Category Archives: Post War

213. Sectarianism after WW1

This post provides an overview of the extent, nature and causes of the sectarianism that characterised life in the Shire of Alberton in the immediate years after the War. It is based largely on reports in the local media from the time.

Background

Sectarianism in the local community was hardly new, and it has been covered in numerous earlier posts. Essentially, in terms of causes, there was the centuries old clash between Roman Catholicism and British Protestantism. There were significant differences in terms of dogma, the role and responsibility of the related clergy and fundamentals such as the significance of the Bible in the quest for personal salvation. There was also a long, bitter history between the two religions that had featured persecution on both sides.

There was also the vexed issue of Ireland. In part, this represented a religious clash between Irish (Roman) Catholic and British Protestant. But it also covered Irish nationalism and the fight – both political and military – for an Ireland completely free of British control. There was also the determination by Protestants in the north (Ulster) to remain within the United Kingdom.

Prior to the War itself, there had been the threat of civil war in Ireland. It was largely averted by the British promise of Home Rule after the War. This background was covered in Post 67. Ireland, Empire and Irish-Australians. However after the War and, more particularly, the Easter Uprising of 1916, there was a different political dynamic in play. The 3 years immediately after the War featured armed conflict between Irish nationalists and the ‘occupying’ British troops and Auxiliaries. Then, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and the realisation of a form of Irish independence, the conflict with the British was superseded by a bitter civil war between those who supported the treaty and those who opposed it and wanted a complete break with the UK. Overall, the political situation in Ireland in the years immediately after the War was dire and the obvious hostility towards the British In Ireland was inevitably reflected amongst the Irish Catholic community in Australia. Where in 1914, Australians, including those from the Irish-Catholic community had flocked to join the defence of the Empire, by the end of the War – after two divisive conscription referenda, the Easter Rebellion and the British campaign to crush the rebellion and execute the ring leaders – support for the Empire amongst the Irish Catholic population in Australia had softened considerably. The dynamic situation in Ireland in the years after the War compromised Irish-Catholic Australians’ support for the Empire even more, particularly when Protestant clergy in Australia declared, in effect, that Roman Catholicism itself and the Pope posed an existential threat to the Empire. In part, this argument was a reworking of the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917.

Beyond several centuries of religious differences, the ripple effects of the ever-present conflict in Ireland and the strident claims of Catholic disloyalty to the Empire, there were still further drivers to the increasingly bitter sectarianism that characterised post WW1 Australia. As noted in several previous posts, schooling was a constant flash point and, arguably, its effect was even more pronounced in rural communities. Catholic efforts to establish their own schools, operated by religious orders such as the Sisters of St. Joseph, were viewed negatively by others in the the local community. The negativity was not just because of religious differences or the view that the local Catholics were choosing to remove their children from the local state school and effectively set them apart from the other children, but also because of the challenge of providing schooling in rural communities where the issue of student numbers was always critical. Any new Catholic school made the challenge more difficult. The end of WW1 saw the push for increased secondary schooling in rural communities and, as the likes of Bishop Phelan pushed for Catholic secondary schooling in Gippsland, tensions increased over the impact of such schooling on equivalent state school initiatives.

The sectarian tension associated with schooling went beyond the issue of its provision, because there was also a very significant background issue round the question of Bible or Scripture study or lessons in the state school. For a long time there had been a push from the Protestant Churches for some form of ‘non sectarian’ religious instruction, based on Bible reading or study, in Victorian state schools, even to the extent that such instruction could be given by the teachers themselves rather than visiting clergymen. However, such a position was, in theory at least, at odds with the non-sectarian and ‘secular’ nature of the state school system which had been established in all the various colonies in the 1870s and 1880s. After WW1, in the midst of heightened sectarianism, Protestant groups accused the Romand Catholic Church of undermining their attempts to bring about such Bible instruction in the state school. From the Catholic perspective there was indeed an element of wariness about the motivation behind the push. Beyond issues of dogma and theology associated with Bible reading per se, the wariness stemmed from the degree to which during the War the local state school had been pressed to serve the British (Protestant) Empire. There was Catholic concern that Protestantism, as well as having been declared the ‘natural’ religion of the Empire, was also being proposed as the natural religion of the state school.

There were still more dimensions to the ugly sectarianism of post WW1. Interestingly, one emerging dimension concerned Australian nationalism. Throughout the War, such nationalism had been incorporated within the total commitment to the Empire. The true Australian was one, first and foremost, loyal to the Empire. However, in the sectarianism of post WW1 this simple equation began to unravel. Irish Catholics were increasingly concerned by what they saw as British repression in Ireland. For them, the Empire had become an oppressor. At the same time, on the other side, there were strident claims from some Protestants that Roman and Irish (Australian) Catholics, led by the anti-Christ Pope, were effectively ‘traitors’ to the Empire, and, in fact, had been throughout the War itself. Not surprisingly, the very idea of Australian nationalism came under great pressure and Catholics inevitably looked for an expression of such nationalism outside the (Protestant) Empire.

Another dimension involved national politics. Irish Catholics tended to support the ALP and, obviously, they had been largely identified with the anti-conscription cause – itself interpreted as an anti-Empire push – during the War. Politically, they were seen as left, even radical, and also definitely anti-Empire. On the other side, Protestant Churches were largely represented as politically conservative.

One final dimension worth noting concerned individual personalities. For both sides, the bitter sectarianism both threw up and was itself defined and driven by key personalities. As we will see, such personalities attracted intense interest and their individual appeal and actions definitely shaped what happened.

All these dimensions are evident in what follows.

Loyalty by numbers

One of the key background issues to the intense debates at the time covered the extent to which Irish Catholics had been ‘loyal’ during the War. For many, this question came down to numbers: the numbers of local Catholics who enlisted. Throughout this blog, I have attempted to plot enlistments relative to the religious affiliation described on the enlistment papers. I have also attempted to tie these figures to what we take to have been the levels of religious affiliation in the local community itself. None of this analysis is as simple or easy as it might appear. Take the case of the levels of religious affiliation in the local district. The 1911 Census gave a figure of 21,349 males who were identified as Catholic for the County of Buln Buln. This suggested a figure of 19% of the total male population for the county. We could extrapolate from this and assume the same level for the Shire of Alberton. However, there are some qualifications. First, while the Shire of Alberton is located within the county of Buln Buln, the county is considerably larger than the shire. There could well have been variations in terms of Catholic settlement density across the whole county that affected the precise figure for the number of Catholics within the Shire of Alberton. Second, the overall figures are not broken down by age-cohorts. Such information would help identify the numbers of men who were actually eligible to enlist at points throughout the War. There are also problems with the designation of religious affiliation on the men’s enlistment forms. True, virtually everyone identified with a religion, but there is no way of knowing the strength of the religious conviction or the commitment to the associated religious beliefs and practices. So, strictly speaking, the statistics refer only to ‘in-name’ affiliation. Also, sometimes with brothers you have different religions given and there appears to have been a tendency to use ‘Church of England’ as a sort of generic religion. With all these qualifications in mind, the following points can be made:

The complete list of men with a definite association to the Shire of Alberton who enlisted between 1914 and 1918 and who indicated a religious affiliation – there were only 13 cases where a religion was not given – was 807. Of this number, 109 men described their religion as ‘Roman Catholic’. This number represents 13.5% of the total Shire enlistments.

Previous analysis – in earlier posts – indicates that the percentage of Roman Catholic enlistments varied over time. For example it was at its highest in the first half of 1915 (17%) and it remained around 16% through 1916. It was lower from 1917, but it is difficult to be precise about the exact decline, principally because enlistments as a whole declined significantly from that point and the numbers are too small to be able to make definite observations. For example, whereas total enlistments in the Shire for 1915 were 302, there were only 31 enlistments in the first half of 1917, with 3 of these Catholic. With this significant qualification about the numbers involved, it appears that there was a drop-off in the rate of Catholic enlistments in the Shire from the start of 1917. This is hardly surprising given the background of the conscription referenda.

In a real sense, the issue here is not one of statistics but community perception. With more than 100 Catholic enlistments over the period of the War, the perception in the local community would definitely have been that the Catholic community had ‘answered the call’. It is also worth noting that the local Catholic priest, Fr Sterling, served as a chaplain with the rank of captain in the AIF over 1916-1917. In the local press at the time this service was noted and praised. It would have served as a very visible example for other potential Catholic enlistments.

Also in terms of perception, it is worth noting that of the 79 names on the cenotaph in the main street of Yarram – the memorial to the dead of the Shire of Alberton – 13 of the names are Catholic (16%). The fact might not mean much today, but 100 years ago locals would definitely have known the individual men and noted the significance of their religion.

Overall, in terms of enlistments and sacrifice, the Catholic community in the Shire of Alberton had proved its loyalty over the course of the War.

The following is an overview of episodes that illustrate the nature and extent of sectarianism in the local community in the first few years after WW1.

The test of loyalty and the increasing the number of Catholic schools in Gippsland

The first episode has already been covered in a previous post – 154. The start of the 1918 school year and yet more division – but it is included here because it touches on another aspect of the critical issue of loyalty. Throughout the War years, Bishop Phelan of Sale had pursued an ambitious church and school building program in Gippsland. He had enjoyed significant success with new churches at Bairnsdale, Maffra and Yarram and convent schools at Leongatha and Yarram (opened for the start of the 1918 school year). Further, his ambitious plan for a major Catholic boys’ secondary school – St. Patrick’s – at Sale was keenly promoted. It would open in 1921. Part of the motivation behind the ambitious program was clearly to lift the profile of the Catholic community in Gippsland and emphasise their right to exercise civic and political power. For example, Phelan was quoted – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 26/4/18 – in relation to the proposed Catholic boys’ college at Sale:

My ambition is that the Catholic boys of Gippsland should have in their own province a college where they would receive such a secondary education as would equip them to take a leading part in civic and national affairs.

But in the same article, Phelan noted the challenges he had faced in his ambitious building program. He noted the inherent difficulties in the geography of the diocese where the Catholic community was spread thinly over such a vast area. He also noted the competition for funds and specifically mentioned … the innumerable demands made on the people on account of the most terrible war in history. He then stated:

But the greatest difficulty experienced was the wall of prejudice raised by narrow-minded people who endeavored to howl down every movement for raising funds except for Red Cross or Imperial purposes. But the stirling Catholics of Gippsland, like their fighting brothers at the front, did their duty towards all the demands of the Empire, and broke through every barrier that prejudice and bigotry would raise between them and their own field of labour.

The Catholic community in Gippsland was aware that fund-raising on their part during the War for their own parochial interests could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty to the Empire. An earlier post – 84. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part B: Secularism – considered the issue in more detail. It described how the proceeds from the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival, held in Yarram in March 1916, were passed in entirety to both the Red Cross and the Victorian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. The amount was very significant – £720 – and it was to that point; and probably for the entire period of the War – the single most successful fund-raiser for the War effort. It was also significant that it came just 2 weeks after the official blessing of the new Catholic church in Yarram which itself had been funded by a far more parochial effort.

Clearly, throughout the War years, there was the perception on the part of the Catholic community that its loyalty to the War effort and the Empire was always under question. The loyalty itself was measured in a range of ways and the scrutiny was intense.

Fr Sterling’s ‘loyalty’ comes under question

The second episode involves a letter to the editor published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 1/5/18. Again, this was obviously before the end of the War but it is important for setting some background to the hostility directed at the local Catholic priest – Fr. Sterling – in the years immediately after the War. Fr Patrick Sterling had been born in Ireland in 1882. He served as parish priest if Yarram from 1914 to 1949. As already indicated, he also served as a chaplain with the AIF. At the time he volunteered, his service received widespread praise in the local community.

The letter in question, signed ‘Returned Soldier’ wanted to know why Sterling had not been invited to a recent function for returned men. There was a clear inference that his absence was a sleight to the returned Catholics in the district:

Kindly allow me to inquire through your valuable columns of those responsible for the Returned Soldiers’ Smoke Night, why the Rev Father Stirling’s name was omitted from the invitation list. He is as much a returned soldier as any of us and his non-inclusion was keenly felt by at least the Catholics present.

The event had been held in the Shire Hall on Thursday 25/4/18 and the report in the local paper on 1/5/18 indicated that … nearly 100 local and district residents’ received invitations.

There was a letter in response from the local branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League published in the paper on 3/5/18 which argued that there had been a direction from the State Executive of the organisation that … troopship chaplains are not eligible for membership of the Returned Soldiers’ League and are not classed as returned soldiers by the Defence Department. The letter continued that as there were limited places it was not possible to include Fr Sterling. There are at least two possible interpretations here. One is that the local committee, acting neutrally, was merely applying the letter of the law. The second is that it was exploiting a technicality to exclude Fr Sterling from attending and, at the same time, intimate that his service with the AIF had not been all that significant. It, effectively, did not rate. The significance of the second interpretation will become clearer later. Certainly, there were some in the local community keen to minimise and denigrate Sterling’s service as a chaplain with the AIF

Intensified attacks on Fr Sterling

The third episode also involves Fr Sterling. From the end of 1918 through to the first part of 1919 there was an extended series of ‘welcome homes’ to local men returning from the War. They were written up in the local paper. Typically, they were hosted by a local dignitary, often the local councillor and invariably a recognised Imperial Loyalist. The conventional patriotic sentiments were always evident.

However, the welcome home staged at Stacey’s Bridge on Friday 10 January 1919 was definitely not in the normal style. It was reported at length in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 17/1/19. This report itself prompted a series of animated letters to the editor over the next few weeks. There were several highly divisive issues on show and the degree of hostility evident is revealing. It points to major fault lines in the local community.

The actual welcome at Stacey’s Bridge was put on for two sergeants – John Cantwell and Aloysius Cotter – and a stoker from the RAN named McKenzie. The two sergeants had survived the full war. They were part of the original group of 4 men from Stacey’s Bridge that left from the Alberton Train Station in September 1914. The original four men were Cantwell, Cotter and also Patrick Sexton and John Babington. Cantwell and Cotter made it through the War and were at this reception. Sexton was killed in April 1918. Babington was not finally discharged until October 1919. Of the four from Stacey’s Bridge who enlisted in September 1914, three were Catholics – Babington was Presbyterian – and it appears that this Catholic background was the distinguishing characteristic of the welcome home.

It was a very large community gathering. The paper reported that some 300 people attended the reception and there were at least 3 local councillors present: McLeod, McGalliard and Barry. The focus of the report however was on the comments made by Fr Sterling.

Fr Patrick Francis Sterling was thirty-seven at the time. As already noted, he had been born in Ireland – Thurles – and his mother as next of kin was still living in Borrisokane, County Tipperary. He had been serving in the parish at Yarram for two years when, in October 1916, he applied for and was given a commission as a captain in the AIF and served as a chaplain until April 1917. In that time he served on ships transporting troops to and from the UK. It was not a long period of service; but he obviously did have experience in the AIF and he could claim to speak with some authority.

Father Sterling’s speech is all the more interesting for what was not said, very deliberately not said. In fact, as reported by the paper, he began by stating that he regretted that he … could not do justice to the occasion by speaking exactly what he felt … because … if he did he ran a big risk of getting six months in jail.

By this point, Catholics had had to develop a particular perspective on the War. They were reluctant to support the claim that the War had been fought to preserve the integrity and supremacy of the British Empire. After all, as they saw it, the Empire was the core problem in Ireland. Yet uncompromising and total dedication to the Empire had been one of the constant themes hammered home in Australia throughout the War and well before it. In the popular mind, the defence of the Empire was a given – even a God-given reality. Moreover, 300,000 thousand Australians had enlisted in the AIF – including many from an Irish Catholic background – to defend the Empire. So there was this fundamental dilemma for many Catholics: how to bypass or downplay the issue of Imperial loyalty – and avoid being seen as pro-British – while at the same time honouring the achievements, sacrifices and unique character of all the Australians who had enlisted.

On this occasion, it is clear that Sterling opted for a pro-Australian and anti-British position. Of course, his comments are being reported to us by the local paper and they may have been coloured by the editor; but they certainly do suggest that Sterling was not being as pro-British and pro-Empire as the times demanded.

He [Sterling] reminded the audience that the credit of winning the war was due in one essential matter solely to the Australians. The British authorities have now admitted that on the occasion of the last big German offensive, every preparation had been made to transport back to England every British soldier in France. As a last resort, and as a desperate gamble, four Australian divisions were hurried up at a critical time, and at Villers-Bretonneux stemmed the German advance once and for all. In plain, sober fact the Australians on that occasion won the war, and saved the world’s freedom. (Applause.)

This idea that Australian troops had in effect ‘won the war’ was reflected in other articles at the time. While the claim was greatly overblown, it did at least reflect the high praise accorded to the AIF by various heads of state, newspaper editors, foreign generals etc. The more important observation here is that Sterling’s comments champion the Australian cause while at the same time questioning British efforts and character. Sterling went on to make other highly complimentary remarks about … that gallant fighting force, the A.I.F. which had earned for itself in deeds of bloody glory a monument “more splendid than gold and more enduring than brass.”

The event itself was taking place just 2 months after the end of fighting. To this point, most other welcome-home events or Armistice celebrations had promoted a conventional narrative of God’s grace in bringing victory, the final triumph of good over evil, the resoluteness of the British fighting spirit, the unvanquished greatness of the Empire, the final defeat of German militarism, the outstanding achievements of the AIF etc. But Sterling started to raise the more awkward questions to do with what, in the end, had been achieved. He argued that for a war that had been waged for … freedom and democracy, and a lot of other high sounding things … the outcomes were decidedly uncertain. He even suggested that the ‘four years of hell’ that the Australian boys had been through ‘to make the world fit to live in’ were currently being compromised by the actions of some of the Allied powers themselves. He singled out France for its determination to maintain conscription and the USA for its declared intention to create a navy which, as Sterling put it, … will make her boss cocky of the seas. Sterling also included an attack on the ‘repatriation scheme’, which he referred to as a ‘huge farce’. The criticism was that the boys had volunteered for war on the solemn promise that they would be looked after when they came home. But now the promise appeared false:

The departing soldiers were told that nothing would be too good for them on their return, and the best would not be good enough for them. And so on ad nauseam. If they wait until these promises materialise they had better make Rip Van Winkle their patron saint. (Applause.)

He then gave an account of a returned soldier who, only recently, had had to cadge from him the ‘price of a bed and a feed’. Coincidentally, less than two weeks later there was a detailed story in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on the plight of a returned soldier who had well and truly fallen through any repatriation safety net. It is not clear if the subject of the article on 29/1/19 is the same person with whom Fr Sterling dealt. However, it is very evident that both the challenge of repatriation and the implicit fear that the returned men were not being sufficiently supported were very much in the public mind.

Fr Sterling also could not let the occasion pass without mentioning that he had been … blackballed from the Yarram Club … and … passed over at Armistice celebrations.

There was singing – ‘Coming Home’, Mother Macree’ etc – and dancing at the function. But there was no mention of standard Imperial tunes, nor any mention of the National Anthem.

Unsurprisingly, the article on Fr Sterling’s comments at the welcome home at Stacey’s Bridge prompted a response. A letter appeared in the very next edition of the local paper on 22/1/19 by an anonymous correspondent who signed himself as ‘Loyal Australian’, with the clear implication that Fr Sterling on the other hand was not loyal. In fact, the gist of the letter was that if he – Fr Sterling- risked six months gaol for speaking his mind then, clearly, his sentiments must have been disloyal. ‘Loyal Australian’ also challenged the priest’s remarks about the British preparedness to evacuate from France and he suggested that no one would believe such a claim. He appeared to confirm that Fr Sterling had been banned from the Yarram Club and passed over for Armistice celebrations. He also claimed that Sterling had also been … turned down by the Returned Soldiers’ Association.

Fr Sterling responded in the next edition of the paper (24/1/1919). By now the debate was indeed heated. Sterling began by attacking ‘Loyal Australian’ for hiding behind the mask of anonymity. He argued that without any idea of the writer’s identity there was no way of testing his own loyalty. Sterling implied that the claimed loyalty might be fake. In fact, he suggested that the cloak of anonymity certainly pointed to a lack of courage. Sterling talked about varieties of loyalty and it is clear what he had in mind:

Loyalty… has so many meanings and ramifications. Loyalty to pocket and flag-flapping loyalty are common specimens. There is also the loyalty of the man who sools others on to fight for him, and who tells his substitute what a fine fellow he is, and what a lot of things will be done for him on his return – if he ever returns.

Fr Sterling continued his claim that the Yarram Club was selective and discriminatory by alleging that a sergeant involved in recruiting [presumably, William Newland] had also been blackballed; and he used this claim as a justification for questioning the very integrity of members of the Club. The criticism was full-on:

Did “Loyal Australian” resign from the Club when a recruiting sergeant was subjected to the indignity of being blackballed? They must be a hard lot to please in that exclusive club of aristocrats. Possibly the sergeant with his honourable wounds was deficient in the Club brand of loyalty. How many shirkers are on the roll call of the Club? Is “Loyal Australian” himself one of them? Is he in good health and physically strong, and as well able to endure the hardships of campaigning, as many others on the too-young-side and the too-old-side have done? Has he enlisted, or tried to do so, even for home defence? Let us wait and see if the boasted loyalty is merely camouflage for humbug.

Fr Sterling also attacked the ‘War Precautions Act’ and Hughes whom he referred to as the ‘livery P.M.’ Sterling referred to national politicians – Hughes, Cook and Pearce – as the ‘tin gods’ of the likes of Loyal Australian. He also made another specific reference, in the context of the repatriation system not working, to a returned soldier living in a tent at the back of newspaper office waiting for a job. The reference in important because the same theme – possibly even the same case – was taken up the paper itself in a major article the next week (29/1/1919).

Not surprisingly, given what he had said about the Yarram Club, there was a response to Fr Sterling’s letter in the next edition, 29/1/1919. It was long, over-written and pompous in tone. Once again the writer was only given as ‘Loyal Australian’. But this letter included a piece of doggerel, penned by another anonymous scribe, ‘Spokeshear’.

The effort was clearly intended to damage the priest’s reputation and image in the community and make him look a fool. Amongst other insults, it questioned both his military service and his religious life. It mocked his Irish brethren. Aimed at a highly public figure in the local community and penned anonymously it was a nasty effort. It is surprising that the paper published such anonymously vindictive attacks. Perhaps the editor believed Sterling’s ‘disloyalty’ justified the attack. The complete effort – under the title of ‘Cinderella’s Voyage’ – is included below. It is worth reflecting that while the Great War was over, longer and deeper conflicts that touched on issues of class, nationality and religion were still very much alive. Those from the land of ‘bogs and hogs’ would have been less than amused.

Cinderella’s Voyage
I’ll tell you of a brave, bold Sterling chap
Who was spoiling for a scrap,
And was soon on board a transport
On a fairly decent job,
With clothes and boots and tucker free,
And a daily one and twenty bob.
And when he reached the land of bogs and hogs
His cobbers came to meet him by the score
But they couldn’t sight his togs,
They seemed to make ‘em sore,
But chappy didn’t care a dam-
For sure those togs were only sham.
And bad luck he didn’t stay,
But he wasn’t sorry that he went,
For he had a bonzer trip,
And it didn’t cost a cent,
And we know this Cinderella chappy
Didn’t mix up in a scrappy,
And wicked people say
He didn’t even – pray.
And soon he reached Australia fit and well,
And if he didn’t fight like hell or pray too well,
He surely wasn’t qualified to be supplied
With bread and beef and beer at a patriotic club,
So now perforce he lines up at the “pub”
And soaks his beer and damns the Club.
And now, alas, this poor Cinderella youth
Declines to mingle with these men uncouth,
Whom you’ll find among the “angels” at the Yarram Club.

Formation of local branch of the Protestant Federation

The fourth episode worth attention involved the formation of a local branch of the Protestant Federation in Yarram in August 1919. The motto of the Protestant Federation was ‘For God, King and Empire’. It had been established in Ballarat at the time of the second conscription referendum in 1917. By the time the local branch was set up in Yarram the Federation claimed a membership of 100,000. In part, it was influenced by the Protestant revivalist movement of the time. It spoke out against moral decline and population peril, and it actively supported causes like prohibition and social justice initiatives such as social housing. Imperial loyalty was its very DNA. Lastly, it was stridently anti-Roman Catholic. Archbishop Mannix was a particular target, as was John Wren.

The local branch was formed in Yarram on 1/8/19 at a meeting held in the Shire Hall with about 50 people present. The local meeting was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 6/8/19. The meeting was presided over by Rev W E Lancaster (Methodist). In his remarks Lancaster noted that the federation … had done a great deal to check different menaces to the country, and to prevent many things that did not tend to promote the welfare of the Protestant community. One particular ‘menace’ that Lancaster highlighted was the Roman Catholic Church. He quoted Gladstone to claim that … where the Church of Rome is weak it is crafty, and where it is strong it is tyrannical. He added:

The past of the Roman Church was dark with intrigue and red with the blond of martyrs.

Then he launched into claims that the Protestant Federation was promoting at the time. They were claims about Roman Catholic perfidy in the recent War. The Roman Church was an enemy of the Empire:

During the war evidence was available to show conclusively that the Roman Church had had a hand in the awfulness that had taken place. The speaker [Lancaster] advised those present to study the Rev. F. A. Hagenauer’s pamphlet describing the relationships of the Papacy to the Kaiser in the war. When Belgium was over-run and France was outraged no protest had gone out from the Vatican, nor was there any papal protest when the Lousitania (sic) was sunk. While Germany was busy submarining Allied and neutral vessels, ships flying the papal flag were immune from attack. While masquerading in the guise of a church the Romanish sect dishonoured the King and endeavoured to bring about the destruction of the Empire. Politically that Church was prepared to sell its influence to the highest bidder, and Protestants should be careful to combat its evil influence wherever and whenever possible. (Applause).

Also present the meeting were Rev M G Opper (Church of England) and Rev S Williams (Presbyterian). Opper spoke briefly about the aims of the Federation: … to substitute liberty for bondage, truth instead of error, and purity instead of corruption. He also mentioned threats to the Empire – ‘social unrighteousness’ and ‘industrial unrest’ – and, again, one such threat was the Pope. He noted that the Federation … wanted to rule out the supremacy of the pope. The first principle of Protestantism was loyalty to God and loyalty to the King.

It was resolved that the president of the local branch was to be George Bland (Methodist) and the 3 vice-presidents would be the three local Protestant clergymen: Revs Melchior George Opper (Church of England, appointed to Yarram October 1918), Samuel Williams (Presbyterian, appointed to Yarram November 1917) and W E Lancaster (Methodist, appointed to Yarram early 1919).

There had been earlier connections to Yarram for some of the influential figures in the Protestant Federation. Rev F A Hagenauer, who at this point (1919) was at Castlemaine, had earlier ministered in Yarram and, in fact, he had recently been relieving in the district when Rev S Williams had been on holidays. Rev G A Judkins, another key figure, had also served for a term in Yarram. He had left in 1904. As we will see, Judkins returned to Yarram to speak on behalf of the Protestant Federation.

The decision to establish a local branch of the Protestant Federation prompted a letter to the editor (8/8/19) from Fr Sterling criticising what he saw as the group’s anti-Roman Catholic bias. Sterling’s letter attempted to make fun of the allegations about the Roman Catholic Church working in concert with Germany. Essentially, Sterling dismissed the claims as nonsense. He also gave his version of what the real motivation was:

Now that the big war is over, and there is no sensational subject for the Sunday sermon, it is not unexpected that a local sectarian war will be dragged in to do duty. Anything to fill the empty pews. However, it won’t worry us. There will be mass at St. Mary’s as usual next Sunday, and the local annual collection for the Pope will most certainly eclipse all records this year. That is the best reply to make to the snuffling slanderers.

Sterling’s letter set off a minor war of correspondence with Rev F A Hagenauer. Hagenauer (13/8/19) challenged Sterling to shown where the Protestant Federation had given ‘false or unreliable’ evidence. He also added the allegation that Stirling, personally, had spoken ‘disrespectfully’ of the Prince of Wales.

In turn, Sterling replied on 15/8/19. It was clear that he was not keen to pursue a debate that he considered nonsensical. He also claimed that the debate was designed to boost sales of Rev Hagenauer’s book(s). Then Stirling tuned his attention to the claim that he had shown disrespect to the Prince of Wales

The Prince of Wales has proven himself during the war to be above all things – a man among men. He is no namby-pamby drawing-room fop, nor yet a tin god on a swirling piano stool. From what we have learned of his character he is not the type that wants grovelling slobberers running after him labeled as spittoons.

But as well as praise, there was also the clear rejection by Sterling of any sense of mandated servility. He continued:

His [Prince of Wales] manly character and his exalted position demand the ultimate expression of respect, but it is not necessary for me to stand on my head every time his name is mentioned.

On 20/8/19 Hagenaeur followed up with another letter but the debate with Stirling had effectively petered out.

Then in the local paper on 24/9/19, there was advice of an address by Rev G A Judkins on ‘The Papal Army in Australia’. It was to be held on behalf of the local branch of the Protestant Federation. The paper also noted that Judkins had previously ministered in Yarram, that he was key figure in the Methodist Church and that he was … held in high esteem in Protestant circles.

The meeting took place on 26/9/19 and was written up in the local paper on 1/10/19. The paper’s report was extensive and noted that it was the first, formal function of the local branch. The address took place in the Mechanic’s Hall and ‘there was ‘a very satisfactory attendance.’ The meeting began with the National Anthem and prayers. Rev Opper, vice president, presided and set the tone. It was the Empire against Roman Catholicism.

The speaker deplored the apathy manifested by Protestants in the fight against the influences of Roman Catholicism which was a great menace to the Empire and to Australia.

For his part, Judkins claimed it was the Roman Catholics not the Protestants responsible for the conflict. Again, the Roman Catholic Church was trying to destroy the Empire:

The conflict would never have come into existence had it not been for the wicked aggression of the Roman Church. Rome had promised faithfully to lay aside her weapons during the progress of the great war, but she had not done so. While they were giving their sons in order that the Empire might be saved and liberty preserved for themselves and heir children, the great organisation of Rome was doing its utmost to spoil the Empire, and praying that it should be beaten down to the very dust.

According to Judkins, there was a universal conspiracy:

A papal army existed in Australia, and not only in Australia, but in every other land; and its definite object wherever it existed was to bring that country under the absolute control of the church of Rome.

Amongst other wild accusations, Judkins claimed that because France had ‘thrown off the papal yoke’, Rome had been keen to bring about the defeat of France and had allied with the Kaiser. Rome was behind the War itself:

France was to be punished because she had broken away. The intriguing hand of Rome was responsible for the great war, just as it was responsible for some of the other greatest tragedies in history.

With such a shocking history, Judkins warned that the threat of Rome could not be taken lightly. Rome was the Devil’s agent:

People did not realise it but an organised minority was infinitely more powerful than an unorganised majority. People talked foolishly when they argued that Romans compromised only a fifth of the Australian population, and they could not do anything. Rome was one of the mightiest forces that the devil employed; and it was working to bring the whole world to the feet of the Pope. He [Judkins] appealed to those present to organise and to keep organising, in order to combat the great menace which existed in their midst today.

Judkins continued on about papal espionage, the Church of Rome as the ‘anti-Christ’, a papal plot for world domination and, specifically, the conquest of all Protestant lands, with England the chief target.

Specifically in relation to the situation in Australia, Judkins claimed that Mannix had been reported to have said,

If I had my wish there would not be a Protestant in Australia.

There were additional attacks on the local Catholic clergy as being under the control of Rome and … working to injure our country. The Catholic Church was also said to be in alliance with the ALP … which she was using as a tool to be cast side when it had outgrown its usefulness. Similarly, Rome was in alliance with ‘Sinn Feinism and Bolshevism’.

Judkins also argued that Protestant attempts to bring scripture back into the State schools were being undermined by Catholics. The Catholics had even deliberately left some of their students in State schools so they could oppose the introduction of scripture. The Catholic Church was also ‘… cramming our [State] schools with Roman Catholic teachers.

The local paper noted the applause at the end of the address.

It was hardly surprising that local Catholics were upset by Judkins’ attack. On 3/10/19, there was a letter from John W Biggs a local Catholic who had had 3 sons serve in the AIF: Robert Biggs (2616), Charles Ignatius Biggs (1313) and John William Biggs (427). All survived the War.

Biggs recorded his ‘disgust’ at Judkin’s address which he described as … a tirade of abuse of the Catholic Church and all belonging to it. He identified Judkins and his supporters as ‘pro-conscriptionists’ from the War who had tried … to force our young Australian youth (boys merely) to fight for the defence of the Empire. He rejected the claims of disloyalty and claimed 60,000 of the AIF had been Catholic. He claimed this figure of 60,000 was … their full quota according to population. Biggs asked … did ever a body get such abuse as the Catholic parents of such soldiers?

Biggs briefly revisited the conscription debate:

No doubt a good many Catholic young men did not join the army but could you blame them when the majority of the Press and the wowser parsons were abusing their religion right and left.

Biggs also claimed that many young Protestants had not wanted to join AIF and had also opposed conscription; but they had not had to bear the same level of abuse as the young Catholics.

Biggs also disputed many of Judkins’ historical claims and was critical of the conditions of the British working class – housing, wages, living conditions – under Protestantism. He suggested that Judkins should focus on substantial issues, such as the housing problem in Melbourne and ‘profiteering’ and ‘race suicide’. Biggs finished his letter:

I will now conclude by informing you, that being the father of three soldiers, I was very much hurt on reading the insults and abuse showered on Catholics by Mr Judkins, to which denomination my boys belong. I may state that the Catholic percentage of population of Australia is 20.68, and the Methodist 16.3. The percentage of enlistments of Catholics is 18.9 and Methodists is 13.8.

St Patrick’s Day processions

The next episode to highlight the bitter sectarianism evident in the local community after the War involved St Patrick’s Day processions in 1919 and then 1920. The first covered events in Sale, Gippsland and the second in Melbourne.

Sectarianism was strong in Sale where Bishop Phelan was based. Against this background, the civic authorities insisted that for the 1919 St Patrick’s Day procession through the town the Union Jack had to be carried at the head of the procession. The flag also had to be larger than any other flag in the procession. Additionally, no ‘Sinn Fein colours’ were to be worn or displayed by members of the procession. Lastly, there was to be ‘no allusion’ in any display in the procession to the ‘unhappy incidents of Easter, 1916, in Dublin, or any sequel thereof’. The organisers of the march agreed to the obviously ‘political’ terms, but when Phelan heard of the demands made by the mayor he railed against them. He described the mayor as a ‘petty tyrant’ and a ‘fool’. The local press – Gippsland Times, 27/2/19 – reported that Phelan called off the procession because of the demands and the manner of the local authorities:

We will not march to the grounds [where the associated St Patrick’s sports carnival was to take place] under the humiliating conditions which our local ruler would impose on us this year. (Tremendous Applause).

Phelan then organised an alternative garden fete. He invited Mannix to attend the event and it was clear that this was a definite strategy to raise the profile of the occasion, underline the perceived attacks on the Catholics in Gippsland, and encourage a large attendance. Additional trains were put on to bring people from Bairnsdale and Traralgon. Mannix arrived at Sale by train on 5/4/19 and was met by very large crowd. Led by a car carrying Phelan and Mannix, the large crowd then processed thorough Sale to the cathedral. There was no Union Jack. The Gippsland Times (7/4/19) reported on comments by Mannix:

His Grace expressed his great pleasure at being present. In Melbourne they had been hearing a good deal of Sale lately – (laughter) – and some of the trouble arose in connection with St. Patrick’s Day. Here, as in other places, obstacles had been placed in the way of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. They wanted to prevent the people of Sale from marching in their own streets, but today a great part of Gippsland had marched in spite of them. (Great cheering).

After the ’procession’ or ‘march’, the mayor of Sale set out to prosecute the organisers, on the basis that clearly a march had occurred – a large one, led by Phelan and Mannix – but that the appropriate permission for the march had not been either requested or given. Some of the councillors saw the episode as an attempt to undermine local authority; and they were incensed by what they saw as Mannix’s gloating. The Gippsland Times, 10/419 reported one councillor:

Cr. Futcher said there was not the slightest doubt that there had been a breach of he regulations. What made matters worse was the fact that Archbishop Mannix went out of his way to gloat over the fact that they had marched in spite of the authorities. … Had it not been for the gloating that had been indulged in by church dignitaries, he would have been prepared to let the matter pass.

The council initially narrowly voted to institute a prosecution against the organisers and Mannix. The 5-4 vote was on sectarian lines. The vote saw all the Catholics on the council walk out and division in the local community reached new levels. In the end, the prosecution did not go ahead.

The following year -1920 – saw Mannix put on his own version of the St. Patrick’s Day procession in Melbourne. This time it was a far grander spectacle than the one staged in Sale the year before.

The St. Patrick’s Day Procession in Melbourne in 1920 was reported extensively in the press. The Argus, 22/3/20, detailed how the route started at St. Patrick’s and ended at the Exhibition Building (the interim Federal Parliament). The crowd watching was a record and the paper noted:

Long before the starting time people commenced to assemble on the streets. Soon after 1 o’clock there was a large crowd behind the barriers, and all available space on Federal Parliament House steps and the Post-office steps was occupied.

The route itself was lined with 400 police on foot and another 100 mounted police accompanied the procession. There were also plain clothes police in the crowd. On the day, there were no reports of any disturbances or problems.

It was a large procession. The paper estimated that 20,000 people participated in the actual procession and that it took an hour and 12 minutes for the procession to pass a given point.

The procession underlined how determined Mannix was to demonstrate not just the sacrifices that the Catholic community had made in terms of the War but how significant they were in terms of state and national politics. At its head, the procession featured the Australian flag, not the Union Jack. In fact, there was much press speculation about how the Union Jack would appear. The report in The Argus noted that it appeared about half an hour into the procession and … it came and went without many people realising it. At the same time, With the exception of one or two isolated individual cases, there was an absence of Sinn Fein colours or emblems. The dominant colours throughout the procession were green and gold.

First in the procession came 14 Victoria Cross winners on grey horses. Next was Archbishop Mannix in a motor car with several returned chaplains, with … a small body of mounted troops as an escort. Then there were 6,000 returned soldiers and sailors. More cars followed with nurses and returned men and other cars with clergy. There was also a long line of Catholic boys from Catholic schools and colleges. There were also Catholic societies and schools with banners and some floats. There were also various bands including the Melbourne Pipe Band. Finally, the paper noted that … the rear of the procession was brought up by a body of about 140 horsemen.

Archbishop Mannix and the VC winners, 1920. Courtesy State Library Victoria

Mannix clearly sought to emphasise the martial character of the procession. He personally ‘took the salute’ in front of Federal Parliament House (Exhibition Building). He stood with the VC winners and was cheered by each section of the procession as it passed.

Following the procession, there was a major sports carnival on Exhibition Oval, which included 4,000 school children giving a physical culture display. Rain in the late afternoon forced the cancellation of the planned concert that night.

By any standard, it was an impressive turn out and certainly demonstrated the ability of Mannix to draw a crowd. It was also very much an expression of Irish-Australian identity.

After the procession, Mannix was quoted in The Argus (22/3/20) as acknowledging the opposition that had been raised. He was keen to state that those who had opposed the procession … will never prevent Irishmen showing their sympathy with Ireland, while yielding in none in their loyalty to Australia and to the Empire. But, clearly, this particular trinity – Ireland, Australia and the Empire – was a hard one to juggle. For Irish Catholics the actions of the Empire in Ireland were a real problem. In fact, the very next day The Argus again covered more of Mannix’s response to the procession. This time it was in relation to the 14 VC winners who had accompanied him on the day. He was keen to use them to boost the cause of Irish independence, or at least ‘self-determination’.

In the course of a long speech, Dr Mannix said that St. Patrick’s Day demonstration last Saturday would remain a memorable one as long as Melbourne was Melbourne. He also stated that the V.C. winners who supported him in the procession had unanimously agreed to a motion which they intended to cable to the British authorities, demanding that England should give to Ireland the self-determination which they fought for on behalf of other nations.

Scripture lessons in State schools

The sixth episode of sectarianism sees a return to Yarram and the activities of the Protestant Federation in the middle of 1920. Ostensibly, the issue was the push for a referendum – at state level – to determine the question of whether scripture lessons were to be taught in state schools. At the end of the meeting, the following resolution was passed.

That this meeting records its conviction that the great majority of Victorian parents desire Non-sectarian and Non-compulsory Scripture lessons in the school course, with equal opportunity for direct religious teaching by representatives of the various churches, under conditions that work smoothly in four other Australian States; claims that this issue should be placed before the Electors by a simple referendum question at the forthcoming elections; protests against a selfish minority [Catholics], largely hostile to national education, being able to continue to deprive the majority of the Non-sectarian Scripture instruction it deems beneficial to the community; and calls upon the Scripture Campaign Council to organise a deputation, at an early date, to urge Government and parliament to provide Referendum machinery for testing the mind of electors at the next general elections.

However, while, as indicated, the meeting was ostensibly about Scripture lessons, it was more remarkable for another full-on attack on the Roman Catholic Church. Judkins’ focus was on the threat the church posed to the Empire. As Judkins saw it, the church was openly and actively plotting to destroy the Empire. He worked from the proposition that the Empire itself was ‘God’s handiwork’. The Empire was also the bulwark against Rome:

God has not only established it [the Empire], but preserved it. This barrier [the Empire] between Rome and the realisation of her principles has been divinely built. It is because the Empire constitutes that barrier, that leaders of Roman Catholicism burn with so intense hatred against all that is British.

The link between the Bible and the defence of the Empire – and therefore the necessary push for the proposed referendum – came from what Judkins saw as the Roman campaign to undermine the Bible as a means of destroying the Empire. He described … two directions in which the energies of the Church of Rome are being exerted in an attempt to establish herself in a position of temporal and spiritual supremacy. She aims at the destruction of the British Empire, and the prohibition of the use of the Bible by the people.

For Judkins, the Bible and the Empire were fundamentally linked. The Bible had a form of geo-political significance:

We shall lose the Empire if we lose the Bible.

Judkins then gave another history lesson going back to the Spanish Armada and Rome’s attempt to subdue England and ending with the supposed alliance between the Pope and Germany in WW1.

Specifically in relation to the then current conflict in Ireland he claimed to see the hand of Rome involved and saw it as yet another attempt by Rome to overcome the Empire. He stated:

The happenings in Ireland, the endeavour to create a state [Irish Free State] close to the heart of the Empire have as their object the realisation of the long-cherished desire of Rome.

He then went further and claimed that the same plot was being played out in Australia:

Attempts are being made to make Australia another Ireland, and with the same object in view.

Whether it was the strongest attack against Roman Catholics made to that point, it was certainly extreme. Interestingly, some allies thought that the likes of Judkins had finally gone too far. One was Rossiter, the editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. As noted before, Rossiter was a firm Imperial Loyalist but, this time, apparently, Judkins had crossed a line. As editor, he would certainly have been aware of the impact this type of address – published in his paper – was having on the community and in particular on the level of sectarian conflict. It did not appear to have been such an issue for him in the past, but this time he intervened. In an editorial (2/7/20), he noted that the issue of Scripture lessons had hardly been covered in Judkins’ address and that it was more just an unbridled attack on Roman Catholicism. He stated:

If Bible lessons are to be taught in our State schools a scheme acceptable to all denominations will not be hastened by violently attacking the Church of Rome for acts done by her devotees hundreds of years ago.

and

If every Protestant clergyman held and enunciated views as does Mr. Judkins, what strife there would be.

On that very point, he singled out Rev Opper who had also been at the meeting. He claimed that Opper had been more ‘temperate’ and ‘constructive’ in his comments than Judkins.

And the apparent backlash against Judkins continued. In the local paper on 2/7/20 Rev Opper had a letter announcing that he had resigned his position as vice-president of the local branch of the Protestant Federation:

With your permission, I wish, through the medium of your paper, to dissociate myself from the violent attack upon the Church of Rome, made by the Rev. G. A. Judkins on Sunday night last, and published in your columns this morning. The meeting was arranged for the purpose of urging support for a referendum on Scripture Lessons in State Schools – a movement which has my fullest sympathy – and not for the purpose for which it was used. In order to avoid being placed again in a false position, I am forwarding to the secretary of the local branch of the Protestant Federation my resignation as president. Still remaining a good Anglican, and, I hope, a good Protestant. – I am …

Previously, Opper too had been a strident critic of the ‘Roman Church’ but perhaps, as a local minister, he had grown concerned at the impact that such wild accusations were having on the community.

But for any local disquiet about the level of sectarian conflict in the community and the impact of extreme accusations being made against Roman Catholicism, the local branch of the Protestant Federation continued the fight. In February 1921, Rev R Ditterich – president of the Methodist Conference of Victoria and Tasmania – addressed about 50 people in the Yarram Mechanics’ Institute. It was written up in the edition of 9/2/21. Ditterich was President of the Australian Protestant Federation and had been previously very involved in the Victorian branch. The talk focused on the question of ‘Why are we Protestants?’ He lamented that few people had a sound understanding of the history of Protestantism. The version of history he gave that night started with the persecution of Protestants by the Roman Church and highlighted the despotic power that Rome had over its faithful:

The Church of Rome exercised a power over the will of their people, who knew no liberty of thought, and no freedom, and they also tried to exercise a power over their politics and education, in fact, the Church exercised a power when and wherever it chose.

In terms of the recent War, Ditterich claimed that … Catholic France was saved by Protestant England.

Overall, Ditterich had nothing positive to say about Rome:

As Protestants they had no thanks to pay the Roman Catholic church for any single liberty which the people enjoyed today.

Perhaps the vote of thanks that night was more circumspect than usual:

Rev. Lancaster said they were deeply indebted for the address, which should inspire them, not in a spirit of hatred, but thankfulness for their freedom.

As noted, Rev Opper by this point had severed contact with Protestant Federation.

Local celebrations at the time Ireland gained ‘Free State’ status

The last episode to cover involved the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. The treaty was to provide for a measure of Irish independence and put an end to the three years of fighting between Irish nationalists and republicans and British troops and special units. The treaty had broad backing in Australia but, in fact, in Ireland itself it presaged the bitter civil war that was to follow very quickly. But certainly at the time, the news of the treaty – even with its qualifications – was received warmly in the Catholic community in the Shire of Alberton.

As an indication of just how close the political situation in Ireland was to Irish Catholics in Australia, the local community in the Shire of Alberton organised a special celebration for the announcement of the treaty. It was written up in the local paper on 23/12/21. There was a ‘large and enthusiastic audience’ at Thompson’s Hall in Yarram. The Yarram Band played before the concert started. Items at the concert included the songs: ‘Ireland I Love You’, ‘Come Back to Erin’ and ‘Irish Eyes Are Smiling’. There was no mention of the National Anthem. There was also dancing. It was a great success and … everything passed off without the slightest hitch.

Finally

The end of WW1 did not see the end of the sectarian conflict in Australian society which had been exacerbated by the conflict over the two conscription referenda. In fact, more extreme Protestant groups doubled down on the fundamental question of ‘loyalty’ (to the Empire) and routinely portrayed Roman Catholicism as inherently anti-British and anti-Empire. They even argued that the Church of Rome had sided with the Germans in the War. Additionally, Roman Catholicism was represented as a form of intellectual, political and spiritual tyranny. And, for good measure, the Pope was the anti-Christ. Similarly, the struggle for Irish independence was portrayed as an existential threat to the Empire itself.

In response to such criticisms, and constantly looking to the political situation in Ireland, the Australian Catholic community chose to become more assertive in their role in society and politics, and more determined to protect their religious and cultural identity. Most significantly, they moved to a sense of Australian nationalism that effectively sought to remove the previously core element of the Empire.

The sectarianism experienced in the local community was intense and often highly personal.

References

Synan. T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Ringwood Victoria


Various. 1992, Companions on the Journey 1892-1992, Centenary of St. Mary’s Parish Yarram 1892-1992, St. Mary’s Parish, Yarram


The Argus
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Gippsland Times

Note 1: for more background on the 1920 St Patrick’s Day Procession in Melbourne see the following article by Paul Daley in The Guardian 22/4/16: Divided Melbourne: when the archbishop turned St, Patrick’s Day into propaganda.

Note 2: Father Sterling’s name often appears as Stirling. The signature on his enlistment forms is definitely Sterling.

212. The Shire of Alberton unveils a memorial to its soldiers

Post 96. Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial gave a brief history of the monument in Commercial Road, Yarram. This post examines in detail the local politics leading up to first the construction and then the dedication of the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. As for the previous post on the establishment of the Diggers’ Club in Yarram, it also highlights the nature and degree of the tension in the local community in the first few years after the War.

The decision to erect a memorial to the soldiers of Alberton Shire was taken at a council meeting on 13 May 1920:

A Soldiers monument (sic) be erected in Commercial Road,Yarram, cost to be referred to next year’s estimates, form and price to be decided at next meeting.

This was just after a presentation by the Melbourne firm of Corben & Sons. The actual cost indicated at the time was £550.

While the Shire’s decision appeared clear-cut, the way forward was to prove difficult.

To begin with, the editor – A J Rossiter – of the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – was keen to influence the debate over a suitable memorial. Indeed, initially at least, Rossiter had an entirely different proposal, which he promoted in the pages of the paper. In a sense, it was all a case of deja vu, as the previous post highlighted similar efforts by Rossiter to push his proposal for a grand, commemorative civic hall over the returned men’s wish for a more exclusive and lower-key Diggers’ Club. This time, Rossiter was keen on ’swimming baths’. Prior to the Shire’s resolution of 13/5/20 on the construction of the memorial on Commercial Road, outside the Post Office, Rossiter had been pushing his ‘public baths’ proposal. An editorial on 10/3/20 – two months before the council meeting – outlined his proposal. It began with an acknowledgement that his previous ambitious proposal had been rejected; but, as far as he was concerned, that was no reason to hold back from yet another bold, public venture:

Since the bold proposal of a public hall, embracing a soldiers’ club, did not find favor, why not a public memorial in the form of swimming baths? We have before advocated swimming baths for the rising generation, and have pointed out the necessity for every child to be taught the art of swimming. The old Mechanic’s Institute was at one time suggested as a suitable site, because of a natural watercourse that intersects that property. The public might well join issue with the Shire council in establishing public baths as a memorial to district soldiers, and the donor roll could be placed at the baths, instead of being hid in a comparatively obscure place in the shire hall which so few enter. Public baths as a memorial would be far before a granite monument in the main street or at the shire hall, because of their utilitarian character. Whatever is done by the shire council must cost a fair sum. No paltry donor board would suffice as a district memorial to the soldiers who fought for their country.

As matters progressed, the call for the memorial swimming baths appears to have slipped away. However, Rossiter had yet another proposal to replace the baths – the extension and refurbishment of the Shire Hall so that it could accommodate 1,500 people. In another editorial on 2/6/20, Rossiter raised the £550 figure for the proposed memorial in Commercial Road, and claimed that it would represent money ‘thrown away’. He wanted … something better done with the money. He had a far more beneficial and utilitarian proposal:

The town does not possess a hall worthy of the name, and none has the facilities which the public are justly entitled to. The proposal we have in mind as a fitting memorial to our soldiers is to re-model the shire hall, and build at the rear a balconied hall to seat about 1,500 people.

In the same editorial, Rossiter called for a public meeting to discuss the whole issue:

A memorial, in the form suggested, would for all time commemorate the deeds of not only the fallen, but those who have been spared to us. If remodelling the shire hall find favour amongst our readers, in place of the proposed monument, we would suggest that a public meeting be called as early as possible.

And there was yet another option. The third option focussed on the so-called (Soldiers’) ‘Memorial Park’.

When a new cemetery had been established at Yarram in 1902, the graves from the ‘Old Yarram Pioneer Cemetery’ had been relocated to the new site. In 1911, an act of the Victorian Parliament had provided for the old cemetery site to be converted to a park. Subsequently, from August 1914 several, local Friendly Societies – the local branch of the Australian Natives’ Association appears to have been the major player – undertook to turn the ‘old local burial ground’ into a ‘pleasure place for the populace’ . The details appeared in the local paper on 21/8/14. The Friendly Societies were to take advice from Shire personnel and organise working bees. The plan called for … the planting of palms, trees and shrubs in preference to flowers, and suggested a large grass plot in the centre where children could play, and where a bandstand could be erected. It was recognised that the amount of work involved was considerable and that a time frame of at least 2-3 years was required.

Over the period of the War, not a great deal of remediation work in the park was undertaken. Then, in mid 1918, a public meeting was held to consider … the question of beautifying the old burial ground, south of the town, and form a memorial park. By the end of October that year, there was a formal committee of the ‘Yarram Memorial Park’. There was also an agreed schedule of work to be undertaken by volunteer organisations, including the ANA, the Returned Soldiers’ Association, the Soldiers’ Fathers Association, the IOR and the local Traders’ association. It was all detailed in the local paper (25/10/18). Again, the scope of the remediation work was extensive. In fact, the scope was arguably too ambitious. In June 1921, in the South Gippsland Chronicle (1/6/21), the ’Soldiers’ Memorial Park’ was described as a ‘carefully fenced thistle patch’. The account described how, after an enthusiastic start, the effort slipped away:

The area was cleared and graded, the paths were laid out and gravelled, a fence was erected, and then – Yarram’s short-lived energy “petered out”

So, in mid 1920, the third option for the district soldiers’ memorial was to focus efforts on what was being described as the Soldiers’ Memorial Park and, potentially, include in the park a dedicated memorial of the kind proposed for Commercial Road. The Shire President at the time (J J O’Connor) was a strong backer of this proposal.

Given the range of proposals and what appeared to be strong community interest, the Shire council undertook in June 1920 to defer the decision on the soldiers’ memorial for two months, on the understanding that in the interim there would be a public meeting to canvas views in relation to, at least, the three proposals being put forward. The meeting was scheduled for 21/6/20. In the ads that appeared in the local press there were calls for a large attendance:

A large attendance is requested, and relatives of fallen soldiers are specifically invited to attend.

It is relevant here to point out that in the lead up to this public meeting on the soldiers’ memorial, the local paper was again targeting the politics associated with the Diggers’ Club. The point is that in the background to the local politicking over the soldiers’ memorial, there were ongoing charges being made against the local returned men. This situation could well have affected the locals’ interest and involvement in the whole business. As we will see, hardly anyone attended the public meeting on 21/6/20, despite all the publicity on how important it was.

In an editorial on 26/5/20, Rossiter had been almost gleeful in reporting trouble at the Diggers’ Club. He commenced with,

Has the Yarram Diggers’ Club so soon met trouble?

He then retold the story of how the returned men had held themselves ‘aloof’ from the local community by insisting on their own club rooms. He also argued that the resulting Diggers’ Club, as it was set up, was supported by local subscriptions; and those who had contributed financially understood they were contributing to a facility that would be available to all returned men, with the only restriction being a ‘small members’ fee’. The previous post revealed that, in time, the membership was also extended to include fathers’ of men who had served and also those men who had been ‘rejected’ on medical grounds.

Rossiter then claimed that there were significant divisions within the club over the very issue of membership. There was a ballot system to determine membership and Rossiter claimed that ‘certain rejects’ had been ‘black balled’ in the ballot process. This in turn had led to the resignation of the ‘chief officers’ of the club’s management committee. There were no further details on the men denied membership, nor on the fate of those said to have resigned from the committee. Obviously, the issue of which ‘rejects’ would be admitted to the Diggers’ Club was always going to be contentious. Rossiter was quick – and also keen – to point to the potential outcome for the club. He warned that … the public will be quite alienated, and the club too soon become a white elephant.

Overall, in the lead up to the public meeting on 21/6/20, the background politics associated with returned soldiers had become both public and contentious.

There was a detailed account of the public meeting in the local paper on 23/6/20. As indicated already, the attendance was very small. In fact, the number given was only twelve, ‘including one lady’. The paper claimed it was ‘farcical’ to suggest the meeting was either ‘public’ or ‘representative’. In any event, the meeting proceeded and the Shire President outlined the three proposals:

The three proposals that had been made were a monument in the public street, to cost about £500; the completion of the public park and the erection of a smaller monument in it; and the erection of a memorial hall.

The President declared that he favoured the second proposal – the Soldiers’ Memorial Park – but acknowledged that the Shire had already settled on the first, the monument in Commercial Road. He doubted that the memorial hall proposal would receive public support. Rossiter then spoke to his proposal of the hall, pointing out the benefits for the wider community. However, he also made the point that should his proposal not win support then he would finally quit his ‘effort to get a public hall for Yarram’. This was to be his last effort for the commemorative public hall for Yarram, which he had been pushing from the end of the war.

Councillor Barlow was obviously perturbed by the whole business. He argued that such a small meeting could hardly make any decision of import. Further, he maintained, the basic issue related to the whole of the Shire of Alberton and the narrow focus on Yarram – for the hall proposal – was inappropriate. Further, in relation to the same proposal, he had trouble reconciling what he saw as a business venture – the Shire would take out a loan and then seek to repay it by charging usage costs etc – with the commemoration of the soldiers’ sacrifice. He even went as far as accusing the backers of trying to … make money out of the lives of their fallen soldiers’ lives that had been given for their freedom. It was a strong claim. Barlow was obviously not about to change his support for the Shire’s initial vote to to establish the monument in the main street of Yarram, where the total cost would be covered by the Shire.

There followed further discussion over the merit of even considering alternative proposals if the councillors’ minds were already made up. In the end, the meeting closed without any motion being put. From that point, Rossiter’s proposal for the memorial hall in Yarram was dropped.

After the agreed two months for public discussion had passed, the matter was taken back to council. At the meeting on 12/8/20 the discussion focused on whether the monument was to in the park or in the main street. Incredibly, the vote was tied at four each way. The deciding vote of the President determined that the monument would be erected in the park. So notice was then given that there would be a vote to rescind the original council resolution of 13/5/20 – the one that had the monument in Commercial Road – at the next meeting. However, at the next meeting (9/9/20), the resolution to rescind the original vote was lost. At the same meeting, the following resolution was passed:

That the design for [the] soldiers’ memorial, submitted by H. B. Corben & sons, and numbered 5, to cost £550, be adopted; that it be surrounded by a bluestone and chain railing at an additional cost of £50; and that it be erected in Commercial Road, Yarram, opposite the post office.

Finally, there was a definite decision on the form and location of the soldiers’ memorial for Alberton Shire. It would be dedicated just under one year later. The back story to this decision highlights simmering divisions in the local community over the key question of ownership of the business of commemoration.

The unveiling of the memorial

The Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled on Wednesday, 10 August 1921. The ad for the event specified that it would occur … immediately after arrival of train from Melbourne (about 3.30 p m). The train station at Yarram had been opened earlier the same year (February 1921). The event was written up in the local papers – both Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative and South Gippsland Chronicle – on 12/8/21. The number of locals who attended was put ‘between 400 and 500 people’.

The two dignitaries presiding at the unveiling were the local Federal member G H Wise and Major-General C F Cox. Cox had served on Gallipoli, and then throughout the Sinai-Palestine campaign, with distinction. After the War he was elected to the Senate as a Nationalist.

The account in the local paper noted that the Shire President – John Barry – opened the proceedings by referring to the 700 men who had left the district to fight and the 80 who had died. In his comments, Senator Cox described the memorial as … a credit to the district and a fitting tribute to the boys who saved the country.

For his part, Wise was more political with his remarks. He was keen to refute the claim – it was most commonly identified with Archbishop Mannix – that the War had been waged for merely economic reasons or, more specifically, over trade. Wise insisted that … Those people who thought the past war was a trade or financial was were making a great mistake. For Wise it had been a war to check German power and militarism. It had been a war … fought to end all inhumanities and guarantee freedom and liberty. Arguably, the most significant point here was that Wise felt the need to make the comments. Wise also referred to what he saw as the ‘levelling’ effect of the War:

One of the aftermaths of the war was that it brought all classes on a more equal footing.

At the actual unveiling of the memorial, the Last Post was played. And at the conclusion, B P Johnson gave a ‘hearty vote of thanks’ on behalf of the community.

That night, there was a formal dinner for Wise and Cox and other invited guests in the Yaram Club Hotel, put on by the Shire President, John Barry JP. Prior to the event, newspaper articles had made it clear who was to be invited:

Invitations are being issued to members of the soldier land settlement committee, the repatriation executive, and representatives of the Returned Soldiers’ League.

In the Archives for the Shire of Alberton there is a list of those who were invited. The actual list runs to approximately 55 guests but there is no corresponding list of those who did actually attend. It was an all-male affair. In the write up in the papers the number who were present was described thus:

Between 40 and 50 of the most representative citizens sat down to the dinner at the Club Hotel that would have done credit to a city caterer.

What is clear though is that the single largest group of invited guests consisted of members of the Soldier Land Settlement Committee. There were 18 of them. The second largest group – approximately 15 – would have covered all the Shire representatives: councillors, Shire Secretary, Shire Engineer, Clerk of Works, Treasurer … There was also a small number from the local repatriation Committee. Finally, in terms of distinct groupings of guests, there were approximately 10 returned men. Presumably, they were all associated with either the Diggers’ Club or the local branch of the RSSILA; although it does appear that one or two of them might also have been soldier settlers.

What this all means is that the returned soldiers themselves were a definite minority at the function. Precedence was given to what effectively was the previous generation, the very one that that committed the men to the War. It was something of a classic example how even the commemoration of the War was dominated by the earlier generation. Further, as we will see later, the local Soldier Land Settlement Committee exercised considerable authority over the returned men or, more specifically, those who tried to set themselves up as successful soldier settlers. Not surprisingly, many of the returned men would have felt that everything was skewed to the interests of the previous generation, the one that had not done the fighting.

At the formal dinner there were the usual toasts – ‘The king’, ‘health of the federal Parliament’, ‘the AIF’ … – and B P Johnson appears to have served as MC.

Wise spoke again at the dinner and it was evident that he was defensive over the range and intensity of disquiet in the community about the Government’s management of post-War expectations. For example, he referred to what he saw as the folly of the ‘public indignation meetings’ that were increasingly being called across the country. He defend the Government’s record on ‘soldier service homes’ and claimed the Government had ‘done their best’. And there was criticism of those – he referred to the ‘wealthy’ – who attacked the Government over the level of the War debt.

Another speaker that night was William G Pope. Pope had been a prominent Imperial Loyalist during the War and a backer of the returned men’s push for their own club rooms after the War. He was responsible for the toast to the AIF. His comments reflected those of Bean in that he saw the legacy of the AIF becoming a driving force in Australian history. He acknowledged that the AIF had officially ceased to exist, but then launched into the following, mutli-themed panegyric:

… it [The AIF] will live in Australian hearts and have a beneficial influence on our national life and character for all time, as in every true Australian heart the glorious deeds of the A. I. F. are enshrined for ever. There imperishable glory is the beaconllght on the hill, to which in future all who love and would serve Australia must turn for inspiration, and in the men who lighted it are the descendants of those men and women of British stock whose never-failing courage has laid the foundations of that Commonwealth or British nation, which is the hope of the world.

Returning to a more mundane level, Pope finished with a critique of those upset about the level of war indemnity or reparations that Australia was not going to receive from Germany. The background here was that there had recently been reports -for example, South Gippsland Chronicle, 20/7/21 – that Australia’s share of war indemnity had been reduced from £30M to £400,000, compromising overall repatriation efforts. Pope dismissed the concerns, arguing that the potential of reparations was hardly the reason Australian had gone to war.

It is interesting that even at such formal, commemorative events, the general disquiet in the community about the overall situation in Australia, just short of three years after the Armistice, kept intruding.

For his part, Senator Cox did not have much to say. He was full of praise for the 700 men from the Shire who had all left as volunteers. But even he finished with a call for a significant increase in immigration, as a matter of urgency.

There were several letters touching on both the unveiling ceremony, and the formal dinner, published in the local press immediately after. Predictably, there were complaints about the guest list for the dinner. A letter (12/8/21) from ‘A Dinkum Digger’ intimated that not only were the diggers generally under-represented but some of the diggers invited were not ‘genuine diggers’:

… I would like to ask who was responsible for the issuing of the invitations? Why was it that several Diggers were invited and partook of a hearty meal (and doubtless felt the effects of a bad head the following morning), and other real Diggers were quite overlooked? Why this state of things should be is puzzling. We hear of a dinner and on looking round the guests we see people with no claim to a seat as a Digger, and we also see many with no claim at all as a guest on such an occasion. What was the controlling influence in the choosing of the guests? Did it not count that a man who had really seen service for 4 1/2 years, from first to last, and who had ‘borne the burden and heat of the day,’ should not be asked. Why was it that so many of these real Diggers were not invited, while there were guests with no such record partaking of the good things and ‘eating the fatted calf.’ It seems evident that the same old trouble, class distinction, must have crept in. It is painful to think of such a thing after hearing the address of Mr Wise in the afternoon, when he commented on the fact of how the war had done away with this, and instanced a case of where he had seen hundreds of men on a transport all on an equal footing. Surely it must have pricked the consciences of some of the guests last night when they must have noticed the absence of some Diggers, men perhaps not holding ‘soft jobs’ or clerkships, but Diggers all the same, and justly entitled to a seat at the festal board.

The idea of the ‘genuine’ digger had history. For example, Johnson himself had fought off claims earlier in the War that his son had a secured a position away from the front lines. The AIF had regularly sought to ‘comb out’ men involved in clerical and support roles to reinforce those at the front. But, more generally, there was always the question of whose service in the AIF counted the most or, at least, for more than others’ service. Clearly, in this instance the claim was that some of he diggers at the dinner did not have the same entitlement as others who had served throughout the entire War. Perhaps it was a criticism on those who had taken on positions of responsibility in the local organisations to do with returned men. Clearly, there was politics associated with the operation of the Diggers’ Club. It was always going to be a vexed question. There were even shades of the same dilemma in the case of those ‘rejected’. For example, how many formal attempts and rejections did it take it take before someone became a genuine ‘reject’? Arguably, the more important point here is that the issues of entitlement and status were being raised publicly. The point was being made that not all diggers were ‘equal’.

It was not only the local returned men who were put out by events associated with the dedication of the memorial. One other criticism was that the local school children had not been sufficiently involved in the unveiling ceremony. In the South Gippsland Chronicle of 17/8/21 there was a letter from the head teacher (A M Parratt) of the Yarram State school. He was obviously upset that the children had not been asked to have a formal presence at the ceremony. There was some important history here. All through the War, the then head teacher, A E Paige, had ensured that the school children were always available, even at short notice, to attend formal and semi-formal functions. For example, Paige would quickly organise for a group of school children to attend a farewell organised for a departing recruit. The school children had become a feature of all such public occasions. But, on this occasion, they had been passed over. The new head teacher made the point that … the school was never asked to attend. Had there been an invitation, the school, most definitely, would have been there. In fact, it had a right to be there, and at the dinner as well:

The teachers and children were all willing to march down had we been asked. After all that the children did for the soldiers we were conceited enough to expect an invitation; we also thought that the schools of the district might have been represented at the dinner, either by a teacher or a member of the school committee, but those in authority thought otherwise.

There were even other letters with advice on how the whole ceremony could have been better staged.

The critical observation in all this was that even the acts of commemoration were capable of creating and stirring division. And while some of the tension and division was superficial, manufactured and even trivial, there were other issues that were deep and serious.

The last point to note is that when the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled on 10/8/21, the actual names of the dead had not yet been added. Provision had been made for the names of 80 dead to be inscribed. But it was to be nearly another 10 years before the names were added. This detail will be the subject of a future post.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
South Gippsland Chronicle

Archives, Shire of Alberton

Minute Book October 1913 – April 1921

File: 285-292

Box: 377

 

 

211. Club rooms for the returned men or a memorial hall for the Shire?

The next few posts look at the men returning from the War and taking up life again in the Shire of Alberton.

The posts will make it clear that the ‘Peace’ at the end of WW1 continued to feature a significant degree of conflict and division in the Australian community. Sectarianism, which had become more pronounced during the War over the issue of conscription, continued to be very divisive in the community after the War. There were also the lingering questions over conscription itself and, most importantly, the standing of those who had chosen not to enlist, particularly now that the volunteers had returned, many of them wounded and broken. The fear of the ‘alien’ and the ‘outsider’ which had driven paranoia during the War certainly continued after it. The common perception was that the White Australia Policy remained just as threatened, notwithstanding the fact that Hughes on his return to Australia after Versailles, boasted that he had ensured its survival. There was also the pressing issue of ‘repatriation’ and the inevitable conflict between what the returning soldiers had been promised and what the Government could realistically deliver. On this score, the potential for failure and despair was effectively unlimited. There were also the ongoing effects of the fundamental political divisions which had been created by the War, most notably the schism within the ALP. And, to round off the bleak picture, in the immediate aftermath of the War there was the scourge of the Spanish Flu.

Against this broad background, the following posts focus specifically on events in the Shire of Alberton in the years immediately after the War. As the focus is at the ‘local’ level, it is easier to see other important themes that emerged at the time. Arguably, the most significant of these was the dynamic of how the returned men re-connected with their previous life and re-integrated into the community they had left. What emerges very quickly is that these were somewhat fraught processes and the source of significant tension in the local community. In a real sense, the ‘boys’ were not prepared simply to take up their old lives and accept their prior status. There was a significant generational divide between the returning ‘boys’ and their parents and ‘betters’. It was also very much about the tension between what they had been promised and what they in fact received.

Club rooms for the returned men or a memorial hall for the Shire?

This first post in the short series examines the conflict in the local community from the perspective of one fundamentally critical question: who was to decide what represented the best interests of the returned soldiers?

The building featured here is a drawing for a grand ‘Memorial Soldiers’ Club with Public Hall and Civic Club’ to be erected in Yarram. But it was never built. The background story of why it was never built is one of multiple levels of disagreement and division within the local community.

The essential backing for this grand proposal came from the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. The editor – Augustus John Rossiter – had been a most vociferous Imperial Loyalist throughout the War. He would have assumed that he had established his right to talk on behalf of both the returning men and the community as a whole. He proposed a grand civic building which could incorporate a memorial for the fallen soldiers, a club room for the returned men, and a public hall for the community as a whole. Rossiter organised a shire-wide fund-raising appeal and he commissioned initial drawings of the proposed building which he then published in the paper on 25/4/19, Anzac Day. The initial plans or drawings were prepared by G de Lacy of Parkville, the architect responsible for the design of the very recent Holy Trinity Church (Anglican) in Yarram which had been finished in mid 1918.

The essential feature of Rossiter’s proposal was that the one, major new building would serve several interests. It would serve as a memorial to those who had served and those who had fallen. Further, it would incorporate amenities for returned soldiers living in the Shire of Alberton. But, as well, the proposal represented a significant, additional piece of civic infrastructure: a new and contemporary public hall. Obviously, the proposal would be expensive but Rossiter saw it as a fitting tribute to the returned soldiers and a major and justified exercise in civic commemoration. In fact, there were many such memorial halls built by local governments, both urban and rural, post WW1.

In the description of the proposed building, included with the initial drawings, Rossiter emphasised how the three building elements – ‘Soldiers’ Club’, ‘Civic Club’ and ‘Public Hall’ – were both separate and integral:

The proposed buildings have been designed so that the Soldiers’ Club, the Civic Club and the Public Hall can each be vested in separate bodies of control and managed and maintained as though they were three isolated structures. Although they are reached by a central common entrance, for purposes of convenience and effect, they are quite separate buildings in that fire-proof and sound-proof construction and parapet walls separate each from the other.

The overall building was a large, two-story structure. It included a comprehensive set of common-use facilities including library, reading and correspondence room, smoking room, billiard room and a shared, spacious entrance and foyer. The facade was Italianate in style and it incorporated space for ‘memorial tablets and inscriptions’.

However, in the same edition of the paper, Rossiter acknowledged that there was some opposition to his grand proposal. Strikingly, the main opposition was coming from the returned men themselves. Rossiter noted that there had been a recent public meeting in Yarram at which the returned soldiers – or at least a group of them – had dismissed the grand proposal and, instead, had called for a completely separate club rooms. Rossiter’s frustration was evident:

The demand by the men for a detached club created a barrier, and frustrated the good intentions of the public.

But now, with the detailed plans and drawings published in the paper, Rossiter attempted to increase the pressure on the men to give up the call for their own separate club rooms and get behind what he represented as the general community’s intention:

We this morning produce a facsimile [of the plans], and to clear the air, ask the soldiers, without delay, to state if a building erected on these plans will meet with their approval. The public want to know, for their intention is to build a memorial hall of service to the district wherein will be seen the photographs of all who enlisted, also those and records of the fallen. We parted with the boys as one family, worked for them while away, and longed for their return. What has made the difference that they should hold aloof now they have come back that their hours of pleasure must be spent amongst themselves, quite apart from former friends. A warm hearted public wants an answer. Will the soldiers consent to detached club rooms, with a clear title, under the roof of a memorial hall?

The emotional blackmail is evident: this particular group of soldiers is being ungrateful and, in effect, setting themselves against the very community that has supported them so faithfully through the long years of war.

The warnings to the soldiers were explicit:

The soldiers, unfortunately, lost much public sympathy by their defiant action at a public meeting in the shire hall; yet boiled down, the cleavage came from a very small section of the returned men. Prior to this the whole district was in the mood to go to any length towards a memorial hall for the fallen. Now, the hand is stayed, and until the soldiers say they will consent to a club under the roof of a memorial hall, there is little chance of getting either building such as would be an ornament and a credit to the town and district.

The public meeting where the soldiers had expressed their preference for their own club rooms appears to have taken place in early March 1919, just over one month earlier. At the time, there was a brief report in the local paper (12/3/19) of the meeting:

It was the returned men’s idea to build memorial rooms to be used as club rooms. They could invite anyone they wished to their club. At present they had no place whatever to meet in – unless they went to the Yarram Club, but returned soldiers were likely to be “black-balled” there. (Laughter.) If the public wanted to build a big hall there was no earthly reason why they shouldn’t.

It appears that this initial plan by the soldiers for their own private club room arrangement was not taken too seriously because by early April 1919 a fund – Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial Fund – had been set up … to build a memorial hall and soldiers’ club rooms in Yarram, in memory of the fallen. The editorial that described the basic arrangement (18/4/19) noted that 1,000 circulars associated with the fund-raising effort had already been distributed through the shire. Plans for a related gymkhana were also already under way. The same editorial effectively dismissed the concerns of the soldiers and expressed confidence that the combined proposal would be accepted by them. It also had a passing shot at their intransigence.

The decision of the returned men, in favor of detached club rooms, gave rise to comment, and was not favorably entertained by the public. The plan before us presents no obstacle in that respect. The soldiers’ quarters are embodied in a comprehensive plan, not absolutely detached, yet will, we feel sure, meet with the approval of previous objectors. there really seems to be no obstacle in the way of the public and the soldiers uniting in one great movement, and if the response is on all fours with what the people can afford we see no reason why a very fine hall should not be erected in memory of the fallen, and of the brave deeds of the returned men. We ask for liberal response.

But the backers of the grander proposal did not get the ‘liberal response’ they requested. The grand proposal was dropped within not much more than one month and all future effort went in to setting up a separate club rooms.

The formal commitment to a separate (Diggers’) club rooms came at a public meeting the end of May 1919, about one month after the local paper published the drawings for the combined proposal. A report of the meeting was written up in the paper on 30/5/19. The meeting was chaired by B P Johnson, another Imperial Loyalist who had been an outspoken champion of the War effort and who, arguably, had the highest profile as a supporter of returned men. Interestingly, it was in this role as a backer and supporter of the returned men that Johnson came out very strongly in favour of the separate Diggers’ club rooms. There was this strong sense that even if he did not believe that theirs was the best proposal, he would always back the men’s wishes.

This meeting at the end of May was called to accept or reject, once and for all, the local paper’s proposal ‘to erect a memorial hall and club rooms for the returned soldiers of Alberton Shire’. It was clear from the start that the soldiers wanted to go their own way. Speakers noted that the appeal for the combined proposal – memorial (public) hall and soldiers’ club rooms – had been running for nearly one month but that very little had been received. In fact, the response had been so poor that the local branch of the ‘Returned Soldiers’ Association’ had now decided to pull out of the proposal for the combined facility and opt instead for their own, separate club rooms. Johnson, as chair, immediately backed the men and declared that the matter had to be settled at the meeting. Johnson argued that one of the problems with the combined proposal was that many locals claimed that they did not see the merit in building another public hall in Yarram:

Many of the residents had used the dual appeal as an excuse for withholding donations. Some had said that they were prepared to assist an appeal for club rooms, but were opposed to building another hall in Yarram.

Johnson’s logic was that an appeal specifically for club rooms for the returned men would attract a higher level of financial support from the locals. As events turned out he was proved wrong. The same argument was taken up George F Sauer another key Imperial Loyalist and backer of the returned men. He also claimed that people felt Yarram already had too many public halls. Implicit in this argument was the view that residents of the shire who did not live in Yarram could hardly be expected to contribute to a facility which they would not use. Benjamin Couston, local bank manger and yet another key Imperial Loyalist, declared that whereas he had initially supported the double proposal, he now supported the soldiers’ club rooms’ proposal. He also noted that the appeal over the past month had ‘failed dismally’. It was Couston who formally moved:

That this public meeting now assembled agrees to relinquish the double appeal for a memorial hall and soldiers’ club rooms, and now pledges itself to support the Returned Soldiers’ Association in building club rooms for the returned soldiers of the shire.

The motion was passed unanimously and the meeting also determined to write to those who had already donated to the initial appeal and ask… whether they were prepared to allow their donations to be handed over, to the direct appeal for soldiers’ club rooms. The new appeal was to be The Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial Fund. The appeal would be supported by a gymkhana which would be held later in the year, in early November.

The last business of the meeting was to set up a committee to mange the appeal. Johnson became the president, Sauer the secretary, and Benson the treasurer. There was an executive committee which was made up of several returned men (E T Benson, W A Newland, Dr J H Rutter) and a number of local business men who had all identified as Imperial Loyalists during the War (W C Growse, E L Grano, W G Pope). The local Church of England rector – Rev S Williams – was also on the committee. This committee would work closely with the local branch of the RSSILA.

Johnson closed the meeting with a warning – rather prescient as it turned out – that if the new appeal proved a failure, then Alberton Shire … would be eternally disgraced.

Not surprisingly, Rossiter was annoyed that his far grander proposal was rejected in favour of the separate soldiers’ club rooms. His annoyance was evident in an editorial that appeared a few weeks later (20/6/19). Despite what he wrote, the public meeting had indeed formally decided to drop the memorial hall proposal and go with the club rooms:

If what we hear be true, the members of the Yarram branch of the Returned Soldiers’ Association have determined to disassociate themselves with the memorial hall movement, towards which some subscriptions have been received. The intention is to appeal for a soldiers’ club solely.

Rossiter was also prepared to challenge the real level of support for this decision and suggest that a soldiers’ club rooms would hardly constitute a suitable public memorial for the fallen and returned men:

It would be interesting to know the total number of returned men in the district and the number on the roll of the Association [RSSILA], in view of ascertaining if it be the will of the majority to stand apart from the public proposal.

But if Rossiter and others were annoyed that the returned men had scotched their grand proposal, the returned men themselves were concerned by what they saw as the lack of support from the local council for their proposal. There was another public meeting held in mid July – reported 18/7/19 – to drum up support for the soldiers’ club rooms. This time there was an organiser from the Victorian branch of the RSSILA who came to speak on behalf of the proposal. This person noted that there were no local councillors present at the meeting and claimed that … It is a general rule for them to attend meetings of this description. He continued:

Many of the councillors made promises of what they intended doing for the men who went to the war, but, unfortunately, the same men have turned out to be nothing more than lip-loyalist. (Laughter).

Johnson was again chair of the meeting and he made some attempt to cover for the absent councillors, but it was evident that there were clear divisions in the community on the specific issue of the club rooms, and the broader question of how the returned men were being treated in the Australia for which they had fought and sacrificed so much.

In mid September 1919, the executive responsible for fundraising for the soldiers’ club rooms purchased a two-story building in Yarram. It was on the corner of Bland Street and Commercial Road. It was purchased from C J Allin for £1,000. Allin had purchased it a few years earlier from Councillor Barlow. Later there would be suggestions that the soldiers paid too much for the property. The executive then set about making necessary changes to the building and intensifying the fund raising effort. The date for the gymkhana was officially set for November 12, 1919.

In early October there was a formal welcome for the returned soldiers of the shire in Thompson’s Hall. The report of the function was in the local paper on 10/10/19. It was a full house and the chair for the evening was the Shire President, J J O’Connor. O’Connor touched on all the then current themes: the debt of gratitude owed to the returned soldiers; the need for the soldiers to ‘stick together’ and become organised through their association (RSSILA); the enormous challenge of repatriation and the need for the returned men to be patient; the glory of the dead; the greatness of the Australian soldiers and their acknowledged status as ‘among the best soldiers in the world’; the decency of those who had tried to enlist – many times – only to have been rejected and, equally, the disdain for … ‘disloyalists’ in our midst; and, of course, the greatness and power of the Empire. Amongst all this, the chairman … made a stirring appeal for contributions towards the establishment of soldiers’ club rooms in Yarram. He declared:

The club rooms were required, and the appeal provided an opportunity for residents to show their gratitude for what the soldiers had done for them.

But the money was not forthcoming. Residents did not contribute to the appeal; and this, of course, created more division and rancour in the community.

Johnson had a letter in the local paper on 22/10/19. He pointed out the cost of the clubrooms (£1,000) and noted that to that point the total raised was under £200. He insisted that people across the shire knew about the appeal. He concluded that there was … no excuse save selfishness and base ingratitude for neglect to subscribe [to the appeal]. He declared that:

It is no wonder that the boys feel that the lavish promises which were made to them when they went away are not going to be honored, and that most of the people have forgotten the war and all that was done for them.

In a real sense this was vintage Johnson as the classic, high-profile, Imperial Loyalist, in that the appeal to moral righteousness and, critically, the attempted shaming of all who fell short, was so characteristic of all the previous appeals – from 1914 on – to support the War, smash Germany, defend the Empire, encourage enlistment, and, of course, support the introduction of conscription. There were no shades of grey, and no ambiguities, inconsistencies or opposing views in this world view. So Johnson held nothing back:

The soldiers have now purchased a building, and are now fitting it up for occupation, and after all they have done and suffered, it will be an everlasting shame and disgrace to the whole of the district if they have to find one penny of the cost. I venture to say that there are very few men in this Shire who cannot pay £1 at least to in some way show their appreciation of the soldiers’ wonderful deeds. It is all very well to turn up at welcomes, where the admission is free, and cheer and wave flags, etc., but the proper course is to sacrifice something. Don’t calculate how little you can give – the boys offered all, and nearly 60,000 of them paid in full – but see how big you can make your contribution, for, after all, the man who gives as little as he can, or who fails to subscribe, really puts a price on his womenfolk and himself. Let every man realise that everything he owns he owes to the soldiers, and, then this disgrace will soon be removed.

But now, one full year after the War, the local community was clearly sick of being told what to do by the likes of Johnson. Nor did they appreciate his attempts at moral blackmail and his superior tone. But he was not about to give up. There was another letter on 5/11/19. Johnson this time published the full list of individuals and groups that had contributed to the appeal. The total came to less that 70, with about 65 individual contributions. Clearly, there was not widespread support for the appeal. What was equally clear was that while previous attempts to shame people into contributing had not worked, Johnson had no other strategy:

It will be seen that a few pounds have come in since I last wrote, but the response is still an absolute disgrace to this magnificent district. Have the people as a whole no sense of gratitude? Some, I hear, will not subscribe because they cannot agree with the soldiers that club rooms are required. Such people surely forget what they owe these men. They want the rooms and it is little enough to do for the people to give them. It is anything but pleasant to be ashamed of the place one lives in.

In the end, the gymkhana generated a significant profit – over £500 – and the funds required for the club rooms were realised. Perhaps people had intended all along to support the gymkhana and had rationalised that that support would represent their contribution to the soldiers’ club rooms. At the same time, the number of individuals, across the whole of the Shire of Alberton, who did subscribe to the formal fund set up for the club rooms was very small.

Doubtless, there were many reasons for this lack of support. As already argued, many would have taken exception to Johnson’s tirades. Locals had tired of being told what they must do. There was also the question about whether the soldiers’ proposal was actually inferior to the one put forward by Rossiter and his paper. And sitting behind this question was the suggestion that the soldiers should not be ‘selfish’ and want just their own club rooms. There was also the view that the returned men should not be deliberately withdrawing themselves from the wider community and setting themselves up in their own exclusive facility. Surely, the thinking ran, now that the ‘boys’ were ‘home’ again, they should be fitting back into the community and they should be grateful that the locals were keen to give them a facility, within a much grander public memorial to both them and their fallen comrades. And if the returned men could not see that, then why should anyone support their proposal. Moreover, the soldiers’ club rooms were hardly a memorial so would it not be better to wait and contribute to a proper memorial when the shire finally decided on one. As already noted there were also questions on who was actually representing the returned men’s interests and were the returned men speaking with one voice. So there were any number of reasons why locals could have convinced themselves that contributing to the fund for the soldiers’ club rooms was not essential.

The rooms were opened on the first anniversary of the Armistice (11/11/19). However, the division and recrimination did not end with the opening of the soldiers’ club rooms. The editorial in the local paper at the time made it clear that there was still considerable disquiet over what had happened.

Quite frankly, we say that the building is not what the public desired the returned men should have. It is not good enough nor is it in the true sense a memorial. A memorial is something of a more stable character, and worthy of the great and gallant deeds done by our boys in the recent war. It should be something in memory of the dear departed. Instead, the League has purchased a building that is like a reed shaken by the wind. It sways in a moderate gale, and the time cannot be far distant when radical and costly alterations must be made if stability is to be any desideratum.

The paper continued its list of concerns, claiming to speak on behalf of the community:

We are voicing the opinion of the great majority of the people when we say that disappointment is expressed at the purchase [of the building for the soldiers’ club rooms]. It may serve its purpose in a way, but with large hearts and determination to do something grand, the public had in view a building which would be a credit to town and district, and a much more fitting memorial of services rendered – a building that would provide much more than the men themselves asked for – a building in which the public would be perennially interested, and upon which would have been lavished care and attention by a warm-hearted public in memory of those they loved. The present building cannot command the same attention because the deep sentiment that was assured does not invest it. There exists a sort of feeling “Well, boys, you have so decided; we will do what we can for you.

There is no way of knowing if in fact the local paper was representing the view of the majority of locals. However, what is true is that people at the time would not have seen the soldiers’ club rooms as any sort of formal, public memorial to all those men from the Shire of Alberton who enlisted and served and, more critically, the dead. The soldiers’ club rooms, or the ‘Diggers’ Club’ as it was also known, was a facility set up exclusively for the use of the returned men and as a head quarters of the local branch of the RSSILA. This meant that the question of the Shire of Alberton’s formal, public memorial remained unresolved. We will see later that the Shire decided on the cenotaph – featuring the list of the dead – which stands in the main street of Yarram. But, again, this decision was also marked by more division. For example, the local paper again called for something more utilitarian, even a public memorial swimming pool.

Another concern of locals, sitting just below the surface of public debate, was the question of what the soldiers would do in their club rooms. As we have seen in previous posts, there was a very strong temperance sentiment in the Shire. Local clergy had been active in trying to restrict wet canteens in the Melbourne army camps, and the dangers of drink in the AIF were constant preoccupations, as was the push for prohibition and ‘early closing’. Another social evil very much on the community’s mind was gambling, and previous posts have shown that this fear extended even to chocolate wheels at fetes. The possibility that the soldiers might drink and gamble to excess in the privacy of their ‘club’ was a concern and, in fact, the backers of the proposal gave public assurance that the club would not seek a licence and that gambling in all forms would be strictly prohibited.

Even after the club rooms were opened, the high level of criticism continued. For example, in an editorial published on 3/12/19, not even one month after the official opening, Rossiter questioned whose interests were being served by the facility:

A soldiers’ club having been established in Yarram, for ‘members only’, it is important that all returned men should join. The public liberally responded at the gymkhana, presumably for something of benefit to all Alberton Shire soldiers, not to a small proportion. It is felt that the Yarram branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers’ Association is not the ‘live wire’ it ought to be!

The paper suggested that too often key decisions were being taken by just a few of the returned soldiers. It called for all returned men to become involved. Also, there was another issue at play here, because the reality was that club rooms in Yarram were not going to be as accessible to returned men who lived in the outlying townships and settlements of the district. A soldiers’ club rooms in Yarram was always going to serve, principally, those returned men who lived in Yarram.

The formal meeting that saw the transfer of management from the committee that raised the funds for the club rooms to the Yarram sub branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League (Australia) took place in early December 1919. It was written up in the local paper on 12/12/19. The business of the meeting was the report from the ‘Building Committee’ (Johnson’s committee) and the approval of the constitution for the club rooms.

According to the constitution adopted, the name of the club rooms was fixed as the ‘Diggers’ Club’ and the facility was for the use of all returned soldiers in Alberton Shire. Importantly, the returned men did not have to be members of the RSSILA:

All district soldiers, whether belonging to the League or not, are eligible to join the club. The procedure is by ballot. All soldiers who fought with the Allies in the great war, or any previous wars, are eligible to join.

The Yarram sub branch of the RSSILA had been set up mid 1917. See Post 148. Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League (of Australia) for more background, including local tensions over its creation.

At the end of the War, local membership of the sub branch was approximately one hundred. At the end of 1919, Dr Rutter was serving as president of the sub branch. E T Benson, a local bank manger, was treasurer and W A Newland, who had earlier served as the local recruiting sergeant, was secretary. All committee members were obviously returned men.

The relationship between the Yarram sub branch of the RSSILA and the Diggers’ Club was not perfectly clear. The public’s perception at the time would have been that, effectively, the two agencies were the same; and, certainly, it appears that the sub-branch ran the Diggers’ Club as its property. However, the constitution of the Diggers’ Club clearly stated that membership of the RSSILA was not a prerequisite for membership of the club. Moreover, the same constitution stated that the ‘property’ of the club was vested in ‘three soldier trustees’ – members of the club – and that, if membership was ever to decline to the extent that the club was no longer viable, the trustees had the power to hand over the property of the club to the president and councillors of the Alberton Shire. Presumably, this arrangement reflected the fact that the money for the Diggers’ Club had come not from the RSSILA but from the local community, in fund raising overseen by civic leaders and formally supported by the Shire.

At the end of 1919, the auditors appointed to the local RSSILA sub branch were B P Johnson and B Couston. Presumably, this was to maintain a link with the committee that had been responsible for the fundraising for the Diggers’ Club. This link with the civic leaders who had supported the push for a separate soldiers’ club rooms was strengthened when there was an amendment to the Diggers’ Club membership rules in mid December 1919 which provided for ’soldiers’ fathers’ – both Johnson and Couston, for example – to join the club. There was also broad provision for ‘honorary members’. These membership changes effectively highlighted the distinction between the Diggers’ Club and the local branch of the RSSILA.

The Diggers’ Club – the building, at least – was destroyed in a major fire in March 1923.

Overall, it is clear that the establishment of the Diggers’ Club in Yarram at the end of 1919 represented many levels of the community division and social disquiet that sprang up when the ‘boys’ came home. In fact, the common use of the very term ‘boys’ goes to the heart of so much of the division and disquiet. For many locals, the simple story was that the ‘brave lads’ or ‘boys’ had enlisted from a sense of duty, fought with courage and earned the praise of the nation and the rest of the world as amongst the ‘greatest soldiers in the world’ and now, still ‘boys’, they were home again to take up the life they had briefly given up. Everything and everyone would go back to normal. In the world to which the soldiers returned, their parents’ generation and ‘betters’ were still there to tell them what to do; and they were expected to simply fit back into the previous social order. They were to be feted as heroes but it would all be done on the terms of the ‘old order’. They could have a dedicated clubroom but it would be within a much grander, memorial public hall which would benefit the whole community.

But many, if not most, of the returned men did not see it like that. Their years in the AIF had changed them profoundly. Many had had their heath compromised, if not completely ruined. They were all mentally and emotionally scarred. Many were profoundly disillusioned and desperate. They were anything but ‘boys’. True they were glad to be home and they looked forward to their future but they wanted it to be on their terms. They also expected that the countless promises made to them would be honored. They did not want to be ‘mucked around’. They desperately wanted to hang on to the sense of camaraderie or ‘mateship’ that had characterised their time in the AIF and they saw this soldierly mateship as exclusive in nature and reserved for those who had been there. They needed to be together by themselves or, at the very least, those they chose to be with. They were not about to be told by their parents’ generation how they should fit in and what the social boundaries were to be. If they wanted a separate club rooms for their exclusive use and that annoyed the rest of the community and left them open to claims that they were selfish, stand-offish and ungrateful then so be it.

It is worth finishing on yet another editorial from the local paper that once again found fault with the attitude of the returned men. It was a plea from the editor for the men to live up to the high ideals in which the local community held them. For people like Rossiter, there was this picture of the returning heroes of which the heroes themselves needed to be reminded. As mentioned, the gymkhana in early November 1919 was the key fund raiser for the Diggers’ Club. It was a large event with over 1,200 people in attendance. On the day, there was a procession led by the Yarram Town Band to the showgrounds. The returned men were invited to march. But not too many did. This lack of enthusiasm was not lost on the editor who, in his editorial immediately after the gymkhana, could not resist some criticism:

What few soldiers “processed” looked warriors every one but if the number of returned men be 400 in the district, 40 was not a good proportion. Even if the League members’ roll number is 120, then there were two-thirds elsewhere. We would like to have seen the full strength of the returned men in uniform on Wednesday. Those who turned out were so soldierlike in appearance but it made the others conspicuous by their absence.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative


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

199. The rejected

This post is an attempt to give an indication of the number of men who were ‘rejected’ in their attempt(s) to enlist in the AIF. The focus is on the Shire of Alberton. The 181 men are listed in the table below.

The overall focus of the research for this blog has been on the identification of all those men who had an association with the Shire of Alberton who did enlist in WW1. As already indicated the total number comes to 815. With this group of 815 there has been a comprehensive effort to identify all relevant characteristics, both of their background and their service in the AIF.

In the research there have been many cases where an individual was at first rejected on medical grounds but was then successful at a subsequent attempt. These men are included in the cohort of 815 because, ultimately, they did enlist and serve in the AIF. At the same time, there were men who, irrespective of the number of attempts they made – and in many instances there were multiple attempts – were never accepted for the AIF. This particular post focuses on such men and represents an attempt to give some indication of the number involved.

However, there are some significant problems associated with trying to research this particular group of ‘rejected’ men. The basic problem of course is that 100 years ago all efforts were devoted to identifying and commemorating those who enlisted and served, rather than those who were rejected. Moreover, while there are some records which I have been able to uncover and use they tend to be both indirect and incomplete. The records employed come from the process of enlisting men at the local level, and it is important to understand this process.

The process of enlistment for volunteers in country and regional areas has been covered in earlier posts. Briefly, in the early months of the War the process could effectively be completed at the local level. In the case of the Shire of Alberton, the locus of ‘local’ was restricted precisely to the town of Yarram. The local doctor(s) in Yarram examined the volunteers and passed them as medically fit. The individual volunteer took the oath and signed the attestation papers in Yarram. The Shire Secretary then issued a railway warrant for travel from Alberton to Melbourne so that the person could report to the AIF.

However, very early on, the AIF authorities came to doubt the ‘integrity’ of the medical examination at the local level and formed the opinion that local doctors, overly influenced by patriotic sentiment, were not as diligent as they needed to be. The AIF concern, not surprisingly, was that men with compromised health or below the set standards of the time, no matter how keen and patriotic, would inevitably end up being an unnecessary drain on resources and potentially undermine the War effort. This was particularly the case in the early months when there was no shortage of volunteers and the AIF could be selective. As already noted, when the local doctors in the Shire of Alberton found out that their medical judgement was being questioned by the AIF – along with all other country doctors – there was much outrage and even a refusal, for a time, to conduct the relevant medical examination. However, by 1915 the process effectively involved 2 medicals: the initial local one was followed by one in Melbourne itself; and the enlistment only proceeded if the second medical was satisfactory.

One of the pieces of evidence used to compile the table below is the list of railway warrants issued by the Shire Secretary. The list of railway warrants is a hand-written record entitled Australian Imperial Force. List of Recruits who enlisted with the President of the Shire of Alberton. 1914.1915.1916.1917.1918. It was created and completed by the Shire Secretary (G W Black) and it recorded the name of the recruit and the ‘date of pass’ (railway warrant). Additionally, the Shire Secretary recorded occasional comments against individual recruits such as ‘killed’ or ‘killed in action’ , ‘wounded’, ‘prisoner of war’, ‘died of illness’ , ‘rejected in Melbourne, and ‘re-enlisted’. An example of a railway warrant is included at the end of this post. A copy of the original list of railway warrants will shortly be included as a resource on the blog, under Resources.

It is essential to note that not every volunteer associated with the Shire requested a railway warrant or enlisted locally – that is, via Yarram. Many simply made their own way to Melbourne. Others enlisted via other regional centres. The discrepancy between the number of railway warrants (474) and the total number of enlistments that I have identified as having an association with the Shire of Alberton (815) points to the large number who enlisted ‘outside’ the Shire, or, more correctly, enlisted at a location other than Yarram.

The list of railway warrants issued by the Shire Secretary highlights the significance of the second medical in Melbourne. On the table below there are 64 men who did receive such railway warrants – and who therefore had passed an initial medical at Yarram and formally commenced the enlistment process – who do not have a service record and who therefore must have failed the second medical in Melbourne. Effectively, this suggests that roughly 13% of recruits who were assessed as medically fit by the local doctors were rejected, principally on medical grounds, in Melbourne. It suggests that AIF concerns about local doctors had some validity.

But this rejection figure of 13% needs to be seen in the context of the other key record that has been used to compile the table below. This second key piece of evidence is another hand-written list entitled Recruits Rejected by Local Doctors. Again, it appears to have been prepared by the Shire Secretary. It also will appear shortly on the blog under the category of Resources. It is not clear why the list was prepared or when but it appears to relate to the earlier years of the War. The list simply records the names of the 136 men who failed the medical administered by the local doctors. In about a dozen cases there is a very brief, added comment, most commonly: ‘afterwards enlisted’, ‘afterwards accepted’ and ’afterwards passed in Melbourne’. My additional research suggests that of the 136 men on the list, a significant number – 44 – did subsequently enlist. The fact that we do not know the specific period covered by this list means that we cannot give a definitive number for those who failed their initial medical in the Shire – at Yarram – over the course of the War. However, it does seem fair to argue that contrary to what the AIF authorities in Melbourne might have believed, the local doctors – at least in Yarram – did fail significant numbers of recruits on the basis of the prescribed health standards. Moreover, the situation did not change as the War progressed. Indeed, earlier posts have noted that throughout 1917 and 1918, when special, high-profile recruiting drives were held in the Shire, there was invariably a newspaper report that highlighted both the small number of volunteers who came forward and also the very high number who were rejected because they failed the medical. Even as the medical standards came down, the failure rate remained high. Overall, while Melbourne standards might have been higher, local doctors certainly did reject recruits on medical grounds.

Overall, we have evidence that for the enlistment process centred on Yarram a significant number of volunteers did not meet the medical standards, either initially in Yarram or subsequently in Melbourne. In fact, the table below, based principally on the 2 pieces of evidence described, suggests that the total figure for cases where the enrolment did not proceed is close to 200 men. But, as noted, this figure really only covers the Yarram process and many men enlisted – or tried to enlist – either directly in Melbourne or in some other regional centre (Traralgon, Sale, Toora, Warragul …. ) so, doubtless, there were others rejected on medical grounds elsewhere and the figure of 200 would have to be seen as a minimum number.

The table makes it clear that the majority of rejections involved medical concerns. At the same time, there were cases where age – too young or too old – was a related issue. With those under 21 yo there was also the issue of parental permission. With those in their forties there could be an issue with dependent children. There was also a handful of cases towards the end of 1918 where the enlistment was, effectively, no longer required. In this group there is even the case of James Wenworth Davis – the last entry on the list of railway warrants – whose pass was dated 11/11/18. Lastly, there were ‘one-off’ rejections. For example, Frederick O Gerstenberger – dated 19/7/15 – who was ‘rejected in Melbourne as father is German’.

There are 5 cases on the table below where there is a major discrepancy, in the sense that the name of the rejected person also appears on a memorial of some kind commemorating those who served. E B Couston appears on the honour roll of the Presbyterian Charge, but there is no equivalent record of military service. Similarly, S Wheildon – Won Wron – and David Ross – Blackwarry – appear on local honour rolls but there does not appear to be any evidence that either enlisted. Even more striking, there are 2 names on the table that also appear on the Honor Roll of the Shire of Alberton : Fred Toyne and S C H Emmerson. There does not appear to be any evidence that these men enlisted; although there is the outside chance that there was an enlistment under an alias.

One issue worth touching on was what it meant to be rejected. Any number of previous posts have shown that in the local community there was a strong expectation that men would enlist. Men therefore who wanted to enlist but who were rejected faced a double bind. There was the frustration that they could not enlist and ‘do their part’ and serve with their ‘mates’. They were not ‘good enough’. But there would also have been the self-awareness that they stood out in the local community as not having enlisted. Admittedly they had tried and failed, and this situation would have been known to family and friends but, equally, they would also have often been placed in the awkward situation of justifying to others the fact that they were not serving in the AIF. Moreover, how many times did they have to test their status – ‘rejected’ – by re-taking the medical. If they had been rejected in 1914 was there a community expectation they would try again in 1915, and then again in 1916…. We also know that in the early months of the War there was sympathy for those who tried to enlist but failed the medical. Names of such people were often published in local news reports. They were accorded some form of intermediate status and there was even talk of them being given some sort of ‘badge’ they could wear to show their patriotic commitment. It is also significant that in the table below there were even names included on a school honour roll – Carrajung South SS – with the designation ‘Rej’.

Even some rejected men, known in the community, were singled out for the ‘white feather’. Also, an earlier post (Post 153) has covered the story of Charles Allum an 18 year-old who was prosecuted for impersonating a soldier. In the trial it was claimed that he had tried to enlist many times but was always rejected because of a ‘weak chest’. He claimed that after he was constantly pestered to enlist he invented the fiction of being a returned soldier.

In the early days after the War when various peace celebrations were held – well before the troops returned home – rejected men were accorded special recognition. But, inevitably, as the RSL grew and matured, along with the heroic reputation of the returned men, the status and fate of the men rejected mattered less and less. What counted was war service, not rejection. It might not have been the rejected men’s fault that they had not been in the Middle East or on the Western Front; but the telling fact was that they had not been there. Besides, those in the AIF knew that many of those initially rejected had managed to get round the system and enlist. The rejected men hoped that people, in their local community and family, accepted that the rejection was genuine. The issue of family acceptance in this context is important. In the table there are 27 cases where at least one brother enlisted. Clearly, there were many families that had to come to terms with the fact that not every brother or son made the same sacrifice: some served and died on active service; some served and returned wounded or with some other major health issue(s); some served and, apparently, escaped unscathed; and others never even served because they had been rejected on medical grounds. All these variations could apply – even all in the one family – and they represented realities that could not be ignored in the years, and even generations, after the War. The fortunes of the rejected men were truly mixed.

Shire of Alberton Railway Warrant (Pass)

196. Deaths after the Armistice

As indicated in the last post, this post covers the deaths of 2 local men after the Armistice. The names of both men are recorded on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor. Additionally, both deaths are acknowledged on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial in the main street of Yarram.

PERKINS Harold Claude Albert 13881
4 Aust Div MechTransport Coy                 Died of illness 26/2/19

Harold Perkins was born in North Carlton in 1892 and attended school at St Peter’s Church of England, Eastern Hill in Melbourne. When his mother completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour, she identified North Carlton as the area with which he was ‘chiefly connected’. She also gave his ‘calling’ on the same form as ‘wood carver’ and his attestation papers record that he had completed a five-year apprenticeship with James Roberts & Sons, Collingwood.

It is not clear at what point he moved to Yarram but by the time he enlisted he was certainly well-known in the local area. His name appears in the 1915 Electoral Roll – Harold Claude Perkins, furniture salesman, Yarram – and there were references in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative  (15/9/15 and 17/5/16 ) which indicate he was conducting furniture sales from an address in Commercial Street, Yarram. The second reference acknowledged that he had recently enlisted and that he needed to sell his furniture stock. The paper called on the locals to support him by buying his stock at sale prices.

He had his initial medical with Dr Crooks in Yarram and was issued with railway warrant number 337 dated 6/5/16. On the list of railway warrants issued, the Shire Secretary added, some time after the War, the single note ‘died’ next to his name.

The enlistment was completed in Melbourne on 8/5/16. At the time he was 24 years-old. He was single and his occupation was recorded as both ‘salesman’ and ‘furniture salesman’. The religion was given as Church of England. At the time of enlistment, the father, George Frederick Perkins, was dead and the mother, Edna Jane Perkins (Quinn), was listed as next-of-kin. She was still living in Melbourne (Drummond St, North Carlton).

Private Perkins was attached to the Field Artillery Brigade. However, when he embarked for overseas service on 16/12/16 he went as a reinforcement for 9 Army Service Corps (17 Divisional Supply Column) and was part of the Mechanical Transport Unit.

His unit reached England in mid February 1917 and he was sent to France one month later as a driver/mechanic for the Motor Transport Section. In early May (7/5/17) he was charged with ‘breaking away from his fatigue duties without permission’ and was confined to barracks for 14 days and forfeited his pay for the same time. There was a period of 2 weeks leave to the UK in February 1918. In March 1918, he was formally transferred from 4 Australian Divisional Supply Company to 4 Australian Divisional Mechanical Transport Company.

After the cessation of fighting, at the start of 1919, there was another period of leave to the UK. However, the very next day after returning to France from leave (18/2/19) he was admitted to hospital. At this point the diagnosis was ‘N.Y.D. Pyrexia’ . Five days later (24/2/19) it was diagnosed as ‘Influenza’ and he was listed as ‘dangerously ill’. He died 2 days later (26/2/19) and the official cause was given as ‘Broncho pneumonia and Influenza’. He died in No. 20 Casualty Clearing Station Charleroi and was buried in the Military Cemetery Charleroi.

There is a Red Cross report for Driver Perkins, prompted by the mother’s request for additional information on the death. One response came from the Officer Commanding, 4 Australian Divisional Mechanical Transport Company (Major F Searle):

…I have to advise that No. 13881 Dvr. Perkins. H.C.A. Died whilst in No. 20 C.C.S. Charleroi and was buried in the Military Cemetery Charleroi.
Cause of death, bronchial pneumonia and influenza, contracted while with this unit in Florennes.
A cross was erected over his grave by this Unit and paid for out of Regimental funds.

The war diary for this particular unit records that they were based at Florennes from 1 February and it also notes in reference to the general health of the men that influenza was very prevalent. However given that Driver Perkins spent the first 2 weeks of February in the UK on leave, and that he was admitted to hospital just one day after re-joining his unit, he could as easily have contracted the (Spanish) flu in the UK.

The cable advising of the death was dated 3/3/19.

The personal belongings reached the mother in September 1919: 3 Handkerchiefs, Letters, photos, Cards, 1 Razorstrop, 1 Wrist Watch and strap, 1 Diamond Ring, 1 Shaving Brush, 2 Brushes, 1 Razor, 2 Discs, 1 Medallion, 2 Collar Badges, 2 Numerals, 1 Comb, 1 Fountain Pen, 1 Cigarette Case, 1 Mirror, 1 Photo Frame, 1 Book of Post Cards, 1 Wallet, 1 one Franc Note

There was another package, a sealed envelope containing … 1 Bank letter dated 11th January 1919 Re remittance £10.

The mother received her son’s medals, but she herself died in May 1922 and, consequently, the remaining official memorabilia – scroll and plaque – were sent to the older brother, F H Perkins of Alphington.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for Perkins, Harold Claude Albert
Roll of Honour: Harold Claude Albert Perkins
First World War Embarkation Roll: Harold Claude Albert Perkins
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Harold Claude Albert Perkins

Harold Claude Albert Perkins, courtesy of Australian War Memorial

 

 

O’NEILL John Albert 2267
Aust Army Provo Corps           Died of Illness 25/11/19

John Albert O’Neill was born in Yarram (1888) and attended the state school at Alberton West. He was also involved with the South Gippsland Rifle Club. He came from a well-known family in the local area, at Stacey’s Bridge. His grandfather – John O’Neill – was one of the first settlers at Jack River.

John O’Neill was one of 6 siblings. There were 2 younger brothers, one of whom – David Francis O’Neill – also enlisted and survived the War, returning to Australia in early 1919. The father – Christopher O’Neill – was a dairy farmer with 150 acres at Devon. He died in 1918 while his son was still serving overseas. The mother – Ellen O’Neill (Nolan) – then became the next-of-kin and she provided the information for the (National) Roll of Honour. She gave Stacey’s Bridge as the place with which her son was ‘chiefly connected’. The mother herself died shortly after, in 1922.

While John O’Neill had been born, gone to school, and grown up in the local area, and was clearly recognised as a local, he actually enlisted in Tasmania. On the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor his entry specifically notes that he enlisted in Tasmania. It is not apparent when he left the district and moved to Tasmania. The fact that he was a member of the Stacey’s Bridge Rifle Club suggests that it would not have until his late teens or early twenties.

Private O’Neill enlisted at Claremont, Tasmania on 1/6/15. He was 26 yo and he gave his occupation as ‘laborer’. His religion was recorded as Roman Catholic.

Private O’Neill joined as reinforcements for 12 Battalion and left Australia on 25/6/15. He joined 12 Battalion on Gallipoli in September 1915. After the withdrawal from the Gallipoli Peninsula, 12 Battalion was sent to France and disembarked at Marseilles on 5/4/16.

Over his service in France Private O’Neill received 2 awards. The first was in July 1916 when, together with 4 other privates in 12 Battalion, he was mentioned in despatches for bravery as a stretcher-bearer at Pozieres in July 1916. The citation read,

For conspicuous gallantry & devotion to duty during operations 23/25 July 1916 at Pozieres. They [Private O’Neill and the 4 others ] were stretcher bearers during the whole of this period & with great courage & coolness carried many wounded men across shell swept areas to dressing station.

The war diary of 12 Battalion gives an indication of the enemy shelling at this time ( July 25, 1916) :

Fighting continues POZIERES position heavily shelled from 4 am to 6 pm the trenches dug by us are obliterated & many of our men buried

The diary also records that there were 235 wounded over the 3 days (23-25 July 1916).

Just over 6 months later, Private O’Neill’s bravery was again acknowledged. On this occasion he was recommended for – and received – the Military Medal. The recommendation was dated 1/3/17 and it again involved his work as a stretcher-bearer. The other private recommended at the same time – Private Samuel John Clarke (2229) – was also from 12 Battalion:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Privates Clarke & O’Neill, were stretcher bearers and were untiring in their efforts to carry back wounded men over exceedingly heavy country, the rapid advance of the battalion making this a very long and arduous task. …. Private O’Neill was previously recommended for good work done at Pozieres.

The citation does not give the precise date(s) or location. Presumably, it was referring to late February as the Germans were falling back to the Hindenburg Line and the fighting was again in the area near Pozieres, roughly on a line between Albert and Bapaume.

Back in Gippsland, the local paper reported on 14/9/17 that Private O’Neill’s father had been informed by the Department of Defence that his son had been awarded the Military Medal for ‘bravery in the field’.

Private O’Neil was himself wounded in action on 20/9/17. He suffered a shell wound to his left arm. He was evacuated to England and was discharged from hospital at the end of November 1917.

At the start of August 1918, Private O’Neill transferred from 12 Battalion to the Australian Provost Corps. It appears he continued in this unit, in the UK, through to the end of the War, and then after the Armistice, right through until November 1919 when he died.

The details of the death are limited but the official description given was ‘valvular disease of the heart’. It appears that he was admitted to hospital – Kitchener Military Hospital, Brighton – early in November with ‘acute bronchitis’ and died on the 25/11/19.

The mother had written to Base Records in early August 1919 (3/8/19) asking for details on the ‘welfare and whereabouts’ of her son. Presumably he was not in regular correspondence with the family back in Gippsland. The response – not until 6/8/19 – was, essentially, that there was nothing to report and that,

It is anticipated that he will be returning home very shortly, and upon receipt of advice to the effect that he has embarked for Australia, you will be promptly advised.

Then in the middle of November it appears that the mother received 2 telegrams – both dated the same day, 13/11/19. One stated that he had been admitted to hospital with ‘acute bronchitis’ and the second that he was ‘dangerously ill’ and that a progress report could be expected.

It appears that the cable advising of the death reached Australia on 26/11/19, the day after his death. On the 29/11/19 there was a detailed report of the funeral service held when 2/Cpl John Albert O’Neil M.M. was buried in Brighton Borough Cemetery:

The deceased was accorded a full military funeral. The coffin, draped with the Australian flag and surmounted with wreaths, was borne on a Gun Carriage to the cemetery. A firing party from the 34th Brigade Royal Field Artillery, was in attendance. The pall-bearers were 6 of deceased’s comrades from the Australian Provost Corps at Lewes. A detachment from the same unit under the O.C. Major G. L. PHILLIPS (MBE) followed the coffin to the graveside. Three volleys were fired over the grave and the Last Post was sounded.

Detail for the wreaths on the coffin indicate that 2/Cpl O’Neill was based at the A.I. F. Detention Barracks at Lewes.

In early 1920 (20/3/20) the mother wrote to Base Records asking for details on the collection of her son’s Military Medal, other medals and deferred pay. She was advised that the Military Medal would be passed over shortly.

In August the same year, she received her son’s kit – 1 disc, 1 rosary, Military Medal ribbon, 1 leather belt, 1 pipe, 1 pocket book, photos, letters.

The mother did received her son’s Military Medal and his service medals. However, as noted, she died in 1922 and so when the memorial plaque was sent to her, at her Stacey’s Bridge address, in December 1922, it was received and signed for by David Francis O’Neill, the brother who had also served in the AIF. The O’Neill family was another one where both parents and the soldier son all died within a relatively period of each other, in this instance 4 years.

Corporal O’Neill’s name is also recorded on the roll of honour of Stacey’s Bridge and District.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 3, The Alberton Project

National Archives file for O’Neill, John Albert
Roll of Honour: John Albert O’Neill
First World War Embarkation Roll: John Albert O’Neill
Honours and Awards file: John Albert O’Neill

 

 

195. Update: the blog after the centenary of the Armistice

Over the last 4 + years I have used the blog to record, against the chronology of the War, the deaths of soldiers from the Shire of Alberton. In this sense the blog has acted as a formal attestation of their service. In six-monthly intervals I have also given an overview of all those who enlisted, and also considered the issue of those who chose not to enlist. More broadly, I have also attempted to analyse the impact of the various crises, pressure points and divisions that either emerged or were exacerbated in the local community – and Australia more generally – during the course of the War.

However, now that the centenary of the Armistice has passed, future posts will not keep to the previous regular time frame but will be posted at progressive intervals.

I still need to cover the cases of 2 local men who died overseas on service. Harold Claude Perkins died of disease in France on 26/2/19 and John Albert O’Neill died of illness in the UK on 25/11/19. Both names are included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ memorial. I will combine the 2 in a single post early next year.

There is also further work to do on the complete database of all those locals who enlisted. This always has been, and still remains, a work-in-progress. As already indicated, as the research has continued over the course of the blog I have uncovered additional names and I need to add this number – approximately 20 – which will take the final tally so nearly 800 men. I will include the additional men as a separate post.

Also, I intend to carry out additional analysis of the complete data base. To now, the data has been released, and interpreted, in intervals of 6 months but it now needs to be looked at as a whole. It represents a significant data set – nearly 800 men of the AIF who can be tied to a particular location – and it deserves more attention. I am also considering including additional characteristics, in order, for example, to provided a greater focus on the issue of the men’s health. However, there is a significant technical problem here because throughout the blog I have struggled to find a sufficiently sophisticated online data base to use alongside the blog. What I want to do might not be possible. At the same time, I should at least be able to use the blog to release additional insights from the data.

Then there are all the issues associated with the men’s return to Australia and the local area. There are questions about how easily they were able to fit back into their former lives and the local community, and the extent to which they wanted to retain the experience of ‘mateship’ fashioned in the AIF, even if this bond was ‘exclusivist’ in nature. There were certainly major disputes in the local community over the issue of the commemoration of the men’s service and sacrifice. And all this was taking place within a community where much of the division seen over the course the War, particularly that over religion, was actually intensifying not diminishing.

The soldier settlement scheme was also critically important. It promised so much after the War. But one of the most interesting features of the program was the way the ex-soldiers, representing the younger generation, succeeded or failed in their ventures within an administrative and political context that gave power to the older generation of established farmers and town elders. In a real sense, the former soldiers swapped the authority of the AIF – where most of them were relatively young and never rose above the rank of private – for the generational authority of the established social and political order of the community to which they returned; and the power of the local authority overseeing the settlement scheme was considerable. I hope to give at least an overview of the success or otherwise of the scheme over the first 10 or so years.

I would also like to look in more detail at the whole question of the White Australia Policy, particularly in the context of the end of the War and the widespread conviction that victory had secured this fundamental national commitment. In this context I also hope to revisit the local history written at the time by Rev George Cox.

It is important, at the very least, to begin to show that the full legacy of the War – even within the confines of just the one local community of the Shire of Alberton on which I have focused these past 4 + years – went far beyond the preoccupation with memorials and commemorations, and all the associated myth-making.