Australian Olympians during the First World War – The Sir John Monash Centre
As part of the Australia now France 2021-22 program, the Sir John Monash Centre hosted two online conferences on Monday 2 August 2021. It was the opportunity to (re)discover the exceptional stories of several Australian Olympians who served during the First World War.
The conferences were presented by two passionate historians: Peter Smith, former member of the Royal Marines commando and battlefield guide, and Sylvestre Bresson, battlefield guide and co-author of the Michelin Guide to the Battlefields of the Somme. For over an hour, the speakers regaled us with the lives of Australian Olympians and Great War soldiers. The presentations were bursting with anecdote and insight into the fascinating stories of the sporting and military journeys of these men of remarkable courage and tenacity.
We learnt about Cecil Healy (swimmer), Keith Heritage (rower) and Claude Ross (track and field athlete), three Australian champions who made the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefields of the First World War. All three were part of the Australian Olympic team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games. We also heard about other Australian Olympians – rugby players, wrestlers, climbers, tennis players – since almost 40 Australian athletes took part in the First World War. We learnt about how some of them continued to practice their sport during the conflict by organising various matches when they were in the rear and how some of them participated in the post-war Olympic Games: in Antwerp in 1920, Paris in 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928.
The First World War was a seminal moment for Australia and its people. Sixty-five thousand Australian soldiers died in the conflict, almost 10 per cent of the country’s total population. It was a defining moment in Australia’s identity as it was the first time the country had taken part in a global conflict, far from its shores, to defend its values as a nation.
If you would like to learn more about the history of these outstanding Olympians, you can find recordings of the conferences organised by the Sir John Monash Centre at the following links:
- Conférence en ligne – Les Olympiens australiens pendant la Première Guerre mondiale – YouTube (French version)
For further information, you can consult the Sir John Monash Centre’s website – https://sjmc.gov.au/
Photo credit: Sir John Monash Centre – Historians who led the conferences, Sylvestre Bresson (left) and Peter Smith (right).