As we prepare to observe ANZAC traditions this week, I thought I’d mesh this week’s footy column with war-time legend.
The first is an unlikely story of courage, compassion and proud links to rugby league and the Hunter. A story befitting a Mel Gibson Hollywood blockbuster.
It begins with the first public communication from official “Great War” historian, Charles Bean, “live” from the chaotic landing beaches of Gallipoli.
Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No.39. 17 May 1915: “The Australians and the Maorilanders landed in two bodies ... it was 18 minutes past four in the morning of Sunday 25th April, when the first boat grounded. The men leaped into the water, and the first had just reached the beach when fire opened up on them from the trenches on the foothills which rise from the beach …
“The country rather resembles the Hawkesbury River country with hills rising immediately from the sea to 600 feet, except there were no big trees only scrub and sheer slopes of gravel. It was from these hills that bullets struck fireworks out of the stones on the beach as the first waves [of ANZACs] rushed for cover.
“The Turks had a machine gun in the valley to our left, which they turned on the boats of the 12th battalion as they landed. [Two days after the landing] three of these boats are still lying on the beach to the north.
“Two stretcher-bearers of the second Battalion went up to effect a rescue in daylight. They were shot and injured. Undeterred they waited for dark, and crept back along the beach rescuing (nine) wounded. The work of these stretcher bearers has been beyond all praise.”
And so Bean goes on to describe for posterity the opening exchanges in that hugely lamentable yet iconic campaign. Of course, in the days before the interweb, by the time news cleared in Australia, the situation on the peninsula had become dire. Most on the beachhead were convinced the situation already beyond retrieval.
And so it remained for another nine months before sanity prevailed, the plan was abandoned and Gallipoli evacuated. Shell-shocked veterans were then redeployed by their British masters to ever more ghastly theatres of combat on the Western Front. King and country would again insist these young Aussies survive, and fight, three long years more. Or die trying.
Moved as one is by the enormity, callousness and sheer waste of war, I happened as a young bloke upon Bean’s first report from the battlefield. Impressed by the simplicity of prose, and his ringside seat, I was intrigued as to the identities of the anonymous stretcher-bearers. I remember thinking, in all that went on during the landing, why did Bean single out these two? Stretcher-bearers at that. Saving lives!
As helpfully described, our two heroes were attached to the untested second Battalion. A unit in military circles I’m delighted to discover was designated the City of Newcastle Regiment: with a motto, more fitting, I couldn’t imagine – Nulli Secundus – second to none.
By now I’m hooked, with research revealing the precise circumstances described by Bean. In a citation nominating for the highest award for bravery are the names Edward Roberts and Stanley F. Carpenter. Who were these fearless heroes from the Hunter?
I’ll leave others to discover more on Roberts, but for Carpenter, it turns out, before the war he was a league player of some repute. He’d even led Central Newcastle to the 1910 inaugural district premiership. Most notable about Stan was he had led a revolt against the Newcastle rugby union burghers, eventually defecting to the new professional league. Along with names like Ernie Patfield and Stan’s brother Les, he took his star-studded team of rebels to Sydney to be a foundation club in the NSWRL competition in 1908 and 1909.
Stan led from the hooker position, finishing his two seasons as the leading Newcastle pointscorer on 83. A record that would stand for 81 years, until broken by Knights flyer Ashley Gordon, mid-1990.
After the war Stan remarried and headed to the quieter environs of Kempsey, where he played his last game of league at 43. Passing in 1962 at the same age as points he had scored for his beloved Newcastle, his story has been largely forgotten.
But what should never be forgotten is the example he set. His desire to aid his fellow man, to stand up to injustice, and to face adversity head-on.
His story is the Newcastle story, on the world stage. As an ex-Newcastle captain myself, I will ever after think of Stan and his brave second Battalion on the anniversary of that terrible day that announced a nation.
* ANOTHER quick yarn, with a touch of the larrikin flavour.
An old footy mate of mine knocked around after work with an old fella named Ross Pyke in the 1960s. Ross served with the air force over Europe in WW2. But other than that, he had never said much. Until one day, over a beer, talk turned to the great athletes of their day.
Mike Cleary represented Australia in athletics, league and union in the ’60s. Likewise, the Thornett brothers Ken and Dick played league, union and water polo for the green and gold.
“Legends”, was the unanimous appraisal.
Then old Ross piped up. “That’s nothing! Not one to blow my own trumpet, mind you, but I’ve represented Australia at league, union, soccer, darts, table tennis, athletics and euchre.”
You could have heard a pin drop before Ross explained: “After being shot down over Germany, I spent years in POW camps. Not much else to do other than international sport.
“The Canadians were good blokes, the bloody Yanks were sore losers, the Pommies never stopped whinging, and the French. Well, you know the French.
“But leave me out of this “legend” stuff. I could tell you some stories about real legends that would curl your toes.”
On this, the 102nd anniversary of the landing, all deserve to be told.
Lest we forget.