83. Enlistments in the first half of 1916: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history

This post continues the analysis of Post 23: Enlistments to the end of 1914: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history, Post 57:  Enlistments in the first half of 1915: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history and Post 63: Enlistments in the second half of 1915: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history. It continues the ongoing work to describe and interpret the essential character of all those associated with the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in WW1.

Religion

The table below gives the religious affiliation of all those enlisting from the Shire over the period August 1914 to the end of June 1916. It also shows the equivalent figures for males in the 1911 Census for the county of Buln Buln.

There is no major variation evident in the figures. The broad religious profile of the community continued to be matched with enlistments. However, as noted earlier, 75% of enlistments in the first six months of 1916 occurred between January and March. If the situation in Ireland did affect Roman Catholic enlistment levels then this will only be evident from the next six-monthly analysis (July – December 1916).

Units

As for previous cohorts, the great majority of men (66%) were taken on in the infantry battalions of the AIF. The largest single group (36) were sent as reinforcements for 6 Brigade – Battalions 21-24 – which had been formed in Victoria in early 1915. The second largest group (31) went to the newly formed (February 1916) 10 Brigade which was made up of 3 battalions from Victoria (Battalions 37-39) and one from Tasmania (40 Battalion).

Service History

The comparative table shows an apparently significant drop in the death-in-service rate for this particular cohort. But at this point it would be risky to make too much of this. Admittedly there is a certain logic that holds that the later men enlisted in the AIF, the less – theoretically at least – was their exposure to battle and death. But length of service could only have been one factor. For example, the units the men served in and the particular battles they faced must have been other critical factors.

In this cohort – the first half of 1916 – the number of men who were wounded at least once over the course of their service was 89 or 49%. The equivalent percentage for the previous cohort – those who enlisted in the second half of 1915 – was only 39.5%. At the same time, this previous cohort was the one with the higher death rate. The difference raises the question of whether, apart from chance – one man was shot and wounded, while the one next to him was shot and killed –  there were, over time, other factors involved in determining the nature of casualties in battle. For example, did changes to tactics or technology or medical practice reduce the level of deaths?  And was there some sort of trade-off that saw a lower death rate but, correspondingly, an increase the number of wounded?

Arguably, the number of variables involved makes it virtually impossible to make sense of – and certainly quantify – such situations. However, the more important observation is that the level of casualties continued at shocking levels. Specifically, for this latest cohort, apart from the figure already given of 49% wounded, 66% were hospitalised at least once over their period of service. As well, 41.5% of the cohort were discharged as the result of being wounded or being assessed as medically unfit – from disease or injury – to serve in the AIF. In several cases they were discharged in Australia, not long after enlisting. In other cases it is clear that there were serious medical consequences associated with the increasing number of mature men – in their thirties and forties – being accepted in the AIF.

Further, if you look at just those who survived the War – exclude those died on active service – the percentage in this cohort who were discharged on medical grounds increases to 50%. In other words, for this particualr cohort of volunteers, 17 % died on active service and of the remainder who survived the War, 50% were discharged with serious medical problems.

As already highlighted, the labour pool in the Shire was being dramatically depleted by enlistments. These dramatic casualty figures show that after the War the same labour pool would continue to be seriously depleted, and its overall health would be severely compromised.  It was hardly surprising that in the conscription debate many workers , and also front-line soldiers, feared that a vote for conscription would undermine the future of working-class Australia.

Another feature of this particular cohort is the number of men (6) who are charged with desertion. There is often confusion in such cases, and it is possible that the individual concerned did in fact re-enlist at some point, under a different name. Most of these cases involved the men, often only 18 or 19, going AWL in Australia before embarkation. However there is the more serious case of John William Steward who went missing in France in March 1918 and did not hand himself in to the military authorities in the UK until  November 1920.

Albert John Godfrey was a past student of Alberton State School. At the time he enlisted he was working as a miner in WA. He was a sapper in 1 Australian Tunnelling Company. He died of wounds on 22/7/17 but the wounds were ‘self inflicted’. A court of enquiry convened in February 1917 found that shot himself ‘whilst in an unsound state of mind’. He shot himself in the face. Witnesses at the enquiry reported him as ‘melancholy’ and ‘not right in the head’.

Lastly, this cohort also featured the extraordinary case of Alexander McDonald Atlee. Private Atlee was hospitalised in England in November 1916 suffering from ‘trench feet’. It was at this point that he lost his identification disc. Or perhaps it was stolen. Incredibly, in 1921 the same disc was found on the body of an Australian soldier exhumed in France. It was assumed to be the body of someone killed at Passchendaele. There was no other identification on the body, just Atlee’s lost disc. When the Graves’ Registration Unit established that Atlee had survived the War they contacted him requesting information on the disc. He could only state that he had lost the disc in England in November 1916 before returning to France. Why someone would carry the disc of another soldier as their own disc – or at least have it as the only disc on their person- must remain a mystery; but there was obviously more than mere chance or coincidence involved.

Overall

Overall, the characteristics established for the earlier cohorts of enlistments continued into the first half of 1916. The most significant difference appears to have been the changing age profile of the volunteers and the medical compromises associated with this trend towards accepting older volunteers.

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