According to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, a large group of 52 recruits left Alberton for Melbourne on the afternoon of 21 September 1914. The paper published a list of the 52 names, on Wednesday 23 September, under the heading Recruits for the War. Farewelled At The Alberton Railway Station. The names were taken from the list of railway warrants, issued as per Army instructions, to men who had already enlisted. The list was compiled by the Shire Secretary, G W Black. Against each numbered railway warrant issued he recorded the name of the recipient and the date of travel. All the railway warrants numbered 1-52 were recorded as having been issued for travel on 21 September. The same 52 names also appear on another list compiled by Black to claim reimbursement for Drs Penn and Rutter for the medical examinations they had carried out as part of the recruiting process. Taken at face value, there is evidence for the claim that following the successful recruiting session held on Wednesday 16 September, 52 men, including many minors, left the Shire on Monday 21 September for service in the AIF.
However, closer investigation of the AIF records reveals that the number of men who actually commenced military service on that Monday was considerably less – only 35 of the 52 – and this discrepancy highlights the complexities associated with recruiting and enlistment practices and record-keeping, particularly in rural districts.
For a start, 7 of the men who appeared on the list of names in the newspaper article have no service record in the AIF. Nor are their names included on the Alberton Shire Roll of Honor. In other words, even though they were written up as having enlisted and left the district for training at Broadmeadows, there is no hard evidence that they ever joined the AIF. Moreover, there is evidence, based on newspaper reports, that some of them were still living and working in the district after 21 September 1914.
Jas. E Sherwood (James Edward Sherwood) is the most puzzling of this group of 7 men who never enlisted. He was listed on the electoral roll as an apiarist of Yarram. His name appeared in the local paper through to at least the end of 1915 as a champion bike rider in the local district, suggesting that he certainly did not commence service in the AIF in September 1914. While his name does not appear on the Alberton Shire Honor Roll it does appear on the Yarram State School Honor Roll. Further, a note on Black’s list of railway warrants states that he ‘re-enlisted’ on 9 November 1914. Presumably, he was rejected when he reached Melbourne on 21 September 1914 and then rejected again when he tried to enlist in November 1914. It is also possible that he only appears on the Yarram State School Honor Roll because that list was itself compiled, in part at least, from the various lists drawn up by the Shire Secretary. It was possibly a case of faulty records reproducing themselves.
E Chenhall (Edric Chenhall) was on the electoral roll as a farmer of Jack River and there was another note on the list of rail warrants that he ‘re-enlisted’ on 19 May 1916. However he could not have been successful, again. Similarly, T H Stephens (Thomas Handley Stephens) who was on the electoral roll as a labourer of Mullundung must have been rejected when he reached Melbourne because he tried to re-enlist at a recruiting drive in Yarram in July 1915, but was again unsuccessful. W H Beames (Walter Henry Beames) was on the electoral roll as a labourer of Stacey’s Bridge. His name appeared as an umpire in the local football competition in the paper on 2 May 1915. George Purtell was on the electoral roll as a blacksmith of Yarram. In early 1916 he was fined over stray stock. W A Rose, who was listed as one of the minors who enlisted in September 1914, appeared on a council pay sheet, published in the local paper on 9 April 1915. As a minor he would not have been on the electoral roll. Lastly, W W Haw (Walter William Haw) was on the electoral roll as a carpenter of Yarram but, as with the other 6 men, there is no service record, and nor is his name on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll.
Unless some further information comes to light with regard to these 7 men it can reasonably assumed that even though they were written up as belonging to the first group of volunteers from the Shire they did not serve in the AIF. They took the train but they did not go to war.
Unlike the group of 7 who never served, there were 8 other men who definitely did serve in the AIF but their enlistment dates are recorded as later than either 16 or 21 September 1914. Even though they ‘enlisted’ on 16 September and left on the train on 21 September, the official AIF records have them as enlisting at a later time. Presumably they reached Broadmeadows but were then rejected – presumably at some follow-up medical – before they started training. Perhaps they did not make it to Broadmeadows; but the party did leave under the charge of ex-Sgt. Geo Davis and there was clearly the expectation that they had enlisted and that they would report. Perhaps they did not make the light horse and effectively ‘pulled out’, with or without proper approval. Whatever happened, all the men eventually did enlist, even though in some cases it was much later: T M Luke (Thomas Mickie Luke) on 15 July 1915; H Macdonald (Henry Macdonald) on 4 December 1914. F B Scott (Frederick Beecher Scott) on 26 January 1916; P T Quinn (Percival Thomas Quinn) on 28 August 1915; A E Gove (Arthur Edgar Gove) on 13 August 1915; L R Wallace (Leslie Roy Wallace) on 14 October 1914; P A Wallace (Percy Allen Wallace) on 8 January 1915; and S F Coulthard (Samuel Francis Coulthard) on 7 April 1916.
There are another 2 men – Jno. Riley and John Hollingsworth – on the list of 52 for whom it is not possible to identify the matching service record. That is, there were multiple enlistments in the names of Jno. Riley and John Hollingsworth but, without other evidence, it is not possible to make a definite match with someone living and working in the Shire at that time.
All the preceding gives some indication of the difficulties involved in interpreting, validating and cross-referencing the multiple sources of personal information in relation to WW1 service in the AIF. The difficulties remained throughout the War.
The table included in this post is built on the list of railway warrants compiled by the Shire Secretary ( G W Black). As mentioned, he issued 52 warrants for travel on 21 September. The order of names in the table is taken directly from his list. Age, religion, occupation and place of birth, taken from AIF records, have been added; and there is a brief note to identify the men killed in the War. There are no details recorded for the 7 men for whom there is no record of service in the AIF, nor for the 2 men who, currently, cannot be matched to service records. To give the most comprehensive picture of all the men who took the train to Melbourne on 21 September, the details for those men who actually enlisted at a later date have been included, with the qualification that their age has been adjusted to match what it was in September 1914. The 43 men with AIF service records who appear on the table were all single.
Some characteristics of the first group of recruits
While it is difficult to generalise from the relatively small sample of recruits that made up the first group of volunteers from the Shire of Alberton, there are some characteristics that do stand out. Obviously, the fact that every one of them was single is significant. As well, the age of the ‘men’ is certainly striking. 35 (82%) of them were aged twenty-five or younger and of this group, 15 were twenty or younger. Only 4 men were over thirty. It was definitely a war for young, single men.
The broad representation of all religions in the group is also distinctive, in the sense that there is nothing to suggest that Roman Catholics recruits were in any way under-represented. The 10 of them counted for 24% of the group. The situation might well have changed later in the War but at the start there was nothing to suggest that there was any sort of ‘religious boycott’.
Another striking feature has to be the class profile of the recruits. The most common description given for occupation was ‘labourer’ – or ‘laborer’ – and this appeared for no less than 13 of the group and when you add the 5 who gave their occupation as ‘farm labourer’ then you have nearly 50% of the group with just 2 job descriptions; and it is clear that most of the remaining men were employed in various manual or working-class jobs of more or less skill. The more distinctly rural designation of ‘family farm’ covers those recruits whose father appeared in the rate book as a farmer. In this the first and only mass group of recruits from the district there were only 6 definite cases where the son of a farmer enlisted. As many of these were underage and parental permission had to be given, the decision must have been taken that the son’s labour on the farm could be spared. But it was a small number of cases. In the great majority of cases, at that early point in the War, farming families were not prepared to give up their son’s labour on the farm.
The teacher in the group – L L Oliver – was the first of many local teachers to ‘answer the call’ and this sub-group will be considered in detail in a future post. In this particular instance, Oliver, as a teacher, is the only recruit from a professional background.
The last post argued that it was the professional-business class in the local community that presented the narrative of the War when it began and drove the initial recruiting process. This post makes it abundantly clear that at the same time it was the rural working class that provided the recruits. The relative roles of the 2 classes is rather striking. The bigger issue will be whether this dynamic was maintained throughout the War.
The question arises as to why the rural working class so dominated the recruiting numbers. The answer does not appear to have any ideological rationale to it, in the sense that it would be hard to argue that the rural working class in the district (Shire of Alberton) at that time was more pro-Empire than other class groupings and that the recruiting numbers reflected this strength of Imperial loyalty. Instead, the answer has more to do with structural realities. The distinctive feature of working-class employment was its ‘portability’. Young, single men working as labourers were not tied to a particular employer. In fact, their work meant that they had to move, looking for employment or better paid employment or better conditions. In other words, the very nature of their work life meant they were ideally placed to enlist. They were generally not tied to property – domestic or business – they were not tied to the family farm or family business and they were not constrained by the likes of professional licences, agreements or tenure. Nor were they tied to a particular location, apart from family ties. Traditionally they had moved to pursue work. In part, this is reflected in the table in this post, where many of the young working-class recruits were born well outside the district in which they were living and working at the time of enlistment.
Overall, the preponderance of rural working-class youth in the initial group of recruits is not surprising. They were the most able to enlist at short notice, and the attraction of permanent employment at competitive wages was very significant. Additionally, they were answering what everyone saw as a righteous and decent call. There was also the appeal of the working-class ‘mateship’ of the AIF.
One issue to be pursued over future posts is whether other classes in the local district came in time to match the initial enthusiasm of the rural working class in terms of volunteering to join the AIF.
There is also the complex issue of the status of the working class in the rural community. Again, there are signs of it in the table above. For example, consider the number of recruits who enlisted at Yarram – and who therefore were presumably working in the district – who are not included on the Honor Roll for the Shire of Alberton. Clearly they were not regarded as ‘local’ even though at the time, and certainly on the station platform at Alberton, they were feted as local recruits.
Two of the young men, both 19, who enlisted at Yarram on 16 September but who are not included on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll, died on active service: P J Davidson (died of wounds) and T C F McCarthy (killed in action). Their names are also not included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. Davidson died at Pozieres on 5 August 1916. McCarthy’s case was particularly poignant. He was killed very late in the War, on 19 September 1918. This was just over 4 years from the day he enlisted in Yarram. At that time he was a 19 yo farm labourer who had been born in Melbourne. Ironically, he was killed at the very time veterans like him were being returned to Australia on special leave. For some reason he never got his leave in time. He seems to have missed out on many forms of recognition, and to some degree has been written out of the district’s history.
The hand-written list of travel warrants issued by the Shire Secretary ( G W Black) is held by the Yarram & District Historical Society. Black labelled his list, Australian Imperial Force. List of Recruits who enlisted with the President of the Shire of Alberton. 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918.
The list of medical examinations by Drs Pern and Rutter that Black drew up to claim reimbursement was dated 6 March 1915. It was included in the Shire of Alberton Archives:
File Number 703B.
Recruiting & Enlisted Men (Box 398).
Bundle of papers headed: Defence Department. Enlisting Recruits 1914-15-16.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Recruits for the War. Farwelled At The Alberton Railway Station’ , 23 September 1914, p.2