Over the last 4 + years I have used the blog to record, against the chronology of the War, the deaths of soldiers from the Shire of Alberton. In this sense the blog has acted as a formal attestation of their service. In six-monthly intervals I have also given an overview of all those who enlisted, and also considered the issue of those who chose not to enlist. More broadly, I have also attempted to analyse the impact of the various crises, pressure points and divisions that either emerged or were exacerbated in the local community – and Australia more generally – during the course of the War.
However, now that the centenary of the Armistice has passed, future posts will not keep to the previous regular time frame but will be posted at progressive intervals.
I still need to cover the cases of 2 local men who died overseas on service. Harold Claude Perkins died of disease in France on 26/2/19 and John Albert O’Neill died of illness in the UK on 25/11/19. Both names are included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ memorial. I will combine the 2 in a single post early next year.
There is also further work to do on the complete database of all those locals who enlisted. This always has been, and still remains, a work-in-progress. As already indicated, as the research has continued over the course of the blog I have uncovered additional names and I need to add this number – approximately 20 – which will take the final tally so nearly 800 men. I will include the additional men as a separate post.
Also, I intend to carry out additional analysis of the complete data base. To now, the data has been released, and interpreted, in intervals of 6 months but it now needs to be looked at as a whole. It represents a significant data set – nearly 800 men of the AIF who can be tied to a particular location – and it deserves more attention. I am also considering including additional characteristics, in order, for example, to provided a greater focus on the issue of the men’s health. However, there is a significant technical problem here because throughout the blog I have struggled to find a sufficiently sophisticated online data base to use alongside the blog. What I want to do might not be possible. At the same time, I should at least be able to use the blog to release additional insights from the data.
Then there are all the issues associated with the men’s return to Australia and the local area. There are questions about how easily they were able to fit back into their former lives and the local community, and the extent to which they wanted to retain the experience of ‘mateship’ fashioned in the AIF, even if this bond was ‘exclusivist’ in nature. There were certainly major disputes in the local community over the issue of the commemoration of the men’s service and sacrifice. And all this was taking place within a community where much of the division seen over the course the War, particularly that over religion, was actually intensifying not diminishing.
The soldier settlement scheme was also critically important. It promised so much after the War. But one of the most interesting features of the program was the way the ex-soldiers, representing the younger generation, succeeded or failed in their ventures within an administrative and political context that gave power to the older generation of established farmers and town elders. In a real sense, the former soldiers swapped the authority of the AIF – where most of them were relatively young and never rose above the rank of private – for the generational authority of the established social and political order of the community to which they returned; and the power of the local authority overseeing the settlement scheme was considerable. I hope to give at least an overview of the success or otherwise of the scheme over the first 10 or so years.
I would also like to look in more detail at the whole question of the White Australia Policy, particularly in the context of the end of the War and the widespread conviction that victory had secured this fundamental national commitment. In this context I also hope to revisit the local history written at the time by Rev George Cox.
It is important, at the very least, to begin to show that the full legacy of the War – even within the confines of just the one local community of the Shire of Alberton on which I have focused these past 4 + years – went far beyond the preoccupation with memorials and commemorations, and all the associated myth-making.
LOWTHER Frank William 156 (42 B) 41 B Died of Illness 24/11/18
Frank William Lowther enlisted in Queensland but both he and his large family had strong links with the Shire of Alberton. His father – Thomas Cormac Lowther – had been the head teacher at the state school at Yarram prior to 1878. The father also had land in the Devon district. Frank himself was born at Woodside in 1882, grew up in the district and attended the state schools at Devon North and Yarram. While it appears that there were initially 12 siblings in the family, three had died by the time of the War.
There was an older brother – Louis Anthony Lowther – who also enlisted in Queensland and who had also attended the same local schools. Both these brothers were also listed on the Devon North District honor roll and the Presbyterian Charge.
The father died in 1883 just one year after Frank was born and it appears that the family farm was sold in 1899. It is not known when 3 of the Lowther brothers – Frank William, Louis Anthony and Clare Cormac – moved to Queensland but the fact that the names of the 2 brothers who enlisted appear on the Devon and local Presbyterian honor rolls suggest that it was probably not until about 1910. Some of the female siblings married in the local area. The second eldest child – Eleanor Ann Lowther, born 1862 – married a local (Lowe) and was living at Woranga during the War. Additionally, another married sister – Kate Clara Lowther (Martin), born 1879 – was also still living in Yarram, as was another unmarried sister, Blanche Lowther, born 1876. Overall, the Lowther family was certainly well known in the district.
Frank Lowther enlisted in Toowoomba on 25/11/15. He joined 42 Battalion. He was 33 yo, single and he gave his religion as Presbyterian. His brother, Clare Cormac Lowther, was listed as his next-of-kin. This brother, older than Frank, was farming at Jandowae near Chinchilla in Queensland and it appears that Frank was living and working with him. The other brother who enlisted – Louis Anthony Lowther – was also farming in the same area prior to his enlistment. He returned to Queensland, at least initially, after the War. There is a note on the form completed for the (National) Roll of Honour – completed by Clare Cormac Lowther – that Frank was … working with his brother [Clare Cormac], but later took up photography. The same form also reveals that Frank was an accomplished musician who had played with the North Devon Brass Band – at least until 1905 – and won competitions. It noted that he had had ‘good’ musical training and he … excelled on cornet and saxophone. Then, when he enlisted, he was … one of the members of the original Band of the 42 Battalion continuing so till his death.
There is not much information in Private Frank Lowther’s service file on his war-time experience. He left Australia in early June 1916, reached the UK in late July 1916 and moved to France in January 1917. According to the war diary of 42 Battalion, on 23/10/18, the battalion – 42 Battalion – merged with or was ‘taken on the strength of’ 41 Battalion. This was at the time of the ‘mutiny’ when several battalions refused to disband as part of the re-organisation or ‘cannibalisation’ forced on the AIF. Private Lowther was never in trouble with the military authorities, nor was he ever wounded and, until the very end at least, he was never even admitted to hospital.
The same war diary (31/10/18) also noted that just before the Armistice the health of the men was generally good but it also cautioned that … the greatest care was, and still is being exercised, to prevent “Spanish Influenza” which has made its appearance, from assuming alarming proportions. On 18/11/18 the diary recorded that the men were ‘inoculated this morning’. There was also a passing reference on 29/11/18 – Influenza proving troublesome.
Private Lowther was one of those for whom ‘Spanish Influenza’ was ‘troublesome’. He was admitted to the hospital at Abbeville (3 Australian General Hospital) suffering from ‘influenza’ on 17/11/18, was described as ‘dangerously ill’ on 22/11/18 and died of ‘Bronchial Pneumonia’ on 24/11/18. Interestingly, in his file there is a Red Cross report which lists 3 other men who died in the Abbeville Hospital round the same time from ‘Spanish Flu’. The earliest was 28/10/18 and the last 17/12/18. In all 4 cases the patient was admitted with ‘influenza’ but then, within 5-8 days, died from ‘broncho-pneumonia’. In addition to these 4 deaths, other records in Private Lowther’s service file – from Graves Registration Unit – indicate that at least another 3 men from the Abbeville Hospital (3AGH) died from ‘broncho-pneumonia’, following ‘influenza’, in November 1918.
Private Lowther was buried in the Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension. It appears that the family in Australia was advised of the death in early December 1918 (3-5/12/18). The local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – reported his death on 13/12/18, noting that … Private Frank Lowther, formerly of this district, has lost his life in the service of his country. A death notice appeared on 18/12/18:
LOWTHER.- On November 24th of bronchial pneumonia, Private Frank William Lowther, No. 156, C Coy., 42nd Battalion, bandsman, A.I.F., youngest son of the late Thomas Cormac Lowther, and dearly loved brother of Mrs. Wm. Jas. Lowe, Woranga, and C. C. Lowther, Jandowae, Queensland. Age 36 years and 11 1/2 months. He patiently stayed until victory was won, Then he laid aside bugle and sword; Good fight he had fought, life’s race he’d well run, Now he rests in the arms of his Lord. Sleep on beloved, sleep and take thy rest Till the day break and the shadows flee
and an in memoriam appeared on 20/12/18:
On Active Service. LOWTHER.- On the 24th of November, 1918, Frank Lowther, who died of pneumonia after two years and five months’ active service, loved brother of Messrs. O. T. Lowther, C. C. Lowther, Pte. L. A. J. Lowther, Mrs. W. J. Lowe, Mrs. C. M. Goodaye, Misses R. E. Lowther and B. Lowther, and Mrs. K. C. Martin, all of whom equally mourn their loss. Beloved by all. Beyond the shadows and the strife. Inserted by his loving and sorrowing sister, K. C. Martin
The brother identified as next-of-kin (Clare Lowther in Queensland) received personal kit – Wallet, Y.M.C.A. Wallet, 3 Razors, Safety Razor, Devotional Book, Letters, Cards, Pocket Knife, Coins Value 50 cent. – in August 1919. Another brother, Oswald Thomas Lowther, the oldest male sibling – was sent an ‘identity disc’ nearly one year later, in June 1920. Oswald, again as the oldest surviving son in the family, also received the war medals.
This oldest brother – Oswald Thomas Lowther – who was 51 yo at the time of his youngest brother’s death, was a prolific correspondent with the AIF’s Base Records in Melbourne. Even though he was not the designated next-of-kin, he effectively took on this role; and, in time, this pursuit of his came to create significant family conflict. As an example of his propensity to assume the role of ‘head-of-family’, in February 1919 he wrote to Base Records indicating that he wished to open proceedings to have his brother’s body returned to Australia. He wrote of some promise to his mother on her death bed:
He is my youngest Brother & my Dear Mother on her death-bed made a special request to me, so that if possible, I would like him to be buried in his mother’s grave.
The request is extraordinary and, in fact, in the approximately 140 cases of AIF members killed overseas which I have examined, it is the only such request I have come across. It is hard to believe that it was ever a serious request. In any case, the AIF gave a judicious reply (20/2/19):
Concerning the request that the body of your brother, the late No 156, Private F.W. Lowther, 41st Battalion, be returned to Melbourne I have to inform you that from information received by the Honourable the Minister for Defence it is gathered that the Imperial War Graves Commission have formed the opinion that this will not be practicable. A realisation of the natural feelings of relatives in a matter of such an intimate character increases the difficulty of laying down a rule of a strictly definite character but the Minister trusts that all concerned will be content to accept the principle, a departure from which , the Commission fears, would lead to undesirable discriminations in the treatment of questions of this kind. It is hoped therefore, that you will not press your wishes in this matter but will be satisfied to leave your brother with the comrades buried with him in the Field.
With regard to Private Frank Lowther’s personal property a significant injustice appears to have occurred. When Private Lowther was admitted to hospital in Abbeville he took with him, as his own personal property, his cornet and saxophone. However, neither of these was ever returned to the family. The brother in the AIF – Sgt. Louis Lowther – began to pursue the matter in June 1919. He had been alerted by the brother back in Queensland that neither instrument had been returned and, obviously, both brothers were keen to recover these treasured items. It appears that first the AIF and then the Red Cross were contacted to help resolve the issue. However, despite various reassurances and attempts to locate the items there is no record of them ever being returned. The family was told that the items should have been returned to 42 Battalion but, unfortunately, the battalion had now been ‘demobilised’ and it was therefore … difficult to get any information on (the) subject. Also, The 3rd Australian General Hospital, Abbeville, France, where the late soldier died has now been disbanded thus enhancing the futility of further enquiries at this end. Similarly, the AIF Kit Store in London had no information and, moreover, did not know … of any other source from which information may be obtained regarding same. The official reply (22/8/19) therefore was that … enquiries have been made in every direction without success. At the end of the day, 2 valuable musical instruments which Private Lowther had had with him, probably from his time with the Devon North District Band, and then all through the War years, were most likely taken by someone at the hospital after he died. The 2 items that arguably most identified his life and which meant so much to his family were lost.
Private Lowther’s service file reveals another example of how family conflict could break out over the memory of the dead sibling. After Frank’s death, there were 8 siblings still alive. Some were still living in the Shire of Alberton but others had shifted – for example, to Melbourne – and, as indicated, prior to the War three brothers had earlier moved to Queensland. So, overall, it was still a large family and the siblings were separated by significant distances. However neither of these difficulties was the main problem.
In the AIF, Private Frank Lowther had nominated as his next-of-kin one of his older brothers – Clare Cormac Lowther – but, as already pointed out, the oldest surviving brother – Oswald Thomas Lowther – appeared keen to establish himself as the family head. Moreover, under the legislation covering the distribution of medals, in the case where both parents were deceased, it was the oldest brother – Oswald Thomas Lowther – who had the first claim. However, as things turned out, the conflict that did arise was not over the distribution of medals – although some of the female siblings did take great exception to what they regarded as discrimination on the basis of their sex – but, rather, over the wording of the inscription on the grave stone.
As the next-of-kin, Clare Cormac Lowther was given the task of organising the inscription for the grave stone. He was sent the official form in February 1920. However, at the same time as he was asked to provide an inscription, the eldest brother – Oswald Thomas Lowther – initiated contact with Base Records enquiring about how he could create his own inscription. From this point, there was family division, or more correctly, based on all the correspondence in the service file, the issue of the inscription appeared to focus all the family division that had been there, probably from the time of the father’s death (1883) and certainly from that of the mother (1900).
Essentially, the family split into two camps: 6 siblings supported Clare Lowther, while Oswald Lowther was supported by one sister. Those who supported Clare Lowther wrote, in extensive correspondence to the AIF, that he was the sibling who had done the most for Frank, right from when he was born and that he was the one who always had had his interests at heart.
As far as the AIF was concerned, it obviously did not want to get involved in family disputes. Its position was that it would accept whatever the family decided, so long as it conformed to the requirement of 66 characters, including spaces. The AIF presumed that the siblings could and would come to an agreement.
At this point there were 2 basic proposals: one from Clare Lowther representing the 6 siblings which read:
In memory of Frank, dearly loved son of Thomas & Margaret Lowther, Yarram, Victoria
and another from Oswald Lowther and his sister (Caroline Gooday) which read:
Rev, 14.13 C. Gooday O. Lowther
[Revelation 14.13: Then I heard a voice from Heaven say to me, ‘Write down: Happy are those who die in the Lord! Happy indeed, the Spirit says; now they can rest for ever after their work, since their good deeds go with them’]
It is not clear if Oswald Lowther saw his inscription as an addition or alternative to the one backed by the majority of his siblings. He argued that he had not been consulted over the original inscription.
The AIF then wrote to Clare Lowther (1/12/20) and advised him of his brother’s request. They requested that he re-write the inscription, incorporating the additional request, still ensuring that the 66 character limit was observed. They also wrote to Oswald Lowther (2/12/20) advising him of what they had done.
This request prompted a series of letters from the 6 siblings stating that they disapproved strongly of the eldest brother’s actions. They expressed embarrassment at his actions; re-affirmed their belief that the only sibling who had the moral right to represent Frank’s interests was his brother Clare; were angry that this brother’s selfless actions had been challenged; were outraged that, as proposed, only 2 of the siblings’ names would appear in the inscription; and even made allegations about the past conduct of Oliver Lowther and how he had damaged the family’s name. In defending his original proposal, Clare Lowther wrote to the AIF (23/12/20):
Regarding the two members of the family (C. Goody & O. Lowther) I will say nothing except that they have adopted a hostile attitude toward me since my brother died.
The AIF must have realised that majority support obviously rested with the original inscription and that there was definitely no such support for any additional comment. Consequently it edited the inscription to read:
In memory of the dearly loved son of T. & M. Lowther, Yarram, Victoria.
It then forwarded (1/3/21) the inscription to the Imperial War Graves Commission in London.
Oswald Lowther wrote (28/2/21) wanting to know if anything had happened regarding his proposed change to the inscription. He was informed by the AIF on 9/3/21 that the final inscription was:
In memory of the dearly loved son of T. & M. Lowther, Yarram, Victoria.
However, the matter did not rest there. When Oswald Lowther found out about the final inscription (9/3/21) he immediately wrote back to the AIF requesting the following change – that ‘Yarram’ be removed and replaced by ‘Rev. 14,13’ which he indicated was a … favourite text of my Dear Mother’s. He added that the same text had been used at the funeral service of another brother who had died as an … Elder in the Kirk. He followed this request up with another in May 1921. However, in relation to this latest proposed change to the inscription, he also made representation directly to the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) in London. Presumably, he did so in what he saw as his capacity, or right, as the oldest male sibling and therefore the head of the family. It is also possible that he sought the intervention of the Minister of Defence (G Pearce). This time his representation was successful and the IWGC advised the AIF back in Melbourne that the wording had been changed in line with Oswald Lowther’s advice.
When the AIF discovered that the wording had been changed it wrote (10/8/21) to Clare Lowther – now working as an auctioneer at Hamilton, back in Victoria – explaining that without their knowledge his brother had communicated directly with the IWGC and that the inscription had been changed. The AIF pointed out that time was short but it still hoped that the family could come to an agreed position. Essentially, the AIF wanted the family to accept the change. Presumably, it did not see any significant problem with the change: a country town in Victoria had simply been replaced with a reference to a well-known scripture text.
It is to be regretted that your brother should have acted thus contrary to the expressed wishes of the surviving relatives but it is hoped that even at this juncture to obtain some degree of unanimity respecting the acceptance of the inscription in the revised form.
Clare Lowther replied immediately (15/8/21). He described his brother’s action as ‘contemptible’. He stated that he would inform his siblings about what had happened. He strongly rejected the change:
It was the particular wish [of the siblings] that the name of the town in which he [Frank] lived and was well and widely known should be inscribed on the headstone. My late brother’s parents were resident for a considerable number of years in this same town where their memory is cherished.
By this point there were urgent time constraints. Also, presumably, the AIF had had enough of being caught in the middle of family politics. It wrote back to Clare Lowther (24/8/21) pointing that there was no time for another round of family consultation and that the only option left for him was to write directly to the IWGC … with a view to obtaining, if possible, a reversal of their present decision.
While this was the course of action that Clare Lowther followed, it did not prevent the AIF receiving extensive correspondence from the siblings, in response to Clare Lowthers’ advice to them about what their brother had done. Such correspondence made it clear that they did not approve. Again, some attacked the integrity of their brother Oswald Lowther and, as a minimum, described his action as ‘underhand’. Others attacked the text itself and declared that it was … not worthy of a soldier’s honour. Others were outraged that the dispute had been revised by their brother and simply could not see why anyone would even object to the inscription as decided upon by the majority. As far as the inclusion of Yarram was concerned there were very strong feelings expressed, similar to Clare Lowther’s earlier comments. One sister wrote that Frank had been looking forward to returning to both Yarram and Devon when he returned home from the War. One of the sisters still living there, wrote of Yarram that it was … the town where he spent his childhood and boyhood and entered manhood and where he was and is loved and respected by all who knew him. She added that Yarram was … in the vicinity of the old house [the parents original house at Devon] where Frank had his most sacred and most cherished associations. There was consensus that Yarram had to stay in the inscription and that, in effect, nothing was to change.
On 3/9/21 Clare Lowther write to Base Records in Melbourne advising them that he had written to the IWGC informing them that it was the … unanimous wish of the majority of the members of the family that the name of Frank’s home town should be inscribed on his Memorial Stone.
That, presumably, was the end of the matter. The inscription on the grave stone today reads:
In Memory of the Dearly Loved Son of T. & M. Lowther Yarram, Victoria.
The preceding account illustrates how fraught the commemoration of those killed in the War could become. Possibly, in this particular case, the commemoration was compromised because of pre-existing divisions and tension within a large family, which meant that even the death of a loved sibling could not be an uncontested or neutral event. Clearly, those involved were embarrassed, ashamed and even outraged by what happened but, equally, they could not stop it.
The case also offers insight on the importance of place. Possibly, some at least of the siblings’ opposition to the plan to replace ‘Yarram’ with a reference to scripture was directed by anger at Oswald Lowther’s attempt to thwart the expressed wishes of the majority of siblings. However, equally, several of the siblings clearly articulated the need to tie the memory of their brother to a particular location, in this instance Yarram. They considered it was important to tie him, not to Queensland, where he had been living and working, but to the location to which his family ‘belonged’.
As we have seen throughout this blog, transience in Australia in late 19 C and early 20 C was a constant, across society as a whole. Yet for all the mobility, the need to identify with a particular location remained very powerful. Arguably, the dead of WW1 threw this fundamental need into much sharper focus. The need to place the names of the many dead on rolls and memorials – in cities, suburbs, country towns, settlements and even schools all across Australia – and literally make that connection to place, was overpowering; and even more so because the bodies were buried ‘overseas’ in the poetic corner of a ‘foreign field’.
However, the ‘rules’ for determining the specific location were vague and inconsistent and often local politics was the key driver. As well, after the War, there lapses in both effort and memory. Many of the dead missed out, as we have seen, repeatedly. Even in this particular case, despite all attempts to make the connection to Yarram, neither of the two Lowther brothers who served in the AIF were included on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the name of Frank William Lowther who died on 24/11/18 is not included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
This is the third post in a short series that has looked at various celebrations held in the Shire of Alberton in the week after the signing of the Armistice. The focus of this post is a victory celebration held in the Mechanics Hall on Monday evening,18 November 1918. It was a ‘men-only’ show and it was organised by the local branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ League [Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia] (see Post 148). It was put on ‘to celebrate the glorious victory over the Huns’. The report of the evening appeared in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on Wednesday 20/11/18.
The report does not indicate exactly how many of the returned men were there that night. I estimate that by November 1918, about 150 men from the Shire of Alberton had returned to Australia for medical discharge. This was from the approximately 800 men with a link to the Shire who had enlisted. However, not all those who enlisted from the Shire – for example, itinerant farm workers – returned to the Shire. Further, the event was held in Yarram on a week night and returned men from outlying towns and settlements would have faced difficulty in attending. Also there would have been returned men who for variety of reasons chose not to attend, or were not able to attend. At the same time, there was a functioning local branch of the RSSILA operating in Yarram and, allowing for all the qualifications, it is reasonable to suggest that there would have been up to 50 returned men there that night.
Also present were the fathers and (younger) brothers of those who enlisted and who were still overseas. Various ‘fathers’ associations’ had operated over the period of the War. The other major group of men there that night was made up of those who had been ‘rejected’ when they had tried to enlist. They belonged to an association identified in the newspaper report as the ‘Rejected Volunteers Association’. The paper made it clear that while the ‘rejected’ were glad to be present they certainly did not see themselves as the equal of the Anzac and their celebrations were therefore more restrained.
Noticeable in the gathering was the number of rejected men – we might almost say dejected men, by the thought that they were unable owing to some physical defect to join the boys at the front. But they were triers, at all events. With the fathers they enjoyed the fun more soberly, glad to see the returned boys as happy as juveniles.
Obviously the event was focused on the returned men and their ‘victory’. It was their opportunity to celebrate this victory and be recognised by the local community. The first item that night set the tone. It was a performance by some of the returned men:
A number of boys from “over there,” in merry mood, favored the company with a round of trench songs, quaint and original, which served to prove that in the midst of battle, and housed in trenches, there was that exuberance of spirit characteristic of the Australians, a spirit that was never dormant, even at the door of death.
The accompanist on the piano was described as the ‘dinkum oil’.
The Union Jack was pinned to the stage curtain and below it was a large banner declaring ‘God Save Our King’ [George V] and all the tables were adorned with the colours red, white and blue.
The program for the night involved a series of toasts, each accompanied by a speech. The first toast was to the Empire, given by Mr B Couston. Couston was the manager of the Yarram branch of the Bank of Victoria. He had been active in recruiting and also the push for the Yes vote in the 1917 referendum. He was an outspoken Imperial Loyalist.
While there were several references to a distinctly Nationalist (uniquely Australian) sentiment that night, such displays were very much set within the pervading sense of imperial loyalty and destiny. Couston, for example, outdid himself with praise for the Empire. He took the final victory as unshakeable proof of Britain and the Empire’s greatness. Extracts from his speech suggest how little had changed since the same ‘boys’ were farewelled in 1914:
The British Empire was one of the best and greatest empires that had ever existed, and during the past four and a half years the traditions of this great empire had been nobly upheld.
Britain was essentially a peaceful nation, and always strove to maintain peace throughout the world. She only went to war to see that justice was meted out; the rights of small nations should be protected.
Wherever the British flag was flying the people got justice, and they had faith in her. She had come out of this great struggle with more glory than in any other conflict she had been engaged in. She was opposed to the nation who respected neither life nor anything else, and the lads who had responded to the call of the mother land had nobly stood for and upheld the tradition of the great British Empire. Now they could glory in the victory, and could develop the resources of their country at the expense of those who had been subdued.
There was nothing that could make them [the ‘hearts of Britishers’] forget the violation of justice by Germany, the trampling down and outraging of Belgium and Servia. The Germans stopped at nothing, outraging women and children, and even went into the monasteries and defiled them.
For Couston, the War had established that Australia had proved itself worthy of membership of the Empire and that Australians were worthy of the title ‘British’:
…the people of the dependencies of Britain were just as loyal as the old countrymen. Colonials knew they came from the noblest and purest of blood, and had flocked round the grand old flag showing how proud they were to belong to the greatest nation the world had even seen. (Applause.)
Perhaps Couston allowed himself to be carried away in the last burst of patriotic praise but the claim about the ‘colonials’ belonging to the ‘greatest nation the world had ever seen’ set definite limits to any notion of a unique variety of Australian nationalism. For Couston, Australia’s national identity, national interest and even national destiny did not exist outside the Empire.
There followed a toast to ‘The Allies’, because while it had essentially been a British triumph, the allies had also played a part, at least in reducing the length of the War. The allied powers specifically mentioned were Italy, Servia, Roumania, Portugal, Japan, America, France and Belgium.
In proposing the toast of “The Allies”, the speaker proclaimed,
… all recognised that the British Empire was one of the greatest and best, but at the same time they would all recognise in such a gigantic war as had just been gone through, that without the aid of the Allies hostilities may have gone on for many years.
Clearly, the millions of Russian dead had slipped off the political balance sheet, presumably because, in the end, Tsarist Russia had failed the Allies; and now the world faced the Bolshevik menace.
The toast to the Allies finished with a parting shot at Germany. Germany … deserved not one particle of sympathy, and nothing was too bad for her, and he [the speaker] trusted the Allies would never forgive her for the atrocities committed.
Next, a toast to ‘The Boys at the Front’ was given by E. N. G. Gabbett, one of the returned men. Edward (Goldie) Gabbett enlisted in 4 Light Horse Regiment as a 34 yo in July 1915. He had tried to enlist earlier but had been rejected on the basis of ‘insufficient teeth’. He was married and he came from Sale. His medical was taken at Yarram but the enlistment was finalised at Melbourne. He reached France in March 1916. He was wounded by a high explosive shell in November 1916 and his left leg had to be amputated. He was returned to Australia and discharged on medical grounds in February 1918. He was one of three brothers who enlisted. A younger brother, Norcliffe Gabbett, only nineteen, had been killed at Gallipoli.
Gabbett steered a deft path in praising the various units in the AIF and noting their respective strengths. He singled out the ‘battalion stretcher bearer’ for praise. Gabbett also continued the anti-German theme and pushed it to extreme lengths. He was reported thus,
He did not like speaking about the Germans as it made his blood boil. He had seen their work in Belgium, and he hated them like poison; they were the worst of the worst. He would never trust a German, no matter where he came from. There was only one good German – and that was a dead one. (Applause.)
Lt. Einsiedel, a visitor – and a visitor with a German name – then proposed the toast to the ‘Fathers and Mothers of the Boys’. He spoke about the sacrifice of parents who had lost sons, particularly those who had given permission for their under-age sons to enlist.
Although some parents had lost their sons, those boys were not lost to them and their memory would live forever and be honoured throughout the land. Parents would, in bearing their burdens, know that the sacrifice they had made had not been in vain. (Applause.)
Mr George Bland responded to Lt Einsiedel. Bland was a well-known local farmer and civic leader. He had a played a key role in the soldiers’ farewells and welcomes home. He was also a temperance supporter. He continued with the customary platitude about the dead not really being dead. According to him,
Those lads who had been killed were not lost to the parents. They had only gone before, gone before to join that deathless army which would always live.
The next speaker was Mr. John Biggs. The Biggs family was Catholic and 5 sons had tried to enlist but only 3 were accepted. At the time, one of the sons – Corporal John William Biggs – was a prisoner of war. He had enlisted as a nineteen-year-old in May 1916. He had been captured in the major German push in April (1918).
Biggs managed to combine the two themes of the dead not being lost and Germany’s guilt,
Those lives that were lost were not lost in vain, as it was through those boys victory had been won. He [Biggs] was afraid the Allies were going to be too lenient with Germany. The present was no time to talk of justice to Germany. Let justice be given to France and Belgium first.
Biggs then moved on to more local concerns. Specifically, he started talking about repatriation and his comments took on a decidedly militant, if not agrarian socialist, tone. For Biggs, the past 4 years had seen many promises made and now it was time to deliver. Probably, Biggs was being critical of all those local civic leaders who had called on all the local men to enlist in the name of duty and patriotism. There was an obvious suggestion of class conflict in what he said:
When all the boys come back they should be provided for, and the Government should see they were properly looked after. The Government should compel the wealthy members of the community, those who had made money out of the war, to disgorge. There were men who were living idle lives holding big properties and producing next to nothing. The land should be acquired compulsorily. Let the Government pay a reasonable price for it and give it to the boys. No one had a better right to it than those who fought for it.
Finally, it was the turn of the ‘The Triers’. This toast was proposed by Mr David Muir, another returned local soldier. Prior to enlistment he had been a popular and well-known footballer and cricketer but he had been discharged in mid 1917 with ‘broken health’. Muir referred to those rejected as men …who through no fault of their own, were not soldiers. He spoke of them as …
– the disappointed triers. They had in fact formed an Association and were affiliated with the Returned Soldiers’ Association, being recognised as men who were prepared to do their share. Those who had the glorious privilege of donning the khaki, and enjoying all that the soldiers enjoyed, realised how disappointed these men still felt.
In responding to the toast, the Rev C. J. Walklate touched on a subject which was obviously still very raw. Unlike the ‘triers’ there had been other locals who had been fit and healthy and who could have enlisted but chose not to do so. And there was the related issue of people who continued to deal with these ‘shirkers’ and who therefore condoned their lack of duty and gave them respect to which they were not entitled. Moreover, according to Walklate, the shirker sometimes received even more attention than the genuine soldier:
They had men in their midst who could have left their properties and fought, while their work could have been quite easily carried on without them. These people should have been asked why they did not go. Even now they should be waited on and asked their reasons for failing to enlist. The matter should be taken up at once and settled for all time. If those men had no good reason then they should be relegated to social and political oblivion. Still there were people who hob-nobbed with those who neglected their duty. They had an example of it during the peace celebrations the other evening when in the hall at a dance. It was impossible to pick out the returned man. The favors and smiles were showered on the shirkers. There should be sufficient sense of shame left in those men who had not volunteered to be missing from such gatherings. However, those who had gone and those who had tried should move themselves in the matter, so that the line of distinction could be shown between those who had fought and tried and those who had not; then the public could see how the wind blew. (Applause.)
The fact that those rejected on health grounds had gone to the length of creating their own association indicates how concerned they were by the fear of being labelled a ‘shirker’. On some local memorials the names of those who had been rejected were even included. However, what was arguably more poignant was the naïve belief that there could ever be any sort of ‘comradely’ link between those who had served overseas in the AIF and the ‘triers’. It might have seemed a hopeful premise before the men returned, but once they did return there was obviously no shared experience whatsoever to hold the two groups together.
At the end of the toasts that night, on a more practical note, there was talk of the three associations – Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ League, the Fathers’ Association and the Rejected Volunteers’ Association – coming together behind a proposal to establish some sort of amenity – an ‘institute’ – where, once they had all returned, the local former soldiers could meet and socialise. On the night it seemed the most ordinary of suggestions but, in fact, this proposal was going to prove very divisive in the local community, particularly when the returned men showed signs of wanting the right to do things their way. The ‘mateship’ of the returned men was to prove more exclusive than the locals imagined.
The night ended with a toast to ‘Our Fallen Comrades’ – ‘honoured in silence’ – and, finally … The National Anthem, Rule Britannia and ringing cheers wound up a most pleasant evening.
One final observation is that there is some doubt over the person of Lt. Einseidel who was there as a guest that night. As indicated, he proposed one of the toasts and he was certainly introduced as a special guest:
Amongst the number was a soldier who had gained distinction by gaining at Bapaume a military cross, Lieutenant R. Einsiedel, who saw 2 years 10 months service.
There was no Einseidel who enlisted as a local and no record of the name on the local electoral roll or in the Shire of Alberton rate book. Possibly, he moved to the local area after he was discharged, but it is hard to find evidence of this. Possibly he was passing through Yarram at the time of the celebration. In terms of war service, I have not been able to find anyone of the name Einseidel receiving – or being recommended for – any honour or award. The name itself is very uncommon and the closest match I can find is 2 Lieutenant Rupert Einsiedel. He was born in Victoria but enlisted in Queensland. He served overseas for only a short time – approximately 4 months – before being returned to Australia and discharged, in August 1917, on medical ground – recurrent rheumatism. He did not serve in France but spent all his time in England undertaking officer training. The two versions of Lt Einsiedel obviously do not line up. Perhaps the local paper got the name wrong. Perhaps someone knew of the ‘real’ Lt Einsiedel and assumed – and also embellished – his identity so he could win favour in ‘out-of-the-way’ rural towns. At the same time, we have already seen how returned servicemen themselves were quick to identify ‘fakes’ and ‘imposters’. Lt Einseidel remains a puzzle.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
The first Sunday after the Armistice was Sunday, 17 November 1918. On the day, religious services focused on the War’s end and the promise of peace.
Protestant services on the day
The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/11/18 published a detailed account of the services under the headline: Thanksgiving Sunday. Crowded Churches. It led with,
In the district churches on Sunday the voice of the people was raised in thanksgiving to Almighty God for deliverance from our enemies … .
The paper’s account first covered the Church of England service taken by Rev M G Opper. Rev Melchior George Opper had only taken over the ministry from Rev Raymond in October 1918. Opper described how he intended to … give thanks to God for the mighty victories recently granted to the Allies in Palestine, Turkey, Austria, France, and for the ending of hostilities after four years of war. His second task was to … commemorate those who had made the supreme sacrifice, and to remember the bereaved.
For Opper and his congregation, there was no doubt that God had intervened on the side of the Allies. God had done so because the Allies had been … confronted by an explosion of evil. Evil was ‘rampant’. But God, as the … moral Governor of the universe… had intervened and the Allies had become … instruments in the hands of our God to save the world from the rule of a cruel, despotic foe. At the start of the War, people’s faith had been tested. As Opper said on the day, God seemed silent or powerless. But, in the end, people’s faith was ‘quickened’. Also, in the end, people saw that the War, as a time of hardship and challenge … had meaning in the world’s history. The hand of God was there.
There were also all the common references to Belgium, the Lusitania and ‘all the barbarisms’ committed by Germany.
As well as arguing that God had played a benevolent and guiding hand in the outcome, Opper also cited 3 specific occasions when he considered that God had intervened directly to change the course of the War. Without further explanation or justification, the three he gave were: ‘the retreat from Mons’, ‘the first stoppage at the gates of Paris’ and ‘the evacuation of Gallipoli’.
Opper’s religious allusions to the sacrifice of the dead were by then commonplace: the sacrifice of the men was in the spirit of Christ’s own sacrifice; theirs was the ‘noble’ and ’supreme’ sacrifice; they sacrificed themselves for others – ‘us’ – willingly; and their parents were resigned to the sacrifice. To our ears, 100 years on, it might sound like religious saccharine but for many the following would have been intensely reassuring:
Their memory is fragrant because counting the cost they offered themselves willingly, though it meant hardship, suffering, death for them. We praise God for their noble lives. We thank God for the women who gave them up, who though they rejoice with us today do so with tears in their eyes… .
Rev Walklate’s sermon to his Methodist congregation that Sunday was more nuanced. Certainly, he too was keen to offer the mandatory … expression of trust and thankfulness to God for triumph over our enemies. But he wanted his congregation to consider the tragedy of Germany in more detail, as opposed to focusing on merely the triumph of Britain and the Allies. Rhetorically, he asked his congregation to consider Germany’s predicament:
We must not forget that today millions of German people are gathering in their respective churches questioning their hearts for the reason why their prayers have been unanswered.
He noted that the Germans were very religious. In fact, he was quick to add that, as a nation, they appeared to be far more religious than Australians. As previously stated, one of Walklate’s most common wartime themes covered the religious indifference or negligence of Australians. On this occasion he noted, again, that in Australia … the spirit of public recognition of God and individual prayer has been sadly lacking. Walklate had seen the War as the nation’s chance to turn back to God. He was constantly disappointed.
Yet for all their prayers, Walklate noted that God had not listened to the Germans. Instead he had favoured the Allies, including the doubtful Australians. Walklate continued with the answer to his rhetorical ‘why?’.
Nevertheless, God has not heard their [the Germans] large cry, but has responded to the plea of our faithful few. We must ask ourselves why this is. Briefly it lies in the distinction between German and British righteousness.
In terms of what he described as ‘righteousness’, Walklate then proceeded to give an outline of German greatness, in fields such as in science, industry, education and the economy. The Germans had been able to solve ‘great social questions’. They were a ‘largely clean-living people’. ‘Physically and morally the Germans held their place… .’ The British way, on the other hand, was described as ‘muddling through’.
Walklate then resolved his rhetorical wonder with the claim that the British political system was inherently more powerful and its underpinning values more closely matched the Christian ideal:
Germany sacrificed the principle of individuality to that of national greatness. The individual only counted in so far as he helped to national efficiency. In Britain we count (the) individual and each personality as supreme. The value of each individual for his or her own sake makes for greater possibilities in our British righteousness than the German system. Christ died for the individual, and the redemption of the world lies in and through the individual.
The argument was more sophisticated than usual: the British (liberal) political tradition with its focus on the minimisation of government control over the individual, closely matched the Christian preoccupation of the fundamental relationship between God and the individual, and particularly the Protestant commitment to keep this relationship ‘pure’ and free from the corrupting influence of a formal (Roman) church. The same tradition served as a natural defence against the rise of the autocratic state – or the form of military despotism – that Germany had become. It was as if Walklate was talking up the value of a Christian (Protestant) theocracy.
Walklate also argued that Germany had been deceived by the sham prosperity that their political system – ‘military autocracy’ – had won for them before the War. However, he was quick to add that this idea of prosperity threatened all nations, including Australia:
The menace of the world to-day, and Australia in particular, is the confusion of prosperity with righteousness.
In fact, it was obvious that Walklate wanted to use the fate of Germany to drive home his message on the peril of pursuing the form of righteousness that equated to mere prosperity or a comfortable life:
You people who foregather in churches are not disturbed by the menaces of social evil, the liquor traffic, impure literature, Bolshevism and political crises so long as you enjoy three meals and a bed secure day by day. But our peril is that of Germany. Decent living Germans by the million are paying the penalty of a handful. The people always pay the price of their rulers’ iniquities. The individual must make himself responsible for his nation’s righteousness.
He even appeared to suggest that God had deliberately unleashed the War on the world to show man what truly mattered:
To me God has used this war to destroy the world’s surplus wealth, which was a barrier ever growing between man and God. In the levelled circumstances (of the) reduced wealth of the people, with clearer eyes we shall be able to see our national faults [drink, ‘impurity’, gambling etc], and remove them.
As argued, Walklate’s sermon was more nuanced than that delivered by Opper but both certainly had God intervening on the side of the Allies against the greater evil of Germany. The Allies had won because their moral cause was superior. God had made Good triumph over Evil.
The Allied victory also reinforced the correctness of the local Protestant clergy’s support of the War effort over the past 4 + years. Numerous previous posts have shown how the local Protestant clergy over the period of the War – particularly Rev George Cox and Rev Arthur Rufus Raymond (Church of England), Rev Cyril Walklate (Methodist) and Rev Francis A Tamagno (Presbyterian) – provided the local community with an ongoing narrative of the War which called for uncompromised loyalty to the Empire and presented the conflict as a clash of cultures and civilisation. They preached the lessons of patriotic duty, Christian sacrifice and Imperial destiny. They actively promoted recruiting and served on local recruiting committees. They supported Belgium Relief. They backed conscription and publicly campaigned for the Yes vote, again serving on local committees. They supported PM Hughes and the Nationalists. They spoke frequently at the local state schools on Empire and duty. They also spoke at formal farewells and welcomes home for soldiers. They all called for greater religious piety, purity and sacrifice in the cause of the War. They could now share in the victory.
Catholic services on the day
While the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – gave significant coverage to the Protestant celebration of the the end of hostilities, the (Roman) Catholic service(s) went unrecorded. Certainly, the local paper always gave greater coverage to Protestant services, particularly when the various Protestant congregations combined for joint services, but it is significant that there was no report at all of any Catholic (thanksgiving) service to mark the end of the War. Certainly, the occasion would have been marked by the local Catholic community with, at the very least, a requiem mass for those killed.
At the same time, it is possible to gain some impression of how Catholics viewed the end of the War by looking at the equivalent services held in Melbourne on the same weekend. Moreover, the significant sermon on that Sunday was preached by Bishop Phelan, Bishop of Gippsland (Sale). The weekend’s events were reported, in detail, in the Advocate on 23/11/18. They were also reported in The Tribuneon 21/11/18. In terms of more mainstream papers, there was the briefest of reports on the Catholic services at St. Patricks in The Herald on Monday 18/11/18 and a longer account in The Ageon the same day. The account in The Age was neutral in tone and did not touch on the more contentious aspects of Phelan’s sermon.
On the Sunday (17/11/18), ‘solemn high mass’ was sung at St Patrick’s Cathedral at 11.00am. Archbishop Mannix presided. The congregation was described as ‘an immense assemblage’. That evening there was another service ‘in connection with the cessation of hostilities’ and, again, Mannix presided. The cathedral was described as ‘densely crowded’. This was the service where the sermon was delivered by ‘His Lordship the Bishop of Sale (Most Rev. Dr. Phelan).’ On the next day (Monday 18/11/18) there was further … Solemn Requiem Mass … for the Australian soldiers who have fallen in the war.
Mannix’s sermon was covered in the article in The Age(18/11/18). It was definitely not triumphant in tone. He despaired at the folly of ‘man’ and the destruction he had brought to the world. He declared that … God had to build up again from out the wrecks that man had made. He blasted nations and kings and their … lust for power, for domination and for trade. He certainly did not see the point in glorifying the War. He was not preaching to comfort the victors:
Australia had given 55,000 of its manhood in the awful slaughter, and it was cruel to talk to the mothers and fathers of the dead of the glories of war. They hear too much of the victories and the glories that war could give; of the slaughter of which mankind should be ashamed, and which was a disgrace to civilisation.
Mannix called for prayers so that … God would never again allow man to plunge the human race into such misery. The consolation he saw was that the coming peace conference might produce … a lasting peace and a consequent happiness that men had hitherto scarcely dreamt of. But even here he called for the ‘victors’ – not mentioned by name – to be ‘unselfish’ in their negotiations with ‘the defeated nations’.
Bishop Phelan’s sermon was even more remarkable than Mannix’s for its distance from the Protestant notion of ‘thanksgiving’. Apart from anything else, not once in his long sermon was there any reference, even a passing reference, to the existence of the British Empire or its triumph over the Hun. Nor was there any reference to the Nationalist Government or PM Hughes.
Phelan even had a different take on the cause of the War. Whereas the Protestant version most commonly focused on the ‘barbarity’ of the Germans – the outrages in Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania etc – and the indisputable ‘duty’ of Britain and her Empire to challenge such ‘tyranny’, Phelan shifted the underlying cause back to the formation of the Triple Alliance (Italy, Germany and Austria) and then its counter, the Entente Cordiale (Russia, France and England). He spoke of how at the time, Pope Leo XIII had protested and warned against such treaties. Phelan noted that because of such treaties … When the Archduke of Austria was murdered the world was like a great magazine, which was ready to explode. Two mighty combinations had gathered powder, and occasion was taken of the death of the Archduke to declare war.
Phelan also felt the need to defend the actions of Pope Pius X and Benedict XV over the War years.
He then addressed what he saw as the claim that throughout the War the (Roman) Catholic Church had been ‘on the side of the enemy’. While the War had ended, there was obviously still a powerful sense of anger on the part of Catholics over the perceived way the Church had been attacked:
A crusade of calumny was raised against the Church during the time of war by lip-loyalists and sham patriots, who tried by every means to humiliate, malign and calumniate the Catholic Church. By a servile Press and from a hostile platform and pulpit, they were told that the Catholics in the world were on the side of the enemy and that they were not doing their duty.
Phelan did not offer a detailed rebuttal of the claim of Catholic perfidy but simply made the point that Marshal Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, who … represented the Allied forces in submitting the armistice terms to the enemy … was, in fact, … a loyal and devoted son of the Catholic Church. He also insisted that … Catholics had done their duty nobly and well in the war.
When Phelan turned his attention to Australia’s part in the War now concluded, at the same time as confirming the mythical status of the Anzac, he revisited arguments that had been used against conscription:
Considering our distance from the scene of action, and the difficulties of training and transhipping troops, Australia has supplied her full share, both in quality and quantity, of the forces that have won the world’s freedom. The heroism of the Australian soldiers in forcing the heights of Gallipoli, in the face of a withering storm of shot and shell, has shrouded their names in imperishable glory.
And let us ever remember that their gift of sacrifice or life was a free gift; no cruel law dragged them from their parents and friends. They realised that, dreadful as war is, other things are more dreadful – namely the triumph of despotism, the slavery of conscience, the ruin of country, the loss of national honour. And when such evils are impending war becomes lawful, and sometimes a duty.
The argument is finely balanced: one the one hand Australia (as Australia) was right in fighting the despotism of the (unnamed) enemy but it also correctly rejected conscription, as yet another form of tyranny. Australia’s involvement in the War was of a higher quality because its soldiers made the commitment voluntarily.
When he eulogised the … the fine body of young men who answered the nation’s call to arms, and left their country to face death … Phelan referred to either their love of or sense of duty towards their ‘nation’ or ‘country’ or ‘commonwealth’ or ‘native land’ – and he even referred to their sense of ‘national pride’ – but not once was there any reference to ‘Empire’ or ‘Mother Country’. In his view, the Australians had fought as Australians. They were Nationalists not Imperialists. And when he turned to literary allusions to describe the ‘fallen’, he cited a work that covered the American Civil War. There were to be no conventional Imperial allusions. For Phelan, the Empire was some false god of the Imperialists.
Arguably, the most striking feature of the sermon came when Phelan turned to the issue of the Australian dead.
In terms of Catholic Church doctrine, not all the (Catholic) Australians would have died in the ’state of grace’. Rather, they most likely died in the state of sin. As Phelan was reported as declaring in his sermon:
But to expect that the soul of every sin-stained child of Adam is fit for the immediate possession of God at the moment of death is to expect the unattainable in a world where sin prevails to such an alarming extent.
For the liberation (‘repose’) of such souls, the Church offered the power of prayer and the ‘sacrifice of the mass’ (Solemn Requiem Mass), through the agency of the priest. And Phelan called on the faithful to follow such ritual … for our gallant fellow-countrymen, without distinction, who fought and fell for us. And it was the role of the priest that Phelan was most keen to highlight. He wanted to draw attention to this role as the defining difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.
It might appear strange that Phelan used his sermon on the end of hostilities to focus on doctrinal disputes between Catholic and Protestant but, at the time, it was probably seen, at least by the Catholic congregation, as a justified counter to the the attacks on the Church. The particular dispute is worth additional scrutiny because it highlights the extraordinary animosity between Protestant and Catholic at the end of the War.
To prove his case, Phelan proceeded to relate a rather convoluted story, set in the ‘Middle Ages’, in which he, as a devout Catholic in desperate need of the absolution of his sins, via confession, faces for the choice of confessor either St Francis of Assisi – ‘the angelic St Francis’, ‘the seraph of Assisi’ – or Martin Luther. Unsurprisingly, in Phelan’s story Luther came across as an example of the ’dreaded Hun’ of the War
His heavy Teutonic features and repulsive looks reveal his character. He is a fallen priest, a rebel against God and the Church. He has dragged millions with him on the way to destruction.
However, the doctrinal twist in this case was that whereas St Francis was never ordained as a priest, Luther had been and he still retained the power, thorough confession, to absolve sin. So, in Phelan’s story, Luther is the only one who can help:
Hence in my distress, and having no choice, I pour out the sins of my life into the ear of that wicked man; and from him I beg absolution, and he says over me: “I absolve you from all your sins.” Within an hour my soul frees itself from its house of clay, and wings its flight to the gate of heaven.
The story itself is so contrived, at several levels, that it is easy to dismiss. However, the doctrinal implications that Phelan drew from his little lesson certainly could not be dismissed. They highlight for the modern reader the intensity of the divide between Protestant and Catholic. Phelan stated:
This war, which has revealed many truths, has manifested no truth so striking as the immense difference between the religion established on earth by Jesus Christ and that form of faith propounded by the reformers of the 16th century.
When a man in a dying condition is carried from the battle field, what little use is the Bible-reading clergyman, who has no power to absolve from sins. The utter bankruptcy of Protestantism to meet the wants of the dying and the dead has been exposed in all its nakedness during this war.
Bishop Phelan’s sermon that Thanksgiving Sunday was focused and highly crafted. It reflected profound doctrinal differences between Protestantism and (Roman) Catholicism. The sermon also reflected ongoing anger on the part of Catholics at the way they perceived they had been attacked over the years of the War. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, the sermon reflected careful political positioning on the part of the Catholic hierarchy – whereas Protestantism, as the religion of the Empire, continued to locate Australia’s experience of the War within the fundamental commitment to the British Empire, Catholicism was making a bid that the experience needed to be located solely within the context of the (Australian) Nation. One of the key conflicts associated with the history, legacy and ownership of the War was underway.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
The Armistice was signed at 5.00am on Monday 11/11/18 (Paris time) with all hostilities to cease six hours later (11.00am). Word reached Australia Monday night and the next morning Tuesday 12/11/18 Australians woke to newspaper headlines that declared, for example, Germany Accepts Defeat. Armistice Signed on Monday. Completer Surrender (The Argus Tuesday 12/11/18) and The War Ends. Germany Surrenders. Armistice Terms Signed. (The Age, Tuesday 12/11/18)
In line with its normal publication schedule, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative did not appear until Wednesday 13/11/18. The headline (below) which appeared in the edition noted that the local paper had posted the information of the War’s end, at its office in Yarram, as soon as it came though on the Monday night. Amazingly, the same edition also pointed out that, in fact, the Armistice was celebrated locally – and also very prematurely – from around midday on Friday November 8.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 13/11/1918. Courtesy NLA
Friday November 8
According to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, word reached the town late morning on Friday 8 November that the Armistice had been signed. In an article with the headlines, Victory Celebrated. Premature Owing to Unfounded Rumour. Thorough Enjoyment Nevertheless. … the paper traced the source of the rumour first to the Alberton Railway Station and then to telegrams, including one from the (Melbourne) Stock Exchange. The signing of the Armistice was expected imminently and the anxious anticipation in the community meant that these reports were taken as fact. As the paper tellingly put it,
… by 11 o’clock townspeople could not further restrain themselves. Flags were flown from every vantage point, stores were raided for the Allied colors, and none could settle down to work. Gaily bedecked motor cars were in evidence, and in their exuberance of spirit, owners clothed their canines in the colors. One dog hoisted a miniature Union Jack whenever he raised his tail. The school children were let loose, and headed by a few “instrumentalists,” who tin-whistled no particular tune, formed a procession through the town. They sang songs, and spectators cheered. The whole was a pleasing spectacle quite spontaneous, and worthy of the town.
However, an urgent telegram from the editor (A J Rossiter) to Reuters to confirm that the Armistice had been signed brought the response that this was not the case. At the same time, there was also a report from the State Department in Washington that the Armistice had not yet been signed. At this point, as the paper put it, ‘enthusiasm subsided a little’. But there was still considerable excitement and confusion. Rossiter blamed The Age for misleading headlines that day and noted that people became convinced that the Commonwealth Censor was trying to withhold the news. To add to the tension The Age itself, on the same day – Friday 8 November – reported on a rumour – ‘peace had been declared’ – that had spread wildly at Flemington Racecourse the day before, Thursday 7 November. On the Friday, there were more rumours about all leave from Broadmeadows being cancelled. Also on the Friday, word reached Yarram that the hotels in Melbourne had been closed, adding strength to the rumour of the War’s end. The hotels in Yarram remained open on the Friday and, according to the paper, there were no incidents as patrons celebrated in the ‘old way’. Word was also coming through by now that that on both the Continent and in America the victory was being celebrated.
Against this background the President of the Shire – Cr Barlow – decreed that local celebrations were to go ahead that night (Friday 8 November), including a bonfire on the show ground. The President’s decision, according to the paper, ‘led to criticism in some places’ but the paper also made it clear that the decision was widely supported. The paper also supported the decision, even if, strictly speaking, the Armistice itself had not been signed.
… but the children and young folks having made up their minds for the fun, the president was right in his ruling, while the spirit was in the air. There was sufficient cause for rejoicing, even though the armistice was not signed. The British Fleet had sailed through the Dardanelles and taken Constantinople, Turkey’s armies had surrendered unconditionally, and Austria, too, had surrendered. Surely this was sufficient for all round rejoicing, without the final scratch of the pen to complete absolute victory. Victory was near enough, at all events, for heartfelt rejoicing, and the people could restrain themselves no longer.
So that Friday night – November 8 – the town celebrated, three days before the actual Armistice. As the paper described,
The town at night was thronged, and wore an unusually gay appearance. Shortly after 8 o’clock a monster procession, headed by the Town Band and the Fire Brigade, moved from James-st., along Commercial-st., to the show ground. While the people were assembling the bonfire was lit, when could be seen the large attendance, numbering with the children upwards of 2,000. Unfortunately, there was a shortage of fireworks on the night. Once the crowd settled in the grand stand, proceedings began. The ‘Doxology’ was the first item sung, followed by ‘Rule Britannia’, the ‘National Anthem’ and then ‘God Save Our Splendid Men’.
Cr Barlow and Revs Williams and Walklate then addressed the crowd. They commented on the Allied victory, and asked the people to thank God for deliverance from the hand of the Hun.
The speakers were duly cheered.
However at some point that night it must have seemed strange to those there that they were celebrating victory before the Armistice itself had been signed. The newspaper report noted that Cr Barlow told everyone there that once the Armistice had been definitely signed the Government would ensure that the news was wired to every shire in the nation. The realisation that they had been too fast of the mark must have eventually sunk in. This probably explains why the actual speeches that night were limited; and, essentially, there was not much more to do after the short speech by the two reverend gentlemen. As the paper put it,
For an hour afterwards the crowd lingered on the showground, entertained by the band, which gave a programme of well-played music.
Monday (night) November 11
Saturday and Sunday must have been quiet days as neither was mentioned in the paper’s report. But then on Monday night, when planning was underway in the shire hall for another (proper) celebration once the Armistice had been signed, word finally did come through that … an armistice had been signed, and the war had terminated at 6 o’clock that morning.
Finally, it was all for real, and it is clear from the report that there was an incredible release of emotions. There was also a dramatic sense of witnessing a unique historical event. The newspaper’s report captures the wild scenes as they unfolded in a country town. There is the overpowering sense of victory, and the attendant triumph of righteousness. Importantly, the Armistice was never seen in the strict sense of an armistice – The Ageon 12/11/18 provided the precise military definition – but as a certain Allied victory.
The welcome news was conveyed by the “Standard” representative to the meeting [then planning the real celebration for the Armistice], and the meeting appropriately sang the National Anthem and God Save Our Splendid Men. … A big crowd assembled outside the “Standard” office, where the news was posted, and song and cheers broke the stillness of the night. Minor bells tinkled, and the heavy toll of the fire bell, and the boom of Dr Rutter’s cannon announced to people several miles out that the big historic event had been achieved – the Hun was defeated. The town at once gave itself up to rejoicing. Fireworks, too, flashed the glad news, and never has such an enthusiastic scene been witnessed in Yarram. Mrs. Dwyer thoughtfully ran her piano on to the footpath, and for an hour or more a street concert was held. Never have patriotic songs been more lustily sung, and never have the words of “Rule Britannia” and the “Marseillaise ” had such significance. Britain had “ruled the waves” and with the gallant French the two nations had “fought on to victory” with the other brave Allies. Excitement was intense. The severe tensions of the past few agonising years had been relieved, and a thankful spirit prevailed. It was an historic and memorable event, such as will never again be witnessed by the present generation. The world war was over, and the blessings of a righteous peace at last vouchsafed. The doors of Thompson’s hall were thrown open by Mr. Toft, who invited all to participate in enjoyment, and for several hours, till the wee sma’ oors, (sic) young folks enjoyed a dance and general hilarity. It was a night that will never be forgotten.
Tuesday November 12
The next day, Tuesday 12 November, was declared a public holiday across Australia. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative reported that in Yarram a combined thanksgiving service was held in Thompson’s hall. The presiding ministers were Rev Opper (Church of England) and Rev Walklate (Methodist), with the Rev. Mr Williams (Presbyterian) as an apology. The paper described the service as ‘largely attended.’
The service opened with the National Anthem and ‘Our Splendid Men’. Other hymns included, ‘O God Our Help’, ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’, ‘Lest We Forget’, and ‘Jesu, Lover of My Soul’.
As per usual, the service was Protestant. According to the clergymen it might have taken God four long years but He had finally awarded the Allies the victory for which they had struggled. They been victorious because they had been fighting for principles. Their battle had been of a higher order.
All through the war the Allies had shown their inflexible determination to gain the victory, and nothing could lure them from the aim which they achieved. They set out to gain right over might, spiritual over material. They have been fighting for principles enshrined in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the patriotic church of Christendom has spoken with no uncertain voice. Our duty therefore is to return thanks to God, it would be base ingratitude if we refused or neglected to give thanks to the Great Ruler who has given us the great victory.
It is an open question as to how many at the service that day truly believed the God had finally intervened on their behalf and delivered them the victory. However, it was a religio-political line that had been preached consistently for the preceding 4 years and it would have seemed perfectly apt, even credible. Also, there was certainly no doubt that the ‘patriotic church of Christendom’ – as opposed, presumably, to the more politically and religiously ambivalent, if not outright suspect, church of Rome – had been beating a very loud drum for the four years of the War and it now intended to proclaim its (proprietary) victory.
That night (Tuesday), there was another celebration at the show ground. This was a decidedly more lively affair than the thanksgiving service. It was also a more genuine spectacle than the premature affair that had been staged on the Friday night. The celebration started about 8.00 o’clock with a procession of school children. Dr Rutter’s (home-made) cannon was pressed in to service again. The Royal Salute was played on a bugle and the usual ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ were sung by everyone there. A score of patriotic songs followed. A paragraph from the paper captures the mood,
Two bonfires were ablaze, in which were burnt the effigies of the Kaiser, Crown Prince and von Tirpiz. Indeed, they were blown up. The grand stand was electrically lighted, and fireworks shot skywards at frequent intervals. The Town Band played selections on the grand stand. All round an hilarious time was spent.
There were of course significant limits to communication at the time, and limits even to the range of Dr Rutter’s cannon. Consequently, news of the Armistice did not reach some townships until early the next day. The following report from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representativeof Wednesday 13 November describes how the news reached Toora, about 40 kilometres from Yarram.
The news that Germany had submitted to the Allies’ terms of peace, which was officially wired by the Lord Mayor to Major H. A. Jacobs, Toora, first thing on Tuesday morning [12/11/18], spread like wildfire and the streets were quickly thronged with cheering crowds. Church, school and other bells were started ringing, that at the Church of England being manned by a group of school boys who rhymed their peals to a tune of Peace, Peace, Peace, while buildings became immediately ablaze with flags and banners of all nationalities bar enemy. The school children, to whom a holiday had been granted, were soon abroad, hurrahing and hurrahing louder and more vigorously than all. Heavy rain falling at the time quite failed to damp the ardour of the people’s receipt of the glad tidings that peace had been declared for the time being, Germany having signed the Allies’ terms for an armistice, and that hostilities were to cease at dawn of the previous morn (sic). The joy was touchingly near, real and sincere.
The Armistice was also celebrated in the local (primary) schools. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (22/11/18) featured a detailed report on celebrations at the Devon North State School held on the Wednesday 20/11/18.
It would have been perfectly natural that celebrations took place in the local (state) primary school. As we have seen repeatedly, the local state school was a critical focus for the War effort, not just in terms of fund raising and other drives to provide comfort and support for the troops but also in the way the narrative of the War was employed – by teachers, inspectors, town elders, local Protestant clergy, the school governing body, the local press – to reinforce amongst the children the sense of loyalty to the Empire and the Nation. The values laboured were those of duty, loyalty, honour and sacrifice. The report in the local paper described how the speakers there that day emphasised that final victory had come from unwavering commitment to such basic values.
It was community celebration:
On Wednesday afternoon the parents and children of Devon North met at the school to express their delight at the successful termination of the European war. The large attendance evidenced the thoroughly loyal spirit, mingled with the deep feelings of relief.
After the National Anthem was sung, the importance of the occasion was explained to the children. They were then warmly praised for their … sustained efforts in support of all war movements. They were also urged to take pride in the school’s long honor roll which featured the names of approximately 60 former students.
That afternoon, the comments made in relation to sacrifice, patriotic loyalty and Imperial duty were virtually identical to those made when the first volunteers left the train station at Alberton in September 1914.
The honor roll, with some 60 names, testified to the loyalty of the residents, and the children were requested to reverence it and cherish the memory of those whose names appeared on it. Should the Empire at any future time demand assistance he [The president of the Shire, Cr. Barlow] was certain that the call would be just as readily responded to. His earnest request was that the children should strive to be worthy of their glorious heritage, and that they should do their utmost to maintain the Empire in the proud position it occupied today.
Cr. Barlow also laboured the theme of national – and imperial – greatness being based on ideals, values and principles. The enemy, on the other hand, was claimed to have pursued only material and worldly things.
In closing, the Shire President could not resist an appeal to the higher authority.
… so long as it [the British Empire] adhered to its present principles, its position was assured. Nations that had based their greatness merely on worldly matters had to-day even their names blotted out; therefore, they [the students] were requested to entrust themselves at all times to the Supreme Ruler.
Presumably, the Supreme Ruler was a reference to God the Almighty rather than George V., even if, as head of the Church of England, King George was the ‘Supreme Anglican’.
The ceremony finished with a mix of formality, conviviality, fun and, of course, the mandatory session of sports.
After the saluting of “The Flag”, afternoon tea was supplied and a programme of sports proceeded with.
All the speech making associated with the immediate local celebrations of the Armistice described the victory in terms of the Empire’s unconquered greatness and the associated triumph of its religion, Protestantism. Essentially, this was a perspective that looked back, to the world of pre-August 1914. All declared that the War had been won by the right side, with the right history, the right religion and the right values. Therefore, according to this logic, order would now be restored. The past could become again the present. Unfortunately, the world, the Empire and Australia itself had changed far too much for that to happen.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
The Strength of Empire Movement appears to have started in Melbourne in mid 1918. The founder was the Victorian member of parliament, Edmund Wilson Greenwood MLA. In his time, Greenwood held executive positions in the Anti-Liquor League of Victoria and the Australian Prohibition Council. He was a lay preacher (Methodist), a member of the Australian Natives Association and a strong pro-conscriptionist.
Branches of the movement were established in metropolitan and country centres and the movement spread to other states. It also appears to have had some links to the British National Council for Combating Venereal Disease. The charter of the movement had 3 key demands: the introduction of war-time prohibition, using the model introduced in Canada; the use of a ‘bare’ or simple majority in votes to determine the introduction of local prohibition districts; and the application of ’strong measures’ to ‘ensure purity’ (eliminate or limit venereal disease). The movement proclaimed itself intensely loyal to the Empire and represented all its work as underpinning and reinforcing Australia’s commitment to the Empire and the war effort.
The AIF’s perceived problem with ‘drink’ – particularly in the case of returning soldiers – and attempts to combat VD were very much in the public mind at the time.
In early 1918 a Senate inquiry had been set up to investigate the harmful effects of drink on soldiers, particularly in relation to those returning home. The Age(11/1/18) described the function of this enquiry:
… to inquire as to the extent to which intoxicating liquor was adversely affecting outgoing and returned soldiers, and the best method of dealing with the sale of intoxicating liquor during the period of the war and afterwards.
The select committee was adjourned mid year (1918) and its final report did not even appear before the Armistice. Its key recommendation was ‘anti-shouting legislation’ to reduce the level of drinking of returned soldiers.
There was much evidence presented by military authorities, the police and the medical and welfare institutions caring for returned soldiers. It was claimed that drink reduced the soldier’s efficiency, that it had restricted the level of enlistments, that it was overwhelmingly responsible for instances of poor discipline in the field and that returning soldiers in particular were at acute risk.
At the time, some argued that restrictions such as closing local pubs when troopships arrived in port did not go far enough and nothing less that total prohibition would protect the returning soldiers. They argued that the whole of society had a moral duty to protect the returning soldiers and agree to prohibition. The counter view was that society did not have the right to protect the men from themselves, particularly given that the same men had, as volunteers, served the country so commendably. The situation represented the inherent tension between the way society had lionised the men for more than 4 years but now, on their return, was imposing major restrictions on their liberty.
The issue of VD was also very topical. In late 1916, the Victorian Parliament had passed legislation intended to curb the spread of venereal disease. The legislation attempted to stop the work of ’quacks’ peddling bogus treatments. It also attempted to force those with VD to seek out professional medical support. All cases had to be reported to the ‘medical inspector’ so that accurate records could be maintained. The patient was required to accept treatment until a formal statement of ‘cure’ could be issued by the medical practitioner. There was also provision for apprehending and then enforcing treatment for those with VD who refused to comply with the new provisions. At the very end of 1918 there were further legislative attempts. For example, there was a push to give the ‘medical inspector’ the authority to inform either the other party or the parents of the other party that the person he or she or their child was about to marry was infected with the disease. The equivalent law in NSW carried a five year jail term. Many critics voiced the concern that while the legislation focused on the identification and treatment of disease, the larger problem lay outside the law and was driven by the low moral character of those affected. In theory, their solution lay with the elimination of prostitution and the promotion of a more ‘pure’ citizenry.
Importantly, drink and VD were seen, and always represented by reformers, as intimately linked. In this view, drink or inebriation was the root cause of VD and if drink could be curtailed then the incidence of VD would fall. Prohibition would address both major social problems.
One of the cruel realities that drove the debate about VD was the incidence of children born with the disease, and also the number of ante-natal deaths caused by it. In an opinion piece in The Age ( 22/9/17) under the heading The Scourge of Venereal Disease, medical experts outlined the extent to which the diseases affected children:
At the eighth session of the Australasian Medical Congress in Melbourne a special meeting was held concerning syphilis. Dr. P. B. Bennie, reporting on behalf of the section for disease of children, said he inferred that “fully 25 per cent. of the sick children in Melbourne are tainted with syphilis, and that about 10 per cent. of the total number of children in Melbourne are syphilised. .. nearly half the children who die are infected with syphilis. Speaking generally the chances of dying before puberty are for the syphilitic seven times greater than for the non-syphilitic.
The same article referred to the large number of stillborn because of the disease and the equally large number of infants who died because they were born with it. It gave an overall figure of 6,000 deaths, nationwide. At the other end of life, the impact of syphilis was also documented. The same article noted that,
In our lunatic asylums 60 per cent. of the most loathsome, miserable, heartrending cases are victims of this dreadful disease.
The notoriety of Langwarrin as a special AIF hospital for VD cases also served to highlight the prevalence of the disease. Moreover, the statistics gathered at Langwarrin over the War years had revealed another worrying reality: the reformers’ call for ‘purity’ had to extend beyond the common prostitute. Even the notion of the ‘respectable woman’ needed qualification. The article noted that
… statistics that the establishment of the Langwarrin camp has enabled the military authorities to collect – and they are the first reliable statistics it has been possible to obtain on the subject – reveal the startling and disturbing fact that in only 18 per cent. of cases has the disease been caught from common women of the street. The remaining 82 per cent. of the cases were due to association with semi-respectable girls or women, whom the police could not arrest as vagrants.
Obviously, the 2 key areas targeted by the Strength of Empire Movement – drink and VD – had a very high profile over the War years and this profile picked up as the return of the AIF neared. The movement pushed both causes within the context of supporting the War effort and defending the Empire. However, social reformers of many kinds had pushed strongly for prohibition and action against VD before the War and they were to continue their efforts in the post-War period.
It appears that the War years were significant because they provided reformers with what was portrayed as a more urgent and desperate social, political and moral background. They were able to represent the time – not just the War itself but also the period of demobilisation – as one that called for radical solutions. Certainly, (Protestant) religious reformers saw the War as an opportunity for the Christian community to turn back to God, shed their sinful ways and strive to become better people and more loyal and dutiful members of the Empire. It is arguable that their efforts intensified after the loss of the 2 conscription referenda. Moreover, even those who were not religious in their motivation saw the dangers that that the twin evils of drink and VD posed to society and the Empire.
This was the general background to the attempt to establish a local branch of the Strength of Empire Movement in Yarram in the second half of 1918. Given local support, if not zeal, for temperance and the incessant call for religious revival from the local Protestant clergy, the Strength of Empire Movement and the Shire of Alberton appeared to be the perfect fit.
In an editorial on 9/8/18 the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representativeactively promoted the coming meeting:
The Strength of Empire Movement will be launched on Monday night in Thompson’s Hall by Mr. Gifford Gordon, one of Melbourne’s most notable platform speakers. He is directly acquainted with the facts and effects of drink and disease in hindering Australia’s part in the war. The leading citizens of the State have already identified themselves with this movement to secure wartime prohibition and eliminate venereal disease.
The local paper subsequently provided (14/8/18) a very detailed account of the public meeting. It led with a note of disappointment that so few attended what it described as … a forceful and able address on the evils of drink and immorality. The editor (A J Rossiter) stated that he could not understand why so few locals had attended … as the movement has been inaugurated for the purpose of assisting in winning the war. He could not understand why people did not want to be enlightened on … the evils in our midst which go to sap the virility of the nation. Nor could he understand how while … hundreds turn out to picture shows, only tens attended an address which was for the enlightenment of the people.
The meeting was chaired by two local Protestant ministers: Rev C J Walklate (Methodist) and Rev A R Raymond (Church of England). Walklate’s brother had been killed in the War (22/10/17) and Raymond’s son had also been killed (9/4/17). Both clergymen were recognised as staunch Imperial Loyalists in the community and Walklate, in particular, was very active in the local temperance movement. He was also one of the most outspoken pro-conscriptionists in the local community.
The guest speaker from Melbourne was Gifford Gordon, a prohibitionist. He was very involved with the Victorian Anti-Liquor league. He told the audience that he had been … released form his church for six months in order that he might do what he considered his duty to his country and his fellow creatures. He expressed disappointment at the low number of locals there and stated that he had been … assured that he would have an audience of about 400 people. Indications are that there were less than 50 present. At the end of the night there was a collection taken to cover the costs of the meeting but the results were very disappointing.
Mr. Gordon said he was rather disappointed at the amount given, and unless more was received he would be sent out of town in debt.
Gordon described how the Strength of Empire Movement had been started earlier that year (1918) by E W Greenfield MLA who … believed he had been raised up by God to help and strengthen the people in their efforts to do their utmost for the Empire in this most critical period. Then Gordon outlined what the movement stood for:
Firstly, it was for war prohibition and prohibition during the period of demobilisation. Secondly, for the democratic principle of of a bare majority in regard to [the] local option instead of a three-fifths majority. Thirdly, it stood for purity, and to urge the Government to cope with the terrible evils that were attacking home life.
Gordon declared that he personally supported the movement because … it was in the best interests of the community, and because he was a Britisher. To be loyal a person had to live a life worthy of the great Empire. He believed that the … ideals of the movement were in the best interests of the country, and most of all for the soldier.
Gordon then proceeded to give an extraordinary account of the effect of alcohol on the War effort. Earlier posts have touched on the push for prohibition over the War years and the threat that drink posed to the AIF but Gordon’s remarks that night were striking. At the outset, he claimed that the single factor that had most harmed the War effort over the past 4 years had been ‘intoxicating drink’. Drink lay behind every problem:
It has robbed the firing line of thousands and thousands of men, has caused strikes and all sorts of impediments towards the successful issue of the war. Millions of pounds have been expended in the manufacture of intoxicating drink that should have been used for food for people who were almost on the verge of starvation.
Gordon did not see this as a uniquely Australian problem. Drink had compromised effort across the Empire. He gave the example of Canada where, in the early stages of the War, the temptation of drink had undone all the fine efforts of those promoting and enforcing prohibition and even the desperate wishes of the mothers of the young men:
When Canada sent over her troops they carried with them the requests from thousands of mothers to keep the boys away from drink. These lads had come from prohibition camps and had gone across in prohibition ships. The request was honoured for a while, but the ranks were eventually broken through, and the cry of those mothers disregarded, and tens of thousands of those boys who had never known the taste of drink before were returned home disgraced and degraded, and never saw the firing line; and this through drink.
But Gordon also praised both Canada and the USA for their much tougher stance on prohibition. He presented a stark difference between Canada and Australia. Canada, with prohibition, had been able to make a far more significant contribution to the Empire:
The success of the prohibition movement in Canada should be an example. Canada and prohibition has presented 150 aeroplanes to England and 600 to the United States. Australia has sent none. Canada has built 89 ships and sent them laden with provisions: Australia had built none. Canada loaned £ 81,000,000 to Great Britain; Australia had borrowed £ 139,000,000. The expenditure in Canada on drink would soon be nil; in Australia it was about £ 18,000,000. That was the difference between prohibition and a licensed evil.
Gordon’s address also featured a full-on expose of what he saw as the extent to which drink had undermined the AIF and limited the size of the army Australia could raise. People in his audience would have known of the harmful effects of drink – and the actions taken to try to limit its effects – in the training camps in Australia and on overseas service, but Gifford was presenting a far worse picture. It was a picture of how Australia had failed the Empire:
It might be news to the people to know that 60,000 Australian boys who were in camp never left these shores because of drink. They enlisted because duty called them, and their aims and ambitions were to fight for their country. But the cursed drink defeated them. If we tolerate this sort of thing then we should not claim to be loyal subjects of the British Empire. This awful barrier that came between the boy and his duty should be swept away. Think of the hundreds of thousands of lads who were defeated this way when the mother country was calling for more men; and yet we sanctioned it. It was all very well for the Government to send out recruiting sergeants to get men to enlist, but they allowed these boys to be surrounded with the two great evils – drink and bad women.
[Commonwealth figures from the time – The Senate, 5/12/18 – referred to 68,937 men who had enlisted (upto the end of 1917) who did not go to war. The reasons given were: ‘some had died, some had deserted, and some were discharged.]
Later in his speech Gordon claimed that, Ninety per cent. of the boys who proved unsatisfactory as soldiers were defeated through drink.
Gordon also specifically targeted the drink problems associated with the returned men. He referred to the … thousands of broken hearts and broken homes amongst the returned soldiers caused by the cursed drink alone… and in a striking image he described how … it made his heart bleed to see some of the boys who had returned, some with one limb or one eye, staggering down the street defeated by these curses [drink and bad women].
Commonly, the Strength of Empire Movement held separate meetings for men and women, presumably because of sensitivities over any discussion of venereal disease. But on this occasion Gordon spoke on the topic to a combined audience. The comments were general and focused on the extent of the problem. He referred to it as ‘the purity question’. He also claimed that the authorities had tried to keep the extent of the problem concealed and that in a real sense it was just another manifestation of the problem of drink:
There had been a conspiracy to screen the awful vice of impurity, but it was time now that the veil was lifted. Eighty per cent. of those people affected with that awful venereal disease was the direct result of drink.
He gave statistics on the problem from the UK and Australia, emphasising the number of babies born with the disease, the number of ante-natal deaths and extent of childless marriages. He also claimed that, Eight thousand Australian boys had been treated in Langwarrin camp during the war. He even claimed that ’high medical authorities’ had determined that VD had … killed more British people in one year than all the victims of this great war.
He also touched on the fear of ‘race suicide’, another preoccupation of the time. Australia, or more specifically White Australia, was threatened by a low birth rate, war deaths and casualties and, of course, drink and venereal disease. White Australia was destroying itself through its own reckless and wanton ways. Gordon claimed,
The Health Department had stated that unless the disease [VD] was checked that in 50 years the population would be devastated and we as a people would cease to exist, and that drink was in the main the cause.
Earlier he had despaired that, Australia could not work out the destiny that was intended for it if it allowed this damnable curse [drink] to continue.
Obviously, Gordon was talking that night to the converted. Presumably, the people there were the same locals who had always been strong in local Temperance circles and who had called, for example, for the cancellation of the liquor licence of the local co-op store (See 2 earlier posts: 97. The war against drinkand 151. The war against drink 2: the grocer’s licence at the Yarram Co-op Store.) But the comments were at odds with the conventional view of Australia’s support for the War – to the last man and the last shilling – and also the image of the Anzac, as the epitome of the Australian male. With regard to the latter, Gordon had the Anzac as someone lacking in character and moral strength, addled by drink and cursed by VD. He had to be protected from himself. His image of the returned, wounded Anzac staggering down the street in the thrall of drink was decidedly at odds with the common talk of returning heroes who could never truly be repaid the debt their country owed them.
Arguably, the activity of the Strength of Empire Movement represented the early manoeuvring of religious zealots, social reformers and conservative politicians as they prepared for the return of the AIF. For this broad alliance, the men of the AIF would be welcomed as heroes but, equally, their natural failings, augmented by 4 years of war, needed to be contained. They could not be allowed to set the social and moral agenda.
The tension between the Anzac as hero and the Anzac as menace and the related debate as to what represented reasonable limits on their behaviour were both very topical. One specific example illustrates the situation. From mid 1918 there was controversy over returned AIF men having to wear blue arm bands. Army regulations required that returned men, still receiving treatment in hospital, had to wear blue arm bands when they went on leave. Publicans were prohibited from selling alcohol to any AIF member wearing one of the arm bands. The returned soldiers themselves could easily circumvent the requirement but the broader issue over the appropriateness of the measure certainly touched the public conscience.
John Vale, a leading prohibitionist, supported the blue arm bands as a responsible, interim measure on the path to full prohibition. He clearly recognised their limitations but he urged that people saw them as a sign of courage. His views appeared in the Spectator and Methodist Chronicleon 14/8/18:
There are two quite different ways of regarding the blue bands on the arms of our disabled soldiers. ‘To some they appear to be insulting and futile. They are certainly a poor substitute for the measure of Prohibition, which would apply to soldiers and civilians alike; but no right-minded person will regard them as insulting. In Britain a complete suit of blue is the hospital uniform, and usually secures for the wearer special respect and consideration. The blue band on the soldier should be taken as the outward and visible sign of courage in the wearer. It may point to cowardice on the part of politicians.
The following letter – from a Mr W Seamer of Yarraville – appeared in The Heralda few days later (17/8/18). While it also advocated prohibition as the only solution it also highlighted the extent of the heavy-handedness of the authorities and the perverse way the ‘heroes’ were punished while the ‘slackers’ were rewarded.
Why should we call one gambler a patriot and another “a rogue and a vagabond?” Why should we legalise the open temptation and encouragement to drink and then punish the drunkard? Why, indeed, should not the blue arm band principle be applied all round? It is cruel and selfish to have taught some of these noble fellows to love drink and now make them stand by and see the beer they love swallowed by selfish stay-at-homes. They have lost their health for our sakes and must abstain to regain that health. If we were to all adopt the blue arm band principle we should not only help them, but would be everyone of us morally and physically better for the self-denial. That is scientifically and experimentally indisputable. Then, if we are humans or patriots, why not do it?
The last comment on these bands comes from a local from the Shire of Alberton. It was made by H J Alford at the unveiling of the school honor roll at Wonwron and it appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 7/8/18. Alford, as the father of heroes, was very clear about what he thought of the arrangement. He even employed then unchallenged racial slurs to castigate those who refused to accept the worth of the returning men – men returning to their ‘native ‘ land – and who were unwilling to repay the debt owed.
Mr. H. J. Alford stated he was pleased to be present. He had three sons at the war, and one had paid the supreme sacrifice, but as a father he would sooner any of them die a hero than a shirker. They had done their bit for us, but had we done anything for them? He stated that before long he thought the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Association, the Fathers’ Association, and the Sisters’ Association would unite and make things better for the heroes and worse for the shirkers. He was of the same opinion as Cr. O ‘Connor that land should be given to those who wanted it, and they shouldn’t pay for it. He disagreed with the Department’s decision to put bands around returned men’s arms thus preventing them from being served with liquor. This he thought the blackfellows’ brand. He trusted that the remaining 27 men on the roll would be spared to return to their native land. (Applause.)
Rev Walklate was still trying to establish a local branch of the Strength of Empire Movement in Yarram in October 1918 but he was not having much success. However, with or without a local branch of this particular movement, it was clear that, everywhere, the return of the AIF – both those men already back in Australia and the vast number still to return – was generating a complex and volatile mix of unrealistic expectations and deeply-considered anxieties.
The Age The Herald Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative Spectator and Methodist Chronicle
Stanley, P 2015, ’Enduring: Sacrifice, Aborigines and Sex’, in Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, P, 2015, The War at Home, Volume 4 The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, Oxford, South Melbourne.
Cochrane, P, 2018, Best We Forget: The War for White Australia 1914 – 18, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.
Stanley, P, 2010, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, Pier 9, Millers Point NSW.