Remembering Rugby League Pioneer & Rabbitoh John ‘Johnno’ Stuntz

Rugby League Pioneer, fireman, and solider, Private John ‘Johnno’ Stuntz was no stranger to conflict, in fact his life was punctuated by it. It was that fervour that brought him to Rugby League, that saw him risk his life as a first class fireman, and saw him lose his life in a trench in WWI.

John “Johnno” Stuntz was born on the 27th of June 1885 in Marrickville, and spent his early years carving a reputation as a Rugby Union player. However he was destined to be one of the first to follow the great Dally Messenger from the established Rugby Union to the breakaway professional ‘Northern Union’ Rugby League code in 1907.

Those who signed with the breakaway competition risked much, with loss of friendships, careers and ultimately ostracism, all the order of the day. Stuntz, by now considered a traitor, was one of the first on the Rugby Union’s black-list of players who had joined the rebel code.

In August of 1907, Stuntz played alongside Dally Messenger in the series against the visiting New Zealand ‘All Golds’ at the Sydney Showground – a series that would lay the platform for Rugby League in Australia. The winger would go on to join Easts for the Foundation year of 1908 before joining Souths in 1911 where he played six games in the Red and Green, scoring one try. He also played a season for Western Suburbs.

Stuntz did not however just play football. Before marrying his wife Celia, he joined the NSW Fire Brigade on the 22 January 1912 at Headquarters FS (now City of Sydney No 1 station)”  as a 4th Class Fireman.His rise through the ranks was swift and by the 16th April 1912 he had moved to Kogarah Station. He was promoted to 1st Class Fireman in June 1914.

With war clouds looming, Stuntz continued to play football and fight fires, but on the 10th of March 1916, at the age of 30, Stuntz resigned his position in the Fire Brigade and enlisted in the Army on the 17th of the same mouth before sailing to Plymouth on the 22nd August 1916 aboard the HMAT Wiltshire.

Now ‘Private’ John Stuntz, the Rugby League Pioneer was destined to play a role in the Second Battle of Bullecourt.

The occasion is remembered as being a maturation point from a military perspective for Australia. Tom Iggulden, in his book Second Battle of Bullecourt Remembered, wrote:

If the Anzac spirit was born on the beaches of Gallipoli, it matured on the Western front. Where Gallipoli proved the bravery of the Anzac's rank and file troops, in northern France it was Australia's military leadership that asserted itself for the first time. For years misguided military folly by British commanders had recklessly thrown away Australian lives. But by the end of the war, the diggers were recognised as not only some of the allies' toughest troops, but also some of the best led.

In the early hours of the 3rd May 1917, Australian forces were led into position under the guise of night for an attacking raid on the Hindenburg Line. By 3:00am, the battle was well under way.

Among the men was Stuntz, serving in the 17th Battalion and by 4:16am, CEW Bean says that solid advancements were being made, however “on the nearing of the wire. . . the 4th Brigade, numbers of whose dead were still hanging in the entanglement – came under strong machine gun fire. . .The New South Welshmen had to wait in shell holes for the moment of attacking it and this halt was fatal.”

It is during this time, that Private John ‘Johnno’ Stuntz, was killed in action by either machine gun fire or a shell near the German wire – his career as a soldier limited to one battle.

Bullecourt took the lives of 2,250 Australian soldiers during two weeks of bitter trench fighting, and Stuntz’s death is one of nearly 11,000 commemorated at the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux.