41. Pressed to enlist in the first half of 1915

This is the second post that looks at divisions apparent in the local community from the very beginning of the War. Once again it involves a series of letters-to-the-editor in the local paper, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. The common thread to the letters was the claim that young men from the township of Woodside were refusing to do their patriotic duty and enlist.

The first letter was signed anonymously, “Mary Jane” and it appeared in the paper on 21 April 1915.

It appears strange to me that so many able bodied young men are content to remain at home while the best and bravest of our boys have either gone or are going to fight for King and country in the battle fields of Europe. During a recent visit to Woodside I saw a tall, strong, active young man wearing in his button hole a badge displaying the historic words, “England expects every man to do his duty.” That young man is still in Woodside, and so far as he is concerned England stands a big chance of being disappointed. He is only one of many we meet every day. Their duty it appears lies at home; though late, very late at night, they may be heard riding home from the nearest hotel singing “Tipperary.”

The essential charge was that the patriotism of too many young men in the district was hollow.  They hid behind the pretence of patriotism, more interested in heavy drinking sessions at the local pub than fighting overseas.  And, as far as the writer was concerned, there was at least one such young man in Woodside. In fact, from the entire Shire of Alberton, Woodside was the only specific location named.

Two weeks later the same argument was revisited, and once again Woodside was identified. This time the writer signed him or herself as “Patriot”. One interpretation would be that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” were the same person and that the first letter was intended to establish some sense of credibility – or  serve as a ‘teaser’ – for the more serious charges to come.  If it was not the same person then there was definitely a congruence of views.

“Patriot’s” first letter appeared on 1 May 1915. It was signed “Patriot” of Woodside. The detail in the letter covering the specifics of life and individuals in the local community of Woodside certainly gives the impression that the writer was a local.  The basis of the argument was that, unlike other local communities, Woodside had seen very few young men volunteer. Moreover, not content with such indifference to their patriotic duty, the same group spent or wasted their lives drinking, fighting and being a general nuisance in the community. The significance of the letter is that of all the small towns and settlements across the Shire of Alberton, attention was turned on the particular township of Woodside. Where “Mary Jane’s” letter had merely hinted that there could be a problem at Woodside, this letter proclaimed boldly that Woodside was some sort of epicentre of patriotic indifference.

I believe out of [the] large crowd of young men in Woodside only about two or three have gone, but I think a couple more started and came back again for some reason or other which I don’t know. Where in other places I know one or two have gone out of every family and more would go if they only could. These boys are different to the boys in Woodside, for I believe at the present time there are about a dozen young men in Woodside that could go and won’t go. They would sooner spend their time fighting one another, and will be seen going about for days or a week after with their eyes and hands neatly tied up after having had them attended to by a doctor. Then of course they have to have a holiday, for they are not able to do anything, but every night they will be seen rolling up to the hotel again, and will be heard going home quite happy at a late hour at night. Perhaps in some future time they may be sorry they never joined the colours, instead of fighting one another about there. I believe one certain young man said he would go only he had to stay to buy his mother’s bread. This, I think, is a poor excuse, for I know his mother has a husband and one or two more sons, and I think if the husband can’t provide her with bread he ought to go to the war and try to his duty there if he can’t do it at home. And many more of these strong young men ought to do the same.

Not surprisingly, the letter prompted a response. Two letters appeared in the edition of 19 May 1915, nearly a fortnight later. One was dated 12 May, Woodside and the other 13 May, also Woodside. The first, by Jas. O’Neill, claimed that in fact ten or a dozen of the Woodside boys had already enlisted and more were going to enlist. Jas. O’Neill appears to have been, according to the Electoral Roll, James Joseph O’Neill, labourer of Woodside. O’Neill made the point that at least those going would be able to fight a enemy they met face to face whereas they were powerless to take on “Patriot” who was nothing more than a backbitter [sic] hiding behind her anonymity. He assumed “Patriot” was a woman or perhaps he wanted to make the point that a real man would not conceal his identity.   He also suggested that more of the … Woodside boys would join the colours if it was only to get away from the likes of “Patriot”.

The second letter was signed by another O’Neill – S J. O’Neill – and this writer explicitly identified himself as the target of “Patriot’s” attack and presented his defence. The writer was 25 yo Simon John O’Neill:

I was commented on as being in a hotel brawl, instead of being at the war. Allow me to say that in trying to avoid a dispute I was drawn into one, but have not, as the writer says, been repeatedly at the hotel at night since the occurrence, and can prove that I have been working and not loafing round the hotel. As for not going to the war, unfortunately I am unfit, or I should have volunteered long ago.

S J O’Neill also challenged “Patriot” to reveal his or her identity:

It would also be interesting to know why “Patriot” does not disclose his or her name, as anyone who speaks the truth has no need for secrecy. On condition that “Patriot” will answer this letter through the press, with his or her name signed in full, I will lodge £5 at the “Standard” [Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative] office in aid of the Belgian Relief, and I think “Patriot” to prove true patriotism should contribute the same amount.

Another 2 weeks passed before “Patriot” replied on 26 May. The reply revealed just how personal the initial attack had been. To begin, “Patriot” dismissed the respondent James O’Neill by stating that the first letter … had nothing whatever to do with him. There was a sense of outrage that this O’Neill has bought into an argument that did not concern him. Presumably he was too old to enlist. But in the next sentence “Patriot” continued the attack on the younger S J O’Neill, claiming that her sources suggested that  … he has not been in Woodside much since then [the brawl at the hotel]. Clearly, J S O’Neill was one of “Patriot’s” initial targets.  He was one of 3 O’Neill brothers, all from Woodside and aged in their early twenties. People in Woodside who read the first letter would have known those being written about.  “Patriot” had no intention of backing down. The claim was made again that only a handful from Woodside had enlisted, and as for revealing his or her identity and the £5 challenge:

As for signing my name, I will not, as it may only cause trouble and perhaps make many people bad friends, but I am sure my statements are just as correct as his, and he can give his £5 if he likes. … I would be quite willing to give mine also, if I could only afford it, but I cannot as I am only receiving a small salary, and having more than myself to keep I find I am not able to do it.

On 4 June, “Mary Jane”, the initial person to call into question the patriotic loyalty of the young men of Woodside, submitted another letter-to-the-editor. It seemed that both “Patriot” and “Mary Jane” had to respond to the O’Neills; and there was the suspicion, again, that the two identities were the same. In fact, “Mary Jane” referred explicitly to this belief in the letter – Some people, I am informed, are quite sure that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” are one and the same person – and then denied it, but in a most unconvincing manner. She also claimed, again unconvincingly, that she had never intended to target specifically the O’Neill Brothers and that, in effect, they had self-identified:

Only the O’Neill Brothers to whom I had not given a thought when writing, fitted the cap on their own head.

She also expressed regret that … her former letter caused so much bitterness in certain quarters. But it was a sham contrition – It was not intended to arouse such feelings and certainly would not have done so amongst sensible people. – and she drove home again the basic message:

… when married men are leaving wives and children and giving their lives to the service of their country, surely the single man who has youth, health and strength, and has no nearer duty to perform might also consider his country’s claim upon his manhood.

And, finally, there was another parting shot at S J O’Neill:

If he would rather stay home and keep a whole skin, the least he could do would be to refrain from wearing patriotic badges and singing war ditties, especially very late at night when respectable residents wish to sleep.

In turn, this letter elicited responses from 2 of the O’Neill brothers. The first from S J O’Neill appeared on 11 June. He pointed out, correctly, that “Mary Jane’s” first letter – back on 21 April – had, in fact, elicited no response in the paper. It was only the letter of “Patriot” that had prompted response. He queried why she had felt the need to reply when no-one had ever engaged with her in the first place. His clear implication was that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” were the same person.  He focused on her attack on the young man wearing the patriotic badge – presumably himself –  the character she had originally set up in her first letter in April:

… her deceased [sic] brain has once carried her beyond the sublime when she objects to people wearing patriotic badges and singing war ditties simply because they have not gone to the war. Did “Mary Jane” ever take into consideration the help which every person is giving by procuring one such badge to which she objects, but “where ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise.”

And he offered as his farewell:

I would advise “Mary Jane” to sink herself into oblivion and stay there for the rest of her life, or until such time as her foul mind has discarded its bitterness, and that she may be fit to come and live with pure-minded people.

The letter from Maurice E O’Neill – the second respondent – appeared on 16 June. He and his 2 brothers had commenced enlistment by this point – they had all passed the medical at Yarram in May 1915 – and he indicated that he was leaving for the camp at Seymour and he wanted … to have a pick at “Mary Jane” for the first and perhaps the last time. He claimed that, despite her denials, she had definitely targeted the O’Neill boys. Given that he was killed in France in 1916, his parting wish was cruelly ironic:

So I will wish “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” farewell. Hoping that they will have recovered from their strange delusions by the time I get home again.

The last word went to “Mary Jane”. Her letter published 23 June admitted some grudging respect for the O’Neill brothers who had enlisted; but at the same time she took on the persona of a poor, defenceless woman, threatened by young louts, and claimed credit for goading the brothers to enlisting:

The O’Neill brothers seem to be suffering from furore scribendi [rage for writing]. I have heard that they are going to the war. On this I congratulate them most heartily. They are setting an example that others, in the same position, might well follow. If it is any satisfaction to them to knock out a poor old woman before they leave Woodside, they are welcome to that. Only let them deal as bravely with the enemy when they met him. So far as this correspondent is concerned they have kept it up very well indeed. Had they not done so it had long since been forgotten. It is no use tickling a frog that won’t jump. Alas! there are many frogs that are too indolent to croak, much less jump.

Trying to interpret these events from so long ago is obviously not easy. However there are several points that can be made. First, the local paper chose to publish the letters of “Mary Jane” and “Patriot”, even though the letters were anonymous, the claims generalised and the reputations of known people attacked.  Again, as with the ‘flag flapping’ of Post 38, the paper gave people a platform to make virtually any claim they liked in relation to real or perceived lapses in patriotic sentiment and duty. The local paper was flexing its political muscle and brandishing its patriotic credentials.

The second point concerns the accuracy of the basic claim that not many young men from Woodside volunteered. At the time, this claim would have been difficult, if not impossible, to determine, with major problems over who was keeping records and how an individual was to be identified with a particular location. There was no objective, independent tally of enlistments from every location within the Shire kept at that specific time. Nor was one ever kept at any point over the duration of the War.  In such an environment, people’s perceptions were very powerful. While there had been manifestations of patriotic duty all over the Shire at the outbreak of the War, there would also have been inevitable variations in the rate of enlistment between locations. If someone like “Patriot” wanted to claim that such a variation amounted to proof that young men in a particular location were unpatriotic, and that assertion was given credibility by being published in the local press, then no doubt perceptions could readily become commonly accepted beliefs. Doubtless in mid-1915, after the correspondence in the local paper, people throughout the Shire of Alberton would have discussed the possibility/probability/certainty that not enough young men had volunteered from Woodside. And in discussing the situation at Woodside, they would also have looked at their own location and wondered if the same claim could be made about their own young men’s sense of patriotic duty. Presumably, this was exactly what the local paper was setting out to achieve.

The third point covers the possibility, 100 years later, of being able to uncover the identity of the anonymous writer(s).

There is little doubt that whoever wrote the letters to the editor knew about the O’Neill brothers. The O’Neill’s were right in responding to the letters in the belief that they, specifically, were being targeted. Details in the letters of “Mary Jane” and “ Patriot” certainly did identify them. Presumably, the letters were written by one or more persons in the local community of Woodside who knew the O’Neill family and, more particularly, had identified the O’Neill boys as typical of those single, young men who were causing problems – drinking, fighting, out late at night – when they should have already done the right thing and enlisted. One or two people wanted to draw attention to the O’Neill boys and the local paper was prepared to assist, presumably on the basis that the O’Neills represented a problem that was common across the Shire as a whole.

Then there is the issue of the name, “Mary Jane”. The boys’ mother was typically referred to as Mrs W(illiam) Kerr. Her first husband, and the boys’ father, was James O’Neill but he had died and she had remarried, to William John Kerr who also lived in Woodside. Mrs William Kerr was in fact Mrs Mary Jane Kerr (O’Neill). It seems that the pseudonym of “Mary Jane” was a deliberate choice, with the intention, clearly, to identify the O’Neill boys. This again pointed to someone in the local community who knew the O’Neill family history.  Moreover, given that the local paper was prepared to publish both sets of anonymous letters – from both “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” – it seems reasonable at least to suggest that perhaps the editor of the paper – A J Rossiter – played a role in the affair. Perhaps, even, he had heard of the O’Neill boys and decided himself to craft a series of letters that appeared to come from concerned locals. It was his chance to raise an issue that people were talking about. As will become evident in future posts, Rossiter was certainly prepared to take an active role in promoting patriotic duty in the local community. Perhaps this whole episode was a underhand way of doing just that. There would have been little chance that his ruse could ever have been uncovered. But there is no proof of any such strategem. Besides, there is even the possibility that the writer might have been a relative: an aunt or uncle keen for the brothers to do what they saw as the ‘right thing’, rather than bring dishonour on the extended family.

Leaving conjecture to one side, the actual fate of the O’Neill boys is known. There were 3 O’Neill brothers. They were all single and they enlisted together in June 1915. The oldest was Simon John O’Neill (1958) who was nearly 25yo when he enlisted on 16 June 1915. The middle brother – Maurice Edward O’Neill (1960) – was 23yo when he enlisted on 18 June 1915. The youngest brother was Joseph Geoffrey O’Neill (2062) who was nearly 21yo when he enlisted on 22 June 1915. All 3 brothers had their initial medical at Yarram and were issued with railway warrants (105-107) on 31 May 1915 to travel to Melbourne. All 3 had been born at Sale and all gave their religion as Roman Catholic. All had as their next-of-kin their mother Mrs W(illiam) [Mary Jane] Kerr of Woodside.  Presumably the father was dead by the time they enlisted. All 3 gave their occupation as labourer but the 2 older brothers featured in the 1915 Rate Book with each holding a few acres of land at Woodside. The 2 older brothers had been involved in the Woodside Rifle Club and the oldest (Simon John O’Neill) had spent 18 months in the Light Horse unit based in Sale. All 3 brothers enlisted in 24 Battalion and all served overseas. Simon John O’Neill returned to Australia in March 1919 and Joseph Geoffrey O’Neill in April 1919. The middle brother, Maurice Edward O’Neill, was killed in action in France on 29 June 1916.

What influence the writings of “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” had on the decision of the O’Neill boys to enlist is not possible to determine. Certainly there was a surge in enlistments once the casualty levels associated with Gallipoli became commonly known. Moreover, the background of at least 2 of the 3 brothers, in the Woodside Rifle Club and other military training, suggests that they were always potential volunteers. At the same time, being identified in the local press as unpatriotic would have been hard to withstand. Even when they did enlist, their critics could only offer half-hearted praise, and rebuke them for taking so long.  Overall, their reputations were seriously damaged and enlistment at least removed them from the local area. As James O’Neill suggested right at the start, they might well have enlisted to escape the likes of “Patriot”.

In 1920, on the anniversary of her son’s death (29/6/16), Mrs Mary Jane Kerr inserted the following In Memoriam in the local paper:

O’Neill – In loving remembrance of my dear son, Private Maurice Edward O’Neill, killed in action on 29th June, 1916. R. I. P.

We all miss him, for we loved him,
And shall always feel the loss
Of our fair-haired darling, sleeping
‘Neath a little wooden cross.

Inserted by his mother.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for O’Neill Simon John

National Archives file for O’Neill Maurice Edward

National Archives file for O’Neill Joseph Geoffrey

 

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