A moment of humanity in the trials of war: The Third Australian Machine Gun Company’s day of sports

Guest blogger: Timothy Roberts, Curator, Royal Historical Society of Queensland

Stories of gallantry and hardship are proliferate throughout Australia’s Great War history; however when viewed in isolation, these provide an incomplete perception about the reality of life on the front. Occasionally, unusual items surface which highlight the very human face that was characteristic of the Great War’s battlefront.

One of the World War I treasures in the Royal Historical Society of Queensland’s collection is a highly unusual program of sports, typed by members of the Third Australian Machine Gun Company on the battlefield in France on 3 September 1918. Though having literally been ‘through the wars’, this torn and deeply creased sheet of foolscap provides extensive details about the event, ranging from a list of judges and stewards presiding over the day’s proceedings, through to the range of athletics and games available for contest, and even specifics of the modest prizes (ranging from French Francs to cigarettes and sweets) that had been provided by the Australian Comforts Fund. In the spirit of fairness, one peculiar rule was considered worthy of being printed at the bottom of the program: ‘running shoes will not be worn’.

Documents like this program of sports enrich our understanding of life on the front. Sports and games, concerts and makeshift celebrations of religious and social holidays were critical in supporting soldiers’ morale, and reminded them of the values and lifestyle for which they fought. Their appreciation of these distractions is visible in the rich legacy of ephemera and images that survive today, especially in the personal souvenir photograph albums that were compiled on the war front. The RHSQ holds several of these albums, including EG Gordon’s travel album, which includes candid photos of Australian soldiers having a snowball fight in a ruined town in France, and the modestly decorated table for their battalion at Christmas on the front.

The program of sports was donated to the RHSQ along with a selection of other items collected by Lieutenant George Edward Jamieson while serving on the Western Front. Most poignant of these is a letter penned to Jamieson by Adelaide resident Christina Cobbledick, thanking the Lieutenant for his condolences and remembrances of her late brother, Private Albert Edward Cracknell, who was killed in action. These items were thoughtfully donated to the RHSQ where they add to an important collection of original materials, printed matter and regalia that tell the story of Queensland’s and Australia’s involvement in the Great War. The program of sports and travel album are currently on display at the Commissariat Store Museum, as a part of the exhibition Call to Duty: Stories from the Great War.

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