IT WASN'T until 2012 and the release of the author and historian Ross McMullin’s touching tome “Farewell, Dear People” that Levi Casboult first learned of his links with Sgt George David Challis.
McMullin, in his meticulous research of Challis’ life for his 600-page multi-biography, had uncovered a connection between Casboult and the former - a 70-game Carlton Premiership wingman who hailed from Cleveland in Tasmania’s Northern Midlands.
Challis, you see, was the eldest of eight siblings, one of whom was a brother Archie Challis. Archie’s daughter Roberta married Graeme Casboult in 1953, and Graeme’s first cousin Lance Casboult, himself a Vietnam veteran, was Levi’s grandfather.
“I only really became aware of the link to George Challis a few years ago through the book. It was very interesting to learn that he left home at a young age and even through his football career he seemed to want to go to war,” Levi said this week.
“I was a Carlton supporter growing up and unbeknown to me I also had this connection with a Carlton Premiership player who later died at war. “
Sgt Challis was just 25 when he lost his life on the battlefields of France. That happened on July 15, 1916.
Ten months earlier, he was lauded as a hero of Carlton’s 1915 Grand Final triumph over Collingwood. That game would serve as his last League appearance, and at 24, and just 70 senior appearances into his career, he was yet to reach his prime in life let alone football.
On setting sail aboard a troop ship soon afterwards, Sgt Challis joined the 58th Battalion. In Egypt, and on the strength of a few months training, he was conveyed to France with his unit.
Sgt Challis and his battalion made their way to the front line near the village of Fromelles through the night of July 10-11, 1916. Four days later, the Australians were subjected to severe German bombardment, and young George was blown to pieces.
In the lead-up to the 17th Round match with West Coast in 2016, on what would have been the 100th anniversary of the soldier’s untimely passing, Casboult had planned to wear a black armband to honour George’s memory.
Regrettably that noble intention was thwarted when a striking charge laid against the high-marking forward in the previous round cost him a week at the Tribunal.
But Levi keeps a place close to his heart for Sgt Challis – and indeed his grandfather and great grandfather who also served in wartime, but made it home.
“It was very interesting to learn where George Challis came from. Cleveland is a classic Australian town on the Midlands Highway in Tasmania and save for a pub there’s not much there – blink and you miss it.
“I often drove through having never had any idea of the connection, but next time I’m in the area I’ll have to stop because now I have a reason.”
Casboult was also taken by Sgt Challis’s generosity of spirit and depth of passion for supporting his country – and with the passing of time he has a greater understanding of the supreme sacrifices made by those of the soldier’s ilk.
“George didn’t make it back, but my grandfather and great grandfather did. My great grandfather was gone before I was alive, but I know he was held in a camp and he later suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
“As I get older I reflect a lot more on those who came before, and how big a deal it was to drop everything and head off to help the war effort, particularly in times when it didn’t seem that Australia was under direct major threat, with the exception of Japan in the Second World War.”
The following is an edited version of the story, as told by Ross McMullin, of George David Challis’ brief existence but enduring legacy.
I wanted to write about George Challis for a number of reasons — chiefly, because he was a brilliant player for Carlton (and I’ve barracked for Carlton for half a century), and also because he fitted my definition of Australia’s lost generation of World War I.
Farewell, Dear People retrieves the long-forgotten stories of ten exceptional Australians whose deaths during the war were not only a devastating loss for their families, but also — because they were so special — to the nation. George is one of the ten. I wanted a spread of backgrounds, so the fact that he came from Tasmania and from a non-affluent family drew me to his story as well as his on-field deeds for Carlton.
George was intelligent, widely admired and very popular. It wasn’t just that he was a brilliant player with dazzling skill and pace, and (unusual for the times) superb disposal — it was also the way he played the game. It was said that George always had a smile on his face. He was keen, he wanted to succeed and he wanted to win, but the crowd could tell George enjoyed what he was doing. He was known as “Cheerful Challis” and “Genial George”.
Outside footy, George was very able scholastically. He won a scholarship that took him from the tiny Tasmanian hamlet of Cleveland, where he was born and raised, to Launceston where he went to secondary school. So impressed was the school’s headmaster with George’s academic prowess that he took George on as a teacher, and George was teaching at the time he made for the mainland across Bass Strait en route to Princes Park.
In Melbourne George took up work as an audit clerk with the Railways. As an example of the wide-ranging interests he developed, he also became an enthusiast of the Esperanto Society. This international language was probably not something your average VFL player was into, but it was reported in the papers of the day that he was an activist with the society in Melbourne.
George had a number of siblings whose descendants are still in Tasmania, and I gleaned whatever I could from them. Regrettably there was very little written material from George’s own hand, whereas for most of the other biographies in the book such letters were available.
Thankfully, reports of the matches George played for Carlton yielded plenty of material. I read a lot of the newspapers and specialist publications of the day such as Winner, Sport and the Football Record. This enabled me to include in my biography of George heaps of new information about him while also covering in detail Carlton’s rich history during the years he played for the club.
George was recruited to Carlton after the 1911 interstate carnival, when he represented Tasmania and won a medal for his state’s best player. The Carlton talent scouts clearly liked what they saw.
The VFL was a big step up, and George started slowly at Carlton in 1912. But he gradually got into his stride, and became a brilliant performer in a succession of games for his new club — the high point being when the team met Essendon on the 13th of July of that year.
To quote from what I wrote on page 191 of the book:
“Carlton had an army of fervent and fanatical followers. They had become accustomed to success, and demanded more of it. An observer of Carlton’s vociferous barrackers wrote in 1912 that they articulated their advocacy ‘in a voice like that of the man who has swallowed the claw of his crayfish in the boozers’ express at midnight’. Their boisterous intensity when Challis dazzled Essendon and exhilarated his new admirers was ‘extraordinary’, according to an eyewitness in the crowd on that memorable afternoon. Some of them had been wondering not so long before whether the Tasmanian should be in the side. Now, though, they were ecstatic about Challis, captivated by his pace and grace.”
Here’s what the Essendon coach, Jack Worrall (the former Carlton premiership coach), wrote about George’s play that day:
“Challis was the best performer on the ground, excelling in every department, the ease and grace of his movements exciting universal admiration. He was the fastest man on the ground, and his beautiful, accurate passing while going at his top was marvellous.”
Injury unfortunately cost George a place in Carlton’s 1914 premiership team, but he overcame that setback and was considered amongst his team’s best players afield in the 1915 Grand Final victory. If the Norm Smith Medal had been awarded back then, it might well have gone to him.
It was on July 15, 1916, not long after his unit entered the forward trenches in France, that George Challis was killed.
His death occurred in the lead-up to the notorious battle of Fromelles, the worst 24 hours in Australian history, when there were 5,533 Australian casualties in one night. That battle actually started on the 19th, but four days earlier the Germans launched a major raid supported by a severe bombardment, which caused 160 casualties in the 58th Battalion . . . amongst them George, who was blown to bits by a direct hit.
George was very much a battalion favourite — so much so that his many admirers decided to gather what was left of him to get him properly buried . . . and they collected his remains in a blanket. He was buried nearby, in the cemetery at Rue Petillon.
News of the death of an officer standing next to George was reported in Australia some weeks before George’s own death was confirmed. Remarkably, the news of the death of the man who’d excelled for Carlton in the 1915 Grand Final surfaced just a few days before the 1916 Grand Final — and is why the Carlton players ran out wearing black armbands in acknowledging their mate who’d dominated the play in the preceding year with them.
The news of George’s fate caused widespread sadness in both Launceston and Melbourne, together with his birthplace in Cleveland where his family still lived. As the Adelaide Advertiser reported, “Expressions of regret were heard yesterday all over Melbourne when it became known that George Challis had fallen in France”.
George’s parents Charlie and Margaret were invited to choose an inscription for their boy’s grave. In response, they provided the following epitaph: “Tho’ death divides, fond memory clings”.
Charlie and Margaret never visited George’s final resting place, but their son’s epitaph remained forever in their thoughts after the government supplied them with graveside photographs.
A memorial stone for George was also erected in Cleveland cemetery, and at the little nearby church there’s a memorial to him. If you peer through the window you can see his name there, at the top of the Honour Roll for Cleveland’s war dead.
But remembrance of George Challis extended beyond headstones and honour boards. He was fondly recalled extraordinarily often by nostalgic Tasmanians and frustrated Carltonians who lamented his absence as they ruefully looked back to the good old days.
It’s very sad that individuals of such calibre as George were lost and were denied the opportunity to lead full and fulfilling lives, which would have enriched the nation immensely.
But it’s worse still if we forget them.