The local RSSILA branch held a ‘smoke social’ to coincide with Anzac Day celebrations in April 1918. It was reported in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 1 May 1918. It was an all-male affair.
The function was significant for 2 reasons. The first was the singular focus on the issue of repatriation and the second was the apparently eclectic mix of guests, featuring as it did a Victoria Cross recipient who was a pilot in the Royal Australian Flying Corps – F H McNamara – together with a small party of Royal Australian Navy personnel. On the face of it, none of these guests had any association with the Shire of Alberton.
By early 1918, the quest for repatriation had become a national holy grail. Generally, there were 2 broad target groups. There was the increasing number of men being repatriated to Australia for medical discharge, because of wounds, injury or illness. These were men returning to civilian life who were going to face all manner of difficulties. They might face further periods of hospitalisation and treatment. There was the challenge – or impossibility – of securing employment. They would have to live with ongoing disabilities – amputated limbs, blindness, chronic disease – and in general they were still relatively very young. They were to be forced to become reliant on others – on either a temporary or more permanent basis – and in many cases this burden would fall on the parents. If this first group was not ‘looked after’ their position would be dire. The second group of those for whom repatriation had become the national ideal was the much larger core of the AIF itself. These were the men who had ‘answered the call’ and proved themselves heroes. They were to return ‘soon’ and the Nation had to repay the debt owed them. As a minimum, it was totally unacceptable that such men would return to unemployment and hardship. Moreover, they had to be rewarded over those who had refused to enlist.
It is impossible to downplay the strength of the sense that there had to be some sort of national reckoning or settlement for those who had volunteered for the AIF. From April 1915, the Anzacs had been feted as super-humans. Their deeds and character had been celebrated constantly. Their reputation had been used as an integral element in the Government’s narrative of the War. It had been employed in every recruiting campaign and it had served as the essential backdrop in 2 conscription referenda where the basic message was that the heroes of the AIF had to be reinforced. Politically and morally, it was impossible for any government not to commit to repatriation.
But for all the commitment, by early 1918 there was considerable disquiet. It was clear that whatever form repatriation was to take, there was considerable confusion and little evidence that anything was being done. This disquiet was very evident at the Smoke Social held in Yarram in April 1918. As one speaker (G F Sauer) observed:
[Returned] Men had come to him and complained that they had to wait about for weeks before anything was done for them. Their pay was fizzling away and many of them were in want.
Not surprisingly, for many in the Shire of Alberton, the idea of repatriation involved putting the returned soldiers on the land. It was an appealing vision: the hero soldier could be rewarded by being assisted to set himself up as an independent farmer on a modest landholding. The qualities that had made the AIF such a formidable fighting force – toughness, resourcefulness, independence, mateship … – would be the same ones that would ensure success as the soldier transitioned, easily and even naturally, to the life of the farmer. The existing local farming community would welcome them eagerly and support them. It would be their chance to repay the debt. The increased economic activity would create a more prosperous and ever-growing community. Of course, the reality was that there were to be significant problems at every step of the way. The scheme would in time prove to be ruinous for many. Behind the idealism, the scheme was open to exploitation and even victimisation. But that night in Yarram, the dream of land for the returning men was paramount. Thomas Livingston MLA spoke for many:
Gippsland had done splendidly in regard to recruiting, and had perhaps sent more men than any other part of the State. The men were coming back and must have help. He wanted to know the number of men present who wanted land, and would use his best endeavours in Parliament to see they got it.
Later he declared, dramatically:
There was plenty of land about Yarram where the soldier could do well on. They were entitled to it and should get it if they wanted it.
But there were others who were keen to question the commitment of the State Government to the idea of soldier settlement. Councillor Barlow, talking immediately after Livingston, argued that, from his personal experience, the efforts of local councillors to facilitate land acquisitions were routinely blocked by the State Government. On the specific issue of land, he claimed that the very next morning he was going to ride … twenty or thirty miles to inspect land that had been offered the committee for repatriation purposes. But then he aded:
However, his past experience with the [State] Government was that it was bound up so tightly with red tape that many of the labors of local bodies went for nothing. The Government was making a farce of the repatriation problem. Let everyone be up and doing to assist those men who were sent away with so many promises of what was going to be done for them when they came back. There had been a succession of broken promises.
Clearly, the view of local government was that it was all the fault of the State Government. But then the very next speaker – B P Johnson – poured scorn on the commitment of the local council. Firstly, he complained that not enough councillors were present at the function and their absence was typical of people’s indifference to the plight of the returning men. Then he complained about the Shire’s indifference to creating the commemorative record of the men who had enlisted. Admittedly, this issue was not directly concerned with repatriation, but it was, in his mind, indicative of the Shire’s overall indifference to the status and plight of the men. It would certainly have hit raw nerves. It was yet another example of the gulf between what the men had been promised and what they were now experiencing:
As has been said before, there had been a lot of talk, but very little done. He [Johnson] had noticed that in nearly every other place honor rolls were in existence. They should have one to commemorate the men who had gone from the Shire of Alberton. The council had passed a resolution in 1915 to have this done, but so far it had not materialised. … The council should tackle the matter at once, and not only an honor roll, but a book with full particulars of each man who enlisted.
Other speakers that night identified those they saw as the ‘natural’ enemy of the men returning: those who had not ‘answered the call’. Speakers declared that these men – variously described that night as ‘rotters’ and ‘cold footers’ – posed a threat to the ideal of repatriation because they had taken the jobs of the men who enlisted and they would not easily give them up.
Other speakers sensed the indifference and opposition the returning men faced and urged them to ’stick together as a solid body and demand justice’. They needed to become political. Livingston’s advice was reported:
His advice to the Returned Soldiers’ Association was to hang together and vote together. They had the whole political situation in their own hands. They had sacrificed themselves for their country and should force Parliament to redeem its promises. This they could do if they combined together. He hoped to see the majority of seats held in Parliament by returned soldiers. They had fought and bled for their country, so should have the biggest say in the policy of the government.
There were other speakers keen to push an argument about class. Power and privilege could compromise the men’s access to a decent system of repatriation. J W Biggs, a local Catholic with 3 sons in the AIF, spoke on behalf of the Fathers’ League and his sentiments were very clear:
He [Biggs] had three sons at the front and trusted to see them back. As a British subject he appreciated the liberty of living under the flag. There were a lot who talked loyalty in Yarram and then subscribed half-a-crown to a patriotic fund. He endorsed the remarks of sticking together. Let the boys stick together and they would have the fathers solidly behind them. He did not know what might happen to his boys, but he had seen some examples of the injuries sustained and it was appalling. What had the men of wealth done? They went on to platforms and urged the boys to go and fight, while they stayed home and made money, and kept it. This class of man thought very little of other men’s lives as long as it saved their own money. He felt warm on this matter, and had he known as much when his last boy enlisted (he was only eighteen) he would have refused consent until he was twenty-one. He was disgusted the way the returned boys were treated. He hoped those who had promised that evening to do so much for the boys would keep their words and do their duty to the lads. (Applause.)
Finally, there was an immediate insight that night which demonstrated, at least for those there, just how poorly the returning men were being treated. It came in the speech by G F Sauer, late in proceedings. Sauer expressed disappointment that the function, which was obviously for the returned men, had in fact been put on by the men themselves. He believed that this arrangement was the reverse of what should have happened.
In regard to the entertainment that evening, he thought things were topsy-turvy. Instead of the boys giving the social it should have been the people. He trusted next year that the public would give the lads a rousing demonstration, and in the meantime assist in every way to make the lot of the returned men a happy one. (Applause.)
When Livingston, one of the invited guests, heard this, he expressed shock and stated he had been under the ‘misapprehension’ that the community had put on the event for the men. He even offered to pay out of his own pocket.
It is clear that the picture to emerge that night was not an overly positive one. Repatriation – and in particular the call to settle returned men on the land – was certainly both an ideal and an urgent priority – in the community and at every level of government – and there was, apparently, universal commitment to it. However, the lines of division, the political infighting, the threats of recrimination were all coming into focus. Repatriation, as a moral ideal, was about to be hammered into shape as a political compromise. The true worth of the heroes of Anzac had to be tested in the real world. As future posts will show, the situation was going to become ugly and in one of the greatest ironies, where all the advice that night was for the men to stick together and become their own political masters, in the end when the soldier settlement scheme finally became established in the Shire, it would be the ‘old guard’ – the local councillors, existing landholders and other established vested interests – who would have the real power. The heroes would have their repatriation, but only on the terms set by their betters: the generation of Imperial Loyalists who had waved them off.
McNamara, Frank Hubert VC
As indicated, one of the guests that night was Captain Frank Hubert McNamara VC, Australian Flying Corps. He was then 23 yo and while he had seen service in the Middle East he had not been at Gallipoli. In fact, he drew attention to this fact in remarks which he made in praise of those men there that night who had been original Anzacs:
In looking round the hall he [McNamara] felt proud to see so many in khaki, and what thrilled him more was the number of boys with the letter A on their shoulder. That spoke volumes, and he would consider himself an honored man had he that letter on his uniform.
McNamara had been awarded the Victoria Cross in June 1917 for his action in rescuing another downed Australian pilot in March 1917. The downed Australian pilot was in danger of being shot or captured by the Turks when McNamara, himself already seriously wounded, landed and effected a very difficult and dangerous rescue. Subsequently, because of his serious wounds, McNamara had been repatriated to Australia in early 1918 and discharged on medical grounds. However in April 1918, he was appointed ‘Officer Commanding, Air Reconnaissance, South Gippsland’ and it was in that capacity that he attended the smoke social.
The background to McNamara’s appointment involved the German raider, Wolf. In March 1918 the Wolf returned to Germany with the revelation that it had sailed along the east coast of Australia. The captain even claimed to have have used the ship’s own aircraft – it carried a small plane – to fly over Sydney. Moreover, several months earlier, in July 1917, a ship – SS Cumberland – had sunk near the Victoria-NSW border in July 1917 after it hit a mine that had been laid by the German raider. Not surprisingly, the press in Australia whipped up considerable hysteria. To calm matters, Defence decided to mount a series of reconnaissance flights over the south-eastern sea lanes. There were 2 areas of operation: one covering the area round Eden and the other Wilson’s Promontory. For the aerial reconnaissance covering Wilson’s Promontory, Yarram was selected because it had the best location for an airfield. McNamara was appointed the Officer Commanding, and he was supported by radio operators from the RAN and a guard provided by the army. McNamara’s unit operated from 21/4/18 – just a few days before the smoke social on Anzac Day – to 10/5/18. The aircraft in use at Yarram – an FE2b – was damaged on one landing and was out of action for about one week. On the days that flights were not conducted McNamara’s detachment assisted civilian police in following up various reports of enemy activity in the area, e.g. sensational reports of local Germans using wireless to communicate with raiders off the coast. After his time in South Gippsland, McNamara took up duties as a flying instructor at Point Cook.
There must have been some embargo on the reporting of McNamara’s work in Yarram at the time because there is no report in the local paper of his mission. He was identified, but only as a guest, at the smoke social. Moreover, there was only one other reference in the local paper (8/5/18) and this occurred in a speech to students at the local school – Yarram State School – given by a school inspector. McNamara himself had been a state school teacher before enlistment and the inspector (Mr Greenwood) was keen to remind students of the fact:
The Education Department had supplied a big number of soldiers from within its ranks. Captain McNamara, the winner of the Victoria Cross, who was at present in Yarram, was an old school teacher.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Aviation Heritage Vol 25 No 4, Journal of the Aviation Historical Society of Australia.
Watson, D 2000, ‘In the Shadow of the ‘Wolf’: Enemy Activity and the Internment of a Gippsland Fisheman’, Gippsland Heritage Journal, No. 24 pp. 2-9