58. The case of Rudolph Schmidt, postal worker at Traralgon

Rudolph Schmidt was a postal worker at Traralgon who in September 1915 was convicted of being ‘disaffected and disloyal’ and interned at Langwarrin. He was to be interned for the duration of the War. However, in November 1915, after only one month, Schmidt was released from military custody on the direction of the Minister of State for Defence ( Senator G F Pearce). Schmidt’s release prompted public outrage in Traralgon and the wider Gippsland community, and it fostered a long-running  protest that attracted the attention of the Melbourne press. The Minister was portrayed as weak and indecisive and his harshest critics claimed his actions undermined recruiting efforts.

Throughout the case, the Shire of Alberton backed its neighbour, the Shire of Traralgon, in its condemnation of Schmidt and criticism of the Minister. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative reported on 11/2/16:

At the meeting of the Alberton shire council yesterday a circular was read from the Traralgon Protest Committee, bearing on the treatment of the disloyal citizen Schmidt by Senator Pearce.

The President remarked that it was people of that class who were responsible for the tremendous amount of damage throughout the world. Ships were sunk and factories blown up. In nine cases out of ten it was due to the people of the Schmidt class. …

Cr. Barlow moved, and Cr. Barry seconded – That this council, having heard the facts of the case of Rudolph Schmidt, interned for disloyalty, and released by the Minister of Defence, expresses its strong dissent from the actions of the Minister in releasing Schmidt.

An earlier editorial in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 24 November 1915 made it clear how unpopular the Minister’s action in releasing Schmidt had been:

Rudolph Schmidt, an employee in the Traralgon post office, was interned, witnesses having stated in evidence that the accused said he would “rather be under the rule of the Kaiser than a week-kneed drunkard like the King of England” and that it was “all tommy rot for the Australian boys to fight for England.” Naturally the residents of Traralgon are incensed at the release of Schmidt, who it seems entered into a bond for his good behaviour. The president of the Traralgon shire is being requisitioned to convene a public meeting to protest against Schmidt’s release. Men of this class, having proved themselves disloyal, should not only be interned, but made to work for their tucker.

The Schmidt case reveals the complex interaction during the War between community politics and legislation covering national security. It also appears that the Minister (Pearce) ran the prosecution of Schmidt as a test-case.

There was extensive newspaper coverage of the Schmidt case at the time. Additionally, a comprehensive personal file on Schmidt was compiled by the Intelligence Section of the 3rd Military District.

Papers in the Schmidt file reveal that the Criminal Investigation Branch of Victoria Police and the ‘military authorities’ first started investigating Schmidt in May 1915. The first formal report (17/5/15) referred to him as being ‘anti-British’. Attention was drawn to his obviously German name and background. However, from the very beginning, there were questions over the veracity of the stories that were circulating about Schmidt. For example, the first report noted that a certain T A Pettit from Traralgon would be able to provide ‘valuable information’ on Schmidt, subject to his identity and information being kept ’strictly confidential’. However when this person was interviewed, he stated that all he knew about Schmidt was ‘hearsay’ and that he, personally, had not heard any ‘disloyal’ comments from him. But he added that from what he had heard from people, he was ‘certain’ that Schmidt was making disloyal comments. There was also a vague story – again hearsay – about Schmidt taking small flags from some children and jumping on them.

From the beginning, there was confusion over Schmidt’s background. Some of those investigating him believed that while he had been born in Australia, his father had been born in Germany. In fact, it was the grandfather who had been born in Germany.

The investigation of Schmidt began in May 1915. But not much more than 3 months later, on 8 September 1915, he was found to be ‘disloyal and disaffected’ under the Suspected Persons Inquiry Order 1915. This particular order under the War Precautions Act 1914 had been introduced on 25 June 1915, and there is a note in the Schmidt file, dated 22/6/15, from the Secretary, Department of Defence to the Commandant 3rd Military District, which specifically links Schmidt’s fate to the creation of this particular order:

RUDOLPH SCHMIDT
An order called the “Suspected Persons Inquiry Order”, will be submitted to the Executive Council to-morrow. An inquiry can be held under this Order if you think the circumstances so warrant.

Obviously, by late June, Schmidt had been identified as one of the first to be pursued under this new order. The recommendation from the 3rd Military District for the inquiry to go ahead was made on 9/7/15. The authorities were also keen to select the magistrate who would conduct the inquiry. The 3rd Military District recommended on 2/8/15 that ‘Mr Walter William Harris, Police Magistrate at Sale, be asked to conduct this enquiry.’ The Defence Department agreed to the recommendation re Harris, and Crown Law was asked to set the matter in train on 18/8/15:

The Minister of State for Defence believes that one RUDOLPH SCHMIDT, Postal Assistant at Traralgon is disaffected and disloyal and it is desired that Schmidt be given an opportunity under the Suspected Persons Inquiry Order, 1915, of proving that he is not disaffected or disloyal.

It would be most convenient for this Department if you could arrange for Mr. W. W. Harris, Police magistrate, to conduct the enquiry (sic)….

By the time Schmidt was compelled to attend court on 8 September 1915 there was not much chance for him. The desired legal instrument was in place, the chosen magistrate had been appointed and, under the Order, Schmidt had to prove that the Minister’s claim that he, Schmidt, was disaffected or disloyal was false. Quite apart from the onus of proof being on Schmidt, there were, by that stage, 13 current or former residents of Traralgon who were prepared to state that they had heard Schmidt utter disloyal comments.

Many of the court witnesses were fellow postal workers. One repeated claim was that Schmidt had referred to the King in terms like ‘weak-kneed drunkard’ and declared the Kaiser a better person. Schmidt was also alleged to have praised Germany as a place where working conditions were better, and products were made in Germany were also said to be better. One witness claimed Schmidt went so far as to claim that things would be no different under German rule. While he said he would fight for Australia he declared he would not fight for England. He criticised Llyod George and Churchill. Several witnesses claimed he justified the sinking of the Lusitania, on the grounds that the vessel was carrying contraband and warnings had been given by the Germans. One claimed that Schmidt had refused to wear a patriotic badge. Schmidt also, apparently, justified Germany’s use of gas as a weapon of war. Witnesses made it clear that they regarded Schmidt as disloyal, and that, as one claimed to have told him, he should ‘take the first boat back to Germany.’

The cumulative impact of such witness statements, formally presented in court, and in the context that the Minister and the authorities had already claimed that Schmidt was disloyal, was overwhelming. However, the conduct of the inquiry was just as prejudiced. Schmidt’s legal representative – A F Rice – had only met with Schmidt the morning of the court proceedings. He challenged the jurisdiction of the police magistrate and the legality of the entire proceedings. He claimed that Schmidt, in the meaning of the Order (Suspected Persons Inquiry Order 1915) was not a ’suspected person’ and, again within the wording of the Order, he pointed out that Schmidt had definitely not called for such an inquiry. He stated that Schmidt was neither disaffected nor disloyal. Police Magistrate Harris was unmoved. However he did acknowledge that he had difficulty in stating that Schmidt was a ’suspected person’ in terms of the Order. Faced with such a fundamental problem Harris concluded that he could not challenge his commission, which he presumed was ‘regular’. The inquiry went ahead.

The actual court dynamics were also very revealing. There was no cross examination of the witnesses. After the first witness had made his statement, Rice attempted to cross examine and go to the question of motivation but he was cut short by Harris. The exchange was written up in a local paper – Gippsland Farmers Journal, 10/9/15  (p3) – :

[After Rice had challenged the witness to be more precise with his recollection of the timing of an event and explain why he had let the matter lie so long before he finally reported it]
Mr. Harris here interposed, and said that he had no intention of allowing the witnesses to be subjected to endless cross-examination as to motives etc. The main thing was the impression left on their mind by what Schmidt had said.

No further witnesses were cross examined. The Police Magistrate had signalled that witnesses could, in effect, say what they wished and even play to the public theatre of the court room. Indeed, at the end of the proceedings Harris thanked all the witnesses for coming forward and he pointedly and publicly acknowledged their patriotic spirit.

Rice had asked for an adjournment which was denied. In the end, Rice effectively gave up and refused to advise his client. Schmidt did not take the stand.

Police Magistrate Harris found that Schmidt was disaffected and disloyal, to the applause of those in the packed court house. He left the sentence up to the Minister. But he did add that in his view 6 months in prison would be appropriate.

On 17/9/15, the Minister (Pearce) signed the warrant for Schmidt’s arrest and imprisonment, as a prisoner-of-war. He was taken into custody at Traralgon on 23/9/15 and transferred to Langwarrin the next day. Later there was a public service hearing which also found Schmidt guilty of disloyalty – it could hardly do otherwise – and he was also expelled from the local ANA.

On the face to it, the whole affair had been a great success and the local community, assisted by legal instruments and scheming that facilitated what amounted to little more than a kangaroo court, had been able to demonstrate its patriotism by removing a proven German sympathiser and someone disloyal to the Empire. Everyone, and not just the townspeople of Traralgon, was on notice that disloyalty would not be tolerated. But from the day that PM Harris found Schmidt to be a disaffected and disloyal person there were 2 serious problems for Minister Pearce. The first was the growing body of evidence that Schmidt was most likely the victim of paranoia and vindictiveness. The second problem was Schmidt’s citizenship, because legally there was nothing to tie him to Germany: he was as British a subject as all his accusers.

As indicated, the possibility that the claims against Schmidt had been spread as rumours intended to harm him had been there from the very start. Prior to his court appearance, Schmidt had written to the Deputy Postmaster General stating that the stories being spread about him were false, he was not disloyal and he had said nothing seditious. He also stated that people opposed his political views and had threatened to ‘get him’ for sedition. Perversely, this letter was actually employed to justify the inquiry into Schmidt’s claimed disloyalty. The authorities claimed in court that Schmidt’s written protestations about his innocence were a plea to the Minister to conduct the inquiry so he, Schmidt, could prove that he was not disloyal.

It was not long before other citizens of Tralralgon took up Schmidt’s cause. The part played by Schmidt’s father in visiting the town and talking to people is unclear. He might have been the critical catalyst but it could also have been that people were genuinely shocked at what had happened and exercised initiative themselves. In any case, the Minister soon had a number of statutory declarations from leading townspeople stating that while Schmidt had a temper and was prone to making extreme statements, he had been victimised and pressured relentlessly over his German name and supposed German background, and that he had been goaded or tricked into making foolish and extreme statements. Moreover, this group of townspeople individually found him to be a decent, law-abiding citizen whose loyalty could not be questioned. It was a totally different perspective.  It was also hard to dismiss the declarations when they came from, amongst others, the Shire of Traralgon Secretary (Walter G West), the local Church of England Minister (Rev. William James Thomas Pay) and an Inspector of Public Works (William Philip O’Mara). The identities of these townsfolk were not released at the time. The Minister for Defence was now presented with the possibility that his special legislation and hand-picked legal officer had been employed to effect an injustice.

The other major problem the case now posed for the Minister probably came more from blind prejudice than anything else. It has already been noted – and at the time some officials certainly knew – that, other than the name, there was little to tie Schmidt to Germany. His wife’s family were Australian. He had been born in Australia, as had his father. His grandfather had been born in Germany but he had come to Australia decades earlier as a 15 year old. In terms of all the legislation, Schmidt was not an ‘alien’ in any form. However, the Minister had incarcerated Schmidt at Langwarrin under Regulation 56.A (sic) of the War Precautions Regulations 1915. This regulation was very explicit:

56.(1) Where the Minister has reason to believe that any natural-born British subject, one at least of whose parents was or is a subject of a State which is at war with the King, is disaffected or disloyal, he may, by warrant under his hand, order him to be detained in military custody, in such place as he thinks fit, during the continuance of the present state of war.

Even if Schmidt had been disaffected or disloyal his incarceration under this section was not lawful. He did not meet the criteria: both parents had been born in Australia. Possibly, the Minister could have imprisoned Schmidt under a different regulation. For example, Regulation 43. – If any person attempts to cause mutiny, sedition, or disaffection among His Majesty’s forces, or among the civilian population, he shall be guilty of an offence against the Act ( War Precautions Act 1914). However, the Minister had clearly exceeded his power in incarcerating Schmidt under 56(1).

The solution Minister Pearce decided on was to release Schmidt, but only under a bond that he would cause no further problem. There is a minute paper, signed by Pearce, included in the Schmidt file and dated 25/10/15. It begins by outlining the correct details of Schmidt’s citizenship and recommends that In view of the whole circumstances of this case Schmidt may be released on his entering into a bond of £50 to observe the War Precautions Act & to abstain from the further use of disloyal language.

However the matter was not to be dismissed so easily. Once news of Schmidt’s release from Langwarrin on 29/10/15 became known there was uproar. Pearce’s action was seen as high-handed and totally at odds with the findings of the formal proceedings conducted at Traralgon. It was claimed that he had been fooled by people, including the father of Schmidt, who had personally approached him and requested that he reconsider the finding. The Minister had been manipulated. Pearce was in a difficult position. He could not criticise his own Department or his own decisions. At the same time, people demanded some better explanation of why such a clear-cut case of disloyalty was now set aside. Both the local and Melbourne press reported the community’s outrage.

Protest or ‘indignation’ meetings were held at Traralgon where the chief spokesperson was the Rev William H Scurr, the local Methodist minister. This particular member of the local clergy was absolutely certain about Schmidt’s disloyalty, unlike the Church of England minister referred to above who was one of those who came to Schmidt’s defence, and who wrote in his letter of support, I can only say that as far as I am concerned personally I have never heard him make one single statement indicating disloyalty… However, notwithstanding the division in the local clergy over Schmidt, it was very clear that overwhelming opinion in the town, local community and right across Victoria was against him.

In an attempt to limit the political damage, Minister Pearce released statements to the press. The following report in The Age 19/11/15 is interesting because while it assessed Schmidt’s comments as rash and intemperate, rather than disloyal, it still misrepresented Schmidt’s background:

RELEASED ON PAROLE
Minister of Defence Explains
The Minister of defence yesterday referred to a report that had appeared in the press stating that the inhabitants of Traralgon were incensed at the release of Rudolph Schmidt, a former letter carrier, on parole. In August certain alleged disloyal utterances of Schmidt were the subject of a magisterial inquiry, as a result of which it was recommended that Schmidt should be interned. Senator Pearce stated yesterday that the evidence in the inquiry had been sent down to the Defence department, and the authorities had gone very carefully through it. The whole matter appeared to have arisen out of a quarrel, and as Schmidt expressed regret at having used certain expressions in the heat of the moment, and had given satisfactory assurances for the future, it had been decided to release him on parole. Schmidt had been born in Australia, and was really a British subject, one of his parents being an Australian, the other a German.

The next week, 27/11/15, Philip Schmidt, Rudolph’s father, wrote to The Age (p 20) trying to correct the false statement about him (the father, Philip Schmidt) being born in Germany. It was the grandfather who was born in Germany, and this – in terms of 56(1) – was the critical difference:

… I would like to state, Schmidt’s mother is Australian born of English people; his father [Philip Schmidt] is also Australian born. Rudolph Schmidt’s grandmother was born in Western Australia of English parents, and his grandfather, German, came to Victoria at the age of 14, and resided within fifteen miles of Melbourne for 50 odd years, and never at any time did he try to teach or show us any German ideas, but quite the reverse.

He closed his letter, I remain loyal to the end.

A few days earlier – 23/11/15 – Rev Scurr had a letter published in The Argus (p 7).  He had clearly identified the basic weaknesses in the Minister’s decision:

Was the Minister right in interning him, and is he wrong in releasing him now, or was he wrong in interning him and is he right in releasing him now? Which? If one convicted and interned man can be released on his “bond to be of good behaviour,” can any of the men at present interned be released on the same recognissance? If not, why not?

On 25/11/15 The Argus  (p8) reported on the public meeting held at Traralgon to protest against Schmidt’s release. In reporting the hostility directed at Minister Pearce, it noted:

The Minister, it was declared, had released Schmidt on the flimsiest of reasons, and his action was high-handed and a direct insult to the people of Traralgon.

A more complete account of the story behind Schmidt’s release was revealed at the end of November. By this point, G H Wise the local MHR had been pressed to pursue the matter with Minister Pearce. Wise passed on the reply he received from the Secretary of the Department, and it appeared in the Traralgon Record  (p 2) on 30/11/15:

… I am to inform you that subsequently (sic) to the enquiry held as to Schmidt’s loyalty, representations were made to the Minister on Schmidt’s behalf by several residents of good standing in the Traralgon district. From their statements it appeared that so far as they knew Schmidt he had confirmed himself as a loyal subject. It was further represented to the Minister that many of the statements as to which evidence was given at the enquiry (sic) had been made during arguments in which Schmidt’s temper had been affected by provocation.

The Minister was also informed that both Schmidt’s father and mother had been born here, and that his mother was of British descent; and also that his grandfather had spent nearly all his life in Australia.

Schmidt’s internment had been ordered in the belief that he was a naturalised subject. It is not the practice of the Department to intern a natural born subject except in circumstances of undoubted danger to the public safety, and in view of the doubts which the information furnished to the Minister raised as to the necessity for keeping him interned, the Minister authorised his release on his entering into a bond to be of good behaviour.

Interestingly, the letter argues that the Department interned Schmidt in the mistaken belief that he was a naturalised subject. However, nowhere in Schmidt’s file is there any indication that the authorities ever believed he was a naturalised subject. Rather, the mistake made was that officers thought Schmidt’s father was naturalised. Throughout the whole affair there appeared to be constant indifference, and confusion – if not dissemblance –  over the question of Schmidt’s citizenship. Incredibly, even the bond under which he was eventually released referred to ‘the date of his arrival in the Commonwealth of Australia’! The basic problem was that while Schmidt was not, legally, in any way German, politically he was always regarded as such.

The opposition to Schmidt’s release eventually faded away in the first half of 1916, but not before virtually every shire and local council in Victoria had formally expressed its condemnation of both Schmidt’s disloyalty and his release by the Minister.  Rev Scurr was still protesting as late as April 1916 when, according to The Argus of 12/4/16 (p 10), he attended a meeting of the Anti-German League in Melbourne in his capacity as the Chairman of the Rudolph Schmidt Committee, Traralgon. Pearce’s status as one of the most powerful men in the Hughes Government – he was Minister for Defence through the War, and in fact to 1921 – meant that he could survive the protests over his actions.

The lesser figure of Rudolph Schmidt suffered most. Apart from the period he spent as a prisoner of war, he had to live under the highly prescriptive conditions of his bond. He lost his employment with the Post office, after 9 years of service. He also had to leave Traralgon.  He was only twenty-four, married with one child, and his name and reputation had been badly damaged, if not destroyed. His last known address appears to have been Woorarra via Welshpool, in early 1918. We know this because his mail was still being intercepted at that point. Woorarra was a remote settlement on the boundary of the Shire of Alberton.

It seems that Schmidt’s fate was driven by his quick temper, his surname and the unchecked hysteria of patriotism in the local community. The political mandarins of the day sought to exploit this obsession with patriotic loyalty to shore up support for the War. They showed they could be ruthless in their actions; and when they made mistakes they instinctively dissembled. The supreme irony was that the War was being fought against tyranny, to preserve the British Empire and all its institutions, including, most importantly, its system of justice.

References

Intelligence file for Rudolph Schmidt

Newspapers

The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Traralgon Record

Gippsland Farmers Journal, Traralgon

The Age

See also:

Stanley, P 2011, Digger Smith And Australia’s Great War : Ordinary Name – Extraordinary Stories, Pier 9, Miller’s Point NSW. (pp114-117)

One thought on “58. The case of Rudolph Schmidt, postal worker at Traralgon

  1. Linda

    Arthur F. Rice was the long-term solicitor from Maffra, establishing himself there about 1901. His practice covered all of Gippsland, and he was probably one of the region’s more prominent solicitors of the time.

    On a cursory search, I cannot see a Victorian death registration for Rudolph Schmidt.

    Reply

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