Wesley College Athletic Team 1914
Peter Stanley takes a closer look at photographs from the library's Pictures Collection that reflect life during the First World War
1 December 2014
This post was originally writen for the regular feature In the Frame in The National Library of Australia Magazine
They sit before Adamson Hall (built by, and named after, Wesley College’s eminent headmaster, Lawrence Adamson), sure of their prowess with javelin and spiked shoe: the athletics team of the Melbourne private school. With their coach, Harry Kaighin, they look out from a photograph in the last months before a world war overwhelmed them.
A century on, knowing of the cost of the Great War in general, and the price paid by private-school boys in particular, we imagine their fates: Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele. Before we have finished scanning the rows we have imagined epics of enlistment, sacrifice, grief and mourning: a representative story of Australia and the First World War.
When we examine their names, however, the story becomes more complex. Certainly the private schools of Australia, imbued with imperial and national pride, did their patriotic duty without having to be convinced or compelled. Wesley was no exception. A thousand Wesley boys volunteered for the forces of Australia or Britain, some of them sneaking off between classes to enlist (admonished half-heartedly by the proud, envious Adamson). Of them, 148 were killed, their deaths announced by Adamson at assemblies and commemorated on plaques and panels all over the school. Among them, we might expect to find members of the athletics team of 1914.
Indeed, two-thirds of these school athletes volunteered—twice the proportion of the eligible male population as a whole—as did Mr Kaighin (who, in the photograph, stands in the centre of the back row), a lieutenant in the Pay Corps. Of those who served, only one died: Eric Grant (middle row, second from the right), in a training accident with the Australian Flying Corps in Britain in 1918. (Intriguingly, about one in seven Wesley boys died at war, many fewer than we might expect—the proportion in Australia as a whole was one in five.)
The careers of the 12 who served can be traced through the voluminous military records Australia has created and preserved. School magazines and histories also detailed their service and sacrifice.
What of the six who did not enlist? What is their story? Why did they not follow their teammates’ example? The sources are silent on this point, reflecting the embarrassment, and even shame, that their decisions were likely to have brought. They were not alone: another Wesley old boy, Robert Menzies, joined the Militia but remained at home, obedient to a family decision.
The Wesley boys—both those who went and those who stayed—appear now as heroic victims of imperial and national obligation and the expectations of manliness.