85. Soldiers’ farewells 1916

This post continues the work covered in Post 60. Soldiers’ Farewells 1915.

Over 1916, the local newspaper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – covered 35 farewells. It also reported on several ‘welcome home’ gatherings.

While the tone of the farewells was always heroic, the welcome homes could be far more confronting. For example, on 28/7/16, the local paper reported the welcome to Private William Sweeney who had been medically discharged after being badly wounded by a bomb at Gallipoli. Those speaking at his welcome praised his sacrifice but they also described him as having … returned a cripple and … practically a wreck. Similarly, at the welcome for Private T Jeffs of Carrajung which was reported on 13/12/16, it was noted that he was the first to return home from France and that at Pozieres he had … received severe injuries losing the sight of an eye. The report also noted that Private Jeffs had to have someone respond on his behalf because he had returned with ‘shattered nerves’.

Overall, farewells in 1916 matched those in 1915. The same committee continued to organise the events. Specifically in the case of Yarram,  the same group of town ‘patriots’ shared the responsibility for speech making.

The great majority of farewells took place in Yarram, at the Shire Hall, with far fewer farewells taking place in the smaller townships and settlements. In 1916, outside Yarram, there were farewells at Alberton (1), Womerah (1) Devon North (2), Madalya (2), Stacey’s Bridge (1), Gormandale (2), Willung South (1) and Wonyip (1).

The farewells themselves tended to be held for locals who had returned home after initial training and prior to embarkation for service overseas. There was the occasional farewell for a ‘non-local’, itinerant farm worker but, as noted in Post 60, this group of men, once they left the district to move into camp, tended not to return.

The farewells at Yarram were better organised but more basic in form and less well-attended. One reason why attendance at Yarram was a problem was almost certainly  because the speeches at these farewells were as much an exercise in recruiting as they were a celebration of the loyalty and sacrifice of the individual(s) leaving. Eligible men and their families were hardly going to attend and draw attention to themselves. The farewells in the other locations in the Shire were generally less strident affairs and more focused on the qualities of the individual(s) being farewelled. They were usually based on a dance or some other social event and they were far better attended. Speakers at these affairs tended to be local farmers.

An interesting exception to the normal routine and tone of the farewells held outside Yarram occurred at Madalya (19/5/16) when one of the speakers was Recruiting Sergeant Newland. He must have been in the local area trying to promote enlistments. As usual, all the local residents had come together for a social dance that went well into the night. The 3 young men being farewelled were brothers Alfred and Arthur Jones – 22 yo and 24 yo respectively – and Ernest Anderson 18 yo.

That night at Madalya, Recruiting Sergeant Newland targeted  the ‘eligibles’ and both his presence and message were intended to cut through the camaraderie, jollity and conviviality of the occasion:

He [Newland] expressed pleasure at being present to wish the three men good luck, but by the appearance of the hall he felt sure there were at least a dozen more eligible to go than the three who had enlisted. The Jones Bros. were only just making a start in life, and as to young Anderson, he was only a boy. It was, he thought, a shame that one so young should have to go, when older and more mature men hung back.

Newland then went on to defend his work as Recruiting Sergeant and, again, he was very keen to take on anyone there who did not like his role. He had no problem with making himself and his work the focus of attention that night:

He [Newland] thought it was a disgrace the way some men looked upon the recruiting sergeant, treating him as if he were the cause of the war, instead of helping him in his duty to get recruits. As far as the position went, he would far rather be in the trenches fighting. But being unfit for active service he intended to do his duty no matter what they thought of him. He referred to one young man who told him he was losing friends in the district because of his strong attitude but it did not concern him. If he were to lose friends in the execution of his duty they were very poor friends. He considered most of his friends were at the front.

The episode highlights how even in small, local communities where everyone had come together to farewell one of their own, the potential for conflict and recriminations was ever present. It also shows background resentment towards those calling for more enlistments.

Post 60 identified the most common themes touched on speakers 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

Overall, the same themes continued in 1916. There were variations in their emphasis but certainly all continued to be very evident, as is demonstrated below. However, what was strikingly different in 1916, particularly with the speeches delivered in Yarram, was the level and intensity of frustration and anger expressed.

The ongoing themes

note: the dates in the following refer to the date the farewell was reported in the local paper. The location where the farewell took place is also given.

The moral strength of the volunteer

Often, the moral strength of the individual equated to religious practice. For example, at a farewell to 2 men at Willung South (17/11/16), much was made of the fact that they were ‘regular attendants at our church services’ and that ‘Christian principles’ dominated their lives. In a similar tone, when Private H Missen was farewelled from Gormandale (11/1/16) he was given a special presentation – pocket wallet – from the local IOR tent and the claim was made that … fortified by the principles of the Order, he would be better able to do his duty. The evil of drink was often highlighted at farewellls.

The individuals were variously described as: all round good fellows (Yarram, 27/2/16), law-abiding boys (Yarram 23/3/16), stalwart young men who proved good footballers (Yarram 6/9/16), and men who had proved themselves plucky and manly on the football field (Yarram 22/7/16). An individual could be described as a straightforward young man, always ready to give a hand (Yarram 5/2/16), a most respected citizen (Alberton 22/11/16), one of the straightest men in the district (Yarram 10/8/16). When Private Glen was farwelled (Yarram 15/5/16) the speaker, Chalres Barlow, noted, a more reliable, trustworthy and sober man on a farm he had never met.

The unique character and success of he AIF

This theme certainly picked up in frequency and intensity after Gallipoli. The belief that Australian soldiers had proved themselves either the best or amongst the best in the world was taken as indisputable and speakers referred to it constantly. For example, at a major farewell in Yarram (26/4/16), the president of the Shire – Cr. Bland – stated:

The Charge of the Light Brigade faded into insignificance compared with the brave deeds of our Australian boys at Gallipoli.

B P Johnson at another farewell at Yarram (28/7/16) declared:

The children had read of the famous charge at Balaclava, of Woolfe, and other great deeds in history, but equal to anything was the charge of the Light Horse at Anzac (Applause).

Unlike Bland, Johnson was only claiming equivalence for the AIF, in terms of the glorious history of the British army. Like others, he continued to push the claim that the AIF,  born of the British army, had now become its equal. At another farewell – Yarram (17/5/16) – he declared:

The boys at Gallipoli showed the old British blood and their fighting qualities and achievements made the whole world stare.

Others were keen to identify what they saw as the unique spirit, ethos or culture of the AIF, not just its achievements in battle. W V Rymer – the former Anglican reader at Yarram, who had  served for a short time on Gallipoli before his health broke down – stated at a farewell at Alberton (22/11/16):

There was no name he (the speaker) loved better than “mate” or “cobber,” and that was why he was pleased to say a few words of appreciation to the young man who was joining the ranks. (Applause.)

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

Declarations of loyalty to the Empire continued at farewells. Men who volunteered were still referred to as … only doing their duty in enlisting in defence of the Empire, of which we formed a part – Gormandale (16/8/16). The equivalent sentiment was expressed at Yarram (8/9/16). It was Australia’s war because it was Great Britain’s war and the Empire’s war. As a speaker at Madalya (19/5/16) put it:

It was Great Britain’s war, which included Australia and every part of the Empire.

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

The invasion of Belgium and the attendant horrors were still very common speaking points. And Germany remained a ruthless and powerful enemy. At a farewell in Yarram (5/4/16) B P Johnson exhorted those there:

Think of Belgium! God help us and our womenfolk if the Huns got hold of Australia. We have not by any means won the war. We are up against a ruthless and thoroughly prepared nation.

He returned to the theme one month later – Yarram (17/5/16) – when he reminded those present of the plight of … the women and little children of Belgium.

Some speakers were prepared to ramp up the attack on Germany and abandon any semblance of moral constraint or forbearance. W G Pope, who presided at a farewell at Yarram (10/5/16), ran a very hard line:

His opinion was that air raids should be made even on unfortified towns, and if a few German women and children were killed it simply meant that civilians must suffer for the crimes of the nation to which they had the misfortune to belong. And as Germans used gas in warfare we should use it too; and if we could do so we should try and discover an even worse kind of gas than that used by Germans. England must strip off the kid gloves and strike these fiends with the bare knuckles. (Applause). That’s the only sort of treatment they understand; kindness is wasted on them.

On occasion, speakers also referred back to the fears of White Australia before August 1914. Germany was obviously the present danger but it was not the only threat to Australia. As J H Hill reminded an audience at Yarram (17/5/16):

As time goes on and the Asiatic races get more powerful, the European nations will have to fight against an invasion like the Middle Ages.

The mother’s sacrifice

The anguish of the mother was still a common theme. B P Johnson expressed the standard form at a farewell in Yarram (28/7/16):

He felt sorry for a mother. The boys suffer pain for us, but what anguish must a mother feel!

However, as the number of married men who enlisted began to increase, the loneliness and anxiety of the wife had also to be taken into account. To accommodate the broader focus the term ‘womenfolk’ was commonly employed. C S McLeod at a farewell for a married man at Devon North (10/5/16) stated:

He felt sorry for the womenfolk who have a lot to bear when those they love leave for battle. It was they who were making the sacrifice. (Applause).

The pioneer as soldier

This theme was constant throughout 1916. B P Johnson at a farewell at Yarram (25/2/16) early in 1916 referred to the young volunteer – James Wight – as being ‘made of the same stuff’ as the pioneers … dating back to the forties [1840s], who came out from the Old Country and made Australia what it is today.

Cr Bland at a welcome home for 2 soldiers from Devon North (22/3/16) – Driver Gay and Private Sutton – expressed pride in the men’s service and declared that they had … proved they had the spirit so marked in their fathers in the older days.

Johnson was again exhorting the pioneer spirit at a farewell in Yarram in April (5/4/16). He claimed the 2 soldiers – Privates Percy Boddy and Robert McKenzie – … were honoring the descendants of pioneers who came to the district years ago, and these young men were showing the same pluck and determination.

Effectively there were 2 links to the pioneers. One drew the direct, historical link between pioneers who overcame the bush to carve out a prosperous future for their children and descendants – and thereby create the new nation of Australia – and those brave young men, their grand children or even children, who were now defending the same nation, as part of the Empire. The second link was more about character and how the soldier in the AIF had inherited the same essential traits that had enabled the pioneer to survive in the bush. Both were tough, loyal, no-nonsense, independent types. The men from the bush made the best soldiers.

The only qualification here was that the actual term ‘bush’ was not as commonly used in the context of Gippsland. Rather, people tended to talk in terms of settlers and selectors taming the forest and scrub. For example, at a farewell at Wonyip (6/9/16) the report noted that the 2 soldiers – brothers R W and R E Lee – were sons of early pioneers who had … done their share of turning a forest into green fields.

The issue of anger

Overall, the same themes identified in 1915 continued into 1916. However, while the themes remained constant there was a heightened sense of anger evident in the speeches, particularly those delivered in Yarram, and this anger reached its highest pitch at the time of the first referendum on conscription (28/10/16).

There were many targets of the anger: townspeople who were not prepared to put themselves out to attend a farewell; eligible men who refused to enlist; unions that undermined the war effort; and, by the end of 1916, all those opposed to conscription, including the ALP.

To understand the anger it is necessary to have a closer look at the composition of the committee responsible for organising the farewells and welcomes. In the main, and definitely in Yarram, the actual speakers at the farewells were members of this committee. The list of committee members was published in the local paper on 28/7/16 . The following table shows the committee members for 1916. It also shows the other relevant organisations in which individual members of the committee were involved.

The National Referendum Committee (Yarram branch) was the body set up in late September 1916 to promote the Yes vote in the conscription referendum. The table shows that the majority of members in the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee were actively involved in recruiting. Also, as will become apparent in later posts, several of its members – B P Johnson, Rev Tamagno and W G Pope – were key backers for the Yes vote.

As already argued, in Yarram, those involved in the organisation of soldiers’ farewells employed the functions to promote recruiting and push the Government’s agenda on the War. On the specific issue of conscription, the committee was pressing for it for more than year before the referendum was held. The committee was convinced that the voluntary system had failed and as 1916 progressed, they were increasingly frustrated because, in their opinion, the locals did not share their sense of urgency and commitment.

As they saw it, those in the committee were making significant sacrifices in supporting the work associated with organising and putting on the farewells and welcomes. They were doing their civic duty and working on behalf of others, both those being farewelled or welcomed and, as significantly, the rest of the community. They saw themselves as patriots working in the cause of the Nation and the Empire. They were committed. They knew what had to be done and they were prepared, as responsible citizens, to take leadership. They also believed that any farewell or welcome had to play a part in the overall effort to raise recruits. Even if no eligible men were in the audience, it was still essential to remind everyone there that enlistment levels had to be maintained and, later, improved dramatically. Specifically, they focused their attention on those men who, they believed, should have already enlisted.

Whereas they saw the necessity and nobility of their work, they too found, like Recruiting Sergeant Newland, that they were often met with indifference or hostility. Not surprisingly, as their efforts were compromised they reacted with anger.

Anger directed at townsfolk who did not attend farewells

As indicated, this was really only a problem in Yarram. Some farewells in Yarram were very popular – there was a major farewell to 22 men in April (26/4/16) which was very well attended –  but the numbers at many others were poor. It was common practice for the head teacher of Yarram SS – A E Paige, a committee member – to take a party of senior students from the primary school to farewells to increase the numbers there. There was even one farewell (30/8/16) where the attendance was so small that the ceremony was held not in the Shire Hall but in an office in the Shire Hall. Committee members were often reported as being embarrassed for the men being farewelled by small audiences. At a committee meeting in late March (29/3/16)  it was reported:

Surprise and disgust were expressed by several members of the committee at the small attendance at the various farewells etc. It was mentioned that many people in the town [Yarram] had not even put themselves out enough to attend once, although the soldiers were giving up everything for them.

Anger directed at those who would not enlist

It would have been virtually impossible for those speaking at farewells and intimately involved in recruiting to understand why some men refused to enlist. For the patriot, the logic of the situation – the Empire and Nation were both threatened; high levels of casualties called for more enlistments; every male citizen had the same civic duty to answer the call; ‘mates’ in their time of need could not be abandoned; it was ‘manly’ to fight to protect the weak – was irrefutable. It was especially galling that married men, and even men in their forties, were prepared to sacrificed so much by enlisting while younger, single men held back.

Those men who refused to do the ‘right thing’ were constantly targeted. When he farewelled James Wight at Yarram (25/2/16) B P Johnson singled out those holding back:

Those chaps who were standing back and not heeding the cry did not seem to realise what our nation was up against.

When A H Moore spoke at a farewell at Stacey’s Bridge (26/4/16) he made the point that … the brave lads were practically offering their lives on behalf of those who stayed behind. At the farewell for Sgt Filmer at Womerah (3/3/16) one speaker … spoke of the excuses made for not enlisting. There was too much of “I’ll go when so-and-so goes’. B P Johnson at a welcome home (22/3/16) contrasted the sacrifice of the 2 returning men with the cowardice of ‘shirkers’:

The war had taught all the lessons of sacrifice. When those who hung back saw these two young men, and contrasted them with their own cowardice, they would surely want to find a small hole to crawl in and hide.

Johnson was very fond of the term ‘shirker’. And he was prepared to use it widely, and not just for those who refused to enlist. At another farewell in April (5/4/16) he declared:

He did not think it [“shirker”] too strong a word. Every man who could not fight, and stayed home in comfort and did not give, was a shirker. Every sweetheart who stopped her lover, every father or mother who stopped their son, and every wife who stopped her husband from enlisting was a shirker.

Another common description of those who refused to enlist was ‘waster’. At a farewell in Yarram (28/4/16) Rev Walklate declared:

It was a mistake to see so many brave boys going out of loyal families, while wasters were holding back.

For patriots, the only way forward was conscription. Conscription would create a ‘level playing field’ and ensure that the sacrifice was spread fairly. They would no longer have to appeal, in vain, to the conscience of the ‘shirker’ or the ‘waster’. Johnson (28/4/16) captured the frustration and anger of the group when he declared that he favoured conscription because then the Government could effectively … get men by the scruff of the neck and seat of the pants and run them in. (Laughter).

As much as they favoured conscription, speakers were generally keen to identify the city, and not the country, as the natural home of the shirker and waster. Cr Barlow (28/4/16) declared his support for conscription, noted that some from the district were holding back but focused on his attention on the large cities:

He was proud to see so many good men going from the district to help finish the good work begun, but there were many more who should have gone. In his opinion the voluntary system is a rank failure. He could not understand why the Government did not come forward and take the men wanted  by conscription. His remarks did not apply so much to the country as to the cities, where thousands were attending race meetings and prize fights who were no good to their country.

Anger directed at those undermining the war effort and recruiting

One obvious target was the union movement. G F Sauer at a farewell at Yarram (28/1/16) attacked the bans on shipping and declared that … the lives of such men [trade unionists] were not worth fighting for. Another common call was that preference to unionists should be replaced by preference to returning Anzacs.

But by far the greatest anger over 1916 was directed at those in the ALP who opposed conscription. This will be covered in future posts but for now it is worth noting Johnson’s views as early as July 1916 (26/7/16) when various Labor Leagues – in this instance at Broken Hill – began the political manoeuvring – including the threat of strikes –  to oppose the introduction of conscription. Speaking of those workers in favour of such resolutions, Johnson declared,

It was the duty of all speaking in public to condemn them. In his opinion all such men should be interned. They were either enemies or traitors who ought to be shot.

 

When it had been formed in 1915 the focus of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee had been narrow and its work uncontroversial. However, over time, as it turned its attention first to recruiting and then to supporting conscription, it became a far more partisan and aggressive body. Its links to other local bodies pushing for the Yes vote in the first national referendum on conscription will be covered in future posts.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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