When umpires’ association members in the armed forces corresponded with VFLUA Secretary Lindsay Lancaster during the Second World War, inevitably in their letter they made the point that, due to censorship restrictions, they were unable to give much detail about where they were and what they were doing militarily. In fact, one letter from Ken Creighton (B) must have crossed the line as a paragraph has been neatly cut out by the censor. What they could convey though was their general conditions, and more particularly, their umpiring experiences.
Whether Australian forces found themselves in the desert, the mountains, the jungle, air forces bases in England or in ports across the world, they somehow managed to play sport of some kind. Often the sport of choice was Australian Football. It required some essential items: teams (easily gathered), an open space where goal posts could be erected (more difficult but accomplished through a variety of means), a football (often manufactured from items at hand or donated from leagues at home and guarded jealously) and an umpire.
Association members often provided their services in this latter role both in Australia and overseas. To do this properly, they needed to be fully cognizant of the current rules.
Jack Boyes (F) had retired from umpiring at the end of 1938 and joined the Royal Australian Navy. At the outbreak of the war, he was serving on HMAS Canberra, and by June 1943, was on HMAS Swan. He had had the opportunity to umpire whenever a game was organized but this was rare, as the ship was constantly at sea. Nevertheless, he notes, “Although I have not had the chance of seeing a senior game played in Australia since before the war began, I have umpired games in many parts, having taken part in exhibition games in New Zealand, South Africa, Ceylon and Mauritius.”
This must have been prior to Swan as he goes on to lament the current standard, a lack of guernseys and boots, one football in poor condition, and worst of all, the fact that they needed to include rugby players to make up the numbers!
Boyes was concerned that he was not up to date with any changes in the Laws that had taken place and asked for a copy of the latest rule book. His note was addressed to ‘The Sec. VFL Umpires’ and closes with “is Lindsay Lancaster still with the boys as secretary?”.
Lindsay forwarded him a rule book and news of the association – including his continuing role as secretary – and Jack was pleased: firstly, that Lindsay was still going strong, and secondly, that he had been interpreting the rules correctly. It was just as well as he was looking forward to doing the Grand Final in the local competition but it would be touch and go as Swan was due to go to sea about the same time. He had volunteered to do one of the two semi-finals that were played on the one day but was ill and one umpire did both matches. Jack was well enough to be a spectator and wrote, “For a bush umpire he did a good job.”
Much later in the war, Frank Price (F) made a similar enquiry. In May 1945, he was in Townsville, Queensland, and had just umpired his first match since 1939 using his 1939 rule book and fancied that it was out of date.
Percy Moore’s request for rule books was to get his fellow soldiers off his back in New Guinea. “The boys just live on football arguments. Unfortunately they come to me to give the answers.”
We have no record of whether Jack Boyes did his Grand Final but George Smith (B) certainly did at least one during his service in the RAAF. While serving with 54 Squadron in Port Pirie, South Australia, he was in the field when Headquarters defeated Instructional to take the flag. He may have also changed the course of boundary umpiring in the local competition when he ran a game in 1942.
“The umpires got a shock. The boundaries change at half time only and take it in turns to bring the ball from the goals to the centre right through. I taught them how it is done in Melbourne – half each and the different signs we use. They were quite pleased with the idea so I got a very good welcome from them. They have taken to our style like a duck to water.”
Albert Mowlam (F) also took the chance to pass on the knowledge he gained as a VFL umpire. Serving with the AIF in Africa, he began training former St. Kilda footballer Percy Cheffers as an umpire and reported that his protégé was most keen to take it on when he arrived home. Cheffers survived the war but there is no record of any umpiring achievements after his discharge.
Smith’s evangelical zeal was difficult for a number of umpires to replicate when confronted with different football conditions.
In many units – mainly those raised in Queensland and New South Wales – rugby was the code of choice. Albert Sharp had umpired some Army matches while stationed in Victoria but when the 2/5 AGH transferred to Northern Australia, most of the unit were “from NSW and play that foreign code.” He later wrote that, “as the weather up here is consistently warm and I believe football is taboo. Maybe I will indulge in a game of rugby league just for and interest.
Rugby had bought another umpire serving in the 2/5 AGH undone, this time in North Africa, Percy Moore (F) had just arrived when an appeal was sent out for a football umpire.
“I offered my services and they gladly accepted. The match was between a South Australian and a Victorian team. The day for the match arrived and I strolled down to the ground. One of the South Australian chaps came over and asked me if they were playing League or Union rules. I was a bit puzzled as I had never heard of Union rules.
“I had a look around me and I discovered that the ground was marked out for rugby. Sure enough, rugby it was. I tried to back out of it but they would not listen to me. After they had explained the main rules about the game I decided to give it a go.
“Well the game started and I lasted about fifteen minutes. Apart from nearly getting knocked over a couple of times I did nothing at all. I walked off the ground and as the game was proceeding quite alright without an umpire I decided to get back to the camp.
“I got back to the camp to discover that I had gone to the wrong ground. However the match was put off until the next day. It was a real good game with South Australia beating Vic. by three goals.”
A number of serving umpires noted that Northern Australia’s high temperature and high humidity were poor conditions for the game.
In Townsville, Frank Price experienced these first hand.
Last Sunday I umpired my first game since 1939, without any preliminary training so I have been rather sore for the last couple of days.
The chaps are pretty keen up here and as they were short of umpires I found myself back in harness again rather against my will as in my opinion this climate is much too hot for football.
Dave Sullivan (F) also commented on the tropical heat. He had taken part as an umpire in a sports carnival for which his team had to travel 1000 miles.
There were nine teams engaged, three preliminary rounds were played before the finals. Our crowd did very well and finished runners-up. I had four runs and one semi. I was to have done the final but our team were playing so an independent man had to do it. I didn’t mind, believe me, with the temperature about ninety-five degrees and the humidity 90%. As it was I lost about twelve pounds on the trip, though I could afford to lose another twelve.
He may have lost that extra weight later in 1942 while umpiring in the sixteen-team competition that began in the Northern Territory. The grounds did not have a blade of grass on them but apparently the players didn’t care as long as they were getting a game in on the Sunday afternoons. This was the only time they had off during a hectic Army working week.
The following year, 1943, twelve teams participated over fourteen rounds (with a spare round for Victoria v. South Australia) but to Dave’s particular delight, “They announced tonight that the umpires will be paid, so beat that if you can. Now don’t laugh, I am duly appointed umpires advisor and coach for the Central Australia Football League.”
He concluded his letter with a request for twelve rule books implying he had a fairly extensive panel of umpires to work with.
Brisbane, too, proved somewhat lucrative for umpires with time to spare. Percy Moore (F) umpired for the Queensland Football League where “they were quite pleased with me and looked after me very well” but it was the services competition, played on Sundays that, due to the standard of football and subsequent large crowds were able to pay the umpires two pounds per match. Given that he was umpiring two matches per week, it was a tidy income on top of Army pay.
Unlike the tropical heat it seemed the dry heat of North Africa and the sub-continent was more conducive to football. Albert Mowlam (F) certainly got his fill.
I have had the opportunity of umpiring quite a few games in Egypt and Libya. The unit I am in has not been defeated yet, but not with my help!”
Mowlam not only umpired but played when the opportunity presented itself. He wrote in March 1941,
You may have read in the papers at home about a game played in Bombay in which Keith Forbes (Essendon) played. Our RSM umpired that game, I played in the centre and they raised 800 rupees for the Red Cross out of the game. The people there thought our game was marvelous.
Of course, footballers were also in the forces and continued to play whenever they could which always improved the standard. In one sports carnival that Dave Sullivan umpired he noted the following VFL and VFA players: Roulent Jones (NM), Lynch (Preston), Pat Cahill (Foots.), Bridges (Williamstown), Daniel and Arch Knott (Collingwood and Fitzroy), Frank Sinclair (SM), Pat Fricker (Coll.), Clarrie Swenson (Coll.), Carter (Fitz.), Roy Quinn (Rich.), Gerry Daley (Melb.), Les Gibbs (Melb.) and Albert Collier (Coll.). He also noted that one team had ten Adelaide league footballers including recent South Australian interstate wingmen Carmichael and Greening.
Despite their footballing prowess, some players were viewed with a jaundiced eye. Percy Moore noted from the siege of Tobruk,
I got a news cutting about Jim Yewers returning to St.Kilda after action in Libya. Needless to say the boys over here were a bit annoyed as the nearest he ever got to Libya was Alexandria. He used to be in our unit.
Umpires ran into players they had met in Melbourne but also fellow umpires.
Dave Sullivan was traveling on a packed troop train through the Northern Territory desert when he heard his name being called from one end of the carriage. It turned out to be Don Wood, formerly a VFLUA member and now working on the railways. Soon after the trip was complete, another former member Steve Scott (F), a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Signals Corps also just walked into Sullivan’s unit. Albert Mowlam met up with Ted Burgess (F), who had left the Association some years before and moved to Tasmania.
Conversely, even when nominally in the same formation, it was difficult to meet. Percy Moore and ‘Tich’ Mowlam were both in 7th Australian Division in the Middle East but Percy was an ambulance driver and often seconded to various other units, and as a result, they never seemed to run into each other.
Throughout the war, umpires came and went from the VFL. Former members returned from active service while others went to war in a continuous stream. The VFL required fewer umpires as they were servicing only the VFL, the VFL Reserve Grade, the Sub-District League sponsored by the VFL and a war service competition based in Melbourne and played mostly on Sundays. Service Competition teams were based around service units constantly stationed in Melbourne such as Ordnance Factory, Land Headquarters and RAAF Cadets and the Sub-District Competition encompassed such areas as East Brunswick Abbotsford and Parkside. From 1941-44, only 20-25 field umpires were listed. Even with so few umpires, the matches had to be spread thinly. So, unless they were umpiring VFL senior football, an appointment in three consecutive weeks was a rarity.
The structure of the armed forces meant that many umpires were ‘part-timers’ before they were called up to full-time duty. This meant that they were still in Melbourne and most of them were able to organize to keep umpiring VFL football in combination with their military commitments. Depending on their role and posting, some were even able to umpire after their call up for full-time duty. Tom Bride (F), an unarmed combat instructor from 1940, was stationed within distance of Melbourne and umpired until 1943. It was a knee injury curtailed his wartime football.
Sometimes, former members often returned to Melbourne on some form of leave or were re-stationed in the vicinity after having served elsewhere.
Alan Coward (F) was stationed in Shepparton during 1943 while doing his Instructor’s course. Towards the end of the year, he enquired whether he might be appointed if he could get away. His offer was not taken up by the League (perhaps his recent non-appearance at a tribunal hearing following his last VFL match had something to do with that). However, George Smith’s was.
In 1944, Smith was stationed in Shepparton and each Friday night he would catch the train to Melbourne to umpire his VFL match on the Saturday. Returning on the Sunday in time proved somewhat more challenging, as the trains only rain to Seymour. George completed his trip on a bus. The following season, he was posted to Warburton but still managed to commute to Melbourne to run the boundary in the VFL on a Saturday and, for part of the year, field umpire in the RAAF competition played on Sunday. In this latter competition, he borrowed Harvey Jamieson’s whistle (boundary umpires did not use them in this era) and still has it to this day. Umpiring so much football must have assisted his form, as he was appointed to the Second Semi-Final that season.
For the duration of the war, the Association continued to serve its umpires representing them with the VFL but also working with the League in any patriotic endeavors in which they were involved. Umpires were always available gratis for special matches, such as the 1940 Lightning Premiership to raise funds for the services, contributions were made to the various relief funds and suggestions were made that led to any advance of the war effort. It was an Association initiative that saved vital petrol by proposing that umpires be telephoned with their appointment prior to the Saturday of the match rather than driving to VFL HQ in the City on the day of the match, picking it up and then driving onto the game. Or in many cases, back from where they had come.
Through six long years of war, football went on. It gave those who played, umpired, administered and simply followed it all over the world relief, however fleeting, from total war that touched every life in some way. The VFLUA and its members were a vital cog in football’s war on both the oval and the battlefield.