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.


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.


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.


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.


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

The Defence of the Nation: The White Australia Policy

Between Federation and the outbreak of WW1, Australia’s ongoing fear of invasion was tied inextricably to its fear that White Australia could be either undermined or overwhelmed by Asia. The stereotypical bogeyman of Asia was China; but for those most closely associated with defence policy the real threat was the new power of Japan. Therefore, defence policy was tied not simply to the creation of a navy and military forces to protect the territorial integrity of Australia, but also to the establishment of ‘statutory armour’ (Kendall p.33) to safeguard the racial integrity of White Australia. The concurrency of these two policy streams was to cause tension in relations with the Mother Country. From Australia’s perspective, Britain simply did not understand how crucial the White Australia Policy was to its very existence. For Britain, Australia’s preoccupation with race was a distraction that could compromise its foreign policy.

The White Australia Policy had near universal support in the new Federal parliament, just as it had had in the colonial governments. One of the key drivers for Federation had been the wish to introduce central immigration practices that could not be undermined or circumvented via inconsistencies and exceptions across the various colonies. Some of the first Commonwealth legislation – Immigration Restriction Act 1901, Pacific Islanders Labourers Act 1901, Naturalisation Act 1903 – was designed to limit ‘colored’ or ‘alien’ immigration, repatriate such immigrants and generally limit the legal rights and influence of ‘non-White’ or ‘non-European’ people resident in Australia. There was a complex battery of forces driving the White Australia Policy: the conviction that non-Europeans threatened Australian democracy because democracy itself was a uniquely European political system; fear of cheap labour; fear of moral degradation, disease, vice; fear of race contamination and the dilution of racial purity; fear of the development of a quasi slave-economy and state in northern Australia and so on. However, whatever the forces and whatever the relative breakdown of each in terms of driving the policy, there is little doubt that the White Australia Policy was a distinguishing feature of Australian society and politics at the time. It was within everyone’s consciousness and it was accepted as an everyday reality. Consider, for example, the remarks of Edmund Barton – the then Prime Minister – in September 1901, during the debate on the Immigration Restriction Bill. He had just finished noting the effectiveness of various colonial Restriction Acts on curbing Japanese immigration.

I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races – I think no one wants convincing of this fact – unequal; and inferior. The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman. There is deep-set difference, and we see no prospect and no promise of its ever being effaced. Nothing in this world can put these two races upon an equality. Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races equal to others.

Barton was also to become one of the first judges of the High Court (1903). The White Australia Policy was not some passing or fringe theory but, rather, a deeply-held conviction right across the political spectrum and across all classes and sections of the Australian community. Moreover, it was also held that Australia, as a white country within the British Empire, represented the equivalent of the highest development of the English people or ‘race’. It was Australia that had set new standards in egalitarianism, limited the influence of class and privilege, promoted individual effort and principles of liberalism and so on. Australia had achieved all this while retaining its (White) racial integrity. It was hardly going to compromise the social policy that went to the core of its very identity, even if the Mother Country disapproved.

However, for Britain the strength of the Empire came from the range and diversity of the peoples that came under its power. It was a multi-state, multi-racial and multi-cultural empire and, apart, of course, from vested interest and political machination, it was held together by notions of shared loyalties and racial and cultural tolerance which did not line up with the White Australia Policy. The following article from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative of 20 November 1914 provides an insight into how values that were held to define the Empire did not warrant much, if any, attention in Australia. The story was taken directly from the Shepparton Advertiser where it appeared on 2 November 1914. It described a religious festival performed by a group of Indian Muslims working in the Shepparton district at the time. In the course of the ceremony, the following political statement was made by the ‘Moslem priest’, who was said to speak English ‘well and fluently’:

“Why do Australians call us black fellows when we belong to the same Empire, are fellow subjects, and are fighting under the same flag for the King and our united Empire? We are in this war giving up our lives the same as Australians, and fighting with equal courage and loyalty. Why, then do they forbid us to come to Australia? … We are a loyal and law-abiding people.”

In the Shepparton Advertiser on the same day there was another very detailed article which covered proceedings in the House of Commons when declarations of loyalty to the British Crown, and promises of military assistance, were made by the ‘Rulers of the Native States of India’. There was much cheering and acknowledging by the Commons of the Imperial loyalty on display. However, as the Muslim community of Shepparton realised, such commitment to the Empire was not going to cut it in White Australia: not only were members of the Empire not equal, but the races needed to kept apart. It was an Imperial tension the Mother Country had had to manage for some time. In fact, Britain had had to intervene in 1901 to ‘soften’ the Immigration Restriction Act, not that Britain in any way reduced the effectiveness of the legislation but it did persuade Australia to ‘disguise’ the intention more effectively, via the infamous European language dictation test.

Then there was the tension over naval defence. Britain, in 1902, had formed a strategic relationship with Japan. It was renewed in 1911. By the end of the nineteenth century Britain needed Japanese help to balance the threat of the Russian navy in the Far East. After Japan defeated Russia in 1905 the accord between Britain and Japan became more important. Britain by this point simply could not match German naval growth by herself and needed such treaties to free up its own ships for European waters. Strachan (2001 p.443) claims that between 1901 and 1910 the number of British battleships and cruisers in Far Eastern waters halved. This dramatic decline throws more light on the statements of Kitchener (1910 p.5) that while the Royal Navy would, ultimately, always be able to defend Australia, there could well be a tricky hiatus before the fleet finally arrived. But while the naval relationship with Japan made perfect strategic sense for Britain it was viewed with alarm and suspicion in Australia. In fact, Japan was perceived by Australia as its greatest military threat. Such an invasion was a popular theme in fiction at the time, for example The Australian Crisis, 1909. Japan was the Asian power with the naval and military might to invade Australia, and relations between the two countries were difficult because of the White Australia Policy. The issue of Japanese immigration to British Columbia and California, and the fear of its extension to Australia, was a case in point. The British, according to Strachan, were keen to promote Japanese emigration to China and away from the Pacific. But Australia was far from convinced that Japan, even as an ally of Britain, posed no threat. Britain could not accept that Japan, because of the very logic of the White Australia Policy, had to pose a threat. Faced with the realisation that British naval resources were being deployed closer to England itself and that the gap was being covered by Japan, Australia was keen to develop its own navy as expeditiously as possible.

The tension between Australia and Japan over the White Australia Policy, with Britain caught in the middle, could flare up very easily. For example, in 1914 Sir Ian Hamilton, Inspector-General of the Overseas Forces, visited Australia to review the military. He left Australia and proceeded to New Zealand where in early May he gave a speech at a civic reception. The speech was a fairly lively defence of the White Australia Policy. The Argus reported the speech on 14 May 1914 under the headline: Menace Of The Pacific. Danger From Alien Races. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Speech and the Weekly Times reported it on 23 May 1914 under the headline: White and Part-Colored. Hamilton touched on many issues: the damage done to the Malay States by the influx of coolies; a China in turmoil, where tradition had broken down and society was becoming restless and dangerous; the danger of introducing cheap alien labor to Australia; and a South Africa where prosperous European shopkeepers had been replaced by ‘bunnias’ (money lenders) and ‘coolies’. He believed that … the Pacific was the meeting ground, not of nations, but of continents, and here it might be decided whether Asiatics or Europeans were going to guide their destinies. He finished by noting:

If people with high ideals and high standards are forced to live cheek by jowl with people of low standards and low ideals, they must either become slave-drivers or sink to the level of those by whom they are surrounded, and be beaten.

As the speech was reported, Hamilton made no specific reference to Japan; and perhaps Hamilton thought that because he was in New Zealand the speech would pass unnoticed. However the speech was picked up and it must have caused the British Foreign Office considerable discomfort. Once again, the White Australia Policy was straining Anglo-Japanese relations, and this time the very policy was being championed by one of Britain’s top military officers.

The response from Japan was swift. The Argus on 20 May 1914 under the headline – Pacific As Battleground. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Prediction. Resented by Japanese. Asiatics Urged to Combine. – reported that Hamilton’s comments had renewed … Japanese doubts concerning British enthusiasm for the Anglo-Japanese alliance. It quoted the Japanese newspaper the Nichi Nichi – a major Tokyo daily – declaring that:

Japan must prepare to stand alone and face the white races in battle. We must also warn other Asiatics of the fearful consequences of the white man’s prejudice and unrighteous attitude. Asia must be prepared to cooperate with Japan for the common defence. Japan has no warlike designs, but is striving for an equal footing with whites.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a trend round this time for Imperialists who came to Australia and studied its society closely to go back to Britain convinced of the value and desirability of the White Australia Policy. Lord Denman, who finished his term as Governor General in May 1914, endorsed the White Australia Policy at a function put on by the Federal Ministry. The speech was reported in the Weekly Times 16 May 1914.

The motives underlying Australia’s White Australia Policy he had been long enough here to sympathise with and to understand – long enough to realise that if the security of the Empire depended today and must depend for many years on the power of Britain, Australia herself would never be content to rely upon a treaty with any Foreign Power [Japan] – (loud applause) – however friendly and well disposed that Foreign Power might be, for the defence of her interests in the Pacific.

Arguably, at least in the context of Australia’s involvement in WW1, the most significant commentary on the White Australia Policy appeared in a letter to the English publication, The Spectator in July 1907. It was a long and sometimes rambling letter that articulated ‘six propositions’. A brief summary of these held that the Western and Oriental races could not live together in Australia; Australia faced the real and urgent threat of an Oriental invasion, peaceful or otherwise; Britain did not understand the strength of Australia’s determination to keep the Nation white; while Britain did not approve of the White Australia Policy it would, in the end, side with Australia in the inevitable race war; but because Britain would delay its support for Australia, its standing would be compromised; and it was therefore in Britain’s interests to declare forthwith that it sympathised with Australia’s position and that it would support her in the battle of race.

The writer also claimed that Britain’s own dealings with ‘Orientals’ were characterised by hypocrisy:

May there not be something after all in the fact that while the Briton who never meets the Oriental declares that East and West can live side by side, his own race wherever in the world it meets an Oriental people refuses to live side by side with it? … The Englishman in India is the strongest case in point. A narrow Western aristocracy, of splendid intellect and character, rules, for its great good, a race which you do not believe capable of ruling itself. The rulers live absolutely apart. They would be highly shocked if their womenfolk had any intimacy with natives, and hold it the gravest danger to more than the health of their children that they should be brought up in India.

Probably the most significant claim made in the letter is that Australia, at the start of the twentieth century, represented some sort of last-chance utopia for the British people and the white race:

Remember, this is the last land open to the white man – the only one that can be purely British. South Africa cannot be a white man’s land, simply because you cannot spirit away millions of blacks. The United States – even our magnificent Canada – will be less purely Anglo-Saxon as time goes on. And Australia, of all countries in the world, is an ideal one for the white man to live in. That is what a white Australia means to Australia and to England. But the dream is threatened: There are some three million odd whites in Australia inhabiting three million square miles. To the North, at its very gates, up to within a day’s sail, are eight hundred million Orientals.

Therefore a moral commitment was required to keep Australia white, not just for the present people but … for the forty million white men to come after, and for the perpetuation of our race and the ideals we believe in, and, above all, for our children.

The letter ends with a veiled threat on mutual understanding and responsibility:

What is the use of a [British] navy if the only war which concerns me is the one it will not fight? Why am I to risk another’s war, say, with Germany, if the Empire will not risk my war with the East? That doubt is doing every day perhaps irremediable harm.

Overall, the letter is a spirited defence of the White Australia Policy and an urgent appeal to Britain to drop its hypocritical opposition and support Australia in its attempt to fulfill its destiny as the last but finest land for the flowering of the British race. However the true significance of the letter is that its writer, C E W Bean, was to become the official historian of Australia’s involvement in WW1. Bean was never the detached observer. He was a key character in the narrative itself.

In fact, Bean’s views on race were still resonating when he wrote the official history. For example, in Chapter 1 of Volume 1 – first published in 1921 – Bean identified just how closely the White Australia Policy bound the Nation together at the start of the War: Only in one point was the Australian people palpably united – in a determination to keep its continent a white man’s land. (p. 7) And the same chapter is replete with claims that by the outbreak of WW1, the more pure British ‘stock’ in Australia had been transformed to a national type who represented the highest, evolved form of the Briton. Australia was the last, great frontier of the British race.

All of this points to the complexity surrounding the idea of Imperial loyalty. For Bean, and for Australians generally, the Empire was the undoubted source of National background, success and security; and the responsibility to defend it was a given. But the White Australia Policy was a critical qualification; and Australia was not prepared to compromise on the policy’s integral place in its very identity. The Australia within the British Empire was most decidedly a White Australia. Australia went into WW1 fighting both the Empire and a White Australia.

Finally, for a simple illustration of the extent to which the White Australia Policy had been so absorbed into Australian life that it shaped everyday reality even at the most ordinary and uncontested levels, consider the concert that was held in the hall at North Devon, in the Shire of Alberton, on Friday 3 July 1914. It was a primary school concert and there was a full house. The report published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 8 July 1914 was full of praise for the teachers for putting on such a fine show. There were many items. In one, twelve little girls appeared in night attire and lullabied their dolls to sleep. There was another item announced as ‘Our Farm’ in which eight boys and eight girls, dressed to represent farm lads and lassies performed a humorous ditty. There was the usual tableau-type item, this time on the theme of ‘Australian Naval Cadets’. And there was the usual range of individual and group songs and recitations. There were also two other acts that night that would have seemed perfectly apposite. One involved 24 boys who romped on to the stage dressed as ‘chinkies’. They then proceeded ‘in rollicking fashion’ to sing a Chinese song. The other act involved 16 boys whose faces had been blackened. They were introduced as the ‘Devon Darkies at Coleville’. Presumably this was a take-off of the then popular ‘The Coleville Coon Cadets: A Red Hot Nigger March Song’ by the English entertainer Harry Freeman. After their act the boys ‘kangarood off’ the stage. The acts were obviously meant to be humorous and, presumably, they were fillers to involve as may children as possible, probably those who were reluctant to perform. The unsubtle affirmation of the White Australia Policy at the concert that night would not have attracted any attention or rated any mention.


Barton E, Hansard, Parliament of Australia, House of Representatives, 26 September 1901, p. 5233

Kendall, T 2008, Within China’s Orbit?: China through the eyes of the Australian Parliament, Australian Parliamentary Library

Strachan, H 2001, The First World War. Vol 1. To Arms, Oxford University Press

Kitchener, Field Marshal Viscount 1910, Defence of Australia: Memorandum, The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia

Kirmess, C H 1909, The Australian Crisis, Thomas C Lothian, Melbourne

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 1 – The Story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915, 11th Edition 1941

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Unique Celebration’ 20 November 1914, p.4
‘Concert At North Devon’ 8 July 1914, p.2

Shepparton Advertiser
‘Unique Celebration. Near The River Bank. Moslems And The “Sacrifice” Of Isaac. The Priest’s Exhortating For King George And The Empire. A Pungent Word For Australians’ 2 November 1914, p.2
‘A Full Report. India And The Empire. 700 Native Rulers Offer Support In The War…’ 2 November 1914, p.3

The Argus
‘Menace Of The Pacific. Danger From Alien Race. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Speech’ 14 May 1914, p.10
‘Pacific As Battleground. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Prediction. Resented by Japanese. Asiatics Urged To Combine’ 20 May 1914, p.15

Weekly Times
Lord Denman’s Departure. Farewell Luncheon. Cheers Of The Citizens’ 16 May 1914, p.1
‘White and Part-Colored’ 23 May 1914, p.31

The Spectator
‘The Real Significance Of The “White Australia” Question’ 13 July 1907, pp.13-14





The Defence of the Nation: Junior and Senior Cadets

In 1911 Australia introduced a universal military training scheme that covered all males from twelve to twenty-six years of age. The scheme was something of a first in the English-speaking world. The plan was that over a time frame of roughly 10 years the scheme would generate sufficient numbers to create a viable Australian Military Forces.

The universal training scheme was broadly supported by all key political parties, including the ALP. As well, Field Marshal Viscount Kitchener had undertaken a study on the Defence of Australia in 1910 and this report supported the introduction of the scheme.

Under the scheme, all male children from the age of twelve to fourteen were required to train as Junior Cadets, all male youth from fourteen to eighteen were to train as Senior Cadets and, from eighteen to twenty-six, all males were to train in the Citizen Forces. In short, from twelve to twenty-six years of age, all males in Australia were to be required by law to undertake an extended and cumulative military training program.

Kitchener’s thinking on the need to raise such a National Citizen Force for Australia’s defence went to the heart of how threatened Australia saw itself and how its defence policy was crafted round this fear of invasion:

1. It is an axiom held by the British Government that the Empire’s existence depends primarily upon the maintenance of adequate and efficient naval forces. As long as this condition is fulfilled, and as long as British superiority is assured, then it is an accepted principle that no British dominion can be successfully and permanently occupied by an organised invasion from overseas.
2. But in applying this principle to Australasia, considerations of time and space cannot be disregarded. The conduct of a great war depends upon the calculated and proper combination of naval, military, and diplomatic forces; and it is quite conceivable that in the future, as in the past, national considerations may require the concentration of British naval forces in one or other theatre of operations. It follows that in seas remote from such a concentration, the British Naval Force may find themselves for the moment inferior in force to an actual, or potential, enemy. In such a situation, although our ultimate superiority at sea might not be a matter of doubt, some time might elapse before our command of the sea was definitely secured in all waters. It, therefore, becomes the duty of all self-governing Dominions to provide a military force adequate, not only to deal promptly with any attempt at invasion, but also to ensure local safety and public confidence until our superiority at sea has been decisively and comprehensively asserted. (Kitchener 1910, p.5)

He then calculated that, in Australia’s case, such a force needed to be 80,000 fighting troops.

In short, the Australian Military Forces to be raised by this scheme of universal training were to be for the defence of Australia, in Australia.

Interestingly, at that time, most similar nations were not in favour of such citizen-soldier type armies and opted instead for the permanent, professional and volunteer standing or regular army. The other striking feature of the Australian scheme was the focus on youth, and even childhood. This was definitely unique. In fact, the Swiss model, the closest scheme to the one implemented in Australia in 1911, and the one with which Australia was most impressed, did not cover males until they reached eighteen years of age.

There were many other reasons why the Australian Military Forces were to be raised via a scheme which had such a focus on youth. For a start, the establishment of cadet forces had had a long history in Australia, as in Britain, and the idea of youth being inculcated with military discipline and the camaraderie of military life and service was popular. However, as popular as the cadets were in some schools – both private and state – Barrett (1979, p. 32) gives figures that make it clear that voluntarism was not going to produce the numbers that were required. In 1910, for Australia as a whole, voluntarism had involved 10,500 senior and mounted cadets, and 24,000 junior cadets. But in 1913, two years after the introduction of the compulsory scheme, the equivalent figures were 130,000 senior cadets and 50,000 junior cadets.

It was also certainly the case that many politicians, educationists and ‘child savers’ believed compulsory military training for youth would not only meet military ends but also help to combat some of the evils associated with the rapid process of urbanisation from the late nineteenth century, from poor health and lack of physical fitness through to weak moral development and larrikinism. Military style disciple and military training would toughen youth. There was also the view that youth had to be taught both the worth of citizenship and the responsibilities associated with it. Lessons like these learnt as a young person, would shape the adult’s commitment to the democratic idealism underpinning the new Commonwealth. There was also the lesson of egalitarianism, whereby the compulsion of all males meant that there were no exceptions on the grounds of such as class, wealth or religion. Just as secular, state schooling was forming the new citizen in an egalitarian society, and breaking down the rigid class hierarchy of the old world, so too would compulsory military training strengthen the principles of egalitarianism and meritocracy. Mirroring the idea that democracy and civic compulsion could co-exist  was the complementary relationship between universal military training and compulsory schooling. Typically, at the time, schooling was compulsory through to fourteen and therefore by having all male students from the age of twelve involved in the scheme there was an overlap between compulsion to attend school and compulsion to undertake military training. The latter was but an extension of the former.

There was also the widely held perception that the Australian was a natural soldier. From the Boer War on, the skills and character of the Australian soldier – most typically the light horse trooper – had been extolled. British experts fostered the claim. For example, Kitchener, in the 1910 report cited earlier, referred to the …natural military aptitude of the Australian (p.6). He noted, The Australian citizen-soldier experiences much of military value in the every-day conditions of his civil life. He is generally a good rider, active, lithe and intelligent (p.15). The belief in the citizen-soldier and commitment to the universal training scheme flowed naturally from the perception that all Australians, by their very person and ordinary life experiences, were able to be transformed, easily, into first-rate soldiers.

Over time, opposition to the scheme grew. There were definitely cases where youth rejected the scheme on the grounds of religious belief and/or conscientious objection; and those who did were charged under the Defence Act and ended up in military detention, with some even in solitary confinement. However, the more common opposition was expressed in the more mundane manner of non-compliance or passive resistance: youth did not register in the first place or failed to attend the compulsory training sessions. Many young men found the scheme very demanding and avoided participating whenever they could. There was not really an issue with the junior cadets because this first stage of the universal training (12-14 years of age) was carried out in school, and was generally treated as just another piece of curriculum and school work: essentially physical development and training. Also, if the boy stayed on at school past fourteen and continued to complete his senior cadet training within the school context then this was also manageable. However, if the youth had left school and had started work and, simultaneously, was trying to adjust to his new independence, as well as manage the usual range of sport, social and family commitments then the training regime could pose serious difficulties. For senior cadets (14-18) the annual requirements were very significant – four whole-day drills, twelve half-day drills, and twenty-four night drills – with always the possibility of extra sessions: to make sure standards were met, to make up for sessions missed or to undertake ‘voluntary’ sessions. Plus there was also the time to get to and from the training centre and the effort taken over the uniform. Effectively, the training requirements, particularly for those who were not enthusiastic, were onerous. They also stretched out for a very long period in a young person’s life.

From as early as 1912, registrations in the scheme were less than they should have been. Barrett (1979, p.131) refers to a claimed figure of non-registration as high as 34%. Prosecutions were initiated and numbers picked up, but it was clear that there was non-compliance and many youth and their parents were inclined to dodge their responsibilities.

Cases where youth failed in their duty – shirkers – were reported in the press, with the obvious intention to hammer home the consequences of non-compliance. It became more of an issue once the War commenced. For example in The Argus 22 December 1914 – four months after the outbreak – under the headline, Drill Shirkers Sent to Fort the following appeared:

Fifty youths attached to the senior cadet branch of the citizen forces squeezed their way into the Richmond Court out of the drizzling rain yesterday morning. They marched before the bench in relays to answer charges of not having given the personal service required of them by the Defence Act.

Mr. S. J. Goldsmith, P.M. (chairman) deprecated the lack of patriotic spirit, and urged the boys to obey the call to attend military training. If Australia were good enough to live in it was good enough to learn to defend it, and, for his part, he was determined that youths eligible as trainees should realise it. He would give those boys charged with offences against the Defence Act before the war broke out an opportunity to redeem themselves; but as for those who had failed to attend drills since he would listen to no appeal – straight to a fortress they would go.

The magistrate then ordered 12 of them … into the custody of the officers commanding the coast defences at Queenscliff for seven days. He adjourned the other cases but directed those involved to … perform their missing drills forthwith.

Remarkably, for all the compulsion that applied, and the significant penalties associated with non-compliance, the cadet scheme itself was not genuinely universal. The legislation certainly inferred universality and all the political rhetoric emphasised universal obligation and responsibility, but the reality was that universal military training was limited to the capital cities, regional centres and large country towns. Section 138 of the Defence Act of 1909 provided for an area to be proclaimed as exempt from the training. The costs and other practical difficulties of setting up the scheme across all country towns and settlements were too great. Barrett (1979, p.70) noted that in 1911 of some 155,000 boys who registered for the scheme only 59% were ultimately liable for training. He further observed that the population density required to warrant the application of the scheme in sparsely populated rural areas was 2,000 people within a radius of 5 miles. At the time, Yarram’s population was half this number and all the other towns and settlements in the Shire of Alberton were considerably smaller. Thus the Shire was an exempt area, whereas in the larger towns of Gippsland – for example Sale and Warragul – there were senior cadets and all the provisions of the legislation applied.

Exemption meant that, in the Shire, those youth who were keen to pursue military training tended to gravitate to the rifle clubs. Thus when the first wave of recruiting took place in September 1914, youth from the rifle clubs were well represented, particularly those from Stacey’s Bridge Rifle Club. It is also worth noting that as the War progressed, local youth and young men from the Shire would often record on their enlistment papers that they had been residing in an ‘exempt area’, whereas men who were working in the Shire at the time of enlistment but who had lived elsewhere prior to moving there would often give details of their cadet experience, if it had applied.

There was a distinction between the junior and senior cadets in terms of exemption. As indicated, the junior cadets (12-14) came under the control of the Education Department and therefore, wherever there was a school the prescribed training was delivered by the teacher. Essentially, because the training was part of the curriculum exemption was not an issue. At the same time, there were, potentially, variations in its application in terms of the size of the school. There was an expectation that the program would run in all schools but, strictly speaking, it was not compulsory in schools where there were only female teachers. Stockings (2008, p.29) points out that many female teachers, across the nation, actually undertook the training to become certified as junior cadet instructors, at least until they were prevented from doing so. In the smaller schools, particularly one-teacher schools, it was not uncommon for both boys and girls to receive the training. The training itself was a set number of hours of physical training and drill every week, but depending on the school’s size, location and resources it could also cover specialisations such as miniature rifle shooting, swimming, organised games and first aid. Stockings (p. 30) argues that the scheme was essentially a popular one: There is little doubt that for boys, educators and even many military figures, the Junior Cadet system was the most popular part of the overall scheme of universal military training. It appears that this popularity was ultimately its weakness because the Commonwealth tried repeatedly to have the States pick up full financial responsibility; and when this was not successful, support was phased out. By the early 1920s the compulsory nature of the junior cadets was dropped.

In terms of the Shire of Alberton and the junior cadets school size was a critical issue. At the time, there was only one school in the entire Shire – Yarram State School – with more than 100 students. As future posts will show, the junior cadets were indeed active in the school, under A E Paige, Head Master. In fact, as the War progressed there was a strong martial tone to the school. In the next category of state schools – over 50 students – there was again only one school, Alberton. Most of the schools in the Shire were in either the category with over 20 pupils – for example, Alberton West, Binginwarri, Carrajung, Devon North, Gormandale, Hiawatha, etc – or the one with under 20 pupils, for example: Blackwarry, Carrajung South, Darriman etc. In such small schools it was inevitable that the type of program and the zeal with which it was pursued relied on the ingenuity and commitment of the teacher. It is possible that for the children the activities looked more like fitness and games than training and drill. However, as small as the schools were, the junior cadets were visible and, when the War came, they were very much part of the local community’s effort. The following account from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative is of a patriotic concert held in Yarram at the end of September 1914. In the concert, the junior cadets from the Devon North SS feature:

At seven o’clock the “assembly” was sounded on the bugle in the vicinity of the shire hall, where the Town Band, ladies of the Red Cross Society, the North Devon school boys as cadets, the Rifle Club, and the Fire Brigade with torches fell in. The procession proceeded along Commercial Street led by a small boy on a small chestnut pony, to the hall. Here a halt was called, and the order changed. The pony, almost obscured by a large Union Jack, was ridden by the boy as Light Horse up the centre of the hall – to the surprise and delight of the audience – followed by the Red Cross led by a drummer, the North Devon school boys, the Rifle Club, Fire Brigade, and the Town band in the rear. The crowd cheered. … As the last strains of band music died away the stage curtain rose, and there was displayed a very pretty and effective tableau, “Britannia.” Flags predominated. At the rear of the stage hung the mammoth Union Jack, supplied by the Agricultural Society, while flags of Australia, Belgium, France and Russia combined to make a pleasing spectacle. The centre figure was Britannia, faithfully represented by Miss M Bodman, supported by the rifle club and boy cadets. To the right stood “John Bull,” typically portrayed by Mr. Sutton Jones, who sang “Rule Britannia,” chorused by the audience.

The picture of the junior cadets of Devon North SS protecting Britannia in all her might and glory is a striking and noble metaphor for an Imperial war. But ironically, and keeping in mind the real limitations of the Yarram Rifle Club, it is also an apt metaphor for how unprepared Australia was for such an Imperial war. The brief four-year experiment with its cadet-based army had not been the answer. When war broke out in 1914 and Australia looked to defend not just itself but the Empire as a whole, it found it had just an under strength boy-adolescent-youth army, committed by the Defence Act to the defence of Australia only. As Bean (1921, p.34) put it … as Australia could not send away an army of boys, however willing, it was decided to raise a separate army specifically for this service. Hence the Australian Imperial Force.

At the same time, when war came, Australia, more than any other member of the Empire and more than any other English-speaking nation, had laboured hard to teach its male youth the responsibilities of military duty and the rudimentary skills and practices of military life.

It appears that Sutton Llewellyn Jones who played John Bull in the concert was a 24 year-old English immigrant. He had been born in Cheshire in 1899 and in 1914 was working in Yarram as a clerk. There is a record of him failing his enlistment medical on 16 September 1914, and it seems he failed again, this time in Melbourne, in November 1915. However, his brother, who was trying to find him after the War, was convinced that he did enlist. There is no AIF record, but he might have changed his name if, in fact, he did keep trying to enlist.



Kitchener, Field Marshal Viscount 1910, Defence of Australia: Memorandum, The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia

Barrett, J 1979, Falling In: Australians And ‘Boy Conscription’ 1911-1915, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney

Tanner, TW 1980, Compulsory Citizen Soldiers, Alternative Publishing Co-Operative Limited, Waterloo NSW

Stockings, C 2008, ‘Khaki in the classroom’, History of Education Review, vol. 37, no. 1 pp.16-33

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 1 – The Story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915, 11th Edition.

The Argus
‘Drill Shirkers Sent to Fort’ 22 December 1914, p.7

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Patriotic Concert… ‘ 2 October 1914, p.3

Note: details of school sizes in the Shire of Alberton in WW1 are taken from,
Victoria. Education Department 1921, The Education Department’s Record Of War Service 1914-1919

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The Defence of the Nation: The Rifle Clubs of Alberton Shire

In his general history of the Shire, Adams (1999, pp. 174-176) writes about the setting up of various militia units in the district from the 1880s. These citizen-soldier type arrangements commonly involved the local men supplying their own rifles, horses and even uniforms. Someone with a commission would provide the leadership and organise the training. In the case of Yarram this was Captain  T E Pickett. These local units reached a peak in the Boer War (1899-1902) and while only a relatively small number of locals served in South Africa, there were claims that up to 300 locals were prepared at that time to volunteer to form some kind of local militia unit. The offer was turned down by the Defence authorities.

There was a martial spirit abroad in the colonies, and the most commonly formed group, in both metropolitan and rural districts, was the rifle club in which men could come together for drill and rifle practice (musketry). By 1901 in the Shire of Alberton, there were rifle ranges to support such clubs at Tarraville, Yarram, Balloong, Devon and Carrajung.

Overall, even before Federation, the idea that national defence was tied to locally-formed militia units was well established. Equally, the practice of local men coming together for military drill and weapon training in rifle clubs was seen as a practical demonstration  and test of citizenship and patriotism.

Against this background it was hardly surprising that defence policy in Australia immediately following Federation in 1901became fixed on the idea of ‘citizen soldiery’ with its commitment to form militia drawn from the common citizenry. In addition to the experiences from the 1880s, historians tend to give three general reasons for the focus on the militia: paradoxically, the success of the Boer ‘irregulars’ against the British Army; the commitment to democratic idealism in the new Commonwealth; and ongoing perceptions about both the threat of invasion and the military strategy to counter any such invasion.

In South Africa, the success of the Boers demonstrated the value of lightly-armed, highly-mobile and locally-formed fighting units against more conventional military forces, at least in the short term. Moreover, not only did the Boers demonstrate the strength of this type of ‘guerrilla’ fighting against the British regular forces, but the troops despatched from the various Australian colonies to support the Empire ably demonstrated their skills in matching this kind of warfare. The perception was that the ‘bushman’ of Australia was perfectly suited to this type of warfare. In other words, the raw ingredients for any national defence force were already there, particularly in the rural communities of the new Federation.

Post Federation, there was agreement across the main political groupings, including the Labor Party, that all citizens owed collective and individual responsibility for its defence. A militia-based defence force that covered everyone – or at least all males – would represent proof of this commitment and underline the truly democratic nature of the new Nation. Serving in the militia for the defence of the country was proof of citizenship.

Lastly, while the Royal Navy – supported over time by the emerging Royal Australian Navy – remained the ultimate defence of the Nation, there was the chance that it might not be able, immediately, to thwart any invasion of the Australian mainland. The coastline was extensive, the land mass vast and the population small. In the scenario where the Royal Navy was not immediately able to provide the protection, what was required was the ability to call up, as quickly as possible, a well-trained militia force drawn from across the entire Nation and all classes of citizenry.

For all such reasons, the Defence Act (No. 20 of 1903)  provided for the establishment of Citizens Forces (Section 30) as one of the two key branches of the Defence Forces; and the Militia Forces represented the key component within the Citizens Forces. Similarly, Section 59 of the same Act made it clear that service in the Militia in time of war was required of all males: All male inhabitants of Australia… who have resided therein for six months and are British subjects and are between the ages of eighteen and sixty years shall, in time of war, be liable to serve in the Militia Forces. The call up when it came was to start with All men of the age of eighteen years and upawards, but under thirty years, who are unmarried, or widowers without children. Section 60 (3)

The 1903 legislation made it clear that ‘defence’ in this context was seen in terms of the protection of the territory of the Commonwealth. It was legislation for raising an army against invasion, not for raising an army to fight overseas in an Imperial war. As would become most apparent in 1914, such a war would require volunteers. Section 49 of the 1903 Act stated:

Members of the Defence Force who are members of the Military Forces shall not be required, unless they voluntarily agree to do so, to serve beyond the limits of the Commonwealth and those of any territory under the authority of the Commonwealth.

Importantly, the 1903 Act did not cover the technicalities of setting up the Militia Forces. It was more concerned  to set down guiding principles and intentions, particularly the ideal of universal service, and setting the broad framework for future defence strategy. Similarly, the 1903 Act sketched out the Cadets proposal for male youth between twelve and nineteen to undertake military training (Part V. – Cadets). But, again, the specifics of this scheme covering universal military training for youth were not legislated for until 1909-1910.

One aspect of military preparedness that was covered in the 1903 Act was the formation of Rifle Clubs. Such associations were considered to be a part of the Reserve Forces which, like the Militia Forces, made up the Citizen Forces. So long as members of properly constituted rifle clubs had taken the following oath – or equivalent affirmation – as set down in the Second Schedule of the 1903 Act, they were deemed to be reservists:

I swear that I will well and truly serve Our Sovereign Lord the King as a member of the Reserve Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia, and that I will resist His Majesty’s enemies and cause His Majesty’s peace to be kept and maintained and that I will in all matters appertaining to my service faithfully discharge my duty according to law. So help me God.

The appeal of the rifle club was evident. It supported the notion of the citizen-soldier; and it was committed to the doctrine of military preparedness through ongoing training. Moreover, as had been demonstrated even before Federation, the rifle club could be formed pretty well anywhere, even in rural locations with limited population.

Specifically in term of the Shire of Alberton, Adams (1999, p. 176) identified the following new rifle clubs in the period after 1903: Gormandale (1906), Gunyah Gunyah (1907), Gelliondale (1908), Stacey’s Bridge (1909), Woodside (1911) and Port Albert (1914). Also, the local paper reported the opening of a new club at Hiawatha in May 1914, with a rifle range that met all Defence Department regulations – and the Yarram Rifle Club continued to operate over the same period. Rifle clubs were well established across the Shire.

It seemed to be a boom period for rifle clubs. Senator Millen – Minister for Defence in the Cook Government – was reported in The Argus, 13 July 1914, championing the worth of rifle clubs on a national basis. The report noted that Senator Millen

… had come to the conclusion that, in the present developmental stage of the army, should a crisis arise, the value of riflemen would stand revealed as being greatly in excess of the facilities at present provided for them. (Cheers.) These clubs, as General Sir Ian Hamilton had pointed out, constituted the only available reserve for the militia force. The same high authority had stressed the fact the present defence scheme contained no provision for any other reserve, and that even in 1920 when the scheme reached its maturity, there would be a shortage of men should the army be called upon to take the field. This shortage would have to be made up by the rifle clubs and he had no doubt of the response that would be received if in such a crisis the nation were to call upon the assistance of the riflemen. (Cheers.)

Millen was claiming here that even with the gradual build up of military reserves coming from the scheme of universal military training for youth – Junior and Senior Cadets – implemented from 1911, the rifle clubs were still a critically important source of reservists in the event of any external threat to the Nation.  Interestingly, if Millen’s comments are to be taken at face value, then less than a month before WW1 commenced, the concern at the highest level of the Defence Department was not with preparing for an Imperial war but, rather, as in the past, countering the threat of invasion.

Despite the accolades Senator Millen was prepared to shower on the rifle clubs, it was clear that by this point – mid 1914 – there were serious problems with the administration of the more than 1,000 rifle clubs and 47, 000  riflemen in Australia. The permanent Defence Force had always been skeptical of the value of rifle clubs and annoyed by the level of Commonwealth funding required to support them, but by mid 1914 there were more specific questions being raised. In the same month that it published Senator Millen’s praise of the rifle clubs, The Argus published several other articles highly critical of them. For example, on 14 July 1914 under the headline, Payments to Rifle Clubs. Irregularities Alleged. New Precautions there was  a report that questioned if men judged to be ‘efficient’ by the individual rifle club were, in fact, militarily capable in any meaningful sense of the word. The claim was that the level of marksmanship required for this rating was set far too low and that, additionally, the level of attendance required at training sessions was just as deficient. In other words, the rifle clubs were taking the Commonwealth capitation grants for men who could hardly shoot and attended hardly any training sessions. It then referred to one unnamed Victorian club where, following a formal investigation of its membership records, the officials had tendered their resignations and funds had had to be returned to the Defence Department. The basic concern appeared to be that current regulations were too lax and allowed the system to be rorted.  This meant that the real level of military preparedness amongst riflemen could be seriously lacking, and well short of what the Commonwealth was paying for. The size of the problem was potentially acute because the same article claimed that of the 45,000 riflemen in Australia in 1913, only 14,000 had attained the very minimal level of ‘efficient’. If such claims were true then on mobilisation the rifle clubs would have been a very deficient military force.

The Argus also reported in detail on the regulatory changes then being made to the rifle clubs. For example, the captain at each club was henceforth required to sign a statutory declaration when reporting his members’ musketry skills. As well, membership records had to be supplied by age, marital status and occupation. There was also a new requirement that members had to be signed off as medically fit for active service. Even details about horse ownership and riding skills had to be supplied. The intention was to improve overall efficiency and bring the rifle clubs into a closer and more seamless relationship with the permanent military forces. For the rifle clubs in Gippsland this was the 52 Infantry Regiment.

The following paragraph from The Argus - 4 July 1914 – appears to give the official Defence Force position on the reorganization of the rifle clubs:

Although the rifle club movement of Australia may be said to date from the war in South Africa, no concerted effort has yet been made to turn the enthusiasm of this civilian force to practical military account. During the last few weeks, however, the Commonwealth Mobilisation Committee … have had the matter under serious consideration, with the result that a scheme has been devised which will make the skilled marksmen of the Commonwealth immediately available in a national emergency. … There are altogether 47,565 riflemen in Australia, distributed over 1,133 clubs, and from now on this large body of men may be considered one of the most important factors in the military scheme. 

Exactly how events at the national level played out with the rifle clubs in the Shire of Alberton immediately before the War is hard to uncover. In theory, the clubs were thriving. Certainly there were regular reports in the local press about shooting competitions, with detailed results published. There appeared to be many members. Equally, the clubs filled a social function, much like other sporting clubs, and there were many reports of fund raisers and other social activities. At least two of the clubs – Yarram and Gelliondale – had even established separate ladies rifle clubs, with their own special competitions.

At the same time, there is other evidence to suggest that in terms of preparing men for armed service the clubs were well off the mark. For example, in the case of the Yarram Rifle Club, when war came in August 1914, the club itself did not take on the key role of organising volunteers. This was done by a small group of patriotic elders in the town. At this point it also emerged that the real numbers in the Yarram Rifle Club were low and that membership records had not been kept properly. The local paper reported on 7 August 1914 that the Secretary of the Yarram Rifle Club had actually contacted the Defence Department to ascertain how many members were in the club! It looks like there were only 26 financial members at the time.  Nor had the all-important drill sessions been provided for members. In fact, when the drill sessions did eventually come, at the very outbreak of the War, they were organised by the same group of patriotic elders who were pushing enlistments in the AIF. In short, as far as the Rifle Club at Yarram was concerned, the local riflemen were not about to mobilise immediately for war as citizen-soldiers. The proposed militia of citizens forces was not about to materialise. The theory could not be put into practice.

Possibly the local rifle clubs had been guilty of some of the charges cited at the national level in mid 1914. They might well have inclined more to the social rather than martial end of the continuum on war-readiness. However there are two qualifications, both of which will be pursued in future posts. The first is that the rifle clubs did seem to act as a pathway for recruitment in the AIF for the youth of the district. The second is that the particular rifle club at Stacey’s Bridge was held up as an example in the local district precisely because its members were well represented in the first group of recruits, in September 1914.  On that point, the trophy shown in this post was awarded to Patrick John Sexton (640), my wife’s great uncle, for marksmanship when he was a member of the Stacey’s Bridge Rifle Club. He was seventeen when he won the trophy in 1912. He enlisted at nineteen in September 1914. He was awarded the Military medal in 1917 and was killed in Belgium in April 1918.


Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

An Act to provide for the Naval and Military Defence and Protection of the Commonwealth and of the several States. No. 20 of 1903. Commonwealth of Australia.

The Argus

‘Riflemen For War. Important Proposals. Allotment to Regiments’ 4 July 1914, p.19
‘Riflemen For War. Departmental Enquiries. Capitation Grant As Lever’ 6 July 1914, p.10
‘Value of Riflemen. Senator Millen’s Tribute’ 13 July 1914, p.6
‘Payments to Rifle Clubs. Irregularities Alleged. New Precautions’ 14 July 1914, p.8

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

‘Rifle Clubs. Call To Arms. Proposal To Muster 1000 Men’ 7 August 1914, p.2
‘Recruits for the War. Farewelled At The Alberton Railway Station’ 23 September 1914, p.2