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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 12 (March 1, 1940)

Our Soldier Athletes — Their Fame in Battle and Sport

page 37

Our Soldier Athletes
Their Fame in Battle and Sport

I Wish to thank you for your kind letter and also for your good wishes for my Country” …. so wrote my good friend, Mr. Paavo Simelius, Consul for Finland in Australia, in a letter I received a few weeks ago. “All of our athletes are, of course, fighting with the others. So far I have heard that Mr. Vasenius, the world champion skater, has been killed in action and that our world record holder in javelin throwing, Mr. Nikkanen, has been wounded.”

Note that telling reference—“All of our athletes are, of course, fighting with the others.” So it was with New Zealand in the Great War of 1914–1918 —so will it be in the present conflict!

On 1st February, the following message appeared in New Zealand newspapers: “The finest type of New Zealand manhood was represented in the ranks of 100 prospective non-commissioned officers who marched through Auckland. Most of the men approximated six feet in height. Many were prominent in professional, sporting and civic circles, including a suburban Mayor, a former member of the Stock Exchange, two All Blacks, a cricket representative, a former sprint champion, a New Zealand hockey representative, a Davis Cup tennis player and several Auckland Rugby representatives.”

But there were many leading sportsmen, too, in the First Echelon, others had gone into training as privates in the Second Echelon—others will continue to follow in the footsteps of their “brothers in the First and Second Echelons, in the footsteps of their fathers and uncles—the Original Anzacs.

One of the first of New Zealand's young sportsmen to pay the Supreme Sacrifice in this war was Cedric Whittington, whose uncle was a prominent member of the famous New Zealand Army Rugby team, winners of the King's Cup, for Inter-service Rugby in 1918–1919.

In this brief article I will endeavour to pay a tribute to New Zealand sportsmen who won fame during the Great War. Where shall I start? Could I make a better start than commence with “Tiny” Freyberg?

Major-General B. C. Freyberg, C.B., V.C., D.S.O., was not born in New Zealand, but he came here as a lad of three years and was brought up and educated in this fair land of ours. Today he is proud to lead the Second New Zealand Division in its battle for Democracy—and young New Zealanders are proud to follow a man who by example has won the admiration of the sporting world. “Tiny” Freyberg early established a reputation as a yachtsman and swimmer, went to Mexico and fought for General Villa, travelled posthaste to England on the outbreak of war, won renown as a gallant and brilliant soldier and endeared himself to every New Zealander.

His most spectacular feat won for him the Distinguished Service Order; another gallant feat brought him the most coveted decoration of all—the Victoria Cross. He swam ashore in the dead of night, his body painted khaki, and set alight flares he had taken with him. The Turks thought a landing had been made and rushed reinforcements to repel the invasion, but “Tiny” had left ahead of them and was swimming again, waiting ever so long
New Zealand Army Relay Team in England, 1918–19. From left: Sergt. J. Wilton, Sergt. H. Wilson, Sergt. F. W. Juno (trainer), Sergt. D. Mason, and Sergt. J. Lindsay.

New Zealand Army Relay Team in England, 1918–19. From left: Sergt. J. Wilton, Sergt. H. Wilson, Sergt. F. W. Juno (trainer), Sergt. D. Mason, and Sergt. J. Lindsay.

for the boat to pick him up. In the meantime a landing had been made along another part of the coast. It was a spectacular and gallant feat, one that could easily have brought him the Victoria Cross, but did not. When he won the V.C., in France some time later, “Tiny” had led an attack on an important outpost and by his glorious example and contempt of danger had consolidated the position and won an important battle.

Rugby football is a religion with New Zealanders and our soldiers of 1914–18 found time to play the national game no matter where they happened to be–except, of course, when they were in the trenches. From the welter and strife of battle, there emerged a great football team—the New Zealand Army team!

From 25th January to 11th May, 1919, this team played 38 matches, for 33 wins, two losses and three draws. The matches drawn were against Royal Naval Division (0–0), Cardiff (0–0), and Pill Harriers (0–0), and the matches lost were to Australia (5–6) and Monmouthshire (3–4). A total of 547 points was scored with 107 being registered against.

After the Armistice had been signed, on 11th November, 1918, His Majesty King George V presented the King's Cup for competition between the British forces, and some of the greatest Rugby matches in history were played—some of the greatest Rugby players in history were participants!

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New Zealand won that coveted cup, the trophy being presented to Jimmy Ryan, captain of the successful combination, at the conclusion of the game against France on 19th April, 1919. New Zealand played six matches for the cup, winning five and losing one (to Australia). A total of 67 points was scored, with 20 points against. The decisive game was against the Mother Country, New Zealand winning by 9 to 3. Singe and Ford scored tries for New Zealand, Stohr kicking a penalty goal. The Mother Country's points came from a penalty goal by Cumberlege.

A few weeks ago I was discussing the Army team with an officer at present assisting our lads to achieve the required standard of fitness. He had been present at the final match and tells a good story about our war-time Prime Minister, the late Rt. Hon. W. F. Massey.

“Old Bill,” as he was affectionately termed, went into the New Zealand dressing-room at half-time, and wore a worried look. Things had not gone too good for the New Zealanders, and Mr. Massey approached one of the husky forwards and urged him to “do his best for New Zealand; the people back home look forward to success.” There came an unexpected reply: “Leave 'em to us, Bill! Politics might be your game, but this is our picnic!”

In the second spell the New Zealanders used steam-roller tactics and gave the clever English backs no chances. After the final whistle Mr. Massey once again visited the dressing-room, but this time he wore a triumphant smile. His friend, the husky forward, was taking a shower. Mr. Massey grasped his hand, shook it with great fervour and stood there completely oblivious of the fact that the shower was on and that he was being drenched!

New Zealand's winning team in the decisive match was: J. O'Brien; P. Storey, J. Stohr, J. Ford; J. Ryan, W. Fea; C. Brown; M. Cain, E. Hassell, J. Kissick, J. Moffitt, A. (“Ranji”) Wilson, E. (“Moke”) Bellis, A. West and A. Singe (wing-forward). The Mother Country team had 14 officers and one non-commissioned officer; New Zealand had one officer and 14 of lower rank!

On the athletic track New Zealand produced its famous relay team: Harry Wilson, Dan Mason, Jimmy Wilton and Jack Lindsay. This quartet set a world record of 3m. 30 3–5s. for the one-mile medley relay. Harry Wilson proved himself the best hurdler in England, winning the hurdling championship of the Imperial and Allied Forces, the British Army hurdling championship, and the English Amateur Athletic Association's hurdling championship. In addition he won the 100yds. championship of the Imperial and Allied Forces.

At the Inter-Allied Games, at Pershing Stadium (Paris) in 1919 Harry Wilson finished second to Robert Simpson, world record holder, in the 120yds. hurdling event, defeating F. W. Kelly, Olympic champion.

But praise must go to Dan Mason, our half-miler. This tall young North Aucklander, by his unbroken run of successes as a member of the New Zealand Army Athletic team, proved himself the greatest middle-distance runner in the British Empire. He defeated the English champion, ran an unofficial world record in a one-mile trial at Codford, and climaxed a great career by defeating the celebrated American Earl Eby at the Inter-Allied Games when he set a French record for 800 metres in Paris. Dan, a great sportsman, is now in business at Point Chevalier, Auckland, and looks fit enough to run the race of his life. Jack Lindsay, too, showed a clean pair of heels to English sprint champions, although he had his off-days, while Jimmy Wilton, the quarter-miler, always justified his inclusion in an international field.

Gerald Keddell, holder of the best broad jump by a New Zealander, was never in the best of health, but he proved a valuable second-string hurdler to Harry Wilson. The “Keddell Memorial Plaque,” awarded annually to the New Zealand hurdling champion, is a fitting tribute to a great sportsman and soldier.

Peter Munro, nowadays a police sergeant in Wellington, doffed khaki for the All Black athletic costume and defeated the pick of the world in an international shot-putting contest at Stamford Bridge, establishing his record putt of more than 50ft.

On the water New Zealand produced what many sound judges claim to be the best rowing “eight” ever to represent our country. Of the personnel two stand out as champions. First and foremost was Darcy Hadfield, who later won the world professional sculling championship, after receiving excellent tuition from a former world champion, Ernest Barry. Hadfield, with Harry Wilson, also represented New Zealand at the Olympic Games of 1920.

The second oarsman to achieve fame was Clarrie Healey, who is still an active participant in national regattas. Last season he pulled an oar for the Union “eight” in the New Zealand championships at Picton and for Wanganui in the Inter-provincial championships at Dunedin. On both occasions Clarrie's crew won. He is rowing as well as ever this season and more than justifies his place in the shell. Clarrie coached the New Zealand rowers at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1932, but his “retirement” in favour of coaching fortunately proved only a passing phase, for which those who relish good sport are pleased. It will be a long time ere Clarrie puts away the oars.

New Zealand did not win any titles at the great international boxing tourney at Albert Hall, London, in 1919. This may be accounted for by the undoubted class of the competition. Numbered among the professionals of world class were such men as Jimmy Wilde, Pal Moore, Jem Driscoll, Johnny Basham, Harry Greb, Eddie McGoorty, Eddie Coulon, Mike O'Dowd, Augie Ratner, Digger Evans and Joe Beckett. These men had fought for large purses; on this occasion they fought for the love of it—and the prestige of their countries.

New Zealand's boxing representatives were W. Benson, T. Spearman, H. Gunn, D. Lawless, S. Fitzsimmons, and D. Boreham. Jack Heeney, brother of the subsequently more famous Tom Heeney, was not a competitor, illness preventing him from taking his place after he had won a series of important bouts in France.

And so I bring my humble tribute to New Zealand's soldier athletes to a close with a brief reference to Anthony Wilding, our greatest tennis player. “Tony” Wilding won tennis titles at Wimbledon—he was a real star in those prewar days—and helped to win the Davis Cup for Australasia. He died a hero's death on the battlefield in France.

The bugles have sounded and New Zealand's soldier-athletes are again on the march. May they live up to the high traditions established by the Original Anzacs!

When the Great Recorder comes to write against your name,

He'll ask not if you won or lost–But how you played the Game!