The last post looked at the key function organised by the 1915 Recruiting Committee. This post looks at the committee itself.
The committee was set up at a public meting in Yarram on 25 June 1915. The meeting was in response to the request from the Victorian Parliament to all local councils/shires to form a local committee to assist in the planned recruiting drive.
In the circular, headed State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, Victoria which was sent to every local government area, there was the specific directive: It is desirable that these local committees should include representatives of all sections. Moreover, the list of suggested activities in the same circular made it clear that the committee was intended to represent and cover all social groupings or classes. For example:
5. Where there are large workshops, suitable men should interview the workers and speak to them during the mid-day meal. [emphasis added]
8. Football and race crowds should be appealed to by leading sportsmen.
10. The ladies of the various localities may be encouraged to form committees of their own.
11. Friendly societies, trade unions, and other gatherings should be attended to.
According to reports in the local paper, Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, on 30/6/15, the public meeting to set up the recruiting committee was poorly attended. In fact, there were often reports on the difficulty of encouraging people to join such committees and the corresponding need to rely on the usual civic stalwarts. However, it was also possible that others did not volunteer their services because they knew who typically would serve on such committees. Whatever the reason, the people who answered the newspaper call to join the recruiting committee did represent a particular and restricted group within the local community. The Yarram Recruiting Committee did not ‘include representatives of all sections.’
The committee at Yarram was exclusively male and there was no equivalent female committee set up. The committee was also Yarram-based or Yarram-centric. Admittedly, several members had rural properties outside Yarram but even these members of the committee – most were local councillors – were regularly in Yarram for their council work and other civic duties. Yarram by the early 20C had become the capital town – commercial, retail, business, local government – of the Shire of Alberton. However, there were residual misgivings over the shift of power and influence from Alberton, the former capital. Equally, many of the small townships and centres some distance from Yarram – over difficult roads and terrain – were convinced that Yarram received preferential treatment in terms of development and facilities, and that it functioned to meet its own interests and not the wider interests of the Shire as a whole. So there was an underlying degree of animosity directed at Yarram from other locations across the Shire. For its part, Yarram simply assumed power for itself. For example, all the various recruiting committees over the period 1915-1918 were labelled as iterations of the Yarram Recruiting Committee, not the Shire of Alberton Recruiting Committee.
If the Yarram Recruiting Committee was exclusive in terms of gender and the Shire’s geography and local politics, its class bias was even more pronounced.
In all there were 18 men who were identified as being members of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1915. Eleven men attended the first public meeting (25/6/15) called to form the committee and subsequently, over the course of the year from July to December 1915, another 7 men either joined or were co-opted.
The first table gives the essential details for the members of the 1915 committee. Previous posts that have looked at soldiers’ farewells and other public meetings to do with support for the War have shown the extent to which the speakers came from the ranks of the local professionals, managers, proprietors and leading land holders. This group of men matches the same profile.
Four of those on the 1915 committee actually enlisted in the AIF. Henry Crawford Bodman (Henry Bodman jnr) – had even enlisted before the committee was formed. One of the men – Rev George Cox – was comparatively old (43yo) and married, with 3 children. Cox was one of the most vocal supporters of the War in the Shire. He had great difficulty in enlisting and served for less than one year. He was discharged on medical grounds. He completed all his service in the AMC in Australia in military hospitals. The youngest (20 yo) of the 4 to enlist, Cyril Johnson was student studying in Melbourne. Presumably, he attended the first meeting of the committee with his father because he was in Yarram at that time. He was killed in action on 14/5/18. Edward Gabbett was married and 34 yo. He was badly wounded and had a leg amputated. He returned to Australia for a medical discharge in February 1918. Henry Bodman jnr, 21 yo, was wounded, ‘dangerously’, but survived the War and was discharged as medically unfit in November 1919. Overall, it is a grim picture of 4 men who went beyond calling for enlistments and enlisted themselves.
The second table details the extent of the committee members’ wider membership of committees, boards and other executive bodies across the community. Clearly, the members of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee were well involved in key institutions and associations – Yarram and District Hospital (the hospital was opened in 1915), Yarram Mechanics’ Institute, Yarram Waterworks Trust, ANA Yarram branch, Yarram Agricultural Society, Y.M.C.A., even the Yarram Town Band – and this level of involvement would have identified the committee members as leading and influential citizens in the community. Additionally, many of them held significant positions of political power: several local councillors (including the 2 Shire presidents over 1914-1915), the editor of a local paper, and 2 justices of the peace who presided in the Police Court/Court of Petty Sessions in Yarram. There were also several members of the Yarram Recruiting Committee who held executive positions in friendly societies and who would have been well-known in the local community for advocating positions of moral and social improvement, e.g. the Independent Order of Rechabites and its temperance platform. Members of the committee were also involved in the local churches – with the apparent exception of the (Roman) Catholic church – and 2 members were very involved with the local Masonic Lodge (207).
The involvement of the local Roman Catholic church in committees and activities to do with the promotion of patriotism and support for the War will be examined in detail shortly. It was a complex issue.
Overall, the Yarram Recruiting Committee was made up of ‘leading citizens’ from the local professional and managerial elite of Yarram, supported by several large and successful land holders who also played significant political and social roles in the Yarram community. In fact, rather than representing all sections of the diverse community (communities) that made up the Shire of Alberton, the Yarram Recruiting Committee of 1915 was narrow and sectional in its membership. No doubt those on the committee would have responded that the committee was made up of all those who were prepared to become involved and commit to the effort required; and that such committees were always only ever made up of like-minded citizens prepared to take on the necessary responsibility.Moreover they could have also argued that it made little sense to duplicate committees across the entire shire and Yarram was the natural location to establish the committee.
The composition of the Recruiting Committee also supports previous claims that the narrative of the War – including the sub-narrative of recruitment for the War – was formally controlled by a particular elite within the wider community.
However it does not follow that because one particular group controlled the narrative of the War all other groups listened to and followed the narrative. As the last post showed, the Recruiting Committee’s monster recruiting drive staged in Yarram was, at least in terms of having people enlist on the spot, a failure. Also, as argued, it is highly likely that the intended target group for the recruiting meeting stayed away precisely because they knew the specific detail of the narrative that was going to be presented and/or they simply refused to identify with the types – leading citizens – who were presenting the narrative.
Again, the apparent failure of the Recruiting Committee to attract recruits through its specific activities cannot be taken as proof that enlistments at the time – July and August 1915 – were falling. Indeed the opposite was true. Consider the following 2 communications from the 3rd Military District, Melbourne to all local government areas. The first was dated 3 August 1915:
Owing to the unusually heavy enlistments for the A.I.F. at present tents cannot be supplied as rapidly as the recruits are coming into camp, therefore please do not send any more recruits forward until the the 12th instant except such as are out of employment and very anxious to go into camp at once.
The second was dated 10 August 1915:
Please continue enlisting for the Australian Imperial Force, but do not send any more recruits forward until after the 31st instant, except such as are out of employment and very anxious to go into camp at once, others may be granted leave until September 1st.
There were to be iterations of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee over the next few years. As will become clear, when the enlistment surge finished in the second half of 1915, and recruitment targets could no longer be met, the members of the committee moved effortlessly to back conscription.
Background details of those on the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee have been taken from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, the relevant Electoral Roll and Rate Book, as well as from:
Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria
Correspondence and communication between the 3rd Military District and the Shire of Alberton (Shire Secretary) are from the Archives of the Shire of Alberton:
Shire of Alberton
File Number 703-0
“Recruiting Campaign 1915” (cover sheet)