According to reporting in the local paper, the number of men who received formal farewells in 1918 was 22. Over the same period of time – the whole of 1918 – the number of local men who enlisted was approximately 40. In other words, about one half of those who enlisted in 1918 were given formal farewells from the Shire of Alberton. It is possible that in one or two cases a more private farewell occurred but it was not reported. It was also the case that another small group of men specifically rejected the offer of a formal farewell. More commonly, as noted in previous posts, men enlisted in Yarram, went off to camp but then never returned to the Shire of Alberton before embarking for overseas service. Hence there was no opportunity for a formal farewell.
Previous posts have shown the background complexities associated with enlistment over 1918. There was considerable ongoing pressure for enlistments, particularly after the major German offensive – and spectacular successes – in April-May 1918.
While public recruiting drives continued to be held locally – see Post 167. The search for ‘eligibles’, May 1918 – many of those who came forward at such public demonstrations failed the medical. There was a further drop-out rate amongst even those who did pass the (local) medical. Either they could not obtain parental permission or they failed subsequent medicals or perhaps they were discharged as unsuitable.
There was also the local recognition that, whatever the official recruiters might claim, the number of eligible men left in the district was small. Estimates suggest that by the end of 1918 approximately 800 men with a link to the Shire of Alberton had enlisted. Consequently, however desperate the need for reinforcements, the reality was that the available pool was, by the end of 1918, very limited. At the same time, this reality was often discounted – particularly by those who spoke at farewells – and the calls for enlistments remained right to the end of the War. The denunciation of ‘cold footers’ and ‘shirkers’ also continued to the end.
An indication of how the pressure was maintained to the end comes from the observation that men continued to enlist right through to early November 1918. Indeed, 3 men – James Wentworth Davis, Albert McEvoy and Christian Gregory Olsen – received their railway warrants for travel to Melbourne to complete the enlistment process on the very day of the Armistice, 11/11/18. Equally, as will become apparent, formal farewells were held through to the end of October 1918.
As previously noted, the farewells staged in the small settlements or townships of the Shire – places such as Womerah, Stacey’s Bridge, Lower Bulga, Wonyip – tended to be more community-focused and elaborate than those conducted in Yarram. Invariably in these places, the farewell was incorporated in a social of some kind, there was a very large attendance and the men being farewelled received not just the conventional Shire Medallion and (religious) Card but also some additional remembrance, for example a ‘wristlet watch’ or a ‘gold locket’ or inscribed ’gold medal’. In Yarram, attendance always seemed to be an issue and, as previously noted, A E Paige, the head teacher of the primary school and one of the common speakers, would often bring a party of students from the school to help make up the numbers. The problem with farewells at Yarram was that they were invariably used for recruiting purposes. The farewells were organised by the same group of Imperial Loyalists who were involved in the various iterations of the local recruiting committee and they also backed the Yes vote in the 2 referenda on conscription. Eligibles would hardly attend farewell – or welcome home – events at Yarram and, over time, ordinary locals would, inevitably, become reluctant to attend to be harangued on the need for enlistments. Then, when the numbers attending dropped, the speakers attacked the townsfolk for being indifferent to the War situation and the sacrifice of those being farewelled.
The themes employed by speakers at the farewells, both in Yarram and the outlying centres, remained constant to the end of the War. Loyalty to England and the Empire was ever present. As was the praise of those in the AIF and the conviction that as a fighting force it ranked with the very best. Indeed, for many it had proved itself to be the best fighting unit in the world. Speakers referred to commentary in the newspapers that constantly pushed this claim. Often there were also references to the young man enlisting as representing the very best character and spirit of the original ‘pioneers’ of the district. The pioneers had battled to settle the land and now their descendants were battling to protect what had been created. But by far the most constant theme was the one that had enlistment as a test of character; and this was after 4 years of constant appeals for enlistments, endless recruiting drives and 2 failed referenda on conscription. The essential dichotomy was there throughout the entire period of the War: that while most Australian men proved themselves loyal and brave and enlisted, there was a solid core who refused to acknowledge their responsibility and, no matter what pressure was applied, did not enlist. The sub themes here were that such men were cowardly, they forced mere boys and married men to take their place and do their duty, and they took the jobs of those who had enlisted voluntarily. These men were to be despised. They would forever be outcast because they had never been part of the AIF. Moreover, they must never be able to take either the jobs or the promotions of those who had enlisted.
Often, the various themes and sub themes ran together. For example, Leo Furlong was farewelled from the school at Lower Whitelaw on 21/1/18 and then again at the Womerah Hall on 22/1/18. The farewells were reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 30/1/18 and 6/2/18. Furlong enlisted as a 21 yo . His family ran a dairy farm. One of the speakers at Womerah was Henry John Alford another local dairy farmer who had take a strong, public pro-conscription position. At the time, his son – Edward J Alford – was serving in the AIF. He would be killed on 14/4/18 (Post 158). Alford started by declaring that at Womerah … practically all the eligible men had enlisted … and now married men and boys were going. Accepting that this was the case, in such a small community the locals would have known which ‘eligibles’ had not enlisted. Alford went on to dismiss one of the arguments – it was not Australia’s fight – put up by those who refused to enlist. In the process, Alford not only questioned their reasoning but attacked their base character. These were not real men:
Unfortunately there were men (so called) who refused to take any part in the defence of Australia. They said, “This is England’s quarrel, not ours. If an enemy should land in Australia we would fight.” He would say to those men, “If England goes down Australia is doomed. Only the British navy protects us”. Should an enemy land in Australia there would be no scrub on the hills thick enough to hide those heroes.
Another local farmer who spoke that day – Matthew Thomas – managed to tie together a range of themes:
Mr. Mat Thomas said there were two classes of men who were not taking their part in the war. Those who would like to go, but were afraid, who he felt sorry for, the other class were those who would like to see the enemy win who were traitors, and should be turned out of any position they held. No returned soldier should be looking for work while one of these men held a position.
In May 1918, not long after his son had been killed, H J Alford spoke at another farewell from Womerah. It was reported on 7/6/18. Of the 2 men farewelled that night, William H Clemson was very young. He gave his age as 19 yo but in fact he might have been as young as 16 yo. It was a complicated enlistment and, indeed, he might not have lasted in the AIF, presumably because he was so young. In any case, it must have been Trooper Clemson’s very young age that prompted H J Alford to declare:
It was a shame that young men of more mature years [those not as young as Clemson] should stand back and allow a boy to go to fight for them. If there were any eligible men there that night who could go he appealed to them in God’s name to go at once while yet there was time; if not, how could they face these boys when they came back? They would stand branded all their days as shirker, who in their country’s danger refused to defend her.
Clearly, the stage was set for some form of orchestrated reckoning when the War ended and the men of the AIF returned home. The heroes of the AIF, backed by the general community, would confront and settle the score with the ‘traitors’, ‘cold footers’ and ‘shirkers’.
There was another theme that touched on family sacrifice, or, more pointedly, the father’s sacrifice. As indicated, H J Alford’s son had been killed in April 1918. Another very public Imperial Loyalist, B P Johnson, lost his son in mid May 1918 (Post 164). Men in the public eye, who were in favour of conscription and who advocated ceaselessly for enlistments, promoted the enlistment of their own sons as praiseworthy and proof of their own loyalty. They even loosely cast themselves as modern-day Abrahams, where they, as well as their sons, were making great personal sacrifice. Benjamin Couston was the manager of the Yarram branch of the Bank of Victoria. He had been in Yarram since late 1916. He was pro-conscription and had served on the local Yes committee. He was constantly attacking ‘eligibles’ and claimed he saw them playing football locally. At public farewells, he praised his own sons for enlisting while attacking those … who had no encumbrances but were hanging back and would not enlist. (28/6/18). At the farewell for Private H Brand held in Yarram on 26/6/18, and reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 28/6/18, Couston once again attacked the eligibles but did so in the context of the personal sacrifice that he, as the patriarch, was called upon to make:
He [Couston] knew of no reason and would acknowledge no reason why eligible men should stay at home. They had no right to do so when their country was calling. The Empire was tottering to its foundations and during no time in history had it been in such deadly peril. … He could not understand eligibles remaining at home. His second son who was only 20 years of age, had just written asking for consent to enlist. One was in camp, and this as his only remaining boy, and he considered whether he ought to sacrifice the manhood of his family for those cold-footers who were remaining in security. There were other people with six or seven eligible sons who had done nothing.
A few weeks later on 10/7/18 it was the turn of Couston’s son – Kenneth Couston, who had enlisted on 1/6/18 as an eighteen-year-old – to be farewelled from Yarram. The farewell was reported in the local paper on 12/7/18. Again the young age of the recruit was noted. In fact, the comments on the day by George Bland – one of the key figures responsible for organising farewells and welcomes – smacked of desperation:
Mr. Geo. Bland said it was another instance of a youth taking a man’s place. So much had been said on that question that it seemed useless to endeavour to persuade men of more mature years to enlist.
When his turn came to speak, Couston declared that – like Abraham – he was prepared to sacrifice everything, in this case for the Empire and the Allies:
Mr. B. Couston said that on behalf of his son he thanked them for their kindly wishes. The present time was not a time when a father could put his feelings into words. He had given all he had – his two sons – for the cause of the Empire; and no father could do more. He would sacrifice everything to advance the cause of the Allies (Applause).
The same sentiment was being expressed as late as October 1918. There was a farewell held at Womerah on 1/10/18 – reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 9/10/18 – for James Summerfield who had enlisted at the end of May 1918. The father was prepared to commit his son to the ‘fiery furnace of war’. He was reported thus:
Since he was 18 the boy had wanted to go, but he held him back, considering him too young. He was now 20, and going with his full consent. Though he was as anxious as anyone to see early peace declared, but (sic) rather than have an inconclusive peace he would wish to see the war continue and his boy pass into the fiery furnace of war till the beast of Berlin was securely chained. (Applause.)
Wilfred Owen’s poem, The Parable of the Young Man and the Old [below] explored the fateful consequence of the patriotic fervour of such patriarchs.
The penultimate farewell from the Shire of Alberton took place at Won Wron on 28/10/18 and was reported in the local paper on 6/11/18, five days before the Armistice. The event was a social-dance for George ‘Jim’ Clark and the hall was packed. Clark was a 20 yo ‘saw mill hand’ who had enlisted on 2/8/18. As well as being presented with the usual Shire Medallion and Card, Private Clark was also given a certificate in a blackwood frame. The theme referred to that day was the common one of ‘playing the game (of football) as part of a team’.
When attending the school, he had always upheld its traditions and he felt sure that by the stand he had taken, he would uphold the standard already attained by the Australian soldiers. (Applause) … When the opposition [football] team needed a bump “Jim” could give one, and he felt sure now that he is a “member of the team” out for justice and liberty, he will endeavour to give the enemy a good solid bump. He possessed the many fine and sterling qualities of his parents and was certain he would uphold Australia’s good name.
The very last farewells from the Shire of Alberton occurred on the night of 29/10/18 and the morning of 30/10/18. Both events were reported in the local paper on 1/11/18. On the night of 29/10/18 Ernest George Griffiths was farewelled from Stacey’s Bridge. The next morning there was another farewell for him in Yarram. At this second farewell, one other local – Roy William Turnbull was also farewelled, and Sapper A J Martin was welcomed home. Ernest Griffiths was a 21 yo clerk whose family was from Stacey’s Bridge. He had enlisted in August 1918 but, as was pointed out in speeches on the night, he had been trying to enlist since 1916. Roy William Turnbull was only 19 yo. He was a bank clerk from Yarram and he had enlisted in July 1918.
By this point – early November 1918 – there was a growing sense that the fighting had just about finished. Speakers remarked that the news from the front was ‘much brighter’ and it was possible that neither of the men being farewelled would face battle. They were quick to add:
Privates Griffiths and Turnbull had enlisted some time ago, and the fact that they were just about to sail did not detract in any way from the spirit in which they had enlisted.
Specifically in relation to Private Griffiths, the chair of the farewell at Stacey’s Bridge declared that … Private Griffiths was not going to the war because he thought it was nearly over. To his credit he enlisted three years ago, and has tried several times since. This time [18/8/18] he was successful.
The key theme for this last set of farewells saw the return to the legacy of the pioneers. The chair at the Yarram farewell – George Bland – effectively summed up both the Shire’s overall contribution and the ongoing link with the pioneers and their spirit. He declared that the 2 men being farewelled were … grandsons of pioneers of the district, and it was pleasing to see that the grand old spirit which was in the blood of their grandfathers had been inherited by these boys. Almost every district family was represented at the front, and he was proud to say the boys had proved their worth.
The same theme was picked up by B P Johnson. Johnson had returned to his role as key speaker at such events after a period of several months following the death of his son. The sub-theme of racial superiority comes through in all the references to the superior (White and British) ’blood’ of the pioneers.
Mr. B. P. Johnson said in regard to the two boys that were going to the war, they were descendants of old pioneers of the district, and blood tells every time. Their forefathers were men who came out to this country and showed they had true British blood in their veins by the work they had done, and their boys were now going forward to lend their assistance to a cause that was keeping from these shores a fate worse than death.
Johnson of course had been present at the very first farewell of men from the Shire of Alberton at the Alberton Railway Station on 21 September 1914. On the day, there had been much enthusiasm, but that very first farewell had been poorly organised – see Post 11 – and the men nearly did not make it to the station. Johnson, conscious of the second-rate and very amateurish send-off the men were being given, promised to make it up to them with a ’tip-top reception’ when they came back. At that first farewell, all the newly enlisted men were enthusiastic and confident. There was an overabundance of volunteers. The community was totally behind the men. There was no real challenge for any speaker on that occasion. Johnson simply declared:
You are a decent lot, and we are proud of you fellows. You are going to the biggest battle the world has ever seen. It will not be a picnic. You will have a hard time, but we know you will do your duty. I only wish I were a few years younger and I would be amongst you, (Cheers). The Empire is proud of men like you. We know you will come back victorious. We’ll win the fight, even if it takes every man and every shilling we’ve got. We’re fighting for right.
Just over 4 years later, at the end of 1918, farewells had become very different affairs. In the past 4 years, 800 men had enlisted from the Shire and more than 100 had been killed. For at least 3 of the 4 years, recruiting drives had been a constant, draining feature of life for everyone. Two conscription referenda had been defeated. Enlistment targets could not be met and the Government claimed constantly that the nation was failing its soldiers on the front line. In the conservative, rural community of the Shire of Alberton, Imperial Loyalists had not been able to comprehend, or accept, the defeat of the conscription referenda. Principally, they saw the treachery in the City but they also saw evidence of it in their own community, with some not prepared to share the sacrifice. Overall, while formal farewells still acknowledged individual sacrifice, loyalty and selflessness – particularly amongst the very young – they had also become very public demonstrations of division, bitterness, frustration and disillusionment. This was particularly the case for those farewells held in Yarram.
The Parable of the Young Man and the Old
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative