Behind the lines: Victorian soccer and WWI

Originally published 20th April 2015

Dr Ian Syson explores the connection between soccer and WWI.

For many Australians, this 1918 photograph and text from the Melbourne Weekly Times (3 August 1918, p. 21) would be an enigma.

A team mostly of Victorian soldiers playing soccer and beating a team of English soldiers in France during the First World War must surely be a rarity.

Yet the truth is far from that.

Sporting contests between Australian troops and their allies blossomed in all theatres of war for purposes of morale, fitness and recreation (not to mention gambling).

Australian rules, rugby and cricket were popular games. But there is an argument to be made that soccer was even more prevalent; first because it was far easier to find an opponent from within the British troops, second because soccer was a much more popular game in pre-War Victoria than historians sometimes acknowledge, and third because soccer players tended to enlist with almost unanimous enthusiasm.

Evidence suggests that 1500 soccer devotees were at the Broadmeadows training camp in March 1915.

Discoveries such as this photograph convinced a team of researchers at Victoria University led by Dr Ian Syson to investigate the position of soccer in the Victorian community and the Australian armed forces between 1914 and 1919.


Soccer enjoyed a migrant-fuelled boom in pre-war Melbourne.

Participation more than doubled between 1908 and 1912 and kept rising before the war.

Harry Dockerty, the man most responsible for the game’s Victorian regeneration in 1908 was not afraid to be boastful for the game he loved. So researchers must consider his statements on soccer participation carefully.

Dockerty suggested at various points during the war that soccer’s pre-war playing numbers were between 500 and 550.

On 21 October 1914, Melbourne sporting newspaper, The Winner claimed 597 registered players in the Victorian Amateur British Football Association.

When it came to enlistments in the armed forces Dockerty had maintained in the early war period that around 40 per cent of Melbourne players had enlisted in the initial push while after the war much higher percentages were claimed.

The Argus reported in 1919 that the Association claimed “90 per cent of the players had enlisted for service abroad or at home.”

Unfortunately all Association records from the period have long-since disappeared. (One of the few existing remnants of the period is the Dockerty Cup itself, along with some team photographs.) The quandary was how to confirm or rebut the claimed figures, which were:

  • between 500 and 600 players in Victoria,
  • 150-200 enlistments before the end of 1915,
  • around 300 further enlistments throughout the war.

The only thing for it was some hard slog through the archives.

We went through every soccer article we could find (mostly match reports) in the Argus and The Winner in 1914 and 1915, extracting the names of players and their teams.

Each report listed the goalscorers and the better players as well as noting injuries and other matters. Lists of players were found but only occasionally.

The data collected therefore is necessarily incomplete.

Those poor souls who never scored and never shone remain largely invisible in our method.

Rarely are first names given, though first initials are sometimes included. Moreover, spelling of surnames seemed not to be a major priority for reporters.

Even star players, like the Northumberland and Durham’s goalkeeper Robison/Robinson, were subject to misnaming.

One final irritation was the fact that own goals were represented as being scored by the unfortunate player who scored but were not registered in the list of scorers as an own goal.

If not careful we could name a player in the wrong club.

The research process benefitted from the discovery of what we refer to as ‘motherload’ documents.

The first was published on 28 April 1915, soon after Gallipoli but too soon to represent a response to that event.

The Winner released a list of the names and clubs of 143 enlisted players.

The second vital list was the 1919 Age publication of the names of the 34 Melbourne Thistle players who enlisted and the eight of that number who perished in the war.

From these sources and within the limitations outlined above we expected to uncover the names of perhaps 80 per cent of Victorian soccer players in the years 1914–1915.

So we were confident of getting around 400 player names – as long as Dockerty had not been gilding the lily.

As it turns out Dockerty’s figures were inaccurate; but he was understating them.

Using our admittedly incomplete net, we have already gathered more than 500 names of Melbourne senior soccer players.

Additional to these are 22 referees, and the 150 non-metropolitan players discovered in places like Mildura, Geelong and Kyabram.

To this figure needs to be added the 40 or more Wonthaggi players yet to be identified and named.

One of our main findings is that there were probably more than 800 soccer players in Victoria in the pre-war period. Moreover, a total figure of 1000 players is not out of the question.

Other perhaps tangential findings include: Melbourne soccer players were mostly of Church of England or Presbyterian faiths while Catholics represented a 10 per cent minority against their national proportion of over 20 per cent; very few soccer players were from the professions, most being skilled tradesman or labourers.


The second part of our task has been to investigate enlistment numbers. As it stands we have established that just under 40 per cent of the players on the database enlisted.

We have done this via a triangulation method between the names we have gathered and the databases available at the Australian War Memorial <> and the ‘Australian Anzacs in the Great War’ project at the Australian Defence Force Academy <>.

Some of the names are easy to find. The enlistment and death of Lieutenant Goodson, a star player with Thistle were easy to confirm; the path of W. Anderson from Albert Park remains much more difficult to trace (given that 42 Victorian enlistees were named W. Anderson).

Nonetheless we are not fazed and some ingenious detective work correlating age, birthplace and residence by Athas Zafiris has seen us identify a number of difficult cases.

Another process of identifying enlistees included looking at the date of embarkation.

If a player's name kept appearing in news print in, for example, August 1915, it would eliminate the men with the same name who had already left Australian shores before that date.

It is a painstaking process, yet we will continue with this detective work on dozens of individuals.

Another significant problem is the fact that a great number of Victorian soccer players who were British by birth returned to Britain to enlist very early in the war.

Many of the names on our database fall into that category and obtaining costly access to the British databases will be the next stage in this part of the project.

Killed in Action

This is the most harrowing part of the story.

Soccer players not only enlisted in high numbers, many of them also paid the ultimate price, either dying in battle or later from their wounds.

The database reveals that of the 250 identified as enlisting, 52 died at the front. Of these, nine were from the Irymple club and eight from the Melbourne Thistle club.

Through our research, we found five stories telling the stories of these clubs and individuals from the Victorian soccer scene who gave so much to the war effort, which will be posted on in the week leading up to ANZAC Day 2015.

You can read them here:

The Irymple nine


While the project is continuing with a great deal of work yet to be done, we have established some important facts and arguments.

The first is that more adult men played soccer in pre-war Victoria (800–1000) than had previously been assumed.

The second is that Victorian soccer players enlisted at a rate at least equal to that of the general population (40 per cent) but probably at twice that rate (around 80 per cent).

Finally enlisted Victorian soccer soldiers suffered a mortality rate (20 per cent), a good deal higher than the general morality rate across the Australian Imperial Forces (15 per cent).

The next stages of this project will include an assessment of those who returned after the war.

Did they stay in Australia? Did they play soccer again?

Soccer boomed once more in 1920 and exploded through the early 1920s.

To what extent was it a game heavily influenced by veterans and their commemorations?

A vital question will be: How did soccer seem to lose contact with the Anzac legend to which it had contributed so much?

Read more here