandals, with his peers

He ranges now the meads of knightly pride

Across the Bridge of Spears.

He found the path that Wilding’s feet had trod;

Thither Swannell’s homing spirit rushed

From the plains of valor to the peaks of God,

Where all the warring’s hushed.

Where such as lived in manly virtue’s ways;

Stepped still breast-forward, true and straight and clean;

Though stumbling, never shirking, wear the bays

Of conquerors, ever green.

Where those who strove for Honor and the Game—

Rather than from mere lust of wealth or power—

Who foreswore ease and dalliance, winning fame

In battle, not the bower;

Find surcease from the striving and the strife.

He who softly stole from us to those

Stood bravely at the crossways of his life,

And then as bravely chose.

The roads were four. Three lay warm and bright

With promise of fulfilment; but the last

From the cold clear star of Duty drew such light

As guided them who passed.

The sun adown one highway’s length he saw

Kiss goldcnly the good work of his hands.

Athwart another path swung wide the door

Where watchful Demos stands.

A home where love of wife and sons was king

The third road lit, with a soft glow all its own:

He steeled his heart ‘gainst every beckoning

And sought the fourth – alone.

Leave a Reply