There can be few people educated in Australia who don’t have a vague memory of hearing about a cricket match that happened during the Gallipoli campaign of World War I. It’s one of those stories that finds its way into many classes covering Australian history.
Some will remember the details: it was a distraction, a ruse to persuade the Turks that life was carrying on as normal in the ANZAC camp after seven months of protracted, futile battles. But in fact, the troops were preparing to evacuate. As for that match at Shell Green, the only relatively flat piece of land in the camp, it ended pretty quickly when the Turkish shells started. But not before serving its purpose, and becoming part of Australian folklore.
Today cricket is still playing a role in modern conflicts, as attested by the stories shared in a recently opened exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. The Soldiers’ XI: humour, humanity and psychology of modern combat is a revealing glimpse into the life of Sergeant H, and his experiences during a series of deployments to Afghanistan, Timor and Iraq between 2000 and 2012.
A keen cricketer, Sergeant H made sure he had a bat and ball with him at all times, and the games they enabled served “to maintain team resilience, to build rapport with local people and other combatants, and to de-stress after the rigours of operations”.
The exhibition is focused around eleven cricket bats, representing different deployments. Each is accompanied by the stories connected with the bat, and images to illustrate the landscapes in which he served, and where games were played. The signatures of his fellow soldiers, as well as visiting dignitaries and politicians, adorn each bat. One of the most striking things about the bats is the number of names that are crossed out – these are the soldiers who are still in active duty, and whose identities must be protected.
This highlights the currency of the stories shared with us, something that is unusual in comparison with the other exhibitions on display at the Shrine. And those stories are compelling and eye opening: how cricket in Afghanistan during 2009-10 helped to build relationships between the soldiers and local civilians, children and even Afghani security forces, illustrating “the power of the cricket bat to build rapport and facilitate freedom of movement”; one bat featured in a game the night before a fellow soldier was killed, with the game immortalised and shared with us via a photo taken by that fallen soldier; and in Timor Leste in 2006 “during a mission to engage with Alfredo Reinado in his mountain hideout”, Reinado himself would join the cricket games, which were often followed by “drinking wine and smoking on the veranda of his Portuguese manor in the highlands, discussing world politics and family”.
Modern combat, then, is indeed a long way removed from the more commonly studied and shared battles of World Wars I and II. In an introductory panel to the exhibition, Sergeant H sums up for us the contradictions and surprises we may encounter:
“My odd collection of cricket bats is a manifestation, not so much of courage and combat, but of the fear, humour and humanity of modern warfare – situations and environments the like of which many will never imagine, let alone experience. Cricket provides a lens through which we can examine the psychology of it all. The insanity and tragedy, interspersed with the sublime and dark comedy. Cricket, and these bats, have provided a material anchor point for what has truly been a surreal journey.”
The exhibition seeks also to highlight how transition back into everyday life in Australia can be difficult, by raising awareness of both the nature of modern service and soldiers’ initiatives like the Wanderers Educational Program that assist with that transition.
At the end of the day, says Sergeant H, it is more than the soldier who is affected. In large bold font above one of the final display panels, he tells us:
“The greatest challenge of our service is not to come out the other end with our bodies, minds and souls intact; rather, it is to reach the other end with our families intact.”
The Soldiers’ XI exhibition is on display at the Shrine of Remembrance until 1 April 2018, and is highly recommended.