62. Enlistments in the second half of 1915: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status

This post continues the analysis, in six-monthly intervals, of the essential characteristics of all those with a link to the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in WW1. The relevant previous posts in the sequence are: Post 22: Enlistments to the end of 1914: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status, and Post 56: Enlistments in the first half of 1915: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status.

The specific characteristics covered in the attached table are: the place of birth, the place of enlistment, the address of the next-of-kin at the time of enlistment, the address of the individual volunteer at the time of enlistment, the occupation at the time of enlistment, and age and marital status at the time of enlistment. For a more detailed account of the methodology and sources refer to the earlier posts.

Arguably, the most significant feature of the cohort of men who enlisted between July and December 1915 was its size: 199 men and 1 woman (Alice Cocking, a bush nurse from Madalya). In the first half of 1915, the size of the equivalent cohort was 102. The dramatic increase was tied to the Anzac campaign – and the reporting of the campaign –  which ran through to the end of 1915. Also, as will be covered in coming posts, the second half of 1915 saw the first, planned, large-scale recruiting drive.


The  nature of the enlisted men’s association with the Shire of Alberton has been covered in the earlier posts. The same features apply for this particular cohort. The mobility of the rural working class – to other locations in the same district or the wider region (Gippsland as a whole), to and from Melbourne and other regional centres, and interstate, particularly Queensland and Western Australia – is striking. Notions of ‘local’ were far more dynamic than the inherently static definition that we commonly employ in studies of ‘local history’.

The table shows that 29 of the 200 men were born in the United Kingdom. When this figure is added to the equivalent numbers for the 2 earlier cohorts, the total number of UK immigrant rural workers to enlist, to the end of 1915, from the Shire of Alberton comes to 63 or 15% of the total number (436). Clearly, the local community would have been aware of this obvious trend and, presumably, given the numbers involved, it would have been very difficult for any such immigrant worker not to enlist. The expectation was that the British immigrant had an even higher responsibility to answer the Empire’s call to arms.

The point was made in Post 56 that by the middle of 1915 the enlistment process required that while men could be enlisted in country areas – following an initial medical by the local doctor – and given a railway warrant to travel to Melbourne, the enlistment process would only be completed after another medical examination in Melbourne. This is apparent in the table where ‘Yarram/Melbourne’ is listed as the most common place of enlistment. Incidentally, the local doctors – Drs Pern and Rutter – were incensed by the directive and took it as an attack on their professional credibility. For a brief time they even refused to carry out the (initial) medical. The boycott, limited as it was, will be covered in a future post.


Once again the cohort is made up predominantly of the rural working class. By far the 2 most common occupations given were ‘labourer’ (50) or ‘farm labourer’ (31). Others gave a more descriptive title – drover, stockman, boundary rider, shearer, sleeper hewer, saw mill hand, timber hewer, gardener, railway shunter, railway employee, railway porter, fisherman, bar man, shop assistant … – and there were some from more skilled backgrounds – lino type operator, blacksmith, carpenter, baker, butcher, cordial maker…  There was also a group of teachers (7), a larger group of clerical staff (13 ) and a very small number of professionals including Rev George Cox, the local Church of England minister and Dr Horace Pern, one of the 2 local medical practitioners. Overwhelmingly, as before, the cohort was fundamentally a rural working class one.

As a separate group, there were 29 men who came from what I have described as the ‘family farm’. These are highlighted in the table. As has been pointed out, the description is somewhat arbitrary. However it is important to identify all those cases where a son who was working on the family farm enlisted. Amongst other considerations, this category will prove very important in terms of the conscription issue. Farmers typically wanted to manage the issue of enlistment on a case by case basis, reflecting the unique nature, responsibilities and needs of their individual family unit. Conscription on the other hand threatened to impose inflexible demands and posed a direct threat to the economic viability of the family farm.

Typically the son linked to the family farm was in their late teens or early twenties. Also typically they did not hold any land in their own right. The land was recorded in the relevant rate book in the father’s name. However, there were some cases where the land was recorded in the name of both the father and son.

In most cases of family farms, the young men recorded themselves as ‘farmers’. But, again, as the table shows, some described themselves as ‘farm labourers’. Possibly, this reflected the fact that while they assisted on the family farm they also worked for a wage on other properties, presumably to bring in more income for the family.There were many possible arrangements.

In the table, the case of the 3 Cook siblings demonstrates Just how complex the arrangements associated with the ‘family farm’ could be. In fact, there were 4 siblings who enlisted: James Cook would enlist in the second half of 1916.

According to the rate book, the father – Thomas Anderton Cook – had a small holding at Balook. The oldest 2 of the 4 sons – David Alexander Cook and Henry Cook – were also listed as joint owners of the same property. These 2 siblings were married. The 2 younger siblings were not married.

Of the 4 Cook brothers, two described themselves as ‘farmer’, one as  ‘farm labourer’ and the fourth as just ‘labourer’. The exact pattern of land holding across the family is unclear because while it appears that there was more than one holding, the rate book only lists one. However what is clear was the fact that when the sons enlisted, responsibility for managing the Cook family farm (or farms) fell to the father and the wives. We know this because in June 1918, Henry Cook was returned from Europe and discharged from the AIF for ‘family reasons’. The family reasons involved the management of the farm(s). Initially, the AIF refused the request, noting that the particular case was not as serious as other ones brought to its attention. It appears that the intervention of local politicians at both state and federal level won the discharge from the AIF.

Correspondence in Henry Cook’s file reveals that his wife was sick (‘neurasthenia’), and with 3 children – ‘8, 6 and 2 years respectively’ – she was struggling to manage. Moreover, the father was as hard-pressed. He noted,

I myself am a farmer at the above address [Balook], my four sons have enlisted, and I am unable to obtain necessary labour to carry on, not only my own farm, but also the farm of the above son mentioned, and his other brothers at the front.

In corroborating evidence, the local police noted:

I have made careful enquiries re this matter and so far as I am able to ascertain this man’s [Henry Cook] financial position is very poor. He has a small selection of about 100 acres which he has been in possession of for about 12 years, there is little or no stock on the place, and his wife who is in delicate health cannot afford to pay for the necessary labour on the place to keep it in order and the Father is not in a position to help, consequently the place is going back, hence the Father’s reason for applying for his return.

Another case worth mentioning involved Robert John Trigg of Alberton West. According to the rate book, he and his brother – Joel William Trigg – had approximately 200 acres at Alberton West. Only Robert enlisted – he died of wounds in December 1917 – and presumably this was a mutually agreed arrangement that left one brother to manage the farm(s). Again, this particular case will be looked at in more detail in the context of the conscription debate because it was another instance where this internal family arrangement between the brothers was potentially threatened by the blanket application of the demands of conscription. What was also interesting about this case was the fact that when he enlisted, the local paper (4/8/15) carried a report that Robert Trigg had … engaged a man to take his place while he is absent in the fighting line. Obviously, lost labour needed to be covered; but there would have been few cases like this where there was funding available to engage someone else.

The cases highlight 2 critical issues: the complexity of ‘family farm’ arrangements; and the increasing social and economic impact that the loss of so much labour from the district was having on individual families and the wider community.

In the table there are only 2 instances where the description of ‘farmer’ (in his own right) has been used. Both of these relate to cases where it has not been not possible – to this point – to establish the validity or otherwise of the claim.

There are also instances where the description ‘farmer/farm labourer’ has been used. There are 13 such cases where even though the enlisted man gave his occupation as ‘farmer’ there is no corroborating evidence to support the claim: there is no link to any family farm, the men are too young or there is nothing in the relevant rate book or electoral roll to prove they were farmers. The more likely situation was that they worked as farm labourers.

As with the previous cohorts, to the end of June 1915, the burden of enlistment continued to fall on the rural working class –  whose employment was typically itinerant and casual – and a small group of young men coming from family farms. There was also a significant number of immigrant rural workers from the UK who enlisted.


The following table gives a breakdown of ages.

Ages of volunteers – second half of 1915
ages                       %
18-20        38       19
21-25        91       44.5
26-30        39       19.5
31-35        21       10.5
36+            11        5.5
total        200      100

The next table presents equivalent data for the full period from 1914. It shows a slight shift away from the group of ‘minors’ and the related gradual move to an older cohort of men enlisting. The percentage of those in the 18-25 age band shifts from 73.1% (1914) to 69% (1915-1) to 64.5% (1915-2).

Marital status

The number of men in this cohort who were married prior to enlistment was 23. This represented some 11.5% f the cohort. The equivalent percentage figures for the 2 earlier cohorts were 7.8% (1915-1) and 4.5% (1914). Again, as with age, there is an incremental increase in the number of married men enlisting.

The figure of 23 does not include the 7 men who married at some time after enlistment and before embarkation. Nor does it include the 9 cases where men married in the UK.


Through to the end of 1915, the volunteers associated with the Shire of Alberton continued to be  young and single. Predominantly, they were rural workers and most simply described themselves as ‘labourers’ or ‘farm labourers’. There was also a group of young men –  about 30 in this particular cohort – who came from the ‘family farm’. This group was roughly the same size as the group of immigrant rural workers (29) from the UK who ‘answered the call’.

By the end of 1915 there had a very significant reduction – approximately 300 men –  in the size of the labour pool across the district. The significance of the enlistment in the AIF of this large number of rural workers would be highlighted in the conscription debates over 1916-17. Conscription threatened to be a blunt instrument that would further compromise the viability of the family farm, and ignore the considerable sacrifices that the local farming community had already made in the interests of the Empire.

The reasons why the rural working class were keen to join the AIF and the consequences of this association will continue to be explored in the blog.


Embarkation Roll

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative


1 thought on “62. Enlistments in the second half of 1915: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status

  1. Ken

    A few more details for Dr Horace PERN. He was born in Botley, England in 1872 (see the Botley baptism database https://www.botley.com/baptism-database). The ADFA AIF project database says that he enlisted on 9 July 1915 and that his unit embarked from Sydney on HMAT A66 Uganda on 15 June 1915. I think he must have enlisted and then applied for a commission, otherwise the dates don’t make sense.


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