Cricket, comrades and the ANZAC spirit
How a classic photograph forever binds the sport with Australia's most eulogised military engagement
As an alumnus of England’s historic Rugby School where the eponymous football code was born, it would appear curious that George MacLeay McArthur-Onslow is cast as a central figure in one of Australia’s most poignant and evocative cricket images.
Despite his tall, athletic stature, McArthur-Onslow’s batsmanship showed neither the extravagant flamboyance of Victor Trumper nor the compact elegance of Jack Hobbs – the rival poster boys for cricket in the years prior to the pall of The Great War.
But as Commanding Officer of the 7th Light Horse Regiment in the final weeks of the doomed Gallipoli campaign, 40-year-old Major Macarthur-Onslow was the pivotal figure in organising a cricket match that has come to symbolise much of Australia’s most eulogised military engagement.
On 17 December 1915, the day before the mass evacuation of the 20,000 remaining Australia and New Zealand troops from Anzac Cove was stealthily completed under cloak of night, he staged an impromptu game at Shell Green for the benefit of war photographer and correspondent Charles Bean.
The premise was to convince the Turkish troops who had largely kept the invading forces pinned down under relentless fire from the time they had rushed ashore in the pre-dawn darkness eight months earlier that life on the ANZAC-held territory maintained its status quo.
The resultant photograph (top) shows Macarthur-Onslow wielding a bat amid a tight ring-field of soldiers clad in service caps and slouch hats at Shell Green, the only flat section of land within the ANZAC perimeter which took its name from the heavy hail of Turkish artillery that regularly rained down from the overlooking hills.
As expected given the privations of such a dire and desperate battle, the luxury of recreation among the decimated ANZAC troops was restricted to a few outbreaks of Australian football along the comparative sanctuary of the beachfront.
But while the practical propaganda value of the picture opportunity can never be fully assessed, the fact that the successful removal of troops that took place over two nights without loss of life while the Turkish forces remained largely oblivious would indicate it was a success.
If those soldiers who were then deployed elsewhere over the ensuing three years of the War would frame it in such terms.
And even if the Turks have claimed they were aware of what was going on but deigned not to shoot their retreating enemies in the back.
The significance of the photograph in Australia’s cricket psyche was galvanised 86 years later when then Test captain Stephen Waugh led his 2001 Ashes touring party for a pre-campaign visit to the Gallipoli Peninsula.
At the site of Shell Green, where the original ‘game’ had been abandoned after several minutes due to enemy artillery fire and now overgrown with thick gorse, the Australia players re-enacted the famous photo with Waugh filling the role of Macarthur-Onslow.
The link between the two historic moments had initially arisen from a conversation between Waugh and the then head of the Australian Army (now Governor-General, Sir) Peter Cosgrove at a lunch two years earlier.
"We started talking about cricket and the army," Waugh said during the Gallipoli visit that took his team to a number of historical battle sites and saw them lay wreaths of poppies at several War Memorials on the Peninsula.
“Particularly similarities like camaraderie, discipline, commitment and the importance of following a plan.”
The exercise was facilitated by Colonel Don Murray, then serving as army adviser to the Australia High Commission in London, but was not universally viewed in a positive light.
Critics in Australia accused Waugh’s team of trying to generate positive publicity under the auspices of a tragic military event.
Others interpreted it as an attempt by cricket to shift the spotlight away from the issue of high-level match-fixing as laid bare by the landmark Condon Report into corruption that had been released days earlier.
And some former Diggers took issue with the sight of Australia cricketers clad in new slouch hats and posing for pictures while squatting in the rebuilt Gallipoli trenches, with accusations they had appropriated the ANZAC Story for their own benefit.
But those who travelled with the team that day witnessed a genuine respect and raw emotion among the players as they walked in the footsteps of their patriotic predecessors, albeit under the incessant fire of press camera shutters rather than Turkish snipers.
Vice-captain Adam Gilchrist, who posed as wicketkeeper to Glenn McGrath’s ‘bowling’ in the re-enacted photo, would later describe it as “the most important day of my life” to that point.
In his subsequent autobiography ‘Out of My Comfort Zone’, Waugh wrote: “True bonding experiences stand the test of time and become part of you and, most certainly, visiting Gallipoli together on our way to England for the 2001 Ashes tour had a profound effect on most of the squad.
"In the limited-overs tournament (that preceded the Ashes Tests) we put to good use the increased unity we had gained from Gallipoli, and dominated our matches.
“We elevated the aggressiveness in our play and tried to consume our opposition as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.”
And interviewed by ABC Grandstand a decade after the visit, former skipper Ricky Ponting recalled: “The thing that was really rammed home to us on that trip was what the ANZAC spirit is all about.”
“It really does typify even the modern Australian person,” Ponting said. “I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world and play cricket against a lot of opposition teams in a lot of different countries and you just don’t see that same sort of spirit in a lot of people from other countries.
“The will to want to do whatever you can for your mate, to help your mate in a time of crisis.
“You look at what’s happened around Australia in the past few years with the floods in Queensland and the bushfires where local communities get on board and help each other out.
“I think that’s all a leftover of what the ANZAC spirit brought to modern Australia.”
Among the names that Waugh’s touring party might have noted on the Lone Pine Memorial that honours the more than 4,000 Australians and 700 New Zealanders whose bodies were never recovered or who were buried at sea was Sergeant Charles ‘Rappie’ Backman.
A 31-year-old boilermaker at Adelaide’s Islington rail yards who was among the first to enlist barely a fortnight after Britain and Germany went to war, Backman was the only Australian first-class cricketer known to have lost his life on the day of the first Gallipoli landing in 1915.
The medium-pace bowler had captured 3-53 in his one and only outing for South Australia three years earlier against the touring MCC XI, with his haul including the scalp of England’s then Test captain Sir Pelham ‘Plum’ Warner.
A member of the 10th Infantry Battalion that surged ashore on the morning of 25 April 1915, Backman failed to report at the Battalion’s first roll call that followed that disastrous attack and which was conducted three days later.
He was reported ‘missing’ and his family in Adelaide received no further news until intelligence was collated from other servicemen who – in the wake of the evacuation – recounted how Backman had been shot soon after embarkation in territory that was reclaimed by the Turks the following day.
Another witness claimed he had seen Backman crawl, wounded, into nearby bushes and while his body was never recovered his identity tag was subsequently found and returned to his mother along with eventual confirmation of his death in November 1916.
Almost 18 months after he was reported missing.
Of the eight Australian first-class cricketers to have died in the Great War and the 14 other top-level players (mainly English) reported to have lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign, the only other known to have perished during the April 25 landing was Private John ‘Nat’ Williams.
The son of a British Member of Parliament born in the shadows of The Oval in south London and educated at Eton and Oxford, Williams played a handful of matches for Gloucestershire before being effectively exiled to New Zealand where he worked as a metallurgist to try and recoup heavy gambling losses.
There he represented Hawkes Bay at cricket before signing up to the 6th Auckland Infantry Battalion (Hauraki) Company and was among a party of seven soldiers who began scaling the steep cliffs above Anzac Cove on that grim morning 102 years ago.
When one his comrades was hit by gunfire, Williams stopped to dress the wound and – as he leaned forward to check on his fallen mate’s condition – was mortally struck by a Turkish sniper’s bullet.
An attempt to carry Williams back down the cliff face was abandoned when the stretcher bearer was also hit by gunfire and, like Backman, the 37-year-old’s mortal remains were never salvaged.
But in his post-war memoir, one of Williams’s comrades recounted that the final word the cricketer breathed was simply ‘out’.