The Belgian Narrative. Part 1: to the end of September 1914

This is the first in a series of posts that looks at the development and dissemination of the narrative of events in Belgium through August and September 1914. Later posts will look closely at the impact of the narrative on the local community of Alberton Shire, in Gippsland.

When war commenced there was a desperate need for news. Some sense of the desperation is evident in this account taken from The Argus of 7 August 1914 (p.6). It describes the scene in Collins Street, Melbourne on the night of Thursday 6 August. The previous night – the day on which news of the British declaration of war had reached Australia – there had been ‘rowdyism’ and riots in the streets of Melbourne as people’s emotions had run out of control. As a consequence, on this night – 6 August – the police were out in force.

For a long time it looked as if they [the police] were going to have the street [Collins Street] to themselves. Suddenly a board appeared on the front of The Argus office bearing the news of the German repulse in Belgium. As if by magic a seething crowd sprang from nowhere, and in five minutes’ time Collins street was packed from kerb to kerb with a surging throng thirsting for news.

As desperate as people were for news of what was happening in Britain and Europe, the actual flow of news from that part of the world was drying up. Censorship had been introduced even before the formal declaration of war. Printed in The Argus on Wednesday 5 August (p.10), the official notice from E D Millen, Minister of State for Defence, declared that 2 days earlier, on 3 August … censorship of all cable and wireless telegraph communications throughout the Commonwealth had come into effect. In the same edition, the editor of The Argus (p.9) noted:

The strictest censorship of all cable messages, both press and private, received in and sent from the Commonwealth was exercised by the Military Authorities throughout yesterday.
This fact, taken in conjunction with others, indicates that Great Britain has become so seriously involved in the great European conflict that war with Germany, if it has not already broken out, certainly appears to be inevitable.
The establishment of censorship explains the comparative brevity of our cable messages in this edition. A considerable number of our telegrams from England have been detained by the Censor.

In addition to the limits imposed by censorship, the reality was that the military situation in Europe over the period August – September 1914, was hard to track and comprehend. Even if there had been no censorship it would have been difficult for news agencies to report accurately on what was happening. The period from early August to the aftermath of the Battle of the Marne saw massive troop movements as the armies of Germany and France, supported by the BEF and Belgian forces, attempted a rolling series of flanking and envelopment manoeuvres across vast areas. Even today, with all the history written on this period, there is still ongoing debate over interpretations of what happened. The sheer scale – and horror – of the military conflict that convulsed western Europe in the first 2-3 months of WW1, is evident in figures taken from Strachan (Chapt 3). He gives French casualties (dead, wounded, missing) to 10 September, after one month of war, as 385,00 and notes that by the end of 1914 France had lost 265,000 dead. The twenty-second of August 1914 saw the highest level of French casualties in a single day for the whole of WW1 – 27,000 dead. The equivalent figure for total German casualties to 9 September was 265,000. Casualties for the British Expeditionary Force to the end of November were 89,964 and by the same point the Belgian armed forces had been reduced by half. Casualties at these levels were unsustainable, for any army.

Strachan’s account demonstrates the size and complexity of the military operations in the first few months of the fighting. It highlights that even those directly involved – including the field and overall commanders – were often unsure of what was unfolding. Occasional news despatches, from one or other battlefield, were therefore always going to be of doubtful value, assuming in the first place that they were even passed by the censors. Impartial, accurate, meaningful and timely news was a seriously limited commodity.

It was against this background of confusion and censorship that the narrative of events that unfolded in Belgium became so powerful over the first few months of WW1. It dominated news services in the Empire and came to define the purpose and nature of the War. It was an unfolding news story with simple characterisation and plot, and it was set within the context of high principles and moral absolutes.

The narrative commenced with the declaration of war. Britain’s obligation to guarantee Belgian neutrality was presented as the pre-eminent reason for the declaration. In the edition of The Argus of 5 August (p.9) Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, was reported thus:

It has been said that we might stand aside and husband our resources, and intervene in the end to put things right, but if we ran away from our obligations of honour and interest regarding the Belgian treaty, I doubt whether any material forces would be of much value, in face of the respect that we should have lost.

Against this principled position, Germany was the blatant aggressor, prepared to invade Belgium if its ultimatum for free movement of its troops through the country was not immediately met. The developing themes in the basic narrative were simple: Germany was the aggressor; Belgium was the victim facing overwhelming Germany forces; and Britain was the reluctant but principled major power that was forced to intervene.

Once the German assault on Belgium began, another key theme was added to the narrative: Belgian heroism. Belgium’s refusal to accede to German demands and its willingness to mount uncompromising and deadly resistance to the vastly superior invading forces cast it immediately as the heroic small nation. Headlines in The Argus on 6 August (p.7) declared: Germans in Belgium. Neutrality Violated and “We Will Not Submit.” Belgians’ Cry “To Arms.” The next day, 7 August (p.7) the paper was full of stories of how the heroic Belgians had stopped the German advance. The headlines proclaimed: German Reverse. Enormous Losses Sustained. Victory for Belgians and the report claimed: The Belgian War Office announces that the German invading army has been repulsed near Liege with enormous losses. … The heroism of the Belgians is described as “superb.”

There were other reports quoted in the same edition that claimed, “The general situation in Belgium is excellent.”

The reality was that the situation in Belgium was anything but excellent and by 11 August, readers in Australia should have picked up that the plight of Belgium was dire. The headlines in The Argus that day, Germans Outside Liege and Forts Held By Belgium, were supported by claims from Brussels that the Belgians continued to hold the forts. However, the same article also reported the German version: “We hold Liege fast in our hands. The losses of the enemy are considerable.” The German forces first broke the Belgian line at Liege on 7 August but it was not until 16 August that the siege of Liege was over. It had taken the German Army far longer than the scheduled 2 days; and the siege had highlighted the heroic – but doomed – struggle of the Belgian resistance.

The next theme in the Belgian Narrative – German atrocities – also seems to have first appeared in Australian papers at this point round 11 August. The same edition of The Argus featured accounts of the punishment handed out to the civilian population when it resisted the German forces. At this point, the German reprisals were set within some sort of context. It was not random violence. For example, under the headline Prisoners in Firing Line (p.7) there was an account of how

the Germans were fired at from windows by numbers of the inhabitants of Liege. They were all caught instantly and shot. The Germans hold the Governor of the province of Liege (Lieut-General Heimburger) and the Bishop of Liege as a hostage, and threaten them with death if the forts continue to fire. A number of railway men and 25 others were accused of firing at Germans and driven at the point of the bayonet into the firing line before the forts. Three of them were killed, and the rest, pretending that they were dead, fell and lay on the ground.

There are other reports in the same edition of how the Germans threatened severe reprisals if their troops were fired on.

Reporting that continued to acknowledge the context for German reprisals in Belgium lasted for another couple of weeks. For example, in The Argus on 24 August (p.9), under the headline Germans Fire on Civilians, readers were informed:

The position of civilians in Liege is critical. The “Daily News” correspondent at Rotterdam states that shots were fired by the troops from a house. On Thursday the Germans bombarded 20 houses, killing many inhabitants. … The “Daily Chronicle’s” Amsterdam correspondent says that the situation of the citizens of Liege is very unfavourable. A shot was fired from a house on Friday. The Germans immediately opened fire with their machine guns, destroying 20 houses, and killing the inmates, and setting fire to 10 other houses.

However, just a few days later, on 27 August, the emphasis shifted dramatically to the reporting of German ‘atrocities’. The context was no longer that important. Rather, the focus was the appalling nature and ferocity of the reprisals. Under the headline Atrocities in Belgium (p.7) the following appeared:

The Belgian Minister has published a startling statement, giving a long list of outrages committed by German troops. These are vouched for by a committee of inquiry. While Belgian troops were resisting an attack by German cavalry they killed a German officer. No civilian took part, yet the village of Linsmeau was invaded by German artillery, cavalry and machine guns, notwithstanding assurances by the burgomaster that no recently fired guns had been found. Houses were burned, and the peasants were divided into groups. Afterwards were found in ditches skulls apparently fractured by rifle butts.

By 31 August (p.10), after the destruction of Louvain, the German forces in Belgium were being described as ‘barbarous’. The headlines that day proclaimed: Barbarous Germans. Beautiful City Burnt. “An Unpardonable Act”. In the commentary was the following statement, which had been released by the British Government Press Bureau. It ran under the headline, Residents Shot:

The destruction of Louvain was an unpardonable act of barbarity and vandalism. … Louvain is miles from the real fighting. International law recognises that the only legitimate aim of war is the weakening of the enemy’s army, and the rules forbid the destruction and seizure of property not imperatively called for by military necessities. By destroying Louvain, the Germans committed a crime for which there can be no atonement. Humanity has suffered a loss which can never be repaired.

Similarly, the edition of The Argus on 2 September (p.9) featured the headlines Ruthless Germans. The Tragedy of Louvain. Dead Litter Streets. It related the eye-witness account of an Oxford undergraduate who was present at the sacking of the beautiful Belgian town of Louvain by the Germans. The eye witness described how Gutted houses were tumbling into the streets, and German soldiers were looting the ruins. … Bodies of the murdered townspeople littered the streets.

Finally, the string of headlines in The Argus of 17 September (p.9) illustrate just how dominant the theme of German barbarity in the Belgian narrative had become by this point: Germany’s Shame. The Belgian Atrocities. Fiendish Outrages Related. An Orgy of Blood. German Abomination. Civilians Slaughtered. German Atrocities. Ten Priests Murdered. Drunken Men’s Orgy. Women Stabbed. Beyond the shocking headlines, the examples of brutality highlighted in the reports left little to the imagination:

The body of a man was found with arms and legs cut off, and that of another with the legs amputated. The hands of a child, 15 years of age, were tied behind its back and then the body was torn open.
A woman was stabbed with a bayonet, petroleum was next poured over her, and she was thrown alive into her burning home. The corpse of another woman was burnt in a similar manner.
An old man was suspended by his arms from a rafter and burnt alive.

The Belgian narrative – with its themes of British integrity, Belgian heroism, and German arrogance and barbarity – dominated the metropolitan press in the large cities by the end of September. The same narrative was presented in the local paper in the Shire of Alberton, albeit in a scaled down manner.

At the start of the German invasion of Belgium the local paper presented the same confusion and false hope. On 12 August (p.2) the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative was reporting that German morale at Liege was low because of the withering Belgian fire … which mowed them down like corn. The German supply train was said to be in chaos, the troops starving and and men surrendering just to get food. In one report the Germans had been repulsed: A telegram from Brussels states that 40,000 Belgians have repulsed 43,000 Germans near Liege. But even in the same edition there were other more alarming reports: The Belgians displayed heroic courage in the defence of Liege, but they declared that they were too fatigued to repel the perpetual onsets of an overpowering number of Germans. Reporting by the end of August is far more sombre and it is clear that the German onslaught cannot be stopped. On 28 August the headline reports Heavy Belgian Losses, which a Belgian officer gives as 10,000 men.

By September the locals in the Shire of Alberton were also reading the claims about German atrocities. For example, the edition of 18 September (p.3) reported that various committees had been set up to investigate German outrages in Belgium. In terms of the atrocities themselves there were many accounts. In the same edition, locals read of how the German troops even set about the desecration of churches. The headline was Horrors in Aerschott Cathedral. Deeds by Drunken Soldiers:

The Antwerp correspondent of the “Evening News” describes horrors in the Aerschott Cathedral on the high altar, on which there were many empty wine and beer bottles. In the confessional were champagne and brandy bottles. The offertory box was stolen and replaced by beer bottles. Bottles were stuck in the pews, and everywhere were bottles and filth. The Madonnas Head and a large crucifix were burnt on the altar, brocades were slashed, pictures chopped from the frames, and a dead pig was found on one side of the chapel. This is the work of drunken German soldiery.

There was an even more sordid report in the same edition: Awful Outrage. Death of a Nurse:

On Wednesday, a daring German attack was made on Vilvorde. The Germans cut off the breast of Grace Hume, of Dumfries, a Red Cross nurse engaged in the Vilvorde hospital. The nurse died in great agony.

The reports of German brutality continued to multiply. On 23 September (p.2) there were more accounts of German perfidy and Belgian suffering under the headline, More Plundering By The Germans:

A large number of places situated at the triangle of Vilvorde, Malines and Louvain, are given over to plunder by the Germans, and partially destroyed.
The inhabitants were shot without trial, and women unable to escape were exposed to the brutal instincts of the Germans.
The Germans allege that the Belgian Government has distributed arms amongst the inhabitants; that the Catholic clergy has preached a sort of holy war; and that the women are as ferocious as the men. These are a tissue of lies.

The true extent and nature of German atrocities in Belgium from August 1914 have been the focus of historical debate for the past 100 years. There is no doubt that Belgium’s neutrality was violated, the German invasion was ruthless and the subsequent occupation of Belgium was harsh and exploitative. There were atrocities against the civilian population. Against this, many of the sensational, lurid and macabre stories – written in part to fashion public opinion in the then neutral United States – that filled newspapers at the time were fabrications. For example, the report above about the British Red Cross nurse murdered by the German soldiers was a complete fabrication. While nurse Hume was a real person, she was not in Belgium – she was living in Huddersfield – and the story had been concocted by her sister. The sister, Kate Hume, was subsequently prosecuted. The story itself had been disproved by late September 1914. Yet for the entire duration of the War similar stories about the mutilation of Belgian civilians remained common.

The Belgian narrative, in all its themes, was very powerfully presented and it was very effective in shaping people’s attitudes and beliefs. It reinforced for people the righteousness of the Imperial cause. The war had been forced on Britain and the Empire. They had been compelled to act to protect Belgian’s neutrality. Germany was the aggressor. The narrative also underscored the ideal of sacrifice: Belgium was doomed. It could never withstand the onslaught of the German forces; yet it resisted – stubbornly, forcefully and heroically. And, undeniably, Germany was a ruthless and determined enemy. Within just weeks Germany had shifted from being one of Australia’s major trading partners, and a nation recognised for its advanced technology, industrial output, training and education, arts and culture, as well as the original homeplace of so many highly successful and well-regarded immigrants – and whole communities – to a pariah state, given over to the most extreme form of militarism, that threatened the very basis of Western Civilisation.

The locals, like people all across Australia, were deeply affected by the Belgian narrative and enthusiastically supported major relief programs for Belgium. By the end of September advertisements were appearing for all kinds of activities. As an example, the local paper of 30 September (p.3) advertised a Handkerchief Afternoon Tea to be held at Aylesbury, Yarram on 7 October, with proceeds to the Belgium Fund. Everyone was cordially invited and admission was handkerchiefs for wounded soldiers. All such sympathy, support and fund raising became an extension to the Belgian narrative. A later post will show the practical effects in the local community of the outpouring of sympathy for the poor, oppressed people of Belgium.

References

Strachan, H 2001, The First World War. Vol1. To Arms, Oxford University press

The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

For those interested in following up pictorial depictions employed at the time, the cartoons by Louis Raemaekers on the invasion and occupation of Belgium are available on Project Gutenberg. See:

Cammaerts, E 1917, Through the Iron Bars: Two years of German occupation in Belgium

Raemaekers’ Cartoon History of the War. Volume 1: The First Twelve Months of War

Those who failed the medical: Yarram, Sept. 1914

The last 3 posts have covered recruiting in the Shire up to 21 September 1914. There was a large group of men who enlisted in Yarram on 16 September, and then left for Melbourne on 21 September, and there was a smaller number of men who enlisted outside the Shire, most commonly in Melbourne, by the same date (21/9/14). To conclude this section on the initial recruiting phase, this post looks at the 7 men who failed the AIF medical examination in Yarram at this time.

Reports from the local paper (18/9/14 & 23/9/14) which were covered in an earlier post made it clear that on 16 September when the men were medically examined, 5 were not passed as fit: 45 men presented themselves for examination by the local doctors at the shire hall last Wednesday, of whom 40 passed as physically fit. Fortunately, the names of the 5 men who failed appeared in the archives of the Shire of Alberton. It appears that the doctors on the day collected all the enlistment forms for the men they did not pass as medically fit and bundled them together. Further, they kept not just the forms for the first 5 men they failed but all such forms up to May 1915. This collection of forms indicates that 2 more men failed the medical on 21 September. Presumably they were late recruits who had hoped to leave for Melbourne with the large group. The names of the 7 men, and other information taken from their enlistment forms, are included in the table below. The last 2 men are the ones examined on 21 September. Future posts will look at the men who failed the medical from 21 September through to the end of 1914 and into the first half of 1915.

Unfortunately, the doctors (Drs Pern and Rutter) did not record the reason(s) why the men failed the test. The doctors merely changed the word ‘fit’ to ‘unfit’ on the section of the enlistment form that required them to state they found the applicant ‘fit for active service’. The only specific medical condition referred to in relation to this group was ‘bad teeth’, for James Lindsay.

The two local doctors were paid 2/6 per medical examination and they donated this amount to the local Red Cross. They obviously saw the work as part of their support for the War. However there was trouble coming, and future posts will show that the medical assessments of recruits by country doctors became a highly contentious issue, so much so that in April 1915 both Drs Pern and Rutter threatened to withdraw their service over what they saw as attacks by the AIF hierarchy on their professional credibility. For its part, the AIF was convinced that country doctors were too accommodating in their assessments of the mens’ medical suitability and, overtime, the process was tightened up: medical examinations by rural doctors were followed up with another medical in Melbourne; and the formal enlistment process was not finalised until the applicant had passed the second medical.

What is obvious from the table is the effort men made to enlist. They were not prepared to accept the result of the initial medical assessment. Only 2 of the 7 men did not try to enlist again, and one of the two was 44 years old and definitely at the extreme end of the age profile for recruits (the range was 18-45). Two tried again but were rejected for a second time. One of the two – Llewellyn Sutton Jones – featured in an earlier post: The Defence of the Nation: Junior and Senior Cadets. He was the character, John Bull who appeared in the patriotic concert held at Yarram at the end of September. He appeared in a Imperial tableau with Miss M Bodman as Britannia, and he sang Rule Britannia. At that point he would have already have failed his medical. He tried again (9/11/15) but was unsuccessful. The medical problem appeared to be ‘cardiac trouble’. Of the 3 who were successful in their second attempt at re-enlistment, one – James Carmichael Lindsay – managed to re-enlist at Yarram as early as late November 1914. The second to re-enlist was Frederick Arthur Newberry who enlisted in Melbourne on 17/7/15. The third was Leonard Ambrose Kenney who re-enlisted on 27/9/15 also in Melbourne.

A future set of posts will look in detail at the background and service history of the complete group men who enlisted up to the end of 1914. It will cover those who enlisted in the Shire and those who enlisted outside it, most commonly in Melbourne. However, the following brief analysis looks at just the 3 men who failed their medical in Yarram in September 1914 but then managed to re-enlist. Because each of them generated more than the usual number of enlistment forms it is possible to go a little deeper into their backgrounds, particularly in relation to the all-important issue of their work history.

James Carmichael Lindsay featured on the electoral roll as a farmer of Port Albert. His father was dead and his mother was Mary Elizabeth Lindsay. The mother also appeared on the electoral roll, as ‘home duties’ of Port Albert. Both mother and son also appeared in the Shire rate book: he with 61 acres and she with 73 acres of Crown land at Alberton East. The rates were very low ( £1/10/- combined) so whatever they were doing – his occupation was variously described as grazier and farmer – would have been modest in scale. There is no evidence of any older siblings but there was at least one younger sibling – Ronald Miles Lindsay – who enlisted at 18 on 8/2/16. The younger brother’s occupation was given as ‘grocer’s assistant’ which suggests that his wages were being used to supplement family income and again suggests that the family farming was only a modest venture. When James Lindsay returned from the war he took up soldier settlement land in the district (200+ acres), including a few acres with a house from his mother. It appears though that the younger brother, who also survived the War, pursued work in Melbourne when he returned. While the 2 brothers survived the War, both were wounded – James three times – and both were discharged as ‘medically unfit’. Both appear on the Alberton Shire Honor Roll.

Frederick Arthur Newberry had been born at Yarram and attended North Devon SS. He was obviously was living and working in the district when he tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist in September 1914. However by the time he re-enlisted in July 1915 he was living in Daylesford. He noted on his second lot of enlistment forms that he had undertaken a painting apprenticeship at Yarram, but his occupation at this time of re-enlistment was given as grocer. Neither he nor his mother – Mary Ann Newberry – appear on the electoral roll. However there is a Robert Edward Harding Newberry who does appear as a painter of Yarram. Presumably this person was related in some way and, again presumably, provided the painting apprenticeship to Frederick. Frederick married overseas after the War – Sarah Ann Carrington, in Birmingham (10/4/19) – and was eventually repatriated to Australia and discharged as ‘medically unfit’ on 4/1/20. It appears he was living in Melbourne after the War. Interestingly, even though he was born and grew up in the district, worked in the district and even tried to enlist in the district, he is not included on the Alberton Shire Honor Roll. He is however on the honor roll for the Methodist Circuit and also the one for Devon North SS.

Leonard Ambrose Kenney (Kenny) was also born at Yarram and attended the state school there. His attempt to enlist was a real struggle. He was rejected on 16/9/14 at Yarram. Then he tried again in Melbourne on 27/9/15 and was successful. At this point he gave his occupation as jockey and his address as Bruthen. However he did not last long. He was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ on 23/10/15, less than one month later. Then 4 months later, now nearly 19 yo, he tried again and was again successful. This time he enlisted at Sale, on 22/2/16, and his address was now Traralgon. On both occasions when he re-enlisted, he did note that he had been rejected, both times, for ‘under specification’. As he gave his occupation as jockey it might appear that he had failed the height requirement but, according to him, the specification not met was ‘chest measure’. Paradoxically, despite his apparently desperate determination to join the AIF, his behaviour, once enlisted, was decidedly oppositional and non-compliant. Within 2 months of enlisting for the second time he was being charged with AWL offences and also ‘insubordination’ for the likes of talking and smoking on parade. He was obviously not suited to military life. Or perhaps, as desperate as he was to join, he wanted to serve on his own conditions. He was, after all, just 19 years old, a volunteer and someone who had made a real effort to enlist. In any case, in less than 3 months of enlisting he disappeared and was charged with desertion, from 17/5/17. There is nothing in the AIF files to indicate what happened after that. He is also not on the Alberton Shire Honor Roll, but he is on the equivalent roll for Yarram State School.

Admittedly, there are only 3 cases here but, yet again, it is clear that a person’s identity in the local area was shaped significantly by the nature – and transience – of their work. It is also apparent that at this point of the War men appeared very keen to join the AIF.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Recruits For The War. Forty-Five Examined At The Shire Hall. Forty Pass. First Squad Leaves On Monday’ 18 September 1914, p.2
‘Recruits for the War. Farwelled At The Alberton Railway Station’ 23 September 1914, p.2

The original correspondence and forms are from the Archives of the Shire of Alberton, examined in Yarram in May 2013:
Shire of Alberton
Archive One
File Number 703B
Recruiting & Enlisted Men (Box 398)
Bundle of papers headed: Defence Department. Enlisting Recruits 1914-15-16.
Tied bundle of attestation forms.

 

 

 

 

Individual ‘locals’ who enlisted prior to 21 Sept. 1914

The last post examined the characteristics of the large group of men who enlisted together on 16 September 1914 at Yarram, and then left for Melbourne by train on 21 September 1914. While this group was certainly the first such group from the Shire to enlist – and it remained the largest single group of recruits throughout the War – there were other men who had enlisted, as individuals, prior to this. This post looks at 22 men who enlisted outside the Shire, as individuals, sometime between the declaration of war on 5 August and the departure of the train from Alberton on 21 September. Once again, the research surrounding the lives of these men reveals the complex dynamic between the nature of work for the rural working class and the idea that personal identity can be tied to a particular location.

The first table here identifies the 22 men who enlisted, individually and outside the Shire, prior to 21 September 1914. The men have been identified via 2 main sources of evidence, which for present purposes I have termed ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.

The hard evidence relates to formal record sets. The most commonly referenced piece of hard evidence is the Alberton Shire Honor Roll (Shire Honor Roll) [HR]. This official record was drawn up at the end of the War and records the names of 447 men. The second piece of hard evidence in the Shire of Alberton Medallion (Shire Medallion) [Med]. This was presented to each man from the Shire who enlisted. The actual medallion is featured on the blog. The third piece of hard evidence is the relevant electoral roll [ER] from the time, which recorded the full name, occupation and place of residence for each registered voter. Lastly, for relevant cases, I have included reference to the Shire of Alberton War Memorial (Shire War Memorial) [WM]. The memorial is located in the main street of Yarram and records the names of 79 men from the Shire. Future posts will look in detail at each of these record sets, highlight any problems associated with their use and explore inconsistencies and gaps between them.

The soft evidence is anecdotal and relates principally to references in articles from the local paper, Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative.

On the table there are 15 men whose association with the Shire is tied to hard evidence and 7 where the link depends on soft evidence. The 7 cases are highlighted.

For 10 of the 15 locals linked to hard evidence, the key piece of evidence is their inclusion on the Shire Honor Roll. For another 2 it is their receipt of the Shire Medallion. For another 2 it is an entry in the electoral roll. And for the last man it is the inclusion of his name on the Shire War Memorial. Some men are linked to more than one piece of evidence, but only 1 man – William Newland – is linked to all relevant pieces.

A brief review of these 15 cases highlights a range of apparent gaps and inconsistencies. For example, it is odd that men who definitely did receive the Shire Medallion are not included on the equivalent Honor Roll. This applies to both Samuel Gay and George Silver. There is an even more striking omission involving Nathan Hepburn. He was born in the district but had obviously moved to Queensland. He enlisted in Bundaberg in August 1914 and was killed in action (28/6/15) just 10 months after enlistment. His name does not appear on the Shire Honor Roll and there is no record of him – or his family or relatives, on his behalf – being given the Shire Medallion. Yet, remarkably, he was regarded as sufficiently ‘local’ to be included on the Shire War Memorial. Then there were the 2 men who were definitely in the district when they enlisted but not recognised: Lancelot Matthews and Norman Davis do not appear on the Shire Honor Roll and there is no record of them receiving the Shire Medallion, yet both men, prior to enlistment, were recorded in the electoral roll as living and working in the district. It seems that one man outside the district could be considered local while two others in the district were not. On the face of it, the contradiction here seems to suggest that being born in the district was more significant, in determining the status of ‘local’, than moving into the district to pursue work. It is clear that subjective assessments were made; and some men were more ‘visible’ than others.

The following brief accounts cover the 7 men for whom there is anecdotal or ‘soft’ evidence to establish that they were local, even though they do not appear in the formal record sets. As indicated, most of the evidence comes from reports in the local paper.

James Gunn was the first to enlist from the district. On his enlistment papers his occupation was given as driver. There is no hard evidence to tie him to the Shire.  Yet, there were reports in the local paper (2 May & 13 June 1919) of his welcome home at Blackwarry where he was feted as one of the 13 men from the Blackwarry community to have served in the AIF. As part of the celebration all the men received a gold medallion, specially designed for the occasion, and donated by the members of the Blackwarry community. There is a picture below of the medallion presented. The particular medallion shown is the one presented to David Daniel, another of the 13 men from Blackwarry, who enlisted in 1916. James Gunn had undertaken military training in Traralgon prior to the War (1910-12) and it is possible that he was working in Melbourne when war started. After the War he become a soldier settler at Carrajung.

Herbert George was killed in action 25/7/16. Despite the fact that there is no hard evidence to link him to the district and his name is not on the Shire War Memorial, there are references in the local paper (12/5/15, 23/8/16) which note how well known he was in the Yarram and Port Albert townships. His occupation on the enlistment papers was given as grocer but the same newspaper reports suggested that he worked in a store in Yarram as an assistant.  Additionally, his name and death were recorded on the Port Albert State School Honor Roll.

The case of Walter Tibbs is similar to that of Herbert George. Even if others did not see the connection to the district, his family in England certainly did because when they completed the information for the National Roll of Honor (Australian War Memorial)  they gave Tarraville, Gippsland as the place with which he was ‘chiefly connected’. His parents also reported on the same form that he was an ‘excellent violinist’  and that he was only 18 when he was killed at the Gallipoli landing. He had obviously put his age up (21) when he enlisted. His occupation on the enlistment papers was given as farm worker.

There was nothing to tie Milton Littlewood, another immigrant from the UK, to the district. Yet on the Embarkation Roll his address on enlistment is given explicitly as ‘Yarram, South Gippsland’. His occupation was listed as fireman.

Similarly, Thomas Hart, an immigrant from Ireland, gave his address at enlistment as the Yarram Club. However there is some doubt in this case because his sister as next-of-kin gave the same address, and it is possible that he did not have a permanent address and simply gave his sister’s address as his own when he enlisted. He could, for example, have been living and working in Melbourne while his sister was living in Yarram. He was a labourer.

Joseph Carlile was yet another immigrant from the UK. His occupation was gardener. He was wounded, repatriated and then discharged in late February 1916. In July 1917 he married a local girl (Margaret Marie Hopkins) in Yarram. However there is no evidence of any connection to the district before this; although there is one intriguing twist because in March 1916, just a couple of weeks after being discharged, he provided a witness statement to the Red Cross in relation to the death of a soldier from his unit – Keam (481) – and, at that time, he gave his address as Yarram. This was well before his marriage, and it suggests that there could have been a prior connection to the district.

Albert Widdon does not feature in any of the hard evidence, including the Shire War Memorial yet he went to school (Devon North SS and Yarram SS) and grew up in the district. His family was still living in the district. His death was reported in the local paper (2/6/15) and the article even described Rev Cox delivering the telegram to his mother. The same article noted he had enlisted in Queensland. Another article (17/5/18) noted his name in connection with a memorial service held to honour the dead from the district. He had many cousins from the district who also enlisted. In many ways his case is similar to that of Nathan Hepburn, except that his (Widdon) name was not included on the Shire War Memorial. His occupation was listed as farm labourer.

Clearly, it can be difficult establishing precisely what happened in relation to such individual cases; and contradictions and inconsistencies abound. However the more important observation from such research is that young men from a rural working-class background could easily disappear from the collective memory of the district. They were more ‘transient’ than ‘local’.

This second table provides more background information on the 22 men who enlisted as individuals and outside the Shire, and in some cases well outside the Shire. The first of these men – James Gunn – enlisted on 17 August in Albert Park, Melbourne, just 12 days after the declaration of war; and the last – Albert Edward Widdon – enlisted in Dalby, Queensland, on the same day the group of recruits from Yarram left Alberton on the train.

There appear to have been two distinct groups: there were men living and working in the Shire who went down to Melbourne to enlist – presumably they were not prepared to wait for any local recruitment drive to get underway – and there were men who were living and working well away from the Shire, who enlisted where they were then located. Thus Stanley Henry Hawkins, who was living at Yarram and working as a coach builder, went down to Melbourne and enlisted at Albert Park on 20 August 1914. An example from the second group is Nathan Walbourne Hepburn. He had been born in the district and went to school and grew up in the district. His parents were still living there. However, he had moved to Queensland by the outbreak of war and was working as a labourer. He enlisted in Bundaberg.

The table also points to the fact that overwhelmingly the first group of individual recruits from the Shire were from the rural working class. ‘Labourers’ and ‘farm labourers’ dominate. There is only one reference to a ‘farmer’ (Samuel Gay) – and given his age, the fact that he had just moved to Queensland and the fact that on discharge from the AIF he returned to the Shire of Alberton, he was more likely to have been a farm labourer than a farmer. Only William Newland, as a ‘mechanical engineer’ stands out as someone in a semi-professional occupation. In fact, Newland is an important person as will become obvious in future posts. At the time of enlistment, he was already in his mid-thirties and he was also the only one of all the men on the table who was married. He had served in the South African War from 1899-1902 and even before leaving for overseas service held the rank of corporal. He was wounded, severely, at Gallipoli and repatriated. Most significantly, he became the recruiting sergeant for the Shire in 1915 and 1916, and was later involved with the setting up of the local association of returned soldiers.

Another feature is the extent of mobility between birth and the time of enlistment. Less than half the men on the table were born in the district. Presumably they had moved in to the Shire for work. Equally, some who had been born in the district had clearly moved out of it looking for work, although possibly not on a permanent basis, by the time they came to enlist. Nearly one-third of the men had been born either overseas (5) or interstate (2).

The age profile of the men is only slightly different from that for the larger group of recruits from Yarram considered in the last post. There were very few men aged 30 and above, with the concentration in the 25 or younger age group. In this instance there were fewer in the very young – under 20 – age group. As far as the religion profile is concerned, the Church of England obviously dominates. There is only 1 Catholic in the group but it is hard to draw any significant conclusions from such a small sample.

Overall, the most striking feature of the group is the extent to which it is made up of single, young men from the rural working class. In this respect, it matches the profile of the large group of recruits – the ones who left for Melbourne on 21 September – analysed in the last post. Both groups show that for the Shire of Alberton the call to arms was met, initially at least, predominantly by the rural working class. The extent to which this trend continued or changed over time will be considered in future posts.

Blackwarry Medallion. Courtesy of Mrs. Margery Missen, Yarram.

Blackwarry Medallion. Courtesy of Mrs. Margery Missen, Yarram.

Recruits from the Shire, September 1914. Part 2

According to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, a large group of 52 recruits left Alberton for Melbourne on the afternoon of 21 September 1914. The paper published a list of the 52 names, on Wednesday 23 September, under the heading Recruits for the War. Farewelled At The Alberton Railway Station. The names were taken from the list of railway warrants, issued as per Army instructions, to men who had already enlisted. The list was compiled by the Shire Secretary, G W Black. Against each numbered railway warrant issued he recorded the name of the recipient and the date of travel. All the railway warrants numbered 1-52 were recorded as having been issued for travel on 21 September. The same 52 names also appear on another list compiled by Black to claim reimbursement for Drs Penn and Rutter for the medical examinations they had carried out as part of the recruiting process. Taken at face value, there is evidence for the claim that following the successful recruiting session held on Wednesday 16 September, 52 men, including many minors, left the Shire on Monday 21 September for service in the AIF.

However, closer investigation of the AIF records reveals that the number of men who actually commenced military service on that Monday was considerably less – only 35 of the 52 – and this discrepancy highlights the complexities associated with recruiting and enlistment practices and record-keeping, particularly in rural districts.

For a start, 7 of the men who appeared on the list of names in the newspaper article have no service record in the AIF. Nor are their names included on the Alberton Shire Roll of Honor. In other words, even though they were written up as having enlisted and left the district for training at Broadmeadows, there is no hard evidence that they ever joined the AIF. Moreover, there is evidence, based on newspaper reports, that some of them were still living and working in the district after 21 September 1914.

Jas. E Sherwood (James Edward Sherwood) is the most puzzling of this group of 7 men who never enlisted. He was listed on the electoral roll as an apiarist of Yarram. His name appeared in the local paper through to at least the end of 1915 as a champion bike rider in the local district, suggesting that he certainly did not commence service in the AIF in September 1914. While his name does not appear on the Alberton Shire Honor Roll it does appear on the Yarram State School Honor Roll. Further, a note on Black’s list of railway warrants states that he ‘re-enlisted’ on 9 November 1914. Presumably, he was rejected when he reached Melbourne on 21 September 1914 and then rejected again when he tried to enlist in November 1914. It is also possible that he only appears on the Yarram State School Honor Roll because that list was itself compiled, in part at least, from the various lists drawn up by the Shire Secretary. It was possibly a case of faulty records reproducing themselves.

E Chenhall (Edric Chenhall) was on the electoral roll as a farmer of Jack River and there was another note on the list of rail warrants that he ‘re-enlisted’ on 19 May 1916. However he could not have been successful, again. Similarly, T H Stephens (Thomas Handley Stephens) who was on the electoral roll as a labourer of Mullundung must have been rejected when he reached Melbourne because he tried to re-enlist at a recruiting drive in Yarram in July 1915, but was again unsuccessful. W H Beames (Walter Henry Beames) was on the electoral roll as a labourer of Stacey’s Bridge. His name appeared as an umpire in the local football competition in the paper on 2 May 1915. George Purtell was on the electoral roll as a blacksmith of Yarram. In early 1916 he was fined over stray stock. W A Rose, who was listed as one of the minors who enlisted in September 1914, appeared on a council pay sheet, published in the local paper on 9 April 1915. As a minor he would not have been on the electoral roll. Lastly, W W Haw (Walter William Haw) was on the electoral roll as a carpenter of Yarram but, as with the other 6 men,  there is no service record, and nor is his name on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll.

Unless some further information comes to light with regard to these 7 men it can reasonably assumed that even though they were written up as belonging to the first group of volunteers from the Shire they did not serve in the AIF. They took the train but they did not go to war.

Unlike the group of 7 who never served, there were 8 other men who definitely did serve in the AIF but their enlistment dates are recorded as later than either 16 or 21 September 1914. Even though they ‘enlisted’ on 16 September and left on the train on 21 September, the official AIF records have them as enlisting at a later time. Presumably they reached Broadmeadows but were then rejected – presumably at some follow-up medical – before they started training. Perhaps they did not make it to Broadmeadows; but the party did leave under the charge of ex-Sgt. Geo Davis and there was clearly the expectation that they had enlisted and that they would report. Perhaps they did not make the light horse and effectively ‘pulled out’, with or without proper approval. Whatever happened, all the men eventually did enlist, even though in some cases it was much later: T M Luke (Thomas Mickie Luke) on 15 July 1915; H Macdonald (Henry Macdonald) on 4 December 1914. F B Scott (Frederick Beecher Scott) on 26 January 1916; P T Quinn (Percival Thomas Quinn) on 28 August 1915; A E Gove (Arthur Edgar Gove) on 13 August 1915; L R Wallace (Leslie Roy Wallace) on 14 October 1914; P A Wallace (Percy Allen Wallace) on 8 January 1915; and S F Coulthard (Samuel Francis Coulthard) on 7 April 1916.

There are another 2 men – Jno. Riley and John Hollingsworth – on the list of 52 for whom it is not possible to identify the matching service record. That is, there were multiple enlistments in the names of Jno. Riley and John Hollingsworth but, without other evidence, it is not possible to make a definite match with someone living and working in the Shire at that time.

All the preceding gives some indication of the difficulties involved in interpreting, validating and cross-referencing the multiple sources of personal information in relation to WW1 service in the AIF. The difficulties remained throughout the War.

The table included in this post is built on the list of railway warrants compiled by the Shire Secretary ( G W Black). As mentioned, he issued 52 warrants for travel on 21 September. The order of names in the table is taken directly from his list. Age, religion, occupation and place of birth, taken from AIF records, have been added; and there is a brief note to identify the men killed in the War. There are no details recorded for the 7 men for whom there is no record of service in the AIF, nor for the 2 men who, currently, cannot be matched to service records. To give the most comprehensive picture of all the men who took the train to Melbourne on 21 September, the details for those men who actually enlisted at a later date have been included, with the qualification that their age has been adjusted to match what it was in September 1914. The 43 men with AIF service records who appear on the table were all single.

Some characteristics of the first group of recruits
While it is difficult to generalise from the relatively small sample of recruits that made up the first group of volunteers from the Shire of Alberton, there are some characteristics that do stand out. Obviously, the fact that every one of them was single is significant. As well, the age of the ‘men’ is certainly striking. 35 (82%) of them were aged twenty-five or younger and of this group, 15 were twenty or younger. Only 4 men were over thirty. It was definitely a war for young, single men.

The broad representation of all religions in the group is also distinctive, in the sense that there is nothing to suggest that Roman Catholics recruits were in any way under-represented. The 10 of them counted for 24% of the group. The situation might well have changed later in the War but at the start there was nothing to suggest that there was any sort of ‘religious boycott’.

Another striking feature has to be the class profile of the recruits. The most common description given for occupation was ‘labourer’ – or ‘laborer’ – and this appeared for no less than 13 of the group and when you add the 5 who gave their occupation as ‘farm labourer’ then you have nearly 50% of the group with just 2 job descriptions; and it is clear that most of the remaining men were employed in various manual or working-class jobs of more or less skill. The more distinctly rural designation of ‘family farm’ covers those recruits whose father appeared in the rate book as a farmer. In this the first and only mass group of recruits from the district there were only 6 definite cases where the son of a farmer enlisted. As many of these were underage and parental permission had to be given, the decision must have been taken that the son’s labour on the farm could be spared. But it was a small number of cases. In the great majority of cases, at that early point in the War, farming families were not prepared to give up their son’s labour on the farm.

The teacher in the group – L L Oliver – was the first of many local teachers to ‘answer the call’ and this sub-group will be considered in detail in a future post. In this particular instance, Oliver, as a teacher, is the only recruit from a professional background.

The last post argued that it was the professional-business class in the local community that presented the narrative of the War when it began and drove the initial recruiting process. This post makes it abundantly clear that at the same time it was the rural working class that provided the recruits. The relative roles of the 2 classes is rather striking. The bigger issue will be whether this dynamic was maintained throughout the War.

The question arises as to why the rural working class so dominated the recruiting numbers. The answer does not appear to have any ideological rationale to it, in the sense that it would be hard to argue that the rural working class in the district (Shire of Alberton) at that time was more pro-Empire than other class groupings and that the recruiting numbers reflected this strength of Imperial loyalty. Instead, the answer has more to do with structural realities. The distinctive feature of working-class employment was its ‘portability’. Young, single men working as labourers were not tied to a particular employer. In fact, their work meant that they had to move, looking for employment or better paid employment or better conditions. In other words, the very nature of their work life meant they were ideally placed to enlist. They were generally not tied to property – domestic or business – they were not tied to the family farm or family business and they were not constrained by the likes of professional licences, agreements or tenure. Nor were they tied to a particular location, apart from family ties. Traditionally they had moved to pursue work. In part, this is reflected in the table in this post, where many of the young working-class recruits were born well outside the district in which they were living and working at the time of enlistment.

Overall, the preponderance of rural working-class youth in the initial group of recruits is not surprising. They were the most able to enlist at short notice, and the attraction of permanent employment at competitive wages was very significant. Additionally, they were answering what everyone saw as a righteous and decent call. There was also the appeal of the working-class ‘mateship’ of the AIF.

One issue to be pursued over future posts is whether other classes in the local district came in time to match the initial enthusiasm of the rural working class in terms of volunteering to join the AIF.

There is also the complex issue of the status of the working class in the rural community. Again, there are signs of it in the table above. For example, consider the number of recruits who enlisted at Yarram – and who therefore were presumably working in the district – who are not included on the Honor Roll for the Shire of Alberton. Clearly they were not regarded as ‘local’ even though at the time, and certainly on the station platform at Alberton, they were feted as local recruits.

Two of the young men, both 19,  who enlisted at Yarram on 16 September but who are not included on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll, died on active service: P J Davidson (died of wounds) and T C F McCarthy (killed in action). Their names are also not included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. Davidson died at Pozieres on 5 August 1916. McCarthy’s case was particularly poignant. He was killed very late in the War, on 19 September 1918. This was just over 4 years from the day he enlisted in Yarram. At that time he was a 19 yo farm labourer who had been born in Melbourne. Ironically, he was killed at the very time veterans like him were being returned to Australia on special leave. For some reason he never got his leave in time. He seems to have missed out on many forms of recognition, and to some degree has been written out of the district’s history.

References

The hand-written list of travel warrants issued by the Shire Secretary ( G W Black) is held by the Yarram & District Historical Society. Black labelled his list, Australian Imperial Force. List of Recruits who enlisted with the President of the Shire of Alberton. 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918.

The list of medical examinations by Drs Pern and Rutter that Black drew up to claim reimbursement was dated 6 March 1915. It was included in the Shire of Alberton Archives:
Archive One.
File Number 703B.
Recruiting & Enlisted Men (Box 398).
Bundle of papers headed: Defence Department. Enlisting Recruits 1914-15-16.

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Recruits for the War. Farwelled At The Alberton Railway Station’ , 23 September 1914, p.2

Recruits from the Shire, September 1914. Part 1

Formal recruiting began in the Shire of Alberton in early September 1914, about one month after the declaration of war. There were many ‘locals’ who enlisted earlier, most commonly in Melbourne, on an individual basis, and a future post will look at these men. In this post, the focus is the formal recruiting program which began in the Shire approximately one month after the declaration.

On 3 September the 3rd Military District, Victoria Barracks, wrote to the Shire Council asking if it was prepared to assist in ‘enrolling suitable men, medically fit’ for the ‘Australian Imperial (Expeditionary) Force’. The letter explained that the men were to be ‘over 18 and under 45 years’ and in the case of those under 21 (minors) ‘the written consent of the parents or guardians is required’. Second class railway warrants were to be issued to those men who enlisted so that they could travel to Melbourne.

The Shire Secretary, G W Black, received the letter on 4 September and, after a hasty meeting with councillors, he wired back the same day that Council agreed to enlist volunteers.

On 8 September the Army forwarded the relevant paper-work of 30 attestation forms and 15 railway passes. Then on 11 September, Council was advised that a Lieutenant W E E Connor was being sent to Gippsland ‘with the object of recruiting a Light Horse Squadron’. Lt. Connor must have made contact with the Shire Secretary very promptly because on 14 September Black wrote to military head quarters requesting, by return post, 100 attestation forms and 50 railway warrants noting that he had had ‘a conversation with Lieutenant Connor, and he is of opinion that the supply of forms sent to me last week will be inadequate for local requirements’. Black emphasised that the additional forms were needed urgently because the Council had fixed Wednesday of that week (16 September) as the enlistment (enrolment) day for the Shire.

Black placed ads in the local paper within one week of the Council agreeing to manage the enlistment process. Under the heading Enrolment of Volunteers the following appeared on 11 September:

All those desirous of volunteering abroad with the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Force are requested to attend at the Shire Hall, Yarram, on Wednesday Next, September 16th at 3 p.m.
G. W. Black
Shire Secretary

On the Wednesday designated for recruiting – 16 September – another notice appeared under the heading Volunteers Wanted. Light Horse For Preference. The first paragraph read:

Any male inhabitants of South Gippsland who are prepared to go to the front are asked to report themselves at the Shire Hall at 3 o’clock this afternoon for medical inspection. Any who cannot ride may join the infantry.

The last sentence made it clear that the focus was on the Light Horse. Lt. Connor was obviously following instructions. Indeed, the same article spelt out exactly what the Light Horse unit from the Shire would look like:

Lieutenant Connor informs us that the Yarram and Alberton troops will be made up as follows: – 28 men, farrier sergeant, shoeing smith, saddler, signaller (Morse or semaphore), two drivers, batmen (cooks or orderlies, non-combatants). Age of men, 18 to 45.

The article also noted that the plan was to draw 36 recruits from each of Yarram, Foster, Leongatha and Korumburra ‘(and possibly Toora)’ to form the ’South Gippsland Squadron of mounted men’. From the very beginning, there was this issue of the area with which the ‘local’ men were going to be identified. Was it the Shire of Alberton or, as in this case, the larger, notional area of ‘South Gippsland’, as opposed to the specific Shire of South Gippsland (from 1894) which shared a boundary with the Shire of Alberton? The significance of this issue will become clearer with time.

There was a detailed account of the proceedings in the Shire Hall on the Wednesday afternoon which featured in the paper on Friday 18 September. Nearly half of the recruits that day were minors:

An unusual scene was witnessed at the local shire hall on Wednesday afternoon. For three hours, from 3 till 6 p.m., Lieutenant Connor, recruiting officer, and Drs. Pern and Rutter were busily engaged examining and enlisting recruits, assisted by Lieut. Filmer, Messrs Geo. Davis, J. W. Fleming, P. J. Juniper, G. W. Black and Rev. Geo. Cox. Forty-five were presented, and of these only five were passed out as physically unfit. The doctors and officers described them as a very fine body of men. Seventeen being minors, they will be required to to produce written consent from parents or guardians before passes [railway warrants] will be issued.

The cast of characters involved in this first phase of recruiting is worth closer scrutiny. Lt. Connor, as indicated, had been sent by the Army to recruit the light horse squadron. Lt. Filmer (Walter Stephen Filmer) was only 20 years old at the time. His commission was in the Militia Forces and he had been given permission by the Army to provide drill instruction to recruits. An earlier post pointed out that such drill sessions were supposed to have been provided as part of the local rifle club regime but this had not happened and the Council was very grateful that Lt. Filmer had offered his services and the Army had approved. He was a state school teacher in the local area (Womerah). In early 1916 he himself enlisted in the AIF and rose through the ranks to gain his commission. He was killed at Bullecourt 2 on 3/5/17.

The two doctors present – Dr. Pern and Dr. Rutter – were both based in Yarram. For their services they were paid 2/6 per medical examination. Dr. Pern offered himself for service at that time but was rejected. Dr. Rutter, on the other hand, joined the Australian Medical Corps early in 1915 and served overseas until he returned to Yarram at the end of 1916. The Rev. George Cox has already been introduced. His presence in the initial recruiting campaign was very evident. He himself tried to enlist at this point but failed the medical. He subsequently enlisted in September 1915. He did not serve overseas but worked in hospitals in Australia before being discharged on medical grounds in 1917. George W Black was the Shire Secretary and he held this position for an incredible 30 years, from 1911 until 1941. He was the key bureaucrat behind all the various recruiting campaigns over the course of the War. Occasionally he also gave speeches to promote recruiting.

The other three men there that day were all local business people. James Weir Fleming described himself as a ‘manager’. He was involved in the dairy industry and held the title of ‘supervisor’ under the Dairy Supervision Act. He was also a committee member of the local branch of the (Liberal) Peoples’ Party. Percy James Juniper was an agent (land, finance and insurance) and he was also Secretary of the local Australian Natives’ Association. George Davis was an agent for various agricultural and dairy machinery and he also ran a local motor garage in Yarram, for A J Thompson, at the point that the number of motor cars was beginning to increase dramatically. Davis was also referred to as ‘ex-sergeant’ which suggests he was George Washington Davis who had enlisted for the Boer War in 1902 as a 29 year-old engineer. If this was the case then he would have been in his early forties in September 1914. There is no record of any of these three men enlisting, or attempting to enlist, in the AIF.

When the men were enlisting on that Wednesday one hundred years ago they would have been given a set of Instructions To Recruits Joining the A. I E. Forces (the AIF was then being referred to as the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Forces). The sub-heading for the circular was What To Do And How To Do It. There were 14 points. Most were procedural – for example, members of the Citizens’ Forces were advised that they could not enlist in the AIEF until they had returned all their equipment and had a certificate from their commanding officer to that effect. Similarly, ‘sea-faring men’ would not be accepted until they produced their discharge papers. The men were told what to bring with them to Broadmeadows Camp – towel, soap, brush and comb, razor and waterproof or great coat. Some of the points set down significant qualifications. For example, point 7 noted: You must understand that you cannot enlist for any particular arm of the services, but on arrival at Broadmeadows Camp will be allotted to the “arm” you are considered best suited for. And point 8 made it clear that inoculation was a given: You must be prepared and consent to undergo inoculation against Small-pox and Enteric Fever. If you will not consent, do not present yourself for enrolment.

Some of the points offered a foretaste of military life. Point 5 stated: When you enter the office take off your hat unless you are in uniform, in which case you are not to uncover your head, as a soldier in uniform only removes his headgear when he is a prisoner or when he is attending Divine Service or in a Court of Law. Point 6 added: Be careful to be very respectful in your demeanour before the Enrolling Officer, answer any question which may be put to you in as few words as possible, as there is little time for delay.

The last point (14) represented what was probably the first attempt to combat what everyone knew was going to be a problem with the AIF. Interestingly, at this point the tone was highly moralistic and the appeal could well have been delivered from the pulpit or at some temperance meeting. It is also important to remember that the men were volunteering and, as with the issue of inoculation, the Army could be as strong as it liked with such directives, accepting that the one of inoculation was always going to be much easier to enforce. Even at the time, the recruits must have had a wry laugh at the idea of the temperate soldier:

14. When a man finds himself such a slave to drink that he cannot resist the temptation, he should not attempt to offer his services unless he can thoroughly make up his mind to take the pledge. This has save many men from ruin, but he should bear in mind that, if after a lapse of time, thinking himself cured, he relinquishes or breaks his pledge, and allows one drop of liquor to pass his lips, the chances are a hundred to one that his old vice will return stronger than ever, and ruin will be the result.

On the following Monday (21 September) some fifty recruits left for Melbourne from the station at Alberton. This departure represented the single, largest collection of recruits from the Shire of Alberton at any time over the duration of the War. According to the telegram the Shire Secretary sent to Victoria Barracks on the same day, 52 recruits left for Melbourne in the charge of ex-Sgt George Davis who also took with him all the attestation papers.

There was not much ceremony attached to this first departure of recruits for the War. In fact, the obvious haste with which the whole process was carried out led to some very second-rate planning. For example, the newspaper account (23 September) of the time reveals that no one had organised transport from Yarram, where the men assembled, and Alberton where the train station was, 4 miles away. According to the paper, two locals came forward – Mrs Smethurst and Mr Elder – and hired drags from Pratt’s Stables to transport the men … otherwise , the men would probably have missed the train, or had to walk the four miles to Alberton. Another local, Mr. Chas. G Swan, organised the equivalent transport for the local band to Alberton. Moroever, there was no formal farewell at the Shire Hall in Yarram. The men were assembled and checked off and then left to themselves until it was time to go to Alberton to catch the train. As the paper described it:

A farewell at the shire hall was suggested, but no arrangements having been made, Lieutenant Filmer and Messrs. Geo. Davis and G. W. Black carried out the defence formalities, and thereafter, until train time, the men roamed around the town, bidding farewell.

At least there were stirring speeches at the station before the train left. The first to address the men was the Rev. George Cox who laboured the themes of duty to both Empire and God and the righteousness of the cause:

If ever there was a time when war was justified the present certainly is, and you who have volunteered are following an honorable course, and are worthy of the respect of every man, woman and child in the district. On behalf of the district I wish you God-speed and a safe return. You are doing your duty not only to the Empire but to God, and I believe you will do it nobly and well.

Cox was followed by Mr. B. P. Johnson who would go on to become a key organiser for recruiting in the district over the next few years. He was a solicitor in Yarram. Johnson kept up the themes of duty, particularly that owed by the young, and commitment to the Empire. Recruitment in this very early stage of the War was directed at young, single men. Johnson’s wish to be younger was in time played out through his son, Cyril, who would enlist in July 1915 and be killed in action in May 1918. There were echoes of PM Fisher in his speech.

You are a decent lot, and we are proud of you fellows. You are going to the biggest battle the world has ever seen. It will not be a picnic. You will have a hard time, but we know you will do your duty. I only wish I were a few years younger and I would be amongst you, (Cheers). The Empire is proud of men like you. We know you will come back victorious. We’ll win the fight, even if it takes every man and every shilling we’ve got. We’re fighting for right.

Perhaps sensing that the farewell had been pretty ordinary, Johnson closed with the promise of a ’tip-top reception’ when the men returned. In fact, as we will see, most of this group would return to the district, after training at Broadmeadows and before being sent overseas to Egypt, and they would be given more substantial and fitting farewells; but for some at least this farewell, as hasty and unplanned as it appeared to be, was their last contact with the district, either for many years or for good.

The next person to speak was Mr. T G McKenzie. Thomas George Mckenzie was a very substantial farmer from Won Wron. He was keen to emphasise the quality of the men from the local district.

When I met Lieutenant Connor [sent by the Army to organise the recruiting drive] I told him there would be no difficulty in raising a corps, and that the men would be the very best in Gippsland. This has been borne out. You will go through a deal of suffering, but I hope you will go through manfully. Do your duty for old South Gippsland generally, and remember that your movements will be watched by all your friends. I wish you every success, and a safe return to your native land (cheers).

Mr Lakin – William Frederick Lakin was one of the local bank managers – reminded the men that they were fighting for the ‘best and noblest nation on earth’, exhorted them to do their duty and return victorious, and then returned to the theme of divine approval … may God be with you and help you fight His battle.

The last speaker was Mr. Edmund Alfred Paige, the head teacher of Yarram State School. He would become another key player in subsequent recruiting drives. Paige offered the men heroic sentimentality:

Any man can die in bed, but it takes a brave man to die on the battle field. Do your duty honourably and come back victorious. (Cheers).

The band then struck up Rule Britannia and the National Anthem. The newspaper account concluded:

The scene was an inspiring one. “This brings the war home to us,” remarked a mother, who had bid farewell to her son. Cheers were given up for “the boys,” and deep down in the heart was the feeling of what might happen to those nearest and dearest.

Overall, not much more than two weeks passed between the Shire Secretary replying that the Council would organise recruiting in the district (4 September) and the departure of the large group of recruits to Melbourne (21 September). The district would have felt very proud of what had been achieved in such a short time; and it was clear that there were deep pools of loyalty – Imperial, national and local – and practical commitment to draw on. There was no question of force or compulsion. Peoples’ support for the War was spontaneous, unequivocal and heartfelt. It is also clear that those doing the organising, and providing the narrative for what was happening and what needed to happen, were the districts’ middle-class professionals – ministers, doctors, lawyers, editors, teachers, bureaucrats – and business people. In the next post, the focus shifts to the essential characteristics of this the first and largest single group of men to enlist.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Enrolment of Volunteers’ (ad) 11 September 1914, p.3
‘Volunteers Wanted. Light Horse Men For Preference’ 16 September 1914, p.2
‘Recruits For The War. Forty-Five Examined At The Shire Hall. Forty Pass. First Squad Leaves On Monday’ 18 September 1914, p.2
‘Recruits for the War. Farwelled At The Alberton Railway Station’ 23 September 1914, p.2

The original correspondence and forms are from the Archives of the Shire of Alberton, examined in Yarram in May 2013:
Shire of Alberton
Archive One
File Number 703B
Recruiting & Enlisted Men (Box 398)
Bundle of papers headed: Defence Department. Enlisting Recruits 1914-15-16.

Additional material from:
Electoral Roll of Subdivision of Yarram Yarram,Commonwealth of Australia 1915
Rate Book 1914-15, Shire of Alberton

Rural workers and the federal election of 1914

War was declared in Australia on the morning of 5 August 1914 in the course of a federal election. It was less than a week after both houses of federal parliament had been dissolved (30 July) and four weeks before the scheduled election date of 5 September. The brief background to this situation went back to May 1913 when the incoming Cook Government (Liberals) found itself with a majority of just one in the House of Representatives and in minority in the Senate. It then set about to engineer a double dissolution, under S 57 of the Constitution. It became the first national government to exercise this provision. The Cook Government hoped to convince the electorate that its decision to force the double dissolution was entirely justified as an attempt to break what it portrayed as the ALP’s stranglehold over its legislative agenda. After the declaration of war and pledges of Imperial loyalty, the Cook Government presumably believed that it would win further support from the electorate or, at least, reasoned that the electorate would be reluctant to change government at such a momentous time. But the results of the 1914 election proved it wrong: the ALP was returned with a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives (42:33), with a vote of 50.9%, which to this day still represents the highest level of support ever achieved by the party. In the Senate the ALP gained 31 of the 36 seats. This was before proportional representation in the Senate (1949).

The results of the September election clearly demonstrated the nation’s confidence in the ALP at the most critical time in the young Commonwealth’s existence. The political landscape looked back to the time of the first Fisher Government of 1910 -1913 when the ALP had a clear majority in both houses. This first Fisher Government had been the very first national government since Federation that had been able to govern in its own right. It was also recognised for the amount of progressive or radical legislation – depending on people’s political philosophy at the time – that it passed, including the critical legislation on national defence (the universal training scheme). At the start of WW1, the ALP had a record for strong, socially-progressive and nation-building government. It had emerged as the single, most powerful political party in the nation and its success had effectively forced the opposing political parties (Protectionists and Free Traders) to combine in a single political entity – the so-called ‘Fusion’ of 1909 – and even copy its strategies. However, the apparently monolithic power of the ALP as the driving force in Australian politics in the early years of Federation was to shatter in less than 2 years over the issue of conscription.

The ALP relied on the cities and major regional towns for its support, and both the rapid rise in manufacturing, particularly in Victoria, and urbanisation prior to WW1 had strengthened this demographic base. But rural Australia was a very different proposition, particularly where towns were small, the population dispersed and manufacturing and other secondary industry limited. Gippsland, and more particularly the Shire of Alberton, were definitely not in the ALP heartland. In fact, the ALP did not even put up a candidate for the relevant House of Representatives seat (Gippsland). However, it did at least work to build or, at least, retain its Senate support and in May 1914 – well before the double dissolution – ALP Senator Russell gave a public address to a large audience in the shire hall at Yarram. It was a long (two hours) and lively meeting and it was reported in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative ( 20 May 1914). Senator Russell obviously knew he was in a Liberal stronghold and attempted to counter the claims most commonly made against the ALP: it didn’t understand or care about the farmers and rural industry; it struggled with financial management; it favoured preference for unionists in the workplace etc. There was a lot of (Applause) and (Laughter) noted in the paper’s report of proceedings and Russell obviously put in a good performance. He touched on many issues. He argued that the co-operative ventures of the farmers, particularly the dairy farmers, were a form of socialism. He attacked price fixing by monopolies like the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in Queensland. He accepted the need to fine tune the universal training scheme because it was interfering with the young lads’ football and other sporting commitments. He claimed that PM Cook was engineering the grounds for a double dissolution, and there were many passing shots at the Fusionists, including the then current member (J Bennett). However, the most significant comment came towards the end of his address when he claimed that the ALP had lost the 1913 election because of the ‘Rural Workers’ log’. Russell continued with a spirited defence of the industrial rights of the rural working class:

The Fisher Government lost [the] last election because of the Rural Workers log. A rural worker is a young man reared in the country district. One painful fact is that he clears out to the city to better himself, because he sees less opportunity in the country districts. The poor chap who looks round the factories and can’t get a job goes to the country. The men farmers want are those born and bred in the country. By all means help them in the country, and don’t sweat them. The farmer who gives decent conditions has nothing to fear. As to the Arbitration Court, the farmer has an equal right to state his case. Farmers be men! Don’t ask for the right of the three, four or five per cent who sweat their men. men, whether labourers or employers, had a right to be treated as men. No power could stop the Rural Workers going on. If they are checked, when strong enough they will strike – and at a time when the crops are ripe.

The Rural Workers’ Log was a set of claims drawn up by the Australian Wokers’ Union to cover pay and conditions for rural workers. The set of claims was an ambit one and the AWU could only put it up if there was an interstate dispute. Moreover, it would have proved very difficult to unionise the widely dispersed rural workforce in a district such as the Shire of Alberton. However, despite these qualifications, the very existence of such a log of claims was seen by farmers, and represented by anti-ALP forces, as an all-out attempt to unionise the rural work force. To the farmer, particularly the small farmer, and even more particularly the dairy farmer, the idea of a unionised workforce was anathema. Farming was based on family labour, supplemented by small-scale, casualised and itinerant labour. It was also looking to mechanisation to reduce its dependence on labour. Labour demands were driven by seasonal, climatic and a whole range of other variables. Unlike the factory, the farm did not see the absolute separation of home and work place. Nor was there any simple division of time and, for the individual worker, the range of work, and the skills involved, were more varied than in any factory setting. In short, Russell’s claim that the Rural Workers’ Log had cost the ALP the 1913 election would have rung true with his audience at Yarram.

Without even realising it, Russell was also being prescient because the Rural Workers Log was again put forward as the key issue in the 1914 election in the Shire of Alberton. As there was no ALP candidate even standing for the House of Representatives seat of Gippsland, the anti-ALP forces in the district needed both to limit the ALP vote in the Senate and ensure the victory of the ‘right’ anti-ALP candidate in the lower house. In this case, the right candidate was the then sitting member Bennett, a member of the Cook Fusion Government, as opposed to G H Wise who was standing as Independent Liberal. The basic strategy adopted was to talk up, again, the threat of the Rural Workers Log and thereby portray the ALP as anti-farmer and, at the same time, portray Wise as a tacit supporter of the Rural Workers Log. To see how this strategy played out it is necessary to look closely at the role played by the editor (A J Rossiter) of the local paper, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative.

As future posts will show, Rossiter became one of the key players in the district to provide the narrative both of and for the War. He used his paper to push a particular line which, in brief, was unequivocally both pro-Empire and pro-conscription. At this point, September 1914, he had no qualms about pushing a very direct pro-Liberal and anti-ALP line for the federal election. On Friday 4 September 1914, the day before the election, he featured in his paper a how-to-vote card under the heading Federal Elections. The Liberal Vote. It stated, All true Liberals should vote thus and directed readers to vote first for Bennett in the House of Representatives and then for the six named Liberals in the Senate. Similarly, in the editorial on Wednesday 2 September, in the week leading to the election, Rossiter backed the six Liberal candidates for the Senate and expressed his ‘utmost confidence’ in them. He also backed Bennett and claimed with confidence that he would be returned. At the same time, his endorsement of Bennett was not overwhelming, noting that:

Mr Bennett has done nothing to forfeit the confidence of the electors. As a speaker he has vastly improved, and during his brief term as Gippsland’s representative no man could have worked harder for the good of the province. He has passed through two most trying sessions, which might have been productive of good but for obstruction by the Labor Party.

However, the direct public endorsement of the Liberal candidates was only part of the political game plan that Rossiter pursued. He also actively promoted the fear about the Rural Workers’ Log. Just two weeks after Senator Russell had claimed, at the public meeting at Yarram, that the Rural Workers Log had cost the ALP victory at the 1913 election, Rossiter published a detailed overview of the log of claims, on 3 July 1914. The headline he provided stated that the log was to operate from 1 October 1914 which implied that its implementation was imminent. The same article appeared in the paper on a regular basis throughout July and, as reported in the paper, the log of claims would have raised serious concerns. For example, dairy farmers would have been most concerned about the rigid approach to hours of work and the related provision for overtime:

… 48 hours shall constitute a week’s work, such hours to be worked as follows: – Half-past 7 a.m. to 20 minutes to six on five days of the week, with one hour for dinner; and five minutes past 7 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturdays, with two “smoke-ohs” of 15 minutes each, one in the forenoon and one in the afternoon. Overtime is put down as time and a half.

The basic strategy Rossiter employed was to highlight the threat of the Rural Workers’ Log and its impending introduction – to reduce the ALP vote in the Senate – and at the same time emphasise Bennett’s strong opposition to it, as opposed to what he represented as Wise’s lack of concern or ambivalence. For example, in an editorial on 24 July 1914 Rossiter began by highlighting the ‘grim ogre’ of the Rural Workers’ Log with its ‘preposterous demands’ that was hanging over and threatening all farmers. He accepted that its introduction might not be as imminent as some – including himself! – claimed, but he did urge farmers to be prepared to combine together quickly and contribute funds to a shared pool to fight the claim in the Arbitration Court. Against this effective ‘call to arms’, in the same editorial Rossiter featured comments made by Wise to the effect that it would be very difficult for the AWU even to get its log of claims before arbitration and that, in any case, by its very nature the log was exorbitant and it would never succeed in its present form. Wise was being portrayed as unconcerned or sceptical. Then, on 19 August, there was a detailed account of a speech at Alberton on 15 August by Bennett. The headline was ‘Rural Workers’ Log’. In the article Bennett challenged Wise’s claim that he, Bennett, had deliberately inflated the threat of the log and was employing it as a ‘scare’. In the article Bennett railed against what he claimed was the dire threat posed:

The Rural Workers’ Log is no scare. It is a far reaching piece of realism and if persisted in it will absolutely destroy primary industries, and the day you destroy agricultural progress that day you will hand the development of Australia over to some foreign nation which has more sense than to force the Agricultural Industry into or under an award of an Arbitration Court. To fix the hours of employment and the rate of wage for the farmers is an impossibility until you can fix the rainfall and the sunshine.

He continued in the same vein to argue that the arbitration system itself was set against the farmers and reinforced the claim that Australia’s agricultural future was threatened by the Rural Workers’ Log.

Wise also gave an election speech in the district at the same time – 14 August, at Yarram – which was also reported in detail in the paper (19 August). The thrust of Wise’s argument was that Cook’s Fusion Government had been a failure: rather than attempt to pass legislation it had contrived to bring on a double dissolution for political purposes. He even claimed that the ‘Fusionists’ exercised stricter discipline than the ALP, implying that they were not genuinely ‘liberal’. He did talk about the Rural Workers’ Log but he minimised the threat it posed. He claimed that the Fusion Party had used the threat of the log very effectively in the last (1913) election: At [the] last election one successful lie was told – the most successful and effective lie that was ever told at an election – and it won every country seat in the Commonwealth for the Fusion, that was the lie about [the] Rural Workers’ Log.

There was also a series of letters published in the paper at this time with claim and counter claim as to the real danger posed by the log and the extent to which talk of it was being used to scare people and influence voting. Overall, Rossiter managed to keep the issue of the Rural Workers’ Log as the key local issue for the election and he definitely tried to discredit Wise by suggesting that he tried to downplay the threat because he was sympathetic to the ALP. Wise was also alleged to favour preference for unionists in the workplace. In the last editorial he wrote before the election – Friday 4 September – Rossiter left no one in any doubt about his views on Wise:

As, therefore, Mr Wise, be he described as Independent or what not, has in the past so assisted the Socialistic Labor party in directions inimical to the interests of farmers, whom he seeks to represent, they should rise as one united band tomorrow and say with the overwhelming voice of an undivided poll, “we will have none of him.”

Two of the Liberal candidates for the Senate gave election speeches in Yarram. Senator McColl addressed 150 electors on 5 August (reported 7 August) and Mr McLean addressed a large number of people on 1 September (reported 2 September). Rossiter’s two newspaper reports on their speeches were extensive and the speeches covered the full range of claimed ALP failings – the evils of the caucus system, the poor financial management of the ALP in government, union bids to restrict immigration to keep wages high, preference for unionists in the workplace, the ALP’s abolition of postal voting, the ALP’s use of the Senate to thwart the power of the House of Representatives, socialism Vs liberalism and so on. They further touched on topical issues such as the East-West railway, the funding for the new national capital, old age pensions and national insurance, and the White Australia Policy. There was even a question from the floor on Home Rule. Tellingly, as reported, there was not a single reference to the Rural Workers’ Log; and, presumably, if either speaker had raised it as an issue Rossiter would certainly have reported it.

Rossiter’s campaign against both the ALP in the Senate and Wise in the House of Representatives would have to be judged successful. As far as the Senate was concerned, roughly 60% of Gippsland votes went to the Liberals. The outcome in the House of Representatives was less clear cut. In fact, it was Wise who won the seat – by some 600 votes – but, more locally, in the Shire of Alberton, Bennett outpolled Wise by 200 votes. It is interesting to speculate why, outside the Shire of Alberton at least, Wise was successful. In part, Wise was obviously a strong local candidate. In fact, he had won the seat in 1910 with a majority of some 4,000 votes but then lost it to Bennett in 1913 by 2,400 votes. Once Wise regained the seat in 1914 he held it until 1922. As well, the fact that Wise had not joined the Fusionists probably helped him. Certainly he was able to portray himself as someone who had remained true to his principles: someone prepared to stand as an ‘Independent Liberal’ rather than compromise his beliefs. In a farming community that saw unionism a form of coercion, was naturally wary of government, in any form, and valued individual effort above everything else, it was not surprising that the independent candidate, as a professed liberal, would attract support.

It was hardly understood at the time (September 1914) but the intense opposition to the proposed log of claims for rural workers, with its implied unionisation of the rural work force, would have a parallel manifestation in 1916 when Hughes tried to introduce conscription. Just as unionism was opposed because it threatened traditional farming arrangements, with the focus on family labour, so too would the push for conscription be seen as an attempt to ride roughshod over the individual farming family’s right to balance the tension between retaining the farm and serving the Empire. Both instances threatened to undermine the independence of the farming family and the viability of the family farm.

Finally, it was somewhat ironic that the pay arrangements being then determined for the the newly formed AIF – 6/- per day, including 1/- deferred pay – posed at least the equivalent threat to the supply of itinerant and casualised labour in rural areas as the much-hyped and over-stated Rural Workers’ Log.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

‘The Labor Party. Senator Russell At Yarram. A Stirring Address’ 20 May 1914, p.2
‘Federal Elections. The Liberal Vote.’ 4 September 1914, p.2
Editorial, 2 September 1914, p.2
‘Rural Workers’ Log. To Operate On Oct. 1st.’ 3 July 1914,  p.2 (Also 10, 15, 17 July 1914.)
‘Rural Workers’Log. Mr Bennett At Alberton’ 19 August 1914, p.4
‘Federal Elections. Mr G.H. Wise At Yarram’ 19 August 1914, p.4
‘Original Correspondence’ 2 September 1914, p.3 and 4 September 1914 p.2
Editorial 4 September 1914, p.2
‘Senator McColl at Yarram’ 7 August 1914, pp. 3-4
‘Federal Elections. Mr. McLean At Yarram’ 2 September 1914, p.2

Note: details on election results appeared in the edition of 9 September 1914, p.3

The Shire’s sense of its history at the outbreak of the War – Part 2

In an earlier post (18 July 2014) I attempted to create a picture of how, in the lead-up to the outbreak of war in 1914, the locals of the Shire of Alberton saw the previous several generations of their district’s history, from roughly 1840. It was based on the belief that the lived experiences and memories of overlapping generations represented a shared, natural history for all those involved. I also made the point that this natural ‘history making’ process took place within a wider socio-cultural framework which had the manifest and unchallenged greatness of the British Empire as its key reference point.

In this post, I intend to sharpen the focus and move away from the collective memory of the entire district to focus instead on the work of just one person. The person is the Reverend George Cox (Church of England) who was appointed to Yarram in 1910 and served there until he enlisted in the AIF, aged forty-four, in 1915. Future posts will show how Rev. Cox became a key player in the history of the Shire over WW1, in terms of both his own personal experiences and also the authority and influence he exercised in the local community.

Just two years after the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria was established (1909) Rev. Cox set up a local branch – it was referred to as a ‘sub-centre’ – in Yarram. It was the only such local branch of the RHSV at the time; and, under Cox’s leadership, it became very active in locating and drawing together the full range of relevant primary source materials and then employing them to document the early history of Gippsland. Cox’s leadership was obviously critical because when he enlisted in the second half of 1915 and left the district the local historical society folded. However, the amount of local history documented in the few short years of the branch’s existence was very impressive and Cox obviously worked closely with key personnel from the RHSV, including its Secretary A W Greig, and even presented a paper to the Society on Gippsland’s early history (29 June 1914). More importantly, for our purposes at least, the history uncovered was actually published at the time. Between November 1911 and July 1914 Cox wrote and had published in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – no fewer than 49 articles on the early history of Gippsland. In fact, after his military service and even though he was no longer based in the district, Cox continued the series of articles on Gippsland’s history, and by the time he finished in late 1930 he had written some 130 articles. For anyone interested in following up the full set of articles written by Cox, the Port Albert Maritime Museum and the Yarram and District Historical Society jointly published the complete set in six volumes in the 1990s. They are still available. The details are given below in References.

In this particular post I am looking only at the 49 articles Cox wrote and published up to the outbreak of WW1. These articles covered essentially the first decade of settlement, through to the early 1850s.

Cox himself gave some insight into his motivation for the articles. In the first article – published 31 January 1912 – he justified the setting up of the local branch of the then Historical Society of Victoria on the grounds that there were no ‘definite and complete records’ of the history of Gippsland. Moreover, the historical records were then disappearing at an alarming rate. He gave the example of the original cemetery on the bank of the Albert River, with some of the graves of the earliest settlers of Gippsland, that had fallen into decay, with headstones destroyed, inscriptions no longer decipherable and cemetery records lost. Later, in 1914, he was to claim that a key part of the problem was that Gippsland itself had not been recognised in the historical record. He had a sort of thesis to explain his claim of ‘Neglected Gippsland’. First, he argued that the early years of Gippsland had been characterised by a high level of lawlessness and, presumably, this legacy had discouraged the proper and full historical study of the region. It is actually difficult to follow his argument on this score. The second point he made was more credible, and it related to the way that the civic centre of Gippsland had continued to shift from the time of the first settlement: from Port Albert to Tarraville, to Alberton, to Yarram, to Sale. As he put it:

The other feature which creates much difficulty lies in the fact that instead of one place forming a permanent pivot around which settlement has developed, place after place has become the centre of an ever widening and progressive area. (Vol. IV, Article 49)

Cox’s mission then was to locate and study original primary sources – from parliamentary reports to private correspondence and papers, and even the personal reminiscences of old residents – and then from this research he hoped to create a ‘connected history’ by publishing a series of articles grouped round broad themes or topics. However, at the start of his enterprise, with so little written on the history of Gippsland, Cox was not even sure that the body of primary sources would sustain his written account. Interestingly, in many ways Cox’s efforts and output line up with the practice of publishing a blog: the history was aimed at the widest audience; it was written over an extended period and published in episodes; and its focus and themes developed over time. Also, Cox was keen to receive, and he definitely acknowledged and employed, ‘feedback’ from his readers. His determination to acknowledge points of contention and conflicting evidence in an attempt to correct the developing historical record was integral to his work. Presumably, the keen level of response he had from readers of his articles further motivated him to continue the series.

As well as uncovering and recording the history of a region that he saw as having been neglected, Cox was also motivated by what he saw as the power of history to both celebrate and educate:

Let it be clearly understood between reader and writer that this is a national work, a work of public interest, in which all may take a share, for the honouring of those – our pioneers – who have borne the heat and toil and the burden of the day, and for the instruction and inspiration of those who shall come after. (Vol. II, Article 1)

It is evident that Cox saw for his history, significance and purpose that were greater than the intrinsic interest of the story itself. He saw history, like his religious faith, as instruction, for both the present and future, rather than merely an account, no matter how colourful and interesting, of what had happened in the past.

What would a reader of the Reverend Cox’s articles have made of the history of Gippsland? Arguably, the key theme for readers of the articles 100 years ago was that the pastoral industry drove the exploration, occupation and finally settlement of Gippsland. It was the squatters – ‘overlanders’ – from New South Wales, moving roughly S-W in search of more and better pasture, who crossed the rivers (Snowy, Tambo, Nicholson, Mitchell, Avon, Thomson, La Trobe) and pushed into Gippsland. It was the same group who were desperate for a port on the coast – Port Albert, the site of the first settlement – from which to ship their cattle. There was no question that the ‘unoccupied’ land would be taken. Cox’s articles highlight that the fundamental purpose of colonisation was to take what was seen as ‘unoccupied’ land and use it for economic benefit. In the pursuit of this end there would be obstacles – attempts by the colonial government to control the spread and speed of the occupation; the limits of exploration; the physical challenges of geography; and resistance from the Indigenous people – but the end was never in doubt, not in Australia nor in any other part of the Empire: the basic driver of colonisation ensured that what was seen as ‘waste’ or ‘unoccupied’ land would be exploited for economic benefit.

Related to this key theme there was also a theme on the necessary and natural subjugation of the Indigenous people. Cox himself invariably referred to the ‘blacks’ and to a lesser extent he used the term ‘natives’. The original documents he cited in his articles referred to ‘aboriginal blacks’, ‘aboriginal natives’, ‘the aboriginals of Gippsland’, and ‘blackfellows’. In a few cases the term ‘savages’ was employed. In all these descriptions, the use of lower case was constant. Expressions such as ‘wild race’, ‘brutal tribe’ and ‘wild blacks’ were common. The Indigenous people were represented as simple, dangerous and untrustworthy. They speared cattle, stole supplies and murdered stockmen. Cox also devoted a considerable amount of copy to the claims about the ‘White Woman’ of Gippsland (Vol. 4 Articles 6-7): the story of a European woman who was supposedly shipwrecked in the early 1840s and captured by and forced to live with the ‘blacks’. He detailed the several expeditions to locate and free her and looked at the claims and counter claims, before eventually deciding that judgement needed to be ‘suspended’. Cox also gave some detail of the conflict and killings on the frontier; and again he presented various, often conflicting, accounts of what happened. Cox did not condone the ‘massacres’ but his narrative held that it was inevitable that Indigenous resistance to the pioneers would be overcome so that the true productive value of the land could be realised and settlement proceed. For Cox, in keeping with the theories underpinning the White Australia Policy at the time, what happened on the frontier, allowing for excesses, was seen as the inevitable outcome of a clash between races. At the time Cox was writing, the Indigenous people were seen, literally, as a doomed and dying race.

Then there was the theme of civilisation. Just as the resistance of the Indigenous people had to be contained – and this effectively meant their dispossession and elimination – so the more undesirable characteristics of European life on the frontier had to be overcome. Not surprisingly, Cox devoted considerable attention to the early (Anglican) church in Gippsland, particularly the work of the Reverend Willoughby Bean (Vol. VI Articles 41,43,47,48). The Rev. Bean emerges as a heroic figure, fighting all kinds of hardship, who traversed Gippsland from Port Albert to Bairnsdale and beyond, to bring the faith to a flock that was small, dispersed and often living in ignorance and sin. Bean’s Rough Journal is in fact gripping reading. There is an extraordinary account of his voyage from Williamstown to Port Albert in 1848 that took some 10 days and a lot of prayer in treacherous seas (Vol. VI, Article 37). It is clear that for Cox – and Bean before him – the settlement had to be Christian: children had to be baptised, couples married and Christian burials conducted. The building of churches and schools were the signs of civilised settlement. As well, whenever the agencies of law and order were not present, as at Port Albert in the early years, vice, drunkeness and lawlessness would prevail. Cox’s history is very much about reproducing the agencies and culture of civilised (Christian) society on the frontier, a theme that was repeated all over the Empire.

It is arguable that exploration was for Cox a theme in its own right and not just an aspect of the broader development of the pastoral industry. The focus on explorers was definitely a given in the society of the time. For example, each year in Victorian schools ‘Discovery Day’ was celebrated – it would later be subsumed within Anzac Day – when special attention would be given to the discovery and settlement of Australia. Cox wrote material specifically for Discovery Day (Vol. I, Article 26). Certainly he wrote extensively of the explorers, particularly McMillan and Strzelecki (Vol. I, Articles 4, 5, 19, 20, 26, 27, 34, 40), highlighting the dangers and challenges they faced. He makes much of the issue about who really discovered Gippsland and why such a debate ever arose in the first place. There is a heavy emphasis on the exploits of the ‘explorers’ as the first Europeans to discover and unlock the land. He sees these Gippsland explorers as worthy successors to the great Imperial explorers like Cook and Flinders. As well, much is made of the backgrounds of the explorers and pioneers – Scotland features prominently – linking the expansion in Gippsland to broader Imperial themes. The detail Cox gives on the movement of capital, labour, technology and even stock across the Empire is revealing. In one of his articles (Vol. III, No. 4) Cox wrote about Aeneas Macdonell, ‘the chieftain of Glengarry’ who left Scotland in 1840 and settled, for a short time, at Greenmount near Yarram. Cox quoted the following account which he said came from the Glasgow Chronicle of 20 June 1840. An entire community was to be shifted from one end of the Empire to the other:

Glengarry goes to the southern hemisphere for the purpose of forming a new Glengarry settlement. He has taken a retinue of followers with him consisting of shepherds and agriculturalists of every description, capable of carrying all the improved methods of rearing cattle, and agricultural improvements of the old to the new world. He takes out a splendid stock of all kinds of the far-famed Scottish cattle, a vast number of the most improved agricultural implements and a frame house or two. Glengarry we understand, lost his family estate through the reckless extravagance of his father and a short time since, sold one of his own estates for a pretty handsome sum, with which he now goes to Australia. After making a settlement either in Australia or New Zealand the chieftain intends to return and take all his tenants.

Overall, the historical narrative presented by Cox is celebratory and heroic. It is the iconic history of great individuals and definite types, with the key type the ‘pioneer’: forceful, larger-than-life, independent, risk-taking and enterprising. As an example of what Cox’s history does not cover, there is little on class conflict on the frontier. It is as if everyone is held together in a common bond as they battle the frontier. The frontier, in other words, appears as more powerful than class conflict generally or the more direct competing economic interests of boss and worker. Nor is his history an economic and political analysis of speculative capitalism and land alienation on the pastoral frontier. Nor is it a detailed study of Indigenous resistance to European occupation. However, for present purposes, the more important point is that one hundred years ago, leading to the outbreak of WW1, the Reverend George Cox devoted considerable time and energy in writing a comprehensive set of articles on the history of the early years of Gippsland and organised for this work to be published in the district. His effort was significant on any number of levels: it was groundbreaking work for the (Royal )Historical Society of Victoria on local history; it emphasised the importance of primary resource material; it was concerned to present and assess conflicting historical interpretations and evidence; it was intended to reach a wide, local audience; and it addressed the shortage of historical studies on Gippsland. It also made the local history of Gippsland an integral part of wider Imperial history.

Cox’s history is more heroic than analytical and more narrative than interpretative, and, unsurprisingly, he did not challenge the theoretical constructs of his time. But for our purposes, the true significance of his work is that, when WW1 came, his version of local history reinforced the powerful synergy between the pioneer and soldier. Cox’s articles on early Gippsland helped ensure a smooth transition to the Imperial war.

References

Adams, J D (ed.) 1990, Notes on Gippsland History by Reverend George Cox

Vol 1 The Exploration of Gippsland, Shire of Alberton and Yarram and District Historical Society, 1990
Vol 2 The Beginnings of Gippsland, Port Albert Maritime Museum and Yarram and District Historical Society, 1990
Vol 3 The Alberton District 1842-3, Port Albert Maritime Museum and Yarram and District Historical Society, 1990
Vol 4 Gippsland in the 1840s, Port Albert Maritime Museum and Yarram and District Historical Society, 1990
Vol 5 Alberton District from 1844 to the 1850s, Port Albert Maritime Museum, 1997
Vol 6 The Beginning of Church and School in Gippsland, Port Albert Maritime Museum, 1997