Wallaby Warrior - Tom Richards
Shells: Tom Richards on the Western Front
Greg Growden
May 22, 2013
Tom Richards
Tom Richards' diaries provide a revealing and personal account of the Great War © Unknown

Thomas James Richards wrote one of the most amazing rugby stories in history, the New South Welshman being the only Australian-born player in history to play for Australia and the British Lions; hence the Wallabies and the Lions play once every 12 years for the Tom Richards Trophy. Richards also won an Olympic gold medal for rugby at the 1908 Games in London, after which the Times in London pronounced: "If ever the Earth had to select a Rugby Football team to play against Mars, Tom Richards would be the first player chosen."

Rugby, however, was but one part - albeit a major part - of his remarkable life: Richards, known as "Rusty", also was a wanderer who introduced surfing to France, and who felt "expanding one's horizons to be more important than money". He expanded his own horizons in part by serving in World War I, from Gallipoli to the Western Front, where he received a Military Cross.

ESPNscrum correspondent Greg Growden wrote Richards' biography - Gold, Mud 'n' Guts: The incredible Tom Richards, footballer, war hero - and recently edited Richards' war diaries. Those diaries, in which Richards revealed a revealing and personal account of the Great War, are now published in Wallaby Warrior.

Read below an extract of Wallaby Warrior, in which Richards describes his service on the Western Front in 1916, when he found more than a little time to play rugby, and enter our exclusive competition to one of 10 copies of the book signed by Greg Growden.

Shells and Sport, 1916

May 1: Yesterday I heard that the Germans sent across information that General Townshend had suffered at Kut and today our paper verifies it. General Townshend's failure to hold out comes as a foregone conclusion to me. I have predicted it right along. The Turks seem to have right from the commencement laid a trap for this British expedition and Townshend walked into it like a possum into a snare. I have but little sympathy for a soldier who belittles and understands his foe so woefully. And if General Nixon is lucky enough to get himself out of this hole, what on earth they sent him along there for with only half of a relief force beats me. Poor, damn fool English.

May 3: This afternoon I obtained a pass for Estaires. I heard that Capt Johnnie Williams, the Cardiff wing three quarter was about--I called on his men, he was absent, but the five Welsh officers compelled me to sit down and wait for his coming, and at the same time produced wine, whisky, cigarettes and Perrier. They were not long in finding out my name and my footer performances and a cheery welcome followed right through until I left at 9.20pm. The conversation drifted all over the world and in all topics, mostly more or less interesting to all hands. Football was not much dwelt upon as Williams has retired and Welsh football having gone back so much of late years. I had but little to say as Australian rugby is professionalised and dead. My pass was only to be out until 8pm and it was 9.20pm when I left the mess. The night was rather dark, but to prevent unnecessary risks in meeting the military police, I had to turn in and follow a rough track along the River bank to avoid going through the village of Estaires. It was dark and lonely with a picket every now and then shouting: 'Halt, who goes there?' It was easy to pass them. I usually swore at them and one at least apologised for interfering. I got home safely but the flare shells and roar of bombs, cannons, rifle and machine guns was thick and continuous.

"Oh well, there's not much difference, only when the Australian is sober, he's better than the Englishman, but when he is drunk he's awful"

May 5: One hears strange stories of spies and their systems of work every day. No doubt there is a whole lot of German sympathy amongst the people living around here in the villages and right up to the firing line. But at the same time, they can't give any information to the enemy. As far as I can see there is no information to give. Movements of troops and that sort of thing is done in such small parties that if I wanted to give the Germans information that would be reliable or of value, it would be hard because nobody knows what is going on.

We came on up to Laventie and stopped at an estaminet for a while; the girls are clever and attractive, but lacking in English. A group of Maoris took charge of the place and were breaking their hospitable necks to shout for all hands and particularly the Australians. Drummond would only drink coffee and several of the men looked at him in dismay, saying: 'the only bloody Kangaroo I've ever seen that wouldn't drink beer.'

May 6: An artillery man told me today that a corporal of their battery was tampering with an unexploded shell when it went off and blew his head away. This makes a whole lot of such careless incidents that have come to hand of late.

May 7: It is fairly cold today and trying jolly hard to rain, but as the Maori were playing a team from the Welsh engineers this afternoon, I had to go over to Laventie and see it. The Maoris were in the field waiting quite a long time for the Welshmen. While they were waiting the Colonials looked physical giants compared to the lean and wiry Welsh. There were other features in the appearance of the two teams that bothered me quite a while--the great self-possession and confidence of the Maoris, also their straight built bodies and big limbs; while their opponents seemed stage frightened and their awkwardly put together forms bent with hard work and cramped by confinement at the workshop benches.

The contrast was very marked indeed. The more notice I took of it the greater and greater was my love of the Colonial and my mind refreshed as to the difference in appearance of African and English athletes as they stood facing one another in both South Africa and in England. Also the Australians when they faced the Englishmen and Welshmen in 1908. The Englishman, though, always stands up better and finer than the Welshman, but the Colonial is vastly superior to any of them.

Competition: Win one of 10 copies of Wallaby Warrior by Greg Growden.

© Allen & Unwin

The ground was short, narrow and uneven. I did not expect to see much decent football, there being no room to move about on, but I certainly expected to see the Maoris be winners by at least 20 points. My prediction was wrong as the game ended five-all. I should have been more careful in underrating the Welshmen as I have always a great regard for their football powers: they stick a game right out to the very end. Of course, the smallness of the playing area prevented large scoring. In fact, one hardly understands how any scoring took place on so small a ground.

May 10: Chaplain McKenzie was at our billet giving out letters, mostly from schoolgirls, for 'lonely soldiers' and he denounced all Australians for being swell headed and small minded. May 13: I was told only a few days ago by O'Sullivan that I was a damn fool to take the war and the doings of our fool Government so much to heart. It is making an old and serious man of me. He said: 'They are treating the whole thing at home as if it were a huge burlesque, so why do you not join it and treat the whole thing in a like manner?' Laugh, he said, and b-- the world!! This I believe is the correct manner, but then, no sooner do I adopt the lighter frame of mind than in comes a rush of wounded and dying men, men as brave as anything that ever breathed the breath of life. This brings back the murder on Gallipoli. Men lying on stretchers aboard a tramp ship en route for Alexandria went green and rotten for want of medical attention, and had to be cut away from the stretcher. 650 patients with two medical men and a dozen orderlies to attend them left Anzac on one ship. From Cape Helles came similar reports, so can you dear reader think hard of me, or think for a moment that I don't know what I say, when I condemn the British Government (not the British nation) for their terrible crimes? I must, however, treat the whole sordid thing in a lighter vein and would also too, but for the loss of blood and valuable lives that goes on around me.

May 23: Bill and I went down to the estaminet where the school teacher and several other fine girls hold out. They all had a drink with us while the room full of Tommies sang very pleasantly. These women were indeed glad to see us. There was no mistaking their good feeling and kindly interest. I promised to call back one day and have a chat with them when they were not so busy. It was pleasing to see the way the people of this village recognised we were Australians and looked after us with an expression on their faces that seemed to say they were glad to see us and would be pleased if we came back again. I asked the school teacher how the Australian fellows compared with the Tommy for behaviour. She replied: 'Oh well, there's not much difference, only when the Australian is sober, he's better than the Englishman, but when he is drunk he's awful.'

Wallaby Warrior by Greg Growden is published by Allen & Unwin

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