38. ‘Flag flapping’ patriotism

This is the first of 3 short posts that look at divisions within the local community that began to form from the very beginning of the War. From 1916, with the push for conscription, the division would reach levels unparalleled to that point, however from the very beginning of the War the signs of tension were there. This first post looks a ‘flag flapping’. The second looks at early ‘shirkers’; and the third at Germans in the local community.

In the early stage of the War, division arose over the proper display of patriotism. In the heightened anxiety and bravado of the times, the standards of patriotism demanded – of both individuals and institutions – encouraged true ‘patriots’ to go looking for and expose those whose loyalty could be called into question. Local newspapers were keen to assist, and had the power to legitimise and also intensify the debate. This was the opportunity for them to present themselves as the voice of the community.

On 2 December 1914, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published a letter to the editor from an anonymous correspondent going by the name of  “Patriot”. The letter called into question the patriotic loyalty of the head teacher of Port Albert State School. The basic issue was the claimed reluctance of the head teacher to fly the flag, literally, and show an appropriate level of patriotism.  His indifference was compared with the enthusiasm apparent in all other schools across Australia. The possible counter claim that the school’s flag was old and tattered was already being discounted. It was a full-on attack on the head teacher’s sense of patriotism and the local paper chose to print it. “Patriot” wrote:

What has struck me forcibly for a considerable time, is the attitude of the head teacher of the State School, compared with that of other teachers all through the States. In every school in the State the teacher thinks it an honor for the national flag to be flying, and for the scholars to salute it. At Port Albert it is never seen now (when it should be proudly displayed more than ever) the excuse being the flag is tattered. In the days of Nelson and Wellington a torn flag signified honourable service. The teacher may probably be forgetful in such matters, but I would like to see patriotism installed in my children whatever happens.

The head teacher – Gerald Russell – had little choice but to reply in the next issue (4/12/14). He criticised the parent for writing under a pseudonym and then pointed out that the local school committee had …  already arranged for the purchase of a new flag. However, he was not prepared to leave the matter there and, given the very public attack on his sense of patriotism, he fired back at his detractor’s own patriotism, arguing it was more show than substance. It was clear that he knew who “Patriot” was because he went on to accuse him of not contributing to the school’s patriotic fund. He also questioned if “Patriot” had expected him, as head teacher, to purchase a flag with his own money, and then suggested that perhaps “Patriot’, if he was so keen on the idea, could himself have paid for the replacement flag:

Did “patriot” expect me to provide, from my own pocket, funds for that object? Had I known that gentleman was so keen on getting patriotism instilled into the minds of his children I might have deliberately suggested such an opening for himself. The wonder is that the children of such a parent should feel such a need. Let me suggest a practical way of achieving the same laudable result. There is a patriotic fund at the school for the purpose of receiving  children’s small offerings. “Patriot’s” children have not paid in a red cent. Is “patriot’s” patriotism of the blatant variety?

Thanks to the local paper, this was now a very public dispute across the district and the potential for arguments over the display of patriotic fervour to poison relations between a head teacher and his parents – with the students in the middle – was very obvious.

“Patriot” returned fire in the next edition (9/12/1914). This time he revealed his identity – “Patriot.” Otherwise known as Jack Robertson. Robertson was a fisherman from Port Albert. In his reply, Robertson takes on the persona of a parent forced, reluctantly, to call out the head teacher for lack of patriotic loyalty.  The attack on the head teacher, as one of the leading members of the local community, is severe; and the threat in the last couple of sentences is clear:

It has been common talk for weeks about our school teacher never displaying the Union Jack. I stood it as long as possible, but last Monday week was the limit. Three young men left on that day for Broadmeadows. They were born and educated here. There was no demonstration whatever at the school. Surely the time was opportune. A few of the bigger boys, who asked permission, were allowed to go to the station a few minutes before train time. The rest of the school were disappointed at not seeing their chums off. Another illustration: Last Empire Day every school in the shire had a celebration: Port Albert – nil. Mr. G. Russell says “Patriot’s” children never paid a cent into the Patriotic Fund at the school. They never did and never will. I prefer to send mine otherwise. I have contributed in a dozen different ways, besides making shirts, handkerchiefs, etc. If he has given as much (which I doubt) as I have he has not done too badly. He “delicately suggests”  I should install patriotism in my children myself. I have, from the time they were able to understand. I would not like that task left to him. He might only “delicately suggest” patriotism. I maintain a good teacher has a great influence over a child, and very often the making or marring of a child is started at school. We can look back with pride on a lot of our past teachers, men who were first and foremost in everything. Mr. G Russell wants to know if my patriotism is of the “blatant variety”? My patriotism is through every fibre of my body, and will stand the wear and tear. Will his? Mr. G. Russell never mentioned in his letter whether he is loyal or not. Probably he will when the new flag comes, if he doesn’t ——.

The 3 young men, former students of the school, referred to were Harry Lewis (1639), James Lindsay (1566) and Jack Robinson (1602). They enlisted together at Yarram on 24 November and they were given consecutive railway warrants (numbers 61- 63) for travel to Melbourne on 30 November 1914. The whole issue about farewells for young men who had enlisted was certainly topical at the time and no clear protocol had yet emerged. In fact, over the entire course of the War there was significant variation between local communities across the Shire in the way such farewells – and later on, welcome homes – were handled. As will become apparent in future posts, in some instances the local school did become the centre for such farewells, but this arrangement was not universal. Basically, the claim that the school did not give a decent farewell to the 3 young men was, in terms of practice at the time, somewhat opportunistic and even unwarranted; but the claim did reflect genuine concern that not enough was being done to farewell the young men. Certainly, people at the time would have read the letter and agreed that the school should have done something.

One week later on 16 December,  Russell replied. Inadvisedly, he determined to give the readers a lesson on the various forms of patriotism. Almost certainly, the locals were never going to welcome instruction by the local school master on the nature and varieties of patriotism. He drew the distinction between the true patriotism of the “young hero” who faced death on the battlefield, and the contrived patriotism of the likes of his opponent, “Patriot”. Labouring metaphors, the head teacher dismissed the “Patriot” as …  entrenched behind an ink pot and a sheet of paper … who could only … wield a bad pen, venomed by spite, and hurl mud bombs on all and sundry.

Russell also laid on the sarcasm, another ill-advised tactic:

We have it on the highest authority- his [Patriot’s] own: “Patriotism [is] through every fibre of my body.” Is it any wonder there is little left for me when he has such a superfluity of it? How fortunate we are in the possession of such a one. Slumber sweetly, ye babes of Port Albert. No danger of “Louvains” while “Patriot” … is with us.

The letter ends with a palpable sense of outrage that one of his own school committee has turned on him:

The most regrettable thing about the whole affair is that a member of the school committee should treacherously attack one whom, by virtue of his office, he was honourably bound to assist.

In the next edition (18/12/1914) Robertson replied, with what was to be his last missive. It was short but sharply pertinent. He obviously felt that he had won the contest. He claimed that the head teacher, with his talk of varieties of patriotism, was merely trying to dissemble and that for all his clever words he had repeatedly refused to address the basic charge, namely that under his leadership the school was not putting on the sort of patriotic display common in other schools, and which the community expected and wanted. As far as Robertson was concerned, the head teacher could be as smart as he wanted with his arguments and repartee, but he could not conceal this major failing.

Head-Teacher Russell replied in the next edition. He felt the need to emphasise his practical loyalty and pointed out that he had been … contributing five per cent of my salary to the State School Patriotic Fund since its inception. He welcomed the closest scrutiny of this claim and wrote that he doubted that Robertson was making the same sort of financial sacrifice.

Perhaps Russell sensed by this point that he had lost the argument; but he was still keen to point out the hollowness that could so easily characterise displays of patriotism:

Flag flapping is very well in its place, and it is the most blatant patriot that shouts “God save the King” the loudest.

However, the problem the head teacher faced was that flag flapping was precisely the type of patriotic display that the community expected from the local state school. The issue was not whether it was Russell or Robertson who had the finest sense of what true patriotism represented, or even who of the pair was making the greatest financial contribution to patriotic fund-raisers, but, rather, the key issue turned on what sort of visible patriotic display the local community could expect to see at the school. And the short answer was that they definitely wanted to see something; and they did not feel the need to argue this with the head teacher. Russell might have been the finest and most generous patriot in his private life, but the local community wanted the public manifestation of patriotism.

The last letter published on the matter appeared on 23 December 1914. It was another anonymous effort, this time signed Foreman of Jury. There is no way of ever knowing its provenance, but it looks like the sort of final word or verdict that an editor – in this case, A J Rossiter – could impose on a dispute that had seized the attention of the local community, a dispute that the local paper had enabled and promoted. Irrespective of whoever wrote the short letter, it is very clear that the head teacher had been found guilty as charged:

On the main points at issue, neglect to fly the flag, and failure to have any patriotic demonstrations on Empire Day and other suitable occasions throughout the year, the plaintiff, Patriot, gets the verdict. Penalty £5: to be paid into Empire Patriotic Fund, half by defendant, Russell, and and half by members of the school committee.

To some extent this last letter makes light of the whole episode and dismisses it with some gentle mockery. However, it is apparent that the background issue was not seen as trivial. The local head teacher had been publicly attacked over his perceived lack of patriotism and his reputation had been severely damaged. Doubts about his patriotism would have coloured the community’s dealings with him from then on. At another level a clear warning had been issued to all other local schools and head teachers that the local community did expect a highly visible form of patriotism to be on display.

The last point to make is that there was in fact a formal farewell for the 3 men referred to earlier. It came in the following January. It was written up in the local paper on 6 January 1915. This time the school children were involved. It is interesting to speculate whether (a) this formal farewell would have occurred and (b) the Port Albert State School would have been involved, had it not been for the earlier agitation of the “Patriot”.

The Port Albert railway station presented an animated scene on Monday last, when a large crowd assembled to bid farewell to three local soldier boys, James Lindsay, Harry Lewis and Jack Robinson. The school children sang, and the whole crowd joined in “Tipperary” and “God Save the King.” Detonators were placed on the line in honor of the volunteers.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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