147. Soldiers’ farewells and welcomes in the second half of 1917

In the second half of 1917, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, there were 3 separate occasions when soldiers were farewelled and another 4 when they were welcomed home. There were a further 2 occasions when both farewells and welcomes were held together.  Overall, 13 men were farewelled and 9 welcomed home. With one exception – a farewell at Womerah for 3 locals in late July – all the farewells and welcomes were staged in Yarram.

The composition and work of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee continued as for the first half of 1917 (see Post 120).

At a committee meeting held on 26/7/17, and reported in the local paper on 1/8/17, the members reviewed their efforts and stated that they had either presented or sent overseas a total of 343 shire medallions, together with the accompanying card. At the same time, they pointed out that as … there are about 800 soldiers on service from this shire, they were keen to … hear from those who have not received the medallion and card. The major discrepancy between the number of medallions issued (approx. 350), the number of men said to have enlisted from the Shire of Alberton (800) and the number of names recorded on the Roll of Honor (446) will be explored in a future post.

The themes highlighted by those who spoke at the farewells continued unchanged. Heroism, duty, sacrifice and a sense of loyalty to both the Empire and the Nation continued to be stressed; as were the natural fighting qualities of the men and their determination to uphold the name of the Anzacs. The point was made constantly that these were men who now knew the dreadful realities of the War they were to face. If Rev. Tamagno or Raymond spoke they would inevitably emphasise the honesty and sobriety of the men and urge them to remain true to their Christian faith. The sacrifice of the parents was also stressed.

The themes employed for those welcomed home were similar. The men’s efforts in creating the glory of the Anzacs was a constant. Their bravery and heroism was without equal. Their wounds were proof of their honour. Speakers could only imagine the horrors they had had experienced. They had shielded those at home – and defended the sanctity of Australian women – from the evils of German militarism. They had gone as volunteers. Above all, their sacrifice had to be repaid.

As has been covered in previous posts, there was often tension at the farewells. Commonly, speakers were critical of the low number of locals who attended. They could not understand what they saw as people’s indifference. It was common practice for the head teacher of the Yarram State School  – E A Paige, a member of the committee – to bring senior students with him to swell the numbers.

Additionally, at both farewells and welcomes, speakers would regularly attack the ‘shirkers’ and ‘eligibles’ for refusing to do their duty. They also expressed grave fears that locals generally failed to understand how dire the overall War situation was and how critically important it was for reinforcements to reach the AIF. They urged women to play a more decisive role in supporting the War effort and, in particular, winning the support of men for conscription. And, with the second referendum on conscription imminent – the vote was held on 20/12/17 – speakers called passionately for the Yes vote so that, as they saw it, the ‘shame’ and ‘stain’ of the first vote could be removed.

While such tension at the farewells and welcomes had been evident for at least one year, there is evidence that in the second half of 1917 the underlying tension in the local community was worsening. Even the members of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee came under attack. Those who had been the most public advocates for the War were now being criticised.

B P Johnson, a committee member, was arguably the most prominent Imperial Loyalist in the entire local community. He spoke forcefully at public meetings in support of all aspects of the War effort, including, at that time, the second conscription referendum. But at the welcome home, in July 1917, for Private S G Jeffs, Johnson felt the need to defend himself from what he saw as malicious gossip. During the official welcome, Johnson noted that a friend had told him of comments that had been recently made about his son. The gist of the comments was that Johnson had used his influence to ensure that his son was kept away from the front. The brief background to the case was that the son – Cyril Johnson – had worked in the pay office for about 6 months from August 1916. He rejoined his unit, 6 Battalion, in France in April 1917.

In the account published in the local paper on 20/7/17 Johnson, during the course of the welcome to Private Jeffs, defended both his son and himself. According to Johnson,

He [Johnson’s son] was ordered there [pay office] by a doctor on account of an injured arm, and getting tired of being amongst so many cold footers, he tried till he got across to the front. That man [the one making the claim] did not go himself, but he allowed other men’s sons to fight for him. It was bad enough to have a son away, without having nasty words thrown at us.

Cyril Johnson was killed in France on 14/5/18.

There were other examples of how members of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee came under attack and felt the need to defend themselves. At the welcome home to Private John Clark in November 1917, Benjamin Couston and Councillor Charles Barlow, both members of the committee, made public statements to counter personal attacks. As with Johnson, the comments were made in the course of the official welcome to Private Clark.

In fact, on the day, Couston gave the reply of thanks on behalf of Private Clark. But immediately after calling for support for the Government in the conscription referendum, he launched into a defence of his own position. As reported in the local paper (21/11/17), he drew attention to the fact that he had been sent a white feather:

He received by the post the other day a magnificent tribute to himself and his two sons in the form of a white feather (which he produced), which was no doubt the consequence of some remarks he had made a few days previously. He was willing to offer himself straight out if the individual who sent this feather would come forward and do likewise, and would also have his two sons do the same. (Applause). But as most people would know, he was not eligible. The ages of his two boys were 17 and 19 respectively. The latter was at present in a bank in New South Wales. Some years ago he had hurt himself whilst cycling, and had volunteered for the war on four different occasions, even pleading for a certificate of fitness, but he failed. The lad had told him the other day that he was giving himself a chance, and in two months would be in khaki. (Applause). The other boy was also anxious to enlist, and said he would do so when he was 18.

The younger boy – Kenneth Fletcher Couston – did enlist (3/1/18) in Yarram when he was 18 yo.

Benjamin Couston had arrived in Yarram in late 1916. He was the manager of the Bank of Victoria in the town. He sat as a JP in the local police court and was obviously a key local identity. From early 1917 he had been president of the Yarram Recruiting Committee. But, like Johnson, his integrity was being challenged.

The other committee member to defend himself that day was Councillor Charles Barlow. Barlow was another leading spokesperson for the Imperial Loyalists. He was a very public figure. In fact, on the day he chaired the welcome for Private Clark.

As indicated, at the welcome there were strong expressions of support for conscription. For Barlow at least, it appears, there was a strong personal commitment. The following remarks appeared in the account in the local paper. Barlow was speaking after Couston had mentioned his white feather:

The Chairman said that certain remarks had also been made about him, but fathers were not always their sons’ keepers. There was no man more strongly in favor of conscription than himself, although it might be said that he had sons who were not at the war. He prayed that the referendum would be carried, and then if he had eligible sons they would have to go.

Clearly some locals were beginning to question Barlow’s right to impress ideas of patriotism, sacrifice and duty on others.

From the start of the War the group of Imperial Loyalists, based principally in Yarram, had dominated the key committees – the ones actively and directly designed to support the War effort – and through this work they had controlled the official narrative. They represented the professional/ proprietorial/ managerial/ landed elite of the community and they were backed by the local churches – although Catholic support was qualified – and one of their number (A J Rossiter) was the editor of the influential local paper. However it appears that by the end of 1917 this group of leading citizens was being challenged, primarily on the basis of its moral authority.

Conceivably, this situation could be explained in terms of War-weariness. The endless calls for more effort, more reinforcements and the constant criticism of people’s lack of awareness and involvement as well as their indifference proved too much. The local community, which in reality had done and sacrificed so much, simply grew tired of being preached at by their ‘betters’ and rebelled, at least in part by attacking their integrity.

At the same time, there appears to have been at least one other dynamic involved. Essentially, another group emerged round this time  and this group – returned soldiers – directly challenged the right of the ‘elders’ of the local community to control the ongoing narrative of the War. In one sense it was a generational clash. It could also be described in terms of a clash between an ‘old’ and a ‘new guard’, where the latter was now demanding the right to be heard. There is no doubt that this new political force in the local community challenged the work and authority – and to some extent even the integrity – of the existing committees, especially the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee.

The next post will look more closely at the establishment of  the local branch of the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Imperial League which was formed in Yarram at the end of June 1917.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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