Category Archives: January to June 1916

87. Yarram Recruiting Committee, 1916: ‘dead to all sense of patriotism or shame’

This post continues the work of 2 earlier posts. The first, Post 64: Monster (recruiting) Meeting at Yarram, July 1915 covered the work of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1915 and the second, Post 65: Yarram Recruiting Committee, 1915 looked at the composition of the committee.

Both the work and direction of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1916 were set largely by 2 initiatives of the Commonwealth Government in 1915. In July 1915, the Commonwealth Government passed legislation for a War Census. Then in late December 1915, the Commonwealth, under the banner of  The Call to Arms, issued to every eligible male a direct request to enlist in the AIF.

The First Schedule of the War Census Act 1915, had to be completed by all Males aged 18 and under 60. The questions in the schedule tested the respondent’s eligibility to serve in the AIF:  his age, marital status, number of dependents, health, nationality, previous military training and, if born in a ‘foreign country’, the status of his ‘naturalization’ . The schedule even asked for the ... number and description of fire-arms and quantity of ammunition you possess.

Future posts will consider the 1915 War Census in more detail but, for present purposes, the significance of the census was that by the end of 1915 the Commonwealth Government had, in theory at least, a record of all eligible men. It could therefore set realistic targets for an expanded AIF.  The Government determined that it would increase the size of the AIF by 50,000 men and that, concurrently, the ongoing enlistment rate had to be lifted by 9,000 men per month.The next step was to use the information gained via the War Census and communicate directly with every eligible male between 18 and 45 to press them to enlist. This was the recruiting initiative described as The Call to Arms.

The form that men were required to complete was accompanied by a plea from the new PM, W M Hughes who had replaced Fisher when he resigned at the end of October 1915. The 2 major appeals Hughes played to in his Call to Arms were incipient mateship and nationalism:

Our soldiers have done great things in this war. They have carved for Australia a niche in the Temple of the Immortals. Those who have died fell gloriously, but had the number of our forces been doubled, many brave lives would have been spared, the Australian armies would long ago have been camping in Constantinople, and the world war would have been practically over.

We must put forth all our strength. The more men Australia sends to the front the less the danger will be to each man. Not only victory but safety belongs to the big battalions.


This Australia of ours, the freest and best country on God’s earth, calls to her sons for aid. Destiny has given to you a great opportunity. Now is the hour when you can strike a blow on her behalf. If you love your country, if you love freedom, then take your place alongside your fellow-Australians at the front and help them achieve a speedy and glorious victory.

On behalf of the Commonwealth Government and in the name of the people of Australia, I ask you to answer “Yes” to this appeal, and to your part in this greatest war of all time.

In short, at the very end of 1915, all eligible men in Australia were asked, under the voluntary enlistment scheme then in place, to enlist in the AIF. If they were not willing to enlist immediately, they had to indicate when they were prepared to enlist, and if they refused to enlist at all, they had to submit written reasons why. Clearly, the Government was determined to push the ‘voluntary’ system to its limit.

At the same time as the form to all eligible men was sent out, PM Hughes wrote to all municipality and shire heads asking for their support. Specifically, he requested that the existing local recruiting committees – established in 1915 – be prepared to accept and manage the completed forms. In his letter to all local government heads – published in The Argus on 2/12/15, p.7 – Hughes acknowledged that the support of the local recruiting committee was critical:

… the success of the scheme scheme depends almost entirely upon the efforts of the local committees, and I appeal to you to put everything aside in order that this great national duty may be effectively and quickly performed.

This particular recruiting drive involved all 3 levels of government. The initiative rested with the Commonwealth, and its working was effectively designed by the Commonwealth Statistician. The scheme itself was run at the local government level, where the Mayor or Shire President – backed by the Town Clerk or Shire Secretary – was responsible for the work of the local recruiting committee. And the administration of the national scheme was delivered at the state level via the relevant Central Recruiting Committee or State War Council.

In 1915, local recruiting committees across Victoria had organised high profile, public recruiting meetings. This new set of responsibilities at the start of 1916 with the focus on the individual was very different. First, the committee had to impress on the locals that the forms had to be completed and returned to them, as quickly as possible. There was limited provision for a respondent to bypass the local committee by sending the form direct to the state recruiting body, but in the case of Yarram only a handful of local men took up this option. Once the local committee received the forms, it had to submit a return which would enable the Commonwealth Statistician to track down those who had failed to return their form. The local committee then had to go through the returns it had received and establish the relevant numbers of (1) those prepared to enlist immediately, (2) those prepared to enlist later and (3) those who refused to enlist.  Finally, and most significantly, the local committee was expected to establish a ‘local inquiry committee’ … to personally canvas those refusing to enlist. While the definition of ‘canvas’ was left somewhat vague it was clear that the overall intention was to first identify and then apply ‘pressure’ – even if the local recruiting committee did not have any legal authority – to those in the local community who refused to enlist.

In theory, this new scheme would have appealed to the Yarram Recruiting Committee. Throughout 1915, the committee had complained that it could not get access to the men it needed. They simply refused to attend public recruiting meetings. Similarly, they avoided the farewells and welcome homes which doubled as recruiting appeals. But this new Commonwealth scheme focused specifically on the group of eligibles and, potentially, brought them into direct contact with the recruiting committee.

However, in practice there was an obvious reluctance on the part of the local recruiting committee to become personally involved in challenging locals who refused to enlist. This was hardly surprising. It was one thing to believe passionately in the cause of the War and promote the duty of all to enlist either in print or at public meetings, but quite another to directly confront individual locals, whom you personally knew and interacted with in many and complex ways, and pressure them to enlist.

At Yarram, the sub-committee of 5 set up … to consider the replies of those who refuse to enlist was made up of Rev F Tamagno, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, D P Fahey and G F Sauer. However, virtually as soon as the committee was set up, 3 members – Tamagno, Sauer and Fahey – indicated they would not serve.

Correspondence in the Shire of Alberton archives indicates Rev Tamagno quit because he was himself of military age. In his letter (17/1/16) he stated,

I feel that I ought to retire from the Recruiting sub-committee. I am of military age, & I think that it will be better on that account to resign.

Presumably, he recognised the problem in pressing others to enlist when he himself had not.

For Daniel Peter Fahey, a farmer from Devon, there is only a brief note, dated 8/1/16, from the Shire Secretary ( G W Black) that Mr Fahey informed me by phone that he could not see his way to act. Intriguingly, when Fahey was asked to join the committee, there was a specific reference to the fact that he was to represent the ‘Labor interest of the sub-committee’:

At a meeting of the local Recruiting Committee to-day [5/1/16], you were appointed the member in the Labor [sic] interest of the sub-committee to consider the replies of those who refuse to enlist.

It is not clear what was intended. Perhaps Fahey was viewed as a local farmer who knew what the labour situation was in the district: someone who could assess the validity of claims men made about not being able to enlist because of labour demands on the farm. But whatever his exact role, Fahey made it clear he did not want to be involved.

George Frederick Sauer was a draper – Draper, Gents’ Mercer, & Shoeman –  in Yarram. He was very active in local politics and was president of the local ANA. He had been involved in recruiting. But on this occasion he wrote back (6/1/16) and stated, I have considered this matter and find I cannot accept the appointment. Possibly, he considered that such a position was not in his commercial best interest.

With 3 of the 5 selected for the committee refusing to serve, Cr Barlow was appointed as a replacement and the committee’s size reduced to just 3: Cr Bland, Cr Barlow and B P Johnson. At the same time, the sub committee did have the support of the local recruiting sergeant. This position was created at the start of 1916 and the person appointed – he had been specifically requested by the Yarram Recruiting Committee – was William Andrew Newland.

Recruiting Sergeant Newland had worked for the local council before the War – he was a mechanical engineer – before enlisting in 1914. He had been badly wounded at Gallipoli (26/5/15) and was returned to Australia (6/8/15) for medical discharge (22/12/15). He had married locally before he went overseas and his wife was living at Yarram. Newland had risen to staff-sergeant in the AIF and he began his work as recruiting sergeant at the start of January 1916.

The Prime Minister’s recruiting campaign was not well received in the local community and the results were underwhelming. At a committee meeting held 19/1/16 and reported in the local paper on 21/1/16, Recruiting Sergeant Newland gave a breakdown of the returns for the Commonwealth’s Call to Arms.  184 replies had been returned, as directed, to the local recruiting committee. Another 4 locals had taken advantage of the option to return their form to the State authority. Of the total of 188, 16 men had already enlisted (8.5%), 34 indicated they were prepared to enlist immediately (18%) and another 14 (7.5%) were prepared to enlist later. The total figure for enlistments was 64 (34%). This left 124 (66%) who had refused to enlist. The clear majority of local men targeted in the Commonwealth’s recruiting campaign at the very start of 1916 rejected the call to enlist.

There is little evidence to indicate that those on the local recruiting committee, or more specifically the sub-committee set up to ‘canvass those refusing to enlist’, did actively pursue local men who effectively ignored the Commonwealth’s Call to Arms. Indeed, there was little they could do. For all the posturing, threats and warnings, the system was still a voluntary one and locals could simply ignore the local recruiting committee.

At the same time, there is evidence that Recruiting Sergeant Newland certainly took his work seriously. As soon as he started in January 1916, there were reports in the local press (12/1/16) of him … impressing upon the minds of eligibles the necessity of enlisting. He was also said to have … startled not a few ignorant folks … with the warning that they needed to complete their Call to Arms returns. Importantly, within a week or two, because of the new scheme, Newland had a list of all those in the district who had refused to enlist. In March 1916, he was at the Binginwarri sports and was reported (24/3/16) … to be seen giving the why and wherefore to young men whom he had his eye on. In fact, Newland developed a reputation for aggressive challenges to eligibles.  The following was reported in the local paper on 14/4/16. It reveals both the forceful way Newland went about his job but also the push-back that this approach could create:

It would be interesting were phonograph records produced of Sergeant Newland’s interviews with certain young fellows who would do well in the fighting line. Onlookers can plainly see that arguments wax warm at times, and we warn those approached that the sergeant should be treated with respect, otherwise trouble may ensue. Recruiting is a matter that cannot be treated lightly. Sergeant Newland has the law on his side, and his province is to inquire into the reason men for for service do not enlist.

The local recruiting committee put out an appeal in the local press (28/1/16) for volunteers to drive Recruiting Sergeant Newland to the more isolated townships and settlements in the district. Again, this allowed him to tackle, on a face-to-face basis, those who had refused to enlist. There was a pool of volunteers, and this practice explains how Newland appeared at a farewell at Madalya (19/5/16) – covered in Post 85 – where again he aggressively challenged eligibles who were there.

While the Commonwealth Government had made it clear that The Call to Arms campaign was to be the priority, the local recruiting committee did persevere to a limited degree with the more conventional practice of the public appeal by an invited speakers. In February, Thomas Livingston, the member for South Gippsland, and minister in the State Government, was visiting the area. He was persuaded by Cr Bland as Shire President to address a large crowd at a Red Cross fundraiser at Yarram.  The speech was written up in the local paper on 18/2/16. As always, the possibility – or threat – of conscription was raised. Livingston appealed to all eligible men there that day:

We must have 50,000 on 50,000 [sic] men, and that is not enough. Go now, at the right time, and help the men already at the front. Yarram and district had done well recruiting, but other parts had not done as well. If the voluntary system does not prove effective, conscription will be brought in, for they were not going to lose the British Empire.

Cr Bland, as Shire President, concluded the recruiting appeal with a fairly base warning:

If they did not get the soldiers required conscription must come in, and those who were pressed men would not get the pay of the voluntary soldier.

Other initiatives of the State (Victoria) Parliamentary Recruiting Committee were employed in 1916. One of them, after Easter, involved a series of recruiting trains that stopped at major stations in country districts. The train featured speakers from both the Commonwealth and State Governments, returned soldiers, bands, local recruiting sergeants etc. The train for Gippsland was scheduled for May and the designated stations were: Warragul, Trafalgar, Moe, Morwell, Traralgon, Sale, Bairnsdale, Stratford, Maffra, Leongatha, Korumburra and Wonthaggi. Apart from the fact that the train did not reach the Shire of Alberton, there was not much confidence in the basic plan. For many, such activities were little more than a distraction and people had to accept that conscription was inevitable. For example, in his editorial on 24/5/16 A J Rossiter – a member of the Yarram Recruiting Committee – wrote:

With much truth, Mr. G. H. Wise M.H.R. remarked at the A.N.A. meeting in Melbourne that “no longer should time be wasted in holding recruiting meetings, nor in stalking through the country in ‘special trains’. ” Last week Gippsland was visited by a train crew, and towns were enlivened by Royal Park Band music and electrified by talk on the part of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. One or two records will suffice for the whole. At Stratford two volunteers came forward, both unfit for service. Three stepped out at Traralgon and eleven at Sale. Of the dozen recruits at Leongatha two were returned soldiers, and others had been previously rejected. Both at Leongatha and Korumburra a number who gave in their names would have enlisted in any case, so after all there is little the special train jaunt can take credit for – beyond good intentions. We agree with Mr. Wise in regard to conscription.

Clearly, by mid 1916 the Yarram Recruiting Committee had lost confidence in the voluntary system. Public appeals no longer had much effect, and even the direct approach employed in the Commonwealth’s Call to Arms had been convincingly rejected by the majority of eligible men in the district. The direct, face-to-face encounters between the recruiting sergeant, acting on the committee’s behalf, and local eligibles were tense, time consuming, difficult to organise and generally unproductive. Moreover, as either representatives of local government or just private citizens, and all of them acting on a voluntary and patriotic basis, the individuals on the committee would have felt considerably frustrated, and possibly even threatened, by what they saw as high levels of opposition to, and anger directed at, their work.

However, all the talk of conscription was effectively undermining the worth of the voluntary system. The situation was set out in a letter from the State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in March 1916 to all local recruiting committees in Victoria.

You have no doubt observed in the public press that there is a movement in various parts of this State to bring in conscription in some form. Local recruiting committees and sergeants report to us that this talk of conscription is detrimental to recruiting, in the first place because it gives those who are looking for some excuse an opportunity of saying they are waiting for conscription, and, secondly, because it tends to make some members of local committees relax their efforts. Those of us who are engaged in this campaign know nothing about conscription. We have been asked, and we have undertaken, to carry the work through on the present basis – which is voluntary. It is clearly our duty to do our best to make this campaign a success, however much our personal opinions may vary as to its efficacy. We would, therefore, ask you to see that the good work which your Committee and others have already put in should be strenuously maintained until such time as the present scheme is superseded by some other by the National Government.

The national background to this push for conscription in early in 1916 was that Hughes was in the UK and the Australian Government’s strategy, under Senator George Pearce the acting PM, was to leave the decision on conscription until Hughes returned, in early August 1916. In the absence of Hughes, political pressure from sectional interest groups for conscription was intense. These groups will be covered in future posts.

Given the background, the appeal from the State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee was hardly convincing and all those actively involved in recruiting appeared to be looking forward to the introduction of conscription. Certainly this was the case with the Yarram Recruiting Committee. In late April 1916, B P Johnson, as acting head of the local recruiting committee, wrote to the State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee:

…  it is the unanimous opinion of the Committee and of the Sergent [sic] that the voluntary system has had its trial and that compulsion is now necessary. In holding recruiting meetings it is impossible to get at the men who are standing back, they will not attend, and the only volunteers we can hope to obtain now are from families who have already done their share and can ill afford to spare others. In our opinion the voluntary system is unscientific, is wasteful and is grossly unfair. It is no good talking to the shirkers, compulsion is the only thing that will move them, they are dead to all sense of patriotism or shame. … We who have sons, brothers & other relatives at the front are most keen & will continue to work to that end, but we feel strongly, from our now rather extensive experience, that only compulsion will give us the success we earnestly desire.

Overall, for the local recruiting committee in Yarram, 1916 represented a wasted effort. The conventional public appeals no longer worked, Hughes’ bold – but also naive – plan at the start of 1916 with his Call to arms had identified those locals who refused to enlist but it too had proved ineffective. Recruiting Sergeant Newland had taken his work seriously and energetically, and directly confronted locals but, again, under the voluntary system there was no ultimate compulsion.  In short, as far as the committee was concerned, nothing worked. Their voluntary and patriotic efforts were frustrated. Their hard work produced no results. They were conscious of anger and opposition directed at them in the community. They saw conscription as the only way forward. In fact, it is reasonable to argue that the real focus for the committee in 1916 was not the promotion of recruiting but the introduction of conscription; and it was significant that after the failure of the conscription referendum at the end of 1916 the local recruiting committee was disbanded.

The composition of the 1916 Yarram Recruiting Committee

There is little in the Shire of Alberton archives covering the work of the recruiting committee in 1916. The suggestion is that after the first few months of 1916 not a great deal happened, at least at the committee level. In September, after Hughes returned from the UK, there was another burst of action on the voluntary system – Hughes effectively gave the scheme one last chance to prove itself – but it appears that this work principally involved Recruiting Sergeant Newland.

In the archives there is a undated, handwritten list of the membership.

Recruiting Campaign 1916

Cr Bland (Chairman)
Cr Barlow
Cr Christensen
Messrs M J T Cox
W F Lakin
E S Stocks
B P Johnson
G E Ruby
J W Fleming
P J Juniper
A J Rossiter
Rev F Tamagno
G W Black (Secretary)

Neither D P Fahey nor G F Sauer are included on the list. Both refused to serve on the special sub-committee set up to vet the replies of those who refused to enlist. Rev F Tamgano’s name does appear, even though he also refused to serve on the same sub-committee and formally resigned from the larger committee.  It appears that the list was drawn up at the very start of 1916 because it is substantially the same as the 1915 list.  The membership list again points to the type of local citizens who identified with the work of the recruiting committee. Post 65 looked at the same people and concluded:

Overall, the [1915] Yarram Recruiting Committee was made up of ‘leading citizens’ from the local professional and managerial elite of Yarram, supported by several large and successful land holders who also played significant political and social roles in the Yarram community.

The same situation applied in 1916 and, as has already been intimated, this particular group of local citizens was set to act as the core support group for the Yes vote in the conscription referendum.



Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

The Argus

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

The activities of the 1916 Yarram Recruiting Committee came from:
Shire of Alberton
File Number 703-0
War Files
“Recruiting Campaign 1916 – Call to Arms”

See also:

Honest History
Divided sunburnt country: Australia 1916-18 (2): the War Census

85. Soldiers’ farewells 1916

This post continues the work covered in Post 60. Soldiers’ Farewells 1915.

Over 1916, the local newspaper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – covered 35 farewells. It also reported on several ‘welcome home’ gatherings.

While the tone of the farewells was always heroic, the welcome homes could be far more confronting. For example, on 28/7/16, the local paper reported the welcome to Private William Sweeney who had been medically discharged after being badly wounded by a bomb at Gallipoli. Those speaking at his welcome praised his sacrifice but they also described him as having … returned a cripple and … practically a wreck. Similarly, at the welcome for Private T Jeffs of Carrajung which was reported on 13/12/16, it was noted that he was the first to return home from France and that at Pozieres he had … received severe injuries losing the sight of an eye. The report also noted that Private Jeffs had to have someone respond on his behalf because he had returned with ‘shattered nerves’.

Overall, farewells in 1916 matched those in 1915. The same committee continued to organise the events. Specifically in the case of Yarram,  the same group of town ‘patriots’ shared the responsibility for speech making.

The great majority of farewells took place in Yarram, at the Shire Hall, with far fewer farewells taking place in the smaller townships and settlements. In 1916, outside Yarram, there were farewells at Alberton (1), Womerah (1) Devon North (2), Madalya (2), Stacey’s Bridge (1), Gormandale (2), Willung South (1) and Wonyip (1).

The farewells themselves tended to be held for locals who had returned home after initial training and prior to embarkation for service overseas. There was the occasional farewell for a ‘non-local’, itinerant farm worker but, as noted in Post 60, this group of men, once they left the district to move into camp, tended not to return.

The farewells at Yarram were better organised but more basic in form and less well-attended. One reason why attendance at Yarram was a problem was almost certainly  because the speeches at these farewells were as much an exercise in recruiting as they were a celebration of the loyalty and sacrifice of the individual(s) leaving. Eligible men and their families were hardly going to attend and draw attention to themselves. The farewells in the other locations in the Shire were generally less strident affairs and more focused on the qualities of the individual(s) being farewelled. They were usually based on a dance or some other social event and they were far better attended. Speakers at these affairs tended to be local farmers.

An interesting exception to the normal routine and tone of the farewells held outside Yarram occurred at Madalya (19/5/16) when one of the speakers was Recruiting Sergeant Newland. He must have been in the local area trying to promote enlistments. As usual, all the local residents had come together for a social dance that went well into the night. The 3 young men being farewelled were brothers Alfred and Arthur Jones – 22 yo and 24 yo respectively – and Ernest Anderson 18 yo.

That night at Madalya, Recruiting Sergeant Newland targeted  the ‘eligibles’ and both his presence and message were intended to cut through the camaraderie, jollity and conviviality of the occasion:

He [Newland] expressed pleasure at being present to wish the three men good luck, but by the appearance of the hall he felt sure there were at least a dozen more eligible to go than the three who had enlisted. The Jones Bros. were only just making a start in life, and as to young Anderson, he was only a boy. It was, he thought, a shame that one so young should have to go, when older and more mature men hung back.

Newland then went on to defend his work as Recruiting Sergeant and, again, he was very keen to take on anyone there who did not like his role. He had no problem with making himself and his work the focus of attention that night:

He [Newland] thought it was a disgrace the way some men looked upon the recruiting sergeant, treating him as if he were the cause of the war, instead of helping him in his duty to get recruits. As far as the position went, he would far rather be in the trenches fighting. But being unfit for active service he intended to do his duty no matter what they thought of him. He referred to one young man who told him he was losing friends in the district because of his strong attitude but it did not concern him. If he were to lose friends in the execution of his duty they were very poor friends. He considered most of his friends were at the front.

The episode highlights how even in small, local communities where everyone had come together to farewell one of their own, the potential for conflict and recriminations was ever present. It also shows background resentment towards those calling for more enlistments.

Post 60 identified the most common themes touched on speakers 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

Overall, the same themes continued in 1916. There were variations in their emphasis but certainly all continued to be very evident, as is demonstrated below. However, what was strikingly different in 1916, particularly with the speeches delivered in Yarram, was the level and intensity of frustration and anger expressed.

The ongoing themes

note: the dates in the following refer to the date the farewell was reported in the local paper. The location where the farewell took place is also given.

The moral strength of the volunteer

Often, the moral strength of the individual equated to religious practice. For example, at a farewell to 2 men at Willung South (17/11/16), much was made of the fact that they were ‘regular attendants at our church services’ and that ‘Christian principles’ dominated their lives. In a similar tone, when Private H Missen was farewelled from Gormandale (11/1/16) he was given a special presentation – pocket wallet – from the local IOR tent and the claim was made that … fortified by the principles of the Order, he would be better able to do his duty. The evil of drink was often highlighted at farewellls.

The individuals were variously described as: all round good fellows (Yarram, 27/2/16), law-abiding boys (Yarram 23/3/16), stalwart young men who proved good footballers (Yarram 6/9/16), and men who had proved themselves plucky and manly on the football field (Yarram 22/7/16). An individual could be described as a straightforward young man, always ready to give a hand (Yarram 5/2/16), a most respected citizen (Alberton 22/11/16), one of the straightest men in the district (Yarram 10/8/16). When Private Glen was farwelled (Yarram 15/5/16) the speaker, Chalres Barlow, noted, a more reliable, trustworthy and sober man on a farm he had never met.

The unique character and success of he AIF

This theme certainly picked up in frequency and intensity after Gallipoli. The belief that Australian soldiers had proved themselves either the best or amongst the best in the world was taken as indisputable and speakers referred to it constantly. For example, at a major farewell in Yarram (26/4/16), the president of the Shire – Cr. Bland – stated:

The Charge of the Light Brigade faded into insignificance compared with the brave deeds of our Australian boys at Gallipoli.

B P Johnson at another farewell at Yarram (28/7/16) declared:

The children had read of the famous charge at Balaclava, of Woolfe, and other great deeds in history, but equal to anything was the charge of the Light Horse at Anzac (Applause).

Unlike Bland, Johnson was only claiming equivalence for the AIF, in terms of the glorious history of the British army. Like others, he continued to push the claim that the AIF,  born of the British army, had now become its equal. At another farewell – Yarram (17/5/16) – he declared:

The boys at Gallipoli showed the old British blood and their fighting qualities and achievements made the whole world stare.

Others were keen to identify what they saw as the unique spirit, ethos or culture of the AIF, not just its achievements in battle. W V Rymer – the former Anglican reader at Yarram, who had  served for a short time on Gallipoli before his health broke down – stated at a farewell at Alberton (22/11/16):

There was no name he (the speaker) loved better than “mate” or “cobber,” and that was why he was pleased to say a few words of appreciation to the young man who was joining the ranks. (Applause.)

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

Declarations of loyalty to the Empire continued at farewells. Men who volunteered were still referred to as … only doing their duty in enlisting in defence of the Empire, of which we formed a part – Gormandale (16/8/16). The equivalent sentiment was expressed at Yarram (8/9/16). It was Australia’s war because it was Great Britain’s war and the Empire’s war. As a speaker at Madalya (19/5/16) put it:

It was Great Britain’s war, which included Australia and every part of the Empire.

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

The invasion of Belgium and the attendant horrors were still very common speaking points. And Germany remained a ruthless and powerful enemy. At a farewell in Yarram (5/4/16) B P Johnson exhorted those there:

Think of Belgium! God help us and our womenfolk if the Huns got hold of Australia. We have not by any means won the war. We are up against a ruthless and thoroughly prepared nation.

He returned to the theme one month later – Yarram (17/5/16) – when he reminded those present of the plight of … the women and little children of Belgium.

Some speakers were prepared to ramp up the attack on Germany and abandon any semblance of moral constraint or forbearance. W G Pope, who presided at a farewell at Yarram (10/5/16), ran a very hard line:

His opinion was that air raids should be made even on unfortified towns, and if a few German women and children were killed it simply meant that civilians must suffer for the crimes of the nation to which they had the misfortune to belong. And as Germans used gas in warfare we should use it too; and if we could do so we should try and discover an even worse kind of gas than that used by Germans. England must strip off the kid gloves and strike these fiends with the bare knuckles. (Applause). That’s the only sort of treatment they understand; kindness is wasted on them.

On occasion, speakers also referred back to the fears of White Australia before August 1914. Germany was obviously the present danger but it was not the only threat to Australia. As J H Hill reminded an audience at Yarram (17/5/16):

As time goes on and the Asiatic races get more powerful, the European nations will have to fight against an invasion like the Middle Ages.

The mother’s sacrifice

The anguish of the mother was still a common theme. B P Johnson expressed the standard form at a farewell in Yarram (28/7/16):

He felt sorry for a mother. The boys suffer pain for us, but what anguish must a mother feel!

However, as the number of married men who enlisted began to increase, the loneliness and anxiety of the wife had also to be taken into account. To accommodate the broader focus the term ‘womenfolk’ was commonly employed. C S McLeod at a farewell for a married man at Devon North (10/5/16) stated:

He felt sorry for the womenfolk who have a lot to bear when those they love leave for battle. It was they who were making the sacrifice. (Applause).

The pioneer as soldier

This theme was constant throughout 1916. B P Johnson at a farewell at Yarram (25/2/16) early in 1916 referred to the young volunteer – James Wight – as being ‘made of the same stuff’ as the pioneers … dating back to the forties [1840s], who came out from the Old Country and made Australia what it is today.

Cr Bland at a welcome home for 2 soldiers from Devon North (22/3/16) – Driver Gay and Private Sutton – expressed pride in the men’s service and declared that they had … proved they had the spirit so marked in their fathers in the older days.

Johnson was again exhorting the pioneer spirit at a farewell in Yarram in April (5/4/16). He claimed the 2 soldiers – Privates Percy Boddy and Robert McKenzie – … were honoring the descendants of pioneers who came to the district years ago, and these young men were showing the same pluck and determination.

Effectively there were 2 links to the pioneers. One drew the direct, historical link between pioneers who overcame the bush to carve out a prosperous future for their children and descendants – and thereby create the new nation of Australia – and those brave young men, their grand children or even children, who were now defending the same nation, as part of the Empire. The second link was more about character and how the soldier in the AIF had inherited the same essential traits that had enabled the pioneer to survive in the bush. Both were tough, loyal, no-nonsense, independent types. The men from the bush made the best soldiers.

The only qualification here was that the actual term ‘bush’ was not as commonly used in the context of Gippsland. Rather, people tended to talk in terms of settlers and selectors taming the forest and scrub. For example, at a farewell at Wonyip (6/9/16) the report noted that the 2 soldiers – brothers R W and R E Lee – were sons of early pioneers who had … done their share of turning a forest into green fields.

The issue of anger

Overall, the same themes identified in 1915 continued into 1916. However, while the themes remained constant there was a heightened sense of anger evident in the speeches, particularly those delivered in Yarram, and this anger reached its highest pitch at the time of the first referendum on conscription (28/10/16).

There were many targets of the anger: townspeople who were not prepared to put themselves out to attend a farewell; eligible men who refused to enlist; unions that undermined the war effort; and, by the end of 1916, all those opposed to conscription, including the ALP.

To understand the anger it is necessary to have a closer look at the composition of the committee responsible for organising the farewells and welcomes. In the main, and definitely in Yarram, the actual speakers at the farewells were members of this committee. The list of committee members was published in the local paper on 28/7/16 . The following table shows the committee members for 1916. It also shows the other relevant organisations in which individual members of the committee were involved.

The National Referendum Committee (Yarram branch) was the body set up in late September 1916 to promote the Yes vote in the conscription referendum. The table shows that the majority of members in the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee were actively involved in recruiting. Also, as will become apparent in later posts, several of its members – B P Johnson, Rev Tamagno and W G Pope – were key backers for the Yes vote.

As already argued, in Yarram, those involved in the organisation of soldiers’ farewells employed the functions to promote recruiting and push the Government’s agenda on the War. On the specific issue of conscription, the committee was pressing for it for more than year before the referendum was held. The committee was convinced that the voluntary system had failed and as 1916 progressed, they were increasingly frustrated because, in their opinion, the locals did not share their sense of urgency and commitment.

As they saw it, those in the committee were making significant sacrifices in supporting the work associated with organising and putting on the farewells and welcomes. They were doing their civic duty and working on behalf of others, both those being farewelled or welcomed and, as significantly, the rest of the community. They saw themselves as patriots working in the cause of the Nation and the Empire. They were committed. They knew what had to be done and they were prepared, as responsible citizens, to take leadership. They also believed that any farewell or welcome had to play a part in the overall effort to raise recruits. Even if no eligible men were in the audience, it was still essential to remind everyone there that enlistment levels had to be maintained and, later, improved dramatically. Specifically, they focused their attention on those men who, they believed, should have already enlisted.

Whereas they saw the necessity and nobility of their work, they too found, like Recruiting Sergeant Newland, that they were often met with indifference or hostility. Not surprisingly, as their efforts were compromised they reacted with anger.

Anger directed at townsfolk who did not attend farewells

As indicated, this was really only a problem in Yarram. Some farewells in Yarram were very popular – there was a major farewell to 22 men in April (26/4/16) which was very well attended –  but the numbers at many others were poor. It was common practice for the head teacher of Yarram SS – A E Paige, a committee member – to take a party of senior students from the primary school to farewells to increase the numbers there. There was even one farewell (30/8/16) where the attendance was so small that the ceremony was held not in the Shire Hall but in an office in the Shire Hall. Committee members were often reported as being embarrassed for the men being farewelled by small audiences. At a committee meeting in late March (29/3/16)  it was reported:

Surprise and disgust were expressed by several members of the committee at the small attendance at the various farewells etc. It was mentioned that many people in the town [Yarram] had not even put themselves out enough to attend once, although the soldiers were giving up everything for them.

Anger directed at those who would not enlist

It would have been virtually impossible for those speaking at farewells and intimately involved in recruiting to understand why some men refused to enlist. For the patriot, the logic of the situation – the Empire and Nation were both threatened; high levels of casualties called for more enlistments; every male citizen had the same civic duty to answer the call; ‘mates’ in their time of need could not be abandoned; it was ‘manly’ to fight to protect the weak – was irrefutable. It was especially galling that married men, and even men in their forties, were prepared to sacrificed so much by enlisting while younger, single men held back.

Those men who refused to do the ‘right thing’ were constantly targeted. When he farewelled James Wight at Yarram (25/2/16) B P Johnson singled out those holding back:

Those chaps who were standing back and not heeding the cry did not seem to realise what our nation was up against.

When A H Moore spoke at a farewell at Stacey’s Bridge (26/4/16) he made the point that … the brave lads were practically offering their lives on behalf of those who stayed behind. At the farewell for Sgt Filmer at Womerah (3/3/16) one speaker … spoke of the excuses made for not enlisting. There was too much of “I’ll go when so-and-so goes’. B P Johnson at a welcome home (22/3/16) contrasted the sacrifice of the 2 returning men with the cowardice of ‘shirkers’:

The war had taught all the lessons of sacrifice. When those who hung back saw these two young men, and contrasted them with their own cowardice, they would surely want to find a small hole to crawl in and hide.

Johnson was very fond of the term ‘shirker’. And he was prepared to use it widely, and not just for those who refused to enlist. At another farewell in April (5/4/16) he declared:

He did not think it [“shirker”] too strong a word. Every man who could not fight, and stayed home in comfort and did not give, was a shirker. Every sweetheart who stopped her lover, every father or mother who stopped their son, and every wife who stopped her husband from enlisting was a shirker.

Another common description of those who refused to enlist was ‘waster’. At a farewell in Yarram (28/4/16) Rev Walklate declared:

It was a mistake to see so many brave boys going out of loyal families, while wasters were holding back.

For patriots, the only way forward was conscription. Conscription would create a ‘level playing field’ and ensure that the sacrifice was spread fairly. They would no longer have to appeal, in vain, to the conscience of the ‘shirker’ or the ‘waster’. Johnson (28/4/16) captured the frustration and anger of the group when he declared that he favoured conscription because then the Government could effectively … get men by the scruff of the neck and seat of the pants and run them in. (Laughter).

As much as they favoured conscription, speakers were generally keen to identify the city, and not the country, as the natural home of the shirker and waster. Cr Barlow (28/4/16) declared his support for conscription, noted that some from the district were holding back but focused on his attention on the large cities:

He was proud to see so many good men going from the district to help finish the good work begun, but there were many more who should have gone. In his opinion the voluntary system is a rank failure. He could not understand why the Government did not come forward and take the men wanted  by conscription. His remarks did not apply so much to the country as to the cities, where thousands were attending race meetings and prize fights who were no good to their country.

Anger directed at those undermining the war effort and recruiting

One obvious target was the union movement. G F Sauer at a farewell at Yarram (28/1/16) attacked the bans on shipping and declared that … the lives of such men [trade unionists] were not worth fighting for. Another common call was that preference to unionists should be replaced by preference to returning Anzacs.

But by far the greatest anger over 1916 was directed at those in the ALP who opposed conscription. This will be covered in future posts but for now it is worth noting Johnson’s views as early as July 1916 (26/7/16) when various Labor Leagues – in this instance at Broken Hill – began the political manoeuvring – including the threat of strikes –  to oppose the introduction of conscription. Speaking of those workers in favour of such resolutions, Johnson declared,

It was the duty of all speaking in public to condemn them. In his opinion all such men should be interned. They were either enemies or traitors who ought to be shot.


When it had been formed in 1915 the focus of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee had been narrow and its work uncontroversial. However, over time, as it turned its attention first to recruiting and then to supporting conscription, it became a far more partisan and aggressive body. Its links to other local bodies pushing for the Yes vote in the first national referendum on conscription will be covered in future posts.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative








83. Enlistments in the first half of 1916: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history

This post continues the analysis of Post 23: Enlistments to the end of 1914: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history, Post 57:  Enlistments in the first half of 1915: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history and Post 63: Enlistments in the second half of 1915: background characteristics Part 2 – religion, units and service history. It continues the ongoing work to describe and interpret the essential character of all those associated with the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in WW1.


The table below gives the religious affiliation of all those enlisting from the Shire over the period August 1914 to the end of June 1916. It also shows the equivalent figures for males in the 1911 Census for the county of Buln Buln.

There is no major variation evident in the figures. The broad religious profile of the community continued to be matched with enlistments. However, as noted earlier, 75% of enlistments in the first six months of 1916 occurred between January and March. If the situation in Ireland did affect Roman Catholic enlistment levels then this will only be evident from the next six-monthly analysis (July – December 1916).


As for previous cohorts, the great majority of men (66%) were taken on in the infantry battalions of the AIF. The largest single group (36) were sent as reinforcements for 6 Brigade – Battalions 21-24 – which had been formed in Victoria in early 1915. The second largest group (31) went to the newly formed (February 1916) 10 Brigade which was made up of 3 battalions from Victoria (Battalions 37-39) and one from Tasmania (40 Battalion).

Service History

The comparative table shows an apparently significant drop in the death-in-service rate for this particular cohort. But at this point it would be risky to make too much of this. Admittedly there is a certain logic that holds that the later men enlisted in the AIF, the less – theoretically at least – was their exposure to battle and death. But length of service could only have been one factor. For example, the units the men served in and the particular battles they faced must have been other critical factors.

In this cohort – the first half of 1916 – the number of men who were wounded at least once over the course of their service was 89 or 49%. The equivalent percentage for the previous cohort – those who enlisted in the second half of 1915 – was only 39.5%. At the same time, this previous cohort was the one with the higher death rate. The difference raises the question of whether, apart from chance – one man was shot and wounded, while the one next to him was shot and killed –  there were, over time, other factors involved in determining the nature of casualties in battle. For example, did changes to tactics or technology or medical practice reduce the level of deaths?  And was there some sort of trade-off that saw a lower death rate but, correspondingly, an increase the number of wounded?

Arguably, the number of variables involved makes it virtually impossible to make sense of – and certainly quantify – such situations. However, the more important observation is that the level of casualties continued at shocking levels. Specifically, for this latest cohort, apart from the figure already given of 49% wounded, 66% were hospitalised at least once over their period of service. As well, 41.5% of the cohort were discharged as the result of being wounded or being assessed as medically unfit – from disease or injury – to serve in the AIF. In several cases they were discharged in Australia, not long after enlisting. In other cases it is clear that there were serious medical consequences associated with the increasing number of mature men – in their thirties and forties – being accepted in the AIF.

Further, if you look at just those who survived the War – exclude those died on active service – the percentage in this cohort who were discharged on medical grounds increases to 50%. In other words, for this particualr cohort of volunteers, 17 % died on active service and of the remainder who survived the War, 50% were discharged with serious medical problems.

As already highlighted, the labour pool in the Shire was being dramatically depleted by enlistments. These dramatic casualty figures show that after the War the same labour pool would continue to be seriously depleted, and its overall health would be severely compromised.  It was hardly surprising that in the conscription debate many workers , and also front-line soldiers, feared that a vote for conscription would undermine the future of working-class Australia.

Another feature of this particular cohort is the number of men (6) who are charged with desertion. There is often confusion in such cases, and it is possible that the individual concerned did in fact re-enlist at some point, under a different name. Most of these cases involved the men, often only 18 or 19, going AWL in Australia before embarkation. However there is the more serious case of John William Steward who went missing in France in March 1918 and did not hand himself in to the military authorities in the UK until  November 1920.

Albert John Godfrey was a past student of Alberton State School. At the time he enlisted he was working as a miner in WA. He was a sapper in 1 Australian Tunnelling Company. He died of wounds on 22/7/17 but the wounds were ‘self inflicted’. A court of enquiry convened in February 1917 found that shot himself ‘whilst in an unsound state of mind’. He shot himself in the face. Witnesses at the enquiry reported him as ‘melancholy’ and ‘not right in the head’.

Lastly, this cohort also featured the extraordinary case of Alexander McDonald Atlee. Private Atlee was hospitalised in England in November 1916 suffering from ‘trench feet’. It was at this point that he lost his identification disc. Or perhaps it was stolen. Incredibly, in 1921 the same disc was found on the body of an Australian soldier exhumed in France. It was assumed to be the body of someone killed at Passchendaele. There was no other identification on the body, just Atlee’s lost disc. When the Graves’ Registration Unit established that Atlee had survived the War they contacted him requesting information on the disc. He could only state that he had lost the disc in England in November 1916 before returning to France. Why someone would carry the disc of another soldier as their own disc – or at least have it as the only disc on their person- must remain a mystery; but there was obviously more than mere chance or coincidence involved.


Overall, the characteristics established for the earlier cohorts of enlistments continued into the first half of 1916. The most significant difference appears to have been the changing age profile of the volunteers and the medical compromises associated with this trend towards accepting older volunteers.

82. Enlistments in the first half of 1916: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status

This post continues the analysis, in six-monthly intervals, of several key characteristics of all those with a link to the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in WW1. The relevant previous posts in the sequence are: Post 22: Enlistments to the end of 1914: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status Post 56: Enlistments in the first half of 1915: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status and Post 62Enlistments in the second half of 1915: background characteristics Part 1 – movement, occupation, age and marital status.

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. For a more detailed account of the methodology and sources refer to the earlier posts.


The same high levels of mobility of the rural working class are evident with this cohort of men who enlisted. Clearly there are many who were born in the Shire, went to school and grew up in the Shire and who were living and working in the Shire at the time they enlisted. But there were others who were born in the Shire and went to school there but who, by the time they enlisted had moved – or their family had moved – to another part of Gippsland, or Victoria, or another state. Then there were those who had moved into the Shire and were living and working there at the point they decided to enlist and who completed their medical examination in Yarram and were given their railway warrant by the Shire Secretary. Some of this group might only have been there for months or even weeks. Nonetheless,  there were definitely in the Shire when they enlisted.

Once again, there is a large group of men (25) who were born in the United Kingdom. However, the profile of this group appears to be changing. Where before they were predominantly young (18-21 yo), single immigrant farm workers who had only been in Australia for a short time, now there are many who are older – some are in their forties – and in some cases even married. Enlistment by the end of June 1916 was picking up men who had been born in the UK but living and working in Australia for many years. It appears that the more recent, young and single, immigrant workers who had come to Australia immediately before WW1 had, by this point, largely enlisted. The pressure that these young men were under to enlist has already been noted.


As for all previous cohorts, the largest single occupational group (61) is made up of those who describe themselves as either ‘labourer’ or ‘farm labourer’ or ‘farm worker’. There is a ‘bank manager’ (Richard Jeffrey Vicars Foote) but overall the professional/proprietorial/managerial class is hardly represented, apart from 4 school teachers. Overwhelmingly, as before, the cohort is rural working class.

There appears to be an increase in the number of those enlisting who came from the family farm. In this cohort of 183 there were 40 cases where there was evidence – the most common evidence comes from the Shire of Alberton Rate Book – to link the individual to the family farm, whereas in the previous cohort of 200 there were 29 such cases. Again, this linkage is somewhat arbitrary and the table shows that many of those that I have linked to a family farm described themselves as ‘labourer’. Equally, there are others who described themselves as ‘farmer’ whom I have qualified to ‘family farm’.  Clearly there were cases where even though the family held and worked a small acreage, the sons also worked for other farmers in the district.

There are approximately 12 cases where the occupation was given as ‘farmer’ but there is insufficient evidence to determine if the individual was a farmer in his own right – owned the land and farmed as the sole proprietor – or employed the term to describe working for someone as a farm labourer. However, the more important point is that the number of independent, sole farmers was minimal and it was really only those associated with family farming who enlisted.


The table shows the ages for this cohort.

Ages of volunteers – first half of 1916
ages                       %
18-20        37       20.2
21-25        67       36.6
26-30        41       22.4
31-35        18         9.8
36+            20        11.0
total        183      100

The following table shows that the age profile of those enlisting had changed by June 1916. Whereas in 1914, 73.1% of local enlistments came from those aged 25 yo or under, by June 1916 the figure had dropped to 56.8%. Within this shift, there was a marked increase in the number of enlistments from those over 36 yo. In fact, in this particular cohort of the 20 men aged 36 yo or older, 10 were 40 yo or older. Further, some in this sub-group misrepresented their age. For example, George Charles Hall gave his age as 42 yo but the records indicate his true age was 47 yo.

Henry John Gooding was another who lied about his age. When he enlisted in March 1916 he claimed to be just 34 yo but when he was discharged on medical grounds in November 1917 his ‘true age’ was given as 48 yo. Inevitably, there were significant medical risks associated with the enlistment of ‘older’ men. This will be highlighted in the next post which looks more closely at the men’s service history.

Marital Status

The table also shows another increase in the number of married men enlisting. In the cohort for the second half of 1915 the figure was 23 or 11.5% but for the first half of 1916 the equivalent figures are 30 and 16%. These figures do not include the small number of men who married some time between enlistment and embarkation, and those who married in the UK.

In terms of those who were married with family, the case of Wlliam Hickey is rather tragic. He was a farm labourer from Alberton West. When he enlisted at age 41 yo he was a widower with 3 children. He was killed in action 9/10/17. At the time he enlisted it appears that the children were still young. Certainly, one of them, Lawrence, was no more than 9 yo.

Private Hickey gave his sister – Mrs Johanna Harrop –  also living at Alberton West, as his next-of-kin. His parents were deceased so there were no grandparents on his side of the family to help with the children. It is not clear if the 3 children went to live with their aunt when the father enlisted. She did describe herself as their guardian in 1922 when she had to deal with the AIF over the question of the father’s medals.  However, the children do not appear to have been living with her at that point because she gave Lawrence’s address as St. Augustus Orphanage, Geelong. Lawrence was then 15 yo. Perhaps the children were with her until the death of the father. Whatever the situation, there is no doubt that the father’s enlistment and subsequent death would have had led to considerable hardship for the children.


The surge in enlistments post Gallipoli certainly continued into 1916. However, a closer look at the dates of enlistment in the table shows that 135 of the 183 enlistments (75%) took place in the first 3 months of 1916. From April 1916, the rate of volunteers was slowing. The table also shows a shift in the overall age profile of the men, with those over 25 yo increasing in number; and some considerably older volunteers coming forward. Equally, the number of married men was increasing. The number of young, immigrant rural workers who could enlist was also declining. These trends suggest that in the Shire of Alberton the pool of ‘ideal’ volunteers – young, single and healthy – had contracted significantly.

What remained constant was the fact that the overwhelming majority of volunteers came from the rural working class. The second largest group of volunteers was made up of the sons who came from family farms; and in many instances there was overlap between these 2 groups, with some family farming so limited that the sons also worked as agricultural labourers on other farms.

By the end of June 1916, the amount of labour that had been withdrawn from the local economy was so great that the prospect of conscription would, inevitably, be seen as a direct threat to the farming community.


81. Enlistments in the first half of 1916

This post presents the table of all those with an association with the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in the first half of 1916. It builds on the work of 3 earlier posts, Post 21: Enlistments to the end of 1914: identifying the ‘locals’ , Post 55: Enlistments in the first half of 1915 and Post 61: Enlistments in the second half of 1915.

It is the fourth six-monthly profile of enlistments and the 183 men in this particular profile take the total number of those with a link to the Shire of Alberton who enlisted – from August 1914 to the end of June 1916 – to 619.

As for the previous cohorts, there are at least another 10 men whose names appeared on various honor rolls or memorials but who, as yet, cannot be identified. In such cases, the most common problem is that the only piece of evidence is the name, which, by itself – eg. Williams or Robertson –  is not sufficient to identify the individual. Research on identifying such men continues.

There are also cases of men who can be identified but whose service history is hard to uncover or interpret. Samuel Charles Hammond Emmerson is an example. He was on the electoral roll as a farmer of Binginwarri and he also appeared in the 1915 Shire of Alberton Rate Book. He was issued with railway warrant number 324 on 22/3/16 for travel to Melbourne to complete his enlistment. The local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – reported his enlistment in a short piece on 7/4/16. It also reported, on 14/4/16, the farewell he was given at Fairview (Hiawatha). However it then reported (19/5/16) that he had been turned down in Melbourne at the final medical assessment. There is an MT 1486/1 (1916-1916) for SCH Emerson which records only that he was 40 yo and had been born at Foostcray. This certainly suggests that his enlistment did not go ahead. Moreover, he does not appear on the Embarkation Roll and nor is his name on the Nominal Roll. Overall, there is no evidence that he served in the AIF. Yet, strangely, his name – Emmerson S C H – appears on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor. It also appears that he was involved in the Soldier Settlement scheme in the local area at the end of the War. For present purposes, he has not been included in the table.

Another person not on the table is Frederick Toyne. He was given railway warrant 294 on 1/3/16. The local paper subsequently covered his farewell (26/4/16) from the district and noted that he had been awarded the Shire of Alberton Medallion. This farewell would have been after he had been in camp for some weeks. But for some reason he must have been discharged because his name is on neither the embarkation nor nominal roll. There is no record of any service. It appears he tried again, unsuccessfully, to enlist in 1917. Moreover, in October 1916 the local paper carried a story (6/10/16) about him being convicted of being on licensed premises ‘during prohibited hours’ so he was clearly back in the Shire and not serving in the AIF. Yet, for all the evidence that he did not serve in the AIF, his name is included on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor.

There is also the case of John James Lord. He was a carpenter in Yarram and he was given his railway warrant for travel on 25/2/16. His enlistment did not go ahead but there is no indication as to why. Most likely, he failed his medical in Melbourne, but there is no formal record that this is what happened. However, he was  still very keen to serve because there was a report in the  Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 9/5/17, more than one year later, that he was in fact leaving for overseas – to the UK –  as a volunteer munition worker. While he is not included on the table below, on the grounds that he did not serve in the AIF, there was another munition worker in the UK who is included. Leslie Henry James Hole, who had been born in Bristol, England, enlisted in January 1916 and served overseas but he was discharged in July 1918, as medically unfit, in the UK. On discharge he took up work as a munition worker in the UK . After the War he returned to Australia and applied, unsuccessfully it appears, for the Soldier Settlement scheme.

These brief examples highlight some of the difficulties in creating the definitive table of all those with a link to the Shire of Alberton who enlisted and served in the AIF.

For most men, as the table shows, the links are obvious and plentiful, but for others the evidence is very limited – perhaps nothing more than a railway warrant issued by the Shire Secretary – and it can be hard to interpret. Yet it is this latter group – most commonly, itinerant rural workers – who are so important in establishing the complete picture of how the War played out in this particular rural community. Paradoxically, the group easiest to miss or ignore is the most important one when it comes to uncovering the social history of the complete community.





As before, 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)


70. The girl and the young soldier

The first part of the following account is based exclusively on a series of articles that appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative over the period late February to early March 1916. While relying so closely on newspaper articles calls into question the accuracy and scope of the evidence presented, it does at least position the modern reader as someone in the Shire of Alberton reading the same material 100 years ago.

Violet Freeman was a 19 yo working as a domestic (servant) for Mrs Ellen Barbara Alford of Commercial Street, Yarram. Violet’s step-father was Richard Cantwell, a farmer from Woodside. Violet had been working for Mrs Alford for ‘some three or four months’.

Violet was engaged to 21 yo Herbert Walter Tolhurst who had recently enlisted. The marriage had been organised for Monday 21 February (1916). Tolhurst was an English immigrant who had been working in the local area. He had met Violet when she was still living at Woodside and he had been working in the same area. It was suggested that Tolhurst … came from England for the purpose of gaining Colonial experience. His people are reputed to be well to do in the Old Country.

Tolhurst was to arrive at Yarram on the Saturday train (19/2/16) for the wedding on the following Monday (21/2/16) but he did not show. Nor was there any communication from him explaining his absence.

That Saturday evening, Violet left the Alford’s home at about 7 o’clock to meet friends. Mrs Alford saw that Violet was upset.

The next afternoon (Sunday 20/2/16), a group of children, down by Carpenter’s Bridge over the Tarra Creek, saw a body in the river. The police recovered Violet’s body from the creek at about 6.00pm that night. The body was found in shallow water. At the coronial inquiry held the very next day (21/2/16), Senior Constable McLeod stated that he

… could see no marks of violence, and from the appearance of the body she had evidently lay in the water and drowned. Her hands were clasped together. He was quite satisfied from the appearance of the body she had deliberately drowned herself. The body may have drifted to the shallower water. There was apparently no struggle, nor was the body in any way tied up.

In none of the reports was there any suggestion that any other person had been directly involved in Violet’s death. The focus was on the motivation for the suicide. There was no post-mortem carried out.

At the coronial inquiry, it emerged that … this was the second time he [Tolhurst] had disappointed the girl about marriage. The step-father claimed that he had not seen his daughter for about 4 weeks – when he had gone to Yarram to give his permission for the marriage – but he was aware that Violet was worried that Tolhurst would not marry her as promised. He stated that he believed Tolhurst’s rejection of his step-daughter was the cause of the suicide.

One of the articles, headed A Sad Case. Young Woman Commits Suicide. Disappointed By A Soldier, claimed that Violet had previously been to the camp at Seymour to confront Tolhurst over his true intentions, and that he had then promised to marry her. The same article attempted to sketch some picture of Violet’s disturbed state of mind on the Saturday after he failed to arrive. It noted that … On Saturday evening the young woman was seen outside the post office reading her Bible. The article concluded that that Tolhurst’s rejection of the planned marriage was the cause of Violet’s suicide:

The young woman had made arrangements for her marriage, having seen a clergyman and invited her friends. Keen disappointment had evidently driven her to the rash act. She is spoken of by those who knew her as a most determined girl, confiding in few, and keeping troubles to herself.

The coronial inquiry which sat on the Monday (21/2/16) – ironically, the day of the planned wedding – was adjourned for a week … in order to get Tolhurst interviews, also to ascertain if deceased had written to her relatives.

When the inquiry resumed (28/2/16), it was informed by Senior Constable McLeod that there was no evidence of any letter written to any relative. Additionally, the court heard that while Tolhurst had been given leave for Saturday 19 February, he had not reported back to the camp at Seymour and had been classed as ‘absent without leave’ since then. Therefore he could not be interviewed. The police constable who investigated Tolhurst’s movements at Seymour noted that the leave he had for Saturday 19 February did not extend beyond the week-end and that he … should have returned at latest Monday morning [21/2/16]. On this basis, Tolhurst did not in fact have leave to attend his wedding at Yarram on the morning of 21 February. The same police officer had also looked for but not found any letters for Tolhurst at the camp.

Faced with Tolhurst’s disappearance and no written communication, in any form, from Violet Freeman that could point to her motivation, the coronial inquiry closed and returned what amounted to an open finding.

To this point, all the articles were based on the open proceedings of the coronial inquiry, supported by witness statements from various locals who were directly involved. However, one week later (8/3/16), after the inquiry had closed, the paper published another story under the headline, Tarra Creek Suicide. Tolhurst’s Statement. Incredibly, this article was based on the witness statement that Tolhurst made to a police officer who interviewed him after he had been apprehended and returned to the Seymour camp (29/2/16). The statement would have been sent to Senior Constable Mcleod but, somehow or other, the editor ( A J Rossiter) of the local paper managed to obtain it and then reveal its contents in the paper. Perhaps Senior Constable Mcleod, even though the inquiry was closed, considered that it was in the local community’s best interest to learn about Tolhurst’s version of events; but it is hard to believe that he would have simply handed over the statement to the local press. Perhaps Rossiter was able to obtain the statement closer to its source at Seymour. The article in the paper is obviously based on the police report from Seymour:

I questioned him in reference to the suicide of Violet Freeman. Tolhurst was ignorant of the fact that the girl had taken her own life, and seemed terribly cut up when I made it known to him. He made the following statement, dated 29th Feb:- I broke camp at Seymour on 19th Feb. with the intention of going to Yarram to marry a girl named Violet Freeman. When I arrived in Melbourne I knocked about and spent about 10s or £1. I was robbed of the rest of the money I had, about 20s or £2. As I had no money I did not go to Yarram. I knocked about the city all last night, and had my meals at The Rest Rooms, St. Kilda Esplanade, and slept on the beach.

Anyone reading the above would form serious doubts about Tolhursts’s commitment to the marriage. Presumably, he kept ‘knocking about’ Melbourne until he was apprehended and returned to Seymour.

Tolhurst was also questioned about letters he received from Violet. The police would have been following up the issue of her motivation, keen to know if there was a final letter. Tolhurst’s comments point to Violet’s desperation for the wedding to occur:

The last letter I received from Violet Freeman was on the 17th inst. I also received a letter on the 15th inst. I received a letter about a month or six weeks ago, in which she said, “For God’s sake don’t slip me up.” She visited Seymour about a month ago. She had previously spoken of suicide.

In addition to the details presented in the local paper, people in the town would have also had background information on the couple. For example, it appears that Violet was Roman Catholic. At least her brother, Thomas Joseph Freeman, was. He enlisted just a few weeks after her death. Tolhurst, on the other hand, gave his religion, when he enlisted, as Church of England. Yet his name appears on the honor roll for the local Presbyterian Charge.  Violet was buried in the Alberton cemetery by Rev. Frederick A Hagenauer, the Presbyterian minister. Possibly, Violet was going to marry Tolhurst in the Presbyterian Church. Nothing is certain here, but it does appear that locals would have been aware that there was a religious dimension to the tragedy.

Clearly, at the time there would have been much conjecture and talk about what drove Violet to suicide. Equally, people would have made judgements about her character and certainly they would have had strong opinions about Tolhurst’s commitment, and his character generally. The possibility that Violet was pregnant – there was no suggestion of this in the newspaper reports – would certainly have been raised. Some would have taken Violet’s side, others might have felt that she was trying to force Tolhurst into marriage.

But beyond the personal tragedy of Violet’s suicide, the manner of how the case was reported is revealing. The whole story is presented as something of a morality play or even a ‘lesson’ for the local community: a story of what happens when people behave recklessly or irresponsibly. It also stands as a warning to others, with a clear message about trusting too much in young men enlisting and heading off to war. In this sense, whether intended or not, it was an apt counter to all the sermons of Rev Cox and others that focused exclusively on the image of the young soldier as ‘a soldier of Christ’. Clearly, not every young soldier was heroic, selfless and loyal. Perhaps there was even a message there about the need to be particularly careful with young, itinerants who were working in the community but who might not share the same set of values that the local community espoused.

What the people of Yarram probably never knew of Tolhurst after this episode was that he deserted.

Tolhurst’s service file shows that he was born in Maidstone, England. His mother as next-of-kin was still living there. The file also shows that he had had 2 years service in the Officer training Corps at Maidstone Grammar School, which does suggest a comfortable, if not privileged, social background. He gave as his address on his application to enlist as F Growse, Yarram [John Frederick Growse, farmer, Yarram], and he passed his first medical at Yarram on 3/12/15. The oath was taken in Melbourne on 13/1/16. Otherwise his file is very scant. The last entry consists of the proceedings of a … standing Court of Inquiry’ held on 13 April 1916 ‘for the purpose of inquiring into the illegal absence of HERBERT WALTER TOLHURST 18th. Light Horse Reinforcements. The inquiry established that Tolhurst…  had been absent without leave from 10/3/16 to the present date 13/4/16’. The finding was that ‘Private Herbert Walter Tolhurst is guilty of desertion from 10/4/16 and is indebted to the Government to amount of £10-1-10 for Kit issued and retained by him.

Like others, it is possible that Tolhurst re-enlisted under another name. It is also possible that he simply ‘disappeared’.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for Tolhurst Herbert Walter

69. Maurice Edward O’NEILL 1960

This post on the death of Maurice Edward O’Neill needs to read in conjunction with Post 41: Pressed to enlist. Maurice O’Neill was one of the 3 O’Neill brothers from Woodside who were the target of anonymous letters to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative over the period  April to June 1915.  As far as ‘Patriot’ was concerned, not enough young men from Woodside had enlisted and the O’Neill boys typified this claimed lack of patriotism. The 3 brothers did in fact enlist – May/June 1915 – and they all served in 24 Battalion. Two brothers – Simon John O’Neill (1958) and Joseph Geoffrey O’Neill (2062) – survived the War but Maurice Edward O’Neill was killed in action (30/6/16).

Maurice O’Neill was born at Darriman. At the time he enlisted (18/6/1915) he was living at Woodside with his mother, Mrs Mary Jane Kerr. As a boy he attended the local state school. It appears that his father – William John Kerr – had died prior to his enlistment.

The O’Neill boys were Roman Catholic. Maurice gave his occupation as ‘labourer’. On his enlistment papers he noted that he had been in the Woodside Rifle Club for 3 years. At the time he enlisted he was 22 yo and single.

The initial medical was held at Yarram on 26/5/1915 and he was then given a railway warrant, dated 31/5/1915, to travel to Melbourne. The enlistment, including the additional medical examination, was not completed until 16/6/1915. He was posted to 24 Battalion and he embarked for overseas on 26/8/1915.

Private O’Neill served on Gallipoli from 11/11/1915 until the withdrawal. He was back in Alexandria in early January 1916. His battalion left Alexandria in March 1916 and was in France by the end of that month.

Private O’Neill was killed within 3 months of reaching the Western Front. He was killed in action on the night of 29-30 June 1916. He was in a raiding party on enemy trenches which set out at midnight (29/6/1916). The 24 Battalion was at Rue Marle, near Erquinghem. The battalion diary recorded the event. Private O’Neill would have been the ‘1 OR [other rank] killed’:

12 midnight. Battalion took part in combined Brigade raid on German trenches. 24 Btn party under Lts Carrick & Kerr penetrated German trenches. Killed about 20 and took 5 German prisoners. Lt Carrick went back twice for wounded. 1 OR killed. 2 wounded.

Private O’Neill’s body was returned with the raiding party and he was buried in … Ration Farm Cemetery near Bois Grenier 1 1/2 miles south of Armentieres.

The cable advising of his death was dated 11/7/1916 and details of his burial were forwarded in a letter to his mother dated 8/11/1916.

Two months after the death of her son, the mother wrote to the AIF asking for information on her son’s ‘money [deferred pay] and effects’. In the same letter she also sought information on one of her other sons – Simon John O’Neill – who had been wounded. Touchingly, but somewhat naively, she enquired,

I would like to know if he was sent to England or of he would be allowed to come home for a while till he recovers from his wounds.

Private O’Neill’s personal effects were returned in February 1917: Cards, Photos, Writing Pad, Leather Case, Turkish Bandolier.

When the mother completed the (National) Roll of Honour form she gave Woodside as the location with which her son was ‘chiefly connected’. Maurice O’Neill’s name is recorded on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial and the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll, where he is also recorded as ‘killed’.


National Archives file for O’Neill Maurice Edward
Roll of Honour: Maurice Edward O’Neill
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Maurice Edward O’Neill
War Diary 24 Battalion

67. Ireland, Empire and Irish-Australians

From the beginning of the War, Australia’s involvement was seen through the lens of the British Empire. The British cause was just; the political, economic, social and cultural links between Australia and the Mother Country were seamless; and it lay in Australia’s strategic interest to defend the Empire. Yet, historically, this ‘defence of the Empire’ rationale would not have sat comfortably with the significant Irish-Australian minority, precisely because the Empire was seen as the source of Ireland’s problems. For the Irish-Australians there needed to be a circuit breaker that would enable them to embrace the Empire. It came in the form of Home Rule: the promise of political autonomy for an Ireland that, with its own Irish Parliament, would continue to function within the Empire.

Notwithstanding several hundred years of occupation, dispossession and persecution, political relations between Irish nationalists and Great Britain at the outbreak of WW1 were, apparently, positive. There was general agreement that the promise of Home Rule and the political influence of the Irish Nationalists in the British Parliament had shifted the balance of power in Ireland’s favour. Indeed, the general level of trust and mutual dependence were strong enough for Ireland to support Great Britain and the Empire in the war against Germany. In the first 12 months of WW1, 80,000 Irish volunteered, with equal numbers coming from Ulster and nationalist Ireland. In all, approximately 140,000 men enlisted in Ireland during the War. Added to this number were the thousands of Irish men already serving in the British army before the War began. The total number of Irish soldiers in the British army is disputed but it appears to have been approximately 200,000. (1)

Redmond, the leader of the Nationalist Party, and the person likely to become the first Prime Minister of the new Irish Parliament under Home Rule, actively campaigned for Irish recruits to join the British army. Incredibly, in September (25/9/14), the English PM, Asquith, addressed a recruiting meeting in Dublin itself. Speaking at the same meeting, Redmond was quoted as declaring:

Having been conceded autonomy, Ireland was in honour bound to take her place with the other autonomous portions of the Empire. He said to the people of England, “You kept faith with Ireland. Ireland will keep faith with you.”

Germany had become the common enemy, and the defeat of Germany the political priority. Ireland had to join the fight against the tyranny of Germany. As Asquith put it at the same meeting:

How could Ireland, hearing the cry of smaller nations, delay to help them in their struggle for freedom?

All this was reflected in Australia, right down to the local level – in this case the Shire of Alberton. Indeed, the 2 quotes above are taken from an article in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative dated 30/9/14 and headed, Mr Asquith In Dublin. Appeal To Irishmen.

However, not all nationalists in Ireland were prepared to support Redmond’s call for Irish volunteers to join the British army. At the end of September 1914, Sinn Fein issued a manifesto repudiating Redmond and his call for volunteers for the British army. The general response to such a call was dismissive. This was the case both in Ireland and in Australia. Again, as an example of how this played out at the local level – the Shire of Alberton, Gippsland – the following letter to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (30/9/14) was written by the local Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Patrick Sterling, Yarram:

Sir – No importance is to be attached to the cables that have appeared in the press about the Sinn Fein manifesto in Ireland. Sinn Fein means “Ourselves,”  and the Sinn Fein movement was a breaking away by hot young bloods from the slow constitutional methods of the Irish Parliamentary Party. It was simply a toy revolution and was killed by ridicule. The Sinn Feiners cooly ignored British rule in Ireland, printing their own postage stamps, establishing their own Courts of Justice, appointing their own magistrates, etc. The boycott of all foreign manufactures was about the only sensible plank in their platform. In their young days (about six years ago) they ran a daily paper, which soon was reduced to a weekly, and this soon died. They ran a candidate for Parliament, but he was ignominiously defeated. At present the Sinn Feiners are a negligible quantity and only capable of making noises. Nationalist Ireland is to a man behind Redmond, and prepared to do and die for the Empire. No one has any need to be alarmed at the manifesto of the Sinn Fein tailors of Tooley street.

It is an incredible letter. As leader – spiritual, and in this particular case also political – of the local Catholic community, Fr Sterling was determined to trivialise and dismiss Sinn Fein, and re-pledge loyalty to the Empire. The fact that he felt the need to make the case, suggests that the local community – both Protestant and Catholic – were very aware that events in Ireland were watched closely in Australia. People knew that such events could influence attitudes and actions on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide in Australia. What happened in Ireland was of more than just passing interest.

But history was to show that Sinn Fein was neither spent nor impotent as a political force. Sinn Fein, in fact, was just one part of a wider, ongoing threat to Irish politics that sat uncomfortably behind the promise of Home Rule and the reassurances of support from Irish nationalists for the British Empire.

It is often argued (2) that in the immediate lead-up to WW1 Britain was distracted from what was unfolding in Europe by the threat of civil war in Ireland. This gives some indication of how significant the Irish problem was in British politics at the time. It also suggests that the spirit of co-operation that emerged very quickly when fighting broke out in early August was based more on conviction than realpolitik. In fact, the reality was that even then the promise of Home Rule was seriously flawed. Everything was to be placed ‘on hold’ for the course of the War. Ulster would almost certainly have to be excluded.  The Conservative Party in the British Parliament was passionately opposed to Home Rule. The Protestants in Ulster had formed a large, organised, trained and armed paramilitary force to oppose Home Rule, an arrangement they characterised as ‘Rome Rule’. Irish Nationalists were busy creating an equivalent force. And, arguably most significantly, the British army in Ireland had made it clear to the Liberal Government in Britain that its support could not be relied on, particularly if there was the chance of military conflict with the Protestant forces in Ulster. Against this background, the calls from Irish nationalists for support for the Empire were always compromised. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the most striking feature of Irish-British politics at the time was the desperation that characterised efforts to avoid armed conflict in Ireland. In terms of this desperation, it is significant that Asquith when addressing the recruiting meeting in Dublin – referred to above – was reported thus:

He did not wish to touch on controversial ground, but there are two things which become unthinkable – first that one section of Irishmen is going to fight another; and second that Great Britain is going to fight either. (Cheers). … The old animosities between us are dead and scattered like autumn leaves.

But at Easter 1916 the dreaded conflict did arise.

The initial Irish response to the Easter Rebellion in Australia was one of shock and outrage. On 5/5/16 the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published, in detail, Bishop Phelan’s response to the events under the heading, The Disturbance In Ireland.  Views Of The Bishop Of Sale. Phelan was highly critical of those involved. He claimed that they had been duped by German agents. Their actions threatened all the gains that Redmond and his supporters had won. But he concluded that it was also a ‘blessing in disguise’ that the plot had been suppressed in its infancy because the rest of Ireland would now redouble its support for Britain in the War:

… the outrage in Dublin will increase the resolve of the Nationalists, the overwhelming majority of the people, to contribute the last man in support of the flag [Union Jack] now defending the independence of Ireland, as of Australia.

Earlier, the Age (28/4/16) had carried Archbishop Carr’s response. Under the heading “An Outburst Of Madness.”, Carr had similarly claimed that the rebels had been the victims of German intrigue, supported by Irish-American extremists; and that the plot was designed to undermine Redmond’s power as much as it was to defeat the British. He also claimed that … there can be no doubt about the loyalty of the great mass of the Irish people. Carr finished by attacking the rebellion:

From every point of view I regard it as an outburst of madness, an anachronism and a crime.

The Age (28/4/16) also featured a series of telegrams from Irish groups in Australia to Redmond. The sense of condemnation was universal:

New South Wales Home Rule Executive – Sectional pro-German rioting disgusts Home Rulers here. Take heart. Our race is with you and your gallant countrymen at the front.

Celtic Club, Melbourne – Celtic Club views with abhorrence attempts of traitors to destroy good name of Ireland. Be assured of our lasting sympathy in your efforts for Home Rule and empire…

It is clear that at least to Easter 1916, in both Ireland and Australia, there was a shared understanding that Britain’s commitment to Home Rule would be repaid with Irish support for the War effort. This arrangement marked a new high point in Irish-British relations and promised a less contested future. In Australia, it also meant that support for Irish autonomy did not have to mean opposition to the Empire. At least in the first part of WW1, the Irish Question did not have to compromise patriotism. Individual power brokers in the local community, such as Fr Sterling, were determined that this new direction in Irish politics was to be encouraged and protected.

However, in the period immediately after the Easter Rebellion the promised future began to unravel. The tipping point came with the series of executions – 15 in total – of the leaders of the uprising. To some extent the criticism that those supporting Home Rule directed at the rebels encouraged the harsh treatment handed out by the military authorities in Dublin, acting under martial law. Certainly, as we have seen, there was little support for the rebels. Moreover, they had colluded with the enemy.

Very quickly, opinion in Australia turned dramatically and the behaviour of the British army in Ireland became as important as the uprising itself. The following telegram was sent by (Roman Catholic) Archbishop Duhig of Brisbane to the President of the United Irish League of Melbourne. The president had himself sent a cable to Redmond urging clemency for the rebels and it is clear that Archbishop Duhig is of the same opinion. The Archbishop also saw what the longer term consequences were to be. The report was in the Age of 11/5/16 (p.7) under the heading: The Appeal For Clemency

Congratulate you [President, United Irish League of Melbourne] on cable to Redmond urging clemency to Sinn Fein and other rebels. Assure you that Irish Queenslanders who have loyally and generously supported the cause of Empire and its Allies are grievously disappointed and saddened by hasty executions. Imperial Government should know we believe that General Maxwell’s execution policy is ill advised, and calculated to do immense injury to recruiting at a most critical time, and is sure to be used for enemy propaganda purposes. People are already contrasting the wholesale death sentences passed on the Irish revolutionary leaders with the clemency extended to rebels and mutineers elsewhere in the Empire.

In the Age 16/5/16 (p.7), Archbishop Carr of Melbourne – Mannix did not become Archbishop of Melbourne until 1917 – was also reported as deploring the executions. He warned that, once again, the British Government was misreading Irish history. Referring to the … lamentable state of things in Ireland, he stated:

I have not concealed my opinion of the criminal folly of the uprising. It has led, as every friend of Ireland at a distance could see, to a dreadful loss of life and destruction of property. Instead of advancing the cause of Ireland it has, I fear, thrown it back considerably. But while we deplore the act of rebellion and its sad consequences, we feel called on to deprecate the continued executions that are taking place in England and Ireland. There are some who advocate that the utmost severity of the law should be put in force against the captured rebels. They imagine that by this straining of the law the fear of punishment will prevent further insurrection. It is the old cry of vae victis – ‘woe to the vanquished.’ But these advocates of merciless punishment must have misread Irish history. In no other country has punishment been more ruthlessly resorted to, and in no country has it produced more unexpected and undesirable effects.

For Irish-Australians, the British Empire was proving, yet again, to be the oppressor of Ireland. Loyalty to the same Empire from mid 1916 was to become more problematic. Irish-Australian politics moved into a far more nuanced and ambiguous framework. It still had to be possible to support the War against Germany and it certainly had to be possible to support all those thousands of Irish-Australians who had volunteered. Inevitably, such support was increasingly filtered not through the lens of Empire but rather the lens of Australian Nationalism. The shift would open up a highly divisive fault line in Australian society.

As an illustration of this significant shift, consider the following report from the Gippsland Standard and Albertan Shire Representative (28/7/16) which covered the remarks made by Fr P Sterling at the welcome home at Yarram for Trooper William Sweeney. Sweeney, a Roman Catholic, and one of 3 brothers who enlisted, had been one the earliest volunteers. He had been badly wounded at Gallipoli and was repatriated to Australia for a medical discharge. It is questionable to read too much into comments like this made 100 years ago, but at the same time whereas other speakers would typically labour the themes of Empire, Sterling does appear to be deliberately identifying both himself and Sweeney as Australian. The ‘joke ‘ about the Irishman preferring to be shot could also have been a dark aside on the recent executions.

Rev. Father Stirling [sic] said trooper Sweeney had come back as one of the men who had found a new name, symbolic of greatness, the name of Anzac. We often read about the war, and stand dazed, not being able to realise that the men who did such deeds were from our own country. An Englishman, a Scotchman [sic] and an Irishman once met, and the Englishman said he would like to be a Scotchman, the Scotchman said he would like to be an Englishman, giving their reasons, but the Irishman said if he could not be an Irishman he would like to be shot. (Laughter). He (the speaker) happened to be an Irishman [Sterling was born at Nenagh, Co. Tipperary], and if not he would rather be an Australian. (Applause). Trooper Sweeney had returned practically a wreck. It is up to the people of Australia to see that the returned soldiers do not go in need. (Applause).



(1) For an overview of Irish enlistment numbers see Irish Soldiers in the First World War( Somme), Department of the Taoiseach

(2) See for example:

Hochschild, A 2011, To End All Wars: A Story Of Protest And Patriotism In The First World War, Pan Books, London. Chapter 6, On The Eve

J Connor, P Stanley, P Yule, 2015, The War At Home: Vol 4 The Centenary History of Australia And The Great War, Oxford University Press, Melbourne. Chapter 11, The Outbreak Of War And The 1914 Election.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire representative


Of current interest:

State Library Victoria:

The Irish Rising: ‘A terrible beauty is born’  17 March to 31 July 2016

Honest History:

‘Across the sea to Ireland: Australians and the Easter Rising 1916 – highlights reel’

66. Percy Allen WALLACE 273

Lance Corporal Wallace was the first of the men form the Shire of Alberton to die in France.

Percy Allen Wallace was born at Glengarry, Gippsland. The family must have moved into the Shire of Alberton when he was a child because both Percy and his younger brother – Leslie Roy Wallace – went to Yarram SS and both feature on the school’s honour roll. Percy Wallace also appears on both the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and the Shire of Alberton War Memorial.

At the time he enlisted, Percy Wallace gave his occupation as ’mill hand’ and also ‘butter maker’. He appears on the Electoral Roll as ‘butter maker’, with the address given as Yarram. His father – William Wallace – is also listed as a ‘sawyer’ of Goodwood Mills, via Port Albert.

The 2 Wallace brothers enlisted in late September 1914. It appears that Percy enlisted first, as one of the initial group at Yarram, on 21/9/14 and then Leslie went directly to Broadmeadows and enlisted 2 days later (23/9/14). Leslie served in the AIF until he was returned to Australia on Anzac leave in December 1918.

Private Percy Wallace’s first term with the AIF did not last long. He was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ on 19/12/14, just 3 months after enlisting. There is no indication what the medical issue was but when he re-enlisted on 8/2/15, just a couple of months later, he did acknowledge the earlier discharge – ‘medically unfit’.

Interestingly, the brothers appear on the Methodist Circuit honour roll, yet Percy’s religion was given as both Presbyterian (enlistment papers) and Church of England (embarkation roll), and Leslie gave his religion as Church of England. The anomaly points to the tendency to employ ‘CoE’ as the default Protestant denomination.

On his re-enlistment, Pte Percy Wallace joined 22 Battalion. He served on Gallipoli from late August 1915. In mid March 1916, the 22 Battalion left Alexandria and on 26/3/16 it disembarked at Marseilles. Within 3 weeks of arriving in France he was dead. He died of wounds – G.S.Wound Right leg & Left forearm – on 15/4/16.

22 Battalion had only moved into the front line trenches at Fleurbaix – about 10 Kms from Fromelles – the day before Lance Corporal Wallace was wounded. The entry in the war diary of the battalion details his fate:

Trenches (Fleurbaix). Sniping & observations, very little movement noticed. Patrol moved out from Sec 42. 1 officer 1 O/R. When returning at 11.20 PM when noticed & caught by M.G. fire. Lt McCAUL slightly wounded. L/Cpl WALLACE seriously wounded.

L/Cpl Wallace was taken to No. 8 Casualty Clearing Station but he died just over 12 hours later. He was buried at Merville Cemetery, with Rev. Anthony Fenn officiating.

The family back at Goodwood was informed of the death within 2 weeks. It took 2 more years before all the personal items – (1) Identity Disc, Letter, Photo, Testament, Cigarette Cards, Cigarette Case; (2) Cards, 2 Pieces Fancy Work, 2 Brushes – were returned to the family in 2 shipments.

There was extensive coverage of L/Cpl Wallace’s death in the local paper (Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative) from the end of April to late July 1916. Essentially, the coverage was based on 4 pieces of correspondence that the parents received in the weeks after their son’s death. The family must have provided this correspondence to the editor ( A J Rossiter) of the paper who then used the letters with their approval. As already noted – see Post 65 – Rossiter was a member of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee and a key supporter of the War effort. The cumulative effect of the 4 letters definitely pitched L/Cpl Wallace’s death as a classic and instructive example of heroic sacrifice in a just war.

Letters such as the 4 considered here were common and, obviously, they would have meant a great deal to grieving families, desperate for any personal accounts of their sons’ final moments. However, extensive publication of such letters in the local press was uncommon. Arguably, the editorial decision reflected the reality that L/Cpl Wallace’s death was the first death of a local from the Shire of Alberton on the Western Front. The War had moved from the Gallipoli Peninsula to France; and while there had been a hiatus after Gallipoli, this first death on the Western Front reinforced for everyone back in the Shire of Alberton that the local boys were back in the firing line. There would be so many more deaths to come that it would prove impossible to devote the same amount of copy to each of them. The reporting and grieving processes associated with the dead – and injured – had, inevitably, to become more abbreviated and succinct.

The first news of L/Cpl Wallace’s death came in the ‘editorial’ written by Rossiter for the edition of 28/4/16. At this point it appears that Rossiter did not even appreciate that the death had occurred in France. He was keen to remind readers that Percy had been a star local footballer. In fact, L/Cpl Wallace had answered the call to the sportsmen – particularly the footballers – of Australia, well before it had been made public in the mid 1915 recruiting campaign.

The sad tidings reached Yarram this week of the death of one of our soldier boys, Private Percy Wallace, son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Wallace, of Goodwood. But meagre particulars are to hand, stating that he died from wounds in the legs and arms on 15th inst., probably received in a skirmish with the Turks. … Like others who have enlisted, he was a foremost footballer in this district, men who make good soldiers, of that virile type Australia can ill afford to lose.

In the edition of 3/5/16, under ‘Personal’, Rossiter revealed the contents of the official telegram sent to the family via the postmistress at Port Albert. The cause of death was given – died from gunshot wounds arms and thigh, 15th April – and the customary expressions of sympathy from the King and Nation noted.

Then in the edition of 23/6/16, 2 letters were published relating to L/Cpl Wallace’s death: one from a British nurse working the casualty clearing station where he died; and the other from a mate in the same unit (22 Battalion).

The British nurse – Sister Jean Todd – gave a detailed account of L/Cpl Wallace’s death. Interestingly, in her letter there is no attempt to attach any of the usual expressions of duty done and sacrifice made. Nor are there religious platitudes. Rather, it is short and direct, with a pervading sense of resignation. At the same time, because the letter itself was an act of kindness, the parents would have read into the letter her sense of compassion for their son and taken comfort from the fact that she was there with him when he died.

I am deeply sorry to tell you of the death of your son, 273 Lance-Corporal Wallace, A. I. F., in this hospital [ 8 Casualty Clearing Station, BEF] at 1 p.m. on the 15th. He was admitted before mid-day suffering from gun shot wounds, right arm, right thigh, and the popliteal artery had been severed. From this he lost much blood. The artery was ligatured and restoratives of all kinds applied. He was conscious while the surgeon was dressing the wounds and while injections into the blood stream to try and replace wastage were given. Soon after he became delirious, very restless, finally unconscious, and passed away at 1 o’clock. It is an abrupt tale to send so far, but what more can I say. If possible we grieve more for our overseas men than our home men, but it does not save them.

The second letter was written by L/Cpl Percy Davidson, 22 B. This second Percy was a 20 yo from Tasmania. He described himself as a very close friend of Percy – I mourn his loss very much, as we have been like brothers to each other – and he therefore felt the need to write to the parents to express …  the heartfelt sorrow I have for you at this time. This time there was the conventional appeal to God’s mercy: … I pray that God will comfort and bless you. It was His Will, therefore we must bow to it. There was also the reassurance that he had ‘died like a man’: It may be some consolation to you to know that he died like a man and an Australian. There was also the flash of stoicism when Wallace assured Davidson, as the doctors were working on him – they were talking about amputating his right hand – “Oh, I’m not too bad, Dave [sic], and will write as soon as I am able.”

It is important to remind ourselves of what is happening here. The parents have given permission for the local paper to publish the most intimate letters of their son’s death. Not all parents would do this and there is no way of knowing parents’ true motivation in matter like this; but the more important point is that such accounts augmented the official narrative of the War by filling out the personal experiences of soldiers and their families. This was a level of reality that local readers could not ignore and it was a reality that had a powerful moral force behind it, built on notions of duty, sacrifice, national and Imperial identity, and divine sanction. It was an extraordinarily powerful human narrative; and it would have been very difficult either to challenge or stand outside it.

The last detailed report of the death of L/Cpl Wallace appeared on 28/7/16. Under the heading, Late Private [sic] Percy Wallace. Particulars Of His Death., Rossiter featured another 2 letters. The first was from the sister of Lt. McCaul – the officer who had been with L/Cpl Wallace on the patrol where they had both been wounded – and the second from the chaplain with 22 Battalion.

The letter from Miss Nora McCaul of Glenhuntley Road, Elsternwick to the Wallace parents explains itself.

In case my brother has not written or has not your address, I am sending you the following. Your son was wounded on or about April 13th, and I hear he died of his wounds. My brother was intelligence officer for the 22nd Battalion, and about the middle of April was told to choose a man and find out certain information from the German trenches. He chose your son, and at the same time said to him, “There will be no V.C.s to D.C.M.s hanging to this; probably all we will get will be bullets.” Your son was most anxious to go, and I believe the two set out about 11.30 p.m. They got the information and were returning when the Germans opened fire on them. As my brother said, “We both stopped bullets.” They then had to climb through barb wire entanglements and swim some icy water 6ft. deep. The next my brother remembers was in hospital in Boulogne. In a letter dated May 16th from there my brother says: – “I only heard today that the Lieutenant [sic]-Corporal, who was with me, has died of his wounds. I am awfully upset about him, not only because he was one of my best men, but also because I took him with me. Some one, of course, had to go with me, and I naturally chose a good man. He was an awfully good chap. I can’t say how sorry I am at his loss.” I hope this will all interest you. My brother after a month in hospital in Boulogne was moved to London. We had a cable last week, and although doing splendidly he is still unable to put his foot to the ground. Sincerest sympathy in your sad loss.

It is interesting to note just how important – and common – letter writing was at the time. There was a vast ocean of correspondence touching on soldiers’ deaths and their war experiences. However, as noted earlier, this particular case, where such extensive correspondence on one individual soldier’s fate was published in the local paper, was rare.

The second letter, the one from the chaplain – F H Dwinford, Church of England – ran to a very predictable script. He gave the briefest account of the actual death from wounds, reassured the family that the grave was …  in excellent order and has on it a wooden cross with a metal inscription … and focused on the manner of and purpose of the death. The death had not been in vain:

But one can only say, what one feels so much, that death for one’s country is a fine death, and a life laid down for Australia is a grand and noble sacrifice. And it is on the lives laid down in this war that a new generation will be built up.

The chaplain concluded with the customary reassurance that there was indeed a higher level of reality and purpose to the horror that then engulfed the world:

I can only hope with so many other chaplains that the great truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings consolation and comfort to you. Death is simply the passing away from one state of existence into another, and the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.

The parents – and the readers of the local paper – were meant to draw all manner of lessons from the tragic death of L/Cpl Wallace. He had lived and died the life of the good soldier and the true Australian. Interestingly, in the correspondence the Imperial references are not as apparent as the National ones. He was stoic in the face of suffering. There was meaning to his death and God would take him unto Himself. The tone of the British nurse is more problematic, but the overall effect of the letters is to gloss human tragedy. Of course, we do not know what effect the letters had on the family – both then and subsequently – although we would have to assume that they provided some support because, at the very least, they would have certainly raised the status of their son in the eyes of the local community. But, as argued, the effect on the individual family was only part of the story. Such reporting was fundamentally important in maintaining the uncritical and uni-dimensional narrative of the War, which had not changed in any substantive way since August 1914. It would be the same narrative that would inevitably support the introduction of conscription.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for WALLACE Percy Allen

Roll of Honour: Percy Allen Wallace

First World War Embarkation Rolls: Percy Allen Wallace

War Diary 22 Battalion