27. ‘The lions of the evening – the men in khaki’: farewells to mid 1915

An earlier post (11) covered the farewell in September 1914 of the first large group of recruits, approximately 50, from the Shire of Alberton. Other posts have pointed out that many more volunteers left the Shire individually and without any sort of formal farewell. Judging by newspaper reports, it appears that after the September 1914 farewell from the Alberton Railway Station there were only 2 additional formal farewells through to May 1915. Both of these farewells came at the end of 1914 and they are the subject of this post.

The 2 farewells came about when recruits were given final leave to return home and bid farewell to their families before being sent overseas. Given this, it was inevitable that the men involved were ‘locals’ in the sense that they had strong, long-standing and on-going association with the district. They were coming ‘home’ before being sent overseas. Other men who had enlisted from the Shire but who had had only passing or limited association with it, as well as those whose association with the Shire had been in the past, would hardly return for such farewells.

One of the farewells was held in the small community of Stacey’s Bridge and the other in Yarram, the most populous and chief town of the Shire. The one at Stacey’s Bridge was more a relaxed, community celebration whereas the one at Yarram was a more stylised and formal farewell. This difference between more community-focused farewells in the smaller townships and settlements of the Shire, as opposed to the more formal farewells conducted at Yarram, was to continue throughout the War.

The farewell at Stacey’s Bridge on Wednesday 4 November 1914 was written up in both local papers – the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative and the South Gippsland Chronicleon 6 November 1914. Both accounts mentioned that word of 4 men coming home for a final farewell was received with only a few days warning and that preparations, not just for the farewell but also for an appropriate ‘souvenir’, had to be organised very quickly. On the night there was a ‘three-fold programme’. First there was a (roller) skating carnival, with prizes for ‘best dressed’ and ‘best skater’. This was followed by the actual farewell presentation ceremony for the 3 local lads who were home on final leave from Broadmeadows before leaving for overseas. Finally, there was a dance social for everyone.

It was a very hot night but nonetheless the skaters, bathed in perspiration, managed to keep up a lively performance, many of them in fancy dress. The four local lads acknowledged that night were: Jack Cantwell (21yo), Aloysius Cotter (19yo), Patrick Sexton (19yo) and Jack Babington (20yo). The last of these – Jack Babington – had not managed to get leave but his presentation gift was accepted by his father and he was certainly acknowledged in the speeches. For their ‘souvenir’ gifts, the men had been given the choice of a ‘gold locket’ or field glasses. After the presentation ceremony the assembled crowd sang a verse each from Rule Britannia and the National Anthem. The dancing that followed ran well into the small hours.

The speech making that night emphasised pride in the fact that ‘boys’ from Stacey’s Bridge had joined the AIF. According to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative : It was a credit to the Stacey’s Bridge district that four young fellows had volunteered, and they might well feel proud of them. The same paper noted the young age of the volunteers – only 18 or 19 years of age – and remarked that people remembered them as local school boys. There was also praise for their parents .. who did not raise the slightest obstacle to their sons’ desire to go to fight. All of them had been members of the Stacey’s Bridge Rifle Club. Overall, those there noted the young locals were … – straight, honorable young fellows, who were determined to fight for their homes, their relatives and their friends.

At the same time, there was a level of naiveté evident in comments made that night. People were not even convinced the boys would have to fight. Mr Robert Lee was quoted as hoping … they would not have to fight, but if they had to, he felt sure they would give a very good account of themselves. He wished them a pleasant trip and no fighting. The reality, as already indicated (Post 23), was that the death rate in this first group of volunteers from the Shire would be 1 in 3. Of this group, it would be Patrick Sexton. He managed to make it right through to April 1918 before he was killed. On that night of farewell from Stacey’s Bridge, the last night he spent with his family, his sister (Margaret Sexton)  took out the prize for the best dressed skater.

Those who spoke that night at Stacey’s Bridge were all local farmers. There were patriotic sentiments expressed and notions of duty stressed, but the overwhelming sense was that of pride in, and best wishes for, the local boys who had grown up known to everyone and were now off to war, not that people at that point had had any first-hand experience of what the War meant.

The only other major farewell to locals, up to May 1915, took place one month later at Yarram on the night of 9 December. According to the detailed article in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative of 11December 1914, the 7 men farewelled were: Sergeant Newlands (sic), and Privates Harry Bett, W. Sweeney, P. Sweeney, W. O. Sutton, H. Coulthard, and J. Babington. Obviously, this time Jack Babington was able to get his leave. In the detailed account of the same event published in the South Gippsland Chronicle – also on 11 December 1914 – the names of the men themselves were not included. The only reference made was to Sergeant Newlands (sic) who responded to the toast. One consequence of not including the names – and it must have upset the families at the time that the names were not recorded – is that it is not possible to identify precisely who the men were. The definites were (Sgt) William Andrew Newland (34yo), who had spent 4 years in the light horse in South Africa, Henry Drysdale Bett (19yo), Patrick Joseph Sweeney (28yo), William Owen Sutton (19yo) and John Sutherland Babington (20yo). The W. Sweeney was either William Henry Sweeney (28yo) or William Patrick Sweeney (21yo). It was probably William Henry Sweeney, the brother of Patrick Joseph Sweeney, but it is not definite because the other William (Patrick) was also a local who could well have returned for a farewell. He was most likely a cousin of the Sweeney brothers. The problem with the name H. Coulthard is that there was no H Coulthard who had enlisted. It must have been either Eric Osborne Coulthard (20yo) or Samuel Francis Coulthard (31yo) who were most likely cousins.

In terms of the war service of this group of 9 men (5 definites and 4 possibles) only one – Patrick Sweeney – was killed in action (August 1915); but only 2 of the other 8 managed to serve the entire period of the War. The most common experience was that they were discharged early after being wounded. For example, Sgt Newland, wounded at Gallipoli, was back in the Shire by August 1915. Subsequently, he became the local recruiting sergeant.

The farewell at Yarram was a very formal affair and once again it was put together with little notice. The organisers even managed to place an ad for the event in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on the day it was held. The ad noted that it was to be a Farewell to Our Soldiers, that there would be Speeches by Prominent Residents, and that admission would be by a small donation at the door to defray expense of refreshments.

Both local papers reported the event in detail on 11 November 1914.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative set the scene under its heading: Our Soldier Boys. FAREWELL. PRESENTATION OF SOUVENIRS. MONSTER GATHERING IN THE MECHANICS ‘ HALL.

Short as was the notice – about 24 hours – the Mechanics’ Hall on Wednesday evening was crowded to its utmost capacity by a gathering of local and district residents, met to honor the young men who were, perhaps, giving their lives for their country. It was an enthusiastic assemblage, an air of patriotism being imparted by the flags representing England, Australia, Belgium and Russia. While on the stage sat the lions of the evening – the men in khaki.

Occasions such as this in the early days of the War served the dual purpose of recognising the sacrifice of the individuals who had volunteered and providing a platform for declarations of patriotic loyalty. The latter function was very evident that night in Yarram. There were 6 designated speakers. As has been noted earlier, the speech making at such functions in Yarram was dominated by the class of proprietors, managers and professionals.  It was this group that, effectively, had taken responsibility for articulating the narrative of the War on behalf of the Shire. The local papers disseminated – and also augmented – the narrative. Admittedly, there were 2 local graziers who spoke that night but one of them was Neils John Christensen who spoke as the then Shire President and the other, Arthur Hugh Mooore, had very little to say beyond wishing the men a safe return. The key speakers were Rev. George Cox, Fr. Patrick Francis Sterling, George Frederick Sauer, draper from Yarram and also the President of the local Australian Natives’ Association branch and Ben Percival Johnson, solicitor of Yarram.

Rev. Cox was keen to emphasise religious justification for the War, arguing that Germany was, effectively, no longer a Christian nation. The account from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative noted:

The Rev. Cox was called upon first. He did not know if this form of gathering was unique in Yarram, or had been held in connection with the South African war. To many it was an unusual experience to have a number of citizens going from amongst them in the name of God and the Empire, to fight in the greatest battle in history. It was fitting, he thought, that the church should be first to speak, because he believed the war was a religious one fundamentally. He realised that it was a war of Christianity against a philosophy born of hell. … These young men were going to fight in the name of God. May He give them His sheltering care, and may they be instruments for His glory.

The fact that Fr. Sterling was called upon to offer a speech reflected the common support, at that time, across all Christian denominations for the Nation’s and the Empire’s commitment to the War. Sterling had been born in Nenagh, Tipperary. He would have left his audience in no doubt about his patriotism. The paper wrote:

He had a letter from his old Irish mother the other day, whom he had never heard swear, but she was hot when she wrote that letter. She said, speaking of the sinking of the Emden, “I notice your country has sent the poor devils to hell.” (laughter). He echoed those sentiments, and hoped the young men from this district would send many a German to heaven. (Loud Applause)

On the face of it, Sterling’s reported hope that the locals would be despatching Germans to heaven does not appear to match his mother’s sentiments and, not surprisingly, the version in the South Gippsland Chronicle is a better fit:

He had lately had a letter from his mother in Ireland and she had said, commenting on the Emden, “I see some of your people have blown some of the devils to hell.” (Laughter) He had never known his mother to swear before. (Laughter). He hoped the Yarram soldiers would send many of the Germans to hell. (Loud laughter and cheers)

Whether the German dead were heading for heaven nor hell there was clearly popular support for killing them. Given the comments of both Cox and Stirling it is worth reflecting on just how difficult it would have been at the time for any clergyman to question either the justification or conduct of the War.

Sauer, as President of the local ANA, laboured the idea that Australians could always be relied on now, just as they had been in the Boer War – they were there when wanted every time – and that they were natural fighters: The fighting blood in our veins came from the old stock, and they would find that Australian boys at the front would keep their end up with the best troops in the world. (Applause).

Johnson, the local solicitor, had the task of presenting the souvenir to each soldier – a wristlet watch . He was keen to stress their youth:

He preferred to call them boys; he had known some of them as toddlers. Some had attended the local state school, and other schools in the district and now they were about to depart to fight in the greatest war the world had ever known.

Johnson pressed the common themes of the Empire – they were going to fight alongside their kinsmen, the British of Canada – the sacrifices being made by the men, and their families – particularly their mothers and wives and sweethearts – and the confidence that everyone had in their fighting abilities. Johnson also touched on another of his favourite themes: the belief that very few people, even including the people in the UK, really understood the seriousness of the situation unfolding in Europe. People needed to wake up to the enormity of the danger they faced.

The musical items presented that night – and there were very many – were as patriotic as the speeches. The following list is compiled from the account in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative : The Veteran’s Song, Sons of the South, Harlequenade, The Soldier’s Pardon (recital), (It’s a Long Way to)Tipperary, Flight of Ages, John Bull (repeated), Bianca, (It’s)The Navy, The Englishman, The Sergeant of the Line, Jonathon Jones, Home sweet Home. The South Gippsland Chronicle added to the list: Trooper Johnnie Ludlow. All told, and with lively audience participation, the items must have stretched for at least one hour.

The morning after the farewell there was another short send-off immediately before a scheduled meeting of the Shire Council. It was attended by about forty people. There was a toast to ‘The King’ and those there sang one verse of the National Anthem. Speeches were short but there was mention of how the men from the ‘back blocks of Gippsland’ were going to hold their own and show the British soldiers how good they were. Everyone wished them a safe return home and, again, some even hoped they would not have to face battle. Events were concluded with one last toast. In the words of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative:

Glasses were charged, and the health of the soldier boys drunk, musically honoured with “Jolly Good Fellows” and “Tipperary.” Good-byes, bugle calls, and they were soon off to Alberton, to catch the train.

There were no further organised farewells in the district until May 1915 when one of the local doctors, John H Rutter joined the army medical corps. Then, after Gallipoli, the rate of farewells increased dramatically and the whole process of farewelling the locals who had enlisted became more organised and, over time, more directed to the process of recruiting.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Comment on this post

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.