23. Enlistments to the end of 1914: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history

The last post examined a set of characteristics in relation to the men who enlisted from the Shire of Alberton prior to the end of 1914. This post concludes the overview of the men.

As noted in the two previous posts there were 134 men who enlisted in this group. However, the situation is more complicated than this because even though 134 men formally enlisted in the AIF prior to the end of 1914, not all of them were still serving up to the end of 1914. In fact, 15 (11%) of them were discharged before the end of 1914. The notes in the table below show that in most cases the men were discharged as ‘medically unfit’. The notes also show that most of those discharged at this point – prior to the end of 1914 – did eventually enlist. Individual enlistment papers indicate that when men fronted again to enlist they often did not indicate that they had already been discharged as medically unfit. There were also cases where an alias was used for the re-enlistment.

For the purposes of this post, the full complement of men who enlisted prior to the end of 1914 – the 134 of them – is used in relation to the single characteristic of religion, but the lesser cohort of 129 is referenced when looking at individual service histories. The service histories of the 15 men who were discharged to the end of 1914, but who then re-enlisted some time later, will be picked up in the relevant future cohort.


The relevant data from the Commonwealth Census of 1911, taken from Table 38. Male Population Of The Counties Of Victoria At the Census of 3rd April, 1911 Classified according to Religion (Exclusive of Full-blooded Aboriginals). for the county of Buln Buln, Victoria  has been matched against that of the cohort of the 134 enlisted men.

From the Commonwealth Census 1911:

Church of England          8,306         39%
Presbyterian                    4,897         23%
Methodist                         2,665        12.5%
Baptist                                  274
Congregationalist                 93
Lutheran                              192
Church of Christ                 114
Salvation Army                     78
7 Day Adventist                    17
Unitarian                                 9
Prot. (Undefined)               359
Roman Catholic               4,044          19%
Greek Catholic                         2
Cath. (Undefined)               176
Other [Christian]                 123
Total                                 21,349

From the individual enlistment papers of the 134 men:

Church of England                77       58.5%
Presbyterian                          20       15.5%
Methodist                              14       10.75%
Roman Catholic                    17       13%
Other Protestant                    3         2.25%
no record                                 3        –
Total                                     134

On the basis that the group of enlistees is a small sample, and accepting that the designation of ‘Church of England’ could have been used as a generic description for ‘Protestant’, there is little to suggest that, at this point in the War, the religious profile of those enlisting was markedly different from that of the wider community. At the same time, the over-representation of those identifying as Church of England and the under-representation of Presbyterian could be significant and warrant closer attention over time. However, as suggested, it might reflect not much more than the use of Church of England as a generic identifier for Protestant (as opposed to Roman Catholic). As the research progresses and the number of enlisted men becomes greater it will also be instructive to match the 2 characteristics of religion and occupation.


The unit that appears against each man is taken for the Embarkation Roll. It is possible that there were changes after this point, particularly given the re-organisation of the AIF battalions after Gallipoli. It is also possible that there were changes between when the men first signed on and when they left Australia.

Most of the group embarked from Australia in an infantry battalion, with the most common ones being the Victorian 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and the Melbourne-based 14th. Approximately one-third of the men left in the Light Horse, with the most common regiments the Victorian 4th and 8th, and the 9th, which was a combined Victorian-South Australian unit.

Service history

As indicated, this section looks at the service records of the 119 men who had enlisted up to the end of 1914 and then served in the AIF from the time of their 1914 enlistment to the point when either they died on active service or they were formally discharged from service.

Given that they were the first to sign on and that they did so on an open-ended basis – ‘until the end of the War, and a further period of four months thereafter…’ – this first group were committing themselves from the very beginning of the AIF’s war to its very end; and, not surprisingly, there was a simple logic that generally held that the earlier a person enlisted, the greater the risk they faced.

The men faced a limited range of outcomes. Certainly one was that they would die on active service. They could be killed in action (kia), die of wounds (dow) or die of illness/injury (doi). In fact, 35 of the 119 men (29.5%) met this fate. This group faced roughly a 1 in 3 chance of either being killed or dying on active service.

Another outcome involved being wounded and then repatriated to Australia for discharge as ‘medically unfit’. Most commonly the wounds were either gunshot wounds (gsw) or shrapnel wounds (sw). Another common example, but later in the War, was ‘gassed’. Usually, the soldier experienced extended hospitalisation, commonly in the UK, and then repatriation to Australia. They generally carried some level of disability for an extended period, if not the rest of their lives. Some men were also discharged as medically unfit after being hospitalised with major illness or disease or even injury. The group of men discharged on the basis of being medically unfit numbered 33 or 38% of the cohort.

The figures are grim. An earlier post described the jubilant send-off for the men at the Alberton Station on 21 September 1914. With the benefit of historical hindsight the men that day should have had some basic maths put to them: they stood a 1 in 3 chance of being killed; or a 1 in 2 chance of either being killed or coming back wounded – or suffering from some major disease/illness – to live with a disability of some kind, most probably for the rest of their lives. Moreover, they might have been as young as their early twenties when they started on this path.

In fact, the men’s prospects were even worse than this because, as the table below shows, there were many cases where men were wounded but not then discharged as medically unfit. 48 individual men were wounded – some were wounded more than once – but only 33 men were discharged as medically unfit. Notice also that some of those killed later in the War, had already been wounded in earlier battles. Also, some 69 men were hospitalised at least once with some illness or disease – pneumonia, dysentery, VD, enteric fever, trench fever, malaria, neurasthenia, pleurisy, shell shock… – but clearly not all of these men were medically discharged. In short, the levels of deaths and medical discharges do not reveal the true extent of casualties. Of those still alive at the end of the War, there is only one man in the table below – William Henry Wheildon – who managed to last the entire duration of the War without being wounded or hospitalised with a disease or sickness or injury of some kind. He served in the Naval & Military Forces and was discharged in late 1918. Ironically, he died of influenza within one year of being discharged.

For those men who managed to make it through without being killed or discharged as medically unfit, there were two possible end-points to their military service. On 17 September 1918, PM Hughes announced that the 1914 veterans were to be brought back to Australia on special leave or furlough – commonly it became referred to as ‘Anzac Leave’ – in time for Christmas. The plan was that after 3 months leave in Australia they would return to the Western Front in time for the planned Spring offensive of 1919. At the time it was estimated that 7,000 men remained of the original 1914 enlistments. The plan caused consternation with the military command on the Western Front, as it was already grappling with the very much reduced size of the AIF, but in Australia the plan was popular. Effectively, this group of men had already been away for four years. In the table below there are 22 cases where men were returned under this provision. The earliest – Sydney George Collis – returned home in early October 1918 and the latest case involved John Comber Robertson who did not make it back until mid February 1919. Most of the men reached Australia in December 1918, with the War then over. Ironically, 3 men on the table either died or were killed round the time the leave was announced: James Singleton was killed in action of 9 August 1918; Terence Charles McCarthy was killed in action on 19 September 1918, 2 days after the plan was announced; and William Donovan Glanfield died of illness on 15 October 1918.

More men (26) simply served out their time and were returned to Australia and discharged through 1919 and even in to 1920. The discharge for these men commonly read as TPE: Termination of Period of Enlistment. It was up to a full year after the completion of the War – and 5 years of service – before many of these man finally made it home.

There were a few cases involving variations on the above patterns. 3 of the group were discharged in the UK in 1919. They were men who had immigrated to Australia in the period before the War: Thomas Courtney Sullivan (born London); Alfred Hartfield (born Sussex); and Thomas James Paterson (born Glasgow). Another of the men (Jack Garland) served from 1913 in the Royal Australian Navy and there is no record of his discharge available .

Finally, there are 2 cases that stand out because it appears that in both cases the individual concerned effectively discharged himself. It appears that Reginald Henwood who was wounded at Gallipoli in May 1915, hospitalised in the UK before being sent back to Egypt and then repatriated to Australia in September 1915, went missing without leave – ‘illegally absent’ – from 23/12/15. Eventually, in July 1920 he was formally discharged to close the book on him. However, it can be difficult interpreting what exactly happened when you rely on formal records like those in the personal files of the men who served in the AIF; and it is virtually impossible to use the same records to interpret motivation. For example, Reginald Henwood was actually reported in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative , 28 April 1916 – as attending a ceremony in Yarram on 26 April 1916 at which he was presented with the Shire Medallion. This was when, according to his service record, he was illegally absent and had been so for nearly 4 months. The newspaper report said that he had been wounded at ‘Lonesome Pine’ – Henwood had been wounded on 3/5/15, well before Lone Pine (6-9/8/15) – and had lost an eye, but the official record simply records ‘gsw upper extremities’ and it is not credible that such a serious injury would not be recorded. Henwood’s version of events, as reported in the local paper,  does not appear to line up with the official records.  Ironically, the very same article that praised the service of Private Henwood warned about bogus soldiers: A man came to Yarram recently, wearing some uniform, and was treated as a returned soldier, yet he had never so much as enlisted. At the same time, it seems remarkable that someone in Henwood’s circumstances would run the risk of appearing at a formal ceremony to receive awards and be feted as the returning hero. Then again, perhaps Henwood did see himself as the returned hero: he had volunteered, faced battle, been wounded and repatriated to Australia and so, as far as he was concerned, his war was over. Perhaps there was another R Henwood and identities have been confused. Incredibly, there was in fact another R (Rupert) Henwood – enlisted in Melbourne 25/8/14 – who was repatriated to Australia in 1915; but he returned to Australia on 15/4/15 and was discharged on 27/4/15. Consequently he could not have even been involved in the Gallipoli campaign.

The second case to do with someone who was illegally absent involved Edgar Charles Turnbull. Again, there are all the cautions about interpreting AIF records but the following appears to have been what transpired and, on face value, it is a rather distressing story. In Egypt in February 1915 he came down with pneumonia and was hospitalised in the UK. Other illnesses including sciatica and rheumatism were diagnosed and there was a recommendation that he be repatriated to Australia and discharged on medical grounds. On 30/8/15, his treating medical officer explicitly recommended: ‘Discharge to Australia as permanently unfit for active service’. At the same time, the medical board found that his capacity for ‘earning a full livelihood in the general labour market’ had been halved. However, the final recommendation of the medical board was that he not be discharged as permanently unfit but merely ‘changed to Australia’. Consequently, he was returned to Australia on 9/11/15, but he was not discharged. He subsequently took matters into his own hands and was illegally absent from 12/4/16. He was posted as a ‘deserter’ on 13/7/16. A warrant for his arrest was issued. Then much later, in 1933, he contacted the Army requesting a formal discharge. He was required to sign before a JP a ‘confession of desertion’ which he did on 22 July 1933. It was made clear to him that he had no right to wear medals and that he could not be issued with a Returned Soldier’s Badge. He then received his discharge papers which recorded that he had deserted. He tried to have the reference to desertion removed from his discharge papers and on at least 2 occasions argued that at the time he went AWL he was very sick. He claimed that he had been ‘sent back [to Australia] medically unfit’. He also claimed that he had been told he was ‘not wanted’. In a letter (24/7/37) he wrote: ‘I did not wrong intentionally (sic) and ever since have worked hard and been an honest and sober citizen’. He was having difficulty gaining work and his discharge papers with the reference to desertion were hardly of any use. A few years later his family saw the discharge papers and found out about his desertion. At that point he said he was cut off  from his wife and family. The last correspondence in the file covers desperate pleas for some kind of pardon.

The whole issue of desertion and the related practices of taking unauthorised leave – very common in the AIF – and challenging army authority – certainly not uncommon in the AIF – will be examined in later posts and set within the context of the AIF as a volunteer army.


These last few posts have looked at the group of men who enlisted in the AIF to the end of 1914. At the time there was unbridled enthusiasm for the War and the call to patriotic duty was overpowering.

The cohort from the Shire of Alberton was young – those between 18 and 25 made up nearly 75% of the entire group – single, and drawn predominately from the rural working class. The mobility of this group was a striking feature. There was a relatively small group of sons from local farming families.

Medical screening at the time was high and a large number of recruits were discharged as medically unfit in the first weeks of their enlistment. Most of those rejected at this point did subsequently re-enlist, presumably as medical standards were lowered.

While much was made at the time of the creation of a special light horse unit from South Gippsland, most of the men enlisted in the new infantry battalions of the AIF.

It will be instructive to compare the casualty rates of this first group of volunteers with subsequent ones, but it is strikingly clear that the odds of enlisting in 1914 and surviving – alive, unwounded and in good health – to the end of the War were particularly poor.


The Australian War Memorial

Embarkation Roll

Unit History: WW1

Australian Bureau of Statistics

Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1911

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