221. Analysing the ‘sacrifice’ of the cohort of men who enlisted, embarked and served overseas.

It is time to draw the blog to a finish. But before I do, I want to devote a couple of final posts to a description of the experiences of the men who enlisted, went overseas and took part in the fighting.

At the time, much was made of the core ideal of ’sacrifice’. So it seems proper to try to give some picture of exactly what sacrifices were made by the men. In particular, I want to have a close look at the impact of the fighting on the men’s health and wellbeing both during the War and in the years after.

The data that I am drawing on comes primarily from the individual service histories of the men. These records detail a significant amount of information on any wounds, injuries, sicknesses and diseases experienced. They also cover matters such as length of time spent in hospital and other related institutions. Importantly, they indicate whether the individual soldier was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ (MU) or at the ‘termination of the period of enlistment’ (TPE). The same records give an indication of the longer term disabilities and suffering the returning men had to carry with them after discharge from the AIF.

After having considered the medical profile, I also intend to look at the men’s service histories in terms of their (military) behaviour in the AIF. I will also look at the military honours and awards received.

The cohort under review

To this point, the blog has identified all those men (814) with a link to the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in the AIF at some point over 1914-1918. However, I now want to reduce this cohort to focus on those enlisted men who embarked for overseas service and who took part in the fighting in the Middle East and Europe. To do this, I need to remove the following groups from the full cohort:

  1. men who were discharged from the AIF on medical grounds shortly after enlistment and before their units embarked for overseas
  2. men who deserted form the AIF before embarkation
  3. men who enlisted late in 1918 and were either discharged before embarking or who were on troopships that were recalled after the Armistice and then discharged
  4. men who for other reasons either never embarked or never reached overseas

Taken together, all these groups cover 61 men, which reduces the cohort to 753. That is, for these last few posts the focus will be on the service histories of the 753 men, linked to the Shire of Alberton, who enlisted in the AIF, embarked for overseas and saw service in either or both the Middle East and Europe.

This particular post examines the several groups men excluded for the above reasons. It provides an indication of just how complex individual enlistments in the AIF could be.

Some background on the general health of recruits

We know that, overwhelmingly, our particular cohort of men who enlisted were young – late teens and early twenties – and that they came from a rural work background, employed as either agricultural labourers or assisting on the ‘family farm’. You would probably expect then that the overall level of health and fitness amongst this group of recruits would have been high. Certainly, this was the impression created right at the start of the War when the first group of approximately 50 local young men rushed to enlist and were promptly screened by the local doctors in Yarram. There was a clear sense that the fittest and best of the local community – and this was true for the nation as a whole – had volunteered for service.

Men rejected on medical grounds

At the same time, we know that many recruits were rejected on medical grounds. Previous posts have looked at this issue of rejection. See Post 199. The rejected and Post 200.’Recruits Rejected by Local Doctors’. It is a complicated issue, made more complicated by the fact that medical standards for enlistment changed over the course of the year; and men who were initially rejected were later deemed to meet the new standard. The issue of rejection on medical grounds is important because it offers another perspective on the general health of those of who enlisted. Possibly, the general health of those who enlisted in the AIF in WW1 was more compromised than we have presumed.

One important point to keep in mind is that the data I have on this issue of medical rejection only relates to enlistments in Yarram. Essentially, it covers the medical assessments carried out by the local doctors when men from the shire fronted to enlist. As noted, when local men presented themselves for enlistment they had a medical with the local doctor and if successful were then given a railway warrant to travel to Melbourne. The data I have suggests that there were approximately 150 cases where local men were ‘rejected’ or ‘failed’ the medical. But, as usual, there are significant qualifications to note. The most obvious one is that, as discussed, many of those initially rejected on medical grounds were subsequently accepted. In fact, of the 136 men individually listed by local doctors as having failed the medical, it appears that at least 35 were subsequently accepted.

Another key qualification was the conviction of AIF medical staff that local doctors were not rigorous enough in enforcing the medical standards that had been prescribed. They believed that local doctors were unduly influenced by the ideal of patriotism and that they passed men whom, from a purely medical or physical standard, they should have failed. As a consequence, over time, the AIF significantly qualified the worth of the assessment by the local doctor by requiring a second medical screening in Melbourne; and the enlistment would only proceed on the basis of this second medical assessment. So, it is possible that the number of rejections by local doctors represents an understatement of the problematic level of the general health and fitness of those who came forward to enlist.

Moreover, the number of medical rejections recorded in Yarram is only part of the full picture. Roughly half the men in the full cohort of 814 enlisted in Melbourne or some other large centre such as Warragul, Sale or Foster. Commonly, this was because by the time they came to enlist they had left the Shire of Alberton or, while they were still living and working in the shire, they travelled directly to Melbourne or some other location to enlist. Because these recruits were never examined by the local doctors in Yarram, we have no equivalent record of medical rejections at the local level. At the same time, when you look at the individual service files of the men it is clear that many of them, just like those who enlisted in Yarram, were initially rejected on medical grounds. So it seems safe to assume that the number of rejections for this group would have been comparable to that for the Yarram group and that, overall, for the complete cohort of just over 800 men, the total number of rejections could have been in the order of 300 or more. But, again, many of this group did in fact end up being passed medically and enlisted in the AIF.

You have to start to wonder if the overall health of this particular demographic – young, single, male, rural workers – was not as ‘positive’ as was presented at the time, where the prevailing view was that rural or ‘bush’ life was the natural and highly desired environment for the physical, social and even moral development of the archetypal Australian male. For example, we can reflect on all the stirring farewell speeches that lavished praise on the new recruits from the shire, not just as the heirs of the original, physically tough and mentally resilient pioneer stock of Gippsland, but as the embodiment of all that was best of the young Australian male.

At the same time, the general issue of the men’s background health is complicated. For example, take the single issue of teeth. A problem with a potential recruit’s teeth – the lack of teeth or the condition of the teeth – appears to have been the most common reason for failing the medical. At least this was the case with this Yarram cohort. There are two possible responses to this situation. One is that the AIF and the local doctors were too preoccupied with the condition and number of men’s teeth; and that teeth generally should have been of a lower order of importance. What did it matter, so to speak, if a recruit was missing a few teeth but as fit as the proverbial ‘mallee bull’? Indeed, it is clear that many men initially rejected because of their teeth were ultimately passed as fit. So was too much made of this single criterion? At the same time, if the issue of teeth was critical in terms of being able to eat army food and rations then it was obviously a major consideration. Moreover, arguably a recruit’s general dental condition and his standard of oral hygiene would then – as now – have been taken as critical indicators of overall health.

There is also other evidence to suggest that the general level of health and fitness of the cohort of men presenting themselves for enlistment in the AIF was more problematic than all the contemporary and historic imagery of the WW1 digger suggests. Specifically, of the cohort of 814, thirty-two (30) newly enlisted men were discharged on medical grounds not long after enlisting. None of this group embarked for overseas service. Further, in many of these cases, there was clearly a pre-existing medical condition which, in theory at least, should have meant they were never passed as medically fit in the first place. Basically, it was not just the large number of men who failed the medical screening for enlistment that pointed to poor health and fitness across the demographic but also the cases of men who were accepted only to be discharged on medical grounds within a short time after their enlistment. It is worth looking at these latter cases because they indicate not just the medical conditions but also the apparent failings in the screening system. They also point to the determination – if not, desperation – of some men to enlist.

Men discharged on medical grounds after enlistment and before embarking for overseas (30):

Bourke, George Manning: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne March 1917: 25 years old, single, bank clerk; extensive sickness and hospitalisation from April 1917 – influenza, tonsilitis, rheumatic myalgia, neurasthenia – and discharged 3/10/17, as medically unfit – rheumatism.

Coulthard, Robert Lyn: enlisted Yarram late 1915; single, 23 years old, farmer; discharged February 1916 because of pre-existing tumour on thigh.

Cox, George: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne November 1915; 44 years old, married, clergyman; had been previously rejected on medical grounds; discharged in early 1916 because of long-term effects of rheumatic fever (1913); continued in home service until early 1919.

Crisp, John: enlisted Warragul October 1916; 26 years old, single, labourer; had been previously rejected on medical grounds; discharged April 1917 with ‘tubercular disease of lung’ and long standing pleurisy.

Cummings, Albert James: enlisted Melbourne May 1918; 18 years old, single, labourer; this was in fact the second enlistment as he had been in AIF for a fortnight in March 1917 before medical discharge; again medically discharged after 2 months when he was described as ‘pale anaemic youth’, with ‘bad physique’. He also suffered chronic bronchitis; an operation to remove adenoid obstruction was recommended but he refused.

Dessent, William Allan: enlisted Warragul late 1916; 25 years old, married, farm labourer; had been previously rejected on medical grounds; discharged after 4 months with complications from appendix operation several years earlier.

Dicker, Percy Hensby: enlisted Melbourne November 1917: 26 years old, single, university student; discharged as medically unfit after 2 months but no details given.

Fisher, George William: complicated case – enlisted 3 times; first in 1914 when he was 21 years old, single and labourer and the last in early 1917; enlisted under 2 names and discharged as medically unfit on each occasion; initial problem was ‘deformed feet’ but later included fainting attacks, palpitations, sweating, headaches and ‘neurasthenia’ and there was also ‘debility following pneumonia’.

Fisher, Percy Charles: enlisted Melbourne February 1916; 34 years old, married, labourer; had been rejected earlier by doctors in Yarram but did not acknowledge this on enlistment in Melbourne; discharged after several months as medically unfit with ‘chronic synovitis of right knee’ from past football injury.

Fitz, Francis: enlisted Foster/Melbourne August 1916: 24 years old, married, fisherman; discharged after one month with defective eyesight.

Godfrey, Reuben Curtis: enlisted Geraldton July 1917; 34 years old, single, farmer: had been previously rejected – eyesight- and on enlistment form a note that ‘extensive dental treatment’ required; discharged in October 1917 as permanently unfit: ’tendency to hernia’.

Goodwin, Walter Lewis: enlisted twice – Maffra January 1915 and Yarram/Melbourne July 1915 – first enlistment discharged because he was underage, on second enlistment there were medical issues with tonsillitis; he as recommended for operation but he refused and was granted a discharge.

Handley, Frank: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne July 1915; 25 years old, single, labourer; medical board discharged him in January 1916 for ‘chronic appendicitis, dating back 5 years; refused operation

Light, Thomas Rueben: enlisted Leongatha March 1916; 27 years old, single, farmer; discharged in July 1916 as medically unfit but no further details.

Lucas, Richard Albert: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne August 1915; 26 years old, single, labourer; discharged after 2+ months because of ‘post operative trouble after appendicitis’ aggravated by military exercises, also -‘has also had measles and influenza since enlistment and is at present suffering from depression’.

Matthews, Oliver George Ewen: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne October 1916; 35 years old, single, saw mill hand; had been previously rejected – ‘teeth’ – at least once; discharged February 1917 with emphysemia.

McKean, Alfred: enlisted Melbourne July 1918; 19 years old, single, farm hand; a very late enlistment and discharged as medically unfit in early November: ‘poor physique’, ’neurosis’ and ‘unlikely to be efficient’.

Mitchell, Walter Laurence: first enlisted Yarram, August 1915 – 33 years old, single, contractor – but then rejected in camp with ‘ill health’; subsequently enlisted again at Warragul in October 1916 – acknowledged earlier rejection – but only lasted 3 months before discharge with ‘chronic asthma’.

Moser, Leonard: first enlisted Wangaratta March 1916; 32 years old, married, engine driver; discharged as medically unfit after 2 months; subsequently enlisted Yarram/Melbourne May 1917 but again discharged as medically unfit after 2+ months.

Parrott, Oliver Joseph: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne July 1917; 21 years old, single, labourer; limited details and no date for discharge but it appears he was in hospital at time of unit’s embarkation and there is no record of overseas service.

Peel, Ernest: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne September 1915; 30 years old, married, farmer; had been previously rejected on medical grounds and was discharged as medically unfit after 2 months with poor eyesight: there was loss of sight in right eye and vision in left eye was defective.

Ratcliffe, Robert James: enlisted Goulburn September 1916; 34 years old, single labourer; discharged after 6 months: ‘acute rheumatism’.

Roberts, Charles Essex: enlisted Toora/Melbourne September 1915; 36 years old, married, farmer/‘bush carpenter’; discharged after 2 months: eye problems

Rooney, John Joseph: enlisted Melbourne February 1916; 44 years old, single, labourer; discharged after 5 months – pre-existing foot injury made worse by army service; but record also noted he was ‘over 45 years of age’; appears he tried again to enlist, unsuccessfully, in 1918 when his age was given as 47 years old.

Rowley, John David: enlisted Melbourne September 1914; 27 years old, single, horse-breaker; only lasted 1 month – ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’; tried again in May 1916 to enlist, at Yarram, but must have failed medical – appears on list of those rejected by local doctors.

Sims, William Gordon: complex case but, critically, no overseas service; first enlisted Yarram in October 1914; 20 years old, single, butter packer; discharged as medically unfit January 1915, appears to have been ‘goitre’; re-enlisted for home service in April 1916 and served 7 months then discharged, but not on medical grounds; re-enlisted in May 1917 for permanent guard and then discharged at own request in July 1918; then in July 1918 enlists in AIF under alias (Law) not divulging previous service history; admitted to situation in late August 1918 and finally discharged ‘at own request ‘ in December 1918.

Skinner, Evelyn Bruce: enlisted Melbourne January 1917; 35 years old, married, solicitor; discharged by medical board September 1917: ‘chronic otitis media’ – hearing problems for many years previously and had had ‘private treatment for deafness before enlisting.’

Trusler, Ernest George: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne June 1917; 20 years old, single, motor driver; had been previously rejected on medical grounds; discharged as medically unfit April 1918 – ‘r.sided inguinal hernia’ for which he refused operation and was then discharged.

Wilson, James Dennis: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne February 1916; 27 years old, single, labourer; discharged after 5 months – asthma

Wykes, William Alexander: enlisted Melbourne October 1915; 21 years old, single, baker; discharged after 7 months: ‘palpitations on slight exercise’; file indicates there was a significant pre-existing heart condition.

Another group of men I need to remove from the full cohort takes in those who deserted some time after enlistment and prior to embarkation for overseas service. The major qualification here is that possibly some of these men did subsequently enlist but under an alias. What tended to happen with these men is that they did not return from a period of leave, or they just left camp, and after a significant period of being absent without leave there was a committee of enquiry appointed which found that they had been illegally absent. They were then declared to have deserted and a warrant issued for their arrest. At the same time, their service files at least do not give any indication that they ever were apprehended. All these men were of course ‘volunteers’; and, presumably, some of them simply changed their minds and believed they had the right to do so.

Men who deserted (11):

Appleyard, R T: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne February 1916; 34 years old, married, farmer; charged with desertion and struck off strength December 1916.

Claydon, R: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne May 1916; 26 years old, single, labourer; committee of enquiry found him a deserter and struck off strength November 1916.

Fogarty, W H: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne November 1915; 31 years old, single, labourer; absent without leave from February 1916 and in March 1916 declared to have deserted.

Heriot, J: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne September 1915; 26 years old, single, labourer; ‘deserter’ marked on file and warrant issued for arrest November 1915.

Hibbs, A: enlisted Warragul/Melbourne October 1916; 25 years old, single, fisherman; had previously been rejected – chest measurement and bad teeth; absent without leave from early February 1917 and then marked as deserter mid February 1917.

Kennedy, J J: enlisted Melbourne September 1916; 28 years old, single, labourer; absent without leave from mid November 1916 and then declared deserter. Possibly re-enlisted under name of Byrne.

Kenney/Kenny, L A: enlisted Melbourne September 1915; 19 years old, single, jockey; he had previously (September 1914) been rejected on medical grounds by doctors in Yarram; enlistment in September 1915 only lasted 1 month then discharged on medical grounds – ‘chest measurement’; re-enlisted at Sale in February 1916 but was in trouble – absent without leave (numerous) and insubordination – from April 1916 and eventually declared a deserter in mid May 1917. It appears he misrepresented his age and could have been as young as 16 years old when he first enlisted.

Northan, A: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne November 1915; 25 years old, single, farm labourer; absent without leave from early December 1915 and declared a deserter in January 1916. Name also appeared as ‘Northern’.

Rice, C L: enlisted Melbourne June 1916; 18 years old, single, labourer; had previously been rejected by doctors in Yarram; marked absent without leave at time off embarkation (October 1916); oddly, he appeared as awl again – in a different unit – in June 1918 and a court of enquiry in July 1918 determined that he be struck off the strength and declared a deserter.

Rowland, J V: enlisted Korumburra/Melbourne March 1917; 35 years old, single, labourer; limited detail but ‘illegally absent’ from at least 21/11/17 and a court of enquiry on 11/12/17 had him struck off strength as a deserter.

Tolhurst, H W: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne December 1915; 21 years old, single, farm worker; absent without leave from March 1916 and a court of enquiry found him ‘guilty of desertion from 10/4/16’; [see Post 70]

So far we have covered (1) the group of men whose enlistments lasted only a short time before they were discharged as ‘medically unfit’ and (2) the group who deserted in Australia before embarkation. But there are still others we need to remove from the overall cohort if we want to focus exclusively on those men who enlisted in the AIF, embarked for overseas and saw service in either – or both – the Middle East and Europe.

Men who enlisted late in 1918 who were discharged before they embarked for overseas (9):

Berry, William Gordon: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne, September 1918; 35 years old, married, farm labourer; no embarkation and discharged at end of 1918.

Clark, George (Jim): enlisted Yarram/Melbourne July 1918; 20 years old, single, saw mill hand; no embarkation and discharged at end of 1918

Cottrell, James Robert: enlisted Melbourne May 1918; 19 years old, single, dairyman; Influenza (6 weeks) August 1918 and did not embark; discharged at end of 1918.

Curtis, George Albert: enlisted Sale/Melbourne September 1918; 20 years old, single, labourer; no embarkation and discharged at end of 1918.

Harris, Edward Evan: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne September 1918; 20 years old, single, farm labourer; had been previously rejected (knee); did not embark; discharged at end of 1918

Johnson, Larry Gordon: enlisted Melbourne October 1918; 20 years old, single, labourer; did not embark and discharged at end of 1918.

Jones, Gilbert: enlisted Hobart August 1918; 18 years old, single, labourer; had been previously rejected in Yarram – chest measurement; did not embark and discharged at end of 1918.

McAinch, Peter James: enlisted Melbourne November 1918; 18 years old, single, family farm; had been previously rejected at Yarram; did not embark and discharged mid December 1918.

O’Connor, Arthur Mortimer: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne October 1918; 19 years old, single, family farm; did not embark and discharged end of December 1918.

Men on troopships that were recalled (5):

English, James: enlisted Melbourne June 1918; 39 years old, widower, engineer; embarked but troopship recalled and arrived back In Australia January 1919 and discharged February 1919.

Gasson, Silas Randolph: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne August 1918; 22 years old, single, farm labourer; embarked but troopship recalled and discharged end of 1918.

Greenaway, Albert Joseph: enlisted Melbourne August 1918; 38 years old, single, family farm; embarked but troopship recalled and discharged at end of 1918.

Summerfield, James William: enlisted Melbourne May 1918; 20 years old, single, farm labourer; embarked but ship quarantined in Adelaide and then discharged early February 1919.

Turnbull, Roy William: enlisted Yarram/Melbourne July 1918; 19 years old, single, bank clerk; troopship recalled mid December and discharged late January 1919.

Lastly, there are two smaller groups of men who did not see any service overseas:

Men discharged in Australia before embarkation for other reasons (3):

Appleyard, Ernest: enlisted Melbourne March1916; 31 years old, single, farmer; discharged for ‘family reasons’ in October 1916.

Bateman, Harry: enlisted Melbourne March 1915; 35 years old, single, labourer; lasted only 1 month but no medical details recorded.

Connor, Ernest: Lieutenant with commission from December 1914; 42 years old, single, land agent; appointment terminated April 1915; no further details but it is possible there was some form of ‘home service’ later in War.

Men who died of disease in Australia (3):

Mcleod, Leslie John: enlisted Melbourne July 1915; 18 years old, single, clerk; died of disease 29/8/15 – ‘cerebrospinal meningitis’ – on troopship off Fremantle, WA.

Nicholson, James Vernall: enlisted Melbourne July 1915; 22 years old, single, labourer; died of disease 22/9/15 – ‘cerebrospinal meningitis’ – at Alfred Hospital.

Willis, David Geoffrey: enlisted Rosedale/Melbourne July 1915; 26 years old, married, labourer; died of disease 26/8/15 – ‘cerebrospinal meningitis’ – at Alfred Hospital.

The final cohort and a first note on the degree of sacrifice

As indicated, once all these various groups have been removed from the full cohort, the final figure for local men who enlisted in the AIF and embarked for and served overseas is reduced to 753. It is this cohort that will be the focus for the next few posts.

As a quick preview of the picture that will emerge from a statistical survey of the data, the following points are worth noting:

  • 168 men of the cohort of 753 were killed in action, died of wounds or died of disease (22% or 1 in 5)
  • of the 585 men who ‘survived’ the War, roughly 50% (280) or 1 in 2 were discharged from the AIF on medical grounds (‘Medically Unfit”), as the result of either wounds, injury, disease or some other physical or mental disability

A more detailed breakdown will follow in the next couple of posts but, clearly, the experiences of the local men who served overseas came to define the very meaning of ‘sacrifice’.

References

The data and personal details come from the individual service files of the men.

National Archives of Australia

2 thoughts on “221. Analysing the ‘sacrifice’ of the cohort of men who enlisted, embarked and served overseas.

  1. David

    G’day Phil

    Great to see this. Will link to it from HH site and add the other posts
    as they come through. You have done sterling work over the years!

    David S
    ed HH

    Reply

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