By Andrew Parkinson
Peter George Coppock was like many young men from Newcastle at the outbreak of the first World War.
Coppock lived in Edward Street, Merewether with his wife, Anne. He worked as a barman and played football for Merewether Advance.
He enlisted in May 1916 and was just 23-years-old when he embarked with the 34th Battalion, 4th Reinforcement five months later on board the HMAT A30 Borda.
Coppock and his comrades headed for Europe and the Western Front. He was one of the lucky ones who would return home from the war. But while he was celebrated for acts of true bravery and heroism, it was the tragedy of his death following his return that makes his story unique.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has seen ANZAC Day commemorations cancelled this year, it is important to remember the significant contributions and sacrifices northern NSW footballers made to defend Australia throughout history.
Melbourne-based football historian Dr Ian Syson said there were about 650 footballers in the Newcastle region before World War I, with 500 enlisting in the armed forces.
Between 70 and 80 were killed.
“My database remains a work-in-progress but the figures I have show a number of clubs at the time were represented,” Dr Syson said.
“Adamstown had 56 players enlisted and between 10 and 12 killed. At Cessnock 33 enlisted of 54 players at the club and seven were killed.
“Dudley had five of their about a dozen players killed. Merewether were in the 70s [of players enlisting]. Neath had 18, West Wallsend 44, Weston 15.
“If you were a young man living in Adamstown, Merewether, Wallsend or West Wallsend back then you played soccer. It’s a really interesting thing and something that doesn’t apply to the rest of Australia at that time.
“It’s just what you did. Everywhere else in Australia it was strange to play soccer but in Newcastle it was normal.
“These young men showed some of the strongest commitment to enlisting in Australia. It was quite remarkable how many went from the Newcastle football community – including some of was the best players.
“The commitment to enlist was so overwhelming that around 80 per cent of players went off to war.”
A highly-rated representative midfielder, Coppock was also a decorated soldier. Starting out as a Private, Coppock earned the Military Medal. He was recommended for the honour in October, 1917 for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” at the Battle of Ypres.
A piece in the Commonwealth Gazette in June, 1918 said Coppock had showed “absolute fearlessness and disregard of danger” as a headquarters runner. Three times he took orders to the firing line through extremely heavy artillery and machine gun barrage.
Despite being buried twice and his companions being killed, Coppock delivered the messages and returned with valuable information. He worked for 48 hours without rest because of the heavy number of casualties among runners.
In August the following year Coppock was recommended for the Bar to the Military Medal during operations south of the Somme east of Hammel.
Now a Lance Corporal, Coppock was sent forward as part of a reconnaissance patrol to locate the extent of an advance, with a dense fog and heavy artillery bombardment from both sides rendering any observation on at attack on Accroche Wood impossible.
According to the Commonwealth Gazette, Coppock located the positions of his own Companies with the aid of a compass, then went forward through the wood and found the most advanced troops of the Brigade.
By that time the enemy had concentrated a heavy artillery bombardment on the area but, having obtained the information, Coppock was determined to deliver it despite the grave personal danger.
He managed to return and inform the Battalion Commander, the information of vital assistance to Brigade Headquarters. Coppock’s actions were said to have “greatly impressed” his comrades who considered it “impossible” for anyone to return through the wood under the heavy artillery bombardment.
It was in Europe that Coppock continued his love of football, organising a match between his 34th Battalion and a team of English soldiers.
According to an article in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate in February, 1918, Coppock had detailed the match in a letter sent to the Northern Association secretary, Mr WB Tamlyn.
The 34th Battalion lost the game 2-1, with the match played just behind the lines.
While the “Tommies” team remained undefeated, the 34th Battalion did themselves proud, with the team made up of players from a number of northern NSW clubs including Cessnock, West Wallsend, Adamstown, Merewether, Minmi and Teralba.
They would then go on to beat an English Army Unit side 3-2 later in the war.
Coppock arrived home from the war on Christmas Eve, 1918. He continued to play football but left Merewether to join Weston, where he also worked at the Hebburn Colliery.
It was at Weston that he was tragically killed just four years later after being struck by lightning.
The Newcastle Sun reported in September, 1922 that the 32-year-old Coppock was with 17 of his Weston teammates at the club’s Homestead ground, changing after a practice match.
“Coppock was a decorated soldier but he was a big soccer man and came back and resumed playing. He was a representative player for NSW and one of the best in the Newcastle region,” Syson said.
“He wasn’t living with his family at Adamstown at the time. He was living at Weston with someone from the club. He was killed along with another young man and a number of players were injured.
“The great tragedy of this guy is that he did all these great things in the armed forces, he was a really important figure in Newcastle football, and it was such an insane, farcical way to die. Essentially they were hiding in a shed from a storm after training.
“He was such a high quality player. We don’t know why he was living at Weston. Maybe there was no work for him in Adamstown after the war. Maybe someone at the club got him a job as a miner which is why he went to Weston. It was probably a multitude of reasons.”
Syson, who is writing a book on the history of the Weston club, said Newcastle had a special place in Australian football history.
“I’ve been researching the history of Newcastle football especially in relation to soccer soldiers and I love it,” he said.
“Soccer continued in Newcastle during the [First World] War but in a lesser form. A lot of juniors and young players were playing.
“Towards the end of the war football started to pick back up as people came back. By 1919 it had already kicked off again and in 1920 had become quite strong very quickly. In Melbourne at that time [football] isn’t even happening.
“So people are coming back and soccer is already in their blood. It’s their local game and they want to get back to playing again. It wasn’t a bunch of migrants like in Victoria but locals who are resuming something they did before the war.
“But of course a lot of them weren’t healthy when they returned. There was a great deal of tragedy. Lest we forget.”