PRIVATE ROBERT RICHARDSON TIDYMAN of the 19th Battalion was 24 years old when he joined the AIF on December 6, 1915. Earlier in the year he had played for a Metropolis XIII, a standout personal effort in a disappointing premiership year for his club that saw them finish fifth on the ladder, with just six wins from 14 games. In all, he’d played 30 top-grade matches for Easts since his debut in 1913, to go with his two Test caps.
A short man, but quick, thickset and strong in the hips, he had come into the Australian team for the second Test of 1914, one of six changes, and quickly announced himself to Test rugby league with a smothering tackle of Harold Wagstaff that saved a try. Straight after, he made a long run down the left wing after receiving a pass from five-eighth ‘Chook’ Fraser, beat three men and then cross-kicked for his captain, Sid Deane, who was tackled near the posts. The move thrilled the crowd, and though it didn’t lead to a try it set the mood for the game. ‘Tidyman is cut out for representative football,’ wrote one critic in his report. ‘The best Australian back,’ enthused another.
Fourteen years later, Harry Sunderland, one of rugby league’s most dynamic administrators, recalled the try that he believed generated the greatest enthusiasm he ever saw from an Australian crowd: ‘That was the touchdown which the late Bobby Tidyman and Chook Fraser effected for Australia on the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1914, when it enabled Australia to win against Wagstaff’s men in one Test by 12 to 7.’ In the main, the Australian selectors stuck with the old guard for this series, so young Tidyman’s exciting play was especially noteworthy. The third Test — known famously today as the ‘The Rorke’s Drift Test’ because of the way an undermanned British side refused to give ground — was fought out on a mud-patch that restricted opportunities for the two backlines, but The Referee noted that a Tidyman dash from one 25 to the other was ‘the trickiest and cleverest run by an Australian in the match’.
‘The advent of young ones of the type of H. Horder, R. Tidyman and W. Messenger indicates that the star players are still coming along,’ JC Davis wrote in The Referee at season’s end. Nothing that happened on the football field in 1915, not even a broken arm that cost Tidyman a number of weeks on the sideline and a slightly tentative return when he recovered, refuted that assessment. For the second year in a row, Easts came good after the premiership had been decided, and thrashed Glebe 22–3 in the City Cup final, with Davis noting that ‘R. Tidyman also played a fine game, getting into it more than usual.’
Bob Tidyman was one of the few players from the Australian Test team of 1914 with many years of top football ahead of him. Yet he was the first of them to die.
One cannot be sure what motivated him to enlist; the romantic would like to think that the hurt of leaving his parents, Robert and Elizabeth, and a flourishing football career was outweighed by the family ties that compelled him to follow his two younger brothers, William and Christopher, who were due to depart for the War in a fortnight’s time. He had been born in Townsville in North Queensland, but the family had moved south soon after, and were now living in working-class Woollahra. When Bob Tidyman enlisted, he was 19 days away from his last Christmas.
He left for Europe on April 9, 1916. On September 25 — six week after Easts won their third straight City Cup by defeating Glebe 18–15 in the final — he found himself in the ghastly mud-filled trenches of the Somme, a God-forsaken place where so many soldiers on both sides of the conflict perished. The battlegrounds stunk of death and disease, and by November there was a stigma about the place that had engulfed all sides: this was hell and there seemed no way out. One soldier described being up to his waist in slush as he manned the frontline, before adding: ‘The dead lay everywhere.’ The 19th Battalion, of whom Tidyman was now a member, had been involved in the appalling battles at Pozieres in July and August, and with their reinforcements they were now being asked to attack again at Flers, trying to win a semblance of advantage before the worst of the winter set in. An assault took place on November 5, for no gain and many casualties. A repeat was ordered for two days later, but an arctic tempest prevented that. There was a further postponement on November 9, but then on November 14, despite the cold and the bog, the infantry was sent over the parapets. Apparently, Bob Tidyman was the first man running, and with his pace he would have been among the first to the opposition trenches, too. Within 24 hours, he was gone.
The Australian Red Cross’ missing persons file for Tidyman provides conflicting reports of his death. For almost 12 months, he was listed as ‘missing’ rather than ‘killed’ in action, a distinction that appalled his parents — to be classified as ‘missing’ for so long carried a possible implication of desertion. The family wondered whether an incident in England, when he was charged with being late for a 6.30am parade and confined to camp for four days, might have worked against him. He would not be the last good footballer to be late for training. The most accepted version of his death was that his platoon had been surprisingly successful, though at great cost, and Tidyman was told to look after 50 prisoners while back-up was sought. He was never seen alive again. The presumption is that he was overpowered by the German captives.
However, there were other stories, which add to the mystery. One private from the 19th Battalion wrote, ‘I knew him well. He came from Sydney and used to play for the Eastern Suburbs FC. I saw him wounded on November 14th. This was on the Ancre-Thiepval side, I think. He was taken away by our own stretcher bearers and that is all I can say about him.’
Another, who was not an eyewitness: ‘I am certain Tidyman was taken prisoner at Flers, Nov. 15/16. It was known throughout the Battalion.’
A third version: ‘I knew Tidyman quite well — he was a great footballer. He was a short man, about 5ft 5in, about 26. He was wounded in Nov. at Flers, then he went to England, returning to France again, and I saw him at the base at Etaples in Jan. He was going back to the Batt.’
And a fourth: ‘I saw him on the 14th Nov. 1916. He was sent back with prisoners and that was the last I saw of him. He was a very popular chap and a champion football player in Sydney, New South Wales.’
Another informant claimed that he saw Tidyman fall. But he did not know what became of him afterwards, adding, ‘He was a great footballer, and a favourite with all.’
Private John Cleary, also from the 19th Battalion, a former plumber from Balmain whose mother lived at Darlinghurst and who’d sailed to Europe with Tidyman on the HMAT Nestor, seemed to offer the most succinct account: ‘Tidyman was in D Co. and he was killed at Flers on November 14th, after the stunt was over, while coming back with prisoners. I saw this myself.’
It may not have been exactly 50 prisoners, but it was definitely plenty — a dreadful ask for an inexperienced soldier in such a ghastly theatre of war. His body may well have been out there in the mud, but as with so many of his comrades there was no chance for a search or time for ceremony. The battle moved on.
A sequel to this tale of anguish came in the June 20, 1917, edition of The Referee, when the following story appeared:
Private R.B. Fitzpatrick of the 4th Battalion writes to Mr Claude Corbett, General Manager of the Sunday Times Newspaper Company, from France (14/4/17) as follows:
‘Noticing the remarks re Bob Tidyman, Eastern Suburbs footballer, in the Referee, dated January 3, it is with regret that I forward the following: two months ago, while going over some ground which had just been taken, I picked up an old Rugby Football League membership ticket, with the name R. Tidyman on it. Another man and myself then looked around a bit and we discovered the body of one of our boys, and lying around near him were some letters with the name R. Tidyman just discernable on the envelope. There was nothing else to help in identification, so we buried him and marked the spot. Unfortunately, censorship prevents the name of the place being given. Of course, we could not do much for the poor chap at the time, as we were under direct observation and fire of the enemy, but should I get down that way again I shall have a tablet erected. I thought, of course, it was poor old Bob, but was hoping against hope that I might be wrong, but knowing if he was at the front or not. If it were he, then his relatives and friends may know that he died ‘following on’ and forfeited his life for his country in one of those game rushes for which our boys are famous. I can quite understand that this will be hard news to bear for his relatives, for my own brother lost his life in somewhat similar circumstances.’
It was sad news, indeed. The writer of the letter was a rugby league referee in the lower grades, and his brother to whose death he refers was Lieutenant Fitzpatrick, the well-known Centennial Park cricketer and cricket official. Mr John Quinlan informs me that this news is not regarded as conclusive, inasmuch as Robert Tidyman did not possess a Rugby League ticket, as he did not need one. He thinks there is still hope. The ticket might have belonged to one of Tidyman’s brothers, two of whom are at the front, one having been wounded.
But there was no hope. When Private Fitzpatrick saw Johnny Quinlan’s response to his letter, he wrote again, to explain that the ticket was actually a NSW Leagues Club honorary membership ticket, ‘marked Mr R. Tidyman, member, H.R. Miller, secretary, available till October 21, 1915.’ Quinlan had thought he meant a season ticket, the kind that got holders into matches. Not that it mattered, for the War Office had finally confirmed his death. No one ever managed to give the dead footballer a proper burial, or to plant a cross or erect a tablet; there is no known grave, but his fate is recognised, with 11,000 other brave Aussies, at the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux.
It is almost quaint that Tidyman chose to carry a souvenir of his rugby league days into battle. And there is a certain trivial irony in an Australian player from the Rorke’s Drift Test being beaten in this much more important fight because he was outnumbered, and on a mudheap, too. But very seriously, with no evidence to the contrary, we can safely presume, as some of his comrades asserted, that Bob Tidyman died a hero’s death. Strangely, neither the NSW Rugby League nor the Eastern Suburbs club ever recognised his service in any significant way. It is a shame that his gallantry was never truly commemorated by the game he graced for far too short a time.