Category Archives: January to June 1915

60. Soldiers’ farewells 1915

This post looks at the soldiers’ farewells staged in 1915. Over 1915, the local newspaper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – reported on 30 farewells that covered approximately 60 men.  Clearly, there were far more men who enlisted in 1915 than the number who were given farewells. Some men had already left the district and enlisted elsewhere, including interstate. Other men slipped away deliberately, without any sort of farewell. It also seems that there were not many farewells for men who had been working in the district for only a short time.  Many of the men who were not given farewells did at least receive the Shire Medallion when it finally became available from October 1915. In such cases it was handed to a relative or friend of the local who had enlisted.

Essentially, the data and details in the post come from reports in the local paper.  There was a general expectation in the local community that soldiers’ farewells would be reported in the local paper and identifying the individual locals who had volunteered was a community preoccupation. Equally, as will become apparent, the reports of the farewells also served as ongoing chapters in the narrative of the War. Farewells – and later the ‘welcome homes’ – represented the opportunity for local spokespersons to push the essential themes that maintained the local community’s focus on and support for the War. Even if people did not attend the farewell itself – and falling attendance did become a concern – they could read the substance of the speeches in the local paper.

As well as looking at what was said at the farewells, the post also considers the question of who the speakers were. While there were sometimes gaps in the information from reports of farewells in small townships, the newspaper reports were generally thorough in identifying both who spoke and what was said. The significance of the particular focus on the speakers is that, as already argued, it was the professional, propertied and managerial class of the local community that controlled the narrative of the War. On the other side of this broad equation, it was typically the rural working class that enlisted.

The 1915 farewells at Yarram

Most farewells (22) were held in Yarram as the principal town of the Shire of Alberton.

Included in the 1915 farewells in Yarram, there were farewells to 3 high profile members of the local community. In May, Dr Rutter was farewelled when he joined the Australian Medical Corps. In July, Dr Pern, another local doctor, was farewelled when he too joined the AMC. Then in late September the popular local Church of England minister, Rev Geo Cox, was farewelled. Ironically, Drs Pern and Rutter had failed Cox when he had made earlier attempts to enlist. All 3 farewells were conducted as major events in the community: the venues were full to capacity; there was an extensive line-up of speakers; much was made of the history of selfless community service, as either clergyman or doctor, before enlistment; and because all 3 men were married with children, and Cox and Pern were in their forties while Rutter was thirty-five, their individual enlistments were held up as outstanding examples of sacrifice and sense of duty.

However, farewells of this scale were not possible for everyone who enlisted. By mid 1915 it was recognised that some sort of committee would have to be formed so that a common, but manageable, format could be put in place.  Any farewell, no matter how low-key, involved considerable effort and there needed to be a process that could be sustained.

The first committee meeting to tackle the issue of setting up a process for soldiers’ farewells was held on 6 August 1915 and reported in the local paper on 8 August 1915. As reported, there was general agreement at the meeting that the whole business of farewells needed to be better organised. Everyone agreed that it was essential that those locals leaving the district be given a farewell. There was also general agreement that a wristlet watch be given. Later this would be replaced by the Shire of Alberton Medallion. For efficiency those at the meeting wanted the farewells to be organised for groups of men rather than run on an individual basis. But others pointed out how difficult it was to get accurate and timely advice from the AIF on the men’s movement and that it was never going to be possible to achieve the level of planning and organisation that people wanted.

The first meeting also tackled the issue of who should receive a farewell. Some wanted to draw a distinction between ‘bona fide’ residents of the district and others who had only been there ’two or three months’ and who ‘did not intend returning’. Overwhelmingly, these would have been the rural workers who found themselves in the district when they decided to enlist. Others thought a six month residency in the district should be the standard. At the meeting, the issue was left unresolved. In a real sense, the rural workers themselves resolved the issue for the committee. Most of the farewells that were organised tended to be for men who had already enlisted and who were home on their final leave before embarkation. On the other hand, the pattern for men who had been working in the district as itinerant rural workers was to complete the medical in Yarram, sign their attestation forms, be issued with a railway warrant from the Shire Secretary, and in the next day or so, travel to Melbourne to complete the enlistment process.  Once in Melbourne, these men did not return to the Shire and so the issue of any farewell did not even arise. Interestingly, those at the meeting on 6 August, were quoting the figure of 200 men from the Shire who had already left, but formal farewells would have covered less than half this number. Most commonly, the discrepancy involved the rural workers.

The major point of dispute at the first meeting involved the financing of the operation. Majority opinion favoured setting up a subscription list, with names published in the local paper, with an initial subscription of 5/- and 2/- per month thereafter. However the minority view was that this amount would not generate sufficient funds and people should be encouraged to donate more. To make their point, several of those there that night immediately handed over donations of £5. Upset by the gesture, Henry George Bodman – grazier of Trenton Valley – predicted, accurately, that faced with the 2 levels of donation, 5/- and £5, the community would be confused, and this would undermine the whole idea of a subscription. Just 2 weeks later, on 18/8/15, the editorial in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative described the ensuing confusion and loss of enthusiasm:

The meeting held on Friday 6th inst., in the shire hall, having passed a resolution which would not provide adequate funds for farewells and welcomes to soldiers, a further meeting was called for Friday last [13/8/15]. Curious to state, but half-a-dozen attended, too few for business, and the movement which promised well at the outset has fizzled out. Surely our boys are worth some little attention! Those gentlemen who came forward with “fivers” seem to have blown out the five shillings project.

It was another example of the petty politics that could so easily undermine local projects. From that point, the compromise was that any level of donation was accepted, and the paper regularly published the amounts which ranged from 2/6 to £5.

The actual farewell ceremony that developed over 1915 was simple. It was held in the shire hall. The timing varied and had to fit in with train times from Alberton. There would be one or two speeches, a toast to the soldier’s health, the soldier would generally reply and there would be a verse of the National Anthem or some other patriotic song. “For he’s a jolly good fellow” was also usually sung. Once the Shire Medallion and Card became available, their presentation added a sense of formality to the occasion.

After the brief ceremony, someone would volunteer to drive the soldier to the train station at Alberton.  The name of the person offering the car would often be published in the paper.

Not much changed over 1915. The committee did request advance notice about soldiers’ leave from the military authorities but, not surprisingly, such a concern was not a priority for the AIF. Late in the year, the committee erected a flag pole outside the shire hall and when a farewell ceremony was to be held the flag would be flown to alert townspeople. This action was in response to poor attendance at the farewells. Initially people put the low numbers down to the lack of notice being given for farewells but, over time, the claim that people were not prepared to put themselves out was raised repeatedly in the local paper. The suggestion made by Wliiam Geo. Pope at a farewell reported on 29/10/15 – he served on the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee – that the local clergy should set up a roster so that there was always one of their number at every farewell was another not very subtle claim that the soldiers’ farewells were not receiving the attention they warranted.

By the end of 1915 the lack of recruits was another disappointment being raised at the farewells. Speakers were insisting that too many men were not doing their duty and the level of enlistments was dangerously low. By October 1915, they were claiming that conscription had to come. The old thinking about the strength of voluntary enlistments no longer applied. As W G Pope declared at a farewell on 27 November 1915 (reported 1/12/15):

The old idea that one volunteer was worth two pressed men did not count these times.

Farewells outside Yarram.

It was obviously easier to cover the farewells held in Yarram than those held in outlying locations. Such farewells usually required a local ‘correspondent’ to write about the occasion. In a couple of cases – Wonyip and Blackwarry – the report was short on details.

Over 1915, there were 8 farewells conducted in smaller townships or settlements:  Blackwarry (1), Kjergaard (2), Womerah (1), Gunyah (1), Alberton (1), Woodside (1), Wonyip (1). Obviously these lay outside the influence of the committee in Yarram, although there was the odd occasion when a committee member from Yarram would attend. As noted before, farewells in the townships and settlements of the Shire of Alberton tended to be on a grander scale than those held in Yarram. Generally, they were held at night and they involved a social and dance in the local hall. They were attended by most if not all the local residents. They were far more of a community celebration. The themes covered by the speakers were the same as those in Yarram, but there were more speeches and more patriotic songs. Also, there was always a special gift – silver mounted wallet, inscribed gold medal, silver mounted pipe, pocket wallet, purse of sovereigns – and this was given in addition to the Shire Medallion.

Themes covered by the speakers

It is possible to analyse the speeches, as reported in the local press, and identify several common themes. Inevitably, the team of speakers at these events would hear each other’s speeches – or read them in the press – and over time a common approach to the themes, the imagery, the stories and even the slogans developed.

For the committee managing the farewells, the men being farewelled had to leave with a strong sense of community support and the conviction that their decision to volunteer was absolutely correct. They had the right to be proud of what they done. As well, the audience at the farewells wanted to be there. They wanted to show their respect, and they believed in and supported what they heard.  Overall, the scene was set for forceful speech making, with plenty of flourish and hyperbole.

The following breakdown represents the themes most commonly covered at the 1915 farewells:

The moral strength of the volunteer
The unique character and success of the AIF
The greatness of the Empire and Australia’s duty to support it
The evil of Germany and the dire threat it posed to the Empire and Australia
The mother’s sacrifice
The pioneer as soldier

Note: In the following description, the dates quoted refer to the date the report of the farewell appeared in the local paper. The date of the actual farewell would have been within one week or less of the date of publication.

The moral strength of the volunteer

This was by far the most common theme. Every farewell praised the moral quality or character of the person volunteering. The act of volunteering was proof of character.

This decision to enlist was inevitably described as a duty.  The men answered the call of duty. They were prepared to make a sacrifice. They judged the pursuit of a greater good above personal interest. They were men who refused to let others do the fighting for them. All of them could be described as heroes. They were also true patriots, as W G Pope, speaking at the farewell to Dr Pern (9/7/15) noted:

Dr Pern had placed the price of patriotism on one the side of the scale, and personal considerations on the other, and patriotism had gone down flop and won. (Applause).

The speakers inevitably drew attention to the fine character of the volunteers as young men or boys before they enlisted. Dr Pern was referred to as having … a gentlemanly character and genial nature (9/7/15). G F Sauer was reported (15/10/15) as saying Pte O J Parrott was … a clean living man, and he felt sure he would be a clean fighter. G F Sauer (20/10/15) also farewelled 2 other young men noting that they … had led clean lives, and were a credit to the district. E L Grano referred to the same young men as having been good citizens and he was sure they would … do their duty faithfully. Some of the speakers had known the men since they were boys. At a farewell from Woodside for Pte Richard Starling (17/11/15), one of the speakers, J W Condon, said of Starling, Even when little more than a boy he had been a leader. He had led men older than himself, and had always led them in the right way.  At the farewell for Pte Gordon S Jeffs (13/10/15), Cr Barlow spoke of how he had known the young man from birth and Mr V S Lalor added that Gordon was … the worthy son of a worthy father.  At a farewell at Womerah (4/8/15) one speaker went so far as to relate that, as a youth, one of the men being farewelled, …  never sat down to a meal without saying grace. At his farewell in June 1915 (16/6/15), Pte R O’Dea  was referred to as a ‘manly man’. On the sub-theme of the ‘manly man’, Appendix 1 features the poem, Then You’re a Man by Lyde [sic] Howard. It was read in full by F C Grano at a farewell in late October 1915 (29/10/15). The verse – overdone, even by the standards of the time – is strong on Christian imagery, including the eternal reward in heaven, which featured commonly at the time.

Fellow clergyman, Rev Tamagno (Methodist), at the farewell for Rev Cox (29/9/15), was at pains to express his admiration for Cox’s sense of duty. He described Cox as a true ‘white man’. He went so far as to claim, … there is no whiter man in this town and outside it, and these words are not flattery. Cox, for his patriotic effort, had been raised to some exalted level of manliness in the British Empire.

The unique character and success of the AIF

From the beginning, speakers reminded the volunteers of the need to uphold the ‘tradition’ of Australians generally and the Australian as a soldier. The ‘tradition’ itself was often vague, with occasional references to bravery and duty in the Boer War. However, after Gallipoli and the newspaper reporting of the time, the stakes were raised considerably, with volunteers both praised for their membership of the AIF and pressed with the need to defend its newly-won reputation. Cr Barlow, speaking at the farewell for Pte Bodman (8/9/15) … wished to impress on Private Bodman that he  was an Australian. From what they had read and heard they knew all who had gone to the front were heroes without exception. He hoped all who went to the front would uphold that tradition. When W S Filmer, the school teacher at Womerah, spoke at the farewell to 3 local men (4/8/15), He advised them to try and emulate the example set by the brave Australians on Gallipoli, of whom the naval men said, “Fiercest fighters God never made.”

The then president of the Shire of Alberton, Cr Bland (29/10/15) had no doubt on the quality of Australian soldiers. Even before the AIF had even reached the Western Front, they were the best in the world:

These men were going to join other Australians who had earned the name of being the best soldiers in the war. (Applause.)

W G Pope expressed similar sentiments at the farewell to Dr Pern (9/7/15) declaring,

The daring deeds of our men by scaling the heights of Gallipoli in the face of tremendous fire had opened the eyes of the world. They had covered themselves with glory, and sent a blaze of fame from one end of Australia to the other.

The greatness of the Empire and Australia’s duty to support it

This particular theme tended to be represented in an indirect and understated form. It was always there as an assumed reality. ‘Duty’ for example was often described as ‘duty to the Empire’.  Men were said (14/5/15) to volunteer for ‘service on behalf of the Empire’. Dr Pern ( 9/7/15) was said to be leaving to serve ‘King and Country’.

However, on occasion speakers would present the full version of the theme. For example, in the report of the farewell for Rev Cox (29/9/15), W G Pope expanded on the bonds of Empire, claiming that The same blood flowed in the veins of the people here, as was in the veins of the people of the Homeland; and we had been true to the best traditions of the British race… Later, he noted … we Australians would rather go down and die under the Union Jack, than come to affluence under the flag of Germany. He felt that was the true sentiment of Australians. (Applause.)

In a similar turn of phrase, at the farewell for Privates Bird and Biggs (20/10/15) Cr Barlow declared that they … had been living so long in a free British atmosphere, and under the Union Jack, that they would rather go down in honor of their country than live under any other flag. (Applause.)

The evil of Germany and the dire threat it posed to the Empire and Australia

Again, this theme was always there in the background and only rarely did it receive full attention. Cr Barlow, at a farewell at Kjergaard (31/12/15) presented the hard line of ‘no quarter’, even abandoning the British ideal of ‘fair play’:

Look at the murderers of mothers and children, and at the case of an English nurse who had been attending her wounded. When there was such a cold-blooded enemy to deal with he would give them no quarter; they were out to win by fair or foul means, and he would be out to do the same. Britain had been too lenient with the Germans for many years, and now their brave boys had to pay for it.

In the report (9/7/15) of the farewell to Dr Pern, W G Pope also laboured the theme and looked to divine retribution:

The Germans were human monsters, and even taught the hymn of hate to the school children. Such crimes were committed which could not be referred to here. Crimes which in the course of human life could not be expatiated. There was no hope of redress in this life, but in the next life there might be some chance given the Germans to work out their salvation. If that hope did not exist he could only see one haven of refuge  open to them, where on their arrival, they would be installed on the hobs, and frizzle throughout eternity. (Applause.)

At his own farewell (6/10/15) Rev Cox spoke about the need to prevent the Germans ever landing in Australia to commit the atrocities carried out in Belgium.

The mother’s sacrifice

Reference was often made to the mother’s support of her son’s decision to enlist. This was particularly so when the mother was in the audience. Cr Barlow at the farewell for Pte Jeffs (13/10/15) praised the mother’s sacrifice:

He admired the young man for making the personal sacrifice in going to fight for the Empire, but perhaps more to be admired was the worthy mother, who placed no objection in her son’s path of duty. Only mothers knew what it was to lose their sons.

If the man was married, the same praise was bestowed on the wife left at home. W G Pope at the farewell for Dr Pern (9/7/15) described the wife’s anguish:

A doctor’s wife knew full well the dangers of war, and Mrs. Pern would spend many an anxious hour while her husband was away.

The pioneer as soldier

When it was used, this was a strong theme but it only applied to men whose families had been farming in the district for at least 2 generations. In the theme, the current generation had both to reflect and protect the legacy of the original settlers in the district. H G Bodman – grazier, Trenton Valley –  farewelled his only son at a ceremony in the shire hall in September 1915. The report (8/9/15)stated:

Mr. H. G. Bodman remarked that it was not a time for a speech. He would say that he was quite satisfied that his son was going, and felt sure that he would be a credit to his country. (Applause.) His (the speaker’s) father – his son’s grandfather – had helped as one of the old pioneers to develop the country, and he felt proud because his son was going to defend it. (Applause.)

The men making the speeches

The table below gives a brief breakdown of the men who made speeches at farewells in 1915. It gives the names of the men, the number of speeches made and their occupation, taken from the 1915 Electoral Register. Additional information on the individual’s background, from the local newspaper or some other source, such as the Rate Book, has been included. As indicated, most of the farewells took place in Yarram but the table also shows those cases where the speech was made at a farewell in some other location in the Shire.

The group is exclusively male. War was essentially men’s business. The mother or wife sacrificed the son or spouse to the fighting and, as indicated, this was a common theme at farewells, but women played no role in, as it were, the management of the War. Women’s efforts in the local community were restricted to ‘relief’ work in organisations such as the Red Cross. In a sense, their involvement matched that of their place in the local churches where their role was to support the clergyman. The limited role was part of the wider reality of gender-based politics – women, for example, were not local councillors nor justices of the peace.

In terms of the speeches at Yarram it is clear that a relatively small group of local professionals, proprietors and managers dominated.There were some local farmers but these men were tied closely to the politics of the town and district. They occupied civic positions, and exercised power, as local councillors and/or justices of the peace. Moreover, they were successful and established land holders – for example, Arthur H Moore was arguably the largest and most successful grazier in the entire Shire of Alberton.

Outside Yarram when farewells were organised, the range of speakers tended to reflect local conditions. Obviously, farmers tended to dominate but the dynamics of the local community could also play a part. For example, at Woodside when 2 men were farewelled in November 1915 the focus was on their membership of the ANA and on that occasion the speakers were drawn from locals – labourer, barman and blacksmith – who worked in the township.

Looking at the profile of those making the speeches at soldiers’ farewells is only part of the story of how the narrative of the War was represented and controlled in the local community. There were other key groups involved – for example, the various iterations of the local recruiting committee. Moreover, the process itself was inherently dynamic and, in fact, characterised by many tensions. For example, the last post pointed to the criticism levelled at the local council for not according Empire Day in 1915 the recognition it deserved. As we will continue to see, the local politics round support for the War could be fractious, divisive and even bitter. However, it was clear that in 1915 control over the ‘official’ narrative of the War in the Shire of Alberton lay in the hands of the professional, managerial, proprietorial and propertied class centred on Yarram. This group presented the narrative from the pulpits of the Protestant churches, at public celebrations (Empire Day) and other functions (recruiting meetings), in the local state schools, in the pages of the local press, and at the farewells for soldiers staged at regular intervals.

The response from the soldiers

Typically, the soldiers being farewelled had little to say. Often they would claim to be nervous and not accustomed to making speeches. Occasionally, there was some attempt at lightheartedness. For example, at his farewell (16/6/15), Pte R O’Dea managed to get in a line about how … he hoped to pot a few “Turkeys.” (Prolonged applause). However, the soldier would usually just offer a few words of thanks and make some self-effacing claim about duty or responsibility. The farewell for Sgt Johnson (29/9/15), son on B P Johnson, was typical:

Sergeant Johnson thanked them for the kind words uttered, and remarked that he felt he had the best wishes of all in Yarram and district. He was confident that all who were going away to fight would keep up the honour of Gippsland.

At this particular farewell, Sgt Cyril Johnson’s father – Ben Percival Johnson, local solicitor and over the course of the entire War an outspoken advocate of recruitment and, in time, conscription – added the customary lines about the mother’s role:

Mr. Johnson … said Cyril expressed a wish to go, and his mother felt she was doing her duty not to stop him. (Applause.)

Sgt Cyril Johnson was killed in action on 14 May 1918.

Appendix 1

Then You’re a Man

Can you desert the niche that you were bred in –
The path of comfort, and the friends who cheer?
And can you leave the business you have worked at –
Laboured and sweated at from year to year?
And will you bid farewell to wife and kindred?
Keeping up steadfastly as best you can?
Then you fulfil the calling of a Briton.
And you are what you’re made to be sir;
You’re a MAN

And do you deem there is no higher calling
Than that which calls you to your country’s need?
And do you reckon ion you should not answer,
That there are deadlier wounds than those which bleed?
Do you feel proud and happy in the doing;
The sacrifice of every other plan?
The you fulfil the calling of a Briton.
And you are what you’re made to be sir;
You’re a MAN

Since you are made and fashioned in God’s image –
Go forth to fight; stamp out crime and sin.
Wash out, with your heroic blood, it may be,
All foulness and all perfidy within;
Help, free the earth of fearfulness and plunder;
Give her a peacefulness of Endless Span,
The heaven, and all Eternity shall bless you.
And you are what you’re made to be sir;
You’re a MAN


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

59. Empire Day celebrations 1915

This post looks specifically at Empire Day celebrations held in Yarram in May 1915. The appeal of the (British) Empire was the fundamental plank in the politics and culture of Australia in the early 20C. Australia’s involvement in WW1 makes little sense without this understanding of what the Empire meant at the time.

The staging of celebrations for Empire Day 1915 in the Shire of Alberton created controversy. Prior to the War, celebrations for Empire Day had been generally restricted to the local schools – see Post 3: Empire Day 1914. Often there would be some sort of community celebration – typically a sports competition – added to the school activities, but the focus was definitely the local school, or more precisely the local state school. However, there was a view in May 1915 that because of the War, the day should receive far more public attention, and that while the celebrations at the schools should proceed as normal, there should also be the opportunity for the wider community to come together, at night, and take part in a ‘demonstration’ of loyalty to the Empire.

The significance of celebrating the first Empire Day of the War was noted across all newspapers at the time. The Australasian (29/5/15 p.25) declared:

The significance of Empire Day has never been realised to the same extent as it was this year, when in no exaggerated figure but in sober truth it may be said that the United Kingdom, the Indian Empire, and the overseas dominions are literally fighting for the Imperial existence.

The Argus featured verse written specifically for the occasion. It laboured the themes of resolute determination and the resigned acceptance of suffering and loss on a massive scale, all for the higher good of the Empire. It even had images from what could have been Arthurian England. The work is included as an appendix.

In Yarram, the local paper, Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, backed the move to have the special demonstration of public loyalty on Empire Day. Its editor, A J Rossiter, was personally involved in the planning and he ensured that the proceedings were reported extensively in the paper. The celebrations were held on the night of Monday 24 May and the detailed reporting appeared in the paper on Wednesday 26/5/15.

The local identity most keenly advocating the idea of  the special celebration was Rev George Cox, the Church of England minister in Yarram. Cox was very influential in the local community. He had been born in Edinburgh and his commitment to the Empire was total. From the pulpit he was a fervent patriot. (See Post 26. Soldiers of Christ). He himself would go on to enlist in the AIF, even though he was in his mid forties and married with children. Over his 5 years in Yarram, Cox served on many local committees including the Red Cross, the Recruiting Committee and Belgium Relief. He was on the executive of the local Rechabite Lodge. In 1911, he had set up a society to record the history of the district (South Gippsland sub-centre of the Historical Society), the first such local history society in Victoria.

Cox was also on the committee of the local school (Yarram SS) and in that capacity he persuaded the committee to send a formal letter to the Shire of Alberton asking it to take the lead in planned community celebrations for Empire Day. However the Shire was not keen on the proposal. It appeared content to stay with the traditional school-focused arrangement.  Following the ‘rebuff’, Cox went ahead and formed a small committee so that the ‘grand public demonstration’ he envisaged could go ahead. Rossiter made sure that this piece of local politics was reported in the paper (26/5/15):

The fact that the Alberton Shire Council did not concede to the request to join in a grand public demonstration in no way deterred those who had the scheme in hand from giving effect to it. The Rev. Geo. Cox … having met with what he considered a rebuff, called townsmen together, and a committee was formed, with the result that “the day” was celebrated in a fashion that became loyal Australians.  … Yarram residents gathered together on Monday night to publicly demonstrate their loyalty, and celebrate Empire Day with feelings of pride and cheerfulness.

The committee working with Cox comprised William F Lakin (bank manager, Yarram), Thomas Whitney (manager of the South Gippsland Creamery and Butter Factory, Yarram), George Frederick Sauer (draper, Yarram), Alfred Edmund Paige (head teacher, Yarram SS) and Ben Percival Johnson (solicitor, Yarram). Members of this group also officiated at the farewells organised for soldiers. They would also serve on the various recruiting committees set up over the coming years.  After Cox himself – as indicated, he enlisted in late 1915 and left the district – the most influential person in this group would prove to B P Johnson.

On the night, the ‘Mechanics’ Hall’ was full – by 8 o’clock every seat was taken . The venue was decorated appropriately:

Never has the hall looked so gay with bunting. The large Agricultural Society’s Union Jack formed a complete background to the stage, and in the hall the flags of Australia, France, Belgium, Russia, Italy and Servia were conspicuous, Japan being represented by chrysanthemums. From the centre of the ceiling lines of smaller flags were run to the four corners of the hall, and in the right hand corner of the hall the name “Lusitania”  was inscribed on a placard in black letters.

The chairman for the night – Thomas Whitney, manager of the local butter factory  – presented a lengthy history of the Empire Movement and Empire Day. Keen to emphasise the role that belief in the Empire could play in daily life, he even went into the specifics of the 4 planks of the Empire Movement – Responsibility, Duty, Sympathy and Self-Sacrifice – and continued on with its fifteen propositions:

1. Love and fear God.  2. Honor the King.  3. Obey the laws.  4. Prepare to advance the highest interests of the Empire in peace and war.  5. Cherish patriotism.  6. Regard the rights of other nations.  7. Learn citizenship.  8. Follow duty.  9. Consider duties before rights.  10. Acquire knowledge.  11. Think broadly.  12. Practise discipline.  13. Subdue self.  14. Work for others.  15. Consider the poor and suffering.

The mix of religious conviction, Christian practice and civic responsibility serves as a reminder of how Protestantism was the religion of the Empire (See Post 16. Righteous war and religious renewal, September – October 1914).

Whitney declared that if people were prepared to embrace the propositions then Australia would be a greater nation, and, in that time of peril, he urged all present to recommit to the guiding principles of the Empire Movement over the coming year. Australia’s history – that of the young, emerging nation – was bound to the Empire’s longer and grander history.

The following resolution was passed by acclamation:

This meeting of citizens of Yarram and district, affirms its confidence in the solidarity of our Empire and the integrity of our cause, and while expressing its unbounded admiration of the gallantry of our representatives at the front, and its deepest sympathy with those bereaved, urges upon all our people to rise to a realisation of our Empire as exemplified in the conduct of our men upon both land and sea.

Much was made of the glorious history of the Empire and its fundamental role in Australia’s own history and development. Whitney even saw the Empire, under God, stretching back one thousand years:

There was something about the British Empire which appealed to Australians, and in the present crisis, a sense of its power and grandeur was felt by all. It sent a thrill of independence through us, and we gloried in the legacy which our forefathers had left us; they who had shed their blood to overcome every hindrance which beset them. The flag that had braved all breezes and all wars for the past thousand years would still keep flying, and vindicate our right to the Divine possession. (Applause).

There was a full program of ‘patriotic airs’ to accompany the speeches – Kipling’s Recessional, England Calls for Men, Your King and Country Want You, Motherland, Army and Navy, To the Front, The Minstrel Boy, and even the Marseillaise –  and Rev. Cox had penned additional verses of the National Anthem for the occasion. One of these verses was printed by the local paper and sung by everyone there:

Australia’s sons uphold
Gallant and strong and bold, God keep our men.
May they victorious be, Whether on land or sea, At all times kept by Thee, God save our men.

A highlight of the night involved a performance by the school children from Yarram SS:

A pretty scene was presented when over thirty Yarram school children marched on to the stage, each carrying Union Jacks. The girls were attired in white frocks, and the boys wore red, white and blue ties. The popular songs “Red, White and Blue” and “Sons of the Sea” were given with considerable vim, the choir and audience taking up the chorus.

At interval, the local Red Cross put on a demonstration:

The interval was filled in very nicely with a demonstration by the St. John Ambulance trainees, who adjusted a “broken” leg, “fractured” collar bone, and “fractured” jaws in professional fashion, the patients looking not at all perturbed in the absence of anaesthetics. … A case of “fractured thigh” gave opportunity for the use of the new stretcher, while the other patients were assisted by various means of hand carrying. The Rev. Geo. Cox had charge of the ambulance trainees, and with his accustomed thoroughness had a telephone rigged up on the stage for demonstration purposes.

Overall the night was declared a great success, as a public demonstration of support for the Empire in its time of peril. However the proceedings may have proved too long and tedious for younger members of the audience because at one point the stage was plunged into darkness when children ‘meddled with the footlights and caused a fuse to blow out’. The fault was quickly fixed.

By this stage of the war it was not possible to have any sort of civic function and not at some point call for more volunteers. That night, Whitney had spoken for too long and several of the later speakers had to either shorten or cancel their prepared efforts. However, one speaker who definitely did feature after the interval was local solicitor, B P Johnson. As indicated, Johnson was probably the most important public speaker over the entire period of the War. He was heavily involved with the various recruiting committees and campaigns, and that night he was given time to call for more enlistments. He argued that Australia had not yet sent its quota for the Empire – on the basis of Australia’s population he gave this quota as 300,000 men – and that too many locals were hanging back refusing to go. He singled out the footballers as the classic example of the very types who should enlist. Johnson finished his appeal with what had become by then standard recruiting flourishes:

Only those who do their duty know true happiness. If a man fell, how can he die better (Applause).

Empire Day celebrations in 1915 highlighted how people in the Shire of Alberton viewed and interpreted the War through the lens of the Empire. The planning and management of the celebrations also underscored the role of the professional, managerial and propertied class in controlling the narrative of the war. It was this group of townspeople who, literally, held the stage. As will become evident in future posts, the same group of townspeople would come to drive the business of soldiers’ farewells, recruiting campaigns and, in time, the push for conscription.


Empire Day, 1915

Not with the pomp and circumstance of yore,
Not with the flaunted pride of other days,
Not with the joy-bells pealing from the shore
To sound their placid note of self-sung praise

But rather as some knight who in the fray
Halts for a moment at a wayside shrine,
And bows his helmed head to humbly pray
For God’s good guidance in his task divine.

Mother, we stand before you! At your call
We struck for Empire, and we struck for right;
Not ours to falter – better far to fall
And win a hero’s guerdon in the fight.

Not for a moment will we sheathe the sword
We wield for freedom in its hour of need,
Duty and honour call with one accord
To prove our plighted word by dauntless deed.

And if the cost demanded by the cause
Means that we sacrificed a nation’s brave –
Then must we sacrifice, and only pause
To lay our tribute in their glorious grave.

Thus by the flag which proudly floats above,
Thus by the valour of an unshed tear,
We’ll prove to all the world our loyal love,
And make each day an Empire Day this year!

The Argus, Tuesday 25 May 1915, p 8


The Argus

The Australasian

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

57. Enlistments in the first half of 1915: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history

This post concludes the overview of the group of 102 men who enlisted in the first half of 1915. It matches the scope of Post 23. Enlistments to the end of 1914: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history.


Post 23 gave a breakdown of religion in the general community. The relevant data was taken from the Commonwealth Census of 1911 –Table 38. Male Population Of The Counties Of Victoria At the Census of 3rd April, 1911 Classified according to Religion (Exclusive of Full-blooded Aboriginals). – for the county of Buln Buln, Victoria. The data identified 4 key religions for the Gippsland community: Church of England (39%), Presbyterian (23%), Roman Catholic (19%) and Methodist (12.5%). The remaining 6.5% covered relatively small groups of men who identified as: Baptist, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Church of Christ, Salvation Army, 7 Day Adventist, Unitarian, Undefined Protestant, Greek Catholic, Undefined Catholic and Other Christian.

The table below shows – in percentage form – the breakdown in religious affiliation between the census of 1911 and the 2 enlistment cohorts of 1914 and the first half of 1915. Clearly the pattern of over-representation from men who gave the Church of England as their religion had been established by the end of the first half of 1915. Arguably, this group identified most closely with the cause of Imperial War. At this point – the end of the first half of 1915 – the numbers involved with the other religious groupings are probably too small to draw definite conclusions. The drop in Methodist enlistments could easily prove to be a one-off aberration. Significantly, the figures continue to show that Roman Catholic enlistments were in proportion to their numbers in the local community.


The unit that appears against each man is taken for the Embarkation Roll.

Once again it is apparent that most men enlisted in infantry battalions. The actual number from this cohort of 102 who left Australia in the Light Horse was only 14. By far the largest group of men (38) enlisted in the 4 battalions ( 21-24) of the new 6 Brigade which were formed at Broadmeadows from February to May 1915.

Service history

Post 23 revealed the very high casualty levels that characterised the first cohort of volunteers to the end of 1914. Basically, 29.5% died on active service and another 38% were repatriated to Australia and discharged as ‘medically unfit’.

The extent of casualties for this second cohort – from January to June 1915 – was only marginally better:  28% died on active service and 31% were repatriated to Australia and discharged as ‘medically unfit.’

Again, this is only part of the story because the table below shows the large number of men who were either wounded or hospitalised with disease or injury but who were not discharged as ‘medically unfit’. After their time in hospital they were returned to their units and they served out the war, typically returning to Australia in 1919. Moreover, some of those men who died on active service had been wounded and/or hospitalised with disease or injury before death. In fact, there is only a handful of men in this cohort – 4 to be precise – who managed to survive the War without being wounded or admitted to hospital with either disease or injury.

The table also shows that most of those killed from this cohort were to die later in the War, many as late as 1918. While casualty figures of alarming proportions were appearing in Australia by the end of June 1915, the extreme levels reflected in the table were not to occur until the AIF moved to the Western Front in early 1916.

As for the first cohort, the most common diseases that saw men hospitalised included: enteric fever, dysentery, pleurisy, pneumonia, tonsillitis, mumps, influenza, rheumatic fever, malaria, scabies, neurasthenia and VD.

The special ‘Anzac Leave’ that PM Hughes instituted in September 1918 did not apply for this group of volunteers who enlisted in the first half of 1915. Those who survived the War, and who were not discharged early on medical grounds, were typically discharged as TPE (‘Termination of Period of Enlistment’) in the second half of 1919.  A small number of men ( 2 ) were discharged in the UK. They had been immigrants to Australia prior to the War.

There was one case of a compassionate discharge. It involved Private G Keillerup. His father had just died and it was believed at the time that 3 of his brothers in the AIF had been killed. Pte. Keillerup was only 18 yo at the time and he had already been wounded.

There was also one case of apparent desertion. Private William Henry Cutts went absent without leave in the UK in early 1916 and then enlisted under an alias in a English unit that was sent to India. The AIF tracked him down and wrote him off their list in June 1916. His record was marked ‘ service no longer required’ and he was marked as not eligible for Australian war medals. Presumably he reasoned that the odds of survival were far better in India than on the Western Front.

Two characteristics not shown in the table are the number of men from this cohort who ‘rose through the ranks’ and became commissioned officers and, second, the extent of awards won by the men generally. Both characteristics were also a feature of the first (1914) cohort of volunteers. Both characteristics will be analysed in detail later.


There do not appear to be significant difference between the 2 cohorts of volunteers reviewed thus far.

The cohort from the Shire of Alberton was young – typically between 18 and 25 – single, and drawn predominately from the rural working class. The mobility of this group was a striking feature. There was only a relatively small group of sons from local farming families.

Enlistment levels generally reflected the distribution of religious affiliation in the community. The apparent over-representation of those of the Church of England faith will need to be further investigated.

While much was made at the time of the creation of a special light horse unit from South Gippsland, most of the men enlisted in the new infantry battalions of the AIF.

The odds of enlisting in the period from August 1914 through to the end of June 1915, and surviving – alive, unwounded and in good health – to the end of the War, were particularly poor.

Note: in working through enlistment dates with this cohort, there were several cases of inconsistency between what was recorded in the individual service file and the embarkation roll. While I have tried to employ the date shown on the embarkation roll, in a limited number of cases – noted on the above table – I have chosen to use the date recorded on the individual service file. One of the consequences of this work has been that 3 men – Ray Robert Hudson, William Jacobson and Leslie Mcleod – who were originally included in this cohort have been shifted to other cohorts: Hudson and McLeod to the second half of 1915; and Jacobson to the first half of 1916.  The tables in both Post 55 and Post 56, and the related commentary, have been adjusted accordingly . This fine tuning is inevitable in this sort of research.

56. Enlistments in the first half of 1915: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status

This post continues the analysis of Post 22: Enlistments to the end of 1914: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status, in that it examines the same characteristics,  and employs the same approach, for the group of 104 men who enlisted in the first half of 1915.

The specific characteristics covered in the attached table are: the place of birth, the place of enlistment, the address of the next-of-kin at the time of enlistment, the address of the individual volunteer at the time of enlistment, the occupation at the time of enlistment, and age and marital status at the time of enlistment.

As for Post 22, most information in the table is taken from 2 key sources. Place of birth and place of enlistment are taken from the enlistment papers in each individual’s AIF service file. The other pieces of information are taken from the Embarkation Roll.

However, for ‘occupation’, the evidence covers not just the Embarkation Roll and the individual AIF service file but also the Shire of Alberton Rate Book and the Commonwealth Electoral Roll for the Subdivision of Yarram Yarram.

This extended range of evidence is needed to identify those men who were from the ‘family farm’. As is shown in the table, in one or two cases, a young man described himself as a  ‘labourer’ when in fact his father was a farmer in the Shire and the young man was, presumably, working on the family farm. Also, there were cases where the young man described himself as ‘farmer’ when the evidence – principally from the rate book – indicates that he was working for his father on the family farm. Consequently, in the table below, the description of  ‘family farm’ – highlighted – covers all situations (12) where the son was, most likely, working on the family farm.

There was also the situation where a young man described himself as a ‘farmer’ when all the evidence points to him being a ‘farm labourer’. In the table, this is most evident with immigrant farm workers: they were relatively young; had been in the district only a short period of time; there is no record in the local rate book of land in their name; and where they do appear on the electoral roll they are not described as ‘farmer’.


As for Post 22, the table covering the first half of 1915 highlights movement as a key characteristic of this group.  Again continuing the analysis from Post 22, it is possible to identify 4 broad groups.

First, there are what can be termed long-term residents: those who were born in the Shire, enlisted in Yarram – and were working in the local area at the time of enlistment – and gave a location in the Shire as their own address and that of their parents. This was the largest single group and, not surprisingly, individuals from this group were most likely to be included on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and, in the case of those who died on active service, the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. One minor qualification to make with this group of volunteers is that increasingly the men were formally being enlisted in Melbourne. This was the case even where they had their (first) medical, completed the enlistment paper work, took the oath and were issued with their railway warrant in Yarram. In part, this arrangement reflected the concern that country doctors were too inclined to pass volunteers as fit. It appears that by the end of June 1915, all men were medically ‘re-examined’ in Melbourne.

The second group involved those who had been in the Shire for some time – they had been born in the Shire and/or spent time there as a child or adolescent – but who, by the time of enlistment, had moved out of the Shire. As before, whether or not they were included on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll – and, if relevant, the Shire of Alberton War Memorial – appeared to be tied to the presence of some ongoing family link to the Shire. There needed to be immediate family members or relatives working to keep the individual soldier’s memory alive in the local community.

Generally, those in this second group only featured on local school honor rolls. However, the individuals concerned were often well known – or more correctly ‘well-remembered’ –  in the local community. For example, Bertram Atkinson only appears in the table because he attended Yarram State School as a child. His name appears on the school’s honor roll. He was 26yo and married when he enlisted, and his wife was living in Hawthorn. He had even attended Malvern East Grammar some time after leaving the state school at Yarram. Clearly, his link with the local area had finished many years before he enlisted. Yet because he was the son of the Church of England minister based at Yarram at the turn of the 20C – the Rev. James C Atkinson – locals definitely remembered him. In fact, there were several articles in the local paper reporting his death (21/9/15) and describing his family’s association with the district.

The third group takes in those who came into the Shire and had established themselves as local by the time of enlistment. The largest group here were the immigrant workers from the United Kingdom. There were 19 in this group. Added to the 15 from the group who had already enlisted by the end of 1914, the total number of UK immigrant workers to enlist to the end of June 1915 becomes 34. Doubtless there would have been a high expectation in the local community that these young men from the ‘Mother Country’ should enlist.

Another example from this group of people who had come into the Shire and established themselves as local, was the local medical practitioner Dr John Hemphill Rutter. There was extensive reporting in the local paper of his farewell and then his service overseas. He returned to Australia at the end of 1916.

The last group was made up of those who had moved into the Shire, but only recently, and in some cases it might well have been that they enlisted in Yarram because that was where they found themselves just at that point in time. Had their work, or search for work, taken them to Foster or Sale they would have enlisted there. But as transient as their work was, the fact is that they enlisted in Yarram.

As pointed out in Post 22, the creation of these 4 groups is arbitrary:  an attempt to impose some sort of order on what was a highly complex pattern of movement. Inconsistencies and anomalies across the table suggest that the boundaries between the groups were not as fixed as the model suggests. However, it is clear that the movement of this group, over what was typically not much more than 20 years of life, was a distinguishing feature. Such movement is also evident in the number of the group who were born interstate – 8 – and the number who enlisted interstate: 7. Moreover, there is only one person common to these 2 sub-groups. It even appears that one of the 104 men – Roy Liddelow – enlisted in New Zealand. All of this data questions the local historian’s natural tendency to try to tie people’s lives to a specific geographic location. ‘Local’ in the context of early 20C Australian History is a highly problematic concept.


Obviously the high incidence of movement is tied inextricably to occupation. By far the largest single group (50) was made up of ‘ labourer’ or ‘farm labourer’. As well, there was the typical range of rural working-class occupations. Within this solid rural working-class cohort, there were some men in semi and skilled trades, and there was a small group of young men in clerical positions. However, as with the previous group – the one to the end of 1914 –  the number of professionals and higher level administrative and managerial positions is very limited. Overwhelmingly, in the Shire of Alberton, in the period we have looked at so far – from the start of the War to the end of June 1915 – the typical volunteer was a member of the rural working-class and, most commonly, he simply gave his occupation as ‘labourer’.

In this particular group, it appears that there were 11 cases where a son who was working on the family farm enlisted. The cases are highlighted in the table.  As noted, this included some young men who described themselves as ‘farmer’ – but there was no evidence of them holding any property in their own right – as well as some who had described themselves as ‘farm labourer’, when in fact the evidence suggested they were working on the family farm and their labour contributed to the overall success of the farm.  However, it is possible with this latter group that the son was actually working as a ‘farm labourer’ on a neighbouring farm. Such work provided additional family income. So, conceivably, the number of family farms might be overstated in the table.

The more important point is that the number of volunteers who were independent farmers – the farm was in their name, and they were working and managing the farm in their own right – was very low. In fact, from this group of 102 volunteers, if you discount the 2 men from outside the Shire who claimed to be farmers (Ferres, H D G and Kiellerup, G R) there does not appear to have been a single case where an independent farmer or grazier from the Shire enlisted.  The case has already been made  in Post 22 that there was very little possibility that a farmer would – or even could – simply leave the farm and enlist.

Overall, to the end of June 1915, the burden of enlistment continued to fall on the rural working class –  whose employment was typically itinerant and casual – and a small group of young men –  they were in their late teens or early twenties – coming from family farms. There was also a significant number of immigrant rural workers from the UK who enlisted.

The complex questions surrounding this pattern of enlistment – was enlistment driven fundamentally by economic forces ; why did patriotic duty fall so heavily on the working class; were rural workers searching for an identity and status in the AIF that they could never attain in the life style of the itinerant, rural worker? – will continue to be explored in the blog.


The following table gives a breakdown of ages. The number of ‘minors’ – those between 18 and 21 required written permission of their parents – is high. When the minors are added to those to the age of 25 it is evident that this group – as with the first one – was very youthful.  Overall, the age profile is very similar to that for the first group of volunteers – to the end of 1914 – from the Shire

Ages of volunteers – first half of 1915
ages                       %
18-20        25       25
21-25        46       44
26-30        18       17
31-35          8         8
36+              5         6
total        102      100

Marital status

As before, the expectation continued to be that only single men would enlist. This is evident in this particular cohort, where only 8 of the 102 men were married.

Those rejected

The table below has been developed from 2 sources of evidence from the archives of the Shire of Alberton. The first is a list of 128 ‘Recruits Rejected by the Local Doctors’ and the second a bundled collection of enlistment papers (38) of men who had failed the medical. The latter set of files runs from September 1914 to July 1915. There are gaps and inconsistencies with these 2 sources, but they provide some critical insights on the men who failed the medical examination in Yarram, particularly in the period to the end of 1915. In the table, the specific period covered is the first half of 1915.

The table shows that at least 18 men who presented themselves for enlistment at Yarram in the first half of 1915 were rejected by the local doctors. In most instances, the local doctors simply recorded that the men failed the medical but in other cases there was some basic reason given. As for all other enlistments, the socio-economic profile of the men was typically rural working class.  There was also the typically high number of immigrant farm workers in the group: nearly half the group had been born in the UK. .

The table shows the high number of men who made subsequent attempts to enlist, and also the number who, in fact, did enlist (9), in many cases without revealing that they had been previously rejected. Samuel Henry Young failed his first medical (Yarram) but then passed his second one (Nagambie) within the first half of 1915. He was definitely a local as his name appeared on the electoral roll as a ‘sleeper hewer’ of Mullundung. He appears to be the classic case of someone who left the district to enlist elsewhere. Many local men were determined to enlist and an initial rejection was not taken as final.


As for the first group of volunteers to the end of 1914, the preceding analysis of the second group – to the end of June 1915 – reveals that it was overwhelmingly the young, single, rural workers – most commonly described as ‘labourer’ or ‘farm labourer’ – who answered the call to enlist. Of the the total number of some 240 volunteers from August 1914 to the end of June 1915, there was a group of young men –  about 30 – who came from the ‘family farm’. This group was roughly the same size as the group of immigrant rural workers ( 34) from the UK who ‘answered the call’.



Embarkation Roll

Shire of Alberton Archives

Archive One, File Number 703B, Recruiting & Enlisted Men, Box 398.
Included in this collection was a tied bundle of enlistment papers that covered men medically rejected.

Box 379, “Correspondence etc of Recruiting Committee, Formed April 26th 1917”.
Contains an undated and unsigned list headed, “Recruits Rejected by Local Doctors”.

55. Enlistments in the first half of 1915

This post presents the table of all those with an association with the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in the first half of 1915. It builds on the work of Post 21: Enlistments to the end of 1914: identifying the ‘locals’.

As detailed in Post 21, one of the overall intentions of the blog is to build the complete profile of all those from the Shire of Alberton who enlisted over WW1. This work is being done in intervals of 6 months.

Overall, the same set of records has been employed, with one omission – the list of men who were medically examined in Yarram was only compiled for the period to the end of 1914.

At the same time, from 1915 the Shire created a medallion which was intended to be presented, either personally or via a relative, to each man who enlisted. This additional record has been introduced into the table under the heading, ‘Med’. Unfortunately, unlike the issuing of railway warrants, there was no formal record kept by the Shire on the presentation of the medallions. Or, more accurately, no such record has been uncovered. Much was made of the medallion and, over time, the local paper published lists of men who had received it. Wherever a specific reference was made in the local paper to an individual receiving the medallion, this has been noted in the table. However, the fact that a person’s name did not appear on any list published in the local paper did not mean that he did not receive a medallion. The way the paper handled the reporting of the medallions was neither consistent nor comprehensive. The value for our purposes is that the report of the medallion in the paper can be a significant factor in making the link to the Shire.

In summary, the following records are the ones used in the table to establish the connection to the Shire:

The Shire of Alberton Honor Roll

The list of railway warrants issued by the Shire Secretary

The Shire of Alberton Medallion

The Shire of Alberton War Memorial

The honor rolls of state schools in the Shire of Alberton

Community honor rolls in the Shire of Alberton

Newspaper accounts (Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative)



Some observations on the table

For the detailed discussion on what constituted ‘local’ in this context see Post 21.

As before, the table has been designed to show at a glance the nature and extent of the historical evidence used to link the individual to the Shire of Alberton. Again, in some cases the evidence is overwhelming but in other cases it rests on just a single record.

It is also important to recognise the small number of cases where it has not been possible to link a name to an actual AIF service file. These individuals have not been included. The most common problem is where the surname is common and there is only a single initial or very common first name. The following cases are still being pursued:

Dove, Albert: newspaper accounts claim he enlisted in first half of 1915. He was from Gormandale. It appears that there was another brother – Dove, Wilfred – also from Gormandale, who enlisted in New Zealand.

Gilbert A W: newspaper accounts claim he enlisted in first half of 1915

O’Connor, John: railway warrant and newspaper reports indicate he enlisted in first half of 1915

O’Connor, E: newspaper account states that he enlisted at same time as 2 other locals, in May 1915.

There is the usual issue of inconsistencies between the various record sets. Names are, for example, featured on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial but they are not included on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll. The most striking example of this involves the Nicholas brothers – George Matson Nicholas and Byron Fitzgerald Nicholas –  both of whom had been school teachers in the local district. On the face of it, it is remarkable that the brothers could be included on the Shire’s war memorial, and other local school memorials, but not on the Shire’s formal honor roll of all who served. The Nicholas brothers are important in their own right and will be discussed in depth in a future post.

Ethel Meta Horton, from Alberton,  who gave her calling as ‘trained nurse’, joined the Australian  Army Nursing Service in Melbourne in May 1915. She was the first woman from the local district to ‘enlist’.

The number of men linked to the Shire of Alberton who enlisted to the end of 1914 was 136. The corresponding figure for the period to the end of June 1915 was 102. To the end of June 1915, in excess of 200 men had left the Shire of Alberton to fight overseas. The adult population of the Shire at the time was approximately 2,500.

One striking statistic is that of the 240 men who had enlisted to the end of June 1915, 65 (26%) were to die on active service. It reflected the grim and obvious equation between early enlistment and death on active service.

Following the Gallipoli campaign – and most particularly, the high casualty levels associated with the fighting and the heroic press that the Anzacs received – there was a surge in volunteers. This higher rate of enlistments will be reflected in the next six-monthly report (enlistments from July to the end of December 1915).

39. Nathan HEPBURN 584

Nathan (Nathan Walbourne) (William Nathan) Hepburn was another young man who had been born in the Shire of Alberton (Alberton),  attended school (both Yarram and Port Albert State School) and grown up in the Shire, but who, at the time of enlistment was living and working in Queensland. He enlisted at Bundaberg, very early in the War, on 19 August 1914.

The family dynamic was difficult. His parents had divorced in 1898 when Nathan was about 12 yo. At the time of enlistment his father – Wilfred Alfred Hepburn –  was a fisherman living at Port Albert. His mother – Elizabeth Jane Hepburn – was living in Melbourne at Carlton.  Nathan recorded his mother as his next-of-kin on the enlistment papers, but it appears that the authorities lost contact with her from late 1918. Then in 1920 the father successfully challenged his former wife’s status as next-of-kin and, as a consequence, all medals, the Memorial Plaque and photo of the grave were sent to him. There was a sister – Mrs B  (Elizabeth) W Morris – living at Darriman in the Shire of Alberton, and another sister – Mrs Sheehan – living in South Melbourne.

Private Hepburn’s occupation was recorded as labourer. He was 27 yo, single and he gave his religion as Church of England. Also on his enlistment papers, he noted that he had served 2 years in the senior cadets and 1 year in a rifle club. The rifle club could have been in the Shire of Alberton, but the 2 years in the senior cadets suggests that he could have lived in Melbourne, perhaps with his mother, as a teenager. In terms of his links to the local area, when the Roll of Honour form was completed, Yarram was given as the place with which he was ‘chiefly connected’. His name is included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial and also on the honor rolls for the 2 schools he attended. However, his name is not on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and there is no indication that he – or his father, on his behalf – ever received the Shire Medallion.

Private Hepburn joined the 9 Battalion and embarked for Egypt from Brisbane on 24 September 1914. He was promoted to lance corporal on 19 January1915.

L/Cpl Hepburn went missing on 28/6/1915 and a court of inquiry, held in France one year later on 5/6/1916, determined that he had been ‘killed in action’ on the date he was reported as missing. As in so many other cases, the family had had to wait for a year before his fate was formally determined. Then in early May 1921, the father was informed that L/Cpl Hepburn had been buried at Shell Green Cemetery. The body must have been identified after the War through the work of the Graves Registration Unit.  A small number of personal belongings, including 2 diaries, had been returned earlier, in July 1920.

The action in which L/Cpl Hepburn was killed was a diversionary attack on the Turkish lines. Such ‘demonstrations’  were not popular with the Australian soldiers. They were intended to prevent the Turks withdrawing troops from their lines at Anzac and sending them south to Krithia. The war diary for 9 Battalion describes how on 28 June 1915, 2 companies (B and C) were ordered to attack (1) Snipers Ridge South and (2) Razor Back Ridge.

The attack was made with the object of co-operating with the Southern Force [Cape Helles] and preventing the enemy from sending reinforcements down. The attack of B Coy was well carried out. C Coy was under heavy fire from both flanks, both shrapnel and Machine Guns. This attack was not well carried out and a retirement took place without orders from the Co. Commander.

The diary also gave casualty figures for an action that lasted just 3 hours. B Coy had 12 killed, 46 wounded and 7 missing. C Coy lost 9 killed, 16 wounded and 15 missing. These were high figures – a total of some 105 men – for what was no more than a strategic feint. Interestingly, the casualty figures for C Coy, where the men effectively withdrew towards their own lines without waiting for orders to retire were considerably less than for B Coy which was applauded for following orders.

L/Cpl Hepburn was in C Coy and he became one of the 15 men missing on the day. The battalion war diary offered some additional information on the men missing after the action.

The missing in B Coy are almost certain to be killed. It is possible that of the 15 missing in C Coy the party under Lieut Jordan may be prisoners.

It also noted that over the next few days several attempts  were made to recover bodies but most of these efforts had to be called off because of enemy fire. The only success was on the morning of 29 June, the day after the action: Secured five bodies early this morning, stripped of boots and clothing.

The reference to the party of men from C Coy who were missing with Lt. Jordan is highly relevant in terms of what happened to L/Cpl Hepburn.

Lt. Jordan was 2Lt. Stanley Rupert Jordan. He had been an accountant before enlisting on 22 August 1914. He was only 20 yo and had been promoted to the rank of  2Lt. on 28 April 1915. His file indicates that he was in fact taken prisoner on the day (28/6/15) and it also shows that he was wounded – ‘gun shot wound to right arm’ – on the same occasion. He was held as a POW until November 1918.

There were 12 witness statements in the Red Cross file on 584 Lance Corporal William Nathan Hepburn. Most statements simply claimed that he was missing after the action on the day. However, 3 statements gave additional information on the connection between 2Lt. Jordan and L/Cpl Hepburn and the likely sequence of events. As indicated in the battalion war diary, the retirement of the men from C Coy. to their own trenches was at their own initiative. Once back in their positions, it was realised that Lt. Jordan was not there and another officer – Capt. Young – sent Hepburn to locate Lt. Jordan and inform him that the rest of the Company had retired.  The following witness statement from Pte George Orgill 564 refers to a definite order having been given to retire but, as indicated, the war diary of the battalion notes that, initially at least, no such order was given. In any case, the substance of what happened is clear:

At Anzac about two months after the landing on April 25 Companies B and C were sent out in front of trenches on the right of Anzac to draw the Turks fire. Witness [Orgill] and Hepburn were with them. They were then ordered to retire to the trenches. Capt. Young then sent Hepburn to tell Lieut. Jordan to retire (as Jordan had apparently not heard the order when first given). Neither Hepburn nor Lt. Jordan ever returned.

Another witness – G E Dench 1749 – also stated that Hepburn was with Lt. Jordan when both of them were ‘cut off’.

The following account by Cpl. H Wilson 541 does not mention Lt. Jordan but it does note that Hepburn went out again to try to find missing men:

Informant states that on June 28th at Anzac Cove half of the Company [C Coy.] were sent out in front of our trenches to line the ridge so as to draw reinforcements that were going to reinforce against the British troops at Achi Baba. About 20 men and an officer, (including Informant [Cpl. Wilson] and L/Cpl. Hepburn) went over the hill into the gully. We were then called on to retire, and L/Cpl Hepburn retired with us. He went out again to try and find the others who were missing, and that was the last we saw of him. He could have easily been taken prisoner.

The exact circumstances of L/Cpl Hepburn’s death will never be known. Did he locate Lt. Jordan? Was he killed in the same action in which Lt. Jordan was wounded? Or was he killed before he managed to make contact with Lt. Jordan? On this last point, there was one witness statement – Pte. F E Black 533 – that explicitly recorded his death:

Hepburn was killed on 28th June. I passed him lying dead: shot through the neck.

Perhaps Pte. Black was one of the last men from C Coy to retire and he came across Hepburn’s body as he was returning to the trenches.

Beyond the conjecture, it appears that L/Cpl Hepburn either was ordered or chose voluntarily to return to the battle zone to locate men from C Coy and inform them that all the others had retired. Without doubt, it was an act of bravery. Whether the young Lt. Jordan ever learnt that L/Cpl Hepburn most likely died trying to save him is another of the War’s ironies, on the small but very personal scale.


War Diary of 9 Battalion, June 1915
National Archives file for HEPBURN Nathan
First World War Embarkation Rolls: William Nathan Hepburn
Roll of Honour: William Nathan Hepburn
WW1 Red Cross files: William Nathan Hepburn

41. Pressed to enlist in the first half of 1915

This is the second post that looks at divisions apparent in the local community from the very beginning of the War. Once again it involves a series of letters-to-the-editor in the local paper, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. The common thread to the letters was the claim that young men from the township of Woodside were refusing to do their patriotic duty and enlist.

The first letter was signed anonymously, “Mary Jane” and it appeared in the paper on 21 April 1915.

It appears strange to me that so many able bodied young men are content to remain at home while the best and bravest of our boys have either gone or are going to fight for King and country in the battle fields of Europe. During a recent visit to Woodside I saw a tall, strong, active young man wearing in his button hole a badge displaying the historic words, “England expects every man to do his duty.” That young man is still in Woodside, and so far as he is concerned England stands a big chance of being disappointed. He is only one of many we meet every day. Their duty it appears lies at home; though late, very late at night, they may be heard riding home from the nearest hotel singing “Tipperary.”

The essential charge was that the patriotism of too many young men in the district was hollow.  They hid behind the pretence of patriotism, more interested in heavy drinking sessions at the local pub than fighting overseas.  And, as far as the writer was concerned, there was at least one such young man in Woodside. In fact, from the entire Shire of Alberton, Woodside was the only specific location named.

Two weeks later the same argument was revisited, and once again Woodside was identified. This time the writer signed him or herself as “Patriot”. One interpretation would be that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” were the same person and that the first letter was intended to establish some sense of credibility – or  serve as a ‘teaser’ – for the more serious charges to come.  If it was not the same person then there was definitely a congruence of views.

“Patriot’s” first letter appeared on 1 May 1915. It was signed “Patriot” of Woodside. The detail in the letter covering the specifics of life and individuals in the local community of Woodside certainly gives the impression that the writer was a local.  The basis of the argument was that, unlike other local communities, Woodside had seen very few young men volunteer. Moreover, not content with such indifference to their patriotic duty, the same group spent or wasted their lives drinking, fighting and being a general nuisance in the community. The significance of the letter is that of all the small towns and settlements across the Shire of Alberton, attention was turned on the particular township of Woodside. Where “Mary Jane’s” letter had merely hinted that there could be a problem at Woodside, this letter proclaimed boldly that Woodside was some sort of epicentre of patriotic indifference.

I believe out of [the] large crowd of young men in Woodside only about two or three have gone, but I think a couple more started and came back again for some reason or other which I don’t know. Where in other places I know one or two have gone out of every family and more would go if they only could. These boys are different to the boys in Woodside, for I believe at the present time there are about a dozen young men in Woodside that could go and won’t go. They would sooner spend their time fighting one another, and will be seen going about for days or a week after with their eyes and hands neatly tied up after having had them attended to by a doctor. Then of course they have to have a holiday, for they are not able to do anything, but every night they will be seen rolling up to the hotel again, and will be heard going home quite happy at a late hour at night. Perhaps in some future time they may be sorry they never joined the colours, instead of fighting one another about there. I believe one certain young man said he would go only he had to stay to buy his mother’s bread. This, I think, is a poor excuse, for I know his mother has a husband and one or two more sons, and I think if the husband can’t provide her with bread he ought to go to the war and try to his duty there if he can’t do it at home. And many more of these strong young men ought to do the same.

Not surprisingly, the letter prompted a response. Two letters appeared in the edition of 19 May 1915, nearly a fortnight later. One was dated 12 May, Woodside and the other 13 May, also Woodside. The first, by Jas. O’Neill, claimed that in fact ten or a dozen of the Woodside boys had already enlisted and more were going to enlist. Jas. O’Neill appears to have been, according to the Electoral Roll, James Joseph O’Neill, labourer of Woodside. O’Neill made the point that at least those going would be able to fight a enemy they met face to face whereas they were powerless to take on “Patriot” who was nothing more than a backbitter [sic] hiding behind her anonymity. He assumed “Patriot” was a woman or perhaps he wanted to make the point that a real man would not conceal his identity.   He also suggested that more of the … Woodside boys would join the colours if it was only to get away from the likes of “Patriot”.

The second letter was signed by another O’Neill – S J. O’Neill – and this writer explicitly identified himself as the target of “Patriot’s” attack and presented his defence. The writer was 25 yo Simon John O’Neill:

I was commented on as being in a hotel brawl, instead of being at the war. Allow me to say that in trying to avoid a dispute I was drawn into one, but have not, as the writer says, been repeatedly at the hotel at night since the occurrence, and can prove that I have been working and not loafing round the hotel. As for not going to the war, unfortunately I am unfit, or I should have volunteered long ago.

S J O’Neill also challenged “Patriot” to reveal his or her identity:

It would also be interesting to know why “Patriot” does not disclose his or her name, as anyone who speaks the truth has no need for secrecy. On condition that “Patriot” will answer this letter through the press, with his or her name signed in full, I will lodge £5 at the “Standard” [Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative] office in aid of the Belgian Relief, and I think “Patriot” to prove true patriotism should contribute the same amount.

Another 2 weeks passed before “Patriot” replied on 26 May. The reply revealed just how personal the initial attack had been. To begin, “Patriot” dismissed the respondent James O’Neill by stating that the first letter … had nothing whatever to do with him. There was a sense of outrage that this O’Neill has bought into an argument that did not concern him. Presumably he was too old to enlist. But in the next sentence “Patriot” continued the attack on the younger S J O’Neill, claiming that her sources suggested that  … he has not been in Woodside much since then [the brawl at the hotel]. Clearly, J S O’Neill was one of “Patriot’s” initial targets.  He was one of 3 O’Neill brothers, all from Woodside and aged in their early twenties. People in Woodside who read the first letter would have known those being written about.  “Patriot” had no intention of backing down. The claim was made again that only a handful from Woodside had enlisted, and as for revealing his or her identity and the £5 challenge:

As for signing my name, I will not, as it may only cause trouble and perhaps make many people bad friends, but I am sure my statements are just as correct as his, and he can give his £5 if he likes. … I would be quite willing to give mine also, if I could only afford it, but I cannot as I am only receiving a small salary, and having more than myself to keep I find I am not able to do it.

On 4 June, “Mary Jane”, the initial person to call into question the patriotic loyalty of the young men of Woodside, submitted another letter-to-the-editor. It seemed that both “Patriot” and “Mary Jane” had to respond to the O’Neills; and there was the suspicion, again, that the two identities were the same. In fact, “Mary Jane” referred explicitly to this belief in the letter – Some people, I am informed, are quite sure that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” are one and the same person – and then denied it, but in a most unconvincing manner. She also claimed, again unconvincingly, that she had never intended to target specifically the O’Neill Brothers and that, in effect, they had self-identified:

Only the O’Neill Brothers to whom I had not given a thought when writing, fitted the cap on their own head.

She also expressed regret that … her former letter caused so much bitterness in certain quarters. But it was a sham contrition – It was not intended to arouse such feelings and certainly would not have done so amongst sensible people. – and she drove home again the basic message:

… when married men are leaving wives and children and giving their lives to the service of their country, surely the single man who has youth, health and strength, and has no nearer duty to perform might also consider his country’s claim upon his manhood.

And, finally, there was another parting shot at S J O’Neill:

If he would rather stay home and keep a whole skin, the least he could do would be to refrain from wearing patriotic badges and singing war ditties, especially very late at night when respectable residents wish to sleep.

In turn, this letter elicited responses from 2 of the O’Neill brothers. The first from S J O’Neill appeared on 11 June. He pointed out, correctly, that “Mary Jane’s” first letter – back on 21 April – had, in fact, elicited no response in the paper. It was only the letter of “Patriot” that had prompted response. He queried why she had felt the need to reply when no-one had ever engaged with her in the first place. His clear implication was that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” were the same person.  He focused on her attack on the young man wearing the patriotic badge – presumably himself –  the character she had originally set up in her first letter in April:

… her deceased [sic] brain has once carried her beyond the sublime when she objects to people wearing patriotic badges and singing war ditties simply because they have not gone to the war. Did “Mary Jane” ever take into consideration the help which every person is giving by procuring one such badge to which she objects, but “where ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise.”

And he offered as his farewell:

I would advise “Mary Jane” to sink herself into oblivion and stay there for the rest of her life, or until such time as her foul mind has discarded its bitterness, and that she may be fit to come and live with pure-minded people.

The letter from Maurice E O’Neill – the second respondent – appeared on 16 June. He and his 2 brothers had commenced enlistment by this point – they had all passed the medical at Yarram in May 1915 – and he indicated that he was leaving for the camp at Seymour and he wanted … to have a pick at “Mary Jane” for the first and perhaps the last time. He claimed that, despite her denials, she had definitely targeted the O’Neill boys. Given that he was killed in France in 1916, his parting wish was cruelly ironic:

So I will wish “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” farewell. Hoping that they will have recovered from their strange delusions by the time I get home again.

The last word went to “Mary Jane”. Her letter published 23 June admitted some grudging respect for the O’Neill brothers who had enlisted; but at the same time she took on the persona of a poor, defenceless woman, threatened by young louts, and claimed credit for goading the brothers to enlisting:

The O’Neill brothers seem to be suffering from furore scribendi [rage for writing]. I have heard that they are going to the war. On this I congratulate them most heartily. They are setting an example that others, in the same position, might well follow. If it is any satisfaction to them to knock out a poor old woman before they leave Woodside, they are welcome to that. Only let them deal as bravely with the enemy when they met him. So far as this correspondent is concerned they have kept it up very well indeed. Had they not done so it had long since been forgotten. It is no use tickling a frog that won’t jump. Alas! there are many frogs that are too indolent to croak, much less jump.

Trying to interpret these events from so long ago is obviously not easy. However there are several points that can be made. First, the local paper chose to publish the letters of “Mary Jane” and “Patriot”, even though the letters were anonymous, the claims generalised and the reputations of known people attacked.  Again, as with the ‘flag flapping’ of Post 38, the paper gave people a platform to make virtually any claim they liked in relation to real or perceived lapses in patriotic sentiment and duty. The local paper was flexing its political muscle and brandishing its patriotic credentials.

The second point concerns the accuracy of the basic claim that not many young men from Woodside volunteered. At the time, this claim would have been difficult, if not impossible, to determine, with major problems over who was keeping records and how an individual was to be identified with a particular location. There was no objective, independent tally of enlistments from every location within the Shire kept at that specific time. Nor was one ever kept at any point over the duration of the War.  In such an environment, people’s perceptions were very powerful. While there had been manifestations of patriotic duty all over the Shire at the outbreak of the War, there would also have been inevitable variations in the rate of enlistment between locations. If someone like “Patriot” wanted to claim that such a variation amounted to proof that young men in a particular location were unpatriotic, and that assertion was given credibility by being published in the local press, then no doubt perceptions could readily become commonly accepted beliefs. Doubtless in mid-1915, after the correspondence in the local paper, people throughout the Shire of Alberton would have discussed the possibility/probability/certainty that not enough young men had volunteered from Woodside. And in discussing the situation at Woodside, they would also have looked at their own location and wondered if the same claim could be made about their own young men’s sense of patriotic duty. Presumably, this was exactly what the local paper was setting out to achieve.

The third point covers the possibility, 100 years later, of being able to uncover the identity of the anonymous writer(s).

There is little doubt that whoever wrote the letters to the editor knew about the O’Neill brothers. The O’Neill’s were right in responding to the letters in the belief that they, specifically, were being targeted. Details in the letters of “Mary Jane” and “ Patriot” certainly did identify them. Presumably, the letters were written by one or more persons in the local community of Woodside who knew the O’Neill family and, more particularly, had identified the O’Neill boys as typical of those single, young men who were causing problems – drinking, fighting, out late at night – when they should have already done the right thing and enlisted. One or two people wanted to draw attention to the O’Neill boys and the local paper was prepared to assist, presumably on the basis that the O’Neills represented a problem that was common across the Shire as a whole.

Then there is the issue of the name, “Mary Jane”. The boys’ mother was typically referred to as Mrs W(illiam) Kerr. Her first husband, and the boys’ father, was James O’Neill but he had died and she had remarried, to William John Kerr who also lived in Woodside. Mrs William Kerr was in fact Mrs Mary Jane Kerr (O’Neill). It seems that the pseudonym of “Mary Jane” was a deliberate choice, with the intention, clearly, to identify the O’Neill boys. This again pointed to someone in the local community who knew the O’Neill family history.  Moreover, given that the local paper was prepared to publish both sets of anonymous letters – from both “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” – it seems reasonable at least to suggest that perhaps the editor of the paper – A J Rossiter – played a role in the affair. Perhaps, even, he had heard of the O’Neill boys and decided himself to craft a series of letters that appeared to come from concerned locals. It was his chance to raise an issue that people were talking about. As will become evident in future posts, Rossiter was certainly prepared to take an active role in promoting patriotic duty in the local community. Perhaps this whole episode was a underhand way of doing just that. There would have been little chance that his ruse could ever have been uncovered. But there is no proof of any such strategem. Besides, there is even the possibility that the writer might have been a relative: an aunt or uncle keen for the brothers to do what they saw as the ‘right thing’, rather than bring dishonour on the extended family.

Leaving conjecture to one side, the actual fate of the O’Neill boys is known. There were 3 O’Neill brothers. They were all single and they enlisted together in June 1915. The oldest was Simon John O’Neill (1958) who was nearly 25yo when he enlisted on 16 June 1915. The middle brother – Maurice Edward O’Neill (1960) – was 23yo when he enlisted on 18 June 1915. The youngest brother was Joseph Geoffrey O’Neill (2062) who was nearly 21yo when he enlisted on 22 June 1915. All 3 brothers had their initial medical at Yarram and were issued with railway warrants (105-107) on 31 May 1915 to travel to Melbourne. All 3 had been born at Sale and all gave their religion as Roman Catholic. All had as their next-of-kin their mother Mrs W(illiam) [Mary Jane] Kerr of Woodside.  Presumably the father was dead by the time they enlisted. All 3 gave their occupation as labourer but the 2 older brothers featured in the 1915 Rate Book with each holding a few acres of land at Woodside. The 2 older brothers had been involved in the Woodside Rifle Club and the oldest (Simon John O’Neill) had spent 18 months in the Light Horse unit based in Sale. All 3 brothers enlisted in 24 Battalion and all served overseas. Simon John O’Neill returned to Australia in March 1919 and Joseph Geoffrey O’Neill in April 1919. The middle brother, Maurice Edward O’Neill, was killed in action in France on 29 June 1916.

What influence the writings of “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” had on the decision of the O’Neill boys to enlist is not possible to determine. Certainly there was a surge in enlistments once the casualty levels associated with Gallipoli became commonly known. Moreover, the background of at least 2 of the 3 brothers, in the Woodside Rifle Club and other military training, suggests that they were always potential volunteers. At the same time, being identified in the local press as unpatriotic would have been hard to withstand. Even when they did enlist, their critics could only offer half-hearted praise, and rebuke them for taking so long.  Overall, their reputations were seriously damaged and enlistment at least removed them from the local area. As James O’Neill suggested right at the start, they might well have enlisted to escape the likes of “Patriot”.

In 1920, on the anniversary of her son’s death (29/6/16), Mrs Mary Jane Kerr inserted the following In Memoriam in the local paper:

O’Neill – In loving remembrance of my dear son, Private Maurice Edward O’Neill, killed in action on 29th June, 1916. R. I. P.

We all miss him, for we loved him,
And shall always feel the loss
Of our fair-haired darling, sleeping
‘Neath a little wooden cross.

Inserted by his mother.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for O’Neill Simon John

National Archives file for O’Neill Maurice Edward

National Archives file for O’Neill Joseph Geoffrey


37. “They Rose To The Occasion” : the AIF’s image emerges victorious

This post looks at the narrative of the AIF at Gallipoli as it was presented in 2 newspapers of the time: The Argus as a Melbourne metropolitan daily and the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, published twice weekly, as the local paper for the Shire of Alberton.

At the time, newspapers were the only media source of information. From the very start of the War they were subject to strict censorship, and the release of information covering ‘war news’ was highly controlled. In Australia, there was intense interest in the AIF’s fortunes, matched with the understanding that its first engagement in the War would represent a defining moment in the young nation’s history. Before Gallipoli there were 2 overriding preoccupations: would the AIF prove itself as equal to the British army on the field of battle; and how would the AIF mark itself as a distinctive Australian fighting force? Further, the first major campaign involving the AIF represented the chance to counter the negative publicity it had drawn to itself in Egypt. Overall, even before the first shot was fired, the legendary status of Gallipoli was assured.

The first reports of the landings at Gallipoli came very early. On Monday 26 April 1915 The Argus reported on the ‘allies’ landing in the Dardanelles. The troops were described as British and French and the Australians were not specifically listed. There were significant inaccuracies in relation to the landing sites given. Two days later – Wednesday 28 April – there were more accounts of the landings: they had taken place at several points on the Gallipoli Peninsula, covered by a naval force. The reader was reassured, falsely, that:

In spite of serious opposition from the enemy behind strong entrenchments and entanglements, the Allied forces were completely successful.

On 30 April there was a map of the Dardanelles with landing sites, but there were still major inaccuracies.

On 4 May came the first indication of casualties – the Roll of Honour – giving the AIF dead as 10 officers and 42 other ranks, plus another 96 wounded. In the same edition came the first of the congratulatory telegrams. The Governor General was reported to have congratulated Birdwood on the Australian troops’ … successful entry upon active field service. Birdwood’s cable responded that the … troops have all done splendidly. Importantly, there was also reassuring praise from the British. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, speaking on behalf of the Admiralty, cabled praise for the Australian troops. The First Lord of the Admiralty (Churchill) was reported as extending congratulations to both Australia and New Zealand … on the brilliant and memorable achievements of their troops in the Dardanelles. Churchill was also reported as claiming that Admiral de Roebeck in charge of the British Fleet had expressed the fleet’s … intense admiration of the feat of arms of the Australian land forces.

On 6 May there was an article with the headline Heavy Losses of Officers. The death toll had doubled to 108, the majority of whom were officers. The Argus noted that if so many officers had been killed the number of deaths from the other ranks must have been far greater. It stated that despite the level of casualties, people appeared determined to see the campaign through; and it claimed that the true extent of casualties needed to be revealed as soon as possible. The tone of grim determination was being established.

On May 7 The Argus gave the first account of the actual Australian landings on 25 April. It was sourced from the Reuter’s correspondent in Cairo and it claimed to be the … first report of the actual fighting during the landing of the Australasian troops at Gaba Tepe. There was an accompanying map, showing the point of landing near Suvla Bay. The key headline was “Nothing Stopped Us”. The account highlighted the fighting qualities of the Australians:

When approaching the shore the Australians and the New Zealanders jumped from the boats into water that was often neck deep, and waded to land. They found the Turks occupying the ridges, and took three of these in succession in a running fight, extending over a length of three miles.

The picture of the Turkish defenders was far less complimentary. Prior to the campaign it been widely and popularly believed that the Turks, an inferior race, would be no match for the superior forces of the white British Empire. Now this seemed to be exactly what had happened:

One Australian said afterwards: – “Nothing stopped us. Our big lads lifted some of the Turks on the end of their bayonets and the other Turks ran screaming and howling in fear.”

The inferior Turks were also uncivilised:

The ambulance men were under fire, the Turks making a dead set against them, and shooting them down mercilessly. … It has been established that the Turks used dum-dum bullets.

The Turkish losses were great:

The Turks’ losses were enormous, the bayonet rushes of the Australians and New Zealanders causing great slaughter.

The same article made the incorrect claim that Krithia was practically captured.

May 7 also saw the first article in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – to do with the Gallipoli campaign. There was a brief reference noting that the list of dead was increasing and that as only officers’ names had been released to that point, the true casualty rate must have been far greater and worse news was to come. There was a local connection because one of the dead officers, whose name had been published, was a Major Hamilton from Malvern who had married a local girl – Una Bland, daughter of Mr & Mrs W Bland of – Yarram. He was described as … a brave man who had died for his country.

The local paper was always keen to promote the link to the local community and one of its preferred options was to include the letters sent back to Australia from local men serving in the AIF.

The same edition of the local paper reprinted an article from the The Age about men flocking to recruiting stations as the list of casualties grew. Rates of volunteering seemed tied directly to casualty levels. This was said to be the British way and another example of true British determination in the faced of tragedy:

Last week the recruiting figures were growing smaller and smaller, and fears were raised that there were few men left to come forward voluntarily. On Monday [3 May], simultaneously with the publication of the lists of Australia’s killed and wounded, the men came forward again in the old way, eager to do their part in the fighting.

Then on 8 May – some 2 weeks after the event – The Argus published the extensive account by Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett of the initial landing on 25 April. This piece turned out to be one of the most significant newspaper reports in Australia’s history.

Ashmead-Bartlett was a war correspondent for the British. He had seen service as a lieutenant in a British unit in the Boer War in and had worked as a war correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War (1904). In its introduction to the article, The Argus emphasised his credentials, noting that he was … chosen to represent the British press at the Dardanelles … and claiming that he was at … the very forefront of war correspondents. This claimed status as the British expert was employed to give credibility to his account. Ashmead-Bartlett went ashore at Gallipoli on the night of 25 April.

Any reader of the account by Ashmead-Bartlett would have been left in no doubt that the Australians had proved themselves on the field of battle to be the equal of the British troops. Apart from anything else, the claims were highlighted in the headlines of the article: They Rose To The Occasion and No Finer Feat in the War. Equal to Mons and Neuve Chapelle.

The article described in detail the fighting qualities of the Australians who had morphed into a race of athletes:

The Australians rose to the occasion. Not waiting for orders, or for the boats to reach the beach, they sprang into the sea, and, forming a sort of rough line, rushed the enemy’s trenches.
Their magazines were not charged, so they went in with cold steel.
It was over in a minute. The Turks in the first trench were either bayoneted or they ran away, and their Maxim was captured.
Then the Australians found themselves facing an almost perpendicular cliff of loose sandstone covered with thick shrubbery. Somewhere, half-way up, the enemy had a second trench, strongly held, from which they poured a terrible fire on the troops below and the boats pulling back to the destroyers for the second landing party.
Here was a tough proposition to tackle in the darkness, but those colonials, practical above all else, went about it in a practical way.
They stopped for a few minutes to pull themselves together, got rid of their packs, and charged their magazines.
Then this race of athletes proceeded to scale the cliffs without responding to the enemy’s fire. They lost some men but did not worry.
In less than a quarter of an hour the Turks were out of their second position, either bayoneted or fleeing.

He was impressed by the reckless and ruthless pursuit of the enemy – But then the Australians whose blood was up, instead of entrenching, rushed northwards and eastwards, searching for fresh enemies to bayonet. – and the courage of the wounded. He claimed he had never seen the like of it before:

The courage displayed by these wounded Australians will never be forgotten. Hastily placed in trawlers, lighters and boats, they were towed to the ships, and, in spite of their sufferings, cheered on reaching the ship from which they had set out in the morning.
In fact, I have never seen anything like these wounded Australians in war before.
Though many were shot to bits, without the hope of recovery, their cheers resounded throughout the night. You could see in the midst of the mass of suffering humanity arms waving in greeting to the crews of the warships.
They were happy because they knew that they had been tried for the first time and had not been found wanting.

While the Turks were referred to as a brave enemy, there were other less flattering descriptions of them:

Amidst the flash of bayonet and the sudden charge of the Colonials, before which they broke and fled, and amidst a perfect tornado of shells from the ships, the Turks fell back, sullen and checked.


Early in the morning of April 26 the Turks repeatedly tried to drive the colonials from their position. The colonials made local counter-attacks, and drove off the enemy at the point of the bayonet, which the Turks would never face.

Interspersed with the account of the fighting there was more commendation from the British. The British PM (Asquith) was quoted as declaring in the House of Commons:

The landing of the Australians and New Zealanders was opposed by a heavy fire at point-blank range, but they carried their positions with a rush, and their attack was pushed forward with the greatest dash.

Lastly, there was the greatest of claims, under the headline, No Finer Feat in the War. Equal to Mons and Neuve Chapelle.

There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and storming the heights, above all holding on whilst the reinforcements were landing.
These raw colonial troops in these desperate hours proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres, and Neuve Chapelle.

Both the tone and intention of Ashmead-Bartlett’s account were that of the Imperial Boys-OwnAt 3 o’clock, when it was quite dark, a start was made for the shore. There was suppressed excitement. Would the enemy be surprised or on the alert? – but the more relevant point is that the report suited the time perfectly. Here was what was accepted as definite, independent and expert proof from a British war correspondent that the AIF had come though its ‘baptism of fire’ and could count itself as a genuine part of the British Army. Moreover, here also was the beginning of something special: a fighting force that had its own, unique qualities. And now that the ‘truth’ had been presented in the paper it could never be undone. Ashmead-Bartlett’s account became the incontestable foundation for everything that was to follow.

There was more of Ashmead-Bartlett in The Argus on 10 May. Again he portrayed the Turks as not having the nerve to stand up to the Anzacs. And under the heading “These Colonials are Exceptions” he wrote:

Most troops, when under fire, especially volunteers with only a few months’ training, keenly feel losses at the beginning, more especially if these occur before they have had time to settle down, but these colonials are the exception to the rule.
Despite their heavy losses, the survivors were as keen as ever.

There was more praise for the AIF from Birdwood:

General Birdwood told Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett that he could not sufficiently praise the courage, endurance, and soldierly qualities of the colonials. The manner in which they hung on to the position day and night was magnificent, considering the heavy losses, the shortage of water, and the incessant fire of shrapnel to which they were exposed in a position where they were without cover. They also had to face incessant infantry attacks of the enemy, after they retired to a contracted line. They set their teeth, and refused to budge a foot.

Ashmead-Bartlett found the Australians reckless, careless and dismissive of danger. He wrote, under the headline, Bathing Under Shrapnel Fire:

These colonials are extraordinarily good under fire, often exposing themselves rather than take the trouble to keep under shelter of the cliff. One of the strangest sights was to see the numbers bathing in the sea with the shrapnel bursting all around them.

On 11 May, in The Argus under the headline – The Dardanelles Australians’ Bravery. Disdain Of Cover. – an unnamed correspondent continued the same theme of reckless indifference:

An account has been received at Athens from an eyewitness of the recent fighting in the Dardanelles. He states: “The heaviest losses were borne by the Australians and New Zealanders, whose one fault was a complete disdain of cover. Their bravery and dash were amazing. In some cases the men, after rushing the first Turkish trenches in ten minutes, charged ahead despite the appeals of the officers, penetrating several miles inland and suffering heavily when Turkish reinforcements compelled them to retreat.

Back in Gippsland, the account by Ashmead-Bartlett was published, in full, in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 12 May, 4 days after it appeared in The Argus. The same edition ran a short report on local casualties. It gave total losses to that time as 172 dead and 936 wounded and specifically referred to several locals who had been wounded:

Private A .W. C. Avery, son of Mr. and Mrs. Geo Avery, Port Albert and Private F. W. Butler, Jack River and Private H. George, Murrumbeena, who some years ago was a resident of Port Albert, and later was employed in a store at Yarram.

Both Butler and George were subsequently killed. Avery was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ in 1917.

The local paper also began to publish its own accolades for the AIF. On 14 May, it reported a Reuter’s cable:

The “Times” states: – ‘The essence of the Dardanelles enterprise is the resource and vigour of the Australians and New Zealanders, who have been asked to carry out a task which would test the mettle of the most seasoned soldiers. They have already done well, and are now facing more deadly obstacles with the passion of enthusiasm.

In The Argus, Bean’s account of the Gallipoli landing did not appear until 15 May and by that point Asheamd-Barlett’s account had already effectively written the history of the event. Bean’s report – dated Alexandria, May 13 – was introduced as an account of the later stages of the landing of the Australian troops at Gaba Tepe. It was described as supplementing the earlier account by Ashmead-Bartlett. Bean’s account was more precise and while it lacked the jingoism of Ashmead-Bartlett’s style it did reinforce the heroic efforts of the AIF:

“Early on the second morning the 8th Battalion (Victoria) repelled four Turkish charges, and the 4th Infantry Battalion (New South Wales) made a most gallant attack with the bayonet. They drove the Turks back through the scrub till they came on the Turkish camp. Nine-tenths of our men went straight through that, until they were faced by three machine-guns in position farther back, and came under the fire of a battery. This battalion (the 4th) was afterwards ordered to retire somewhat, as its position was difficult to support.

On 19 May in The Argus there was more from Ashmead-Bartlett. This time he was keen to present failure as success. The British had been well and truly been checked in the south (Cape Helles) but he managed to represent this defeat as follows:

”The British,” he reported, “are not yet in possession of Achi Baba, at the southern end of the Gallipoli Peninsula, but have forced the Turks to disclose the strength and character of the defences, and we are in a position to estimate the difficulty of the task.

For Ashmead-Bartlett the failure had been a stunning success:

Our successful landing administered a staggering blow to the Turco-Germans, who, not without reason, regarded the peninsula as impregnable.

Also, on this occasion, Ashmead-Bartlett acknowledged that the Turks had fought with extreme bravery.

On 19 May, the local paper featured more international congratulations for the AIF. Under the heading of War News an unsourced report noted:

General Sir Ian Hamilton says the Australian troops are fit to meet any troops in the world. Outside the Guards they are the largest and heaviest army in the world.

Another also unsourced report claimed:

The heroism of the Australians at the Dardanelles is stated to be unique in the history of modern war.

The paper reported casualty levels as 255 dead and 1841 wounded. Intentionally or otherwise, the casualty level was increasing in proportion to the praise bestowed on the AIF.

The first poem to feature in The Argus on the action in the Dardanelles did so on 20 May. Predictably it touched on death in the cause of the Empire, with gallant souls set free by death in battle.

On 2 June, Bean’s account of the death of General Bridges featured prominently in the local paper. The tone was heroic: Bridges had scorned danger and had been dodging snipers for months. When he was hit, he did not want his men endangered taking him down to the beach:

General Bridges had proved himself a capable and strong commander, absolutely imperturbable amidst the turmoil of operations and wholly without fear.

There was a reference to the Turks not firing on the stretcher as Bridges was evacuated:

The enemy, probably because he saw it was a party carrying a wounded man, did no fire any shots in this direction till the stretcher had passed.
We have noticed that the Turk, whilst not always a scrupulous or humane fight[er], has sometimes acted very fairly and humanely. It probably depends on the individual.

In the same article Bean wrote about the Turkish attack on the morning of 19 May and the huge losses:

Our men were in magnificent spirits, never shooting without a good target, even sitting on the parapet or traverse, laughing and firing as fast as they could load. The next morning the Turks lying in front of our position were far thicker than I have ever seen. There cannot be less than 1500 dead. Our loss was trifling – certainly not more than one to ten of the enemy, and probably only one to twenty.
I have never seen men in better fighting form. They are earnestly hoping the Turks will attack again, which probably they will in spite of the severe lesson, as they are ready to stake a great deal on driving the Australians into the sea.

In The Argus on 7 June there was a report that set out to explain why earlier optimistic forecasts about the British and allied fleet’s ability to destroy the forts and force the Dardanelles had been wrong. The forts were proving too hard to hit and destroy and the mines and guns of the Turks were too great an obstacle and had caused major ship losses. Therefore the current land invasion, supported by artillery, was required. But the Turkish force by itself was only ever portrayed as a second-rate opponent. Without the leadership of the Germans it would have failed:

The Turkish soldier fights very well behind entrenchments, but he is a very bad gunner, and possesses absolutely no knowledge of the science of war. Had the defence of the Straits been left in his hands alone the Allied fleet would most probably have taken Constantinople by now. But the Turkish army, directed by highly trained German officers, and having advantage of their science and technical skill, is a very different enemy.

On 16 June, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published a lengthy soldier’s letter home from the young – 18 yo – Syd Collis who was serving in the Medical Corps. He had written it in early May to his father, Mr Geo. Collis of Alberton. At the time, he was based at Heliopolis. He described his work tending to those who had been wounded at Gallipoli:

Soldiers will be returning to Australia now disabled, some with arms and lefts shot off. I saw a chap get his leg amputated. Some have their toes and hands shot off. It was awful that some of them got shot before they landed. Shrapnel is doing the damage. They are standing the pain like Britons, and wishing to get back to the front – quite as anxious as we are. Light Horse is no good, and all of them have volunteered to go to the front as infantry, our crowd included.

Collis focused on the claimed perfidy of the Turks. He told his father that the general consensus was that if you were wounded you needed to keep a bullet to shoot yourself:

They all say keep one bullet for yourself, because if you see the Turks coming and are wounded shoot yourself, because they have gouged our boys eyes out, and cut their heads off with the bayonet.

He also claimed the Turks also shot stretcher bearers, and they were scared of the Australians and ran from them:

The Turks run when the Australians make the bayonet charge. The Australians slaughtered thousands of them, and took lots of prisoners. They have great name and intend to keep it up.

Another report from Bean – dated 13 May, Gallipoli – appeared in The Argus as late as 18 June 1915. It gave a detailed account of the landing and fighting on the first day. The detail covered the specific action of each battalion on the day and the circumstances surrounding the deaths of individual officers. The language was more restrained than Ashmead-Bartlett’s. Bean described how the men pushed inland, with the Turks reluctant to face their bayonets:

With a shout the first boat-loads fixed bayonets, on the inner edge of the beach, and rushed straight up at it, and the Turks did not wait. Later he wrote: The enemy could be seen quite thick upon the third ridge, but they did not attack. … They did not advance; on the contrary, when parties of our men overshot the general line on the second ridge and went up to the third, they retreated before them and waited for reinforcements.

Bean also made the point about the battalions being mixed up and how the men formed small parties and then headed inland under the command of any available officer. It was an example of the men themselves exercising judgement and initiative in the heat of battle. These were troops who could think for themselves.

On 11 August the local paper featured more reports from Ashmead-Bartlett. He was keen to emphasise not just the physical prowess of the Australians:

The colonials are of amazing physique. No European nation possesses anything to compare with them. The Prussian Guard consists of picked men, but they are fat and ungainly. The colonials are great big-limbed athletes, with not a pound of superfluous flesh among the lot.

but also the collective and independent way they discharged their military responsibilities:

It is not so much an army as a community which has come together for the job, and framed its own laws to carry it out. They work in little groups, which are united either by home ties or mutual regard. These groups discipline themselves.

The preceding analysis shows how, in the weeks following 25 April 1915, Australians reading their newspapers were left in no doubt that the AIF’s first major engagement of the War had been an outstanding success. The men of the AIF had proved themselves to be true ‘Britons of the South’. They were at least the match of the British soldiers. They had proved their worth to the Empire. They had also began to craft a distinctive identity: ruthless in battle; contemptuous of danger; physically bigger and stronger than other soldiers; self-disciplined and enterprising; and with a natural cynicism that brought out the larrikin. It was a very tough, reassuring picture of the AIF, infinitely preferable to that of out-of-control, poorly disciplined rabble destroying Cairo, trashing the reputation of Australia and even being sent home in disgrace with VD. It was also a picture that both helped offset the grief generated by rapidly increasing casualty levels and promoted a surge in enlistments.

The preceding analysis also suggests that what was lacking over this period was any independent, objective analysis of the campaign. The reports were filtered through tight censorship, the tone was celebratory and jingoistic and no criticism of the campaign was even entertained. There was no place in the press for doubt, disbelief or question, at least at this early point. The simple motif throughout was the heroic struggle of the Australian soldier, in difficult circumstances, against an enemy who was in every way inferior and who could be treacherous.

Future posts will show how doubts over the worth of the Gallipoli campaign inevitably arose and a complex play of blame and counter-claim developed to cover what came to be seen as an unqualified military disaster. Indeed the historical debate over Gallipoli – certainly in Australia – continues to the present. See, for example, Robin Prior’s defining work, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth.

At the same time, there has never been any chance that the qualities of the AIF, identified and pushed so hard in the popular press in the first few weeks of the campaign, would ever be seriously questioned or significantly qualified.  True, the Turks could be humanised, over the years, to become a more worthy and noble foe; but, realistically, there was little, if any, chance that the hyperbole of Ashmead-Bartlett and others, once published, could ever be scaled back.

For the press of the time, Gallipoli established Australia’s complete loyalty to the Empire, and proved to all back home that its soldiers were at least the equal of the British. For Australia, Gallipoli was – and has continued to be –  more a proof of national character than a military campaign.


The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Prior, R  2009, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney

36. David George SUTTON 1552

David George Sutton (1552) enlisted in Brisbane on 31/12/1914. He joined the 15 Battalion. At the time of enlistment, he gave his occupation as labourer. He had been born in Gippsland (Devon North) and at the time of enlistment his father – Thomas Sutton – as next of kin, was living at Tarra Valley. According to the 1915 Rate Book for the Shire of Alberton, the father was a dairy farmer with 71 acres at Devon North. There were 3 Sutton brothers who enlisted, with David the youngest. When he enlisted he gave his age as 22yo but when his father completed the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour he gave his son’s age at death as only 19yo so it would appear that he had put his age up by a couple of years when he enlisted. The father also indicated that his son had attended Max Creek State School and he gave Yarram as the place with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’. Of the 3 brothers who enlisted, it appears that 2 of them had moved to Queensland for work, probably not very long before they enlisted, while one had stayed behind to work on the family farm. The 2 brothers who enlisted in Queensland both described themselves as ‘labourers’, although the father specifically described David’s occupation as ‘bush labourer’. Presumably, there was not enough work for all the sons on the family dairy farm so 2 brothers had moved to Queensland – the most common destination for young men from Gippsland – to start out on their own.

Private David George Sutton was killed on 29/5/1915. The war diary for 15 Battalion reveals that very early (3.15AM) on 29 May the battalion was rushed from Monash Valley to Quinn’s Post where the Turks had ‘blown in’ some of the Australian trenches and occupied them. Some 100 men of the 15 Battalion were ordered to charge the occupied trench. The men were successful in re-occupying the trench but in the engagement the enemy threw a large number of bombs which inflicted severe casualties. 17 Turkish soldiers surrendered and the bodies of another 23 were removed from the trenches. On the Australian side there were 11 men killed – including Major Hugh Quinn himself – and another 14 wounded.

Private Sutton was buried the same day in the New Monash Valley Cemetery, with the Rev. Green (Church of England) officiating. The New Monash Valley Cemetery became in time the Shrapnel Valley Cemetery.

On the face of it, there was little chance of either error or confusion over Private Sutton’s death. However, on 18 June 1915 – some 3 weeks after the death – the father, as next of kin, was advised by cable that his son had been wounded. The cable stated: Regret Son Private D. G. Sutton Wounded Not Reported Seriously No Other Particulars Available Will Immediately Advise Anything Further Received. This was followed up by a letter on 31 August 1915 stating that No. 1552, Private D. G. Sutton, 15th Battalion, was wounded on the 29th June (sic), and there is no further report regarding him. It was not until 29 October 1915 that a formal report of his death, stating that he had been killed in action on 29 May 1915, was issued. Presumably, even though the final, formal report stated that he had been killed in action, Private Sutton must have been wounded on 29 May and this detail was recorded and passed on, prompting the cable a few weeks later. The fact that he actually died from the wounds on the same day must not, again presumably, have cancelled the advice about being wounded. It is hard to believe the mistake but, once again, the episode points to the poor record-keeping on the part of the AIF in the opening months of the fighting. More than this, both the enormity of the error and the length of time it continued, suggest that the battalion commanders were struggling to keep up with what was happening to their men.

Even though official confirmation of the death did not come until October 1915, the family back at Tarra Valley knew by early August 1915 what had happened. As for so many other families, news of the death came from a letter sent by a relative or friend. In this case, the letter was from one of his brothers – William Henry Sutton – who was in fact in the same battalion. He had also enlisted in Brisbane, but not until January 1915. The letter was published in full in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 11 August 1915. The other Sutton brother referred to in the article was Thomas James Sutton (2025) who enlisted in Melbourne in June 1915. The ‘W. Sutton of Yarram’ who was witness to David Sutton’s death on 29 May at Quinn’s Post, was William Owen Sutton (1253) who had enlisted at Yarram on 16 September 1914. He was serving in the 14 Battalion. He had been born in Footscray and, as far as is possible to determine, he was not related to the 3 Sutton brothers. The article was headed: Private D. G. Sutton Killed. Letter from His Brother.

Mr. Thos. Sutton of Tarra Valley, who had three sons in the firing line, received a wire on June 19th from the Defence Department: – “Regret son, Private D. G. Sutton, wounded, not reported seriously. No other particulars available. Will immediately advise anything further received.”
No further information was received, until a letter came to hand last week from Private W. H. Sutton, to his mother, giving an account of his brother’s death.
June 22nd.
Private W. H. Sutton writes:- Just a few lines to let you see that I am all right, and I am hoping this will find all well at home. I have not been able to write since I landed at the front, 2nd May, and I have been wondering whether you were cabled about George being killed. It happened on the morning of 29th May. We made a bayonet charge to re-take part of our trench from the Turks. They had mined it and blown it up, with the Australians in it at the time, killing some, and then rushed the trench with bombs, which drove out the remaining Australians, and got in the trench themselves. We soon pulled them out with the bayonet – not one escaped. It was just after we had charged the trench that George was hit with two bombs. His right leg was broken above the knee, and left leg blown off above the ankle almost half way to the knee. He died from loss of blood three hours afterwards. I did not see him at all, and did not know it had happened (and he was only 50 yards from me) until next afternoon, 30th; but he died alongside of W. Sutton, of Yarram, who told me about it. The few things found on him were handed to headquarters to be sent home to you by the Church of England chaplain who buried him. His deferred pay is left to you in a will in his pay book. No doubt you will be notified about it. I hope you have been cabled, as I suppose you have been by this anyway.

This account confirms that Private David Sutton had, strictly speaking, not been ‘killed in action’(kia) but, rather, ‘died of wounds’ (dow).

Of the 3 Sutton brothers – David George Sutton (1552), William Henry Sutton (1559) and Thomas James Sutton (2025) – only Thomas James Sutton, the middle brother, survived the War. William Henry Sutton – the oldest of the brothers – survived right through to the second half of 1918. He was killed in action on 11 August 1918. By that point he had been wounded 3 times. All 3 Sutton brothers appear on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll, with both David and William recorded as killed; and both David and William are listed on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial.

Notwithstanding his brother’s comments about the recovery of personal items after the death, there were no personal belongings returned to the family. But then in 1920 the family received a letter advising them that, per separate post, they were to receive … a Bible, the property of your son, the late No. 1552 Private D. G. Sutton, 15th Battalion, which was discovered amongst the personal effects of the late No. 1214 Private N. Matheson, 15th Battalion. Private Matheson was killed in the same action as Sutton. While it is possible that Sutton had given Matheson his copy of the bible, the more likely scenario is that when others went looking for the personal belongings of both men the various items were mixed up. The bible only came to light because the authorities were not able to locate a next-of-kin for Matheson – he was an immigrant from Scotland – and, again presumably, at some point in the multiple handling of his personal belongings someone finally noticed that the name in the bible was Sutton’s not Matheson’s. This also raises the possibility that other items in Matheson’s kit – ring, wallet, papers, cards, medals – belonged to Sutton. Both this apparent confusion over the personal property of the men, and the far more significant confusion over Sutton’s death, point to the highly problematic quality of the AIF’s organisational capacity at the time. On this point, the letter from William Owen Sutton published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 11 August 1915 also highlights the significant problem that men were having with mail deliveries. The sense of frustration, if not anger, is evident:
You people complain of us not writing, but we were always writing and getting no letters in return in Egypt. I wrote 17 letters home to you people. George would not get his photo taken, as he said nobody would write to him, so I did not get mine taken when he would not have his done.
The editor of the paper added as a footnote:
Mr. Thos. Sutton informs us that letters were written from home every day, and he is at a loss to account for the non-delivery. The authorities appear to be at fault.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

War Diary of 15 Battalion, May 1915

National Archives file for SUTTON David George

First World War Embarkation Rolls: David George Sutton

Roll of Honour: David George Sutton

WW1 Red Cross files: David George Sutton

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 1 – The Story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915, 11th Edition.
Chapter VII – May29th -The Turks break into Quinn’s

35. Image problems for the AIF before Gallipoli

Typical souvenir sent home from Egypt, 1916.

Typical souvenir sent home from Egypt, 1916.

Prior to 25 April 1915, the AIF was an army in search of an image. The basics of the image were there from the start and the AIF was created to be a national (Australian) army within the greater (British) Imperial army. The name – Australian Imperial Force – succinctly defined the basic building blocks for the image.

All the volunteers for the AIF enlisted as British subjects. Many of its early officers were British. Organisation, training, equipment, weaponry  – all matched the British standard. All essential components were designed so that the AIF could function effectively as a module of the British Army.  In its infancy, the AIF was not capable of acting as an independent military force and relied, for example, on British intelligence and artillery.

At the same time, the AIF was a national army. It was the first, genuinely national military force that the new Commonwealth of Australia had created. While it was created to demonstrate Australia’s total commitment to Britain and the Empire, it still had to reflect a distinctively Australian character. The 20,000 men who landed in Egypt from late 1914 represented the first, large-scale collection of Australian soldiery on the world stage, and it was inevitable that those back home, the soldiers in Egypt, and the rest of the world would try to define this new army in ways that made it unique. The quest was on to define its distinctive national character and explain how it differed from the British Army, and also other Dominion forces, particularly the Canadians and New Zealanders.

The struggle to define the essential character of the AIF began as soon as it was formed and continued throughout the War and in the years after the War. Indeed, it is still a concern today, principally because it has always been argued that the character of the AIF goes to the core of what defines Australia as a nation.

One of the most important commentators on the early AIF was the official war correspondent Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean.  Bean’s own life matched in many way the pursuit of the distinctly Australian (male) character. Born in Australia, Bean was an avowed Imperialist and spent many years at school and university (Oxford) in England; but, once back home in Australia, he became committed to identifying the distinctly Australian national type, and like so many others he was drawn to the itinerant, rural worker.

Bean started his war reporting with a distinctive Australian type in mind. You can see this in some of his earliest reports from Egypt. The following passage is taken from copy he wrote on 22 December 1914. It was published in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 3 February 1915. Immediately prior to this section of the article, Bean had explained how the Australians, because of their higher pay, were being feted all over Cairo, even in the most exclusive hotels. However, it was not just the pay, because Bean also intimated that the Australian, even at the rank of private, had a natural presence and authority to him that promoted respect:

It is a study to see the Australian from beyond the wheat belt with his weather beaten brown wrinkled old face and his rather ill fitting khaki suit sitting at a table in a big grill room amidst over-gorgeous columns and salmon coloured upholstery, surrounded by wealthy Turkish merchants, Italian students, French and Syrian clerks and smartly dressed women, and drinking his coffee or whisky with his mate and waited on by a tall Berber blackfellow in enormous red Turkish pantaloons and wreathed with twice as much gold lace as a field marshall.

Bean captures what he sees as the essential image: the tough, hardened, no-pretence Australian soldier and his mate might appear out-of-place but, in fact, the whole scene revolves round them. However it is all rather simplistic, and for all his efforts to make the connection between the rural working class and the newly formed AIF, Bean must have appreciated that the lifestyle of the rural, working-class male was not ideally matched to the world of military discipline.

In fact, all was not well in Egypt at that time with the AIF.  The Australians were forging a reputation for drunkenness, debauchery and hooliganism and their lack of regard for military discipline was an ongoing concern for their commanders.  For a more detailed account of Australian ‘high jinks’ at the time see Stanley (2010) and in particular his account of the ‘Battle of Wazza’ on Good Friday , 2 April 1915 when Australian and New Zealand troops attacked the brothel district of Cairo.

Australian behaviour in Egypt did not reflect well on either the AIF or Australia. Bean was even asked to write a sort of ‘how to behave in Egypt’ for the newly arrived AIF troops – What To Know In Egypt. It masqueraded as part tourist brochure, part good-health guide and part handbook on understanding-the-local-culture, but it was intended principally to curb the sort of behaviour that was creating a negative image for the AIF. The section on VD was clearly intended to keep the men out of the brothels:

Lastly, Cairo has itself a name in the world as a hotbed of both gonorrhea and syphilis. There is a reason for this. Egypt is not a country under the full control of its government. The Egyptian officials even though they had able British administrators to help them have possessed little control over the foreigners who live here. Egypt has been one of those countries which European nations have only admitted to their circle as probationers, as it were.  …The consequence is that although Cairo has long been a resort of foreign women riddled with diseases it has been almost impossible to check this disease. Egypt has been an ancient home of syphilis – it was certainly here in Roman times; and there is found in the skull bones of mummies a disease which is almost certainly syphilis. Modern Cairo with its mixture of women from all nations, East and West has long been noted for particularly virulent forms of disease. Almost every village contains syphilis. And if a man will not steer altogether clear of the risk by exercising a little restraint, his only sane course is to provide himself with certain prophylactics beforehand to lessen the chance of disastrous results.

However, stronger action was required and Bean was then pressured to write a newspaper piece that left the reader back home in no doubt that there was a problem with the AIF’s image in Egypt. It was written at the very end of December 1914 and it appeared in Australian newspapers about 3 weeks later. Locally, it appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 22 January 1915. Bean emphasised that he was only describing the actions of relatively few men, and he was keen to talk up the great potential of the AIF, but it was a most uncomplimentary picture. It appeared under the headline: Our Soldiers in Egypt.  High Jinks At Cairo.   “Do All Australians Drink So Much.”

There is only a small percentage – possibly one or two per cent – in the force which is really responsible for the occurrences about which Cairo is beginning to talk; the great majority of the men are keen, intelligent, well restrained young Australians, whom you will meet enjoying their hours of leave in front of the cafes or in the museum or the zoological gardens or the post card shops, dressed as neatly as any of the other soldiers in the town, and behaving themselves in the way in which any rational Australian on a holiday would behave. They have the material in them not merely for as good a force as the New Zealanders or the Territorials, but, to one’s own thinking, of a better force, because the Australians here, besides having the best physique, are, man for man, more highly strung, and, if anything, quicker witted.

But there is in the Australian ranks a proportion of men who are uncontrolled, slovenly, and in some cases – what few Australians can be accused of being – dirty. In a certain number of cases it is noticeable that these men are wearing the South African ribbon. Possibly they are the men who since returning from that war, have never had any skilled occupation, and who therefore were the first to enlist when recruiting for the present force was begun; or it may be that the discipline in the South African campaign was very much slacker than that required of troops before they will be permitted to go to the front in the present class of warfare. Or it may be merely that a certain class of old soldier is given to the very childish habit of showing off before the young soldier, and giving him examples of the sort of thing that he thinks may with impunity be done by anyone who knows the ropes. Whatever the reason it has been noticed by too many people to admit of doubt that whilst many of the most capable and splendid members of the force are men with South African experience, there is a class of old soldier who, so far from being the most suitable member of the force, is the least suitable of any. Many young soldiers take these men at their true worth. “It’s the likes of them that are going to spoil the game for the rest of us and lose us our leave,” I heard one youngster say a few days since. “The fellows are getting a bit fed up with them down amongst our lot.” But they are really doing a very much more serious thing than losing other soldiers their leave – they are losing Australia her good name in the outside world, and those Australians who happen to be living in Cairo or are in touch with the world outside the camps have the mortification of looking on whilst day by day the reputation of Australia slowly vanishes before the actions of a handful of rowdies who do not really represent the country. The Territorials have not our physique, and some of the Lancashire regiments seem to be composed largely of mere children; but by dint of hard work they have become thoroughly smart soldiers; and although both amongst them and the New Zealanders there has been a certain amount of the hard living which will always be found where great numbers of men are collected, none who is not deaf can hide from himself the fact that the talk at present current in Cairo attaches to the Australian force rather than to the Territorials, or as far as I can judge to the New Zealanders.

One does not want to give the impression that things have reached the stage of a scandal or anything approaching it. Steps will doubtless be taken to correct it, as they have been taken before, and the Australian force will be doing itself credit before it has finished its training, and be worthy of the majority of men comprised in it. The New Zealanders have just taken steps to get rid of a certain number of men who were doing little good in their force, and the same, or some similar steps, will no doubt be taken with the Australians. But it is just as well that the Australian public should be aware of the reason for the return of the majority of the men who are returning, or have returned, since the expedition sailed. It is easy for a man to return to his native village and reap a certain amount of hero worship on the ground that he was invalided, or to pitch a story before an admiring crowd at the local hotel of how he was going to show them that he was not going to stand any nonsense, and finally “pitched in” his resignation. The facts are that a certain number of men have been invalided through serious sickness or accident, neither of which was their own fault. A certain number also were sent back some time ago from Albany and Colombo, because some of them – no doubt on conscientious grounds or for reason best known to themselves – refused to be vaccinated. A few others have been, and will be, sent back because they contracted certain diseases, by which, after all the trouble of months of training and of the sea voyage, they have unfitted themselves to do the work for which they enlisted. And a percentage will probably find their way back from here, the reason for whose return has been that they have damaged their country’s reputation, and a few of them have been got rid of as the best means of preserving it.

The tone of the piece is cautious and hesitant and the language is qualified, indirect and oblique, if not obtuse. You had to read into it, for example, that men were being sent back to Australia because they had contracted VD (certain diseases).  In the context of Egypt and the the triumphalism of the White Australia Policy, references to Australians being ‘dirty’ would have had all sorts of offensive associations. The attempt to pin responsibility on the veterans of the Boer War was bound to win enemies but, presumably, it was preferable to target this specific group of older men than suggest there was a problem right across the force. You can sense Bean’s wariness in writing the piece; and the article was, potentially, a career-ending move for him. In fact, his reputation with the troops was severely damaged and it was only his bravery in the subsequent action at Gallipoli – he was recommended for the Military Cross and mentioned in despatches for his work with wounded men – that restored his standing.

Some idea of the fury that the article sparked amongst the troops in Egypt at the time, comes from another piece published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative  on 30 April 1915. By this point the local paper was regularly publishing extracts of letters sent home by soldiers serving overseas. This particular letter came from Athol Woods who was the son of (former) Major Woods of Woodside. Alexander Thomas Woods was a grazier of Darriman and his son – Harry Athol Woods – had enlisted as a 34yo in Brisbane on 27 August 1914. It appears he was farming on the Darling Downs prior to enlistment.  Overall, Athol Woods was critical of the way newspapers were reporting events from Egypt, and he specifically targeted Bean. He described Bean’s articles as unjustifiable and unpardonable and he wanted Bean severely dealt with. He was prepared to admit that there were some Australians who were a problem, but he did not want their actions to be publicised, in any way:

Of course, in a body of men like we have here, there are sure to be a few who go over the odds, but it is a very poor percentage, and even these few have not done anything very dreadful. It seems hard that all we Australians should be termed a disgrace to the Empire and Australia by an animal wearing the stars of a captain who has not got the nous of a mule. But enough of this. I think the people of Australia will treat these articles with the contempt they deserve.

The barely concealed rage evident in the letter home from Athol Woods points to just how sensitive the whole issue of the AIF’s image was. Everyone – the troops in Egypt, their officers and all those back home in Australia – knew how critically important the image of the AIF was to the image of the nation as a whole.  Prior to Gallipoli, the fear that the AIF was creating the wrong image weighed heavily on people’s minds. And Bean had come to understand that using the Australian press to hammer home lessons to the troops on how they should behave was not going to work.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Stanley, P 2010, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, Pier 9, NSW

C E W Bean: entry in Australian Dictionay of Biography

Bean, C E W 1915, What to Know in Egypt: A Guide for Australian Soldiers, Cairo

The ‘Souvenir of Egypt’ is held by the Cashen family. It was sent to Marie Ziesing from Alfred Carr – both of Mile End, SA – in 1916.