60. Soldiers’ farewells 1915

This post looks at the soldiers’ farewells staged in 1915. Over 1915, the local newspaper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – reported on 30 farewells that covered approximately 60 men.  Clearly, there were far more men who enlisted in 1915 than the number who were given farewells. Some men had already left the district and enlisted elsewhere, including interstate. Other men slipped away deliberately, without any sort of farewell. It also seems that there were not many farewells for men who had been working in the district for only a short time.  Many of the men who were not given farewells did at least receive the Shire Medallion when it finally became available from October 1915. In such cases it was handed to a relative or friend of the local who had enlisted.

Essentially, the data and details in the post come from reports in the local paper.  There was a general expectation in the local community that soldiers’ farewells would be reported in the local paper and identifying the individual locals who had volunteered was a community preoccupation. Equally, as will become apparent, the reports of the farewells also served as ongoing chapters in the narrative of the War. Farewells – and later the ‘welcome homes’ – represented the opportunity for local spokespersons to push the essential themes that maintained the local community’s focus on and support for the War. Even if people did not attend the farewell itself – and falling attendance did become a concern – they could read the substance of the speeches in the local paper.

As well as looking at what was said at the farewells, the post also considers the question of who the speakers were. While there were sometimes gaps in the information from reports of farewells in small townships, the newspaper reports were generally thorough in identifying both who spoke and what was said. The significance of the particular focus on the speakers is that, as already argued, it was the professional, propertied and managerial class of the local community that controlled the narrative of the War. On the other side of this broad equation, it was typically the rural working class that enlisted.

The 1915 farewells at Yarram

Most farewells (22) were held in Yarram as the principal town of the Shire of Alberton.

Included in the 1915 farewells in Yarram, there were farewells to 3 high profile members of the local community. In May, Dr Rutter was farewelled when he joined the Australian Medical Corps. In July, Dr Pern, another local doctor, was farewelled when he too joined the AMC. Then in late September the popular local Church of England minister, Rev Geo Cox, was farewelled. Ironically, Drs Pern and Rutter had failed Cox when he had made earlier attempts to enlist. All 3 farewells were conducted as major events in the community: the venues were full to capacity; there was an extensive line-up of speakers; much was made of the history of selfless community service, as either clergyman or doctor, before enlistment; and because all 3 men were married with children, and Cox and Pern were in their forties while Rutter was thirty-five, their individual enlistments were held up as outstanding examples of sacrifice and sense of duty.

However, farewells of this scale were not possible for everyone who enlisted. By mid 1915 it was recognised that some sort of committee would have to be formed so that a common, but manageable, format could be put in place.  Any farewell, no matter how low-key, involved considerable effort and there needed to be a process that could be sustained.

The first committee meeting to tackle the issue of setting up a process for soldiers’ farewells was held on 6 August 1915 and reported in the local paper on 8 August 1915. As reported, there was general agreement at the meeting that the whole business of farewells needed to be better organised. Everyone agreed that it was essential that those locals leaving the district be given a farewell. There was also general agreement that a wristlet watch be given. Later this would be replaced by the Shire of Alberton Medallion. For efficiency those at the meeting wanted the farewells to be organised for groups of men rather than run on an individual basis. But others pointed out how difficult it was to get accurate and timely advice from the AIF on the men’s movement and that it was never going to be possible to achieve the level of planning and organisation that people wanted.

The first meeting also tackled the issue of who should receive a farewell. Some wanted to draw a distinction between ‘bona fide’ residents of the district and others who had only been there ’two or three months’ and who ‘did not intend returning’. Overwhelmingly, these would have been the rural workers who found themselves in the district when they decided to enlist. Others thought a six month residency in the district should be the standard. At the meeting, the issue was left unresolved. In a real sense, the rural workers themselves resolved the issue for the committee. Most of the farewells that were organised tended to be for men who had already enlisted and who were home on their final leave before embarkation. On the other hand, the pattern for men who had been working in the district as itinerant rural workers was to complete the medical in Yarram, sign their attestation forms, be issued with a railway warrant from the Shire Secretary, and in the next day or so, travel to Melbourne to complete the enlistment process.  Once in Melbourne, these men did not return to the Shire and so the issue of any farewell did not even arise. Interestingly, those at the meeting on 6 August, were quoting the figure of 200 men from the Shire who had already left, but formal farewells would have covered less than half this number. Most commonly, the discrepancy involved the rural workers.

The major point of dispute at the first meeting involved the financing of the operation. Majority opinion favoured setting up a subscription list, with names published in the local paper, with an initial subscription of 5/- and 2/- per month thereafter. However the minority view was that this amount would not generate sufficient funds and people should be encouraged to donate more. To make their point, several of those there that night immediately handed over donations of £5. Upset by the gesture, Henry George Bodman – grazier of Trenton Valley – predicted, accurately, that faced with the 2 levels of donation, 5/- and £5, the community would be confused, and this would undermine the whole idea of a subscription. Just 2 weeks later, on 18/8/15, the editorial in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative described the ensuing confusion and loss of enthusiasm:

The meeting held on Friday 6th inst., in the shire hall, having passed a resolution which would not provide adequate funds for farewells and welcomes to soldiers, a further meeting was called for Friday last [13/8/15]. Curious to state, but half-a-dozen attended, too few for business, and the movement which promised well at the outset has fizzled out. Surely our boys are worth some little attention! Those gentlemen who came forward with “fivers” seem to have blown out the five shillings project.

It was another example of the petty politics that could so easily undermine local projects. From that point, the compromise was that any level of donation was accepted, and the paper regularly published the amounts which ranged from 2/6 to £5.

The actual farewell ceremony that developed over 1915 was simple. It was held in the shire hall. The timing varied and had to fit in with train times from Alberton. There would be one or two speeches, a toast to the soldier’s health, the soldier would generally reply and there would be a verse of the National Anthem or some other patriotic song. “For he’s a jolly good fellow” was also usually sung. Once the Shire Medallion and Card became available, their presentation added a sense of formality to the occasion.

After the brief ceremony, someone would volunteer to drive the soldier to the train station at Alberton.  The name of the person offering the car would often be published in the paper.

Not much changed over 1915. The committee did request advance notice about soldiers’ leave from the military authorities but, not surprisingly, such a concern was not a priority for the AIF. Late in the year, the committee erected a flag pole outside the shire hall and when a farewell ceremony was to be held the flag would be flown to alert townspeople. This action was in response to poor attendance at the farewells. Initially people put the low numbers down to the lack of notice being given for farewells but, over time, the claim that people were not prepared to put themselves out was raised repeatedly in the local paper. The suggestion made by Wliiam Geo. Pope at a farewell reported on 29/10/15 – he served on the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee – that the local clergy should set up a roster so that there was always one of their number at every farewell was another not very subtle claim that the soldiers’ farewells were not receiving the attention they warranted.

By the end of 1915 the lack of recruits was another disappointment being raised at the farewells. Speakers were insisting that too many men were not doing their duty and the level of enlistments was dangerously low. By October 1915, they were claiming that conscription had to come. The old thinking about the strength of voluntary enlistments no longer applied. As W G Pope declared at a farewell on 27 November 1915 (reported 1/12/15):

The old idea that one volunteer was worth two pressed men did not count these times.

Farewells outside Yarram.

It was obviously easier to cover the farewells held in Yarram than those held in outlying locations. Such farewells usually required a local ‘correspondent’ to write about the occasion. In a couple of cases – Wonyip and Blackwarry – the report was short on details.

Over 1915, there were 8 farewells conducted in smaller townships or settlements:  Blackwarry (1), Kjergaard (2), Womerah (1), Gunyah (1), Alberton (1), Woodside (1), Wonyip (1). Obviously these lay outside the influence of the committee in Yarram, although there was the odd occasion when a committee member from Yarram would attend. As noted before, farewells in the townships and settlements of the Shire of Alberton tended to be on a grander scale than those held in Yarram. Generally, they were held at night and they involved a social and dance in the local hall. They were attended by most if not all the local residents. They were far more of a community celebration. The themes covered by the speakers were the same as those in Yarram, but there were more speeches and more patriotic songs. Also, there was always a special gift – silver mounted wallet, inscribed gold medal, silver mounted pipe, pocket wallet, purse of sovereigns – and this was given in addition to the Shire Medallion.

Themes covered by the speakers

It is possible to analyse the speeches, as reported in the local press, and identify several common themes. Inevitably, the team of speakers at these events would hear each other’s speeches – or read them in the press – and over time a common approach to the themes, the imagery, the stories and even the slogans developed.

For the committee managing the farewells, the men being farewelled had to leave with a strong sense of community support and the conviction that their decision to volunteer was absolutely correct. They had the right to be proud of what they done. As well, the audience at the farewells wanted to be there. They wanted to show their respect, and they believed in and supported what they heard.  Overall, the scene was set for forceful speech making, with plenty of flourish and hyperbole.

The following breakdown represents the themes most commonly covered at the 1915 farewells:

The moral strength of the volunteer
The unique character and success of the AIF
The greatness of the Empire and Australia’s duty to support it
The evil of Germany and the dire threat it posed to the Empire and Australia
The mother’s sacrifice
The pioneer as soldier

Note: In the following description, the dates quoted refer to the date the report of the farewell appeared in the local paper. The date of the actual farewell would have been within one week or less of the date of publication.

The moral strength of the volunteer

This was by far the most common theme. Every farewell praised the moral quality or character of the person volunteering. The act of volunteering was proof of character.

This decision to enlist was inevitably described as a duty.  The men answered the call of duty. They were prepared to make a sacrifice. They judged the pursuit of a greater good above personal interest. They were men who refused to let others do the fighting for them. All of them could be described as heroes. They were also true patriots, as W G Pope, speaking at the farewell to Dr Pern (9/7/15) noted:

Dr Pern had placed the price of patriotism on one the side of the scale, and personal considerations on the other, and patriotism had gone down flop and won. (Applause).

The speakers inevitably drew attention to the fine character of the volunteers as young men or boys before they enlisted. Dr Pern was referred to as having … a gentlemanly character and genial nature (9/7/15). G F Sauer was reported (15/10/15) as saying Pte O J Parrott was … a clean living man, and he felt sure he would be a clean fighter. G F Sauer (20/10/15) also farewelled 2 other young men noting that they … had led clean lives, and were a credit to the district. E L Grano referred to the same young men as having been good citizens and he was sure they would … do their duty faithfully. Some of the speakers had known the men since they were boys. At a farewell from Woodside for Pte Richard Starling (17/11/15), one of the speakers, J W Condon, said of Starling, Even when little more than a boy he had been a leader. He had led men older than himself, and had always led them in the right way.  At the farewell for Pte Gordon S Jeffs (13/10/15), Cr Barlow spoke of how he had known the young man from birth and Mr V S Lalor added that Gordon was … the worthy son of a worthy father.  At a farewell at Womerah (4/8/15) one speaker went so far as to relate that, as a youth, one of the men being farewelled, …  never sat down to a meal without saying grace. At his farewell in June 1915 (16/6/15), Pte R O’Dea  was referred to as a ‘manly man’. On the sub-theme of the ‘manly man’, Appendix 1 features the poem, Then You’re a Man by Lyde [sic] Howard. It was read in full by F C Grano at a farewell in late October 1915 (29/10/15). The verse – overdone, even by the standards of the time – is strong on Christian imagery, including the eternal reward in heaven, which featured commonly at the time.

Fellow clergyman, Rev Tamagno (Methodist), at the farewell for Rev Cox (29/9/15), was at pains to express his admiration for Cox’s sense of duty. He described Cox as a true ‘white man’. He went so far as to claim, … there is no whiter man in this town and outside it, and these words are not flattery. Cox, for his patriotic effort, had been raised to some exalted level of manliness in the British Empire.

The unique character and success of the AIF

From the beginning, speakers reminded the volunteers of the need to uphold the ‘tradition’ of Australians generally and the Australian as a soldier. The ‘tradition’ itself was often vague, with occasional references to bravery and duty in the Boer War. However, after Gallipoli and the newspaper reporting of the time, the stakes were raised considerably, with volunteers both praised for their membership of the AIF and pressed with the need to defend its newly-won reputation. Cr Barlow, speaking at the farewell for Pte Bodman (8/9/15) … wished to impress on Private Bodman that he  was an Australian. From what they had read and heard they knew all who had gone to the front were heroes without exception. He hoped all who went to the front would uphold that tradition. When W S Filmer, the school teacher at Womerah, spoke at the farewell to 3 local men (4/8/15), He advised them to try and emulate the example set by the brave Australians on Gallipoli, of whom the naval men said, “Fiercest fighters God never made.”

The then president of the Shire of Alberton, Cr Bland (29/10/15) had no doubt on the quality of Australian soldiers. Even before the AIF had even reached the Western Front, they were the best in the world:

These men were going to join other Australians who had earned the name of being the best soldiers in the war. (Applause.)

W G Pope expressed similar sentiments at the farewell to Dr Pern (9/7/15) declaring,

The daring deeds of our men by scaling the heights of Gallipoli in the face of tremendous fire had opened the eyes of the world. They had covered themselves with glory, and sent a blaze of fame from one end of Australia to the other.

The greatness of the Empire and Australia’s duty to support it

This particular theme tended to be represented in an indirect and understated form. It was always there as an assumed reality. ‘Duty’ for example was often described as ‘duty to the Empire’.  Men were said (14/5/15) to volunteer for ‘service on behalf of the Empire’. Dr Pern ( 9/7/15) was said to be leaving to serve ‘King and Country’.

However, on occasion speakers would present the full version of the theme. For example, in the report of the farewell for Rev Cox (29/9/15), W G Pope expanded on the bonds of Empire, claiming that The same blood flowed in the veins of the people here, as was in the veins of the people of the Homeland; and we had been true to the best traditions of the British race… Later, he noted … we Australians would rather go down and die under the Union Jack, than come to affluence under the flag of Germany. He felt that was the true sentiment of Australians. (Applause.)

In a similar turn of phrase, at the farewell for Privates Bird and Biggs (20/10/15) Cr Barlow declared that they … had been living so long in a free British atmosphere, and under the Union Jack, that they would rather go down in honor of their country than live under any other flag. (Applause.)

The evil of Germany and the dire threat it posed to the Empire and Australia

Again, this theme was always there in the background and only rarely did it receive full attention. Cr Barlow, at a farewell at Kjergaard (31/12/15) presented the hard line of ‘no quarter’, even abandoning the British ideal of ‘fair play’:

Look at the murderers of mothers and children, and at the case of an English nurse who had been attending her wounded. When there was such a cold-blooded enemy to deal with he would give them no quarter; they were out to win by fair or foul means, and he would be out to do the same. Britain had been too lenient with the Germans for many years, and now their brave boys had to pay for it.

In the report (9/7/15) of the farewell to Dr Pern, W G Pope also laboured the theme and looked to divine retribution:

The Germans were human monsters, and even taught the hymn of hate to the school children. Such crimes were committed which could not be referred to here. Crimes which in the course of human life could not be expatiated. There was no hope of redress in this life, but in the next life there might be some chance given the Germans to work out their salvation. If that hope did not exist he could only see one haven of refuge  open to them, where on their arrival, they would be installed on the hobs, and frizzle throughout eternity. (Applause.)

At his own farewell (6/10/15) Rev Cox spoke about the need to prevent the Germans ever landing in Australia to commit the atrocities carried out in Belgium.

The mother’s sacrifice

Reference was often made to the mother’s support of her son’s decision to enlist. This was particularly so when the mother was in the audience. Cr Barlow at the farewell for Pte Jeffs (13/10/15) praised the mother’s sacrifice:

He admired the young man for making the personal sacrifice in going to fight for the Empire, but perhaps more to be admired was the worthy mother, who placed no objection in her son’s path of duty. Only mothers knew what it was to lose their sons.

If the man was married, the same praise was bestowed on the wife left at home. W G Pope at the farewell for Dr Pern (9/7/15) described the wife’s anguish:

A doctor’s wife knew full well the dangers of war, and Mrs. Pern would spend many an anxious hour while her husband was away.

The pioneer as soldier

When it was used, this was a strong theme but it only applied to men whose families had been farming in the district for at least 2 generations. In the theme, the current generation had both to reflect and protect the legacy of the original settlers in the district. H G Bodman – grazier, Trenton Valley –  farewelled his only son at a ceremony in the shire hall in September 1915. The report (8/9/15)stated:

Mr. H. G. Bodman remarked that it was not a time for a speech. He would say that he was quite satisfied that his son was going, and felt sure that he would be a credit to his country. (Applause.) His (the speaker’s) father – his son’s grandfather – had helped as one of the old pioneers to develop the country, and he felt proud because his son was going to defend it. (Applause.)

The men making the speeches

The table below gives a brief breakdown of the men who made speeches at farewells in 1915. It gives the names of the men, the number of speeches made and their occupation, taken from the 1915 Electoral Register. Additional information on the individual’s background, from the local newspaper or some other source, such as the Rate Book, has been included. As indicated, most of the farewells took place in Yarram but the table also shows those cases where the speech was made at a farewell in some other location in the Shire.

The group is exclusively male. War was essentially men’s business. The mother or wife sacrificed the son or spouse to the fighting and, as indicated, this was a common theme at farewells, but women played no role in, as it were, the management of the War. Women’s efforts in the local community were restricted to ‘relief’ work in organisations such as the Red Cross. In a sense, their involvement matched that of their place in the local churches where their role was to support the clergyman. The limited role was part of the wider reality of gender-based politics – women, for example, were not local councillors nor justices of the peace.

In terms of the speeches at Yarram it is clear that a relatively small group of local professionals, proprietors and managers dominated.There were some local farmers but these men were tied closely to the politics of the town and district. They occupied civic positions, and exercised power, as local councillors and/or justices of the peace. Moreover, they were successful and established land holders – for example, Arthur H Moore was arguably the largest and most successful grazier in the entire Shire of Alberton.

Outside Yarram when farewells were organised, the range of speakers tended to reflect local conditions. Obviously, farmers tended to dominate but the dynamics of the local community could also play a part. For example, at Woodside when 2 men were farewelled in November 1915 the focus was on their membership of the ANA and on that occasion the speakers were drawn from locals – labourer, barman and blacksmith – who worked in the township.

Looking at the profile of those making the speeches at soldiers’ farewells is only part of the story of how the narrative of the War was represented and controlled in the local community. There were other key groups involved – for example, the various iterations of the local recruiting committee. Moreover, the process itself was inherently dynamic and, in fact, characterised by many tensions. For example, the last post pointed to the criticism levelled at the local council for not according Empire Day in 1915 the recognition it deserved. As we will continue to see, the local politics round support for the War could be fractious, divisive and even bitter. However, it was clear that in 1915 control over the ‘official’ narrative of the War in the Shire of Alberton lay in the hands of the professional, managerial, proprietorial and propertied class centred on Yarram. This group presented the narrative from the pulpits of the Protestant churches, at public celebrations (Empire Day) and other functions (recruiting meetings), in the local state schools, in the pages of the local press, and at the farewells for soldiers staged at regular intervals.

The response from the soldiers

Typically, the soldiers being farewelled had little to say. Often they would claim to be nervous and not accustomed to making speeches. Occasionally, there was some attempt at lightheartedness. For example, at his farewell (16/6/15), Pte R O’Dea managed to get in a line about how … he hoped to pot a few “Turkeys.” (Prolonged applause). However, the soldier would usually just offer a few words of thanks and make some self-effacing claim about duty or responsibility. The farewell for Sgt Johnson (29/9/15), son on B P Johnson, was typical:

Sergeant Johnson thanked them for the kind words uttered, and remarked that he felt he had the best wishes of all in Yarram and district. He was confident that all who were going away to fight would keep up the honour of Gippsland.

At this particular farewell, Sgt Cyril Johnson’s father – Ben Percival Johnson, local solicitor and over the course of the entire War an outspoken advocate of recruitment and, in time, conscription – added the customary lines about the mother’s role:

Mr. Johnson … said Cyril expressed a wish to go, and his mother felt she was doing her duty not to stop him. (Applause.)

Sgt Cyril Johnson was killed in action on 14 May 1918.

Appendix 1

Then You’re a Man

Can you desert the niche that you were bred in –
The path of comfort, and the friends who cheer?
And can you leave the business you have worked at –
Laboured and sweated at from year to year?
And will you bid farewell to wife and kindred?
Keeping up steadfastly as best you can?
Then you fulfil the calling of a Briton.
And you are what you’re made to be sir;
You’re a MAN

And do you deem there is no higher calling
Than that which calls you to your country’s need?
And do you reckon ion you should not answer,
That there are deadlier wounds than those which bleed?
Do you feel proud and happy in the doing;
The sacrifice of every other plan?
The you fulfil the calling of a Briton.
And you are what you’re made to be sir;
You’re a MAN

Since you are made and fashioned in God’s image –
Go forth to fight; stamp out crime and sin.
Wash out, with your heroic blood, it may be,
All foulness and all perfidy within;
Help, free the earth of fearfulness and plunder;
Give her a peacefulness of Endless Span,
The heaven, and all Eternity shall bless you.
And you are what you’re made to be sir;
You’re a MAN

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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