Ahead of the Anzac Centenary, David Packman remembers his grandfather, Harcourt Dowsley – Aussie war veteran and heralded sportsman.
This Saturday marks the Anzac Centenary, signifying 100 years since Australia’s involvement in the First World War. It is a milestone of special significance to all Australians, in which we remember not only the original ANZACs who served at Gallipoli and the Western Front, but commemorate more than a century of service by Australian servicemen and women, including the more than 102,000 who made the supreme sacrifice.
Aside from the much-revered dawn service and Anzac Day parade, there is a traditional Australian Rules football match between arch rivals Collingwood and Essendon. Over 90,000 people will flock to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) to watch these two teams battle it out in the spirit of the Anzac in what is the largest AFL spectacle outside the Grand Final.
The game will open with the traditional Anzac Remembrance ceremony which includes a minute’s silence to honor the men and women lost while serving our country. It’s a deeply moving spectacle. My thoughts will turn to my grandfather, Harcourt Dowsley, who passed away just six months ago at the age of 95.
Born in 1919, “Harc” was a recognised Australian sportsman who played both cricket and Australian Rules football. However, his time spent at war – “the greater game” as he called it – is without doubt the more important honor.
Harc served in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during World War II. Commissioned as a pilot officer and assigned to Catalina flying-boats, he and his eight-man crew spent four years battling heavily-armed Japanese fighters, anti-aircraft fire, tropical storms and fatigue during countless missions over the Pacific.
Despite what I have learned on the subject, I cannot begin to fathom what it must have been like to experience war on that scale – on any scale. My grandfather lost many friends, and was confronted by his own mortality on an all-too-regular basis.
Like many, he never opened up about his experiences until much later in life, when a story or two began to surface. Perhaps as one approaches the end-phase there is an innate need to share, whether it’s by way of catharsis or simply to transfer knowledge to the next generation.
On the sporting field, many of Harc’s early ambitions were also achieved under the spectre of war.
By 1940, he had already volunteered for the RAAF but sheer weight of numbers meant he had to join the Army Reserve as he waited for a place to become available. Meanwhile, he continued to follow his passion for sport.
In mid-1941, Harc played football for then VFL club Carlton in an exhibition match to raise funds for the war effort. In front of 70,000 people at the MCG, he performed admirably.
Shortly afterwards, he made his debut in the regular home-and-away season. He discussed his feelings ahead of that game in a 2009 interview with Blueseum, Carlton’s online archive.
“At the age of six or seven, I had decided that the two things I wanted most in my life were to play first class cricket, and to play League football. I had already volunteered to join the Air Force and I didn’t know what the future held – but at least I was about to achieve one of my main ambitions.”
As it turned out, Harc played just two more games for Carlton before being called up by the RAAF.
“I don’t know whether to congratulate you or not,” Carlton coach, Percy Bentley, said to him at the time. Harc replied, “You should congratulate me, because I want to fly, but I also want to play football.”
“Well, son,” Bentley said, “you’ve got one more game on us before you go.”
Harc played his third and final game for Carlton that weekend before reporting for duty.
In a three-week stint at League level, he had kicked a very respectable total of seven goals with Carlton victorious on each occasion.
Interestingly, after the war ended, my grandfather chose not to return to football, even though he continued to ply his trade on the cricket pitch, finishing his first-class career for Victoria with 336 runs at 56.00, including three half centuries.
By then he had married my grandmother, Peggy, while on leave in 1943, and my mother had already been born to them by the time he was discharged in 1946.
He even resisted a letter from Carlton, waiting for him on his arrival home, and inviting him to resume his career.
Harc told Blueseum he thought deeply about it “but my circumstances had changed and I was a different person.” I’m certain his experiences in the Pacific southwest had also changed his overall perspective on sport. One of his mates, Australian cricket legend and RAAF comrade, Keith Miller, famously put it like this: “Pressure is a Messerschmidt up your arse, playing cricket is not.”
In some respects, Harc represents the full Australian package – war veteran and heralded sportsman. When I arrive at the MCG ahead of the game on Saturday, I will think of him out on the ground, playing the two sports he loves. The young boy in me will revel in seeing his image looking back at me from various vintage photographs adorning the walls of the MCG Members Reserve.
However, I will be much more proud of the photographs I have seen of him in his RAAF uniform – even if it did mean cutting short his career at Carlton and foregoing a potential “baggy green”.
Lest we forget.
Photo Credit: AP/File
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