123. Yarram Recruiting Committee – first half of 1917. Part A

This is the first of 2 posts which explore the work of the local recruiting committee – commonly referred to as the Yarram Recruiting Committee – in the first half of 1917.

An earlier post – Post 104 – explained how, after the failure of the conscription referendum in October 1916, the local recruiting committee, based in Yarram, was disbanded. There was the belief that patriotic regions like Gippsland had been betrayed by the voters of Melbourne, and the local committee did not see that they should continue their efforts in the face of what they perceived as ingratitude and betrayal. Besides, the committee had long held the view that the voluntary system had failed and they were not committed to it.

However, Imperial Loyalists could not simply abandon the War effort and in time – by April 1917 – the same broad group of locals re-formed the local recruiting committee and tried once more with the voluntary system. But there was little doubt that they, like all those involved in recruiting, held no – or at least very little – hope that ‘voluntarism’ would work. And, in the background, there was still the belief that conscription would, ultimately, be introduced. All this tension was evident in Circular 85 which was sent to local recruiting committees in early June 1916 by the State Recruiting Committee. The circular stated the fundamental problem which, interestingly, was described solely in terms of Imperial duty.

The number of recruits volunteering has greatly decreased of late, notwithstanding the fact that the need for Reinforcements is more urgent than at any period of the war. It is quite realised by the new State Recruiting Committee that extreme difficulty is experienced in inducing the eligible men to attend Recruiting Meetings, and the consequent discouragement caused to some members of the Committees, nevertheless it will doubtless be agreed that continued efforts should be made to constantly and insistently bring before the minds of the public, the responsibility which is imposed on them as citizens of the British Empire to make every sacrifice to bring this titanic, tragic and ghastly war to a triumphant conclusion for our beloved Empire and gallant Allies.

The strategies the circular suggested covered the likes of enlisting the support of the local press, appealing to women, and winning the support of the relatives of serving soldiers. There was also the constant call for more public meetings or ‘demonstrations’ for the purpose of recruiting. In all this there was the claim that the voluntary system could work, if only local recruiting committees would get behind it:

It is quite wrong to think that the voluntary system has failed and if the enthusiasm and interest which characterised the previous Recruiting Campaigns were revived better results would be forthcoming. Public meetings would be greatly conducive to that end.

And, above all, there was one thing that local committees could not do:

It is recognised that great antagonism is displayed to the voluntary system by many people, but as voluntarism is the present method of obtaining recruits it is the National duty of very person to assist that system by shouldering the responsibility of reinforcing our brave and heroic men at the Front. It should be remembered that by (sic) passing resolutions that voluntarism has failed, greatly lessens public interest and enthusiasm and consequently has a detrimental effect upon Recruiting.

This was the essential background to the work of the local recruiting committee in the first half of of 1917: they were obliged to work with – and had to be seen to be supporting – a system of recruiting in which they did not believe. They saw the voluntary system as undermining the War effort to which they were so passionately committed, and they knew that it would never produce the number of recruits required. On this last point, as will be shown, there was abundant proof at the time that voluntarism did not work.

One quick pointer to the lack of recruits from the Shire of Alberton over the first half of 1917 is  the low number of railway warrants issued. These warrants were issued to men who had passed an initial medical at Yarram and who were heading to Melbourne to complete their enlistment process. Some men went to Melbourne to enlist without seeking a travel warrant and not all men who were issued with a travel warrant ended up enlisting. As will become clear, passing the medical in Yarram was no guarantee that the enlistment would go ahead. But for all the limitations, the number of warrants issued is at least a guide to the level of enlistment. In the first half of 1917 only 35 such warrants were issued by the Shire Secretary, whereas in the equivalent period in 1916 the number was 145.

The following tables show the membership of the local recruiting committee for both 1916 and 1917.

1916

Cr W Bland (Chairman)
G W Black (Secretary)
B P Johnson
A J Rossiter
J W Fleming
W F Lakin
Rev F Tamagno
W A Newland (Rct Sgt)
C Barlow
N J Christensen
M J T Cox
E S Stocks
G E Ruby
P J Juniper

1917

B Couston (Chairman)
G W Black (Secretary)
W Bland
B P Johnson
A J Rossiter
J W Fleming
W F Lakin
Rev F Tamagno
W A Newland
F L Merritt (Rec Sgt)
J Bett
G Bland
Dr J Rutter
R H Spokes
E T Benson

Yarram Recruiting Committee, mid 1917. Archives of the Shire of Alberton

It is apparent that most members from 1916 continued in the re-formed 1917 committee. There was a new chairman of the committee, Benjamin Couston. He was the manager of the Bank of Victoria in Yarram and had only arrived in the town in late 1916. He quickly established himself as one of the town’s prominent citizens. He served as a JP in the Yarram Police Court. He was on the committee for the Mechanics’ Institute and, as for most of those on the recruiting committee, he had been one of the local organisers for the National Referendum Committee. He matched the typical profile of the local Imperial Loyalist.

In 1916, the recruiting sergeant had been a local returned service man, William Andrew Newland. Newland continued on the recruiting committee in 1917 but his actual recruiting role was taken on by another returned service man, Frank Leslie Merritt, who had been repatriated to Australia in June 1916. While Recruiting Sergeant Merritt was not from the Shire of Alberton, he was one of 4 brothers from Welshpool who had enlisted. The family was celebrated in Welshpool because every son had enlisted. One brother – Charles Cecil Merritt – was to die of wounds in November 1917.

One important difference in 1917 was that in addition to Newland and Merritt, 3 other returned men joined the committee: Dr John Rutter, Robert Henry (Tim) Spokes and Eric Thomas Benson. Rutter and Benson were to play key roles in setting up a branch of the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ League. Rutter was definitely a local but Benson only moved to the area after his medical discharge in mid 1916. It appears he came to Yarram as the manager of the local State Savings Bank. Like Couston, he quickly established himself as a prominent citizen and, amongst other appointments, was on the board of guardians for the local Church of England. He would go on to play a key role in the second conscription referendum, for the Yes vote. Importantly, the degree of membership overlap between between the 3 most high profile patriotic groups in the local community – the Yarram Recruiting Committee, the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ League and the Soldiers’ Farewell and Reception Committee – was very strong and as for 1916 the members would go on to become the key players in the 1917 referendum campaign.

The actual efforts of the recruiting committee in the first half of 1916 were very limited. The most significant function, a memorial service combined with a public recruiting meeting or ‘demonstration’ held in May 1916, will be the subject of the next post. But apart from this major event not much appeared to happen. The committee provided some promotion for war savings certificates. This Commonwealth scheme was advertised in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 2/5/17. The recruiting committee was meant to be the key backer of the program … to explain the advantages of small investments – that everyone should have a war certificate to help win the war. … while the war lasts it will be necessary to have a continual flow of money into the Commonwealth Treasury for the same purpose. To meet this, War savings certificates in denominations of £1, £5, £10, £100 and £1,000 are offered for sale at a discount, repayable in full in three years from date of issue.

There was also a recruiting film shown in Thompson’s Hall in Yarram on 26/4/17. The film was “A Soldier’s Life in the A.I.F.” and it traced the life of a volunteer from recruit to trained soldier. It also featured scenes taken onboard HMAS Sydney. The film was run as a fund-raiser and according to the local paper it raised about £5 for the local Red Cross. The chair of the Recruiting Committee, B Couston, introduced the film and, again according to the local paper, he …referred to the immensity of the struggle in which the Empire is engaged, and the urgent necessity of securing all the men possible at the front. The report continued that at interval a Lieutenant Crowe gave an address. In response to the appeals made that night, 6 men went up on to the stage as volunteers. Later that same night they were medically examined by Dr Rutter and of the 6, four were passed as fit. However, no names were given in the report and there is no way of knowing what happened to them after that night.

Lieutenant Crowe is interesting. He was attached to the central Sate Recruiting Committee and at that point he was active across Gippsland trying to gather volunteers for the “Sportsmen’s 1000” or the “Sportsmen’s Unit”. He had contact with the Yarram Recruiting Committee from late April 1917 and there is a newspaper report – 2/5/17 – which has him informing the committee that even though people had told him that he would have no luck in the Shire of Alberton he had proved them wrong. It was also Lt. Crowe who recommended the memorial service – next post – and he organised the speakers and the AIF band for the occasion. The local committee was impressed with Lt. Crowe’s approach and organised a car and driver for him to continue his recruiting efforts in the district. After his work in North Devon and Jack River, the local paper published a positive account of his efforts and featured a list of locals who had been recruited through his efforts. However a critical analysis of the list of names, which appeared in the paper (4/5/17), highlights the difficulties those promoting recruiting faced.

Lt. Crowe’s success was significantly exaggerated. The newspaper report covered 3 categories of men who had volunteered. First, there were the 7 volunteers who failed the local medical exam, several of whom had failed the exam previously. Then there were the 6 who were under-age and who had to get their parents’ permission. Of this second group it appears that only one – Leonard John Quirk – did go ahead and enlist. He enlisted on 23/5/18 as an 18 year-old. These first 2 categories gave only 1 recruit from 13 men/boys who were keen to enlist. The third category was that of men who passed the medical, presumably with Dr Rutter. There were 12 in this group but it appears that only 3 of them ever enlisted. It appears that the others failed the follow-up medical in Melbourne. Perhaps the rate at which Dr Rutter passed the men as medically fit was partly driven by his commitment to support recruiting. It is also worth noting that the minutes of the Yarram Recruiting Committee (20/4/17) recorded the attempt by Lt. Crowe … to have Dr Rutter appointed a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, so that the doctor’s examination would be final, and recruits could be put through without delay. The 3 men who were successful, in that Dr Rutter’s initial medical assessment was upheld, were all only 19 yo. They were: Harold Bergen Elliott, Selwyn Bruce Cunningham and Cecil George Holman. All 3 survived the War. Overall, of the potential group of 25 volunteers keen to enlist, only 4 – all minors – were taken as recruits by the AIF. Despite Lt. Crowe’s optimism and inflated claims, voluntarism was not working.

Lastly, there was the strange situation that blew up with Sgt, Merritt in late May 1917. Without any prior warning, the Yarram Recruiting Committee was advised by the State Recruiting Committee that Merritt was to be dismissed, forthwith, on the grounds of “lack of vigour and strange conduct at recent meetings”. To that point, the local committee had had no issues with Merritt’s behaviour and there had been no complaints directed to them. They wrote (31/5/17) to State Recruiting Committee with obvious indignation:

We regret that your Committee should take such drastic action without reference to this Committee. The most astounding feature of the case is that your Committee should take such drastic action without formulating definite charges against Sergeant Merritt and giving him a chance of defence. We respectfully urge that, in common fairness to the Sergeant, a full inquiry be made, and that he be given every opportunity of stating his defence.

There was an immediate reply (1/6/17) which apologised that …your Committee should feel in any way overlooked by the action taken, as it is the urgent desire of the Committee to do all that is in its power to assist the difficult work of the honorary Recruiting Committees. Again, it did not spell out the charges, other than to state that the complaints came from ‘his recruiting officer’ – possibly Lt. Crowe or Sgt. Merritt’s superior in Sale – … supported by several other persons who attended the Yarram Demonstration. This ‘demonstration’ would have been the combined memorial service and recruiting meeting held in Yarram on Sunday 20/5/17. With only this briefest of explanations the State Recruiting Committee held its line but did, at least, undertake to review the matter. Then on 5/6/17 the central body wrote and reversed the directive …Serge. Merritt may continue his engagement at your centre.

It was all a mystery – perhaps Merritt did not meet the ‘standards’ of the more specialist State-wide band of recruiters who were in Yarram for the occasion – but, arguably, the most important observation is that the State Recruiting Committee knew how difficult it was to maintain a system of local recruiting committees across the State, particularly when the voluntary system was not working, and it could not afford to be seen as an interfering and arbitrary outside power. Essentially, it took the line that if the locals were happy with their recruiting sergeant then there was little point in getting them off-side. At the end of November 1917, Sgt. Merritt was transferred to the Traralgon and Warragul districts.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

The activities of the 1917 Yarram Recruiting Committee came from:

File Number 703K
War Files
“Minute Book Yarram Recruiting Committee”

Box 379
“Correspondence etc of Recruiting Committee Formed, April 26th 1917”

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