One of the most famous games of Australian Football ever played, was played during the First World War, in London, at the Queens Club, Kensington, on Saturday, October 28, 1916.
This famous game, which history has recorded as the first time a formal game of Australian Football was played outside of Australia, was staged as a fundraiser for the British and the French Red Cross. The game was organised by Army Officer, and former Olympic swimmer Frank Beaurepaire.
The match was played between two teams selected from the 3rd Division A.I.F, captained by Bruce Sloss, the South Melbourne champion, and a team made up from the Combined Training Units in London, captained by Charles Perry, from Norwood in South Australia. Soldiers who played in the game were a mixture of seasoned military veterans, who had been involved in the war for some time, and the boys from the training unit; fresh arrivals from Australia, and new to the War.
There have been several articles and a book written about this historic game, including newspaper articles and features, and a great book , “The Game of their Lives”, written in 2016 by the noted journalist, Nick Richardson. But not all the “facts” recorded have proven to be correct.
On December 20, 1916, former Fitzroy and Geelong champion, Gerald Brosnan wrote an article for 'The Winner', a Melbourne paper. In that article he names one of players as “C. Armstrong, Geelong”, and refers to him as “Charlie Armstrong, the fair-haired back player from Geelong”. In different historical accounts of the game, Charlie Armstrong has been named as one of the Geelong players who took part in the game. This error has since been perpetuated throughout several historical publications, records and accounts of the game.
The match programme of the game names the player as “Armstrong”… no initial.
I have been interested in this famous game for many years, and one aspect of the record of the match has always intrigued me. As photos became available of the event, I was not able to identify Charlie Armstrong from Geelong in any of the images. This research went on for many months, until a most extraordinary coincidence occurred.
I have about 120,000 images in my collection… I happened to search the name Charlie Armstrong, when O. Armstrong came up in my search… a young fellow from Barwon Football Club who played a few games at Geelong…. Eureka!
I matched this O. Armstrong to an unnamed player in the 1916 London photos… and so… the was mystery solved!
Charlie Armstrong never played in the London game, and he doesn’t appear in the team photos. The player who does appear however, is Oswald Robert Armstrong, (b. 30/5/1892, d. 1/3/1958). “Ossie” was a boy recruited to Geelong from the Barwon Football Club in the Geelong area, who played his only three games for Geelong in 1915, the year before the London game. He played at Barwon in 1914 and 1915, prior to him joining the army in 1916. He is also photographed in a Geelong squad in 1915. Upon his return from the War, Ossie again plays with Barwon in 1919.
A comparison of the photographs of Ossie Armstrong and Charlie Armstrong, with the photo of the soldier in the London game, provides the evidence.
The War Service Records of both Charlie & Ossie give a strong indication that Charlie was not even in England at the time of the game in London. He was in Gallipoli, then Egypt on 23rd March 1916, and then arrived in Marseille in France on June 10, 1916. It was from France that he requested leave back to England, which was granted from 2 December to 12 December, 1916. This was after the London game was played.
Conversley, Ossie embarked Melbourne on 1 August 1916 on board ‘Militiades’, and arrived in England from Australia on 25 September 1916, a month before the game. He was a new soldier, and it makes sense that he was selected in the Combined Training Units Team, rather than the 3rd Australian Division Team, which was filled with seasoned war veterans.
In 1917, the following year, Ossie would be captured by the German enemy, on 11 April 1917, and held as a prisoner of War. After the War, he arrived back in England on 11 January 1919, and was discharged from the Army on May 30 1919.
Sadly, six boys who played in this famous game, were killed in action.
This historic game was played by Australian soldiers in London, on the very same day that a federal vote was held half way around the world, back in Australia, on whether conscription should be imposed. The plebiscite was voted down and defeated by 52% to 48%.
Two other Geelong players would play in the famous London game. Former Captain / Coach, Billy Orchard played for the 3rd Division team, and Italo Cesari, who would go on after the War to play in Geelong’s Reserve Grade team in 1924 – 1926.
Cesari would also play in Geelong’s Association team in the 1920’s, which was based at Kardinia Park. Cesari was a fisherman from Queenscliff, and he would also play there after the War in 1922. Cesari’s father was a musician, who had come to Australia, from Italy, to further his career.
Italo Cesari would also go on to be a League umpire, and a trainer with South Melbourne.
Billy Orchard’s jumper, which he wore in the actual game in London in 1916, is currently on display at the Gartland Heritage Centre at Geelong Football Club.
Some years ago, a film of the game was discovered in British film archives. This black and white film had been forgotten for years, and filed incorrectly as ‘Australian Rugby’.
The discovery of this unique piece of history led to a joint venture between the AFL and Samsung to colourise the historic film.
Ben Collins from the AFL has written a terrific piece on the game, which includes the newly colourised film of the match… have a look, it’s great…
As a sidenote, four years earlier, in 1912, Charlie Armstrong, who is mentioned in this account, captained a Geelong cricket team, who played against the touring England MCC team. Geelong Football Club players included in the team were Dick Grigg, Charlie Coles, Jack Baker, Alec Eason, Harry Marsham, Bill Eason, Billy Orchard, and Joe Slater.
The cricket match was umpired by my wife’s grandfather, Jim D’Helin, himself a former Geelong player. The cricket ball from that very game is part of my collection.
The great Geelong footballer, Joe Slater, who played in the cricket match v England, would be killed in action in France, in May 1917.
In December 1923, Ossie Armstrong was convicted with obstructing a Police Officer in the course of his duty. A few weeks earlier, in Ryrie St Geelong, Ossie was walking near the Temperance Hall in the town at night. He met a man with a cut hand, and heard that a window had been broken. He also spotted the Police nearby and suggested to the injured fellow, that he should “Get for your life, the Police are after you”. For this, Ossie was found guilty and fined 10 shillings.
Gerald Brosnan, the Journalist who wrote the original article, about the London game in ‘The Winner’ in 1916, was born as Jeremiah Brosnan at Lethbridge, near Geelong. He played just two games for Geelong in 1894. Later he played 131 Games for Fitzroy, between 1900 – 1909, was captain coach, won the Best and Fairest, and led them to two Premierships.
I have an original hand written letter in my collection, penned by Gerald Brosnan in 1963, where he talks about his career, and other great players he played with in the 1800’s.
And so… the mystery surrounding the missing Armstrong is solved.. records will be amended.. history corrected, and Ossie will take his place as one on the very special few, who played in that unique, historic game in London, in the middle of a War.
All of the imagery within this article is courtesy of the Bob Gartland Collection.