Category Archives: Divided Community

132. The Great Strike, August 1917

Throughout August 1917, a series of strikes spread along the eastern seaboard. The initial strike involved railway workshop employees in Sydney who went out over attempts to introduce a US style card system, based on Taylorism, intended to speed up work. This first action was on 2 August. However, virtually from the very next day, strike action began to spread to an ever increasing range of industries. In NSW, the strike spread across the railways, collieries and then the wharves. Initially, it took in the full range of workers in the railways, and then miners, wharf labourers and seamen. By mid August, strike action spread to Victoria where the key workers involved were the wharf labourers and seamen. On a lesser scale, other industries and specific enterprises became involved and the unrest spread to other centres including Broken Hill. All the various actions are usually described, collectively, as the ‘Great Strike’ of 1917.

The end to the NSW railway strike on 9 September is taken as the end of the Great Strike, even though some workers continued their action for some time after. For example, the Melbourne wharf workers did not vote to return until 4 December.

The Great Strike of 1917 was a conflict that went beyond industrial action, as large scale as this was. It is possible to see it more as a wider working-class revolt than a series of strikes. Certainly by 1917 there was considerable disaffection in the working class. There was ‘war weariness’ but the War had also eroded real wages. Price rises had been extreme. There was also war profiteering. Above all, there was widespread concern that hard-won, pre-War industrial conditions were being eroded under the cover of patriotism. Opposition to the Yes vote in the recent conscription referendum had been strengthened by the fear that conscription was to be used to weaken organised labour. As pointed out in Post 105 even soldiers on the front line shared this concern that conscription would be used to undermine the working conditions and job security of Australian workers. The sense that the hard-won industrial conditions of the (white) working class were under attack was very strong.

Another interesting feature of the Great Strike was the degree to which the traditional power brokers in organised labor – the union hierarchy and the ALP itself, as the political wing of the movement – were by-passed by more rank-and-file leadership and agitation. The organisation was entrusted to an ad hoc ‘Defence Committee’. Also, in many instances the traditional power brokers were opposed to the specifics of the industrial action. In several key instances, unions voted to strike, against the advice of the union leadership.

Importantly, the industrial unrest was not restricted to just the act of striking. There were very large public demonstrations and marches – portrayed as unruly, mob-like and dangerous by the popular press – in Melbourne and Sydney. The role of women in these highly visible activities was striking. In Melbourne through August there were almost daily demonstrations in locations such as Treasury Gardens, Exhibition Gardens and Yarra Bank. Extra police were brought in from rural areas to maintain public order. To some extent, the month long strife was more an expression of the ‘direct action’ promoted by radical worker groups like the IWW than the conventional strike. Not surprisingly, the press was keen to push the claim that this radicalisation of the workers was the handiwork of the IWW and other extremist labor or socialist groups. There was speculation that the massive social dislocation in Russia could even play out in some form in Australia.

Another important feature of the action was the so-called ‘black doctrine’. According to this doctrine, no unionist could work alongside a ’scab’ worker or handle or have anything to do with goods or services provided by scab labour. The speed with which this doctrine prompted other unions to strike and the way it acted as a rallying call – often against the direct advice of the union hierarchy – suggests that the ever-expanding wave of strikes represented not just specific industrial grievances but also a declaration about the fundamental beliefs of the union movement. Specifically, the focus was on the very definition of the union notion of ‘mateship’. This ties in with the argument that after 3 years of War, and ongoing attacks on the union movement, the working class itself pushed back with the equivalent of a public manifesto of what it stood for and what it would never tolerate.

Ironically, the ‘black doctrine’ was arguably the main reason for the failure of the Great Strike. Essentially it meant that the strikes went too wide, too quick and too shallow. While many industries across state boundaries became involved very quickly there were important segments in these industries, and other whole sectors of the economy, where production and business continued unaffected. From the beginning, union organisers had sensed the inherent weakness of the campaign but, it appears, workers generally were not in the mood to listen to their leadership. Indeed, even when the various strikes collapsed and the workers were forced back under very punitive conditions, many workers believed, unrealistically, that they had been on the point of victory and saw the return to work as a ‘sell-out’. This sense of betrayal was heightened by the severity of the conditions surrounding their return to work; and in many cases they were never taken back.

In a real sense the Hughes Government was always going to win. To begin with, after the split over conscription, the ALP was in a weak position. Further, it was clear that the union movement itself was divided over the strikes. Also, the popular press lined up behind the government. The government also had the very powerful War Precautions legislation to employ as required. Finally, Hughes set up the National Service Bureau which in effect recruited volunteers to act as strike breakers. The large number of such volunteers and the efficient organisation of the scheme were enough to break the strike.

When the strikes collapsed, the workers, if they were re-employed at all, had to accept reduced conditions. In many cases their positions were taken by those who had volunteered for Hughes’ scheme of ‘national service’. The strikers were defeated and a brief period of working-class solidarity and direct action, built round idealistic notions of ‘industrial mateship’, came to a bitter end. At the same time, the victory against the strikers virtually made it inevitable that any second vote on conscription would fail. Arguments that conscription was by its very nature an attack on the working class designed to break the unions and reduce wages and working conditions – as well as open the country to cheap non-White labour – were obviously set to have more appeal. Equally, those who argued that the War was nothing but a sordid trade war were going to attract considerably more attention. For many, the War was turning into a war on the Australian working class.

It is interesting to consider the attention that the strikes over August attracted in the local media in the Shire of Alberton. Overall, the ongoing, daily accounts of the strikes were left to the metropolitan dailies. At the same time, the Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative did highlight how serious the national situation was. The following appeared on 17/8/17:

Industrial Australia is now engaged in the greatest upheaval known in the nation. Emanating from the strike of the railway men in New South Wales it has extended in the past few days to numerous industries in which labor is concerned, and present indications are that serious trouble will ensue before a settlement is effected. The Federal Government is taking a firm stand in the matter, and appears determined to fight the Unions and those who have attempted to disturb and upset railway and shipping facilities. Gradually the strike mania is being extended by the originators to centres of industry which, prior to the outbreak, had no cause for complaint, but are drawn into the trouble by the influence of their fellow workers.

As usual, the local paper lined up behind the Hughes Government. It was keen to support the call for volunteers to break the strikes. There was not as much call in Victoria for volunteers from the country as there was in NSW. In Melbourne there were ample volunteers from the metropolitan area, including students from the University of Melbourne and private boys’ colleges. The following appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative on 24/8/17:

The Government is now receiving offers from country volunteers, and many have taken up the work in Sydney. An individual, a former sailor, walked into our offices [Yarram] yesterday and offered to go and help the Government wherever his services might be of any assistance. We believe a number of others have volunteered from this district.

The paper also reported on the Shire Council’s resolve to support the Government. The following resolution appeared on 31/8/17:

That this Council grant all possible assistance to the Government in the matter of providing labor during present strikes and that the [Shire] secretary be instructed to accept applications from volunteers.

And on 29/8/17 it noted the strong support from at least one local branch of the Victorian Farmers’ Union:

Alberton branch of Victorian Farmers’ Union … resolved that, in the event of it [strikes] becoming more serious, the Alberton branch pledged itself to endeavor to obtain volunteer workers to assist the Government.

The paper also reported (24/8/17) when the local police constable was called to Melbourne … to do duty should trouble arise.

The following article appeared on 29/8/17:

Serious Extension of the Strike Trouble to Womerah. Ferns Declared “Black” – “Trouble never comes alone” was demonstrated at the office of a leading grazier in this district last week. The overseer was waited upon by a deputation of three at “Smoko” requesting a substantial increase in wages, or ferns would be declared “black.” The increase was at once acceded to, pending official confirmation. The official presented the objects of the deputation under threat of dismissal. The strike was of short duration, extending from forenoon “Smoko” on Friday, 17th and terminating on Saturday, 18th when at 5 p.m. the spokesman was dismissed, and one of his senior colleagues resenting such treatment left in sympathy. The dismissed agitator when last seen, was making his way toward Morwell Shire seeking ”White Ferns” and “Pastures New.” We are pleased to state that the strike is ended, as it was causing much concern amongst local employers. The call for volunteer labor was quickly answered by one recruit, who has accepted the agitator’s place without the right of spokesman.

Presumably the article is meant to be a parody – albeit a very clumsy one – of the situation in Melbourne and Sydney. Country employers know how to handle unionists. There does not have to be any workplace bargaining, the boss just gets rid of those who cause ‘trouble’. And there are plenty of other workers who will take up the positions of those dismissed.

The article does at least serve to remind that organised labour was very weak in country areas. This was particularly so in areas like the Shire of Alberton, where the nature of settlement and ongoing development had meant that there was little, if any, history of organised labor. With the exception of the timber industry and state-wide industries like the railways, there was no large concentration of workers in the one economic activity or location. Instead, the stronger history of labour in the Shire was that of the struggling selector and the family-based farm.

The history of selection was one characterised by the lack of capital, equipment, technology, and services, including transport. There were major environmental challenges – drought, flood, fire – and the endless struggle to ‘clear the land’. In this  world, the sense of ‘labour’ was the diametric opposite to that which had grown up in the late 19C in the large urban centres of Melbourne and Sydney. In the rural setting, the focus took in, on the one hand, self-help and rugged individualism, with the family as the basic economic unit, and on the other hand a commitment to a form of agrarian communalism. Only by coming together at this second level were ‘settlers’ able to establish schools, community halls and services such as the bush nurse. Their understanding of ‘mateship’ was one of looking out for their own interests and being self-reliant but at the same time supporting the neighbouring farms in times of crisis or against common threats. Local farming families had to rely on each other to establish the necessary social, economic and even political infrastructure for the community survive.

Not surprisingly, in this environment there was an inherent fear of and antagonism to the idea of ‘organised labour’ and the threat of the strike. Moreover, even when casual labour was taken on – for example, the large number of young, single, immigrant English farm workers – the nature of the work, the isolation of the workplace and the living arrangements of the workers – commonly they lived on the farmer’s property – meant that there was a completely different master-worker relationship to the one that existed in the metropolitan factory.

For a more detailed analysis of prevailing attitudes to the unionisation of rural workers in the local area see Post 10.

One industrial action that caused great angst in the rural community was the strike on the railways or at the ports that held up the transport and/or export of their primary produce. It was unconscionable that their livelihood could be threatened by secondary industrial action that had nothing to do with them. They saw their interests exploited by organised labour in an industrial conflict that was not of their making. The appeal in August 1917 to go tho the city and stand in as volunteer wharf labourers was a very powerful and natural call to arms in farming communities.

It is also important to acknowledge that the rural communities also viewed the Great Strike as a direct threat to the War effort. As they saw it, the union movement was undermining the nation’s ability to prosecute the War. At the very least, the series of strikes was a major distraction and drag on the Hughes’ Government’s ability to proceed with its singular focus on maintaining Australia’s commitment to the Empire. At their worst, according to the official narrative, the strikes were intended to cripple the Hughes’ Government and pull Australia out of the War. The strikes were overlaid with accusations of treachery, if not treason. The hand of the mythically powerful and omnipresent Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was said to be behind it all. For its part, the Government was keen to retaliate by employing the considerable force of the War Precautions Act to defeat the strikes.

Even though they have faded from the nation’s memory, the events of August 1917 in Australia were highly significant at the time. The speed with which the strikes spread and the number of industries affected caused considerable anxiety. With only limited support from the union hierarchy – and even less from the demoralised and broken ALP – the workers themselves fashioned the strikes into the radical defence of their hard-won conditions and the commitment to fundamental union principles and values. The strikes were symptomatic of deep and divisive concerns about the true cost of the War and the future of the working class. The strikes became an expression of class solidarity and class conflict. But the strikes were also destined to fail and the Hughes Government was keen to settle scores. For all these reasons the “Great Strike’ of August 1917 was a unique chapter in our history. And at the time, the events of August virtually guaranteed that any second referendum on conscription would be defeated. As the workers saw it, the impact of the War was now being carried disproportionately by the urban working class.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative

For general background on the Great Strike see:

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW. [pp 329-335]

Bollard, R 2013, In the Shadow of Gallipoli: The hidden history of Australia in World War I, New South Publishing, UNSW, Sydney NSW [Chapter 6]

 

 

 

 

124. Yarram Recruiting Committee – first half of 1917. Part B

As indicated in the previous post, the major activity undertaken by the Yarram Recruiting Committee in the first half of 1917 was the memorial service held in Yarram on Sunday 20th May 1917. It was followed by a recruiting meeting or ‘demonstration’. The memorial service was staged at the showgrounds at 2.00 pm and the recruiting meeting was held that evening.

According to the reports in both the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative and the South Gippsland Chronicle on 23/5/17, the weather on that particular Sunday was not good. Light rain fell throughout the service and people took shelter in the grandstand. Yet despite the weather, both papers noted that approximately 1,000 people attended the memorial service and the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative noted that the crowd would have been double if the weather had been better. It emphasised the significance of the occasion:

Never has this district been called upon to take part in such a solemn service; never again, perhaps will a similar scene be witnessed.

As per the last post, the idea for the memorial service and the recruiting demonstration had come from Lieutenant Crowe. In his plan, the memorial service itself was intended, very deliberately, to promote recruiting. Lt Crowe had raised the plan directly with the Yarram Recruiting Committee and the committee agreed. He had also organised the speakers – both the religious ministers and the recruiting officers – for the occasion and, most importantly, he had also organised for the AIF Band to attend. His role was acknowledged in the local papers. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative noted the plan thus:

We may add that it was at the instigation of Lieutenant Crowe that the service was held, the object, of course, being to help voluntary recruiting.

For its part, the Yarram Recruiting Committee undertook to advertise the event, prepare the promotional material, organise the venues and take care of the transport and accommodation for the visitors, including the band. The committee also organised a 60-voice choir of locals for the memorial service. The whole business was organised within a very short time.

The arrival of the AIF Band created much interest. The members were met at the Alberton Railway Station on the Saturday (19/5/17) and conveyed to Yarram in the cars of locals. That night they performed at a fund raiser for the Red Cross. On the Monday after their duties, they were taken to Port Albert. The plan was that they would be taken out sailing – to Sealers’ Cove – but the weather was too dangerous so they settled for a day of fishing closer in. That night they put on another concert at Port Albert. They were received enthusiastically wherever they went. Their presence certainly drew attention to the memorial service and the recruiting drive.

Memorial Service

The memorial service is worth close attention because as we have seen previously – see, for example, the efforts of local ministers such as Rev George Cox ( Post 26. Soldiers of Christ) – the extent to which Protestantism was employed to support the War effort was striking. Protestantism was the religion of the Empire. It had always offered unqualified support for recruiting and it had forcefully advocated the Yes vote in the 1916 conscription referendum. Moreover, by 1917 when the loss of life and suffering brought on by the War were overwhelming local communities, it was Protestantism that sought to justify the ‘sacrifice’ and soften the sense of loss and pain.

The memorial service commenced at 2.00 pm. The ‘congregation’ had first gathered at Thompson’s Hall and then the AIF Band had led it to the show grounds.

The leader of the service was Chaplain Ray, one of the outside team organised by Lt Crowe, and the first item was the opening hymn – ‘O God our Help in Ages past’ -performed by the band and the 60-voice choir. The spectacle would have been very impressive and stirring. Rev A Raymond, the local Church of England minister – his son had been killed in action in April 1917 – read the first prayer, which was followed by another hymn, ‘Lead Kindly Light’. Then it was the turn of the local Presbyterian minister, Rev A Tamagno, to read a lesson. This meant that 2 of the local Protestant ministers had been involved in the service at the very start, and this pattern was repeated at the end of the service when the benediction was given by Rev Walklate, the local Methodist minister. However, on the day, the local clergy played only supporting roles. But it was clear that they fully supported the service.

Chaplain Ray took as his text John 18-11: ‘The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it.’ The South Gippsland Chronicle reported at length on his sermon. Christ had prayed that the cup might pass him, but it had not and … Christ drained it to its dregs, therefore we should also do this. ‘Our’ sacrifice – the death of soldiers, the pain and anguish of those left behind – had to be borne the same way that Christ had carried his suffering. People were at one with Christ’s suffering. They were not alone. Cox in earlier sermons had laboured the theme of the Christian soldier as the embodiment of Christ. Now Christ’s suffering was being extended to cover the grieving families and the wider community.

To give the impression of personal connection, Chaplain Ray spoke as though he had known the local men. He spoke of them as …brave lads from this district who had offered to make the supreme sacrifice. He claimed, He had the pleasure of meeting many of them in camp, and they had proved themselves to be of the true stuff of which heroes are made. He reassured their families that these men had never been afraid of death because they died in Christ. The sentiments might sound strange to our ears, 100 years later, but Chaplain Ray reassured the families of the dead that … Death was not horror for them, as it meant life and higher greatness hereafter. He comforted the families:

To those who had lost dear lads he would say they were not dead, but in God’s own care.

Chaplain Ray even some saw good in the present War. He saw it turning people back to God. It was some sort of ‘purifying draught’. He even wanted to argue that just as the first settlers in the district had been true ‘pioneers’ because of the incredible sacrifices they had had to make to establish themselves, the sacrifices that the current community was now being called on to bear would make them worthy of their forefathers. God was testing everyone.

Chaplain Ray’s sermon was followed by ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’

It was then the turn of one of the recruiting officers. There was no hesitation here. The appeal for recruits had always been intended as an integral feature of the religious service. Indeed, as already indicated, that was the primary intention of the exercise. At the same time, the recruiters did add a religious tone to their appeals.

Lieutenant Maskell opened proceedings by telling those there that he wanted to take them back to Gallipoli … where many of our best are buried. Those who died at Gallipoli had never thought of themselves but were prepared to sacrifice everything:

They died in the interests of the Empire and the people of Australia. All those men had placed over their graves was a common wooden cross. They did not want any more, and if it were possible they would go again unflinchingly.

These were true men and … they died as they lived – as men.

And if they were true men, then what of those who refused to enlist and support them. Lt Maskell was keen to add some drama to his appeal:

The lads at present fighting were worthy of every assistance, as many of them were probably being blown to pieces while the people were assembled there that day. He asked the young men present to think of this question honestly, deeply and true, and then make up their minds. The ladies could also give valuable help in encouraging men who had not yet realised their responsibility to go and take the place of their dead and wounded brothers.

It was then the turn of Sergeant Fozard, another of Lt Crowe’s team. He also started with the Anzacs and, given the context of the occasion, added some Christian reference:

He saw many a man receive a fatal bullet wound, and when dying trusted that he would go to a better world.

He also offered a more secular consolation for the brave soldier’s death in battle:

What a terrible blow the war had meant to different homes and families, where the chair of the son, and often the husband, was vacant and the children were left without a father. Behind this cloud, however, there was a silver lining, as those who had fallen had proved themselves to be true Britishers, and died in the noblest of all causes.

Sgt. Fozard contrasted the nobility of the brave soldier, prepared to sacrifice everything, to the baseness of the ’stay-at-home’ interested only in his own safety and comfort:

What must the lads who were there think of those who were taking advantage of worldly pleasure day after day, and doing nothing to help in winning the war?

He appealed for fairness:

Equality of sacrifice was also badly needed in this struggle and it was not fair that some families should bear all the burden and the others none of it.

And he concluded, confident that in the end all the hardship and suffering would be worth it, for the good of the Empire. He spoke about the … great sacrifice made by Australia’s sons for the good old Union Jack.

As indicated, the final benediction was pronounced by Rev C J Walklate. The band played “The Dead March” from Saul. The flag was dipped for the “The Last Post”. Finally, there was the National Anthem and “God Save Our Splendid Men”.

Overall, the memorial service that Sunday afternoon saw both a religious perspective on the current suffering and sacrifice and an appeal for recruits. As a recruiting demonstration the one thing it did not do was specifically call for volunteers to step forward. That was reserved for the evening’s function.

Both local papers reported that everyone was very happy with the service. The South Gippsland Chronicle reported the visiting bandsmen as being very impressed:

The members of the band spoke in high terms as to the smoothness of the service, so different to similar services attended in other parts of the State.

However, not everyone was prepared to go along with the enthusiasm and praise. In the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on the Friday after the service (25/5/17), the following letter-to-the-editor from B P Johnson appeared:

I was surprised to notice on Sunday afternoon that during the solemn rendering of “The Dead March” many men, and women too, were talking and smiling as if the memory of the brave lads whose glorious deaths we were then commemorating was nothing. Later on, while the National Anthem was being sung, and while the flag that at first had been dipped was flying at half mast several men (7) failed to remove even their hats. And our boys are dying and suffering for such as these. Oh, the pity of it.

The letter did not attract any response. Possibly, no one was in the mood for any criticism of such an important and sombre occasion. Johnson was perhaps seen as being unnecessarily negative. He was setting himself up as the arbiter of social manners and devotional etiquette.

The South Gippsland Chronicle also noted:

The programmes used for the day contained special messages from Mr Donal McKinnon (sic) , director general of recruiting, Mr Geo. H Wise, chairman of the State Recruiting Committee, and Capt. A. L. Baird, organising secretary. A photo of the local recruiting committee and other information was also included.

Shire of Alberton archives

Shire of Alberton archives

Recruiting Meeting

The South Gippsland Chronicle (23/5/17) described what happened after the memorial service.

After the church services on Sunday night a recruiting meeting was held in the public hall. Prior to the meeting the band went along Commercial-road and played an enlivening march, a large crowd following to the hall.

B Couston, the chair of the Yarram Recruiting Committee, presided, but the speakers that night were the recruiting officers from Melbourne. Couston in his opening argued that the dire need justified calling a recruiting meeting on a Sunday night. He was also keen to claim that … Yarram had done more than its duty in supplying men for the army. But, at the same time he said that he knew there were still some who could be persuaded to go if they knew the real situation. Hence the need for the meeting.

Lt Maskell, who had spoken earlier at the memorial service, also praised Yarram for its efforts. He emphasised that the need for recruits was not to create new battalions but to secure reinforcements for the existing ones. He wanted to emphasise what the lack of reinforcements meant and point out how unfair the situation was. He claimed that without reinforcements … the soldiers should be in the trenches for 19 weeks without a spell, while there are eligible men here going in for all sorts of amusement.

He strongly condemned those who said Australia had done enough… this was generally made by those who had done nothing. Then he congratulated the people of Yarram for their conscription vote.

Sergeant Fozard was the crowd favourite that night. He told the crowd that the men overseas kept looking at groups of reinforcement to see if they could see their mates. As the paper put it, He pleaded with the women not to hinder the men from going to war. The he turned his comments to the very topical question of the treatment of returned soldiers. He admitted there was a problem and that many young men questioned why they should enlist, given the way those who had returned were treated. But he then went on to claim that as an organiser of the Returned Soldiers’ Association he … could say that the men were not being treated as well as might be expected, but the time was coming when those who had fought for this country would demand and have their rights.

Then the appeal was made for men to come forward. The paper described what happened:

There was no response, and the band played “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” Then one man came up to the front. He was followed by others, some, although only boys, showing that they had the pluck of an Australian in them. The band continued to play, and Sergeant Fozard continued to appeal for “just one more,” and also invited those who had already been rejected to have another try, the result being that in all sixteen men stepped forward and lined the platform. Needless to say there was much excitement, and the recruiting officers were very pleased with the meeting.

The recruiting officers might have been pleased, but if past practice was a guide, very few of those who came forward that night would have been accepted. The boys and those already rejected were not really the intended targets of such recruiting demonstrations.

Sgt Fozard closed proceedings by urging returned men to join the Returned Soldiers’ association and … asked employers in this district to adopt a policy of giving preference to those who had fought for their country.

Overall, neither the memorial service nor the recruiting meeting that night would have produced many volunteers. At the same time, as public demonstrations of the local community’s support for the War and also of the way the same community stood together at a time of great crisis, the 2 events were highly significant. However, with regard to the claim of the local community coming together, there was one major exception – the Catholics.

The Catholic Position

Fr Sterling had made it clear from the start that neither he nor any of his parishioners would be able to attend the memorial service. It was clearly a Protestant service and, as such, church teaching precluded any Catholic participation. This position was well known in the local community. For example, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative reported (16/5/17) that at Sunday mass on 13/5/17 – the week before the memorial service – Fr Sterling told his congregation that … they could not attend the combined service. At the same time, he also reminded them of their … solemn duty to remember the brave dead, and to pay reverently for their loved and lost ones. He also arranged that on the Sunday of the memorial service, there would be a special mass at 11.00 o’clock which … would be offered for the repose of the souls of the Australian Catholic soldiers who have died during the war. The paper also reported that Fr Sterling drew his congregation’s attention to the recruiting meeting to be held after the memorial service.

Fr Sterling supported both the idea of some sort service to the memory of the dead soldiers and the staging of a recruiting meeting. Indeed, Fr Sterling had always been a supporter of the War effort. He had spoken in favour of men enlisting and he had served as a Captain Chaplain with the AIF himself. He had only been back in Australia for a few weeks. There were no grounds to claim that Fr Sterling’s non-appearnace at the memorial service represented some sort of political boycott of the event and that he was taking some sort of stand against both the War and recruiting. At the same time, the non-participation by the local Catholic priest and his congregation would have been dramatically obvious. It would have highlighted, yet again, fundamental tensions and differences between Catholic and Protestant, and some would have interpreted the Catholic position as yet further proof that their support for the War was not as unqualified as that of their Protestant brethren. Catholics, it appeared, were different, and there were always reasons – theological, cultural and political – why they could never come out and give their total and unqualified support for the War, or the State or the Empire.

There was another intriguing twist in this affair and it involved Fr Sterling and his uniform. In the archives of the Shire of Alberton there are 2 items of correspondence. One is a letter from the Yarrarm Recruiting Committee to Bishop Phelan of Sale, dated 14/5/17. In it the secretary – G W Black – wrote:

I am directed by my Committee to ask if your Lordship would kindly give your consent to the Rev. P. F Stirling (sic), of Yarram, wearing his military uniform on the occasion of any patriotic function being held in this town or district. The Committee would esteem it a great favor if you would grant your consent, and trust you will see your way to do so.

Bishop Phelan replied at once. The later was dated 16/5/17. He was most emphatic in his refusal to provide the consent.

I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th inst. re Father Stirling (sic) appearing in military uniform at patriotic functions in Yarram and the district. If you were aware of the military regulations on this point I am sure you would not have made such a request which, if granted, would involve the Rev. Father in serious difficulties.

I have been officially informed that a chaplain when discharged has only two days’ grace during which he may wear the uniform, unless he applies for ten or twelve days’ furlough. After that the wearing of the uniform renders him liable to prosecution.

When Father Stirling was relieved of duty he continued to wear the uniform for some days, and his case was reported to our Chaplain General, the late Archbishop of Melbourne. His Grace at once called my attention to the fact and pointed out the danger to which Fr Stirling was exposing himself; and I had to take immediate steps in the matter.

You see then, that I have no authority to grant your request; and from an ecclesiastical point of view I should object to any priest appearing in public as if he were a recruiting officer.

Any attempt to interpret exactly what lay behind this correspondence is risky. It is made that much harder when you appreciate that there is no archived material for Fr Sterling. He has been, as it were, removed from the historical period in which he was such a key figure. However, the following conjectured account could explain the background. Even though the letter from the Yarram Recruiting Committee did not state it, it appears that Lt Crowe had already won approval for returned soldiers to … wear the uniform of their rank to the functions at Yarram on Sunday 20 May. The committee therefore was not seeking any ruling from Bishop Phelan on the procedural correctness of the matter but, rather, they wanted his express consent for Fr Sterling. This in turn suggests that the committee had approached Fr Sterling and asked if he was prepared to attend the recruiting meeting in the evening and, if so, was he prepared to wear his army uniform. Presumably, Fr Sterling had in response directed them to seek permission from his Bishop. This assumes that Fr Sterling was prepared to attend the recruiting meeting, and this view does fit with his general support for recruiting right up to that point. Whatever the background, the response from Bishop Phelan left no one, including Fr Sterling, any room to move.

Another fascinating insight in the whole affair is the claim by Bishop Phelan that people reported Fr Sterling for wearing his military uniform beyond the prescribed time and that it was only timely intervention on his part that prevented a major embarrassment for Fr Sterling. It is possible that such people were in fact locals from the Shire. Later, – and this was particularly so in 1918 – we will see that Fr Sterling came in for criticism over his alleged ‘disloyalty’, and one of the claims made was that he therefore had no right to wear the uniform.

Arguably, the most significant point made by Bishop Phelan is his last one. It could also have been a point that he had already had to make, and now found that he had to make again, privately, but very directly, to Fr Sterling:

… and from an ecclesiastical point of view I should object to any priest appearing in public as if he were a recruiting officer.

Bishop Phelan’s position on this issue of recruiting was the exact opposite of that of the Protestant Churches who, as the memorial service so ably demonstrated, urged their clergy to call on men to volunteer, and applied religious teaching to insist on the responsibility of men to enlist. Further, their religious perspective was shaped in considerable part by their ‘God-given’ loyalty to the Empire. The local Protestant ministers had no qualm whatsoever employing their status and position to promote the agenda of the ‘trinity’ of Nation, Empire and Church. But for the Catholics, there was no such trinity.

 

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

The activities of the 1917 Yarram Recruiting Committee came from:

File Number 703K
War Files
“Minute Book Yarram Recruiting Committee”

Box 379
“Correspondence etc of Recruiting Committee Formed, April 26th 1917”

105. The soldiers’ vote denied

In early March 1917 (2/3/17), the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published the mesage that Birdwood had sent to all members of the AIF immediately prior to the first referendum conscription, 4 months earlier. In the letter, included here in full, Birdwood is obviously calling for a Yes vote from the men.

To members of the A.I.F.- As General Officer Commanding the Australian Force, it is not for me to interfere in any political matters or to influence the voting of our men on the coming Referendum.

I know well that in any case all will vote as seems to them necessary in the best interests of Australia and the Great Empire to which we belong, whose freedom has been, and still is, in danger of being turned into slavery by Germany. I feel, however, that I can inform you all of how really essential it is that we should get all the men available to keep these magnificent Australian forces, which are now in the field, and whose name is renowned throughout the Empire, up to their strength.

Every single man would, I am sure, bitterly resent and regret it if we had to reduce a single battalion, battery or company, every one of which has now made history, and established a tradition which we all hope will last as long as the British flag flies over our world-wide Empire. But it is, I think, probable that all ranks do not know as well as I do the absolute necessity of keeping our reinforcements right up to strength, and the present system is not doing this. I feel sure all know the great feelings of regard and pride which I have for every man of this force who has up to now come forward of his own free-will and after great sacrifice.

Many brave men have given their lives for the sake of our Empire and the freedom of the world – lives which have been uselessly sacrificed if we relax our efforts in any way until we have the Germans right down on their knees. Remember, too, boys, that the word freedom does not only mean for ourselves, but what is far more important, freedom for our children and our children’s children. For them, I know no sacrifice can be too great.

In the magnificent manifesto, which our Prime Minister, Mr. Hughes, has sent us, he has fully shown what exemptions there will be when universal service is adopted. It will be seen from this that members of families, some of whom have already come forward, will be fully safeguarded, and no man need fear that there is danger of, we will say, the brother who has been left behind to look after the affairs of the family, being ordered to come out. The shirker, however, will be caught, and made to do his share, instead of staying at home as he has done up to now, not only evading his duties, but getting into soft jobs which we want to see kept for our boys here when they return, or for the representatives of their families who have been left in Australia.

I have nothing more to say, boys, except to point out to you as strongly as I can that the necessity does exist, and I hope that after these two years, during which we have been soldiers together, we know each other well enough to realise that I would not say this without good reason. Having said it, I leave it to you to act according to your conscience, for the good of our King and country, the honour of our people, and the safety of our wives and children.
W. R. Birdwood
Lieut. General G.O.C., A. I F.
October 16th. 1916

The copy of the letter, the paper explained, had been provided by B P Johnson who had obtained it from his brother. [Johnson’s brother was Sergeant Norman C Johnson who had enlisted  – 4 LHR – in August 1914 and who had been repatriated to Australia in April 1916 after having been wounded at Gallipoli.]

The publication of the letter suggests that while the referendum had been defeated, Imperial Loyalists in the local community – like Johnson and Rossiter, the editor – were still steadfastly commited to conscription. Voluntary enlistments had not picked up after the referendum, and, in the minds of people like Johnson and Rossiter, the arguments for conscription remained as valid as at the time of the referendum. The publication of Birdwood’s message to his ‘boys’ reminded everyone of the apparently indisputable logic for conscription. As Rossiter wrote in his introduction to the piece, it was … a powerful appeal for the “Yes” vote. Moreover, the case for conscription was reinforced by the claim that the AIF had in fact voted Yes in the referendum.

Specifically in terms of the soldiers’ vote, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire reported as early as 20/12/16 that the majority had supported conscription. On that occasion, Hughes was reported as stating in federal parliament that … a majority of soldiers of the A.I.F. abroad was substantially in favor of the referendum. When he was pressed for the exact numbers, Hughes declared that he could not divulge them because … the desire of the military authorities in England precluded that [possibility]. The pressure on Hughes to release the precise numbers continued and, finally, at a speech in Bendigo on 27/3/17, he claimed that the number “For” was 72,000 and the number “Against” was 58,000: a majority of 14,000. The numbers were reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire on 30/3/17. [The figures given in the Official History were 72,399 Yes and 58,894 No: a majority of 13,505.]

At the end of March 1917, as far as Hughes and his supporters were concerned, the arguments for conscription had always been – and still remained –  beyond dispute; and they had the support of the highest levels of the AIF command. Further, the soldiers themselves voted for conscription by a clear majority. Therefore, the logic ran, the men overseas had been betrayed by the No vote back in Australia.

However, there was a very different version of the story of soldiers’ vote which, at the time, was concealed. Hughes had his way with his version of the truth and the episode reveals just how comprehensively the Government was able to manipulate the narrative of the War.

The alternative version comes, ironically, from the personal diaries of CEW Bean, the Official War Historian. Bean was certainly an advocate of conscription and indeed he did his best to ensure that the soldiers’ vote was Yes. But at the same time, his personal diaries expose the deceit and manipulation that characterised Hughes’ desperate attempt first to win over the soldiers’ vote, and then, when it did not suit him, effectively bury it.

Hughes’ intention was to have the AIF vote held before the vote back in Australia so that the assumed strong Yes from the soldiers would influence the national vote. However, as the vote neared he was informed by his supporters in England, including Murdoch, that the soldiers’ vote was not guaranteed. At this point Bean became involved. He was given the task of contacting Birdwood and encouraging him to make a representation to the soldiers urging them to vote Yes. This is all set out in detail in the following extracts from Bean’s personal diaries. Bean’s role in all this is very apparent. He was most definitely a key participant in the history he came to write. Bean wrote in a form of shorthand but for present purposes, I have written the diary notes in full prose, without changing any of the content.

On Sunday 15 October 1916, Bean wrote in his diary:

Last night [Sa 14/10/16] White told Bazley not to let me go on any account without seeing him.
[CBB White, Brigadier General, General Staff, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Working under Birdwood but generally regarded as the real power in the AIF in France at the time]
[AW Bazley, nominal ‘batman’ to Bean but really a colleague]

Hughes had sent a cable to Birdwood from Burnie in Tasmania. It said that the opposition to conscription in Australia was due to the formidable intrigues of the ultra-socialists and the Fenians; and that everything depended on the lead which the vote of our own force in France gave to Australia. He called on Birdwood, with all the earnestness he could put into the cable, to put aside precedent and to use his great influence with the troops to get them to carry conscription by a big majority and give a lead to the people.

White wanted me to see Birdwood and urge him to do a really big thing for the Empire, and take this step. At the moment we both took it that what Hughes wanted was a message to the Australian people.

I hesitated a moment. Perhaps I am weak. I knew that White’s decision, whichever way it was, would have settled me in mine. But I have a very great fear of anyone in Birdwood’s position – a military servant of the State using his influence in a big question at the polls. I should have taken a few minutes to think. I wasn’t sure which way White was. Then he told me he “wants the little man to play the man – and to take a big opportunity of doing a great thing for the Empire.” The loss of this measure would be a terrible smack in the face of the Empire. It would count enormously. It seemed to me that Birdwood might very well tell the Australian people what the military necessity was for reinforcements, as their chief military adviser. It would have enormous effect. White added: “Yes, and get him to point out that every effort that we have made up to the present would go for nothing- would be utterly wasted – if this were lost.” White means, I think, that it would lose us the good name which our energy and public spirit have so far won.

When I got to London I started to search for Birdwood. … After a fair hunt, I heard of Birdie at the Charles Buckleys, where his daughter often stays. Birdie was at Clifton and would not get back till 8.20. I decided to miss the train and stay and see him. Fortunately I found out that the train left at 11.15. [PM]

Birdie, who hated the idea of being made to give evidence at the Dardanelles Commission during the war, had got away quietly to Lincoln and only went to Clifton on his last day.

He came in to the Buckleys with his pretty daughter, the little Harefield nurse, at about 8.45. We had a long talk in Mrs Buckleys sitting room, by ourselves; Mrs Buckley had been exceedingly kind in telephoning all over London for me to find out if he had returned.

Birdie pointed out at once that what Hughes wanted was, clearly, for him [Birdwood] to give a lead to the soldiers. He never hesitated a moment. I too could see at once a reason for this. If the soldiers voted No – that would kill the question, the people at home would never vote Yes if their army here voted No. The Australian vote was to be later, after the result of the A.I.F.’s vote was known. I fancy Hughes had arranged this thinking that the A.I.F would be certain to vote Yes. Anyway, it was no use Birdie sending a message to Australia if the A.I.F. voted No. The thing to do was to get the army to vote Yes.

Birdie told me that he had seen Lloyd George. While he was there Murdoch asked if he might come in. Murdoch wanted Birdwood to send a message to Australia. Lloyd George agreed, too, that B. [Birdwood] should do this, until Birdwood pointed out that if he did, it might be said by opportunists that he was ordering the soldiers how to vote. L. George agreed, and it was decided not to do this; but Murdoch got letters of introduction to Haig and Joffre and started for France to get messages from each of them if possible.

This shows how Ll. George hangs on the Australian attitude – how important he thinks it. Birdwood didn’t hesitate. He got me to sit down and write, to his dictation, a message to the men saying that he wanted them to vote by their consciences and not to influence them in any way. But he added that he probably knew better than they did, the need for reinforcements. He was sure they would not like to see any of the units, with all their traditions and history, broken up. There was a need for men. If the effort of Australia were relaxed now, all the brave lives sacrificed before would have been sacrificed in vain. The Govt has told them what exemptions were to be – they need not fear that the brother left at home to mind the business would be called to enlist; the men it would especially get were the shirkers who were at present filling all the nice fat billets which we wanted to see our men in on their return, or their relations at home.

The poll was to be tomorrow [Mo 16/10/16]. I urged that if possible this [Birdwood’s statement] ought to and could be wired tonight. But the A.I.F Headquarters said it couldn’t. I think it still could. However, Col. Wright said not. So B. asked if the poll could be put off a day or two. Wright, who is under Anderson (who is managing the business of getting the vote taken) said it could. So B. asked them to wire postponing it.

I don’t know one bit the effect of these steps. They are very risky I am sure. I should have tried every way I could to have got the wire across without postponing the poll, but I didn’t put my reasons strongly enough though B. could see that I wanted it.

There it is. I hope it does the business. For I am sure conscription is right.

Bean’s diary entry is striking at many levels. The tone is anecdotal and free-flowing. He places himself at the very centre of the action. He claims close familiarity with the leading political and military figures. He is a confidant and trusted messenger.

The actors seem caught up in the moment of a ‘good idea’ or a ‘desperate plea’ from Hughes and no one is prepared to step back and apply any sort of critical thinking. Bean talks about the unprecedented act of having a military commander intervene in an obviously political situation but there is no evidence of any deep reflection from anyone on just how significant the matter was. The narrative appears to be on the lines of a select group of powerful individuals determining, on the run, that despite the risks something had to be done.

Essentially, all the key characters involved were attempting to influence the soldiers’ vote – despite all the transparently false qualifications Birdwood included in his message –  and Birdwood, acting on Hughes’ request, was using his military status and reputation to intervene directly in a critically important political matter. Moreover, the delay to the voting schedule, so that Birdwood’s message would have the chance to influence the outcome, was obviously intended to manipulate the voting process.

Subsequent entries in Bean’s diary reveal that the political intervention did not achieve the desired outcome. In fact, it probably had the opposite effect. The following entry was dated 21/10/16, immediately after the troops had voted, and it points to an additional strategy which Hughes was keen to employ. Separate from the actual soldiers’ vote on the referendum, Hughes wanted a series of resolutions in favour of conscription passed by public meetings of the soldiers in France.  He intended to use such resolutions to promote the Yes vote back in Australia.

Murdoch tells me that Young (S.A.) O.C. Beale and another have gone across (at his request, by Haig’s leave) to address meetings upon conscription, amongst the men and see if they cannot send some resolution calling on the Australian people to send more men. If the resolution is in favour of conscription, it will be telegraphed to Australia; if against, it will perhaps be telegraphed to Hughes, but he will not publish it. I shall send the results of all these resolutions or none at all, to my papers. Hughes says that Sinn Feiners have sent agents to Australia and that the Irish and I.W.W are against him. I believe the women will carry him through.

Murdoch undoubtedly is a fine strong helper. …

Everybody here exercised [?] about the Referendum. Birdwood’s circular to the troops did little good – rather the reverse. Col. Anderson thinks Hughes is getting as nervous as can be about it. Anything favourable from here will be telegraphed out to give Australia a lead. Anything unfavourable will be suppressed. Sir Newton Moore did not issue Hughes memorandum to his troops at all. Anderson, who is his enemy, hints that this was because Moore would like to see Hughes and Labour out of office as a result of the loss of Referendum, in order that he (Moore) might get some job or position from the Liberal Govt that would follow. But this is absurd.

Anderson is a clever man but a jealous and ambitious one. He has saved a lot of money for Australia, but sometimes his motives are not purely public spirited.

The 2 men that Murdoch had sent to visit the troops in France in an attempt to secure the resolutions in favour of conscription were (Sir) Frederick William Young and Octavius Charles Beale. Young was the South Australian Agent General at the time. He was only 40 yo. Beale was a successful Australian business man living in London at the time. He was much older at 66 yo. Both men were staunch Imperialists. Young was knighted in January 1918 and he was even elected to the UK House of Commons. He effectively lived in England until his death. Beale returned to Australia after the War but he did achieve English honours, including being admitted as ‘freeman of the City of London’ (1918).  Beale was obsessed with the fear of ‘racial decay’.

Anderson, was Brigadier-General Robert Anderson who was Commandant, AIF Administrative Headquarters, London. He was credited with improving efficiencies in the AIF. He was also spoken of as a nationalist, in the sense that he stood up for the AIF’s interests vis a vis the British Army. (Sir) N J Moore was at the time Brigadier-General in charge of all the AIF depots and training centres in Britain. He had been Premier of Western Australia. He was also a very successful business man. Moore was yet another significant Imperialist. He was also elected to the UK House of Commons (1918-23).

Bean’s tone is again anecdotal and once again he places himself in the centre of the politics and intrigue. Once again, people’s motivations are represented as fairly pedestrian. Hughes clearly had no intention of allowing any negative news from the soldiers in France to make it back to Australia. If there was no support for conscription from the troops – either via the vote itself or the passing of various ‘resolutions’ in favour of conscription – then all the related news was to be withheld.

Obviously word was coming in by this point as to how the troops had voted and the intelligence was not encouraging. Bean believed that Birdwood’s message had backfired. A last minute attempt was required to get some sort of resolution in favour of conscription, from at least some of the troops. Hughes was desperate.

There is another diary entry for Sunday 22/10/16. In it, Bean talked about the last minute efforts to get support from key military leaders and the then urgent mission of Beale, Young and one additional, unnamed, agent.  Bean also revealed the apparent failure of the vote amongs the front-line troops.

In London. Lunched with Murdoch at The Times office. He has seen Joffre, Haig and Pollard and each of them has given him an interview. Haig would only make it a message, stating how much France and the allies needed the troops. Birdwood has promised to send a message on the military need for reinforcements. The vote in France has been taken and (up to the present count) the result is a ten per cent majority against conscription. They are accordingly sending to France O. C Beale, Young, and one other, to address public meetings in favour of  [conscription?].

The last diary entry was dated 25/10/16. In it Bean discloses the dismal failure of the efforts of Young to secure a resolution in support of conscription from the troops. Bean also defends his actions in pressing Birdwood to issue his message in support of conscription, but he clealry has reservations about the whole episode.

I can see (though he doesn’t say so) that White thinks I made a mess of my errand to Birdwood. He thinks I ought to have got a message to the people of Australia and not to the troops, and that the message to the troops may be interpreted as an attempt at exercising a dangerous influence and that the putting off of the voting for two days was a dangerous matter. Anderson told White he would not have let him [Birdwood] do it and perhaps I ought to have told him [Birdwood] plainly the dangers I saw in it. But there we are. As White says, I don’t know that Anderson would have found it so easy to stop him [Birdwood].

However, he really did nothing which was not perfectly defensible. He had a perfect right to tell the men his opinion on a point so important – and he had no control whatsoever over the voting. As a fact, I suspect he lost votes rather than gained them.

Bazley tells me that Young, Agent General for South Australia and a very able man, came over as arranged and asked the troops at a public meeting to send a resolution to Australia in favour of conscription. Haig had permitted the meeting provided there were no speeches, except Young’s, and no officers were present. Young put it to them that at present Australia stood first among the Dominions in the eyes of the British nation and that they would lose that regard if the country did not vote for compulsory service. The attitude of the men was quite clear. They said that they did not care whether Australia came first or last in the opinion of the British people. They wanted enough Australians left to maintain Australia’s present character after the war. They did not want so many Australians killed off that the population of immigrants flowing in, should alter the characteristics of the country. They could repopulate it by immigrants but they wanted it populated by Australians. They thought Australia had given enough to the war without forcing those who did not wish to come. They knew what it was like, now, and they were not going to ask others to come into it against their will. Young was going to wait till Sunday, but he went away on Saturday. The 23 and 21 Bns, which he saw, were almost unanimously against him.

They are funny beggars, but they have a lot of sense. It can’t be called a selfish attitude, anyway.

The 2 battalions that Young addressed – 21 and 23 Battalion – appear to have then been in their billets at Steenvorde. Both had recently been in the front lines. It is difficult to identify when Young spoke to the men but the most likely date was Friday 20/10/16. This was also the date that 21 Battalion voted in the referendum. The date for 23 Battalion’s vote is not given in the unit’s war diary but it must have been round the same time. The point is that Young was speaking to the men at the time that they were also voting – or had already voted – in the referendum. Consequently, the arguments they gave for not supporting any resolution that Young proposed were the same ones that shaped their vote. The arguments they gave, as represented by Bean, went to the core of Australia’s national, not imperial, identity. Australia had done enough. Young realised he had failed and went back early to Britain..

Historians generally argue that the overall success of the Yes vote in the AIF came not from those on the Western Front – their vote represented the clear rejection of conscription – but from those on the troopships, in the training camps in the UK  and serving in the Light Horse in Egypt.

The attitude and votes of the soldiers on the Western Front were effectively hidden. Back in Australia, as was evident in its publication in the local paper, Birdwood’s message to the troops continued to be used as a justification for conscription and, after the defeat of the referendum, Hughes was able to represent the vote of the AIF as being in favour of conscription. However, he was not able to use their vote, as he had intended, to influence the vote back in Australia.

Bean’s diary entries reveal Hughes’ determination to control, absolutely, the politics of the conscription vote. They also point to the human frailty, weakness and ordinariness of many of the key actors of the time who, coincidentally, exercised the power of life and death over their fellow countrymen. In Bean’s account, no one emerges with much integrity – or even intelligence – except for the troops themselves: the funny beggars in Bean’s words.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume XI – Australia During the War, 7th Edition 1941

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Bean’s diaries

There are digital versions of Bean’s diaries available from the Australian War Memorial website:

AWM 38: Official History, 1914-18 War: Records of CEW Bean, Official History

Item number 3DRL 606/61/1 – October 1916

Item number 3DRL 606/62/1 – October 1916

Item number 3 DRL 606/63/1 – October-November 1916

General histories

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW. (see PP 243-244)

Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, p, 2015, The War At Home, Vol 4 The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne. (see p 113)

 

 

 

 

104. Hughes and Mannix, late 1916 – early 1917: the national and local scenes

Even though he had lost the support of his own party and his referendum on conscription was defeated, PM Hughes continued to drive the political landscape in the 6 months from the end of October 1916 through to the overwhelming success of the Nationalists at the federal election in May 1917. By the end of this period, Hughes had re-established himself as, apparently, the only one who could provide the necessary war-time leadership. He had triumphed, while the ALP itself had been broken and defeated.

Over the same period, Archbishop Mannix emerged as the most high-profile, outspoken critic of the War. He became the focus of Hughes’ anger and frustration. Hughes and his supporters saw Mannix as undermining the War effort. And Mannix’s politics and status raised the fundamental issue of where the Catholic Church stood.

As well as playing out at the national level, the same tension and conflict began to emerge at the local level in the Shire of Alberton.

The national scene

The formal end to the ongoing division within the ALP over the conscription referendum and Hughes’ leadership came on 14/11/16 when Hughes broke away, dramatically, with 23 of the 64 members of the federal caucus. The breakaway group took for itself the name ‘National Labor Party’.

Hughes managed to retain his position as PM when, with support from the Liberals, he survived a no confidence motion in the House of Representatives on 29/11/16. Over the next 2 months he was able to establish the new National Party, as an alliance between his National Labor Party and the Liberals, under Cook. Even though his numbers were smaller, Hughes remained as PM in the new party and he even managed, against much opposition, to retain Pearce as his Defence Minister.

In March 1917, Hughes was forced to a federal election. His National Party won the election (5/5/17) with majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Clearly, Hughes was the driving force in Australian politics. His success at the time was in large part due to the image he had established of himself as the ‘natural’ war-time leader. In 1916 in the UK he had been feted in the press – both in the UK and back in Australia – as a no-nonsense, tireless, inspirational and decisive leader. He was closely identified with the AIF. He was an Imperialist of the highest order. He was also a survivor of consummate political skill and he promised a safe pair of political hands. His political messages were simple and consistent.

Hughes also retained the powerful support and backing of the media, business and the Protestant churches which he had enjoyed in the conscription referendum. Hughes and his backers found it relatively easy to portray the old ALP – the ‘Official’ ALP – as confused and contradictory in both its commitment and policies to pursue the War. It was also portrayed as ‘unrepresentative’ and driven by the industrial rather than than the parliamentary wing. It was claimed to be more interested in pursuing and destroying Hughes and settling factional disputes than it was in forming a national unity government. It was said to have become more ‘radical’ and ‘socialist’ than the original ALP and it was unduly influenced by ‘outsiders’, even Americans. Against the apparently enormous political risk the Official ALP presented, Hughes and the Nationalists promised a unity government that had risen above party politics and was committed to the single-minded  pursuit of victory. Hughes also pledged to honour the results of the referendum; but he also made it clear that he had not given up on the idea of conscription. The deal he made with the electorate was that it would never be introduced without a (successful) referendum.

In the reductionist politics of the time, with Hughes presented as the single person who best represented Australia’ s commitment to the Empire and the War, the arch-villain of the popular press had firmed as Archbishop Mannix.

With Mannix, the critical episode appeared to be the report of his speech at the opening of a Catholic school at Brunswick on 28 January 1917. The speech was reported the next day in The Age (29/1/17 p 7) under headline: Cause Of The War. Archbishop’s Remarkable Utterance. ‘An Ordinary, Sordid Trade War’. As reported, Mannix’s assessment of the War’s cause was bound to stir outrage:

They had heard much during the progress of the war of how the war came about and how they were fighting for the rights of little nations. They could believe as much of this as they liked, but as a matter of fact this was a trade war – simply an ordinary, sordid trade war.

The response was both predictable and immediate. The papers were full of denunciations and demands for Mannix’s prosecution under the War Precautions Act. And it was not just Imperialists and Protestants. Many of the letters to the editor attacking his claim was signed by the likes of  ‘Loyal Catholic’ or ‘Irish Catholic’ or ‘Australian Native’ or ‘Catholic Loyalty’. Similarly, individual members of Catholic associations denounced his views as unrepresentative of Catholic views and sentiment.

Not surprisingly, Mannix was damned even more when his position was supported by the Socialists. The Argus (1/2/17 p 9) reported, under the headline Archbishop Mannix. Socialists Approve:

At a meeting of the Socialist party held last night, the following resolution was moved by Miss Adele Pankhurst (organiser), seconded by Mr. R. S. Ross (secretary), and carried unanimously: –
“That this meeting of the Socialist party of Victoria expresses its warm admiration of Archbishop Mannix for his recent bold and clarifying utterances on the nature of the terrible European war, and deems it its duty to put on record its appreciation of Dr. Mannix’s splendid courage especially on account of the malicious abuse and misrepresentation to which he has been subjected…. “

At the time Mannix’s claim was clearly incendiary. It stripped bare the dominant narrative of the War. His simple phrase of ‘sordid trade war’ denied the official narrative of the War as the monumental and defining conflict between democracy and civilised society on one hand and German militarism and barbarity on the other. The comment undercut the high ideals of ‘supreme sacrifice’, ‘Christian love and duty’, ‘liberty and justice’ and ‘Imperial loyalty and patriotism’. Mannix had definitely crossed a line; and his opponents demanded that the Government prosecute him. Mannix at this point was still only the Co-adjutor Bishop of Melbourne – he did not become Archbishop of Melbourne till Carr’s death in May 1917 – and he had only been in Australia for 4 years. However, as far as Hughes was concerned, Mannix’s role in the referendum had been the deciding factor that led to the success of the No vote. Now, not only was Mannix anti-conscription, he was also challenging the very nature of the Empire’s struggle against Germany.

Hughes himself addressed Mannix’s claim a few days later in an address at Ballarat East. It was reported in The Age (31/1/17 p7). Remarkably, as reported, Hughes’ claims actually appear to support Mannix’s observation on trade as the root cause of the War.

People had been told the other day that the war was a trade war, a mere sordid struggle for self, but the causes of this war were not to be sought in the effort to obtain trade. Germany had already secured trade during times of peace to an extent that her claws were in our very vitals. Had Germany’s competition continued in peace for another ten years Germany would have got the kernel of the world’s trade, leaving us and others the shrivelled husk. Germany had fought the American millionaire in trade on his own dunghill and beaten him. Australian trade and commerce before the war was finding its way by devious channels into the maw of Germany. This was not a trade war. It was a war that sprang out of Germany’s lust of world empire.

In the same speech, Hughes also decried the news reports from Germany that represented the defeat of conscription as proof that Australians were ‘against the war’ or at the least ‘war weary’. He urged the people there to show that, even though the referendum had been lost, they still supported ‘the continuation of the war’ and they were prepared to ‘lay aside party feeling, and fight as a united nation’.

As far as Hughes was concerned, the War was now to be waged not just against Germany but also, at home, against public indifference, political infighting and the deliberate sabotage of the likes of Mannix.

The local scene

The sense of disappointment in the Shire of Alberton following the referendum defeat has been covered in Post 93. The common belief was that patriotic and loyal regions such as Gippsland had been betrayed by the voters in Melbourne. There was also a sense of disillusion which translated to a withdrawal of support. For example, by  the end of December 1916 the local recruiting committee had disbanded. Correspondence from the Shire Secretary ( G W Black) dated 5/12/16 noted that while he was still prepared to assist with recruiting on a personal basis, the local recruiting committee itself ‘has ceased to exist’. On 18/12/16, the Shire President (Charles Nightingale) called a public meeting to set up a replacement recruiting committee but, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative ( 20/12/16), There were not half-a-dozen present, and the meeting had to be abandoned.  The paper also reported (15/12/16) the views of Cr Barlow – a prominent member of the previous recruiting committee – expressed at the December council meeting. Barlow believed that … the men whom the country could ill-afford to lose would join the colors now, while the shirkers and cold-footers would still remain behind, as nothing had been done to make them go.  He stated that while he was still prepared to help, he … would not take the same interest in recruiting as before. The local recruiting committee would eventually be re-established in late April 1917; but in the immediate aftermath of the referendum defeat there was considerable anger, and support for conscription remained as strong as ever in the Shire.

As indicated in earlier posts – see for example Post 91 –  there was not even any organised support for the No vote in the Shire of Alberton in the first conscription referendum. Also, while there were significant differences over religious belief and, importantly, schooling, and also obvious tension over Ireland, Catholic loyalty and support for the War had not been questioned.  Fr Sterling, the local parish priest had only recently (October 1916) joined the AIF as Captain Chaplain.

The St Patrick’s Sports offered further proof of Catholic loyalty. As has been mentioned previously, local sports competitions were very important in the local community. Such sports competitions – involving athletics, wood chopping, bike races, horse competitions, novelty events  …. – were held annually at locations including Yarram, Carrajung, Won Wron, Madalya, Fairview (Hiawatha), West Alberton and Goodwood. Of all of them, the most important was the St Patrick’s Sports at Yarram, held round the time of the feast day. It was a major Shire event and while it was run by the Catholic parish it was so large that its organizing committee and the judges and officials were drawn from a much wider circle than just the local Catholic community.

The sports carnivals were also important local fund raisers. Typically, the smaller ones at places like Madalya would return approximately £20, while the St Patrick’s carnival at Yarram would bring in £100. In 1914, St Patrick’s raised £94 for the Catholic parish and in 1915 the amount was £100. Then, as explained in Post 84 , in 1916 the Catholic parish donated the funds raised to 2 charities – the Victorian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund and the Red Cross – related to the War. The amount raised and donated (approximately £700) was very significant and, in fact, would have represented the largest donation raised at a single event in the Shire over the course of the War. It was yet further evidence that the local Catholic community was behind the War effort.

At the same time, the 1916 arrangement was intended as a one-off, and in 1917 the profits from the St Patrick’s Sports were directed once again back to the Catholic parish. Approximately £200 was raised, and the money went to pay off the debt associated with the construction of the new St Mary’s church.

Against this background, the following letter which appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 19/1/17 is not as innocent as its author implies. It came immediately prior to the first meeting of the organising committee for the 1917 St Patrick’s Sports. It was written by Rev Francis Tamagno, the local Presbyterian minister.

Through the co-operation of many agencies last St. Patrick’s day a handsome sum was raised for the Red Cross and the Australian Soldiers’ Fund. I hope that somebody at the meeting next Monday night  will suggest that the money raised this year by St. Patrick’s sports be given to the Belgian Fund. Belgium has given many lives for Australians and her sacrifice demands and requires our sincerest sympathy. Belgium is pronouncedly a Catholic country.

While local Catholics would have found the letter patronising and the accusations thinly-veiled, others in the community would have agreed with its sentiment: now was not the time for Catholics, of all people, to be raising money from the local community for their own sectional interests.

The claim that local Catholics had a particular responsibility to Catholic Belgium was a common theme. An editorial in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 30/3/17 focused on a pastoral letter to the Belgians written by Cardinal Mercier. Mercier was an outspoken critic of the Germans, many of his priests had been killed and he himself had been imprisoned. The theme of the pastoral letter covered the need to speak the truth about the evil of the German occupation. It began:

The truth must be above all, for sincerity is the most essential of all duties. We cannot without cowardice allow untruth to run unencountered. We have protested against violence….

and it ended:

We have made our voice heard for the safeguarding of the liberty of home and labor, demanded the respect due to the dignity of man; and you have stood faithful by our side. We bless God for having made you understand your duty so well. It is nothing less than the fulfilling of the fundamental law of Christianity.

At this point, Rossiter, as editor, added:

Australian Catholics with others of military age will fulfill that law by enlisting.

Again, the local Catholic community was being singled out and, effectively, preached at. Also, the focus on German ruthlessness and atrocities undercut Mannix’s apparently simplistic assertions about a ‘sordid trade war’.

While the 2 examples raised here appear low level, it is the very deliberate way that they have been fed into community discourse that is telling.

By the end of the period under review (May 1917), the antagonism towards and suspicion of Catholics had become far more apparent for the local community.

Reporting on Anzac Day commemorations at Port Albert, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (27/4/17) stated that Rev Tamagno praised Hughes and the ‘Nationalists’ for their non-partisan approach to the urgent challenges facing the nation, and publicly denounced Mannix as a ‘missioner of mischieviousness since he has come to our land.’ Rev Walklate attacked the backers of the No vote for not supporting the soldiers and praised the Anzacs as ‘descended form British stock.’ Both clergymen attacked those who refused to enlist. They wanted them shamed and punished. It was as if the conscription campaign was still running.

A week earlier, GH Wise, local member of the federal parliament, had addressed a packed meeting at Yarram. There was a very detailed report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/4/17. Wise was an outspoken supporter of Hughes. According to Wise, Hughes had proved himself in the UK in 1916 when he had been … ‘admitted to the secret counsels of the Empire’. Hughes had returned aware that conscription was required to maintain the AIF in France but he had been blocked by the ALP platform. After the defeat of the referendum Hughes had risen above the party politics of the day and created a genuine National Government. And it was only the National Government led by Hughes that could win the War.

Mannix is not mentioned in Wise’s panegyric of Hughes but it is very evident that Wise promotes the War as a moral struggle of the highest order. It was certainly not some ‘sordid trade war’. He gave a striking – even bizarre – anecdote to establish German evil:

They had read recently of the trial of an outraged French girl for the murder of her child. She did not speak till the trial, when she said she strangled her child because its father was a German, and she was acquitted. Could anyone who had any thought for the women and children and for the aged, not realise the horrors of a German invasion without resolving to do all in his power to keep the war 12,000 miles from Australia? Did they not realise that it was time to throw party politics aside, and make a united effort to win the war in the name of civilization. (Applause.)

Mannix had been mentioned in another report that appeared 2 days earlier in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (18/4/17). It was headed Dr. Mannix and the War. and it detailed a Presbyterian meeting at Bendigo on 10/4/17 by Rev F A Hagenauer. The meeting passed, unanimously, a motion … the effect of which was that the Presbytery of Bendigo, believing that the whole energy of the nation ought to be directed towards winning the war, was of the opinion that Dr. Mannix should be prosecuted for his recent statements. [sordid trade war].

However, the focus was broadening beyond Mannix, for the same meeting explicitly called into question the loyalty of Catholics generally. Hagenauer noted that it had become … necessary to discuss the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church. He presented 2 scenarios: the Catholic Church agreed with Mannix … or might disagree, but be impotent to silence him. Even though he acknowledged that many individual Catholics had criticised Mannix, Hagenauer was inclined to believe that Mannix’s views were supported by the Church:

What evidence was there that the church as a whole agreed? There was the silence which representative Catholic bodies and societies had maintained and the approving receptions given to Dr. Mannix.

He added that Mannix … claimed that he spoke expressing the views of the Catholic Church, and was applauded.

For good measure, he also refererenced the ‘official’ view that … the Irish vote killed conscription in Australia.

The threat that the Catholic Church now posed to the successful pursuit of the War was being made very public in the local press:

If the Catholic Church did agree with Dr. Mannix, it was a menace to our liberties, second only to the menace of German militarism. If it disagreed with him but was impotent to silence him, the position was almost as serious, for the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy upon the laity was admittedly great.

By the end of April 1917, local Catholics in the Shire of Alberton were reading in their local press that their Church was being charged with disloyalty. Increasingly, they were being forced to choose between the 2 extremely polarising figures of Mannix and Hughes. The ambiguity and respected – and respectful – differences that had characterised past community relations were under extreme pressure. This was the local community that Fr Sterling returned to on 17/4/17 when his appointment as Captain Chaplain in the AIF finished.

References

The Age

The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

The activities of the 1916 Yarram Recruiting Committee came from:
Shire of Alberton
Archive One
File Number 703B
“Recruiting & Enlisted men”
Bundle headed “Defence Department, Enlisting Recruits 1914-15-16”

For a detailed account and assessment of Mannix’s speech at Brunswick see: Brunswick Coburg Anti-Conscription Centenary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

93. Conscription Referendum 1916: the (private) No vote

Previous posts (87, 88, 89 and 91) have covered the strength of the public campaign for the Yes vote in the Shire of Alberton. All relevant local institutions, from the local council itself through to the local press, actively and  wholeheartedly supported the Yes vote. Conscription had been widely supported by the district’s professional, business and managerial elite from early 1916. The local Protestant churches had even preached to their congregations the responsibility to vote Yes. The only potential limit to the Yes vote was the ambivalent position of the Catholic Church: the individual could certainly vote Yes, but, unlike the Protestant position, Yes was not mandated and, rather, had to be guided by an informed conscience. Other than this, the idea that a local could – let alone would – vote No was not publicly entertained.

Immediately prior to the referendum, Thomas Livingston, the local member for Gippsland South in the Victorian Parliament, was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (27/10/16)  as predicting, confidently, that the Yes vote would be 75%. In the event, the Yes vote – for the sub-division of Yarram – was 66%.

The response of the 2 local papers to the loss of the referendum is instructive. Both took the course of criticising the national result while at the same time lauding the high level of patriotism evident in the strength of the Yes vote in the Shire.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, in its first edition after the referendum (1/11/16) found the national result ‘deplorable’ but its real focus was the proven loyalty of country Victoria and, in particular, Gippsland:

The country vote in [Victoria] favoured “Yes” in every electorate but three, these being Ballarat, Bendigo, and Grampians. The seven other country electorates voted for conscription and Gippsland … gained the distinction of securing the greatest majority for conscription of all the Victorian electorates.

Similarly, the South Gippsland Chronicle, in its first edition (1/11/16) after the referendum also praised the loyalty of those in Gippsland:

It is gratifying to note the overwhelming vote in favor of Conscription given by the people of the Gippsland division, a “Yes” majority being shown in every portion of the electorate with the exception of a few small places. The totals for the division were – Yes 16,056, No 7,725. Majority for Yes 8,331.

The quoted figure gave the Yes vote for the whole of Gippsland as 67.5%.

The same article broke the vote down by electoral sub-divisions and for the Yarram sub-division – effectively the Shire of Alberton – the results were reported as 1,144 Yes, 573 No, with 24 informal votes. This gave the Yes vote for the Shire of Alberton as 66%.

As strong as the Yes vote was in the Shire of Alberton, and Gippsland generally, there was still the question of why one-third of the local community had voted No.  At least part of the answer came in the editorial in the South Gippsland Chronicle on 3/11/16. The paper claimed that it was the pre-emptive decision by the Hughes Government to apply existing provisions under the Defence Act to call up – for military service within the Commonwealth – all single men between the ages of 21 to 35.

On the assumption that there would be a successful Yes vote, Hughes wanted the military training of the first group of conscripts underway as soon as possible, and before the referendum had even been conducted. This strategy would mean that reinforcements could be sent to the Western Front as quickly as possible. While the initiative smacked of contempt for the democratic process, the real problem for Hughes was that the call up – and more significantly the exemption process that it involved –  forced the rural community to experience at first hand what conscription would mean for them; and they were left in no doubt that it posed a serious threat.

The editorial of 3/11/16 noted specifically that the call-up telegraphed the Government’s intentions once the referendum had succeeded.

The results following the referendum, should it be carried, were clearly defined by the Prime Minister, and men were even called into camp for home service in order to receive part of their training and be ready to go abroad should they be classed as fit after the people had conferred the necessary power on the Government. This was undoubtedly responsible for many who would otherwise have voted “Yes” going to the poll and helping to secure a majority for “No.” It cannot be denied that the calling up of men has inflicted a great hardship in many cases, and, as was instanced at the exemption court held at Yarram last week, made it almost impossible for those who remain behind to carry on their former vocation.

In fact, the Government had been telegraphing its intentions on conscription from the time of the War Census in late 1915. People surmised that the purpose of Schedule 1 of the census – to be completed by all males aged 18 and under 60 – was to provide the Government with data that could inform a system of conscription should the voluntary system not deliver sufficient reinforcements. Then in December 1916, Hughes issued his Call to Arms which involved a personal letter to every eligible man between 18 and 45. The men had to submit a formal response to the letter. Those who failed to return the form would be identified and pursued. The expectation was that the men targeted would enlist immediately or in the near future. If they refused to enlist they had to submit reasons and they could be challenged, in person, by the local recruiting sergeant. It was obviously a considerable shift away from a purely voluntary system.

As discussed earlier – Post 87 – there was obvious ‘push back’ in the Shire of Alberton to this drift to conscription. We know that some locals refused to return their Call to Arms forms. But, more strikingly, we know that of the 188 who had returned their forms by January 1916, 66% had selected the option to refuse to enlist. 8.5% of those who received the call from Hughes had already enlisted, 18% indicated they were prepared to enlist immediately and 7.5% said they were prepared to enlist at a later time. This left the 66% who refused the Call.

Clearly, as the drift to conscription – vigorously promoted by the Yarram-based local recruiting committee – continued to gain momentum there was growing opposition. However, this opposition took the form of a private response – failure to complete the form or failure to respond appropriately – rather than any public, organised demonstration of dissent.

The dynamic involved in the of growing (private) opposition to conscription was driven by the fundamental structure, and related ethos, of the local farming community, where the key social institution was the family farm.

As has been covered in the 2 posts – Post 60 and Post 85 – that looked at speeches given at farewells in 1915 and 1916, one of the most common themes was that of the pioneer as soldier. The young men enlisting were said to show the same spirit and character as the pioneers who had settled the district from the 1840s. The pioneers had opened up the land, battled the elements, overcome isolation and brought civilisation to the frontier of settlement. Within this general narrative, there was a particular focus on the selectors from the 1860s who had struggled to break the monopoly of the squatters and establish a new social and political landscape of family farms spreading out from small towns and settlements. The selectors had a particularly hard struggle as they attempted to establish themselves with meagre levels of capital. Often they had little background in farming itself and their access to relevant technology was limited. The parcels of land they secured were often too small, isolated or poor in quality. There was very weak infrastructure, particularly in the area of transport. Many of the selectors  lived in exceptionally challenging, if not primitive, conditions. They also felt they had little support from all levels of government. They were by themselves. But against this background, the narrative held that they had survived. They were tough, resourceful, independent and hard-working. They were the pioneers who had made the district what it was.

However, on the specific issue of labour, the pioneer as soldier theme featured a major internal contradiction which, inevitably, played out in the 1916 referendum.

Arguably, the most important resource for the selector trying to establish the family farm was the labour of the family itself. The absolute importance of family labour – the parents and the children – to the success and survival of the family farm had been a fundamental given from the very beginning of selection. The family worked as an economic unit. And the economic realities in  turn helped shape the social identity of the family, in areas such as inheritance, marriage, the generational expansion of the family enterprise and the care of the parents as they aged. This took place in a period that pre-dated modern social welfare provisions.

The actual pattern of labour on the family farm was complex. Individual landholdings could be so small, or the land so difficult, or the seasons so bad – and any number of other factors, and combinations thereof – that in many cases the ‘family farm’ was not viable without some family members working outside the farm as wage earners. Sons could work on other farms as labourers and daughters could work as domestics, either on other farms or for the middle-class families in rural towns.

Importantly, labour in these rural communities was generally not organised. The selections were too small, the nature of the farming – eg dairy farming, vegetable growing – required fewer workers per individual farm, the settlement was too dispersed and there was a long-standing, natural antipathy to the trade unions of the urban working class, as their industrial action often compromised the interests of the rural economy.

In the political and economic environment of the Shire, the assumption was that the family farm had to have the power to control its labour resources and employ them to meet its needs, in a difficult and complex environment. It was this fundamental belief that was directly challenged by conscription.

For the first 2 years of the War, individual families had decided by themselves how best to balance the need to manage the farm and ensure its survival with the concomitant need to ‘answer the call’ and discharge their ‘patriotic duty’.  However, the introduction of conscription would see the imposition of rigid and impersonal rules that would take away all the autonomy, flexibilty and individual judgement that farming families had previously exercised.

The two key events in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 conscription referendum that gave farming families the clearest understanding of how conscription would work, and how it would take away their autonomy, were the registration process held on 14/10/16 and the exemption court held in Yarram on 27/10/16.

Registration: Yarram, 14/10/16

The day set aside in Yarram for men to register under the Commonwealth’s call up arrangements was Saturday 14 October 1916. On the day, all single men, and widowers without dependents, aged between 21 and 35, had to register. Those who had previously been rejected for military service also had to register and undertake the medical.

The day was seen as a major event in the Shire. On 13/10/16, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative reported:

Yarram tomorrow will present quite a military air, with officials in kharki [sic], some half-dozen doctors, about a dozen clerks, and between three to four hundred single men, with divided minds as to the necessity of enlisting. It is wonderful, even when called for home service, how many “unsound” men there are! However, these matters will be decided by the doctors.

Rossiter, the editor – and also member of the Yarram Recruiting Committee and keen supporter of conscription – clearly saw the occasion as a chance to identify all those local men who were shirking their duty. His reference to the men being called up for ‘home service’ was highly disingenuous.

The next edition of the paper (18/10/16) gave a detailed report of what had happened on the day:

Yarram was thronged with young men of military age last Saturday, when they were required to report themselves, whether considered fit or unfit for military service. A busy day was spent by Capt. Macfarlane and four other military officers, three doctors and 14 clerks filling in attestation forms. The duties commenced at 9 a.m., and by 3 p.m. the main rush was over. In the time, 222 single men were examined, 102 of whom were fit, 10 unfit, and 110 doubtful. 116 of the number applied for exemption.

With few exceptions the demeanour of the men was excellent. Some rejoiced at the prospect of going to the front, having previously tried and been rejected.

Those who did not report on Saturday will have put themselves to serious inconvenience. Within seven days they must report at Warragul. Failure to report means salutary punishment of a kind that will reflect discreditably on the men.

One man refused to take the oath, but this makes no difference. To camp he will go if passed as fit.

The doubtful ones [110 of the 222 medically examined] were ordered to attend at Korumburra for final examination. This arrangement has since been varied. The medical board will shortly attend at Yarram, and save the men the inconvenience of travelling down the line.

An exemption court will sit at Yarram on 27th and 28th inst., when reasons for declining service will be fully gone into. This court is public, and the proceedings will be published in the local and daily papers. Those who have reasonable excuses need have no fear of advancing their claims for exemption.

Whereas between 300 and 400 men were expected at the registration, only 200 were there on the day. The low turn-out tallies with other accounts (Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, P 2015 p. 112) that claim that, nationally, only one-third of men bothered to register. As already noted, a similarly poor response had occurred earlier when local men had not returned their Call to Arms forms.

Only 50% of the men medically examined that day were passed as fit. Many of those who failed would have failed previously. Strikingly, half of all the men who registered on the day applied for exemption. The overall results were hardly encouraging. Rossiter attempted to put a positive gloss on the affair, writing about the positive ‘demeanour’ of the men. But his last paragraph reads as a thinly veiled threat to those pursuing exemption.

The Exemption Court, Yarram, 27/10/16

The exemption court sat in Yarram on the day before the referendum and the reports of what transpired at the court did not appear until the Wednesday (1/11/16) after the referendum. However, similar courts had already been held across Gippsland. Also, the reports in the local paper make it clear that there were many people there on the day watching the proceedings. In all, locals would have known, before the referendum, of the judgements made being handed down at the exemption courts.

Rossiter was true to his word and the proceedings were covered in great detail. The individual particulars, including full names and reasons presented to the court, were given for each request for exemption. Rossiter gave the number of applications for exemption on the day as 124. However, this number does not tally with the number of individual cases he reported.  For example, he stated that 41 exemptions were granted but in fact in his report only 33 exemptions are recorded as having been granted. Presumably, there were so many cases handled in one day that he had great difficulty in keeping up with proceedings. At the same time, putting to one side the problems with tallies, his report certainly does give a description of how the court worked. Regulations required that the applicant had to appear in person before the court and represent himself. Solicitors were not permitted.

According to Rossiter’s report, 31 of the 33 exemptions granted on the day were because either the applicant was the only son (11) or the required number of sons – at least one half – had already enlisted (20). These were provisions covered in the  regulations. The other 2 cases involved the situation where the applicant was the ‘sole support’ of ‘aged parents’ or a ‘widowed mother’. One of the cases involved John Henry James Price – labourer of Blackwarry – who was one of 3 sons. Only one brother was in the AIF – under the at least one half ruling, 2 brothers had to enlist – but the applicant claimed to be the sole support of his parents. The other case involved F J Pearson who was one of 3 sons in the family. No son was in service, but 2 of the siblings were not yet of military age and this son, the oldest, supported his widowed mother.

The 33 cases where exemption was approved were, in terms of the regulations, clear cut . What focused people’s attention was how the other 63 individual applications fared. According to Rossiter’s account, 32 of the 63 applications for exemption were rejected, 15 men were given temporary exemption and the remaining 16 cases were adjourned.

Employing Rossiter’s account it is possible to divide the exemption requests into 2 categories: those involving families where there had been no enlistments at all, and those where, according to the formula, not enough sons had enlisted.

Families with no enlistments

In terms of the first category, there were 26 families, involving 34 individual men, where no eligible son had enlisted. Apparently, the number of families across the Shire of Alberton where no eligible son had enlisted was low. However, the important qualification is that there could have been other families that completely ignored the registration process and did not seek exemption.

Of the 34 individual men applying for exemption, 19 were refused outright, 7 were given temporary exemption and 8 were adjourned. Rossiter’s brief notes on each case make it clear that the reasons for the exemption related to the family’s economic interests or welfare. There was only 1 case where a position of ‘conscientious objection’ was registered. It involved the 3 Kallady brothers – Ambrose, Allan and Leo – from Devon. There were 4 brothers in the family and therefore 2 had to enlist. There was some brief discussion of what their understanding of ‘conscientious objection’ involved – would they, for example, defend their mother, sister, or even themselves – and the army officer assisting the police magistrate presiding over the court suggested options such as ‘stretcher bearer’ and ‘putting barbed wire entanglements in front of trenches’. In the end, the magistrate found that the 2 fittest of the 3 brothers of military age would have to serve. The case was then adjourned to 7 December for objections to be heard.

Several examples from this first category highlight the way family dynamics – including the ages and marital status of the sons – affected the outcome. For example, George Lewis Brunlow was a fisherman from Port Albert. He was one of 3 male siblings but both his brothers were married and therefore not required to register. He claimed to be the sole support for his invalid sister. His application was refused, presumably on the basis that his married brothers could or should pick up the responsibility for the sister. On the face of it, conscription was redefining an existing family arrangement.

B Hanrahan was one of 2 sons. As his brother was married, he had had to register. He claimed an exemption on the basis that he owned the farm and he partly supported his widowed mother and her 6 children, presumably his younger siblings. The application was refused, again overturning an existing family arrangement.

The more common reason for claiming exemption was the economic hardship or threat to the viability of the family farm or business that the loss of labour would cause. For example, Eric Oliver Hobson was working on the family farm at Yarram. There were extensive landholdings at Yarram and Won Wron. There were 3 sons in the family, one of whom was married. Under the regulations this unmarried son (Eric) had to serve. The father claimed that as a dairy farmer with a large herd he depended on this son to look after the stock. The father claimed no one understood the stock like this son. The son also kept the books. The father claimed he had tried, unsuccessfully, to find someone to replace his son. He stated that if his son went he, the father, would have to give up dairying. The magistrate said he was bound by the regulations and refused the application. He did add that the son could seek a temporary exemption, but only after he had reported for duty at the camp at Warragul.

William Thomas Charles Stonehouse operated a blacksmith business at Yarram. He had 3 sons, all of them single. Under the formula, 2 of them (J E Stonehouse and W Stonehouse) were required to serve. The father explained that all 3 sons helped in his business and if the 2 of military age went the business would have to be closed as he, the father, could not work and he had not been able to secure other workers. The application was refused.

There were 6 sons in the Vardy family from Alberton West. 3 sons were married. The other 3 sons – Leslie James Vardy, F E Vardy and Percival John Vardy – were required to serve. There was a family farm of 100+ acres; although it appears only 1 son was helping the father on the farm. Presumably the other 2 sons were working as labourers on other farms.  The magistrate noted that the 3 sons were a significant source of revenue for the father. The application was refused.

William Macaulay, a farm labourer, was one of 3 sons, one other of whom was married. He was 32 yo. He claimed that if he went it would cause great hardship and loss to those at home. The family had a farm – 180 acres – at Stacey’s Bridge. The father claimed that the farm could not be worked without his son. A temporary exemption to 27/1/17 was granted.

Families with insufficient enlistments

This second category, covering 29 individuals from 28 families, featured the cases that would have caused the most disquiet in the district. These were families where men had already enlisted but now, under conscription, more would be taken. Once again, the impact, would affect both the welfare of the family and the financial viability of the farm. Of the 29 requests for exemption, 13 were rejected outright, there were 8 cases of a temporary exemption being granted and 8 cases were adjourned.

John Joseph Egan – labourer, Alberton West – worked on the small family farm at Alberton West. There were 5 sons but 3 were married. This meant that the remaining 2 had to serve. One was already in camp. Exemption was claimed on the basis that the father was too old to work the farm and this son – John – was the only son available to help. Exemption was refused.

Joel William Trigg was involved with a family farm of approximately 170 acres at Alberton West. There were 3 sons which meant 2 had to serve. One was already in the AIF and the other brother had been judged medically unfit, which meant Joel had to go. He claimed that he would be forced to sell out if he was forced to go. The application was refused.

There were 6 sons in the McPhail family. Only 2 were serving in the AIF which meant one more son was required. The father claimed that this son, Archibald McPhail, was not fit enough to go in the trenches but the medical officers had recently passed him. The application was refused.

There were 5 sons in the Wight family with 2 in the AIF, one of whom had been wounded. At least one of the other 3 sons was below military age. The son seeking the exemption – David Wight, had a 100 acre farm at Carrajung. He worked with his father. The application was refused.

There were 9 sons in the Lay family with 4 on service with the AIF. This left still one son required. Of the 5 remaining, 3 were married and one was only 18yo. This meant that Leslie Gordon Lay had to serve. The application for exemption was refused on the grounds that even though he and his younger brother were supporting the family farm, he – the applicant- was not the sole support of his parents.

There were 6 sons in the Cantwell family, with 2 in service. James Hennessy Cantwell – labourer, Stacey’s Bridge – claimed that he supported the family – there was a family farm of less than 100 acres – and that the father was ailing and the mother an invalid. He claimed that if he were called he would have to sell the cows. Rossiter’s notes stated that exemption was granted until the cows were sold.

Nigel Hugh McAlpine had 40 acres of land at Carrajung in his own name. There were 3 sons in the family but only one was in the AIF. Nigel applied for exemption on the grounds that the brother in the AIF had left him (Nigel) in sole charge of his farm and stock. The third brother was unfit because of a knee injury. Nigel was reported as declaring that if he was forced to go his farm would ‘go to the dogs’. He was given a temporary exemption until 27/1/17.

In summary, Rossiter’s notes on the individual cases covered by the exemption court were brief and perhaps not always accurate. Also, the claims made by those requesting exemption might  have been overdrawn or misleading. At the same time, the proceedings of this court held in Yarram, and others in Gippsland, would definitely have been closely followed in the local community; and it would have been clear that conscription was set to have a major negative impact on the traditional autonomy of the family farm and farming families. The proposed level of control over both the labour agenda and social dynamic of the family farm was of a form and degree never seen before.

Exemptions for the dairy industry

It is also important to note that there was a feeling in the community that the general labour demands of the dairy industry had been ignored. As has been shown in many previous posts, by far the largest group of men enlisting in the AIF in the Shire of Alberton came from the rural, itinerant, working class. By the end of 1916 the size of this group of enlistments had reached the order of 600 men. They simply described themselves as ‘farm labourers’ or just ‘labourers’. It was a very significant pool of labour to withdraw from the local economy. At the same time, the number of men coming from the family farm was in a definite minority; and the preceding cases help explain why it was so difficult to release sons from the family farm. Yet conscription promised that even more of this labour pool would be withdrawn. Locals formed the view that despite reassurances from the Commonwealth Government the dairy industry was not being protected.

In an article that he wrote on 25/10/16, just before the exemption court sat, Rossiter wrote how in the ‘interests of production’ many claims for exemption could and should be granted. Then after the court he wrote (1/11/16) critically on the lack of exemptions granted. He used highly qualified language but others would have seen the court proceedings as a deliberate attack on the local dairy industry:

There was much concern locally in regard to a great number of applications for full and temporary exemptions made at the exemption court held on Friday last. A number of claims were made by dairymen and others engaged in that industry in various ways. The applicants who were refused exemption were informed that they must report at Warragul camp on Friday next, it being understood by them that no exemption would be granted without reporting at camp. In view of the critical situation thus presented, and of the fact that the Prime Minister had stated that rural workers, engaged in producing industries, would be allowed exemption, the position created by the court authorities caused some uneasiness in the minds of dairy farmers and those engaged as milkers by them.

The reference to the Prime Minister’s promise of exemption for rural workers is very important. It appears that as the referendum drew near Hughes became concerned that the farmers’ vote could go against him. Perhaps he received intelligence of how the call up in rural districts and the operations of the exemption courts were being received. In the week before the referendum, he issued a detailed statement which was published in the metropolitan papers (for example The Age 25/10/16 p. 7). He reminded the farmers of all the Government had done for them – purchasing their crops, setting prices, securing shipping – and declared that,

It [His Government] has given them generous exemptions. It has released all the labor necessary for their industry; their lands will be tilled, their crops harvested; members of their families will be left to carry on the farms, and sufficient labor to carry on their industry will be exempted.

Hughes also acknowledged that there was concern over the labour shortage in rural industries. He put a positive spin on the cause:

The men from the country parts of Australia have responded magnificently to the appeal for recruits, much better than the great cities. The consequence is that labor for the rural industries is relatively scarce, while in the cities there is a surplusage [sic] of thousands of eligible men.

Hughes concluded by promising again that the rural industries would have the labour they needed and, at the same time, conscription would ensure that those in the cities also did their share:

The farmers and the men on the land will have the labor they require, and the eligible men in the cities will be compelled to do their duty.

The problem was that this was not the experience of the local farmers in Gippsland. There was a critical shortage of labour and there was no real evidence that exemptions were available. The only exemptions being granted were temporary, and ‘temporary’ meant only until the end of the year (31/12/16). Further, men could, initially, only apply for exemptions after they had been admitted to the military camp (Warragul). When this very restrictive requirement was relaxed at the end of October, it was replaced with a general exemption … to all engaged in the dairying industry, including milkers to the end of the year. But, again, the exemption was only temporary and only to the end of the year; and now the men had to submit a statutory declaration from their employer – or the heads of households in the case of families – to support the claim. Once again, there was considerable tension between what was being promised and what was being experienced. The fact that men being given exemptions were finger-printed – purportedly to prevent fraud – added to the general level of antagonism.

The first 2 years of the War had demonstrated very high levels of loyal and patriotic support across the Shire of Alberton. The support was demonstrated in areas such as recruiting, fund raising and public demonstrations for the Empire. The local community was an inherently conservative one. There was a natural antipathy towards organised labour. It supported PM Hughes’ efforts to overcome the ‘industrialists’ in his own party. The middle class professionals, mangers and proprietors in the community – concentrated in Yarram – presented a narrative of the War that was aligned with the Government’s position. Publicly, the local community was pro-conscription and this was reflected in the final voting figures. In the lead up to the referendum there was no indication of any organised, public No campaign. However, events over October 1916 presented the local farming community with a clear picture of what the reality of conscription involved and there is little doubt that many would have seen it as direct threat to both their livelihood and the traditional autonomy of the farming family. Without any show of public opposition – they did not even need to draw any attention to themselves – they had the option to vote No; and, presumably, many did. Their votes help explain why, in such a conservative rural community, and with no evidence of organised public opposition, one-third of electors voted against conscription.

References

The Age

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, P 2015, The War At Home, The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War Volume 4, Oxford University Press, Melbourne

See also

Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume XI – Australia During the War, ‘Chapter IX The First Conscription Referendum’. 7th Edition 1941

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

91. Conscription Referendum 1916: the (public) No vote

On the strength of the meeting held for the No vote at Yarram on 12/10/16, there was little evidence of any public support for the anti-conscription case in the Shire of Alberton. This was in sharp contrast to the high level of support for conscription evident in the very public, organised and ongoing campaign for the Yes vote, as detailed in earlier posts.

The meeting on 12/10/16 was written up, in great detail, in both the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (18/10/16) and the South Gippsland Chronicle (18/10/16). The sole speaker for the No case that night was Senator Blakey, one of the Victorian team of ALP senators. Blakey was on a tour of Gippsland and he knew that he was in for a tough time. He had tried to speak at a similar public meeting at Leongatha 2 days earlier (10/10/16) but, according to the report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 13/10/16, he had not even managed to make himself heard:

The largest public meeting ever held at Leongatha took place last Tuesday night. Senator Blakey attempted to deliver an address against conscription, but he was hooted, and as soon as he rose to speak the audience stood up and sang the National Anthem. As Senator Blakey tried to make himself heard a cabbage thrown at his head inflicted a cut in his forehead. … He was on the platform for about an hour and a half, but he was not allowed to give expression to his views.

Two days later at Yarram things were only marginally better. While nothing was thrown at him and he did manage to deliver his speech – albeit with a barrage of interruptions – the reports make it clear that the very rowdy and antagonistic audience was not on his side. The meeting started on a negative note when Cr Buckley, introducing Senator Blakey, made the point that while he was prepared to introduce Senator Buckley as a guest speaker he wanted to  make it clear to everyone in the audience that he personally intended to vote Yes. The clear message was that the Shire council was decent enough to support Blakey’s right to speak but they certainly did not support his position.

Not surprisingly, Senator Blakey’s opening remarks were a plea for a fair hearing. He hoped that there would be no … repetition of of the drunken orgy at Leongatha …  because the … matter was too great to treat in a spirit of levity and hoodlumism. But the interruptions were constant. Blakey struggled to get his argument across in any coherent, planned way. Finally, at the end of the meeting, in an obvious attempt to hijack proceedings and make Blakey look foolish, the following resolution was put:

That, in view of the voluntary recruiting not being sufficient to meet the requirements of our army and reinforcement of men at the front, this meeting pledges itself to vote “Yes” at the coming referendum.

The resolution was seconded and put, but the vote in the end was indecisive, with only a handful voting either way. The newspaper report suggested people were either confused or annoyed that the motion had been put. Even the avowedly pro-conscription Rev Walklate … protested against a speech advocating “Yes” being made at a meeting in a hall paid for by those advocating “No”. Such niceties aside, it was abundantly clear that the meeting would never have been able to pass any resolution in favour of the No vote. Further, the reports make it clear that Senator Blakey was by himself. There were no references to other individuals or groups supporting him, either on the stage or in the audience; and most of those who asked questions at the meeting – Rev Tamagno, Rev Walklate, R E H Newberry, J Bett, F C Grano – have already been identified in earlier posts as backing conscription. Blakey would have cut a lonely figure. As a formal attempt to galvanise the No vote in the local community the public meeting was a complete failure.

There are no references in either of the local papers to any other meetings for the No vote held in either Yarram or the shire as a whole. Similarly, there are no references over the period August to October 1916 to the formation of a committee to promote the No vote. Nor is there even reference to specific individuals in the local community advocating the No vote. In short, there is no evidence that there was an organised, public – or even visible – No vote campaign in the Shire of Alberton for the 1916 referendum.

It is also worth looking briefly at the arguments presented at the meeting, both by Blakey himself and his opponents. Blakey argued that conscription per se was morally indefensible. He claimed that Hughes himself had gone back on his word, given in 1915, to not introduce conscription. He held that Australia had done its ‘fair share’ and that the cost of introducing conscription and committing to an even greater sacrifice was beyond the nation’s capacity. He criticised the metropolitan papers – the The Age and The Argus – as shamelessly biased.  He raised the fear that even married men would be conscripted, and there was the usual aside on the fear of cheap ‘yellow’ labour. There were also claims that Hughes was using the censorship laws to stifle the No campaign. For those opposed to Blakey, the major issue was that the AIF had to be reinforced and supported – it was the clearest example of national duty – and conscription was the only way this end could be achieved.

Importantly, none of these arguments were tied specifically to the Shire of Alberton. Blakey could just as well have been addressing an audience In Melbourne. There was no local dimension to the debate.  Nor was the audience divided on any ‘partisan’ basis. Most significantly, there was no mention of any organised Catholic presence at the meeting. In fact, there is no reference to Catholics at all in the extensive reporting of the meeting.

Interestingly, in his history of the Shire, Adams (1990 p186) presumes that the Catholics in the community did represent a bloc opposed to conscription.

Conscription became an important issue late in 1916 and a committee was formed in Yarram with B.P. Johnson as President to forward the movement. When the conscription referendum was held in November [sic] 1916, Yarram voted 1144 to 573. There was a strong Catholic “no” vote reflected in this result.

[Adams’ figures give the Yes vote 67% and the No 33%.]

However this argument appears too simplistic. Certainly for the 1916 referendum, there is no evidence of a Catholic bloc opposed to conscription; and it is too easy to assume that Catholics were the ones who voted against conscription.

The Catholic question was complex. We have already seen that the Catholics enlisted in numbers that generally matched their place in the Shire’s demographics. The argument of the pro-conscriptionists that the men at the front could not be abandoned – this appeared to be the strongest argument in the community – would have been as appealing to the Catholic families of men who had enlisted as any other group. Moroever, the most recent high-profile Catholic enlistment at the time was Fr Sterling, the parish priest, who had enlisted as recently as 21/10/16 as a Captain Chaplain. His enlistment would have been seen as a very public demonstration of loyalty and duty.

There is no evidence that the local Catholic community campaigned against the 1916 conscription referendum. Moreover, previous posts have shown that the local Catholics had actively supported the War effort over the preceding 2 years. It is also relevant, closer to the 1916 referendum, that the assistant priest – Fr W H O’Connor – who arrived in June 1916 to support Fr Sterling, was keen to lend his voice to support for the War effort. In fact, unlike Fr Sterling, Fr O’Connor was even prepared to speak on the same platform as some of the most outspoken patriots – and also pro-conscriptionists – in the community. For example, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 9/8/16 Fr O’Connor was one of the key speakers at a public meeting to celebrate the second anniversary of the War. The others on the platform with him were the Shire President, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, Rev Tamagno and the Federal MHR, G Wise. Fr O’Connor spoke at length in favour of the Allied efforts and against German tyranny. He spoke about the local men who had … made the sacrifice and who died nobly and well and who … had offered up their lives for the cause. And he made it clear that in his previous parishes he had called on members of his faith to enlist:

In other parts it was my lot to encourage men to enlist, and [ I ] need only to tell them of their duty and they would go forth and do it. The young men from this district have done likewise and responded to the “Coo-ee” call for assistance.

At the same time, Catholic support for the War was not as unqualified as that of the local Protestants. Bishop Phelan’s position, for example, that the Catholic Church was ‘neutral’ on the matter of conscription, and his significant qualification that the individual citizen’s vote should be shaped by an informed conscience, was at great odds with the very public and uncritical support for conscription from the Protestant churches. Moreover, previous posts have pointed out how fundamental differences in areas such as schooling encouraged sectarianism in the community over the War years. Additionally, events in Ireland post Easter 1916 definitely saw many Irish Catholics question the Australian Government’s total support for the Empire. They also, inevitably, chose to see the AIF not as a component of the British (Empire) Army but as as a distinctive, independent and truly nationalist Australian force, which meant it was possible to support the AIF – and to a lesser extent continue to justify the War – and be anti-Imperialist. But none of these important shifts were on public view in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum.

Overall, there is no hard evidence that for the 1916 referendum, in the Shire of Alberton, there was an organised, public campaign amongst the local Catholics for the No vote. It is possible that Catholics followed Bishop Phelan’s advice and voted according to their conscience. But if they did so it was a private choice made via secret ballot. In any case, given the appeal of the dominant political argument of the day, it makes more sense to believe that the Catholic families would vote Yes, to support the reinforcement of their men at the front.

While it is not possible to identify a Catholic bloc publicly supporting the No vote, there was even less chance that there was an organised and visible bloc of ‘industrialists’, radical unionists, IWW agitators or even just ALP supporters campaigning for the No vote. Most of the rural workers had enlisted and, in any case, there had never been an organised labour movement in the Shire. Individual ALP voters might have opposed conscription and voted No, but, again, it was via secret ballot. It was a politically conservative community. The local papers were full of anti-union stories. They reported how the ‘machine’ of the industrial wing of the ALP was undermining PM Hughes’ authority and destroying the party itself. There were regular stories of how unions generally were undermining the War effort. Unionists were described as ‘traitors’ and ‘shirkers’. But all this was happening in Melbourne and the other capital cities.

Overall, there is no evidence that there was a public, anti-conscription campaign in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum. Instead, we need to look at the reality of the private No vote in the Shire. On Adams’ figures above, it was one-third of the voters. In a community where there was no public campaign for the No vote and, instead, apparently overwhelming support for the Yes side, it was a significant private vote.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

 

 

89. Conscription Referendum 1916: key Yes backers

The table below represents approximately 30 local individuals who were closely identified with the Yes vote. The individuals came from 2 key groups. There were 17 who, in October 1916, effectively self-elected themselves to form the local (Yarram) branch of the National Referendum Committee to push for the Yes vote; and there were 14 who served on the 1916 Recruiting Committee, also referred to as the Yarram Recruiting Committee. The latter group was included because of its unanimous support for, and promotion of, conscription from early 1916. Several individuals belonged to both committees (C Barlow, B P Johnson, A J Rossiter and Rev F A Tamagno). There was one member – J Hawkins – of the local referendum committee who has not been included because there was insufficient evidence to build a background picture of him. The information about all the other individuals has been taken from the electoral roll and the local newspapers of the time: The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative and the South Gippsland Chronicle.

Obviously, there were other individuals in the community who publicly supported the Yes vote. For example, as was revealed in Post 85. Soldiers’ Farewells 1916  members of the committee responsible for organising farewells and welcomes regularly called for the introduction of conscription in their speeches. At the same time, the individuals in the 2 groups in the table below – Yarram Recruiting Committee and Yarram Referendum Committee – were directly involved in the most public and formal expressions of support for the Yes vote. Locals would have identified them as the key backers of the Yes vote. Moreover,  the key players in running the soldiers’ farewells and welcomes – Cr Barlow, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, W F Lakin, W G Pope, G E Ruby and Rev Tamagno – were also involved in either one or both of the Yarram committees featured in the table.

The point has been made many times that the narrative of the War – its immediate causes, the critical relationship between Australia and the Empire, the sacrifices involved, the heroism and distinctive fighting spirit of the AIF … – was controlled and disseminated by the ‘leading citizens’ of the local community. It was this group that organised and delivered the speeches – or sermons – and wrote the articles, editorials and letters. As a group it was made up of the leading professionals, managers and proprietors in the local community. The group also featured a small number of successful landowners. This group of ‘leading citizens’ was focused almost exclusively on Yarram. While this group controlled the narrative, including the part of the narrative that called on locals to enlist, the men who did enlist came overwhelmingly from the rural working class. Essentially, in this particular rural community – the Shire of Alberton – the middle class delivered the narrative and the working class offered the volunteers.

As the table illustrates, when conscription became the next chapter in the narrative, the group responsible for its promotion represented a simple extension of the earlier groups of leading citizens. In many cases the same individuals were involved. There were 3 managers ( B Couston, T Whitney and W F Lakin), 2 lawyers (B P Johnson, J H Hill), 2 clergymen (Rev F A Tamgano and Rev C J Walklate), 2 engineers (A W C Burston and W A Newland), 3 agents (P J Juniper, J J O’Connor and G E Ruby), 2 store keepers (J Bett and R E H Newberry), and 3 secretaries/clerks/civic officers (G W Black, M J T Cox, and W G Pope). The group also included the editor of one of the local papers (A J Rossiter) and a local builder (J S Graham). There was also a member of the local fire brigade (T Tempest) and a cream tester (E S Stocks). Lastly, there was a group of 6 farmers/graziers (C Barlow, W Bland, H G Bodman, N J Christensen, J W Fleming and W P Wilson). Most likely, three of this last group were involved more because they were local councillors than local landowners.

The table also shows that this particular group of citizens also featured a significant concentration of localised political power and influence; and people in the community would have certainly recognised that the backers of the Yes vote featured the Shire’s political elite. As well as the current Shire President (W Bland), the table also features the immediate past Shire President (N J Christensen), the long-serving Shire Secretary ( G W Black)  and 3 councillors: C Barlow, W Bland and J J O’Connor. Additionally, there was strong representation of the local court. C Barlow, H G Bodman, N J Christensen and B Couston were JPs in the Yarram Court of Petty Sessions, and B P Johnson and J H Hill acted as solicitors in the same court. The local court was a very significant institution in the community and all its matters were reported in detail.

Locals would also have known that the individuals in this group were heavily involved in other local committees and associations. Such involvement would have contributed to their status as ‘leading citizens’.  For example, as already indicated above, 7 of them were involved with soldiers’ farewells and welcomes. Similarly, 6 had been members of the Belgian Relief Committee: G  W Black, N J Christensen, M J T Cox, J W Fleming, P J Juniper, Rev F Tamagno.

There was also extensive involvement as committee or board members of other groups which did not have a specific focus on support for the War effort. For example, there was the Yarram Agricultural Society: C Barlow, G W Black, N J Christensen, B P Johnson, P J Juniper, W F Lakin and W G Pope. There were 6 on the Yarram and District Hospital Board: J Bett,  G W Black, A W C Burston, G E Ruby and Rev F A Tamagno. Another local committee with strong representation was the Yarram Mechanics’ Institute: M J T Cox, J H Hill, W F Lakin, R E Newberry, A J Rossiter, E S Stocks and T W Whitney. The Won Wron Railway Trust featured G W Black, W Bland and N J Christensen. There were also two of the group on the Yarram Waterworks Trust (C Barlow and B P Johnson). Similarly, two served on the local Historical Society ( J H Hill and B P Johnson) and another 2 on the local YMCA (N J Christensen and B P Johnson).

The number of the group who served on the management committees of, or held official positions in, the hierarchy of the local Protestant Churches and the Masonic Lodge (207) was striking. There was no equivalent representation for the local Catholic Church.  In fact, at this level, the Catholic Church was not represented at all. The details are displayed in the table. There were 4 members of the local Church of England Board of Guardians (H G Bodman, J H Hill, B P Johnson and A J Rossiter). Two of the group supported Rev F A Tamagno as members of the Board of Management for the local Presbyterian Church: J Bett and ES Stocks. G E Ruby was a steward who supported Rev C J Walklate of the local Methodist Church. Lastly, 8 of the group held official titles in the local Masonic Lodge (207): G W Black, A W C Burston, J W Fleming, B P Johnson, P J Juniper, W F Lakin, W A Newland and G E Ruby. J W Fleming held the position of Worshipful Master in 1916 and B P Johnson had held the same position in 1915.

The group as a whole was Yarram-centric. It claimed to represent the Shire as a whole but its members were almost exclusively residing and working in Yarram. Even most of the land holders whose properties obviously lay outside the town were tied to Yarram through their roles as councillors and/or JPs.

The last, very obvious, observation is that the table is exclusively male. Women were involved in a range of committees/associations within the local community and some of these were specifically connected to the War effort, for example the Red Cross and Belgian Relief. There was also a local branch of the Australian Women’s National League which, according to a report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (13/10/16) … decided to join forces with the local branch of the Conscription Referendum committee.  However, there is no evidence of what ‘joining forces’ amounted to and, overall, the formal, public push for both recruiting and conscription was seen as the exclusive responsibility of the Shire’s leading men.

The table represents the attempt to identify the range of local individuals who were seen as leading the push for the Yes vote in the 1916 referendum. There could well have been other individuals in the local community who were as public and vocal in their support. As well, there could have been considerable variation in effort across the individuals identified; and some might have been members of the committees in name only. For example, there is very little that can be uncovered in relation to both T Tempest and P W Wilson, both of whom were on the local referendum committee. At the other end of the continuum, the 4 individuals who appeared to have been the most influential were C Barlow, B P Johnson, Rev F Tamagno and A J Rossiter – the first 3 because they served on both the recruiting and referendum committees and also spoke regularly at farewells and welcomes, and A J Rossiter because of his role as editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative.

While there are limits to both the research and the analysis, the concluding point to make about this group publicly supporting the Yes vote is that it is at least possible to identify them. By contrast, the next post will look at the backers of the No vote and it will became immediately clear that it is simply not possible to identify an equivalent group of locals who led the campaign for the No vote. In fact, it is hard even to identify the backers of the No vote. Publicly at least, in the Shire of Alberton there was really only side of the debate that mattered.

References

Electoral Roll
Commonwealth of Australia, State of Victoria, Division of Gippsland, Subdivision of Yarram Yarram

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle