Seen against our 24/7 array of print, radio, television and digital sources, the media of 100 years ago was very limited. In terms of international news, there was also the additional handicap of Australia’s isolation. At the same time, there had been major advances in technology, with the most relevant being the shift from cable to wireless telegraphy. In 1905 the Commonwealth passed its Wireless Telegraphy Act (No 8 of 1905), whereby the Postmaster-General was given ‘exclusive privilege’ of both the new technology and the granting of licences to use it. By 1914, the new technology was forcing down the cost of transmission and increasing its speed and volume. The new technology of moving pictures would also come to play an increasing role in both news and propaganda between 1914-1918. However, radio did not appear until the mid 1920s – the ABC was not established until 1932 – and, overall, the mass media in World War One was essentially newspaper-based.
For people living in rural communities in Victoria at the outbreak of the War, the press options were local newspapers and/or metropolitan newspapers, both dailies and weeklies, from Melbourne. The metropolitan option inevitably involved some delay in terms of accessibility, but at the same time the local newspapers were commonly only printed once or twice per week. In this particular post the local newspaper I am looking at is the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative which was printed twice weekly in Yarram. The paper was one of several papers run across regional Victoria by the Rossiter Brothers.
Local papers hardly claimed to break international news stories or even report them in any great depth. Instead, they tended to cherry-pick key stories from the metropolitan papers and then rework them slightly, with not much acknowledgement of sources. In 1914, there were hardly any illustrations or photographs in local papers.
It is interesting to consider what a person who read only the local paper would have known about events leading to the outbreak of the War. In an abbreviated way, we can do this by looking at the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative from the time of the assassination of the Austrian royal couple on Sunday 28 June 1914 through to the declaration on 5 August 1914.
The first reference to the assassination was on Friday 3 July when in the editorial section the following appeared:
Widespread horror and grief have been caused in all parts of the Empire at the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Heir-Presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and of his consort, the Duchess of Hohenberg. As the motor car turned into Franz Josef street, Prinzap, a Servian student from the High School, threw a bomb which fell into the roadway and did not explode. Then he whipped out a Browning pistol and fired three shots at the occupants.
The paragraph that immediately preceded this brief account dealt with a dance for the Port-Goodwood Football Club and the one that immediately followed with a football match to be played at West Alberton the next day. It was a nicely balanced mix of very local and, as things turned out, truly world-changing news.
Nothing further on the matter was reported until the very end of July (Wednesday 29 July) when, again in the editorial section, the following appeared:
Austria and Servia are at war. The British Government has suggested that Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy should mediate in the dispute.
In keeping with the theme of football, the same editorial in the local paper that day devoted considerably more copy to yet another disturbance at a local football match. This time it was at Gelliondale, on 25 July. One of the Devon players had been ‘laid out’ and the teams faced off while some 200 spectators rushed onto the ground. Order was restored by the umpire who had the good sense to bounce the ball and get play underway.
Then two days later (Friday 31 July) there was a separate article with the headline, Austria Declares War. Europe in Arms. Forces Concentrating. It was only a short article but it did state, ominously, A strong opinion prevails in St. Petersburg that in the event of war England will support Russia and France. Presumably this would have rung alarm bells in any reader.
Finally on Wednesday 5 August there was a series of cascading headlines announcing that War had been declared – WAR. LATEST NEWS. Britain, France, Russia and Servia against Germany and Austria. Help form the Colonies. Canada’s Offer Accepted. AUSTRALIA Offers Fleet and 20,000Men. Melbourne Ports Closed. Naval Engagement. Russians Driven Back. Enthusiastic Crowds in London, Melbourne and Sydney. – and that Australia was well and truly involved. It seems fortuitous that the local paper, only published on Wednesday and Friday each week, happened to appear on the very day war was declared in Australia (9.00 a.m. 5 August).
The overall point is that if someone in the Shire had relied solely on the local paper then the War and Australia’s involvement in it would definitely have come as a surprise – far more of a surprise than the one historians generally acknowledge. Bean (1941, p.11), for example, noted, War fell upon the British people out of a clear sky. But in the case of someone reading only the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative over July 1914, the metaphor would have to be extended somewhat because there was little reason for them to even think of looking skywards, at least until it was too late.
By way of contrast, the Melbourne papers covered the assassination in detail. The Argus for example on 1 July gave a detailed account of the event itself and at least some political background. For example, it noted:
The Russian Press insists that Austria is reaping what she has sown, and a section regards the removal of the Archduke as the removal of a danger to European peace, by giving Austria an opportunity of reconsidering the course she has been following.
The paper adopted a sombre tone and gave details on the sympathy message conveyed to the Acting Consul for Austria-Hungary from the Victorian Premier, Sir Alexander Peacock. The violent death of royalty, of any kind, at the hand of nationalist fanatics was unnatural and shocking.
Similarly, the next weekend the Weekly Times (Saturday 4 July) presented a graphic account of the killings under the heading Austrian Royalties Assassinated. A more detailed account appeared in The Australasian on the same day. Again the reporting was sombre and very sympathetic to the slain royal couple. There was a clear sense of shock and outrage over the attack, with even reports of the impact the deaths had had upon King George and how … all Court functions in London were cancelled. The Australasian also managed to insert an Australian link to the Archduke:
A little more than 20 years ago the Archduke Franz Ferdinand paid a visit to Australia, during which he saw each of the capitals, several of the State provincial cities, and took part in a Kangaroo hunt in New South Wales.
It is worth noting, by way of contrast to the respectful and sombre reporting of the conservative papers, that the left-wing Truth one week later on Saturday 11 July gave a very different assessment of the the Archduke and his politics. It was dated 3 July 1914 and began by blasting the other papers:
The puerile piffle and pawky platitudes that have been poured out in the Australian press over the murder of the Archduke Louis Ferdinand of Austria and his morganatic wife, are a disgrace to humanity. What do Australians know or care about the dead Archduke? Little, if anything at all.
The assessment of the man was not flattering:
He was neither a great nor a good man; he was merely a narrow-minded mediocre man: the bad representative of a bad system, which he would have rendered infinitely worse had Providence permitted him to live long enough to occupy the throne of Austria-Hungary for any considerable time.
And his politics was as bad as his personality:
Ferdinand stood for reaction and repression. He was prepared to use the influence of the throne and the armed force behind it, for the purpose of resisting the popular aspirations towards racial and religious emancipation; and to suppress with slaughter and stifle in blood the social and political improvement of the people. … The unfortunate Ferdinand was just sane enough to seem not to be mad; but mad enough to believe sincerely that he had been divinely designated to play a mediaeval role in the Dual Monarchy in this Twentieth Century.
Allowing for the different reporting styles and different interpretations of the events and the main players, and their significance – both internationally and in Australia – it is clear that there was considerable coverage in the metropolitan press of the assassination and this continued through July. The reports began to tease out likely scenarios for what was going to play out. For example, in The Argus on 27 July readers were told that the French Press had condemned the Austrian ultimatum and declared that …should Servia be forced into war she will not appeal in vain for support from the Powers who wish to maintain the balance of power in Europe at all costs. The same article noted that the British Press saw well beyond the assassination itself. The Daily Telegraph was quoted:
The dispute does not turn on the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That at most is only the occasion. The real causes are deeper. The Austro-Servian differences are the first symptom of a gigantic Slav-Teutonic struggle.
The same article noted the Russian response: In St Petersburg Austria’s ultimatum is unanimously regarded as a direct challenge to Russia. … The newspapers declare that Russia cannot remain indifferent to Servia’s fate. … It is reported that five army corps have been mobilised.
Lastly, the article noted that advice from German papers was that any action against Austria would draw Germany into the conflict. There were also reports of German crowds turning on German socialists who were trying speak out against the possibility of war.
In short, even though events moved quickly, and escalated dramatically over a relatively short timeframe, a reader of the metropolitan Melbourne papers would have formed a sense of the seriousness of what was happening in far off Europe and the increasing likelihood – even certainty – of war. They would also have known that Australian involvement would immediately follow any British declaration. This was important news that wasn’t buried in between running commentary on football matches. Nor was it written up well after the event. Special and extra editions of papers were printed, and large crowds gathered in front of newspaper offices keen for the news from the latest ‘wires’ from overseas.
WW1 became the defining event of the early 20C and as Australia’s involvement deepened, more and more families were to have intensely personal, tragic and traumatic associations with it. The need for news was paramount. News of the War itself – major campaigns and battles, new technology, international politics, national politics associated with the War’s pursuit etc – while highly censored, became the province of the major metropolitan papers; and the majority of these became the voice of the Government as the War unfolded.
At the same time there was a critical role for the local press. Because the War affected so many – virtually every family – in both metroplitan and rural communities, its impact in every single local community became a story in its own right and this became the natural province of the local paper. Just as it had always reported on what was local – sports, local government, religion, schooling, committees and other organisations etc – so now it reported on the local impact of the War, and as this impact would go well beyond what anyone imagined in the heady days when war was declared in early August 1914.
Most importantly we will also see that the local press went well beyond just reporting the impact of the War. It became the voice of the local community’s response to the War. It came to craft the narrative of the War for the local community. It did not just report the sacrifice. Rather, it came to justify the sacrifice. It effectively wrote, by instalment, the narrative of the War – in essence, the defence of the Empire – to convince its readers and their families that just as all sacrifice was justified, even more was required of them. It is this political function of the local paper in WW1 that makes it so interesting for social historians.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Editorial Section, 3 July 1914, p.2
Editorial Section, 29 July 1914, p.2
‘Austria Declares War…’, 31 July 1914, p.2
‘WAR…’, 5 August 1914, p.2
‘Austrian Tragedy…’, 1 July 1914, p.15
‘Servia Defies Austria…’, 11 July 1914, p.9
‘Austrian Royalties Assassinated’, 4 July 1914, p.33
‘Austrian Heir Murdered…’, 4 July 1914, p.36
‘The Austrian Assassinations’, 11 July 1914, p.9
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.