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The Great Fallen: Thomas McCluskey

Remembering Croft McKenzie The precious wartime diaries of former Carlton footballer Private Croft McKenzie have been made available to the club by his descendants, some 98 years after he first put pen to paper. (Narrated by Sam Docherty)
Private Thomas Miller McCluskey. (Photo: Supplied)
Private Thomas Miller McCluskey. (Photo: Supplied)

Described as ‘a redhead who did not know the meaning of fear’, Tom ‘Tammas’ McCluskey played VFL football for both Carlton and Fitzroy, with his fourth and last appearance for the Blues coming in the 1910 Grand Final loss to Collingwood.

Tom later joined Footscray in the VFA, and helped drive the Tricolours to a Premiership.

After volunteering for military service in World War 1, Tom was killed in action less than three weeks after joining his unit on the Western Front.

Tom was born into a large family of ten children in Nick Holman’s home town of Kyabram in northern Victoria. His father (Tom senior) farmed and ran a general store in nearby Mooroopna, where the McCluskey brood spent an idyllic childhood. Of proud Scottish stock, Tom senior imbued his six daughters and four sons with a strong work ethic. Combined with the national trait of stubborn determination, this gave all his children a solid foundation for a productive life.

Like most Victorian youngsters of his generation, Tom junior began playing football at state school. By his late teens he was working as a wool classer, and playing impressive senior football in Shepparton on Saturdays. Sometime in the summer of 1909-10, Tom, (whose family nickname of ‘Tammas’ would soon find wider usage), was invited to Princes Park by the Carlton Football Club.

He was forced to bide his time and sharpen his skills with Carlton Juniors at first, before being selected on one half-back flank in the Blues’ senior team to play Richmond, four days before his 20th birthday in August, 1910.

On a half-back flank, Tom was solid all match and held his place in the team for the last home and away match of the season (a surprise defeat by St Kilda at the Junction Oval).
Tammas McCluskey lined up on a half-back flank when Carlton and Collingwood met in the Grand final on the MCG before a crowd of almost 43,000 fans on Saturday, October 1, 1910.

The Grand Final erupted into open warfare after half time, as Carlton strove to peg back Collingwood’s early break. Fists and elbows were thrown like confetti as both teams went as hard at the man as the ball, but eventually Collingwood held on to win their third Premiership by 14 points. Four players – two from each side – were reported and given long suspensions.

That torrid match was Tammas’s last for the Blues. For reasons that remain unclear, he left Princes Park that same year and crossed to Fitzroy, where his five matches in 1911 were unremarkable. Only when he switched clubs a third time - to VFA heavyweights Footscray in 1912, did he step back into the football limelight.

Settling into centre half-back for the Tricolours, Tom quickly became one of the real stars of the competition. When Footscray beat North Melbourne by one point in the 1913 VFA Grand Final, he was hailed a western suburbs hero after his best on ground display. In 1914 he captained the club into the finals again, but the looming threat of war in Europe cast a pall over all festivities.

Tom enlisted with the Australian Imperial Forces at Royal Park in November, 1916. After basic training, he was allocated to the 7th Draft of reinforcements of the 3rd Division and sailed for England in February, 1917. More training followed, until September of that year when joined his battalion in time for another major attack by Commonwealth forces on October 4.

On the first day of that offensive, the Australians had gained ground and were consolidating their positions when German artillery launched a fierce barrage on their hard-won territory. Tom was standing in a shell hole with two other men when a shell landed right between them.

Nearby, Private J.B. Timms saw the explosion and ran to help. In a letter home afterward, he described what he saw; ‘Tom had been killed instantly. Smith was also dead. One chap was wounded and the other had escaped free except that he got a bit of a shaking up. I had a look at Tom and saw that a large piece of shell had gone right through his heart.’

Tammas McCluskey was buried by his mates in the shell crater where he died. They left a crude cross with his identity disc wired to it to mark his grave, before they resumed their advance under heavy fire the next morning.

Sadly, Tom’s remains were never recovered, because later heavy shelling totally destroyed the landscape.