Monthly Archives: August 2014

9. 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

8. 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





7. 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

6. 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