THE CENTENARY of World War I continues to highlight significant anniversaries, and when it comes to The Great War's links to Australian Football, they don't get any bigger than this.
Today (October 28) marks 100 years since two teams of Australian soldiers staged a 'pioneer exhibition game' in London that achieved lasting fame.
The 1916 clash between the Third Division and the Combined Training Units at Queen's Club, West Kensington, was the first organised game of Australian Football played overseas by predominantly elite-level players.
It was perhaps also an early forerunner to the modern Anzac Day football extravaganza, given it drew 3000-8000 spectators (depending on which source you read), including members of high society such as the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and raised almost £1000 for the British and French Red Cross Societies.
Critically, the event also acted as a morale-booster for Aussie troops who were about to join the fighting on the Western Front after thousands of their countrymen had been slaughtered on the killing fields of Gallipoli and Fromelles.
Almost secondarily, the footballer-soldiers produced a high-quality contest.
Collingwood and Richmond great Dan Minogue, who was vice-captain of the victorious Third Division team, would later hail it as "a slashing display" of the game "at its scintillating best".
The exhibition game was the brainchild of Brigadier-General Sir Newton Moore – the former Premier of Western Australia – who proposed the concept to legendary general John Monash, then commander of the Third Division.
The considerable task of organising the event went to Lieutenant Frank Beaurepaire, an Olympic swimmer who would later add to his fame as Melbourne mayor and tyre tycoon.
The vision took about three months to become reality.
Keen for the game to be a success, the top brass ensured the excited hopefuls practiced together. A week later a trial match was held, revealing such talent that Minogue felt the final team would "worthily represent any State in a Carnival".
Along with Minogue, the Third Division boasted stars like South Melbourne great Bruce Sloss, Essendon centreman Bill Sewart, Richmond ruckman Hughie James, University and Melbourne big man Jack Brake (also Australia's pole vault champion), Geelong utility Billy Orchard and Melbourne playmaker Charlie Lilley.
The Training Units team was led by flame-haired Norwood champion and charismatic clergyman Charlie 'Redwing' Perry, and also featured peerless Fitzroy and East Fremantle rover Percy Trotter, South Melbourne centreman George Bower and Essendon backman Clyde Donaldson.
Training Units vice-captain Jack Cooper, the Fitzroy star, had just been cleared to play after being gassed in France.
On game eve, The Times reported that the event would "show how Australians have combined 'Soccer' and Rugby".
That demonstration took place on a chilly Saturday that would be remembered as "one of London's happiest war-time afternoons".
The happiest spectators were uniformed Diggers, many of whom had pulled various "dodges" to be there.
The players donned uniquely-designed, London-made guernseys – the Third Division's jumper being a navy blue with a white map of Australia (minus Tasmania) on the chest, along with huge white shorts and navy socks, while the Training Units wore a light red guernsey with a large white kangaroo on the left breast, along with black shorts and red socks.
The game was a low-scoring affair that fluctuated with the breeze, the Third Division triumphing by 16 points – 6.16 (52) to 4.12 (36).
Despite all the superstars on show, Minogue believed the hero of the match was "a somewhat unknown follower" named Les Lee, who'd played two games for Richmond in 1913 and later played for VFA club Williamstown.
"He was only a boy," Minogue marvelled, "but he was of the Jack Dyer build and spirit … He was a champion in the ruck that day of days."
The game generally received favourable reviews in the London press for its speed and skill, although The Yorkshire Post sniffed: "Apparently the rule was that there are no rules."
The Aussies played that London game like it was their last. Tragically for some, it was their last game. Six players, including four who'd played League football, were subsequently killed in "the sterner game".
Just two months after the game, Third Division skipper Sloss was the first to fall, followed by further 1917 victims Jack Cooper (the Training Units vice-captain), ex-University wingman Stan Martin, East Perth player James Foy, James Pugh (a Victorian who'd enlisted in Tasmania) and exhibition match star Les Lee.