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

This post continues the analysis of

Post 23: Enlistments to the end of 1914: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history

Post 57:  Enlistments in the first half of 1915: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history

Post 63: Enlistments in the second half of 1915: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history

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

It continues the ongoing work to describe and interpret the essential character of all those associated with the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in WW1.

Religion

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

Once again, there is no dramatic variation evident in the figures. The broad religious profile of the community continued to be reflected in the enlistments.

Importantly, the Roman Catholic enlistments held up. Admittedly the size of the cohort is small, but on the face of it, to the end of 1916, there was no indication that events in Ireland had had any impact on enlistments from Roman Catholics in the area. Moreover, one of the enlistments was that of the local Roman Catholic priest (Fr. Sterling). He enlisted nearly 6 months after the Easter Rebellion and one month before the Conscription Referendum. His enlistment would have been seen in the local community as a demonstration of support for the War effort. It would have been seen as proof that, to that point, there was no religious division over such support for the War.

Units

64% of of this cohort of enlistments went to reinforce the infantry battalions, with the greatest single number (20) signed as reinforcements for 2 Brigade (Battalions 5-8). There was a small number of enlistments for the Light Horse – and Camel Corps – destined for the Middle East. There was also a small number enlistments in the artillery and other specialist units. One more atypical enlistment was that of Vern Everard Wilson from Carrajung. He enlisted on 17/11/16 and by the time he embarked for overseas on 6/12/16 he had transferred to the Australian Flying Corps. Jeffrey Graham Jeffreys also transferred to the AFC, but not until late 1918.

Vernon Carlisle Brown, the young doctor from Malvern, held the rank of captain on appointment and Fr. Sterling also held the rank of ‘captain chaplain’. The rest of the men enlisted as privates. Vera Norton’s rank was ‘nurse’.

Service History

Once again, the comparative table of casualty levels for each six-monthly cohort (below) shows that the rate of death declined over the latest 6 month period under review. Additionally, the rate of medical discharge increased. As has been argued before, it is difficult to draw definite conclusions from the data, beyond the superficial observation that the later in the War a person enlisted, the less chance they had of being killed. Equally, any relationship between a falling death rate and an increasing rate in the number of men discharged as ‘medically unfit’ is as difficult to establish. Conceivably, as the War dragged on, improved tactics, training and strategic planning etc did lead to lower death rates in battle. But how, if at all, this reduction affected the increase in the number of men being discharged as medically unfit – for example did fewer deaths translate to more wounded – is a highly problematic question.

At the same time, the case histories of the men in this cohort do suggest at least one reason why the rate of medical discharge was increasing. Basically, men who should never have been passed as fit – and in most cases these men never saw action – were taken on, only to be repatriated, a short time later, to Australia for medical discharge.

The case of George Sidebotham is a good example. He was born in Manchester, UK and was working in the area as a labourer. He was in his early twenties and he gave his permanent address as c/o Mrs Newell, Yarram. Mrs Newelll ran a boarding house.

George’s name appears twice on the list of those rejected by the local doctors. The reason given was ‘hernia’. But then he passed the medical and enlisted in Warragul (14/11/16). At that time he acknowledged that he had been previously rejected. His enlistment did not last long and he was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ on 5/12/16. The medical notes talk about him having been bitten by a dog 9 years earlier and not having been able to walk properly since that time. There is also a reference to ‘polio’. Incredibly, George was able to enlist again – acknowledging previous rejections and service – in late 1917 (5/12/17 at Footscray). This time he left for overseas service (2/2/18). He reached the UK on 20/4/18 but then, just 2 months later, he was repatriated to Australia. He did not see service outside the UK. He arrived back in Australia on 7/6/18 and was then discharged as medically unfit on 20/6/18. This time the reason given was ‘anterior poliomyelitis’.

Another example of the same problem involved William Heyes. He was another young immigrant worker who had been born in the UK (London). He was only 19 yo and single when he first enlisted. His name also appeared on the list of those rejected by the local doctors. The problem was his eyesight. After several rejections he managed to enlist in Melbourne on 16/9/16. He did acknowledge his previous rejections (eyesight). Unlike Private Sidebotham, Heyes did manage to join his unit (39 Battalion) in France. He joined in early April 1917 but immediately he was hospitalised with ‘defective vision’ and after further eye tests he was repatriated to the UK in September 1917 and then sent back to Australia. He arrived home on 10/12/17 and was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ on 24/1/18.

One last example of men who, arguably, should never have been accepted as recruits involved Oliver Matthews. He was older – 35 yo – than the other 2 men. He was also single and gave his occupation as ‘saw mill hand’, but it appears he was also involved, to some extent at least, in the family farm. He was from Won Wron. He was also on the list of those rejected by the local doctors. Prior to being accepted, he had tried at least twice to enlist but was rejected on the basis of ‘teeth’. Then in October 1916 he was successful. He had his initial medical at Yarram and the final one in Melbourne. He acknowledged previous rejections. His service lasted only a few months because he was discharged as medically unfit on 7/2/17. Unlike the other 2 men, he never embarked for overseas service. The medical condition cited for his discharge was ’emphysema’.

The examples highlight how medical standards had declined significantly by late 1916. The risks in accepting men with pre-existing medical conditions or poor general health and fitness were obvious. Yet, remarkably, in this cohort of 70 men, 21 (30%) had been rejected previously, at least once.

The table also highlights how the same high casualty levels continued to characterise the experience of all those who enlisted: 14% of the cohort died on active service and 43% were discharged as ‘medically unfit’. Irrespective of whether they were medically discharged, 41% of the cohort were wounded at least once (gunshot wound, shrapnel wound, gassed, trench feet …) and 73% were hospitalised, at least once, most commonly with influenza, and other diseases including mumps, measles, pneumonia, bronchitis, various skin diseases and VD. For those who survived the War, the legacy was to be ongoing. On these figures for the Shire of Alberton, potentially, at least 40% of those returning from the War were to require ongoing medical support of some kind.

Overall

The most distinctive feature of this latest cohort of men to enlist from the Shire of Alberton is its size relative to the preceding cohorts. Clearly, the second half of 1916 saw a dramatic decline in enlistments. Also very apparent is the continuing decline in overall levels of fitness and health.

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