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 Representative actively 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 drink and 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 Chronicle on 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 Herald a 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.
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.
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