64. Monster (recruiting) Meeting at Yarram, July 1915

In late June 1915, the Victorian Parliament, on a bi-partisan basis, launched a recruiting drive. The plan was that the week 5 -12 July would be a special recruiting week. Over the week, State Parliament would be adjourned and all members would support their constituencies in the recruiting campaign. While the central aim of the program was to boost the level of recruits, there was also the intention to involve the whole community in support for the war effort.

In Yarram the special meeting was set down for Monday 5 July and Thos. Livingston MLA (South Gippsland) was to be the guest speaker from the Parliament.

The dominant theme expressed in this first, state-wide recruiting campaign was “Come over and help us”,  represented as the plea being made by the men at Gallipoli.  A special poster – Will they never come? – was commissioned for the campaign. It measured 7 feet 6 inches high x 6 feet 8 inches wide. In Yarram it was pasted to a wooden frame and displayed on the Bank of Victoria fence.

The most striking feature of the 3 speeches given at the Yarram so-called ‘monster meeting’ to launch the week of recruiting was the speakers’ conviction that the reasons for enlistment were so obvious and so powerful that appeals should hardly have been necessary. The detailed report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 7/7/15 featured an undercurrent of frustration, if not anger, on the part of the speakers and the clear warning that conscription would most likely be required to force people to see and perform their duty.

The usual theme of the barbarity of German soldiers featured strongly. Livingston was reported thus:

Mr Livingston impressed his hearers with the [German soldiers’] slaughter of the aged and infirm, the killing of children and marching away with their bodies on the bayonets….

And Rev. Tamagno had … heard of a little Belgian child in Victoria, whose arms had been cut off by the Germans. She saw the [Australian] soldiers in uniform, and asked were they going to fight the Germans. Informed they were, she said, “Kill them, trample them to death; they killed my father and mother, and cut off these arms of mine. “

Tamagno set all this in the context of the divine retribution that God would exact on the ‘horrible blood-thirsty nation’ that was Germany:

As sure as there is a Creator that rules, that nation [Germany] will not go unpunished. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord.”

There were also the usual references to the integrity and greatness of the Empire, and Australia’s loyalty to and self-interest in the defending it. And now, integral to the call of the Empire, there was the direct ‘cooee’ from the ‘gallant boys’ on Gallipoli.

However, as indicated, there was also the sense of outrage that people refused to do their duty. When the Rev. Cox stood to talk … He said it was the first time in his life he had to appeal to men to do their duty.  Cox then, as reported, appealed for married men to enlist. Such a call was, for the time, out of order; but Cox was merely using it as a rhetorical device:

And why should the married men go?

His answer was that while the young men might pretend to be patriotic, they were more interested in playing football. Therefore,

That’s why the married men have to go. The unmarried slackers won’t go.

Rev Tamagno also had the young, unmarried men clearly in his sights:

He hoped it would not come to conscription [this is July 1915], but if he had his way he would call up all the young unmarried men in smashing numbers, and bring the war to a conclusion.

And like Cox, Tamagno also focused in on the local football competition. He claimed he had no problem with football per se but there was a more important game to play. He wanted the young footballers to face the question of their duty to the Empire:

There are still many “best” in this shire who have not considered the question, but who follow the swollen leather, and have their names on the lips of spectators.

The attack on football was hardly new and it was by then Victoria-wide. It was very evident in the official poster – Will they never come? – for the recruiting campaign. In the Shire of Alberton, the local football competition closed down at the end of July 1915. Too many players from the teams in the local competition had enlisted. Additionally, it was too hard to stand against the community view that football had to stop.  There was however the occasional, one-off game played to raise money for the Red Cross or some other War-related charity.

As the most popular and high profile sport in the community, football was an obvious target for those pushing for higher levels of recruitment. The logic was presented starkly: why should young men – particularly the fittest young men – be wasting their time on football while their peers were fighting and dying for the Empire? At the same time, there was another agenda. Certainly in the Shire of Alberton there was a view that football promoted anti-social behaviour – drunkenness, gambling, violence and obscene or ‘filthy’ language – and at a time when the War effort required a form of ‘moral re-awakening’ from everyone on the ‘home front’, football was an obvious target.

At the very time that the local football competition was shut down another more suitable pursuit for the youth of the Shire was introduced.  When the 1911 universal training scheme was introduced, the Shire of Alberton was declared an ‘exempt area’. However, in early 1915 the local branch of the ANA formally requested that the district’s exempt status be reversed. Accordingly, in late June, senior cadets were established in Yarram. All male youth between 14 and 21 yo who lived within a 5 mile radius of Yarram had to register. Within this 14-21yo cohort, the largest group, at least 50, were enrolled in the senior cadets (14-17yo) and their training commitment was 60 hours per year. From the beginning there were strict warnings to those who failed to register. They could be prosecuted and even sent to Queenscliffe for detention and training if they failed to meet their responsibilities. On 23/6/15 the local paper reported how 20 youth from Essendon had been prosecuted and sent to Queenscliffe  and it quoted the police magistrate’s comments:

It is hard to understand in these times, when your brothers are fighting at Gallipoli, for you and your country, that you can be guilty of standing about and refusing to put in your drill of an hour and a quarter a week. I would prefer to be shot rather than be guilty of such conduct. I cannot imagine anything more despicable on God’s earth …

As an accommodation for those lads involved in dairying, parade times were made at 2.00 PM instead of 3.00 PM. Traveling up to 5 miles to Yarram – and back again – to attend a drill session on a Saturday afternoon, on top of your work on the family farm, would have been a major imposition.

As an extension of the antipathy directed at football and its spectators – and football was essentially a working-class code –  the newspaper report (30/6/15) of the planning meeting for the monster recruiting meeting provided another insight on how those involved in recruiting viewed their target audience. At the planning session, there was debate over where the meeting was to be held. The final decision was to hold it in Thompson’s Hall. In part, this location was the most central. Equally, the discussion on the choice of venue highlighted that this was the area where a large number of the very type they were looking to recruit could be found most nights, presumably drinking. As one of those at the planning meeting (Cr. Bland) put it:

… Thompson’s Hall was more central. Every night about sundown there was a class of men about the streets.

Another of those present (Cr. Barlow), noted that if the venue was too far away, this group … having so far to walk they would not go.

There was also some in-house banter about the type of men in this group. One joked that it was all very well to target this group but most of them would fail the medical because of their teeth (1). This prompted laughter.

It is hard not to read into all this a degree of animosity directed at the very men – their background, physical appearance, social mores and even their sport – the community’s leading citizens were targeting for recruitment.

For all the effort that went into the recruiting meeting on July 5 the results were poor. The local paper (7/7/15) reported that Only two young men of the large audience came forward as recruits … The 2 volunteers that night were reported to be Thos. H Stephens and Reg. Whitford. Tom Harley Stephens was a labourer from Mullundung. His attempt to enlist was subsequently unsuccessful. Reg Whitford had already been rejected and he was again rejected on this occasion. However it appears that his persistence paid off because he was finally accepted in February 1916.

Importantly, the dismal result of the Yarram meeting was hardly a true measure of the recruiting levels from the Shire of Alberton. In fact, July 1915 saw what was probably the highest monthly level of enlistments from the Shire. This was apparent in the last post (Post 63). Further, in terms of total enlistments to the end of July 1915, the files of the 1915 Recruiting Committee indicate that from the start of the War to that point, the Shire Secretary had recorded 198 men who had enlisted directly from the Shire. He also noted that another 40 had tried to enlist but failed the medical. As well, many men had enlisted by themselves in Melbourne. While the July meeting itself was a complete failure in terms of enlisting men directly from its audience, it was certainly not the case that men were not volunteering.

Moreover, those who planned the recruiting meeting knew that enlistment levels were high. They also knew that the pool of available recruits in the large regional centres like Yarram was, by then, very limited. In fact, as reported in the local paper (30/6/15), Rev. Cox made the point in the planning stages that unless the recruiting meeting could attract men from the townships and settlements outside Yarram the exercise would be futile:

Rev. Mr. Cox said the town had been fairly well exploited. Men were wanted from the country. If the country men were not coming in the meeting would be a frost and a failure. It did not matter what hall the meeting was held in.

There are significant tensions here. Why, for example, did the local recruiting committee hold a recruiting drive based on Yarram if the pool of available men was so limited? Also, if the local men were volunteering in such numbers at that time, why did so few – effectively none of them – volunteer that night at the special recruiting meeting?

Part of the answer to the first question is that the meeting was never just about recruiting. The content of the speeches shows that such meetings were highly orchestrated celebrations of public affirmation: of the Empire and Imperial Duty, of the moral imperative to take up arms against the inherent evil of German Militarism, of the need to seek God’s blessing and always stand in His way, of the need for the entire nation to come together and support the War effort… The closest equivalent activity was a church service, and on this particular occasion 2 of the 3 speakers were religious ministers. Some of the clergy and community elders even saw the War as the chance for men to lead better lives: to lead them away from the failings and vices of the lower orders, via the discipline of army life in the cause of Imperial duty.

Another part of the answer lay in the significant change to the concept of voluntaryism. At the start of the War the term involved a genuine choice, in that it was accepted that some men would choose to enlist – for a range of reasons – while others – for a different range of reasons – would choose not to enlist. Moreover, at the time when the AIF was being created there was no suggestion that everyone who volunteered or wanted to volunteer would be accepted. The AIF could afford to be highly selective. In this setting, those who chose to enlist were feted but those who chose not to enlist were not condemned. However, by mid 1915 the fundamental notion of choice had been removed by patriots like Rev. Cox and Rev. Tamagno. For them, voluntaryism had now become a universal obligation, in the sense that every eligible man was expected to choose to volunteer.  Effectively, it did not matter if the rate of voluntary enlistment was high because the call was that every eligible young man should enlist.

The answer to the second question as to why so few men chose to enlist at the actual recruiting meeting was also tied to the issue of voluntaryism or individual choice. In the early days of the War no doubt some men enlisted impulsively, even recklessly. But in the post Gallipoli period men volunteered with a much clearer understanding of what was involved. The decision to enlist was generally neither simple nor without complications. The impact that enlistment could have on the operation and success of the family farm has already been noted. The decision to enlist was also a deeply personal one and the individual had to balance a range of competing demands. Despite all the pressure, real and perceived, the decision was ultimately a personal choice.

Against this background, it was highly unlikely that men were going to be swayed by the orchestrated carry-on of a recruiting meeting. It was also unlikely that eligible men would even attend in the first place. They would have been very reluctant to be singled out, and lectured at and hectored by those who had appointed themselves as patriots, claimed a higher sense of morality and even professed to know the duties and responsibilities of the men in the audience better than the men themselves. Many of the men would have interpreted what was said at these meetings through a class lens that inevitably had them in the inferior position: they had to be deficient in some way – morally, socially or intellectually – because they had not yet enlisted. They were ‘shirkers’ because the ‘patriots’ on stage had called them such.  For other men, the showmanship and theatricality of the whole recruiting performance would have been too much, particularly for the types who, when it came time to enlist, deliberately slipped away and made no fuss or drew any attention.

These recruiting meetings staged as public spectacles were repeated over the War but the results, in terms of genuine, successful enlistments, never improved on the first effort. Basically, the people on the stage failed to understand their intended audience and their efforts were met with passive resistance.

 

Notes

(1) The poor state of men’s teeth was a common reason for failing the medical. Even with close screening men with compromised dental health did make it into the AIF, and on Gallipoli the extent of dental problems became a major medical concern.

Local doctors carrying out the initial medical examination were certainly aware of the issue of poor dental health. In fact, Dr. Pern requested that the Shire Secretary write to the AIF seeking a more definite standard:

31st May, 1915
Dr Pern, of Yarram, who is examining recruits, has requested me to ask if it would be possible for the Department to give more definite instructions with regard to the teeth of recruits. The instructions state that a recruit must have sufficient sound teeth of his own to efficiently masticate his food. Dr Pern says this is rather indefinite, and he wishes to know if the Department could state how many unsound teeth on each jaw will disqualify a recruit. Dr Pern states that when he was examining for the Navy in England this was stated in the instructions, and he believes it would be an advantage to the local doctors and the recruits if such instructions could be issued in connection with the A.I.F.

The response (7th June, 1915) would have disappointed Dr Pern:

The regulations regarding teeth are : — A volunteer must have sufficient teeth (permanent) to masticate his food properly. By this it will be seen that the teeth must be in opposition and the whole question is left in the hands of the examining Medical Officer. A certain number of teeth cannot be laid down, as by this system the teeth need not be opposite, and as long as volunteers had the number laid down he would have to be passed.

Presumably, everyone in Yarram knew that men could fail, and were failing, the medical on the condition of their teeth. In a time well before any sort of universal health service access to dental care and treatment, there would have been a strong correlation between social class and dental hygiene and this, essentially, was the basis for the shared mirth of those planning the recruiting meeting.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Material relating to the activities of the Yarram Recruiting Committee was located in several sections of the Shire of Alberton Archives.
The correspondence regarding the issue of dental standards came from:
Shire of Alberton
Archive one
File Number 703B
Recruiting & Enlisted men (Box 398)

The activities of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee, including minutes of meetings, came from:
Shire of Alberton
File Number 703-0
War Files
“Recruiting Campaign 1915” (cover sheet)

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