This post examines the series of welcome home celebrations staged in the Shire of Alberton in 1918 to the end of hostilities in November. In all there were 29 such celebrations reported in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – over the period. On a few occasions a welcome home was combined with a farewell to one or more soldiers about to embark for overseas service. Of the 29 occasions, 8 involved welcome home events in Yarram and the rest were divided across the smaller towns and settlements in the Shire: Stacey’s Bridge (2), North Devon (4), Alberton (2), West Alberton (1), Port Albert (1), Won Wron (3), Wonyip (1), Binginwarri (1), Willing South (1), Stradbroke (1), Kjergaard (1), Carrajung (1), Lower Whitelaw (1), Lower Bulga (1).
Some men who had in fact returned prior to 1918 were also ‘welcomed’ again at some of the events in 1918. Also, men could be welcomed home in more than one location. Commonly, they would attend a welcome in Yarram and then they would also be welcomed home in their particular township, or even in more than one township. Some men returned to Australia before 1918 but they remained in hospital in Melbourne for extended periods and did not return to the Shire for an official welcome until some time in 1918. Lastly, there could have been some men who enlisted from the Shire of Alberton and who returned to Australia for medical discharge in 1918 but who never returned to the Shire. With all these qualifications in mind, it appears that over the course of 1918, 40 men were welcomed home in the 29 formal events referred to above.
By way of comparison, prior to the 40 men in 1918, 12 men had been formally welcomed home in 1917, 8 men in 1916, and one person – William Andrew Newland who became the local recruiting sergeant – in 1915. Clearly, over 1918, there was a dramatic increase in the number of men being discharged. Some would have seen this increase as incontrovertible evidence of the desperate need to provide reinforcements for the AIF. At the same time, all would have seen it as dramatic proof of the escalating human cost of the ‘sacrifice’ that had been exacted over the past 4 years.
The local state school was often used as the venue for welcome home celebrations. For example, there was a major function held at the Yarram school on Anzac Day 1918 when 12 men were welcomed not just home but also to their old school. It was the largest welcome home event staged in 1918. Other local schools involved in welcome home celebrations included Stacey’s Bridge, North Devon, Willing South, Lower Whitelaw and Lower Bulga.
There appear to have been a number of reasons why the school was such a popular venue. In the case of Yarram there was the ongoing issue about attendance at such functions. As noted previously, there was the constant complaint from speakers at these events that not enough locals were prepared to show up and demonstrate their support for the men, either those leaving for overseas or those returning wounded. At a welcome home as late as October 1918, Councillor Barlow was reported in the local paper (11/10/18) lamenting the poor attendance but, at the same time, acknowledging the presence of the school children. The lack of attendance was only really an issue in Yarram. Events staged in the other townships were invariably well attended. They also almost always featured a more expansive program which included a social and/or dance to ensure a genuine community celebration.
While staging the event at the school guaranteed an audience, much was also made of the appropriateness of the school per se. Speakers claimed that it was the local school that had formed the initial, critical character of the men who had enlisted. Rossiter, the editor of the local paper, expressed this argument when he spoke at a welcome home for Robert McKenzie at Devon North State School in February 1918. His comments were reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 22/2/18:
It is fitting that these send-offs and welcomes should take place in the school, for here, as in every country community, the school is the centre of local interest, and when we consider that in nearly every case it was in this school that these soldiers have received their early training in love of country, it is highly desirable that it should be in that building they should be bid “god speed” or “welcome’.
Rossiter’s comments placed the local school as a critically important institution in the formation of the Australian soldier’s character. In the report (26/4/18) of the 1918 Anzac Day welcome home ceremony referred to above, Rev. Walklate, another of the district’s outspoken Imperial Loyalists, highlighted the specific significance of the school curriculum. It is clear that the experience of WW1 was redefining the traditional (Imperial) narrative that had prompted such high levels of patriotic loyalty and duty at the outbreak of WW1. The claim that Australia’s true history only really began with Gallipoli was by then common place. Even Federation – less than 20 years earlier – had been replaced.
Rev. C. J. Walklate said that the 25th April three years ago was the beginning of Australian history. They [the school children there that day] had read of the exploits of our explorers, who had mapped out the land for civilisation to come and make homes for the present generation. But the tragic landing at Gallipoli eclipsed everything else. They had read of the charge of the Light Brigade, but what the Australians had done put that feat in its shade, when they landed against such great odds on 25th April 1915.
In general, the themes highlighted at the welcome home events were often identical to those used at farewells. For example, much was made of the sacrifice and heroism of those returning and both qualities were often contrasted with the self-interest and cowardice of those ‘eligibles’ who refused to go. B P Johnson, welcoming the returned soldiers, reflected pointedly at the same Anzac Day event:
Many have died, but their names will never die; memory of them will live far beyond those eligibles who remain at home.
Johnson would learn just one month later that his own son had been killed (14/5/18).
The soldier as the true son of the ‘pioneer’ was another common theme. There was a very large welcome home social – 170 in attendance – held at Won Wron in early May 1918. One of the speakers was reported (8/5/18) as declaring that … the character of the child came from that of the parents, so there was no need to wonder at it. These parents were the pioneers of Gippsland and assisted in making history for Australia, while their sons made history for the world.
The outstanding fighting qualities of the Australian soldier was another common theme. J J O’Connor (9/10/18) declared at a welcome home in Yarram that the … Australian soldier was recognised as the best fighter on the side of the Allies. It was a common claim.
Not surprisingly, the most common theme was that of ‘repatriation’. Speakers laboured the idea that the men returning, both those returning wounded and the thousands who would be discharged at the end of the fighting, had to be ‘looked after’. The details of any large-scale repatriation scheme were still sketchy but the ideal of ‘repatriation’ had become a given. There had to be both recognition and recompense. In 1918, civic leaders were fearful that the local community did not appreciate the size of the problem and would even be indifferent to the men’s situation, as they been indifferent to so many other aspects of the War. Just before the Armistice, at a welcome home to A J Martin in Yarram on 30/10/18, B P Johnson was reported in the local paper (1/11/18) as declaring:
There was a big thing facing the people of Australia in regards to the returned men, and that was repatriation: and as yet the public did not seem to grasp it. In this district it was not very apparent, as most of those who had returned had, in their independence of spirit, not asked for help. However, the time would come when men would return to the district who needed help, and the people must be ready with that assistance, for if anyone deserved a helping hand it was those men who had fought for us. It would not be conferring a favor but simply endeavoring to repay in a small measure a debt that was due. No matter what was done for the returned lads, it would only be as a drop in a bucket compared with what they had done for us.
In rural areas, the idea of repatriation equated to settling the returned soldier on the land. It was seen as a natural reward for their effort and it was commonly believed that returning soldiers would be the very type that could make a success of it. Also, the common labourers and farm workers amongst them had won the chance to better themselves by becoming land owners. At another welcome home at Won Wron on 11/10/18 – reported on 16/10/18 – one of the local farmers was reported as hoping that … the Government would do its duty by such as he [D’Arcy Brown, the soldier being welcomed home] who had risked his life for Australia. The boys had fought for it [land] and it was theirs, if the Government did right it would give, not sell to returned soldiers the land they required. They had gone forth and fought for it while others just as able remained at home, getting high wages and at ease.
While, not surprisingly, the common sentiments expressed at the welcome home events were those of relief and gratitude, the events also highlighted the ever-present division in the local community. This was particularly the case involving the larger more set-piece welcomes, especially those held in Yarram or those that featured leading Imperial Loyalists as the key speakers. In such instances, the welcome home presented a public platform to attack eligibles, press for recruits and chastise the community generally for not lending sufficient support for the War. A striking example of this behaviour was the welcome home at North Devon on 13/9/18. It was reported in the local paper, in great detail, on 18/9/18. The event, which was very well attended, had a dual purpose: to welcome home and present a special medallion to 8 recently returned local men and also to honour the … memory of those who had fallen. The returned men sat on the stage throughout. The event was organised by the North Devon ‘Old Boys’ Association’, a local committee that throughout the War had been very active in ensuring all those who left from and returned to the district of North Devon were recognised and celebrated. However, for some reason, the key speakers on the day were two of the most outspoken Imperial Loyalists from Yarram. Benjamin Couston was the bank manger of the Yarram branch of the Bank of Victoria and the Rev Cyril John Walklate was the Methodist minister from Yarram.
Couston started his long speech by praising the returned men on the stage. He declared that, Every heart should be pulsating for the men who had done their duty to their country and had returned home. He then noted that, The people did not appreciate fully what these brave men had done. He then declared that … these men are heroes, and no honor that is bestowed upon them would adequately repay them for what they had done. If the whole wealth of this prosperous district were handed to these men, it would not be one-tenth of what was their due.
Continuing in this effusive style, he could not pass up the opportunity to remind those in the audience that they themselves had been fickle:
They would remember when the lads left this district that there was cheering, singing and flag waving, but some of those who did those things soon forgot the lads.
The real target however was the man who refused to enlist. Couston, who invariably described himself at such gatherings as ‘the father of two soldiers’, saved his fiercest criticism for the eligibles, some of whom he had recently seen playing football at Yarram. There was menace in his remarks:
Why was it that some stood on one side? They were never touched with that patriotic feeling which should be within the breasts of all. When he saw a number of men assembled together the other day at Yarram playing football he asked himself the question. Why weren’t these men playing the game yonder, why weren’t they helping their pals? To his own mind there was only one reason, and that was cussed selfishness. But the time would come when these men would dearly regret their selfishness, as they could not expect to be treated in the same way as the men who had sacrificed themselves.
Couston continued and attacked those who were in favour of negotiations for peace, the ‘pacifists at Trades Hall’ and those who wanted ‘revolution’. For Couston, It was no time to talk of peace. In his mind, the War had to be pursued until Germany was totally crushed, and therefore he urged,
If there was one man in Devon who was eligible he asked him in God’s name to go.
Following Couston, Rev Walklate’s primary focus was not the men on stage being welcomed home, but those who had died. His theme was the universal one of sacrifice, Christian sacrifice. He preached that life only had meaning if it was lived in the spirit of sacrifice. There could be no other measure:
The living of life must be measured by the spirit in which that life was given. Unless the spirit of self-sacrifice entered into man’s life that life was not lived in the true meaning of the word. It was probably hard to understand, but it was true. The men who had fallen and those who are prepared to go forth and make the sacrifice are the men who live. If that spirit of sacrifice died then the men lived no longer. The parents and loved ones of the fallen heroes had done their part, and had lived because they had sacrificed themselves.
With the returned men sitting on the stage as props, Walklate continued his sermon on real life. It was not about ‘wealth’ and ‘social position’ but about ‘sacrifice’. The length of life was not as important as its spiritual quality. There was of course the mandatory text and its explication:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” Men worshipped in different creeds, but the final test was whether it was done under the name of Jesus Christ or not. The final test was the test of Jesus Christ, that a man live in that spirit and that he lay down his life for his friend. These men, and these alone, had reached the stepping stone into eternal life.
To make it clear that he too was targeting eligibles, Walklate spoke of the returned men who had confided in him that they felt spurned by locals, while they saw eligibles – who had ‘failed in their duty’ – being favoured. He declared:
One man who had fought and bled [like those on the stage] had told him that many girls were keen to catch the glances of the shirker, but hardly noticed the returned soldier.
Walklate went so far as to condemn, in the religious sense, the man who would not accept his responsibility. Such a person would not enter the kingdom of God. He warned … those who were enjoying the comforts of this life would find out their mistake later on, as they would soon die, and they could not live again. Only sacrifice, in this case in the cause of the Nation and Empire, could guarantee eternal life:
The entrance to eternal life was by sacrifice, and if people did not respond to life’s responsibilities, they would have an awakening [fateful reckoning] in the life to come.
The final speaker that night was a local, the father of Edwin Alford who had been killed in April that year (Post 158). Alford had just been given a medallion for his dead son. He rounded out the condemnation of all those who had refused to enlist:
Mr. Alford said he would value the token received that evening all the days of his life. He was an Australian, and was proud to be one. He also felt proud to know that his boy had gone and done his duty. He would sooner any son of his fight and die for his country than to remain home and be a coward. He said to those fathers who had sons, to send one to the front to see themselves from dishonour. Neither himself nor his wife would wish to have a son who shirked his duty. (Applause.)
It is clear that those on the stage that night were being welcomed back to a divided community where there was much grief, frustration, anger and bitterness.
The returned men themselves
The men welcomed home in 1918 were the ones who had been repatriated to Australia for a medical discharge. They returned home with their health significantly compromised. In several cases they were not able to attend welcome home ceremonies because they were still recovering in hospital in Melbourne. In other cases, when they attended such functions they were not able to speak because of ‘nerves’. In other instances they appeared before the locals as amputees. The standard approach to handle the nature and extent of battle wounds was to appeal to notions of manhood and Empire. As W G Pope declared at a welcome home in March 1918 (reported on 20/3/18):
He was sorry to see some of them wounded, but these scars would be their glory for the rest of their lives. They had proved to be men of the same description of our Nelson and Wellington heroes.
The report in the local paper also noted the similar remarks of Rev A R Raymond, the local Anglican clergyman:
Rev. A. R. Raymond extended a hearty welcome to the soldiers, men who could say they bore marks on their bodies in fighting for King and Country, and in defending right we were [as] proud of them as they were proud of their marks.
Beyond such platitudes, it is worth examining in more detail the condition in which the men returned. Of the 40 men welcomed home in 1918, only two had not been discharged on medical grounds. Henry Cook had been discharged for ‘family reasons’. Four brothers from the family had enlisted, but by 1918 the parents were not able to cope by themselves. The other person was Sydney Collis who had been returned to Australia on Anzac Leave and, in theory, was to return to France for the planned offensive in Spring 1919. However, the medical condition of both these men was problematic. Cook had been wounded – gsw back – and had suffered from shell shock, while Collis had been hospitalised earlier with enteric fever.
Of the remaining 38 men, some had been discharged for ongoing medical issues. One was discharged for chronic bronchitis, another for defective eyesight, a third for hearing problems and a fourth for gastric ulcers and tachycardia. Two men, both in their forties, were discharged for (premature) senility.
The remaining 34 men were discharged on medical grounds that specifically related to battle field experience. Two had been ‘gassed’ and one had been discharged with ‘trench feet’, including ‘blood clots in the legs.’ There was a group of 4 men who had been discharged because of neurasthenia. While only 4 men were discharged solely on the basis of this condition, neurasthenia often occurred in the medical notes of men discharged for other (medical) reasons. The condition was commonly described in terms of ‘shell shock’, ‘paralysis of the legs’, and often tachycardia was included.
The largest group of men (25) were medically discharged because they had been wounded by gunshot (gsw) or shrapnel (sw) or, in the case of Gallipoli veterans, by ’bomb’. The wounds in these instances were most commonly to the chest, back, legs, arms and thigh. Sometimes the wounds were ‘multiple’. There were several amputations – leg, hand, arm – associated with these wounds.
Clearly, even after they had been discharged from hospital, the general health of this group of returned men was going to be problematic. While they were welcomed home as heroes, the reality was that they were to face compromised health, most probably for the rest of their lives. This would affect their lives generally, including work prospects. It also meant that those who were relatively young – most were in the mid to late twenties – and single (33) were most likely going to have to rely on the support of their parents and siblings. The fortunes of the families of the 7 married men would also be compromised, and the burden of care would fall heavily on the wife.
It is also important to note that the most common occupation for men in this group of returned soldiers (50%) was that of ‘farm worker’ or ‘farm labourer’. There was another 25% of the group who came from the ‘family farm’. Essentially, even with a pension and even if they managed to find and keep work or perform a productive role on the family farm, these men were always going to struggle financially. They did not have financial resources to fall back on. Again, notwithstanding the degree to which they were feted on their return – and told to wear their wounds as ‘badges of honour’ – the reality was that their lives had been seriously compromised. The cost of sacrifice fell disproportionately on the rural working class.
There are 2 additional interesting observations. The first is that a significant number of the men – 9 of the 40 – had been UK immigrants who had worked as farm labourers in the Shire before they enlisted in the AIF. Rather than be discharged in the UK these men had returned to Australia and then, once back in Australia, they had chosen to return to the very district where they had worked before the War. Presumably their overall decision was shaped in part by issues such as the need for ongoing medical care and the provision of pensions but, at the same time, the decision to return to the very district where they had worked before the War suggests that they saw themselves as true ‘locals’. Perhaps they also reasoned that they would be better supported in their (adopted) local area.
The other interesting detail is the fact that 25% of the group actually went on to become soldier settlers after the War. There are 2 pertinent observations here. The first is that the figure tends to confirm the view that had soldier settlement as the ‘natural’ vocation for returned soldiers. The thinking at the time was that such men had the right experience, skills and character for the challenge. They were tough, independent and resourceful. Because of their experiences in the AIF they could make the scheme work. Moreover, in the spirit of some form of ‘rural socialism’ these soldier ‘battlers’ deserved the chance to secure land and move beyond the lot of the (itinerant) rural working class. Men wounded in battle had sacrificed even more and the logic had to be that such men deserved the chance as much as any other returned soldier. The other observation is that men whose health had been as compromised as it was for this group, would inevitably struggle more as soldier settlers than those whose health was relatively intact. Essentially, this view holds that these men were set up to fail.
In the last year of the War a record number of wounded men returned to the Shire of Alberton. They were welcomed as heroes. They were promised that everything possible would be done for them and that their sacrifice would never be forgotten. At the time, their sacrifice was also used to condemn those in the community who had refused to enlist. The men themselves must have seen that the community they returned to was divided. What they could not see was the future in which all the promises made would be qualified and their relative standing in the same community compromised. The currency of their scars would decline and the reality was they would never be able to slip back into their old lives and take up again where things were before they enlisted.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative