128. Enlistments in the first half of 1917: 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

Post 103: Enlistments in the second 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 June 1917. It also shows the equivalent figures for males in the 1911 Census for the county of Buln Buln.

The numbers are small and variations of 1 or 2 can have a dramatic impact on the percentages.With only 3 of the cohort of 31 recorded as Roman Catholic it is arguable that the level of enlistments from this group was in decline. At the same time, with so few enlistments taking place, the local population would have noted, against an increasing level of anti-Catholic sentiment, that at least some Roman Catholics were still coming forward to enlist.

Units

Most of this cohort of enlistments went to reinforce the infantry. There was a small group of enlistments who never made it out of camp:  2 men were discharged as medically unfit and another deserted. Of the men – and one woman –  who did embark, 55% went to reinforce the infantry battalions. As before, there was a small group of light horse reinforcements and the rest of the enlistments were spread across specialist units, including the Australian Army Nursing Service and the Australian Army Veterinary Hospital.  The largest single group of enlistments (22%) went to 7 Battalion. This figure reflected the efforts of Lt Crowe and other recruiting officers in the district in May 1917 when they organised specific recruiting demonstrations calling for volunteers to join the “Sportsmen’s 1000” or “Sportsmen’s Unit

It is worth recalling that while at the time the success of Lt Crowe was widely publicised and celebrated in the local area, the reality was that for every 3 men he managed to ‘recruit’, only 1 went on to become a successful enlistment. The other 2 failed the medical – either in Yarram itself with Dr Rutter or at the follow-up medical in Melbourne – or their parents would not give consent.

Service History

Again, the size of this cohort is far smaller than the previous ones and the percentages more problematic. This is strikingly obvious with the death rate. Only one of this cohort – Frank Harrison DoW 19/5/18 – died on active service. Yet the figure of 3% could hardly represent the death rate across the entire cohort of enlistments in the AIF in this specific period (the first half of 1917). As we will see, there was still a considerable loss of life to come, in the second half of 1917 and well into 1918.

Where the death rate for each of these successive cohorts of enlistments appears to be falling, the rate of medical discharge appears to have settled round 40%. Conceivably, after such horrific casualty levels in 1916, military commanders had become less reckless with the lives of their men and improved strategies, tactics and training were reducing the overall levels of casualties. Also, presumably, improved medical services and training were reducing the overall death-in-combat levels. However, while this line of argument could explain the declining death rate it hardly accounts for the observation that there does not appear to have been an equivalent decline in the rate of men being discharged as medically unfit.

It is obviously a complex area. However, it is worth re-visiting an observation raised in Post 103. There the point was made that, increasingly, men were accepted in the AIF even though their overall health and fitness were questionable. This, inevitably, led to more men being discharged on health grounds. As already indicated, some were discharged on medical grounds in camp in Australia, before they even left for overseas service. Others were discharged in the UK in training before they were sent to France. Overs saw service in France but their overall poor health was exacerbated by their service at the front and they had to be repatriated to the UK and thence to  Australia where they were discharged as medically unfit. Moreover, the general health of men who had enlisted, earlier in the War, was bound to deteriorate the more they were exposed to battle, even if they managed to escape being wounded. In other words, ‘medical discharge’ did not relate solely to those wounded in battle. So it is conceivable that even if battle field casualties – gunshot and shrapnel wounds, being gassed, trench fever, shell shock – declined, even if only slightly, the overall level of medical discharges stayed high because the general health of all those in the AIF, including especially those who would not previously been accepted, continued to deteriorate.

Some of the men in this group of enlistments illustrate the general argument. E B Skinner, the solicitor from Foster, enlisted in January 1917. He had had hearing problems before he enlisted but he managed to pass the medical. He never left Australia. After a series of ear infections he was eventually discharged as ‘medically unfit’ in October 1917. George Trusler, the 20 year-old motor driver, managed to pass the medical at Yarram with Dr Rutter. However, he had already been rejected – ‘varicocele – a year earlier. He too never left Australia. He had hernia problems in camp but refused to give his permission for an operation and in the end was discharged as medically unfit in April 1918. Frederick Godfrey enlisted as a 39 yo in April 1917. He passed the medical, even though it was noted that he required ‘extensive dental treatment’. He made it to the UK but then, after hospitalisation there,  had to be repatriated to Australia in September 1918 and discharged with ‘chronic bronchitis’. Lastly, the case of Arthur Forder, the married 25 yo from Blackwarry, is rather remarkable. Initially he was rejected because of his teeth. Then in September 1915 he managed to pass the medical and enlisted. He served overseas but then had to repatriated to Australia in May 1916 with ‘pulmonry TB’ and was discharged as medically unfit. Incredibly, he was able to re-enlist in February 1917. Again he went overseas. He embarked on 11/5/16 but was hospitalised with influenza from 17/6/17, at the very end of the voyage. He managed to come through the influenza and must have made it to the front at some point because his record shows him wounded: gsw rt knee. He was returned to Australia (3/3/18) and then discharged for the second time on 25/4/18 as medically unfit.

All the cases point to the complexities associated with men’s health in the AIF. Health issues went beyond wounds received in battle.

It is also worth pointing out again that the measure of men discharged as medically unfit – in this cohort is was 42 % – does not accurately reflect the true level of all those whose health was compromised by their service. In this cohort, irrespective of whether they were or were not discharged as ‘medically unfit’, 15 (54%) of the 28 who went overseas on active service were wounded and 22 (71%) of the full cohort were hospitalised, at least once, in Australia or overseas. The implications of these levels were to be played out after the War.

It is difficult to explain but another distinctive feature of this particular cohort appears to be the number of men who were ‘gassed’. In all 9 (32%) of the 28 who saw active service were reported to have been ‘gassed’. At some point, it will be necessary to consider this figure in relation to those for previous cohorts. Presumably it has something to do with the fact that those who enlisted later in the War had more chance of experiencing battle in the corresponding later stages of the War, when gas became a more common weapon.

Overall

As with the previous cohort – the 6 months to the end of 1916 – the most distinctive features of this group are the ever-reducing number and the continuing decline in overall levels of fitness and health

 

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