Monthly Archives: November 2016


George Matson NICHOLAS Major DSO
24 Battalion KIA 14/11/16

George Matson Nicholas was born in 1887 at Coleraine. He was educated at St. Patrick’s College Ballarat (Catholic) – his religion was given as Church of England – and then at Melbourne University where he completed the BA. At the time of joining the AIF, he was a teacher (master) at the Melbourne Junior Technical School. He applied for and received his a commission in early 1915. He was 28 yo and single at the time. His parents lived at Trafalgar in Gippsland.

There was a younger brother – Bryon Nicholas – who also worked as a teacher in the Victorian Education Department and who also joined the AIF, on 10/3/15.  Both brothers received awards for bravery and both were killed in action. There were another 3 brothers from the family who served in, and survived, WW1.

The 2 Nicholas brothers – George and Bryon – who were killed had been teachers in the Shire of Alberton. Both had taught at Gormandale East State School and the younger brother – Lt Bryon Nicholas – prior to joining the AIF, had been in charge of part-time schools at Carrajung South and Willung South.  It appears that whereas the younger brother remained teaching in the local area, George Nicholas moved to Melbourne to pursue his teaching career.

On the strength of their teaching in local schools prior to the War, both brothers were included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. Their names also appear on the relevant state school honor rolls.  However, neither brother appears on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor.

Prior to receiving his commission as a second lieutenant in 24 Battalion, George Matson Nicholas held the rank of lieutenant in the senior cadets and he had completed qualifications in military training. He embarked for overseas service on 10/5/15, just two weeks after securing his commission.

2 Lt Nicholas was promoted to full lieutenant on 26/6/15, a few days before he proceeded to Gallipoli (30/8/15). He was recommended for the French military award, the Croix de Guerre, for his conduct at Lone Pine on 4/10/1915. The citation read:

For his conduct at Lone Pine on 4th October 1915, when he directed the work of the battalion grenadiers during an attempted reconnaissance by the enemy, though to do so it was necessary for him to expose himself to the enemy’s rifle and machine gun fire. 

However the award was not given, even though it appears the recommendation was re-submitted in December 1916. By that point Major Nicholas was dead.

Lt Nicholas was wounded – ‘Shell wound, right arm. Severe.’ – on 12/12/15 in the closing days of the Gallipoli campaign. He spent the next six weeks in hospital in Egypt convalescing and rejoined 24 Battalion on 26/1/16. In March the battalion proceeded overseas to France and reached Marseilles on 26/3/16.

Lt Nicholas was promoted to the rank of captain on a temporary basis on 1/4/16 and this appointment was made permanent on 1/5/16.

For his bravery on 5/8/16 in the fighting at Pozieres, Captain Nicholas was recommended for, and this time awarded, the Distinguished Service Order. The citation read:

After the capture of the German trenches OG1&2 on the 5th August a patrol commanded by Captain George Nicholas found on returning from a reconnaissance in front that an enemy machine gun in a shell hole had been seriously menacing our men in the front lines. Captain Nicholas as soon as he located this gun gallantly went out again alone and by great dash and initiative succeeded in capturing the gun.

This citation appeared under the signature of Birdwood, ‘Lieut-General, Commanding 1st Australia and New Zealand Army Corps’, with the date of 6/8/16, one day after the fighting. Interestingly, the military honour first entered against the citation was the Military Cross, but this was crossed out and the D.S.O. had been added in its place. Also of interest is the fact that there is a second citation for the same award for the same incident. The second citation is undated but it appears against the recommendation of Brigadier General Gellibrand of 6 Infantry Brigade. A note next to the citation appears to read ‘already awarded’ which tends to suggest that the actions of Captain Nicholas had been drawn to at least two separate sources. Whereas the first citation had a focus on bravery or gallantry, the second citation focuses more on leadership.

For ability and skill in leading his company in the attack on the 4/5th Aug. For excellent work in consolidating the captured trenches on the following days and for his gallant reconnaissance already reported. A most capable officer who possesses the absolute confidence of his men.

Captain Nicholas was promoted to the rank of major soon after, on 12/8/16. There followed a short period attached to 2 Division Headquarters Staff and during this time, on 7/10/16, he married Hilda Rix in London.

Hilda Rix (Nicholas) was a significant Australian artist who studied under Frederick McCubbin. She left Australia in 1907 and studied in both London and Paris. Prior to the outbreak of the War, she regularly spent time in northern France in an artists’ colony at Etaples. She returned to Australia after the War and remarried (Edgar Wright, 1928). Her post-War art played a role in the development of the emerging ANZAC legend. As an example, her 1921 work, A man, in part based on her husband, is a striking study of the resoluteness of man, as soldier, faced with the certainty of his inescapable frailty and vulnerability in war.

Tragically, the marriage was very short. He returned to the front 3 days after the marriage. One month later on 10/11/16 he rejoined 24 Battalion and took over command. Just 4 days later (14/11/16), he was killed. According to the war diary of 24 Battalion, he was hit by a shell in Cobham Trench as he was leading 2 companies from 24 Battalion to relieve 5 Brigade. C E W Bean referred to the death of Major Nicholas in his diary – AWM38, 3DRL 606/66/1 – for November 1916,

Another who was lost … was Maj Nicholas of the 24th Btn – the youngster who for a time commanded his battalion & who made his name by going out himself scouting into no-mans-land in Pozieres.

In a footnote in his Official History, Bean (1941, p. 937) records Nicholas’ name together with those of at least another 30 officers who were killed at Flers over the short period of 13 -16 November 1916.

The cable of Major Nicholas’ death was dated 22/11/16, just 8 days after the actual death. The official ‘Report of Death of an Officer’ was completed on 20/12/16.

Prophetically, in Major Nicholas’ service file there is a letter dated 20/10/16 written by a Vernon Williams of Newport (Victoria) to Base Records in Melbourne asking for confirmation of a report that Major Nicholas has been killed in France. This was some 3 weeks before he was killed.

I have received a letter from France dated last August stating that my friend Captain George Matson Nicholas of 24th Battalion, 6th Infantry Brigade, A.I.F, has been killed. I should be obliged if you will be so kind as to let me know if this is, so far as known, correct.

Base Records replied on 23/10/16 that they had no such record; but the full reply points to the highly problematic nature of the information flow for the AIF between Australia and the Western Front,

In acknowledging receipt of your letter dated 20th instant, I have to state since the report he had been discharged to local Camp 8/5/16, from 24th General Hospital, Etaples, France no further reports have been received concerning Captain G. M. Nicholas, 24th Battalion, but if you will forward to this Office authentic evidence to the effect that he has been “killed”, upon receipt of same, and if such action is warranted, enquiries will be instituted and the result communicated to you, as well as to next-of-kin.

The reference to a period of hospitalisation in Etaples in May corresponds with an entry in his service record which has Major Nicholas in hospital in Etaples for about two weeks. However there is no indication of the injury or sickness at the time. It is likely that at this time in Etaples Major Nicholson came across some artwork of his future wife. There is a family story that he saw some of her work in Etaples and then sought her out when he was in London.

The personal kit of Major Nicholas reached his wife in January 1917. It came in one valise (sealed) and one box (sealed). In all, there were approximately 50 listed items, mainly articles of clothing. There were some more personal items such as 1 novel, Book of Poems and French Grammar.

There was some confusion over the location where Major Nicholas was buried. His wife must have received two different locations. When she queried the obvious contradiction, she was assured that a simple recording error was the problem and that,

There does not appear to be the slightest doubt that Grave 29, Row H, Flat 4, Grass Lane Cemetery, Gueudecourt is the last resting place of your late husband…

Unfortunately, and surprisingly, information for the (National) Roll of Honour was not supplied for either of the Nicholas brothers.


National Archives file for NICHOLAS George Matson Major
Roll of Honour: George Matson Nicholas
First World War Embarkation Rolls: George Matson Nicholas

Honours and Awards
Mention in despatches – Award
French Croix de Guerre – Recommendation
Distinguished Service Order – Award
Distinguished Service Order – Recommendation
Military Cross – Recommendation
French Croix de Guerre – Recommendation (2)

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume III – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, 12th edition 1941

For more on Hilda Rix Nicholas see the entry on Nicholas, Emily Hilda (1884-1961) in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.



Charles Courtney APPLEYARD 3751 MM
23 Battalion DOW 15/11/16
Charles Appleyard was one of 6 Appleyard brothers from Alberton who enlisted. One of these brothers, Gordon William Appleyard of 9 Battalion, had been killed at Pozieres, at the end of August 1916 (see Post 80).

On his enlistment papers, Charles gave Carlton as his place of birth. However, his mother gave it as Alberton when she completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour. Even if he was born in Carlton, it appears he grew up in the Shire of Alberton. For example, his name is the honor roll for Binginwarri SS.

At the time of the outbreak of the War, the father was still farming in the area but Charles had moved to Melbourne. He was living at Carlton and working as a builder/carpenter. He had married (Rose Appleyard) and had three children (Clement, Merle, Lorna). Even though he was living in Melbourne, he was still regarded as local. His name is featured on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Soldiers’ Memorial. The notice of his death which appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 1/12/16 described him as … a well known identity in this district. It also noted that he was … a fine, athletic young man. The consolation for his parents was that … he had died a hero’s death.

At the time of enlistment, he gave his age as 28 yo but information from his wife indicated that he was at least 5 years older. His religion was listed as Church of England.

He enlisted in Melbourne on 15/7/15 joining 23 Battalion. His group of reinforcements left Melbourne in early February 1916 (8/2/16) and reached France, via Egypt, in March 1916.

23 Battalion was involved in the fighting at Pozieres where, as mentioned, Charles’ brother was killed (DoW 24/8/16). Charles survived and in fact was awarded the Military Medal. The citation read,

At Pozieres on 4/5th August 1916, for gallant reconnaissance in daylight of the enemy’s trench, returning with valuable information.

By the time the medal was awarded – 2/9/16 – L/Corporal Appleyard had been promoted to the rank of sergeant (23/8/16) against a Sergeant Grantham who had been killed in action.

Sergeant Appleyard was wounded at the end of the first major attack at Flers. On 6/11/16, 23 Battalion’s war diary records how it took over part of the front line from 21 Battalion. The casualties that day were ‘1 killed 10 wounded’. Sergeant Appleyard had a shrapnel wound to the right shoulder. He was evacuated to 36 Casualty Clearing Station the next day but he died there 8 days later, on 15/11/16. He was not evacuated further back through the lines to a field hospital. Possibly, this was because of the difficulties of movement in the appalling conditions at Flers. C E W Bean (1941 ) raised this issue in his account of the fighting at Flers. He noted that it could take hours to get wounded men to any sort of medical post.

Sergeant Appleyard was buried near the town of Albert (Heilly Station Cemetery) and the cable advising of his death was sent on 22/11/16, with the final, formal notification of the death dated 27/12/16. Six months later (18/6/17) the Military Medal was forwarded to Sergeant Appleyard’s widow. In the letter, the Officer in Charge, Base Records, writing on behalf of the Minister, noted … the gallantry of a brave Australian soldier who nobly laid down his life in the service of King and Country. He added,

I am also to ask that you accept his [The Minister’s] deep personal sympathy in the loss which, not only you, but the Australian Army has sustained by the death of Sergeant Appleyard, whose magnificent conduct on the field of battle helped to earn for our Australian soldiers a fate which will endure as long as memory lasts.

A few days later, a family friend replied on behalf of an appreciative Mrs Appleyard,

Mrs Appleyard wishes me to return her heartfelt thanks to you and all concerned in your prompt attention dealing in all matters relating to her late husband.

The personal kit – Disc, Metal cigarette case, Comb, Pr nail scissors, Razor, Whistle, Brooch (metal), Metal wrist watch, 3 Note books, 3 Badges, 4 Coins, Letters. – reached his wife in August 1917.


National Archives file for APPLEYARD Charles Courtney 3751
Roll of Honour: Charles Courtney Appleyard
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Charles Courtney Appleyard

Honours and Awards

Military Medal – Recommendation
Military Medal – Recommendation (2)
Military Medal – Award

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume III – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, 12th edition 1941


Alexander ROBINSON 2095
23 Battalion DOW 20/11/16

Alexander Robinson was born in Melbourne (Carlton) but by the time he enlisted he was living and working in the Shire of Alberton. According to the electoral roll, in 1915 he was a labourer at Blackwarry.

He had his first medical at Yarram on 27/3/15 but did not complete the enlistment until 14/6/15 in Melbourne.  There is no record of any medical issue involved with the delay. At the time he enlisted, he was 23 yo and single. He gave his religion as Presbyterian.

Private Robinson embarked for overseas on 26/8/15 as reinforcements for 23 Battalion. He was taken on strength of the battalion at Anzac on 12/10/15.

Following evacuation from Gallipoli, he was charged in early January 1916 in Egypt with being AWL for 39 hours. The punishment was 3 days detention and 3 days pay. Shortly after, he was hospitalised with mumps for 1 month. 23 Battalion reached France – Marseilles – on 26/3/16.

The war dairy for 23 Battalion for 18/11/16 records only that it was snowing and 2 men were wounded. One of the them must have been Private Robinson. His wounds were described as SW Loin & Buttock. He was taken to the casualty clearing station the next day (19/11/16) and then died of wounds there on 20/11/16. Presumably, he was another of the wounded at Flers who succumbed to their wounds because of the great difficulties in transporting the wounded to medical help. He was buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe, Picardie.

His mother – Mrs Agnes Robinson, Fitzroy – received his personal kit in August 1917: Wallet, Letters, Photos, Note Book, Cigarette Holder.

Unfortunately, there is very little information available for Private Robinson. However the mother did complete the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour and on that form she recorded that in fact 3 brothers enlisted in the AIF, and all 3 were killed. As well as Alexander Robinson 2095 (DoW 20/11/16) there was Albert Douglas Robinson 2889 (KIA 19/7/16) and Edward Robinson 986 (DoW 11/9/18).

The brother – Edward Robinson – who was not killed until September 1918, was also on the electoral roll as a labourer of Blackwarry. He will be covered in a future post. There is no indication that the other brother killed in July 1916 (Albert Douglas Robinson) had any connection to the Shire.

The 2 brothers who were living and working at Blackwarry are both recorded on the Blackwarry Roll of Honor. They also have their names on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor, but they are not marked as ‘Killed’ on this record.  Neither brother is included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. Overall, there is little to show for such an extraordinary family sacrifice.


National Archives file for ROBINSON Alexander 2095
Roll of Honour: Alexander Robinson
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Alexander Robinson



Francis Henry SEBIRE 5441
60 Battalion KIA 20/11/16

Francis Sebire was born at Port Melbourne and grew up in Melbourne and attended Melbourne High School. As a student and young man he was heavily involved in the cadets and held a commission.

Francis Sebire’s connection to the Shire of Alberton was chiefly as a local teacher. He taught at Binginwarri and Wonyip state schools between 1911 and 1914. Binginwarri was his first appointment. In the time he was a teacher in the district, he was also a member of the Stacey’s Bridge Rifle Club. Further, he married a local girl. His wife, nee McInnes, came from one of the original pioneering families in the district.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative gave a detailed report (22/4/14) when Francis Sebire was transferred from Binginwarri to Taggerty, near Marysville.  He was obviously well known in the local area and there is even a report (13/1/15) of when he returned to the district for New Year’s celebrations in January 1915. But for all the obvious links, his name is not included on either the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor or Soldiers’ Memorial. His name does appear on the honour rolls for both Binginwarri and Wonyip state schools. When his father completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour, he gave Taggerty as the place with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’. As indicated, this was where he was appointed after Binginwarri but he could have only been there for a maximun of one year before he enlisted.

There is confusion over the date of his enlistment. The embarkation roll shows 6/11/15 but the attestation papers show it as 29/6/16. On the papers there is a reference to an earlier failed medical:  ‘defective teeth’.  Possibly, the 29/6/16 date involved a ‘re-attestation’. Either way, he joined as reinforcements for 5 Battalion and embarked for overseas, almost immediately, on 3/7/16. The embarkation roll also indicates that he left as acting sergeant. Presumably this was because of his extensive involvement in junior and senior cadets.

On his enlistment papers he indicated that he was married – Flora Margaret Sebire – and there was a son. His wife was then living at Middle Brighton. He was 25 yo and his occupation was given as state school teacher. His religion was Church of England. His parents were John and Christina Sebire.

When the father completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour he noted that his son … was acting Sergeant till arrival in England. Gave up his stripes to get into action without delay. In support of this claim, the records indicate that Sergeant Sebire reached Perham Downs for training on 15/9/16 and then reverted to private on 23/10/16. Soon after, he was taken on strength of 60 Battalion in France (12/11/16).

Private Sebire was reported missing on 20/11/16 but it was not until 21/3/18 – 16 months later – that a court of enquiry determined that he had been killed in action on the same day. There is no clue in the war diary of 60 Battalion as to his fate. At the time, 60 Battalion was at Needle Trench and the pressing issue was ensuring rations – including water – reached the men. There is a brief reference to casualties – 1 killed 6 wounded – on 20/11/16 but no mention of any men missing.

There is extensive correspondence in the file covering the attempts by both his wife and parents to uncover what happened. The Red Cross was contacted and the father also sought the support of John H Lister, M.P. However they had little success. The transfer to 60 Battalion in mid November 1916 did not appear to have been known to the family in Australia and this added to the confusion. The following letter- formal and respectful in tone – was sent to Base Records in Melbourne by the wife, Mrs Flora M Sebire, in late April 1917, nearly 6 months after her husband went missing.

Having received no communication since one dated Nov. 10th 1916 from my husband who is serving with the A.I.F. in France I am writing to ask you to be so good as to let me know whether you have any information to give me respecting his condition and whereabouts. He was then (Nov.1916) going into the trenches in France.
His No and Name are
5441 Pr. Francis Henry Sebire
He left here as Sergt. in the 18th Reft. of V Batt last July but returned to the ranks voluntarily after being in Eng. a few weeks in order to go to the front.
Some 6 weeks ago a cablegram was sent through the Red Cross Information Bureau by Mr Chormley, but no reply has reached me.
This absence of news extending over 6 months is causing his family and me intense anxiety and I respectfully request that the Defence Dept. be so good as to make further effort to obtain tidings of him.
I am
Your obedient servant

The most likely account of Private Sebire’s fate was given to the Red Cross, nearly one year after his disappearance, by Private Fred Marr (5404). The statement was dated 23/10/17. The reference to the men he was supporting probably not knowing him – presumably because he had so recently joined 60 Battalion – appears very pertinent.

He [Sebire] was a hard worker. I last saw him at Needle Trench beyond Flers on Nov 20th. It was then dusk and I spoke to him and asked him what he was doing, and he told me that he was guiding ration parties to the front line; he had one or two more journeys to make. Two of our companies were in the front line and our other two companies took rations to them from Needle Trench which was in the support line. The Germans put up rather a heavy barrage fire that night. I often asked about him afterwards but could learn nothing definite. Some of the men he was guiding very likely did not know know him.

As late as July 1921, the AIF was still keen to know if the family had received, over the period since the war had ended, any further information about Private Sebire’s fate. The father’s reply – It is practically certain that my son was killed at or near Needle Trench near Flers between 20-22 Nov. 1916. – was based largely on his own investigations. He had personally contacted Private Marr after he returned to Australia in 1920. He had also followed up the report of another soldier (Smith).  Smith had put the date of Private Sebire’s disappearance at 22 November and this was reflected in the extended time frame in the father’s reply.

The personal kit of Private Sebire – 1 Brief Bag (containing: – 3 Handkerchiefs, Field Glasses in Case, 1 Scarf, Cap comforter, 3 Khaki Collars, 2 Ties, 1 Mitten, 1 Shirt. – was not returned to the wife until October 1918.

It is obviously difficult to uncover family dynamics, employing only correspondence, from so long ago; but there is one letter in the file that suggests that over time – and distance – relations between the wife and her parents-in-law became strained. It appears that she and her son shifted quite a bit and eventually settled in Queensland. It also appears, based on the letter, that the parents effectively ‘reclaimed’ their son. The letter was dated February 1936, nearly 20 years after her husband’s death. It was in response to advice she had received on the inscription that appeared in the register for the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial: Son of John and Christina Sebire, of 94, Marine Parade, St. Kilda, Victoria. Born at Port Melbourne, Victoria

In reference to your notification regarding the inscription on the Memorial for members of the AIF who have known graves, I was leaving Victoria and my husband’s father, who is now dead, offered to attend to the matter for me, and promised that my name and that of my son would be inscribed but [he] has substituted his own and his wife’s. Under the circumstances there is nothing to be done.

If true, it is a striking example of how the impact of the War continued to work its way through people’s lives long after the death of the soldier and loved one.


National Archives file for SEBIRE Francis Henry 5441
Roll of Honour: Francis Henry Sebire
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Francis Henry Sebire
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Francis Henry Sebire


Arthur Vincent FARTHING (5685)
13 Battalion DoD 9/11/16

A V Farthing remains a mystery. His name does appear – as Farthing, A. V. – on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor; but he is not marked as ‘Killed’ on this list. He is not included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. Nor are there any references to him on any other memorial in the Shire, and there is no mention of him in the Gippsland Standard and Albeton Shire Representative. The family name Farthing was not common in the Shire at the time, and it did not appear on the 1915 electoral roll for the sub-division of Yarram. There are limited references to the name Farthing in local genealogical references – Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901 – but the references are to the 1860s.

In terms of AIF records, there is only one A V Farthing on the Nominal Roll. The full name is given as Albert Vincent Farthing (5685) but this is a mistake and it should be Arthur Vincent Farthing (5685). The correct name appears on the Embarkation Roll. Importantly, there were only 11 men with the family name Farthing who served in the AIF in WW1, and of the eleven, there was only one with the initials of A V Farthing. So there is no question that reference to a member of the AIF with the name A V Farthing is to Arthur Vincent Farthing (5685).

While there is nothing to tie Arthur Vincent Farthing to the Shire of Alberton – apart from his name on the Shire’s roll of honor – there is abundant evidence to tie him to Bective (near Tamworth) in NSW.

Arthur Vincent Farthing was born at Tamworth, NSW. He grew up at Bective and attended the public school there. When he enlisted on 12/1/16, at Liverpool, he was 19 yo and single. He gave his occupation as ‘farm hand’. His religion was Church of England.

Arthur gave his father – Henry Farthing – as next-of-kin. The father was well known in the local district of Bective. He was involved in the Bective Farmers and Settlers’ Association and in fact the monthly meetings were held in his home.

The Tamworth Daily Observer (3/5/16) recorded the farewell organised for Private Arthur Farthing at Bective. It was held just before he embarked for overseas. He was presented with a luminous wristlet watch. In response, Private Farthing expressed his gratitude and stated that he … would do his best to uphold the name of Australia.

Private Farthing’s service was very short. He enlisted on 12/1/16 and embarked as reinforcements for 13 Battalion on 3/5/16. He reached England from Alexandria in early August and started further training with 4 Training Battalion at Perham Downs. He was admitted to hospital – King George Hospital – on 26/8/16 with pneumonia. It appears he stayed in this hospital until 6/11/16 when he was transferred to 1st Auxillary Hospital, Harefield. He ‘died of disease’: cerebral abscess on 9/11/16.

Cables sent to the parents in Australia, over the period the son was in hospital with pneumonia, reveal a rather grim story. On 2/10/16 they were advised that their son was ‘seriously ill pneumonia’. On 13/10/16 his status was described as ‘condition stationary’. On 26/10/16 they were informed he was ‘progressing favorably’. Again, on 1/11/16, the news was positive: ‘now progressing favorably’. Just over one week later he was dead. The parents also did not even know the name or address of the hospital where he was a patient. On 30/10/16 they had written seeking these details.

There is strong evidence that Private Farthing should never have even been in England with the AIF. In his service file are the records of the medical board, dated 14/1/16, which recommended he be discharged from the AIF. This was just 2 days after he had enlisted. The suggestion is that in fact he had enlisted before (8/6/15) but then came down with ‘double pneumonia’ and was discharged. Perhaps he was not formally discharged – there is no record of an earlier enlistment- and it was more the case that the initial enlistment did not go ahead when he became ill with pneumonia. Then he (re) enlisted (12/1/16) and either the same problem flared again or the ongoing medical debility from the earlier sickness became more obvious. At the medical board it was stated his disability would continue for ‘at least 12 months’. Moreover, the board … recommends his discharge as unfit for military service. It is not clear why the recommendation was not carried out but it is possible that the necessary paper work was held up and he embarked for overseas service before it could be actioned. What is clear is that he was affected by a significant, ongoing medical condition long before he was hospitalised in England in August 1916. The  medical advice was that he should have been discharged immediately after he enlisted.

Private Farthing was buried in the Australian Section, Harefield Churchyard, Harefield.

After the death, his parents placed a personal notice in The Tamworth Daily Observer (18/11/16, p.7):

Roll of Honor
Farthing – At 1st Australian Auxillary Hospital, London. Private Arthur V Farthing, youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. H. Farthing, Bective. Aged 20 years. At rest.

In May 1917, the parents received the following personal items:

Scarf, Belt, 9 Foreign Coins, Devotional Book, Hairbrush, Piece Crewel Work, Wallet, Photos, Razor, Shaving Brush, Identity Disc, 2 Badges, Handkerchief, Pipe, Fountain Pen, Letters.

When they completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour, the parents gave Tamworth as the location with which their son was ‘chiefly connected’. On the face of it, there is nothing to suggest a link to the Shire of Alberton. However, the name definitely appears on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor; and there was only one Farthing A V. The only plausible explanation appears to be that he worked in the local area as a farm labourer for some time before mid 1915.


National Archives file for Farthing Arthur Vincent 5685
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Arthur Vincent Farthing
Roll of Honour: Arthur Vincent Farthing

The Tamworth Daily Observer

O’Callaghan, G 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901








93. Conscription Referendum 1916: the (private) No vote

Previous posts (87, 88, 89 and 91) have covered the strength of the public campaign for the Yes vote in the Shire of Alberton. All relevant local institutions, from the local council itself through to the local press, actively and  wholeheartedly supported the Yes vote. Conscription had been widely supported by the district’s professional, business and managerial elite from early 1916. The local Protestant churches had even preached to their congregations the responsibility to vote Yes. The only potential limit to the Yes vote was the ambivalent position of the Catholic Church: the individual could certainly vote Yes, but, unlike the Protestant position, Yes was not mandated and, rather, had to be guided by an informed conscience. Other than this, the idea that a local could – let alone would – vote No was not publicly entertained.

Immediately prior to the referendum, Thomas Livingston, the local member for Gippsland South in the Victorian Parliament, was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (27/10/16)  as predicting, confidently, that the Yes vote would be 75%. In the event, the Yes vote – for the sub-division of Yarram – was 66%.

The response of the 2 local papers to the loss of the referendum is instructive. Both took the course of criticising the national result while at the same time lauding the high level of patriotism evident in the strength of the Yes vote in the Shire.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, in its first edition after the referendum (1/11/16) found the national result ‘deplorable’ but its real focus was the proven loyalty of country Victoria and, in particular, Gippsland:

The country vote in [Victoria] favoured “Yes” in every electorate but three, these being Ballarat, Bendigo, and Grampians. The seven other country electorates voted for conscription and Gippsland … gained the distinction of securing the greatest majority for conscription of all the Victorian electorates.

Similarly, the South Gippsland Chronicle, in its first edition (1/11/16) after the referendum also praised the loyalty of those in Gippsland:

It is gratifying to note the overwhelming vote in favor of Conscription given by the people of the Gippsland division, a “Yes” majority being shown in every portion of the electorate with the exception of a few small places. The totals for the division were – Yes 16,056, No 7,725. Majority for Yes 8,331.

The quoted figure gave the Yes vote for the whole of Gippsland as 67.5%.

The same article broke the vote down by electoral sub-divisions and for the Yarram sub-division – effectively the Shire of Alberton – the results were reported as 1,144 Yes, 573 No, with 24 informal votes. This gave the Yes vote for the Shire of Alberton as 66%.

As strong as the Yes vote was in the Shire of Alberton, and Gippsland generally, there was still the question of why one-third of the local community had voted No.  At least part of the answer came in the editorial in the South Gippsland Chronicle on 3/11/16. The paper claimed that it was the pre-emptive decision by the Hughes Government to apply existing provisions under the Defence Act to call up – for military service within the Commonwealth – all single men between the ages of 21 to 35.

On the assumption that there would be a successful Yes vote, Hughes wanted the military training of the first group of conscripts underway as soon as possible, and before the referendum had even been conducted. This strategy would mean that reinforcements could be sent to the Western Front as quickly as possible. While the initiative smacked of contempt for the democratic process, the real problem for Hughes was that the call up – and more significantly the exemption process that it involved –  forced the rural community to experience at first hand what conscription would mean for them; and they were left in no doubt that it posed a serious threat.

The editorial of 3/11/16 noted specifically that the call-up telegraphed the Government’s intentions once the referendum had succeeded.

The results following the referendum, should it be carried, were clearly defined by the Prime Minister, and men were even called into camp for home service in order to receive part of their training and be ready to go abroad should they be classed as fit after the people had conferred the necessary power on the Government. This was undoubtedly responsible for many who would otherwise have voted “Yes” going to the poll and helping to secure a majority for “No.” It cannot be denied that the calling up of men has inflicted a great hardship in many cases, and, as was instanced at the exemption court held at Yarram last week, made it almost impossible for those who remain behind to carry on their former vocation.

In fact, the Government had been telegraphing its intentions on conscription from the time of the War Census in late 1915. People surmised that the purpose of Schedule 1 of the census – to be completed by all males aged 18 and under 60 – was to provide the Government with data that could inform a system of conscription should the voluntary system not deliver sufficient reinforcements. Then in December 1916, Hughes issued his Call to Arms which involved a personal letter to every eligible man between 18 and 45. The men had to submit a formal response to the letter. Those who failed to return the form would be identified and pursued. The expectation was that the men targeted would enlist immediately or in the near future. If they refused to enlist they had to submit reasons and they could be challenged, in person, by the local recruiting sergeant. It was obviously a considerable shift away from a purely voluntary system.

As discussed earlier – Post 87 – there was obvious ‘push back’ in the Shire of Alberton to this drift to conscription. We know that some locals refused to return their Call to Arms forms. But, more strikingly, we know that of the 188 who had returned their forms by January 1916, 66% had selected the option to refuse to enlist. 8.5% of those who received the call from Hughes had already enlisted, 18% indicated they were prepared to enlist immediately and 7.5% said they were prepared to enlist at a later time. This left the 66% who refused the Call.

Clearly, as the drift to conscription – vigorously promoted by the Yarram-based local recruiting committee – continued to gain momentum there was growing opposition. However, this opposition took the form of a private response – failure to complete the form or failure to respond appropriately – rather than any public, organised demonstration of dissent.

The dynamic involved in the of growing (private) opposition to conscription was driven by the fundamental structure, and related ethos, of the local farming community, where the key social institution was the family farm.

As has been covered in the 2 posts – Post 60 and Post 85 – that looked at speeches given at farewells in 1915 and 1916, one of the most common themes was that of the pioneer as soldier. The young men enlisting were said to show the same spirit and character as the pioneers who had settled the district from the 1840s. The pioneers had opened up the land, battled the elements, overcome isolation and brought civilisation to the frontier of settlement. Within this general narrative, there was a particular focus on the selectors from the 1860s who had struggled to break the monopoly of the squatters and establish a new social and political landscape of family farms spreading out from small towns and settlements. The selectors had a particularly hard struggle as they attempted to establish themselves with meagre levels of capital. Often they had little background in farming itself and their access to relevant technology was limited. The parcels of land they secured were often too small, isolated or poor in quality. There was very weak infrastructure, particularly in the area of transport. Many of the selectors  lived in exceptionally challenging, if not primitive, conditions. They also felt they had little support from all levels of government. They were by themselves. But against this background, the narrative held that they had survived. They were tough, resourceful, independent and hard-working. They were the pioneers who had made the district what it was.

However, on the specific issue of labour, the pioneer as soldier theme featured a major internal contradiction which, inevitably, played out in the 1916 referendum.

Arguably, the most important resource for the selector trying to establish the family farm was the labour of the family itself. The absolute importance of family labour – the parents and the children – to the success and survival of the family farm had been a fundamental given from the very beginning of selection. The family worked as an economic unit. And the economic realities in  turn helped shape the social identity of the family, in areas such as inheritance, marriage, the generational expansion of the family enterprise and the care of the parents as they aged. This took place in a period that pre-dated modern social welfare provisions.

The actual pattern of labour on the family farm was complex. Individual landholdings could be so small, or the land so difficult, or the seasons so bad – and any number of other factors, and combinations thereof – that in many cases the ‘family farm’ was not viable without some family members working outside the farm as wage earners. Sons could work on other farms as labourers and daughters could work as domestics, either on other farms or for the middle-class families in rural towns.

Importantly, labour in these rural communities was generally not organised. The selections were too small, the nature of the farming – eg dairy farming, vegetable growing – required fewer workers per individual farm, the settlement was too dispersed and there was a long-standing, natural antipathy to the trade unions of the urban working class, as their industrial action often compromised the interests of the rural economy.

In the political and economic environment of the Shire, the assumption was that the family farm had to have the power to control its labour resources and employ them to meet its needs, in a difficult and complex environment. It was this fundamental belief that was directly challenged by conscription.

For the first 2 years of the War, individual families had decided by themselves how best to balance the need to manage the farm and ensure its survival with the concomitant need to ‘answer the call’ and discharge their ‘patriotic duty’.  However, the introduction of conscription would see the imposition of rigid and impersonal rules that would take away all the autonomy, flexibilty and individual judgement that farming families had previously exercised.

The two key events in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 conscription referendum that gave farming families the clearest understanding of how conscription would work, and how it would take away their autonomy, were the registration process held on 14/10/16 and the exemption court held in Yarram on 27/10/16.

Registration: Yarram, 14/10/16

The day set aside in Yarram for men to register under the Commonwealth’s call up arrangements was Saturday 14 October 1916. On the day, all single men, and widowers without dependents, aged between 21 and 35, had to register. Those who had previously been rejected for military service also had to register and undertake the medical.

The day was seen as a major event in the Shire. On 13/10/16, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative reported:

Yarram tomorrow will present quite a military air, with officials in kharki [sic], some half-dozen doctors, about a dozen clerks, and between three to four hundred single men, with divided minds as to the necessity of enlisting. It is wonderful, even when called for home service, how many “unsound” men there are! However, these matters will be decided by the doctors.

Rossiter, the editor – and also member of the Yarram Recruiting Committee and keen supporter of conscription – clearly saw the occasion as a chance to identify all those local men who were shirking their duty. His reference to the men being called up for ‘home service’ was highly disingenuous.

The next edition of the paper (18/10/16) gave a detailed report of what had happened on the day:

Yarram was thronged with young men of military age last Saturday, when they were required to report themselves, whether considered fit or unfit for military service. A busy day was spent by Capt. Macfarlane and four other military officers, three doctors and 14 clerks filling in attestation forms. The duties commenced at 9 a.m., and by 3 p.m. the main rush was over. In the time, 222 single men were examined, 102 of whom were fit, 10 unfit, and 110 doubtful. 116 of the number applied for exemption.

With few exceptions the demeanour of the men was excellent. Some rejoiced at the prospect of going to the front, having previously tried and been rejected.

Those who did not report on Saturday will have put themselves to serious inconvenience. Within seven days they must report at Warragul. Failure to report means salutary punishment of a kind that will reflect discreditably on the men.

One man refused to take the oath, but this makes no difference. To camp he will go if passed as fit.

The doubtful ones [110 of the 222 medically examined] were ordered to attend at Korumburra for final examination. This arrangement has since been varied. The medical board will shortly attend at Yarram, and save the men the inconvenience of travelling down the line.

An exemption court will sit at Yarram on 27th and 28th inst., when reasons for declining service will be fully gone into. This court is public, and the proceedings will be published in the local and daily papers. Those who have reasonable excuses need have no fear of advancing their claims for exemption.

Whereas between 300 and 400 men were expected at the registration, only 200 were there on the day. The low turn-out tallies with other accounts (Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, P 2015 p. 112) that claim that, nationally, only one-third of men bothered to register. As already noted, a similarly poor response had occurred earlier when local men had not returned their Call to Arms forms.

Only 50% of the men medically examined that day were passed as fit. Many of those who failed would have failed previously. Strikingly, half of all the men who registered on the day applied for exemption. The overall results were hardly encouraging. Rossiter attempted to put a positive gloss on the affair, writing about the positive ‘demeanour’ of the men. But his last paragraph reads as a thinly veiled threat to those pursuing exemption.

The Exemption Court, Yarram, 27/10/16

The exemption court sat in Yarram on the day before the referendum and the reports of what transpired at the court did not appear until the Wednesday (1/11/16) after the referendum. However, similar courts had already been held across Gippsland. Also, the reports in the local paper make it clear that there were many people there on the day watching the proceedings. In all, locals would have known, before the referendum, of the judgements made being handed down at the exemption courts.

Rossiter was true to his word and the proceedings were covered in great detail. The individual particulars, including full names and reasons presented to the court, were given for each request for exemption. Rossiter gave the number of applications for exemption on the day as 124. However, this number does not tally with the number of individual cases he reported.  For example, he stated that 41 exemptions were granted but in fact in his report only 33 exemptions are recorded as having been granted. Presumably, there were so many cases handled in one day that he had great difficulty in keeping up with proceedings. At the same time, putting to one side the problems with tallies, his report certainly does give a description of how the court worked. Regulations required that the applicant had to appear in person before the court and represent himself. Solicitors were not permitted.

According to Rossiter’s report, 31 of the 33 exemptions granted on the day were because either the applicant was the only son (11) or the required number of sons – at least one half – had already enlisted (20). These were provisions covered in the  regulations. The other 2 cases involved the situation where the applicant was the ‘sole support’ of ‘aged parents’ or a ‘widowed mother’. One of the cases involved John Henry James Price – labourer of Blackwarry – who was one of 3 sons. Only one brother was in the AIF – under the at least one half ruling, 2 brothers had to enlist – but the applicant claimed to be the sole support of his parents. The other case involved F J Pearson who was one of 3 sons in the family. No son was in service, but 2 of the siblings were not yet of military age and this son, the oldest, supported his widowed mother.

The 33 cases where exemption was approved were, in terms of the regulations, clear cut . What focused people’s attention was how the other 63 individual applications fared. According to Rossiter’s account, 32 of the 63 applications for exemption were rejected, 15 men were given temporary exemption and the remaining 16 cases were adjourned.

Employing Rossiter’s account it is possible to divide the exemption requests into 2 categories: those involving families where there had been no enlistments at all, and those where, according to the formula, not enough sons had enlisted.

Families with no enlistments

In terms of the first category, there were 26 families, involving 34 individual men, where no eligible son had enlisted. Apparently, the number of families across the Shire of Alberton where no eligible son had enlisted was low. However, the important qualification is that there could have been other families that completely ignored the registration process and did not seek exemption.

Of the 34 individual men applying for exemption, 19 were refused outright, 7 were given temporary exemption and 8 were adjourned. Rossiter’s brief notes on each case make it clear that the reasons for the exemption related to the family’s economic interests or welfare. There was only 1 case where a position of ‘conscientious objection’ was registered. It involved the 3 Kallady brothers – Ambrose, Allan and Leo – from Devon. There were 4 brothers in the family and therefore 2 had to enlist. There was some brief discussion of what their understanding of ‘conscientious objection’ involved – would they, for example, defend their mother, sister, or even themselves – and the army officer assisting the police magistrate presiding over the court suggested options such as ‘stretcher bearer’ and ‘putting barbed wire entanglements in front of trenches’. In the end, the magistrate found that the 2 fittest of the 3 brothers of military age would have to serve. The case was then adjourned to 7 December for objections to be heard.

Several examples from this first category highlight the way family dynamics – including the ages and marital status of the sons – affected the outcome. For example, George Lewis Brunlow was a fisherman from Port Albert. He was one of 3 male siblings but both his brothers were married and therefore not required to register. He claimed to be the sole support for his invalid sister. His application was refused, presumably on the basis that his married brothers could or should pick up the responsibility for the sister. On the face of it, conscription was redefining an existing family arrangement.

B Hanrahan was one of 2 sons. As his brother was married, he had had to register. He claimed an exemption on the basis that he owned the farm and he partly supported his widowed mother and her 6 children, presumably his younger siblings. The application was refused, again overturning an existing family arrangement.

The more common reason for claiming exemption was the economic hardship or threat to the viability of the family farm or business that the loss of labour would cause. For example, Eric Oliver Hobson was working on the family farm at Yarram. There were extensive landholdings at Yarram and Won Wron. There were 3 sons in the family, one of whom was married. Under the regulations this unmarried son (Eric) had to serve. The father claimed that as a dairy farmer with a large herd he depended on this son to look after the stock. The father claimed no one understood the stock like this son. The son also kept the books. The father claimed he had tried, unsuccessfully, to find someone to replace his son. He stated that if his son went he, the father, would have to give up dairying. The magistrate said he was bound by the regulations and refused the application. He did add that the son could seek a temporary exemption, but only after he had reported for duty at the camp at Warragul.

William Thomas Charles Stonehouse operated a blacksmith business at Yarram. He had 3 sons, all of them single. Under the formula, 2 of them (J E Stonehouse and W Stonehouse) were required to serve. The father explained that all 3 sons helped in his business and if the 2 of military age went the business would have to be closed as he, the father, could not work and he had not been able to secure other workers. The application was refused.

There were 6 sons in the Vardy family from Alberton West. 3 sons were married. The other 3 sons – Leslie James Vardy, F E Vardy and Percival John Vardy – were required to serve. There was a family farm of 100+ acres; although it appears only 1 son was helping the father on the farm. Presumably the other 2 sons were working as labourers on other farms.  The magistrate noted that the 3 sons were a significant source of revenue for the father. The application was refused.

William Macaulay, a farm labourer, was one of 3 sons, one other of whom was married. He was 32 yo. He claimed that if he went it would cause great hardship and loss to those at home. The family had a farm – 180 acres – at Stacey’s Bridge. The father claimed that the farm could not be worked without his son. A temporary exemption to 27/1/17 was granted.

Families with insufficient enlistments

This second category, covering 29 individuals from 28 families, featured the cases that would have caused the most disquiet in the district. These were families where men had already enlisted but now, under conscription, more would be taken. Once again, the impact, would affect both the welfare of the family and the financial viability of the farm. Of the 29 requests for exemption, 13 were rejected outright, there were 8 cases of a temporary exemption being granted and 8 cases were adjourned.

John Joseph Egan – labourer, Alberton West – worked on the small family farm at Alberton West. There were 5 sons but 3 were married. This meant that the remaining 2 had to serve. One was already in camp. Exemption was claimed on the basis that the father was too old to work the farm and this son – John – was the only son available to help. Exemption was refused.

Joel William Trigg was involved with a family farm of approximately 170 acres at Alberton West. There were 3 sons which meant 2 had to serve. One was already in the AIF and the other brother had been judged medically unfit, which meant Joel had to go. He claimed that he would be forced to sell out if he was forced to go. The application was refused.

There were 6 sons in the McPhail family. Only 2 were serving in the AIF which meant one more son was required. The father claimed that this son, Archibald McPhail, was not fit enough to go in the trenches but the medical officers had recently passed him. The application was refused.

There were 5 sons in the Wight family with 2 in the AIF, one of whom had been wounded. At least one of the other 3 sons was below military age. The son seeking the exemption – David Wight, had a 100 acre farm at Carrajung. He worked with his father. The application was refused.

There were 9 sons in the Lay family with 4 on service with the AIF. This left still one son required. Of the 5 remaining, 3 were married and one was only 18yo. This meant that Leslie Gordon Lay had to serve. The application for exemption was refused on the grounds that even though he and his younger brother were supporting the family farm, he – the applicant- was not the sole support of his parents.

There were 6 sons in the Cantwell family, with 2 in service. James Hennessy Cantwell – labourer, Stacey’s Bridge – claimed that he supported the family – there was a family farm of less than 100 acres – and that the father was ailing and the mother an invalid. He claimed that if he were called he would have to sell the cows. Rossiter’s notes stated that exemption was granted until the cows were sold.

Nigel Hugh McAlpine had 40 acres of land at Carrajung in his own name. There were 3 sons in the family but only one was in the AIF. Nigel applied for exemption on the grounds that the brother in the AIF had left him (Nigel) in sole charge of his farm and stock. The third brother was unfit because of a knee injury. Nigel was reported as declaring that if he was forced to go his farm would ‘go to the dogs’. He was given a temporary exemption until 27/1/17.

In summary, Rossiter’s notes on the individual cases covered by the exemption court were brief and perhaps not always accurate. Also, the claims made by those requesting exemption might  have been overdrawn or misleading. At the same time, the proceedings of this court held in Yarram, and others in Gippsland, would definitely have been closely followed in the local community; and it would have been clear that conscription was set to have a major negative impact on the traditional autonomy of the family farm and farming families. The proposed level of control over both the labour agenda and social dynamic of the family farm was of a form and degree never seen before.

Exemptions for the dairy industry

It is also important to note that there was a feeling in the community that the general labour demands of the dairy industry had been ignored. As has been shown in many previous posts, by far the largest group of men enlisting in the AIF in the Shire of Alberton came from the rural, itinerant, working class. By the end of 1916 the size of this group of enlistments had reached the order of 600 men. They simply described themselves as ‘farm labourers’ or just ‘labourers’. It was a very significant pool of labour to withdraw from the local economy. At the same time, the number of men coming from the family farm was in a definite minority; and the preceding cases help explain why it was so difficult to release sons from the family farm. Yet conscription promised that even more of this labour pool would be withdrawn. Locals formed the view that despite reassurances from the Commonwealth Government the dairy industry was not being protected.

In an article that he wrote on 25/10/16, just before the exemption court sat, Rossiter wrote how in the ‘interests of production’ many claims for exemption could and should be granted. Then after the court he wrote (1/11/16) critically on the lack of exemptions granted. He used highly qualified language but others would have seen the court proceedings as a deliberate attack on the local dairy industry:

There was much concern locally in regard to a great number of applications for full and temporary exemptions made at the exemption court held on Friday last. A number of claims were made by dairymen and others engaged in that industry in various ways. The applicants who were refused exemption were informed that they must report at Warragul camp on Friday next, it being understood by them that no exemption would be granted without reporting at camp. In view of the critical situation thus presented, and of the fact that the Prime Minister had stated that rural workers, engaged in producing industries, would be allowed exemption, the position created by the court authorities caused some uneasiness in the minds of dairy farmers and those engaged as milkers by them.

The reference to the Prime Minister’s promise of exemption for rural workers is very important. It appears that as the referendum drew near Hughes became concerned that the farmers’ vote could go against him. Perhaps he received intelligence of how the call up in rural districts and the operations of the exemption courts were being received. In the week before the referendum, he issued a detailed statement which was published in the metropolitan papers (for example The Age 25/10/16 p. 7). He reminded the farmers of all the Government had done for them – purchasing their crops, setting prices, securing shipping – and declared that,

It [His Government] has given them generous exemptions. It has released all the labor necessary for their industry; their lands will be tilled, their crops harvested; members of their families will be left to carry on the farms, and sufficient labor to carry on their industry will be exempted.

Hughes also acknowledged that there was concern over the labour shortage in rural industries. He put a positive spin on the cause:

The men from the country parts of Australia have responded magnificently to the appeal for recruits, much better than the great cities. The consequence is that labor for the rural industries is relatively scarce, while in the cities there is a surplusage [sic] of thousands of eligible men.

Hughes concluded by promising again that the rural industries would have the labour they needed and, at the same time, conscription would ensure that those in the cities also did their share:

The farmers and the men on the land will have the labor they require, and the eligible men in the cities will be compelled to do their duty.

The problem was that this was not the experience of the local farmers in Gippsland. There was a critical shortage of labour and there was no real evidence that exemptions were available. The only exemptions being granted were temporary, and ‘temporary’ meant only until the end of the year (31/12/16). Further, men could, initially, only apply for exemptions after they had been admitted to the military camp (Warragul). When this very restrictive requirement was relaxed at the end of October, it was replaced with a general exemption … to all engaged in the dairying industry, including milkers to the end of the year. But, again, the exemption was only temporary and only to the end of the year; and now the men had to submit a statutory declaration from their employer – or the heads of households in the case of families – to support the claim. Once again, there was considerable tension between what was being promised and what was being experienced. The fact that men being given exemptions were finger-printed – purportedly to prevent fraud – added to the general level of antagonism.

The first 2 years of the War had demonstrated very high levels of loyal and patriotic support across the Shire of Alberton. The support was demonstrated in areas such as recruiting, fund raising and public demonstrations for the Empire. The local community was an inherently conservative one. There was a natural antipathy towards organised labour. It supported PM Hughes’ efforts to overcome the ‘industrialists’ in his own party. The middle class professionals, mangers and proprietors in the community – concentrated in Yarram – presented a narrative of the War that was aligned with the Government’s position. Publicly, the local community was pro-conscription and this was reflected in the final voting figures. In the lead up to the referendum there was no indication of any organised, public No campaign. However, events over October 1916 presented the local farming community with a clear picture of what the reality of conscription involved and there is little doubt that many would have seen it as direct threat to both their livelihood and the traditional autonomy of the farming family. Without any show of public opposition – they did not even need to draw any attention to themselves – they had the option to vote No; and, presumably, many did. Their votes help explain why, in such a conservative rural community, and with no evidence of organised public opposition, one-third of electors voted against conscription.


The Age

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, P 2015, The War At Home, The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War Volume 4, Oxford University Press, Melbourne

See also

Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume XI – Australia During the War, ‘Chapter IX The First Conscription Referendum’. 7th Edition 1941



























92. Flers (1) – N W BOOTH, A LAING & A L NEWLAND

Flers November 1916

From mid October 1916, the Australian divisions were moved from the front near Ypres to the section of the Somme front near Bapaume. It was the closing stage of the Battle of the Somme. In November, the Australians took part in two unsuccessful attacks – 5 and 14 November – in the immediate area of the destroyed village of Flers. Bean covered the battles in Chapter XXV – ‘Flers. The Somme Battle Ends’ – of volume 3 of his Official History.

While Australian casualties – 2,000 for the 2 failed attacks – were far lower than at Pozieres, Bean concluded that Flers amounted to … a series of operations which, through the weather and the state of ground, were undoubtedly the most difficult in which the A.I. F. was ever engaged. (940)

In the preceding months there had been repeated unsuccessful attacks on the same section of the front, and now it was Winter. However, the Australian attacks went ahead because by this point in the Somme campaign the objectives were more political than military. For the Australians, there was no element of surprise because German intelligence knew in advance of both attacks. Once again, coordination broke down between the artillery barrage and the movement of troops across no-man’s-land. The Germans were able to either hold or counter attack and regain all their positions.

Bean identified additional problems faced at Flers. The weather was the critical consideration. It was not just the extremes of Winter; but also the impact of the weather on the terrain over which the battles were fought, and stretching back several miles from the front line. Specifically, it was the mud.

Even the movement of the troops from the staging camps and reserve lines to the front line was a nightmare. Comparatively short distances took hours to cover. Bean described how troops took six hours to cover distances of only two miles and whenever they had to move under such conditions they always arrived exhausted. (900 – 902)

His description of the dreadful conditions leaves little to the imagination.

On his journey into the trenches, each infantryman now carried his greatcoat, waterproof sheet, one blanket, 220 rounds of ammunition, and, when fighting was in prospect, two bombs, two sandbags, and two days’ reserve rations, besides the remnant of that day’s “issue”. Thus burdened, the troops dragged their way along the sledge-tracks [sledges were employed to pull both supplies and the wounded] besides the communication trenches, the latter – except in the actual front-system – being now never used. But the sledge-tracks also were by this time deep thick mud, which, especially when drying, tugged like glue at the boot-soles, so that the mere journey to the line left men and even pack-animals utterly exhausted. In the dark those who stepped away from the road fell again and again into shell-holes; many pack-animals became fast in the mud and had to be shot, and men were continually pulled out, often leaving their boots and sometimes their trousers. (918)

Bean also detailed how once the men finally made it to the front line trenches, the weather conspired to make matters even worse.

Coming into the trenches under such conditions, and starting their tour of duty in a state of exhaustion, the garrison at the front line usually had to stay there forty-eight hours before relief. At first the men tried to shelter themselves from rain by cutting niches in the trench-walls, but this practice was forbidden, several soldiers having been smothered through the slipping in of the sodden earth-roof, and the trenches broken down. If, to keep themselves warm, men stamped or moved about, the floor of the trench turned to thin mud. At night the officers sometimes walked up and down in the open and encouraged their men to do the same, chancing the snipers; but for the many there was no alternative but to stand almost still, freezing, night and day. (919)

These were the conditions in which the incidence of ‘trench foot’ multiplied. As Bean observed,

After a tour in the line during this continued wet-weather offensive, practically all the men in many Australian battalions were suffering from “trench feet,” at least in its incipient stages. Thus, when the 27th Battalion (7th Brigade) was relieved after the fight of November 5th, ninety per cent of its men were said to be affected. (920)

Importantly there was hardly any relief from the weather and the appalling conditions anywhere in the battle zone. Troops slept in the open even in the reserve lines. Men had to improvise what shelter they could, with their ‘blankest and water proof sheets’ (899).

Bean suggested that the Australian troops found the dreadful winter conditions even more difficult to manage because of what they remembered of the weather ‘back home’.

There can be no question that the Australian force, reared in a land of almost continual sunshine and genial warmth, was throughout this period being subjected to intense suffering: the reserve trenches were little better than the front line; the camps now springing up in the rear of the ridge, were ankle-deep or knee-deep in mud. In the nearer rest billets… the rain poured through the leaky barns, drenching the straw on which men were supposed to rest. Firewood, through difficulties of transport, was unobtainable, and the troops even in the billets could not dry their sodden clothes except by the heat of their bodies or by using for fuel the farmers’ gates and fences, or the matchboard lining of military huts. (941)

Hardly surprising, the appalling conditions had an impact on the men. Bean alludes to it in terms of ‘morale’.

It would be idle to suppose that any force could support without signs of bending the tremendous stresses which – for the Australians – began at Pozieres and reached their climax at Flers. The morale of the A.I.F. was never low; even in the worst conditions at Flers the response of the troops often amazed even those who knew them best; but this period represented the bottom of the curve. (940)

Apart from the obvious contradiction in the claim, it is clear from Bean’s writing that morale was in fact low. For example, in the very next section he went on to acknowledge one or two cases of desertion – ‘almost unknown in the Australian force’ – by … young soldiers who, finding themselves at the limit of their endurance, walked over to the enemy. (940) Then he follows up with the story of one soldier from 24 Battalion who had tragically reached the limit of his endurance.

At least one man of finer fibre [as opposed to those who tried to avoid ‘trench service’], when his battalion – the 24th – was ordered to undertake the nightmare journey through the crater-field back into the line, turned to his mates and, saying simply “I’m not going in – I’m finished,” shot himself. (941)

Flers took place just days after the first conscription referendum and it demonstrated, yet again, that as a direct consequence of the ruthless – and arguably, pointless – manner in which the fighting on the Western Front was being waged, the demand for reinforcements would be unrelenting. And the demand was always going to be greater than the numbers that could be raised through voluntary recruitment.


Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume III – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, 12th edition 1941.


Norman Waterhouse BOOTH 2 Lt
18 Battalion  KIA 7/11/16

Norman Booth enlisted at Liverpool, NSW on 26/7/15. He had tried to enlist earlier in the year but had been rejected. At the time of enlistment he was 39 yo and he gave his occupation as  accountant. As his next-of-kin he listed his mother – Mrs Emma Booth – and her address was “The Rectory”, Milton, NSW. His father was deceased. Norman had been born at Parramatta on 16/11/1875. He joined reinforcements for 18 Battalion and left from Sydney on 8/3/16.

Despite the obvious NSW connection, 2 Lt Booth had a direct association with the Shire of Alberton. In January 1915, the Anglican reader at Yarram, William Vernon Rymer, had enlisted and Norman Booth was appointed as his replacement. The appointment was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 24/3/15:

Mr Booth, the new Church of England reader, has arrived in Yarram, and conducted services on Sunday last. He is a genial sort.

It is also possible that Norman Booth’s father had been a Church of England minister in Yarram in the late 19C.

His work as reader – he was also described as the curate – in the local church did not last long. From late May 1915 there were reports in the local paper (26/5/15, 2/6/15) that he had passed his medical and that he was going to Melbourne to enlist. He was issued with a railway warrant by the Shire Secretary, dated 31/5/15, for the trip to Melbourne. However, he must have been rejected, presumably on his second medical, when he reached Melbourne. This is based on the evidence of a MT 1486/1 (1915-1915) for him, and the obvious fact that he did not enlist in Melbourne but at Liverpool, nearly 2 months later.

When he was in Yarram, he attended Empire Day celebrations at the Yarram State School. He accompanied Rev George Cox, who as noted in earlier posts, had a strong link to the school. At the school, he spoke to the students. What he said that day offers an insight to his own motivation. It was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative  (26/5/15) and it is quintessentially Imperial in tone:

The text of his [Mr. Booth] address was “courage.” The best boys were not always those with the biggest muscles and biggest physique (Laughter). The big Germans were given to bullying. He instanced Lord Nelson as a type of courageous man – a weakling as a boy, who was taken to sea by his father, and ordered aloft. Asked if he were afraid, Nelson replied, “Yes, I’m afraid, but I’m going to the top of the mast.” And he did so. That showed the difference between physical power and moral quality. They sang “Britons never never shall be slaves.” [the students had just finished the tune] There was no slavery under the Union Jack, which floated for freedom. Unfurling the flag, he said the cross represented the sacrifice for the whole world – and for the Redeemer. They used their powers but not for themselves. They were fighting for the Belgians, that those people might have that freedom which the British nation enjoyed. (Applause).

When he embarked from Sydney, Booth held the rank of 2 Lt. His service record indicates that, in terms of previous military experience, he had spent only 1 year in each of the junior and senior cadets – so his rise in the ranks was very rapid. He passed his exam and secured his commission in early December 1915, less that 6 months after enlisting.

He joined 18 Battalion in France in June 1916. He was wounded – GSW head and neck – at Pozieres on 3/8/16 and repatriated to England. In the telegram to his mother, the wounds were described as ‘severe’.

2 Lt Booth recovered and was discharged from hospital on 21/10/16. He rejoined his unit on 23/10/16. However, just 2 weeks later, he was killed in action (7/11/16). There is confusion over the exact date of death. The official date is given as 7/11/16 but there is strong evidence that it was 6/11/16. Certainly, the battalion war diary specifically records his death – 2/Lieut BOOTH N. W. KIA – on 6 November. He was killed by shell fire. The battalion was at Montauban, about 7 Km from Flers. The war diary also records the appalling conditions – Trenches in fearful condition. Mud everywhere & knee deep in the trenches. Men suffering badly from wet and cold.

The cable advising of 2 Lt Booth’s death was dated 16/11/16. He was buried in a temporary grave and then, finally, at AIF Burial Ground, Grass Lane, Gueudecourt (AIF Burial Ground, Flers, Picardie).

As an example of the difference in status in the AIF between an officer and other ranks, the personal kit belonging to 2 Lt Booth, which was returned to his mother, was composed of no less than 5 lots: one valise, one black kit-bag, one black tin trunk, one suit case and one small tin trunk. There were at last 100 individual item listed. The greater part of the kit was clothing but there were also many books, maps, writing equipment and unique officer kit such as ‘walking canes’ and field glasses. The field glasses in themselves also interesting. The mother returned the ones she received in the kit because she was sure they were not her son’s. She wrote, giving a more detailed description of the pair of glasses her son owned, and requested that they be located because her son had specifically requested, if he were killed, that they be given to one of his brothers. After considerable investigation – and correspondence – the Commanding Officer 18 Battalion was able to locate and return to the mother a pair of field glasses that, most probably, was the pair that had belonged to her son. The provenance of the glasses returned was certainly not definite but, more importantly, the whole episode suggested the length that fellow officers had gone to, in order to accommodate the request.

The mother, who from the start had been identified as the next-of-kin, was highly indignant that she had to establish that her husband was dead before she could receive her son’s medals.

Unfortunately, the mother did not complete the information for the (National) Roll of Honour. 2 Lt Booth’s name is recorded on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor but his death is not indicated. His name is not included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. This omission is striking, given the direct link with the Shire. On 29/11/16 his death was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative:

We learn with regret that Lieutenant Norman W Booth, formerly a reader in connection with the Yarram Church of England, was killed in action in France about the 17th [sic] of the present month. The sad happening will be regretted by the large number of friends he made whilst engaged in spiritual work here.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for BOOTH Norman Waterhouse 2 Lt
Roll of Honour: Norman Waterhouse Booth
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Norman Waterhouse Booth



Alexander LAING 766
23 Battalion DOW 7/11/16

Alexander Laing was born at Drouin in Gippsland and was nearly 19 yo when he enlisted on 1/3/15. His connection with Yarram is not completely clear from his file. On the form to record background information for the (National) Roll of Honour, his father identified the Melbourne suburb of Kew as the town or district with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’. The father, as next-of-kin, also lived in Kew. Further, Kew State School was given as the school attended. It appears that even though he was born in Gippsland, Alexander grew up in Kew; and then he returned as a young man to work in Gippsland. His occupation on enlistment was listed as farmer, by which he intended farm labourer.

There was a brother – Duncan McLaren Laing (2224) – who also enlisted. Duncan was also born in Gippsland, at Warragul. He was some two years older than Alexander but he enlisted nearly fourteen months after his younger brother, in April 1916. At the time of his enlistment, Duncan’s occupation was given as farm labourer. Duncan was injured in 1917 – gunshot wound to left leg and right hand – and had two fingers amputated. Subsequently he was returned to Australia in 1918 and discharged. There is correspondence to indicate that he was living in Yarram in the early 1920s.

It appears that, prior to enlistment, both brothers had returned to Gippsland and were working in the Yarram area as farm labourers. Certainly, Alexander was sufficiently ‘local’ to be included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. Both brothers also feature on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor.

Private Laing was attached to 23 Battalion which was only formed in Melbourne in March 1915. His unit embarked for Egypt on 10/5/15. After the battalion completed training in Egypt it was despatched to Gallipoli at the very end of August 1915 and did not return to Alexandria until early January 1916. On Gallipoli, 23 Battalion was heavily involved in the fighting at Lone Pine.

23 Battalion left Alexandria for France in mid March 1916 and reached Marseilles on 26/3/16. The battalion moved to the Armentieres section in April 1916 for a relatively ‘quiet’ introduction to the Western Front. Then in late July and early August and then again in late August, 23 Battalion was involved in the savage fighting at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm. The casualty rate was so great that, effectively, by the end of the fighting, 90% of the original battalion, raised in Melbourne just 18 months earlier, had gone: killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.

Private Laing’s file shows that he was charged with and convicted of two charges at a Field General Court Martial, held on 26/6/16 ‘in the field’. The two charges were ‘disobeying a lawful command’ and ‘using threatening language’. The files from the court martial reveal that on 9 June 1916, Private Laing and another soldier from the same company – Private F J Staig (2793) – had clashed heatedly with Acting Company Sergeant Major Kirby over the order to join a fatigue party. Private Laing had sworn at the CSM, while Private Staig had actually attempted to strike him. Drink was a major factor. The most succinct account of what happened came from one witness, Corporal Osborn.

On the morning of the 9th Ptes Staig & Laing fell in on parade drunk. They abused Sgt Maj Kirby & called him a Bastard. Pte Staig attempted to strike Kirby.

Private Laing was found guilty and sentenced to 90 days field punishment 2. Private Staig, convicted of the more serious offence, was sentenced to one year imprisonment with hard labour.

On 11/8/16 the conviction from the court martial was quashed. The timing is probably significant because it was just a few days after 23 Battalion was brought out of the line at Pozieres. It was relieved on 7/8/16.

Three months later, Private Laing was seriously wounded in the fighting at Flers. On the day (7/11/16), 23 Battalion relieved 21Battalion in the front line. The battalion’s diary records that on that day 1 soldier was killed and 18 were wounded.

Private Laing was evacuated to 36 Casualty Clearing Station with either gunshot or shrapnel wounds to his legs. The file also records that there were compound fractures and at least one of his legs had to be amputated; but even this extreme action did not save him and he died from his wounds on the same day. He was buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe, about 25 kilometres from Flers.

It appears that the cable advising of his death reached Australia on 16/11/16, just over a week after his death.

In contrast to the personal kit of 2 Lt Booth above, Private Laing’s kit was rather sparse: Disc, Pocket Knife, Song Book, Correspondence.


National Archives file for LAING Alexander 766
National Archives Court Martial records for LAING Alexander 766 [NAA Series Number A471, Control Symbol 5193, Barcode 3540193]
Roll of Honour: Alexander Laing
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Alexander Laing

For background information on Field Punishment see AWM reference 1 and reference 2.



Alfred Lindsay NEWLAND 2 Lt
6 Australian Machine Gun Company KIA 8/11/16

Alfred Newland was born at Pomborneit in 1895. When he enlisted in early 1915 (19/2/15) – 22 Battalion – he was still only 20 yo and required the consent of his parents. At the time he gave his address as that of his father: W A Newland, Laverton Victoria. He was single and his religion was Methodist. His occupation was recorded as labourer.

Alfred Lindsay Newland was the much younger brother of William Andrew Newland who was the recruiting sergeant appointed to assist the work of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1916. William had enlisted earlier, on 19/8/14. At the time he was 34 yo. He was also married and his wife resided in Yarram.

The 2 brothers were living and working in the Shire of Alberton in 1914. Their names feature in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative as players for the Yarram team in the local football competition (13/5/14, 3/6/14) and also local bike races (13/3/14, 27/3/14). Both worked for the local council. William was ‘engine driver to [the] shire’, a position from which he resigned (11/9/14) after he enlisted. Alfred was a labourer for the Shire. Alfred was also involved with the local fire brigade (18/11/14).

Both brothers’ names are recorded on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and Alfred’s name is featured on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. On both memorials, Alfred Lindsay Newland is recorded as L (indsay) Newland.

Private Alfred – more commonly known as Lindsay – Newland rose through the ranks. He was made corporal then sergeant in early 1916 and in mid October 1916 he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant. Tragically, he was killed in action (8/11/16) less than a month after receiving his commission.

At the time he was killed, 2 Lt Newland was serving in 6  Australian Machine Gun Company. His death was recorded in the war dairy for this unit. He was one of 2 officers from the unit killed that day. The fighting was in the area of Bayonet Trench, near Gueudecourt on the Flers battlefield. He was buried at AIF Burial Ground, Flers.

The cable advising of his death was dated 20/11/16. Word reached the Shire of Alberton in late November. The following appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 24/11/16:

We are informed that a cable message has been received in Yarram announcing that Private L. Newland has been killed in action in France. The news was received with feelings of regret, as when a resident of Yarram he was a very popular young man, and a member of the Yarram Football Club.

In due course – July 1917 – 2 Lt Newland’s personal kit – (1) Military Books, 4 Handkerchiefs, Holdall, Pr Mittens, Pr Socks, Note Books, 2 Devotional Books, Arabic Book, Correspondence and (2) Photos, Gum Leaves, Railway Ticket – were returned to the family. The parents received his commission in November 1918. Unfortunately, the parents did not complete the information for the (National) Roll of Honour.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for NEWLAND Alfred Lindsay 2 Lt
Roll of Honour: Alfred Lindsay Newland
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Alfred Lindsay Newland

Note: While only 2 of them had a direct connection to the Shire of Alberton, there were 4 Newland brothers who served in the AIF. One of the other 2 brothers was Lieutenant Colonel James Ernest Newland VC. The Victoria Cross was awarded for conspicuous bravery in April 1917. For further information on the family contact Rob J Newland, Rye:


91. Conscription Referendum 1916: the (public) No vote

On the strength of the meeting held for the No vote at Yarram on 12/10/16, there was little evidence of any public support for the anti-conscription case in the Shire of Alberton. This was in sharp contrast to the high level of support for conscription evident in the very public, organised and ongoing campaign for the Yes vote, as detailed in earlier posts.

The meeting on 12/10/16 was written up, in great detail, in both the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (18/10/16) and the South Gippsland Chronicle (18/10/16). The sole speaker for the No case that night was Senator Blakey, one of the Victorian team of ALP senators. Blakey was on a tour of Gippsland and he knew that he was in for a tough time. He had tried to speak at a similar public meeting at Leongatha 2 days earlier (10/10/16) but, according to the report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 13/10/16, he had not even managed to make himself heard:

The largest public meeting ever held at Leongatha took place last Tuesday night. Senator Blakey attempted to deliver an address against conscription, but he was hooted, and as soon as he rose to speak the audience stood up and sang the National Anthem. As Senator Blakey tried to make himself heard a cabbage thrown at his head inflicted a cut in his forehead. … He was on the platform for about an hour and a half, but he was not allowed to give expression to his views.

Two days later at Yarram things were only marginally better. While nothing was thrown at him and he did manage to deliver his speech – albeit with a barrage of interruptions – the reports make it clear that the very rowdy and antagonistic audience was not on his side. The meeting started on a negative note when Cr Buckley, introducing Senator Blakey, made the point that while he was prepared to introduce Senator Buckley as a guest speaker he wanted to  make it clear to everyone in the audience that he personally intended to vote Yes. The clear message was that the Shire council was decent enough to support Blakey’s right to speak but they certainly did not support his position.

Not surprisingly, Senator Blakey’s opening remarks were a plea for a fair hearing. He hoped that there would be no … repetition of of the drunken orgy at Leongatha …  because the … matter was too great to treat in a spirit of levity and hoodlumism. But the interruptions were constant. Blakey struggled to get his argument across in any coherent, planned way. Finally, at the end of the meeting, in an obvious attempt to hijack proceedings and make Blakey look foolish, the following resolution was put:

That, in view of the voluntary recruiting not being sufficient to meet the requirements of our army and reinforcement of men at the front, this meeting pledges itself to vote “Yes” at the coming referendum.

The resolution was seconded and put, but the vote in the end was indecisive, with only a handful voting either way. The newspaper report suggested people were either confused or annoyed that the motion had been put. Even the avowedly pro-conscription Rev Walklate … protested against a speech advocating “Yes” being made at a meeting in a hall paid for by those advocating “No”. Such niceties aside, it was abundantly clear that the meeting would never have been able to pass any resolution in favour of the No vote. Further, the reports make it clear that Senator Blakey was by himself. There were no references to other individuals or groups supporting him, either on the stage or in the audience; and most of those who asked questions at the meeting – Rev Tamagno, Rev Walklate, R E H Newberry, J Bett, F C Grano – have already been identified in earlier posts as backing conscription. Blakey would have cut a lonely figure. As a formal attempt to galvanise the No vote in the local community the public meeting was a complete failure.

There are no references in either of the local papers to any other meetings for the No vote held in either Yarram or the shire as a whole. Similarly, there are no references over the period August to October 1916 to the formation of a committee to promote the No vote. Nor is there even reference to specific individuals in the local community advocating the No vote. In short, there is no evidence that there was an organised, public – or even visible – No vote campaign in the Shire of Alberton for the 1916 referendum.

It is also worth looking briefly at the arguments presented at the meeting, both by Blakey himself and his opponents. Blakey argued that conscription per se was morally indefensible. He claimed that Hughes himself had gone back on his word, given in 1915, to not introduce conscription. He held that Australia had done its ‘fair share’ and that the cost of introducing conscription and committing to an even greater sacrifice was beyond the nation’s capacity. He criticised the metropolitan papers – the The Age and The Argus – as shamelessly biased.  He raised the fear that even married men would be conscripted, and there was the usual aside on the fear of cheap ‘yellow’ labour. There were also claims that Hughes was using the censorship laws to stifle the No campaign. For those opposed to Blakey, the major issue was that the AIF had to be reinforced and supported – it was the clearest example of national duty – and conscription was the only way this end could be achieved.

Importantly, none of these arguments were tied specifically to the Shire of Alberton. Blakey could just as well have been addressing an audience In Melbourne. There was no local dimension to the debate.  Nor was the audience divided on any ‘partisan’ basis. Most significantly, there was no mention of any organised Catholic presence at the meeting. In fact, there is no reference to Catholics at all in the extensive reporting of the meeting.

Interestingly, in his history of the Shire, Adams (1990 p186) presumes that the Catholics in the community did represent a bloc opposed to conscription.

Conscription became an important issue late in 1916 and a committee was formed in Yarram with B.P. Johnson as President to forward the movement. When the conscription referendum was held in November [sic] 1916, Yarram voted 1144 to 573. There was a strong Catholic “no” vote reflected in this result.

[Adams’ figures give the Yes vote 67% and the No 33%.]

However this argument appears too simplistic. Certainly for the 1916 referendum, there is no evidence of a Catholic bloc opposed to conscription; and it is too easy to assume that Catholics were the ones who voted against conscription.

The Catholic question was complex. We have already seen that the Catholics enlisted in numbers that generally matched their place in the Shire’s demographics. The argument of the pro-conscriptionists that the men at the front could not be abandoned – this appeared to be the strongest argument in the community – would have been as appealing to the Catholic families of men who had enlisted as any other group. Moroever, the most recent high-profile Catholic enlistment at the time was Fr Sterling, the parish priest, who had enlisted as recently as 21/10/16 as a Captain Chaplain. His enlistment would have been seen as a very public demonstration of loyalty and duty.

There is no evidence that the local Catholic community campaigned against the 1916 conscription referendum. Moreover, previous posts have shown that the local Catholics had actively supported the War effort over the preceding 2 years. It is also relevant, closer to the 1916 referendum, that the assistant priest – Fr W H O’Connor – who arrived in June 1916 to support Fr Sterling, was keen to lend his voice to support for the War effort. In fact, unlike Fr Sterling, Fr O’Connor was even prepared to speak on the same platform as some of the most outspoken patriots – and also pro-conscriptionists – in the community. For example, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 9/8/16 Fr O’Connor was one of the key speakers at a public meeting to celebrate the second anniversary of the War. The others on the platform with him were the Shire President, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, Rev Tamagno and the Federal MHR, G Wise. Fr O’Connor spoke at length in favour of the Allied efforts and against German tyranny. He spoke about the local men who had … made the sacrifice and who died nobly and well and who … had offered up their lives for the cause. And he made it clear that in his previous parishes he had called on members of his faith to enlist:

In other parts it was my lot to encourage men to enlist, and [ I ] need only to tell them of their duty and they would go forth and do it. The young men from this district have done likewise and responded to the “Coo-ee” call for assistance.

At the same time, Catholic support for the War was not as unqualified as that of the local Protestants. Bishop Phelan’s position, for example, that the Catholic Church was ‘neutral’ on the matter of conscription, and his significant qualification that the individual citizen’s vote should be shaped by an informed conscience, was at great odds with the very public and uncritical support for conscription from the Protestant churches. Moreover, previous posts have pointed out how fundamental differences in areas such as schooling encouraged sectarianism in the community over the War years. Additionally, events in Ireland post Easter 1916 definitely saw many Irish Catholics question the Australian Government’s total support for the Empire. They also, inevitably, chose to see the AIF not as a component of the British (Empire) Army but as as a distinctive, independent and truly nationalist Australian force, which meant it was possible to support the AIF – and to a lesser extent continue to justify the War – and be anti-Imperialist. But none of these important shifts were on public view in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum.

Overall, there is no hard evidence that for the 1916 referendum, in the Shire of Alberton, there was an organised, public campaign amongst the local Catholics for the No vote. It is possible that Catholics followed Bishop Phelan’s advice and voted according to their conscience. But if they did so it was a private choice made via secret ballot. In any case, given the appeal of the dominant political argument of the day, it makes more sense to believe that the Catholic families would vote Yes, to support the reinforcement of their men at the front.

While it is not possible to identify a Catholic bloc publicly supporting the No vote, there was even less chance that there was an organised and visible bloc of ‘industrialists’, radical unionists, IWW agitators or even just ALP supporters campaigning for the No vote. Most of the rural workers had enlisted and, in any case, there had never been an organised labour movement in the Shire. Individual ALP voters might have opposed conscription and voted No, but, again, it was via secret ballot. It was a politically conservative community. The local papers were full of anti-union stories. They reported how the ‘machine’ of the industrial wing of the ALP was undermining PM Hughes’ authority and destroying the party itself. There were regular stories of how unions generally were undermining the War effort. Unionists were described as ‘traitors’ and ‘shirkers’. But all this was happening in Melbourne and the other capital cities.

Overall, there is no evidence that there was a public, anti-conscription campaign in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum. Instead, we need to look at the reality of the private No vote in the Shire. On Adams’ figures above, it was one-third of the voters. In a community where there was no public campaign for the No vote and, instead, apparently overwhelming support for the Yes side, it was a significant private vote.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria




Philip Michael ORMSBY (2562)

Details of Philip Michael Ormsby’s life prior to his enlistment  on 12/8/15 come from comments his mother wrote for the (National) Roll of Honour and his personal entry in The Education Department’s [Victoria] record of war service 1914-1919. He was born at Ballangeich in rural Victoria in 1892. He was a very successful student at the local state school but when he left school he worked with his father on the family farm. Then at 18 yo he returned to his studies, supported by the local Presbyterian clergyman, and managed to win a place at Teachers’ College (short course) in 1914. His actual teaching career was short but in his one year of service he taught at Tyrendarra, Madalya and 2 schools near Apollo Bay (Skene’s Creek and Wongarra). All the schools were isolated and small.

It was the time he spent at Madalya school that ties Philip Ormsby to the Shire of Alberton. He is included – as a teacher – on the Madalya School & District Roll of Honor 1914-1919. His name is not included on either the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor or the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. The omission of his name is significant because he was certainly known in the district. For example, when he left to take up the appointment at Apollo Bay, he was given a formal farewell from the Devon Football Club. The report of the event in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (2/7/15) makes it clear that he was well known:

The Devon football team and supporters met at Smethurst’s Hotel on Saturday night to bid farewell to one of their players, Mr. P. M. Ormsby, school teacher at Madalya, who has received notice of transfer to the Western District, near Apollo Bay, and proposed a toast to the health of the departing guest. Pleasing reference was made to the good qualities of Mr. Ormsby as a sport and a man, and he was assured of their good wishes wherever he might go.

There are other newspaper reports which reveal that he served on the committee of the Devon Football Club (14/4/15) and that he played in the local competition.

The transfer to Apollo Bay could not have lasted long because he enlisted, in Melbourne, on 12/8/15, just a month after his farewell from Madalya. At the time he enlisted he was 23 yo and single. His religion was Presbyterian.

Private Ormsby enlisted as reinforcements for 29 Battalion. His group left Melbourne in March 1915, spent time in the Middle East and then trained in the UK. He did not join the battalion in France until 22/9/16, and he died of wounds, not much more than one month later, on 2/11/16.

29 Battalion had moved to the front lines at Flers on 22/10/16. The war diary of the battalion gives an indication of the appalling conditions that would come to characterise the Flers campaign when it began on 4/11/16. For example, the entry of 22/10/16 stated:

Rain continues and the trenches were in an awful condition. The communication trench (FISH ALLEY) will long be remembered, as it was knee deep in mud and it took the front line Coys. 5 hours to reach the front line.

The weather was not the only problem. The entry for the next day (23/10/16) described a wretched scene:

At dawn signs of recent heavy fighting were plainly to be seen as enemy dead, as well as English, were thickly scattered over the whole area.

On the day that Private Ormsby was wounded – GSW chest, penet. – the diary stated (29/10/16), Enemy artillery fire was almost continuous while we held this position and our casualties were numerous. Another reference to Private Ormsby’s wounds stated that he had been wounded in the chest and lungs, and given the artillery bombardment on the day it is likely that the wounds were caused by shrapnel rather than a bullet. In either case, he was taken to 36 Casualty Clearing Station where he died of his wound on 2/11/16. He had been in the AIF just short of 15 months and he lasted less than 2 weeks on the front line.

Private Ormsby was buried the day he died at Heilly-sur-Ancre cemetery (Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe). The family was advised of the death within a week.

Within a few weeks, the family was writing asking for any personal items. As the mother put it in correspondence (20/5/17), No doubt you will understand how we would value the few momentoes left by our dear son.

In due course (30/7/17), the personal kit was returned: 2 Identity discs, Metal wrist watch and strap, 8 Coins, 2 sets of Chevrons, Belt, Testament, 4 Military books, Diary, Letters, Fly net, 1 Mitten. However the mother was particularly keen to recover another wristlet watch which a friend had given to her son before he embarked for overseas. This second watch never appeared, despite assurances from the Commanding Officer of 29 Battalion itself that Full enquiries have been made regarding the watch and I regret no information is available as to its whereabouts. Realistically, at the time the chances of recovering or finding out what had happened to a small personal possession such as a watch were negligible. However, for the family, the loss would have been a cruel blow and they would have been left with doubt and suspicion. Presumably, the CO of the battalion became personally involved because he recognised the need to reassure the parents that proper process had been followed.

The mother gave Ballangeich – the location where Philip Ormsby was born and grew up – as the place with which her son was ‘chiefly connected’. However, as indicated, he was certainly living and working – and known – in the Shire of Alberton before he enlisted.

The mother also noted that her son … was one of eleven cousins who enlisted, five of whom made the supreme sacrifice. 1 on Gallipoli 4 in France.


Victoria. Education Department, 1921, The Education Department’s record of war service 1914-1919, Government Printer.

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for Ormsby Philip Michael 2562
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Philip Michael Ormsby
Roll of Honour: Philip Michael Ormsby
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Philip Michael Ormsby

89. Conscription Referendum 1916: key Yes backers

The table below represents approximately 30 local individuals who were closely identified with the Yes vote. The individuals came from 2 key groups. There were 17 who, in October 1916, effectively self-elected themselves to form the local (Yarram) branch of the National Referendum Committee to push for the Yes vote; and there were 14 who served on the 1916 Recruiting Committee, also referred to as the Yarram Recruiting Committee. The latter group was included because of its unanimous support for, and promotion of, conscription from early 1916. Several individuals belonged to both committees (C Barlow, B P Johnson, A J Rossiter and Rev F A Tamagno). There was one member – J Hawkins – of the local referendum committee who has not been included because there was insufficient evidence to build a background picture of him. The information about all the other individuals has been taken from the electoral roll and the local newspapers of the time: The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative and the South Gippsland Chronicle.

Obviously, there were other individuals in the community who publicly supported the Yes vote. For example, as was revealed in Post 85. Soldiers’ Farewells 1916  members of the committee responsible for organising farewells and welcomes regularly called for the introduction of conscription in their speeches. At the same time, the individuals in the 2 groups in the table below – Yarram Recruiting Committee and Yarram Referendum Committee – were directly involved in the most public and formal expressions of support for the Yes vote. Locals would have identified them as the key backers of the Yes vote. Moreover,  the key players in running the soldiers’ farewells and welcomes – Cr Barlow, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, W F Lakin, W G Pope, G E Ruby and Rev Tamagno – were also involved in either one or both of the Yarram committees featured in the table.

The point has been made many times that the narrative of the War – its immediate causes, the critical relationship between Australia and the Empire, the sacrifices involved, the heroism and distinctive fighting spirit of the AIF … – was controlled and disseminated by the ‘leading citizens’ of the local community. It was this group that organised and delivered the speeches – or sermons – and wrote the articles, editorials and letters. As a group it was made up of the leading professionals, managers and proprietors in the local community. The group also featured a small number of successful landowners. This group of ‘leading citizens’ was focused almost exclusively on Yarram. While this group controlled the narrative, including the part of the narrative that called on locals to enlist, the men who did enlist came overwhelmingly from the rural working class. Essentially, in this particular rural community – the Shire of Alberton – the middle class delivered the narrative and the working class offered the volunteers.

As the table illustrates, when conscription became the next chapter in the narrative, the group responsible for its promotion represented a simple extension of the earlier groups of leading citizens. In many cases the same individuals were involved. There were 3 managers ( B Couston, T Whitney and W F Lakin), 2 lawyers (B P Johnson, J H Hill), 2 clergymen (Rev F A Tamgano and Rev C J Walklate), 2 engineers (A W C Burston and W A Newland), 3 agents (P J Juniper, J J O’Connor and G E Ruby), 2 store keepers (J Bett and R E H Newberry), and 3 secretaries/clerks/civic officers (G W Black, M J T Cox, and W G Pope). The group also included the editor of one of the local papers (A J Rossiter) and a local builder (J S Graham). There was also a member of the local fire brigade (T Tempest) and a cream tester (E S Stocks). Lastly, there was a group of 6 farmers/graziers (C Barlow, W Bland, H G Bodman, N J Christensen, J W Fleming and W P Wilson). Most likely, three of this last group were involved more because they were local councillors than local landowners.

The table also shows that this particular group of citizens also featured a significant concentration of localised political power and influence; and people in the community would have certainly recognised that the backers of the Yes vote featured the Shire’s political elite. As well as the current Shire President (W Bland), the table also features the immediate past Shire President (N J Christensen), the long-serving Shire Secretary ( G W Black)  and 3 councillors: C Barlow, W Bland and J J O’Connor. Additionally, there was strong representation of the local court. C Barlow, H G Bodman, N J Christensen and B Couston were JPs in the Yarram Court of Petty Sessions, and B P Johnson and J H Hill acted as solicitors in the same court. The local court was a very significant institution in the community and all its matters were reported in detail.

Locals would also have known that the individuals in this group were heavily involved in other local committees and associations. Such involvement would have contributed to their status as ‘leading citizens’.  For example, as already indicated above, 7 of them were involved with soldiers’ farewells and welcomes. Similarly, 6 had been members of the Belgian Relief Committee: G  W Black, N J Christensen, M J T Cox, J W Fleming, P J Juniper, Rev F Tamagno.

There was also extensive involvement as committee or board members of other groups which did not have a specific focus on support for the War effort. For example, there was the Yarram Agricultural Society: C Barlow, G W Black, N J Christensen, B P Johnson, P J Juniper, W F Lakin and W G Pope. There were 6 on the Yarram and District Hospital Board: J Bett,  G W Black, A W C Burston, G E Ruby and Rev F A Tamagno. Another local committee with strong representation was the Yarram Mechanics’ Institute: M J T Cox, J H Hill, W F Lakin, R E Newberry, A J Rossiter, E S Stocks and T W Whitney. The Won Wron Railway Trust featured G W Black, W Bland and N J Christensen. There were also two of the group on the Yarram Waterworks Trust (C Barlow and B P Johnson). Similarly, two served on the local Historical Society ( J H Hill and B P Johnson) and another 2 on the local YMCA (N J Christensen and B P Johnson).

The number of the group who served on the management committees of, or held official positions in, the hierarchy of the local Protestant Churches and the Masonic Lodge (207) was striking. There was no equivalent representation for the local Catholic Church.  In fact, at this level, the Catholic Church was not represented at all. The details are displayed in the table. There were 4 members of the local Church of England Board of Guardians (H G Bodman, J H Hill, B P Johnson and A J Rossiter). Two of the group supported Rev F A Tamagno as members of the Board of Management for the local Presbyterian Church: J Bett and ES Stocks. G E Ruby was a steward who supported Rev C J Walklate of the local Methodist Church. Lastly, 8 of the group held official titles in the local Masonic Lodge (207): G W Black, A W C Burston, J W Fleming, B P Johnson, P J Juniper, W F Lakin, W A Newland and G E Ruby. J W Fleming held the position of Worshipful Master in 1916 and B P Johnson had held the same position in 1915.

The group as a whole was Yarram-centric. It claimed to represent the Shire as a whole but its members were almost exclusively residing and working in Yarram. Even most of the land holders whose properties obviously lay outside the town were tied to Yarram through their roles as councillors and/or JPs.

The last, very obvious, observation is that the table is exclusively male. Women were involved in a range of committees/associations within the local community and some of these were specifically connected to the War effort, for example the Red Cross and Belgian Relief. There was also a local branch of the Australian Women’s National League which, according to a report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (13/10/16) … decided to join forces with the local branch of the Conscription Referendum committee.  However, there is no evidence of what ‘joining forces’ amounted to and, overall, the formal, public push for both recruiting and conscription was seen as the exclusive responsibility of the Shire’s leading men.

The table represents the attempt to identify the range of local individuals who were seen as leading the push for the Yes vote in the 1916 referendum. There could well have been other individuals in the local community who were as public and vocal in their support. As well, there could have been considerable variation in effort across the individuals identified; and some might have been members of the committees in name only. For example, there is very little that can be uncovered in relation to both T Tempest and P W Wilson, both of whom were on the local referendum committee. At the other end of the continuum, the 4 individuals who appeared to have been the most influential were C Barlow, B P Johnson, Rev F Tamagno and A J Rossiter – the first 3 because they served on both the recruiting and referendum committees and also spoke regularly at farewells and welcomes, and A J Rossiter because of his role as editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative.

While there are limits to both the research and the analysis, the concluding point to make about this group publicly supporting the Yes vote is that it is at least possible to identify them. By contrast, the next post will look at the backers of the No vote and it will became immediately clear that it is simply not possible to identify an equivalent group of locals who led the campaign for the No vote. In fact, it is hard even to identify the backers of the No vote. Publicly at least, in the Shire of Alberton there was really only side of the debate that mattered.


Electoral Roll
Commonwealth of Australia, State of Victoria, Division of Gippsland, Subdivision of Yarram Yarram

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle