11. Recruits from the Shire, September 1914. Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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