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.

References

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

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “6. The Defence of the Nation: The Rifle Clubs of Alberton Shire

  1. Lenore Frost

    Thank you for that thought-provoking piece on rifle clubs. When I looked at the formation of the Essendon and Flemington District Rifle Club in 1900, the swearing in under the Defences Act for three years apparently posed a problem for some of the intending members, so that the new club secretary wrote a letter to the “Essendon Gazette”, saying “At the last meeting there seemed to be some objections to the conditions of enrolment – swearing in under the Defences Act for three years, while other men apparently feared that under the oath they might be called upon to serve outside the colony. Permit me to point out that a man may resign at any time. In this time of loyalty, it surprised me to meet with any person hesitating as to where he might serve his Queen and Motherland of nations”. ( April 5 1900).

    So there seemed to have been some resistance to the notion of being compelled to serve in the Defence forces.

    Reply

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