Category Archives: Prominent Citizens

151. The war against drink 2: the grocer’s licence at the Yarram Co-op Store

The Co-operative Store Yarram, undated. Courtesy Public Records Office Victoria

An earlier post (97. The war against drink) highlighted the significance of the temperance movement in World War One. This post looks in detail at the intense conflict that erupted in the second half of 1917 over the (liquor) licence held by the local co-operative store in Yarram (Yarram Co-operative Store). Specifically, it looks at the extraordinary series of letters in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – that ran from July to September 1917.

[At the time, the spelling of licence/license was inconsistent, even within the same text. In this post, ‘licence’ is used throughout.]

The Co-operative Store at Yarram was established in late 1911. It was developed from an existing store owned by James G McKenzie.The original board of directors was – James F Trigg, George Bland, A H Moore, J Langham, J E Chenhall, Richard Moorfield and McKenzie himself. The manager of the store was J O Whyte. The store ran very successfully to the 1920s. From that point on, competition and customers’ bad debts undermined its profitability. It managed to survive, in reduced form, to the early 1960s.

During WW1, the Co-op Store was closely identified with support for the War effort. Several of its employees enlisted. Individual directors were involved in committees that supported recruiting and conscription and the staging of farewells and welcomes for soldiers. The store had a public policy of purchasing war bonds with its profits. It offered its facilities for fund raising, particularly for the Red Cross.

J G McKenzie had held a ‘grocer’s licence’ to sell alcohol in his original store from 1902, and it was transferred to the new Co-op Store in 1911. It was this licence that became a powerful lightning rod for local temperance advocates in the second half of 1917.

To the end of 1916, the temperance movement had enjoyed considerable success. It had become generally accepted – principally through editorial support in newspapers that featured public statements from the Royal Family, leading politicians, generals, admirals and many figures of authority and respectability – that it was necessary to curb drinking to support the War effort. Drink was even described as an enemy as deadly as Germany. Further, the War was proving difficult to win because too much effort was compromised by drink. As Rev Tamagno (Presbyterian) put it in a sermon at Yarram – reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 26/7/16 – the War had to be won with the ‘enemy [of drink] on our backs’. Beyond the broad appeal to curb (‘hard’) drink, there had been significant checks placed on the sale of alcohol through the introduction of 6 o’clock closing.

The issue of the licence at the Co-op Store in Yarram was first raised, publicly, in an editorial in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 12/7/16. The editorial purported to be an even-handed approach to temperance. Whilst it was in general sympathy with the ideals of the temperance movement, particularly at the present time, it argued that temperance advocates were inclined to be too extreme in their demands and, in particular, it felt that their all-out attack on hotels and publicans was unrealistic. Hotels, the editorial argued, were important institutions in the local community. They served an important social function and generated wealth for the town. They were legitimate businesses. Further, 6 o’clock closing was about to have a serious negative impact on their profitability. Against this background, the editorial took aim at the grocer’s licence. First it emphasised the need for a more ‘temperate’ approach:

Where the Temperance Party fail is in their extreme measures, which could not be swallowed whole by people who are alive to the injustice that would be done. Besides, extreme measures rarely meet with success. All are agreed as to the evils inseparable from strong drink, and but a small percentage is against reform, but it must not be too drastic.

Then it championed the local hotels over the licence held by the local grocer:

The cry of the Temperance Party is “down with the publican,” while little is said about the grocer’s licence, where business is done in a comparative wholesome way. We claim if the business hours of the publican are to be further curtailed [6 o’clock closing] they should at least have the whole of the retailing of liquor, and that no further grocers’ licences should issue. A grocer’s licence is after all but an auxiliary, while a publican depends wholly on the one article. His is a one-line business, while the grocer has a means of livelihood without selling grog, whether by the bottle or by the gallon. This is a point that should be advocated by the Temperance Party. If they will but proceed in a “temperate” way, and be content with a partial gain, the rest may well be left to the next, or following generations.

In the very next edition of the paper (14/7/16) there was a letter-to-the-editor signed by ‘Reform’ which agreed that priority should be given to the hotels and that ‘the absolute abolition of grocers’ licences’ would be an ‘easy win’ for the temperance reformers. The letter also highlighted another key conviction of those opposed to the grocer’s licence:

If the grocer’s licence goes by the way, the quantity of home consumed liquor will diminish greatly. The convenience of adding the liquor order to the grocery order, and the privacy of same helps the grocer’s licence. Many regular buyers at the store will not personally order or carry away bottled stuff from the hotel, hence it is apparent that if the grocery liquor trade were shut down the home consumption must diminish.

The argument that the removal of grocers’ licences was the key to the reduction of consumption of alcohol within the home was to become critical in the debate.

While to this point the material in the local paper referred only to the general provision of grocers’ licences, there was little doubt that the specific target was the licence held by the Co-operative Store in Yarram. This was made abundantly clear in another editorial published on 18/7/16:

The liquor licence held by the Yarram Co-operative Store was condemned by the local Rechabite Tent some little time ago, since some of the Order are employed in the store, who doubtless never touch nor handle, much less taste the liquor. The crusade against the licence continues, and last week one of the directors, Mr. Geo. Bland, resigned. We hear that in the Methodist pulpit, both at Yarram and North Devon, Mr. Bland’s action was commended, and the holding of a liquor licence by any store was caustically condemned. It is time the Government abolished all grocers’ licences, and allowed hotels the whole and sole benefit to be derived from the trade.

Clearly, for a range of reasons – both economic and moral – the grocer’s licence attached to the Yarram Co-operative Store was an issue in the local politics of the Shire of Alberton – or more particularly, Yarram – even before the fierce debate and division of the second half of 1917.

To give some perspective on the particular licence held by the Co-operative Store, at the licensing court, which sat in Yarram on 6/12/16 and was reported in the local paper on 8/12/16, the following hotels had their licences renewed: Carrajung Hotel, Commercial Hotel Yarram, Commercial Hotel Tarraville, Commercial Hotel Woodside, Hopetoun Hotel Gelliondale, Port Albert Hotel, Ship Inn Hotel Port Albert, Victoria Hotel Alberton, Yarram Hotel and Yarram Club Hotel. In addition to the 10 hotels, there was a wine licence for B Morris of Darriman and, of course, the grocer’s licence for the ‘Yarram and District Co-operative Store’.

The event that triggered the intense debate over the Co-op Store’s grocer’s licence in mid 1917 was the death of Thomas Callender Christie on 30/6/17.

The account of his death was published in the local paper on 4/7/17. Christie was described as a … labouring man who lived a solitary life. He was 55 yo. He worked, off an on, for a local grazier, F E Hobson. As an example of just how involved the life of a ‘local’ farm worker could be, when the estate was settled – reported on 9/1/18 – the ‘Curator of Estates of Deceased Persons’ sold off Christie’s 2-roomed house which was situated at Wonwron on 1 acre of land and included fruit trees. Christie was an example of a local ‘landed labourer’: he worked for local farmers and graziers but he also held a small parcel of land in his own right.

The finding of the deputy coroner was that Christie … died on 30th day of June, 1917, at Wonwron, from want of food and exposure as the result of a drinking bout.

Hobson, Christie’s employer, described how Christie went on ‘periodical sprees’ and related how he [Christie] had told him … on one or two occasions he would like to die drunk. The last time Hobson saw Christie was nearly a week before his death. Hobson said he … appeared to be muddled with drink … and he was… only partly dressed. At the time, Christie was drinking gin and whisky and Hobson noted that he usually drank the gin neat. Hobson was alarmed that Christie did not appear to be eating and so he cooked some sausages for him. He stated that Christie ate the food and drank some tea. A few days later, Hobson asked J H O’Connor who was going to visit his parents – they lived near Christie at Wonwron – if he would check on Christie. It was O’Connor who found Christie dead and notified the police. The police noted that the death was the result of drinking. The officer described how Christie … was clad only in a shirt. It was the middle of Winter. He also noted that … The body was hooked up by the shirt he was wearing to a hook in the fireplace.

Christie’s death, reported in detail in the local paper, was obviously tragic and confronting. It was a stark example, if one was needed, of the inherent danger of drink.

Rev Walklate (Methodist) made Christie’s death the focus for his sermon about 3 weeks later. The sermon was reported in detail, in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/7/17. The telling headline for the piece was – The Co-operative Store Grocer’s Licence. Condemned From The Pulpit.

Walklate began his sermon lamenting the general lack of commitment to true Christianity. Then he turned to what it meant to be a true Christian businessman. He posed the rhetorical question: What [as a Christian] is my business life? and then answered it,

Does God come first? True to God in business, then after a business transaction my client should go away feeling, well, that is how Jesus Christ does business.

The focus on the Christian business man was his entree to the store’s licence. In his mind at least, the two were incompatible and Christie’s death presented the chance to prove the incompatibility:

Last week we read of a man named Christie. who drank himself to death: not in a hotel – that is against the law – but in a hut, upon liquor bought at the Co-operative Store.

Walklate’s charge was clear: how could true Christian business men – the manager, shareholders and directors of the Co-op Store – have sold liquor to someone who drank himself to death?

To labour the point about the need to see the person of Christ as a vital figure in the way business was conducted, Walklate offered an unusual – if not bizarre – image. He asked his congregation to imagine a sign painted over the Co-op Store – Jesus Christ & Co., licensed to sell wine and spirits. The presumption was that it was inconceivable. Later, he again placed Christ, literally, at the centre of the trade in alcohol:

If Jesus Christ were to stand at the counter for one day where liquor was handed out, and owners and shareholders of licences could see the face of the Lord, how long would they continue in the business?

For Walklate, the Christian business man had a definite responsibility: Christian teaching and values had to shape his conduct. By the end of the sermon, Walklate had called out all those associated with the operation of the Co-op Store’s grocer’s licence. They were not true Christians at all but, rather, as he put it, … of the race of Judas Iscariot.

In the next edition of the paper (25/7/17) there was another letter from the anonymous ‘Reform’ [see above] who congratulated Walklate as … a clergyman who has the courage to enunciate his beliefs and opinions on such vital public questions as liquor control.

The anonymous correspondent was convinced that … the abolition of the grocers’ licences is the keystone of temperance reform. Get the grocer’s licence cut out and the battle is half won.

‘Reform’ also claimed, specifically in relation to the Co-op Store at Yarram, that the real level of drink sales was hidden in the balance sheet and, more generally, it was … a well known fact that some purchases of liquor in stores hide their purchase under the guise of other goods.

Finally, ‘reformed’ returned to the editor’s earlier claim that it was only fair that licences be restricted, exclusively, to hotels.

To this point, all the reports in the local paper – both letters and editorials – had favoured the push to remove the grocer’s licence from the Co-op Store. This changed dramatically when Richard Moorfield, one of the original directors of the Co-op Store chose to respond.

Moorfield and Walklate had much in common, including the status of both civic leaders and high profile Imperial Loyalists. Both had supported recruitment campaigns and the 1916 Conscription Referendum and both were involved in soldiers’ farewells and welcomes. But there was also a history of conflict between them. For example, during the campaign for the 1916 Referendum, the two had clashed at an anti-conscription meeting held by Senator Blakey. Both had attended the meeting to attack Blakey’s position, but Moorfield had taken the matter one step further. At the end of the meeting, he proposed a motion to the effect that those present at the meeting in fact supported conscription. Walklate had intervened and argued that Moorfield was going too far. The intensity of the clash between the 2 men was remarked on by those there. Presumably, even then, the tension over the licence was affecting relations between them.

In his letter, published in the local paper on 27/7/17, Moorfield launched a spirited defence of the Co-op Store and a strong personal attack on what he described as the clergyman’s ‘vindictive diatribe’.

Moorfield did not dispute that Christie had purchased the liquor at the Co-op Store. But he argued that Christie could and would have purchased the drink from any one of numerous other locations, and he claimed that it was unfounded to single out the Co-op Store as the effective cause of Christie’s death:

Will the Rev. Mr. Walklate affirm that the unfortunate man Mr. Christie would have abstained from liquor had the grocer’s licence been extinct? He knows full well that drink can be procured in the township at various places. Why does “the vilest abomination of that hellish traffic” belong to the Co-op Store in particular?

Moorfield’s criticism then became far more personal. He attacked Walklate as a ‘rabid teetotaler’ who was keen to force his views on everyone, including …thousands of respectable ladies and gentlemen [who] consume wine and spirits as a beverage or stimulant, yet hate intoxication or excessive drinking.

Moorfield was Presbyterian – Rev. Walklate was the local Methodist clergyman – and he certainly had no illusion about the potential ‘evil’ of drink, but he went to considerable length to distance himself from the Walklate’s approach:

I deplore excessive drinking and very much of its social influence, just as much as the Rev. Mr. Walklate does, but I don’t approve of his methods to combat the evil. I have come to the conclusion that many of the rabid teetotalers do more harm than good by their extravagant language and charges against respectable people.

Moorfield even quoted scripture to prove the Church’s approach to drink was not one of total abstinence. He also employed scripture to advise Rev Walklate to step back from passing judgement on other people’s morality. This was clearly criticism of Walklate as a minister of religion.

Lastly, Moorfield could not resist playing with the contrived image that Walklate had set in his letter, where Christ was portrayed as the licensed purveyor of wine and spirits at the Yarram Co-op Store. In such a fanciful situation, Moorfield opined, at least customers would be assured of the quality of the liquor, the sales would be conducted on the ‘very best lines’ and there would be a ‘roaring trade’.

By now, if Rossiter, the editor of the paper, had hoped to stir controversy he had succeeded.

Walklate responded to Moorfield in the next edition (3/8/170. The issue of Christie’s death was receding as Walklate now began to highlight what he saw as the real problem: the appearance of ‘respectability’ that the Co-op Store was able to bestow on the liquor trade. As Walklate stated, grocers’ licences were ‘vile’ … because their hypocritical respectability is an inducement for people to drink. They are vile because they foster drinking in the home. They are vile because women are encouraged to deception and secret drinking.

Walklate’s preoccupation with the apparent duplicity of women prompted him even to suggest that it was their innate ’snobbery’ that sat behind the grocer’s licence. He argued that the … Grocer’s licence is vile because it fosters snobbery. The licensed grocer’s wife or shareholder’s wife seeks to move to a so called higher social level than the hotelkeepers wife. As Walklate saw things, the hapless grocer was driven by his status-seeking wife.

Walklate also started making accusations about the inner workings of the store itself. He suggested that the profits from the sale of alcohol were deliberately hidden in the store’s accounting practices. He also suggested that some employees of the store had had their lives ruined and families broken up because of drink, presumably from their association with the sale of liquor at the store. The further claim was that these employees had then been dismissed … to keep the store “decent and decorous.”

Not surprisingly, Rev Walklate felt the need to challenge Moorfield’s use of scripture. He even suggested Moorfield was not a true Christian:

Use of Scripture is not confined to Christians. If I remember correctly, our Lord ere he commenced his ministry met a gentleman who quoted Scripture to make wrong look right.

As for his own more informed use of scripture, Walklate observed that ‘drunkards’ would never … inherit the Kingdom of God.

Walklate was very keen to deny any association between the historical Christ and any tolerance for the consumption of liquor. In his view, Christ, and the early Church in general, had no involvement with or tolerance of alcohol.

Walklate finished by returning to his main argument that … Christian people have been lulled to unrighteousness by the grocer’s licence and its so called respectability.

For Walklate and his supporters, hotels were ‘evil’ and ‘unrighteous’ places. But this was a given in the community. Everyone knew the dangers of hotels. The Co-op Store, on the other hand, was an even more dangerous proposition because its ‘evil’ trade was concealed by a veneer of respectability. If the licence could be removed it would represent a profound victory for temperance.

Matters became very personal in the next exchange from Moorfield on 8/8/17.

Moorfield claimed that he had not entered the debate in his capacity as a director of the store. He claimed not to have set himself up as a ‘mouthpiece’ for anybody. At the same time, he strongly defended the reputation and name of the store and its employees. The claims from Walklate about questionable practices and behaviour, associated with the sale of liquor in the store, had clearly rankled him.

To the best of my knowledge, since the store was taken over from Mr. James McKenzie, over five years ago, no director has partaken of liquor within the store at any time. The manager, Mr. Whyte, strictly forbids the slightest indulgence in drinking. The employees are a respectable body of servants who know and obey the rules of the store. Should an employee be guilty of drinking in the store during working hours, he, or she, would be liable to instant dismissal. The manager is not responsible for the actions of its servants outside working hours, but all who know them, either in the store or out of it, will pronounce them a credit to the town of Yarram.

The irony was that such declarations served to support Walklate’s claim that the very ’respectability’ of the store enhanced its trade in liquor.

Moorfield dismissed Walklate’s claims about the early Church’s commitment to temperance.

He questioned yet again why Walklate refused to tackle the liquor trade at the hotels and focused exclusively on the Co-op Store. He wondered aloud why … he [Walklate] avoids saying one word against the Club or hotels, thereby showing his bitter animosity towards the store “in particular.”

The reference to the (Yarram) Club was critical. As already indicated, the Yarram Club – a private club in Yarram since the 1890s – held its own liquor licence. Yet it had not attracted any attention at all from Walklate.

Moorfield decided that he needed to address this inconsistency. He claimed that he had the ‘painful duty’ to expose the reasons behind this ‘glaring inconsistency’. Moorfield then announced that Rev Walklate was himself a member of the (licensed) Yarram Club.

It is rumored about (but rumor is not sufficient for me), and I have it from an undoubted source, that the Rev. C. J. Walklate joined the Yarram Club, wherein the “hellish traffic” is carried on, and where drink is sold to members only to be drunk on the premises; that the rev. gentleman was duly balloted for, and made a member of the Club.

Moorfield finished his letter with a curt,

The public awaits his reply.

Walklate had challenged the ‘hypocritical respectability’ of the Co-op Store, now he was being called out as a hypocrite himself over his membership of another licensed premises.

Walklate’s lengthy rely on 15/8/17 claimed that Moorfield was twisting and distorting his (Walklate’s) arguments; and that he was being personally attacked and held to ridicule. As for his membership of the Yarram Club, Walklate denied ever having been a member and claimed, again, that Moorfield had deliberately misrepresented the situation. His version was:

I was proposed as a member of the club and successfully balloted, but hearing it challenged as inconsistent with my rechabite principles I personally interviewed the Grand See of the Rechabites in Melbourne, and was told that the Council would hold it as inconsistent with the I.O.R. principles. Desiring to be consistent, I wrote my proposer and the president of the club and asked permission to withdraw my nomination. They kindly let the matter drop, and thus I never was a member. Should the Rechabites ever permit me I shall gladly join the club for, as a man and a Christian minister I ever seek the right to be found in all places (worthy or worthless) as a man among men.

Walklate returned to the claim that the Co-op Store was morally responsible for Christie’s death. He also now claimed that the sale of alcohol was the ‘backbone’ of the ‘grocery department’ and this was the reason the store was so reluctant to give up the licence.

In his ongoing attempt to remove Christ and the early church from any association with alcohol, Walklate persisted with his claim that ‘wine’ from the scriptures was not intoxicating:

Mr. Moorfield knows that he cannot show from scripture that Biblical wine made by our Lord and advised by Paul was intoxicating. He has no ground for dragging in such instances as though they were intoxicating wines. Raspberry vinegar might have been called “wine” in those days. Any fruit steeped in water was a wine.

Moorfield waited a full week before he replied on 22/8/17. The language in his response was particularly strong. He accused Walklate of showing … his maliciousness and malignant disposition against the Co-op., its employees, and a large section of the public who do business under its licence.

Further, he claimed that Walklate’s instruction from the pulpit was so harsh and extreme – driven by his obsession with temperance – that it drove his congregation way:

From his pulpit … he attacked the Christians of his church, or any others, who professed to be followers of their Master, by using harsh and uncalled for language against them, which I have pointed out in this debate.

And he noted … no wonder the churches – in which such doctrines are preached – are becoming empty.

Clearly, Moorfield was directly attacking Walklate’s worth as a minister of religion. He also attacked his ambivalence towards the question of the licence at the Yarram Club and claimed that his obvious – and ongoing – desire to be a member, set against others’ interpretation of Rechabite principles, showed that ‘his mind is very fickle’ and ‘under outside control’. As far as Moorfield was concerned, Walklate was not even his own man.

Further, to accentuate Walklate’s supposed limitations as a clergyman, Moorfield ridiculed his references to ‘raspberry vinegar’ and other forms of non-alcoholic wine at the time of Christ. He even listed 14 specific references to scripture which he maintained showed that, in fact, biblical wine was intoxicating, and early church leaders recommended its use in moderation while explicitly condemning drunkenness. The clear imputation was that he, a layman, was a more informed scholar of scripture than this particular clergyman.

Rev Walklate’s last letter on the matter came on 29/8/17. He opened his letter by claiming that he had been subjected to a … personal and abusive attack by Mr. Moorfield. He accused Moorfield of ‘brow-beating and abuse’ and of twisting ‘my words into insults’. He wrote that Moorfield had violated the ‘law of courtesy in debate’ and, most pointedly, had poured out ‘contemptible abuse on my ministry.’ Walklate claimed that it was generally recognised that Moorfield’s attack had been so extreme that even shareholders and customers of the Co-op Store had approached him and apologised for the way he had been treated.

Overall, the letter was considerably shorter. Walklate still maintained that the store bore moral responsibility for Christie’s death. He still wanted a thorough investigation of the store’s licence. He wanted to know the ‘drink totals of each year’, and how many employees had been dismissed over drink-related problems. He was still suggesting that ‘liquor’ was … being charged as soap, vinegar, grocery or drapery.

He also still wanted to persist with the seemingly fanciful position that … Our Lord’s and Paul’s wine have no connection with intoxication of today.

Oddly, it was only in the last paragraph of his final letter that Walklate explicitly referred to the War and the call for temperance:

Now His Majesty King George, the late Lord Kitchener, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and a gallant host of leaders have banished intoxicants entirely from their households, and have asked loyal citizens to do the same during the war. Surely the Co-op. management can show a spirit of loyalty to the Empire and give a lead to this district by banishing liquor from the store.

It seems strange that he did not employ this patriotic argument earlier, and with more force. Perhaps he used it, at the very end, to claim back some form of authoritative respectability in a debate he believed he had lost.

For his part, Moorfield’s last letter came on 5/9/17. He had no intention of apologising or backing down. He wrote that Walklate was ‘ruffled’, principally because he had been caught out with his membership of the Yarram Club. He then summarised all the charges made against the Co-op Store by Walklate, from moral responsibility for Christie’s death, through the promotion of drinking in the home and the promotion of drinking among women, to the alleged practice of recording alcohol sales as other items. He rejected them all, vigorously:

I repel with indignant and redoubled force and vigor the defamatory accusations which have been cowardly and spitefully levelled at the Co-operative Store, its management, and its shareholders.

He specifically accused Walklate and his backers of an orchestrated campaign:

This outcry from a small section of violent reactionists has gone far enough, and now we say “hands off the Co-operative Store and mind your own business.” Already, if I am not mistaken, the Rev. Mr. Walklate has gone perilously near a precipice. We had peace for over five years in connection with the Co-op., until this conspiracy – by a small circle of “chosen people” – was hatched. This particular section evidently put their heads together to damn the Co-op. Yet, after all their contemptible work and “hypocritical respectability,” the store is rapidly progressing.

He employed religious imagery to damn them:

These I say, “superior” scavengers of society, searching the dust bins in other people’s places for scraps of filth to throw at the community again and again from their housetops, with malignant spite under pre-arranged conspiracies. I say, these are the kind of Pharisees who ran rampant in the days of ignorance. Have their posterity, I ask, reached Yarram and district in the year of Our Lord 1917? If so, I have every confidence that the intelligence of this community will drive them out.

He finished with a passage for Walklate:

Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth – this defileth a man. (Matthew 15, 11.)

The final word on the debate in the local paper over the grocer’s licence at the Yarram Co-operative Store came on 14/9/17. It was a letter from James Bland – a dairy farmer from Alberton – and it was in support of Walklate. He reassured readers that people were not leaving Rev Walklate’s congregation and that there was a lot of support generally for his position, not just from his ‘own people’ but also from ‘most of the other churches’. Interestingly, he took aim at all non-hotel licences, the Yarram Club included:

I feel that grocers’, club and wine licences are an unnecessary evil; that they do encourage secret drinking in the home no sane man would deny. I venture to say that not one half of the drink sold by grocers would be consumed in the homes if there were no grocers’ licences.

Bland finished his letter with a fairly mild rebuke of Moorfield:

If Mr. Moorfield is going to try to get into heaven on his good works alone I think he will have to put up a better argument to Peter for a pass than he has for the grocer’s licence.

On one level, the foregoing account stands as a case-study of the intense social conflict precipitated by the attempts of temperance advocates to impose their views on the wider community. Such advocates saw temperance as proof of moral strength and religious purity. They also believed that they had a duty to promote temperance in the wider community and even impose it on, by definition, weaker individuals or souls. Opposed to such ‘reformers’ there were others who, recognising the risks and even ‘evils’ associated with alcohol, were not prepared to compromise individual rights, set themselves up as the moral arbiters of others, curb or prohibit existing social behaviours and pastimes or even deny legitimate business practices. This, essentially, was the conflict that played out in Yarram in the middle of 1917.

But this level of analysis misses much of the historical complexity associated with what happened in Yarram at that time. Specifically, it does not place the events within the context of the War.

As argued previously, the early stages of the War saw a very close connection between temperance and support for the War. Temperance was advanced as an essential war-time goal and it was promoted, vigorously, at every level – the Empire, the Nation, the AIF and the local community. Specifically, in the Shire of Alberton there was an almost seamless connect between the call for temperance and support for the War. The local Imperial Loyalists of the Shire strongly supported both causes. Importantly, this group largely featured leading members of the local Protestant congregations, including their clergymen, as well as groups such as the local Rechabites. This demographic was naturally inclined to support temperance.

However, by the middle of 1917, after 3 years of the War, when the focus of temperance reform shifted to a very specific local cause – the abolition of the grocer’s licence at the Yarram Co-op Store – the previous unity was fractured. As noted, both Walklate and Moorfield belonged to the leading group of Imperial Loyalists yet, ultimately, the issue of temperance caused them to fall out spectacularly, with considerable bitterness. It seemed that the cause of temperance had, in fact, divided the civic leaders and the core block of Imperial Loyalists.

Yet it also appears that the division and fall out were contained. Effectively, while there was no longer any common position on temperance, this tension was not allowed to undermine the stability of the group of Imperial Loyalists or their support for the War, and within a few months the same group was actively promoting the Yes vote in the second referendum.

There appear to have been 3 critical factors at play that prevented a more profound social and civic rupture. The first was that the public conflict was limited to just 2 people: Walklate and Moorfield. No other public figures became involved. It was as if there was agreement that the debate would be limited to just two spokespeople. Even Rossiter, the editor of the paper and another key Imperial Loyalist, who definitely had strong opinions on the matter, withdrew from the debate once it had been taken up by Moorfield and Walklate.

The second factor was the apparent agreement to keep the various Protestant congregations at arms length. Even though Moorfield was Presbyterian and Walklate Methodist, the debate did not become one that pitted Methodist against Presbyterian. This was a critical point because the temperance movement was definitely not limited to the Methodist congregation. Many Presbyterians were temperance backers, including Rev Tamagno the minister who had chaired the local ‘6 o’clock movement’.  Similarly, Rev George Cox the previous Church of England minister had been a strong temperance advocate. In fact, he had been the Head Ruler of the local Rechabite Tent. The Rechabites drew their number from all the Protestant churches. It appears that there was tacit agreement not to allow the debate to develop into a conflict between or within Protestant congregations. Moorfield was scathing in his attacks on Walklate but he never explicitly attacked him as a Methodist clergyman.

The third factor, already mentioned, was that Walklate did not employ the argument that temperance was vital to the War effort. He only introduced it at the very end of the debate and, as argued, then he appeared to employ it merely to claw back some credibility for his position. One explanation for Walklate’s behaviour is that he knew full well that in the block of Imperial Loyalists to which he belonged, there were others – possibly many others – who, like Moorfield, did not share his strong views on temperance and he was reluctant to use the cause of the War lest he create major divisions within the group. Rossiter, the editor of the local paper, was another example. He had in fact started the debate about the Co-op Store and its licence but he also warned temperance advocates about being over zealous. In one sense Walklate’s reluctance to create too much conflict with his peers was similar to his willingness to ignore the licence for the Yarram Club and focus exclusively on that for the Co-op Store. It appears that Walklate made political decisions about how best to pursue the cause of temperance and at the same time hold together the group of civic leaders, to which he belonged, who were committed to pursuing the War and supporting the Empire.

Even though local politics contained the fall-out from the bitter debate over temperance, it was abundantly clear that the issue of temperance was yet another major fault line running through the community. Arguably, while there was a major Catholic – Protestant divide in the community – over theology, religious history, education, perceived level of support for the War …. , the division within the Protestant churches on the issue of temperance was also very profound.

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

150. The second conscription referendum (Dec 20, 1917)

In its Christmas Day edition (Tuesday 25/12/17), the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative featured only limited coverage of the second conscription referendum, held just a few days earlier on Thursday 20/12/17. It limited the coverage to a breakdown of the vote and a short, local anecdote.

The voting returns, to that point, showed that whereas the No vote had succeeded in Victoria, the Yes vote in the Yarram poll had come in at 67% which was essentially the figure achieved in the first referendum. Both the Shire of Alberton, and Gippsland, retained their status as amongst the strongest supporters of conscription. The anecdote that the paper made a point of including was clearly intended to stand as an editorial comment on the failure of the referendum:

An incident worthy of notice occurred at the Yarram polling booth on Thursday. A lady voter, Mrs. Hamilton, second eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Bland, was borne in on a stretcher, having only a few days previously undergone an operation for appendicitis. It will be remembered that Mrs. Hamilton lost her husband at Gallipoli, and with true Anzac spirit, at all events was determined to have revenge in an effort to send “more men.’” Unfortunately the Commonwealth has decided that our boys at the front shall not be relieved.

Essentially, the anecdote was intended to serve as a lesson in moral failure. Once again, beyond all expectation, understanding and exhortation, the Australian Nation had suffered a moral failure.

For the local Imperial Loyalists, the conviction that there was a lack of moral integrity abroad had been expressed regularly in the months leading to the second referendum. The constant claim was that people refused to accept their obligations in terms of the War effort. Three years of War had compromised their sense of responsibility and their inherent selfishness had come to the fore. At a poorly attended welcome home for a soldier (F J Card) in late September 1917, B P Johnson was reported – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 3/101/7 – as stating:

The war had been on three years and some people had got tired of saying good-bye, or wish (sic) a welcome to the men returning or to say “thank you, old chap.” It showed a tremendous want of feeling or thought. It seemed to be the same all over Australia. They heard people say Australia had done enough. The 320,000 gone had made a name throughout the world. Those men deserved credit. Other men would not go, nor even give those returning a shake of the hand. He felt very strongly about it. They did not realise the protection they had from the British Empire, and did not care how the boys felt.

While the vote in the Shire of Alberton in the 2 referenda was substantially the same, the second referendum was characterised by a far more visible level of division and antagonism within the community. Such discord was set to worsen in 1918. Its most obvious manifestation would take the form of increasingly bitter sectarianism.

Anti-conscription meetings

Reports in the local press indicate that there were 3 public anti-conscription meetings in the shire in the lead up to the referendum. The first of these was held in Port Albert, on the reserve, in the afternoon of Sunday 2/12/17. The key speaker was Mr McGowan, an ALP candidate for St Kilda in the recent state election. Substantially, this meeting was similar to the single anti-conscription meeting held during the first referendum (Post 91): the speaker was someone from outside the local district, there was no indication that any locals were involved in running or even setting up the meeting, and the reception was overtly hostile.

There were about 100 present at the meeting and they had come to disrupt it. The report in the local paper (5/12/17) noted:

In anticipation of some fun, a number of visitors went to Port Albert on Sunday afternoon, to hear Messrs McGowan and Taylor, billed to speak on the reserve on Anti-Conscription. Mr. McGowan was heckled from first to last.

That afternoon, over the abuse and hectoring, McGowan attempted to argue that the Government could not be trusted on the issue of the number of reinforcements required. He maintained the Government was not able to give an accurate number of how many ‘eligible’ men there were nor how many reinforcements were required. Further, it had given conflicting figures. McGowan cited his version of the numbers to prove that compared to others – Canada and the US – Australia had done more than its share. McGowan also pressed the issue of the lack of support for returned soldiers. He told the crowd that invalided soldiers’ pensions were being reduced, those returning could not find work, and their dependents were facing hardship. McGowan actually proposed a collection for returned soldiers but the crowd voted it down.

The next night (3/12/17) McGowan spoke in the Mechanics’ Hall in Yarram. It was a full house.  In the previous week, he had spoken at both Wonthaggi and Leongatha. The report in the press indicated that McGowan received a better hearing at this meeting but there was no indication at all of any support for his position.

McGowan was critical of the wording of the referendum – Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Australian Imperial Force overseas? – as manifestly biased in favour the Yes vote. He argued that some Nationalists – William Irvine was the most prominent – were directly advocating the introduction of conscription by legislation and Hughes’ pledge to introduce it only through a referendum was therefore compromised. He also claimed that the vote of married men had been bought at the expense of young, single men who did not even have the vote. He accused the Hughes Government of using wild claims about the IWW and Sinn Fein to create division in society.

At the meeting, McGowan shared the stage with 3 returned soldiers. The advertisement for the meeting had declared that these men would present … the views of the Returned Soldiers’ Anti-Conscription League of Australia. The criticism of the men was that the Government had not looked after the men who returned from the War either wounded, suffering from illness or medically disabled in some way. It was a critical issue. More and more men were returning home and, while welcomed as heroes, they faced all manner of problems. Moreover, the casualty rates were increasing. The second half of 1917 had been a disaster for the AIF and the level of casualties from September had been one of the very reasons Hughes had decided on the referendum. However, the clear implication was that the Government had not provided adequate care and support for those men returning and therefore had no moral right to compulsorily send even more. McGowan’s claim that Australia must do much more for her returned men and their dependents was met with applause.

J R Boucher, one the soldiers present, claimed:

In this country the returned men were promised this and that; brass bands played – but not for them. He referred to a returned soldier, named Divett, whose pension, he said, had been reduced to 15/- a week – a man pronounced by the doctors to be incurable.

One of the other soldiers there introduced the issues of class and wealth:

Returned soldier W Taylor stated he was a committeeman of the Returned Soldiers’ “No” Conscription League, 1500 strong, and every man of them has heard shots fired. He contended that while soldiers offered their lives, wealth should lend money free of interest instead of pocketing 4 1/2 per cent.

McGowan and the soldiers also argued that the unions were not disloyal, working people’s conditions and wages had been reduced and, following the Great Strike, unionists had been persecuted and discriminated against. All this while the promises of jobs for the returning men were not being honoured.

The report of the meeting in the paper makes it clear that the soldiers on the stage were challenged and hectored and the fact that none of them were local returned men would not have helped their cause. However, the issue of repatriation was a key one and, as already noted – Post 148 – it was already creating tension in the local community. There was real concern over the issue. Indeed, at the meeting that night a collection for returned men in need was organised on the spot, and it raised £6.

The meeting at Yarram would have been a difficult one for McGowan and the returned men, but at least they got a hearing. As mentioned, McGowan had spoken the previous week at Wonthaggi, a mining town. His reception there had been very different from the one at Yarram. According to the report in the local paper at Wonthaggi – Powlett Express and Victorian State Coalfields Advertiser, 30/11/17 – the meeting was a clear success for McGowan, and at the end of the meeting the following motion was passed unanimously:

That we the citizens of Wonthaggi will endeavour to do all that lays in our power to secure a No vote on December 20 .

The report also notes that McGowan again stressed the lack of Government support for returned men. Given the more like-minded audience he also made more of the threat conscription posed to Australian unionism and the conditions and employment of Australian workers generally. He also argued that in the UK where the union movement had actively supported the government, working conditions had declined. He pushed the claim that conscription, by its very nature, was an attack on the working class and the union movement.

There was a third anti-conscription meeting held on Tuesday 11/12/17. It was reported, briefly, in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on Friday 14/12/17. This particular meeting was originally scheduled for the day before (Monday 10/12/17) and a large crowd turned up but there were no speakers and no indication of what had happened to them and why the meeting did not proceed. Once again, there was no mention of local people involved in the planning of the meeting. It was, apparently, a completely ‘outside’ affair. The crowd broke up with no one knowing what was going on. The paper (14/12/17) even suggested that the cancellation that night and the rescheduling the next day were part of a ploy to keep the Yes people away, particularly those from Alberton and Port Albert. The disruption of meetings, on both sides, was certainly commonplace. Indeed the same edition of the local paper reported on how local men were even going to Melbourne to break up meetings:

Returned soldiers in the metropolitan area, on the affirmative side, have adopted tactics to break up “anti” meetings. They speak for a while as “No” men, and receive the applause of the audience, but when they make known their true views the air is rent with boo-hoos, and the order of the meeting is gone. Sergeant Newland, of Yarram, was one of these speakers at St. Kilda the other evening, gained his purpose in creating disorder, and was lost in the crowd outside.

The third Yarram anti-conscription meeting did go ahead the next night. It was held in Thompson’s Hall and did not finish until 11.00 pm. Once again, there was a large crowd. The key speaker was Mr Guido Barrachi. The chair was occupied by another returned soldier but, again, he was not a local. Apologies were given for the cancellation of the meeting the day before. Bad roads were given as the reason.

As indicated there was little detail in the local press about the second Yarram meeting. However we do know something about Barrachi and we also know that earlier that day Barrachi and another key anti-conscriptionist, the Rev Frederick Sinclair, had addressed a meeting at Mirboo North. That particular meeting was a very rowdy affair and … at times it looked as if serious trouble would brew. (The Argus, 12/12/17). Part of the problem at Mirboo North was the statement by Sinclair that he wanted to talk to the young people, not the ‘bald headed’ ones.

Both Rev Sinclair and Guido Barrachi were avowed socialists. Not long before he appeared in Yarram, Barrachi had given a lecture on ’Socialism as an Economic System’ as part of a series of free public lectures chaired by Archbishop Mannix. Barrachi was a law student from Melbourne University. He was very involved in the anti-conscription movement and appeared at many meetings. For example, in the week after his appearances in Gippsland he was in Geelong where he appeared at street corner meetings with Vida Goldstein. Baracchi would eventually be prosecuted under the War Precautions Act – both Sinclair and McGowan were also prosecuted – and imprisoned for 3 months.

There was no report on the detail of what was said at the meeting in Yarram, but Barrachi’s opposition to conscription, from a socialist perspective, would have been, arguably, the most strident anti-War sentiment the people of Yarram ever heard. As an example of his position, in July 1917 he had clashed with the board of Melbourne University for publishing the following in the university’s student publication:

The war, whatever the jingoes and junkers may tell us, is not primarily our affair. Essentially it is a European war, fought by the Allies against Germany to maintain the balance of European power. And Australia is not Europe. This is the true explanation of our recruiting figures; the exact index of the nation’s war interest. Nevertheless, through a connection with the British Empire, on the whole rather tragic, the Commonwealth is deeply involved in the European cataclysm, and the event is for us, and for the rest of the world, well nigh as significant as the fall of Lucifer. (Labor Call, 19/7/17)

Pro-conscription meetings

There were 2 major pro-conscriptions meetings in Yarram in the lead up to the referendum. Both were reported extensively in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. The first was held on Saturday 7/12/17 in the Shire Hall and reported on 12/12/17. The second was held on Thursday 13/12/17 and reported on 19/12/17. Both meetings were advertised in advance, attracted large, supportive audiences, involved outside speakers as well as prominent local backers of conscription and both passed, overwhelmingly, resolutions in favour of the Yes vote.

The first meeting was chaired by the Shire President – Cr McGalliard – and proceedings opened with the National Anthem, “God Bless Our Splendid Men”, “Rule Britannia” and ‘other patriotic airs’. At the end of the meeting the following resolution was passed:

That we, the citizens of Yarram and district, express our determination to wholeheartedly support the Government in adequately reinforcing the men at the front, and to that end pledge ourselves to work for a huge “Yes’ majority.

In opening the meeting, the Shire President praised Hughes for honouring his commitment not to introduce conscription without a referendum. He also noted that Australia was the only place where conscription had not simply been legislated for, as many wished. However, he continued, the stakes were much higher now than in 1916. Critically, Russia had effectively left the War. The threat from Germany was greater than ever. McGalliard also warned that if the referendum was defeated, Hughes, to honour his pledge, would resign and the nation would be thrown into chaos. Finally, he appealed to the Catholic voters. Italy and Belgium, 2 of the strongest Catholic countries in Europe, were fighting with the allies. People had to put the issue of sectarianism aside and face the greater threat of Germany.

Cr. Embling (Herbert Arthur Embling, Mayor of Prahran) as the invited speaker, took the high moral ground, reminding everyone that Australia had pledged support to the last man and last shilling. Further, the setbacks in Europe – Russia was out of the War and Italy had been badly set back – justified conscription. Without reinforcements the Australian divisions would continue to reduce in number. The UK had stood by Australia, even buying the wool and wheat it had no hope of transporting back to England. It proved the UK stood by Australia. There was also praise for the UK unions and workers who were totally behind their government.

B P Johnson, in introducing the motion of support for conscription, spent time attacking the claims made by McGowan at the earlier anti-conscription meeting. He also claimed that the local returned soldiers would not support the claims made at that meeting by the soldiers on the platform with McGowan. Johnson was keen to remind everyone of the last referendum:

Yarram gave a magnificent “Yes” vote at the last referendum, and it was to be hoped that a bigger majority would be given this time. (Applause)

Rev Cyril John Walklate began by detailing his own unsuccessful attempts to enlist. He declared that he would never hide behind either his marriage or his calling as a clergyman. He recounted how he had only recently been rejected on medical grounds. Further, in a barely disguised attack on Fr Sterling, he claimed that if he had been able to enlist as a chaplain he would have insisted on serving the men in the front line and not by taking the role of chaplain on a troopship. This public attempt to belittle Fr Sterling’s efforts as a chaplain was to continue through at least 1918.

Walklate disputed all the figures that the antis had cited in their claims that Australia had done enough. In his mind, the arguments about numbers and ‘share’ was a false one. The real issue was loyalty to the Empire. What he wanted was equality of sacrifice from families, not colonies. Given his audience, he had no compunction in stating that not only had conscription been introduced in the UK but .. the labor of the working man had also been conscripted as well (Applause). His claim – ironically, one of the key fears of the Australian labour movement – was in line with the overall argument about shared sacrifice.

Walklate tended to make the most extreme claims in these public meetings. He made a range of claims about Germans, including that … the children were fed scientifically on raw meat. Further, if … a woman happened to get in front of a military officer in Germany she was thrown aside, and should her husband interfere he would be slashed with the sword.

Walklate also referred to the recent death of his brother at the front: Captain Harold Vernon Walklate, 14 B kia 22/10/17.

Finally, as reported, Rev Walklate gave a somewhat convoluted reason to explain why so many soldiers had voted no in the 1916 referendum.

At the last referendum tens of thousands of soldiers voted no because they had never seen the firing line.

The general consensus amongst historians is that in 1916 the troops in training in the UK and on the troopships tended to vote Yes, precisely because they had not experienced the western front.

It was also somewhat odd that Walklate laboured the number of desertions from the AIF – principally in Australia, prior to embarkation – at the meeting. He was trying to argue that the figure of total enlistments used by those opposing conscription, had to be adjusted to take into account the 67,000 men who had deserted. While this made some sense from a statistical perspective, the audience could hardly have warmed to such a claim. Certainly, it did not fit with the popular image of the AIF.

The second Yes meeting saw many of the same claims repeated. G H Wise, the local federal member and the guest speaker, again hailed Hughes as an honourable person who had determined to keep his word and not introduce conscription without a referendum. This was despite all those, including some in Hughes’ government, who argued that the Government should use its numbers and legislate for conscription. But where Hughes was honourable, Wise claimed that those opposing him were not. They were insincere and blindly following the (ALP) party line:

He knew from his own knowledge that those men’s speeches are not sincere, and that they are only spoken from order and not from the heart. (Applause.)

Wise also stressed that the current situation was dire, far worse than in 1916: The position is blacker today than it has been since the war started. He noted that Russia was effectively out of the War, Italy was struggling and … Roumania is down and out.

In a stretch of logic, Wise argued that the reinforcements were not required because of the casualty levels but to give the men at the front a rest.

Again there was the contrast to the labour movement in the UK. In Britain labour stood behind the Government but in Australia the ALP … are the only ones not standing behind their Government. And there was the rhetorical question on what would happen if the referendum was lost and Hughes, to honour his word, resigned. He warned of the chaos to follow.

The first local speaker that night was W G Pope. He presented the motion to be put to the meeting:

That this meeting of the citizens of Yarram and district pledges itself to support the Government in this national crisis, and to use very effort to secure an overwhelming majority for “Yes” in the coming referendum.

Pope warned how real the threat of the German conquest of Australia was. Then he launched into an idiosyncratic claim that those enlisting only stood a 1 in 20 chance of being killed. It is difficult to know what those in the audience would have made of it, particularly as there was no equivalent figure for the odds of being wounded, having your health ruined or being left disabled for the rest of your life. Many would have found his claim inappropriate or misleading and certainly counter-productive:

Life Insurance companies say that they may safely insure men going to the front at a premium of 5 per cent above that of civilians. That means that after a careful investigation of all the figures, the added risk of men being killed at the war is 1 in 20, and about 80 per cent. may be expected to return.

On the question of death rates, Pope felt compelled to argue that, ultimately, it didn’t matter. What mattered was not the degree of sacrifice but the integrity of the sacrifice:

If Australia gave her last man and her last shilling she would not have done too much.

The motion, which was of course passed overwhelmingly, was seconded by Rev C J Walklate. He obviously knew he was speaking to the converted:

The thing that stood out in his [Walklate’s] mind was that the “Yes” platform is a statement of facts, and the anti platform a concoction of lies. (Loud Applause.)

Extraordinarily, Walklate justified one of the key arguments employed by those opposed to conscription: the threat it posed to the maintenance of the White Australia Policy. As far as Walklate was concerned, even the risk of undermining this policy was not enough to break the sacred promise to the men at the front:

If we are going to deplete Australia, and colored labor comes here, is that any reason why we should break our promise and leave the soldiers there to die?

He finished with an analogy about married men and bolting horses. Again, it could not have meant much to the audience, particularly given that under the conscription proposal married men were to be protected:

If a team of horses bolted up the road, and a man’s life were in danger, and married men looked on and said because they were married men they could not risk their lives to save that man, what would you call them? (A voice: Cowards.)

Essentially, the 2 pro-conscription meetings held at Yarram were set pieces. Their key purpose was to demonstrate the strength of support for the Yes vote in the local community. The arguments put forward for the second vote were the ones that had been promoted at other public meetings – farewells, welcomes, recruiting drives, religious memorial services – for most of 1917.

In addition to the large, formal meetings held at Yarram, there were at least 2 public meetings held in local townships. One was at Hiawatha (Fairview) on Friday 14/12/17 and the other at Binginwarri on Monday 17/12/17.

The meeting at Hiawatha was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 19/12/17. It was addressed by speakers for the Yes vote: Rev Walklate and E T Benson, the secretary of the local branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia. The report noted that it was the first ever public meeting on the issue of conscription held at Hiawatha. The meeting was peaceful. There were some interjections but overall … the meeting was very orderly and no doubt educational. While there was no formal motion of support for the Yes vote, the audience closed the meeting with God Save the King. Overall, it was uneventful. In fact, the key point raised in the report was the delight that the car load of speakers had been able to mange the drive, at night, to Hiawatha. It was cited as proof that Hiawatha was not as isolated as some locals believed.

The meeting at Binginwarri was very different. It was reported in the edition of 19/12/17.

The report suggested that the speakers knew there was gong to to be trouble. It noted how fortunate it was that Senior Constable McLeod accompanied the speakers that night. It was again a pro-conscription meeting and the first 2 speakers – W G Pope and B P Johnson – ‘got a good hearing’. However when Rev Walklate spoke ‘at length’ the mood changed significantly.

Walklate attacked the views of Dr Mannix and claimed that in fact other Catholic clergy supported conscription. Walklate then stressed that Mannix’s opposition to conscription was because he, as an Irishman, blamed the British for Ireland’s problems.

Presumably, the Catholics in the audience did not appreciate being lectured by a local Protestant minister on either the nature of the Catholic position on conscription or the political situation in Ireland and its relevance to them as Irish-Australians. Perhaps Walklate had been determined to provoke a response.

The meeting became very lively. The report noted that people got up and walked out and eggs started flying. At the meeting’s end, a tense stand-off followed outside the hall – it was near midnight – and as the car of speakers left it was pelted with eggs:

As they moved off the party were pelted, obviously intended for Mr. Walklate, whose strong utterances aroused the ire of “No” voters.

Walklate himself was convinced that he was being singled out because of his views on conscription. In an editorial in the local paper on 12/12/17 there was a claim by Walklate that, in an earlier incident, his dog had been shot – not fatally – because of his outspoken comments in favour of conscription. However, the editorial noted… but it is more than likely that his canine was amongst a flock of sheep and got a charge of shot.

The report of the trouble at Binginwarri is the only substantive report in the local paper of sectarian conflict as a feature of the referendum. However, previous posts have tracked the significant divisions – cultural, religious and political – between the Protestant and Catholic communities in the Shire of Alberton. Conscription brought the division to a head but it itself was only one aspect of a very complex picture. Moreover, there had been real efforts to moderate the divisions and strive for a common approach to support the War effort, at least to the end of 1917. Following the defeat of the second referendum, sectarianism became far more public in the community.

There was one additional source of tension for the local Catholic community in the political landscape that existed post the 1916 referendum. In late September 1917 the Hughes Government passed its so-called ‘Bachelor Tax’. Essentially, single men who had not enlisted were hit with a levy. It was specifically intended to promote enlistments and raise money for the repatriation of those who had served in the AIF. However, the Catholic Church took great exception to the law and saw it as an attack on its priesthood and male religious orders. Celibacy was a central plank of the religious life and therefore, unlike other religions where the clergy could marry, the Catholic Church argued that it was being singled out.

Catholic opposition to the legislation was significant. One outspoken critic was Bishop Phelan of Gippsland. At a function in Maffra in mid November 1917, Bishop Phelan not only condemned the ‘bachelor tax’ but directed his congregation to … Refuse to contribute to every patriotic appeal when that appeal is in the interests of the Government which framed this iniquitous law. This was all reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 23/11/17, in the lead up to the referendum. For patriots and Imperial Loyalists this was further proof that Catholic support for the War was, at best, highly qualified and compromised. For Catholics, the legislation was further proof that the Hughes Government was targeting them. Importantly, even though the point was not made specifically, the following directive from Bishop Phelan, in the context of the impending vote on conscription, could have been interpreted as a more general call to withdraw all support for the Government:

To the Catholics of Gippsland I say, follow the example of your pastor, to very demand made on you for Red Cross, Repatriation Fund etc, say: – We have to pay a bachelor tax for our priests, and as long as that law remains unrepealed we refuse to help the Federal Government. The Win-the-War Party may then see that their ill-considered action has helped to dry up a source which was the glory of Australia, namely the tens of thousands contributed by voluntary offerings.

The farmers’ vote

The tone of formal appeals to farmers to vote Yes in the referendum became almost hysterical. The editorial in the local paper on 30/11/17 featured a detailed appeal from the Reinforcements Referendum Council. It began:

The farmers’ vote will be the decisive one on December 20th. If the farmers unite and work to secure a “Yes” vote the Commonwealth Government’s scheme will be carried. If they hang back, if they are indifferent as to the result, if they lack enthusiasm, and if they accept the view that one vote more or less does not matter, the the referendum will be defeated.

The language sharpened considerably as the appeal continued:

If the farmers, who have responded so generously to the call of Empire, and who have aided so liberally the cause of the democracy, fail to exert the whole of their strength on this occasion, they will be acting as traitors to their relatives and friends in the trenches. They will be acting, moreover, as enemies of their country.

In this particular appeal the true enemy was the IWW which had caused so much damage in the recent industrial unrest and which played with the incredulity of the working class:

The memory of the great hold-up in August and September is still fresh in the minds of every man on the land. The I.W.W. play upon the credulity of the big mass of the working class, and they used the deluded workers as an instrument to crush and despoil the farmer.

The formal appeal to the farmers from Hughes was published in the local paper on 14/12/17. In it, Hughes gave the IWW and Sinn Fein as the 2 forces behind the No vote. He depicted the IWW as the natural and historical enemy of the farmer. He warned the farmers:

If you by your vote defeat the Government’s proposals, then you hand over the reins of government to extremists, the I.W.W. and the Sinn Fein. That is the responsibility that rests upon you.

Most of Hughes’ appeal sought to counter the claim that conscription would deny the farmers workers. Clearly, for Hughes the constant claims and counter claims over numbers in the referendum debate was having a negative effect. He stressed that the number of 7,000 men per month was the maximum that would ever be required under the conscription proposals. However, in the same equation that sought to reassure the farmers that there would be no labour shortage, Hughes stated that of those soldiers returning to Australia – those repatriated and discharged on medical grounds – 50% would take up their former occupations and another 25% would be fit for ‘light work’. In other words, the low target of 7,000 per month was in part based on the assumption that 75% of those members of the AIF being repatriated would slot back into the workforce. This claim would not have matched the actual experience of farmers in the Shire of Alberton, or other farming areas. They saw with their own eyes that many of those returning would never work again. Moreover, statistical claims about labour availability meant very little if the direct experiences of farmers confirmed that there was a labour shortage. If anything, statistical arguments tended to confirm the weakness of Hughes’ position.

The returned soldiers’ vote

As indicated earlier, returned soldiers were present at anti-conscription meetings in Yarram, and they claimed to be members of the Returned Soldiers’ Anti-Conscription League of Australia. But these men were dismissed as ‘outsiders’.

The official position of the local branch of the RSSILA was published in the local paper on 30/11/17.

Mr. W. A. Newland, hon. secretary of the Yarram sub-branch of the Returned Soldiers’ Association (sic), has received the following letter from headquarters, which is deeply interested in the reinforcement referendum campaign.

The position was:

That knowing the urgent need for reinforcing our comrades at the front, this committee of the Victorian branch of the R.S.S.I.L.A. urgently appeals to our members and to the public to vote in favour of the proposals to be submitted on the 20th Dec. next.

The position of the local paper

The final editorial published in the local paper on 19/12/17, the day before the referendum was also very telling on the issue of statistics. A J Rossiter, who signed the particular editorial, noted

Much twisting of figures has been perpetrated by the “Antis” in an endeavour to make it seem that there are ample men and that Australia has done enough.

He then attempted to debunk some of the claims. However, the reality was that by that point. figures did not mean a great deal, either to those who believed that Australia had done enough and the cost had just become too great or to those who believed that, ultimately, no sacrifice was too great.

Rossiter wanted to claim the high moral ground:

To-morrow Australia will decide whether reinforcements are to be sent to our brave men in the firing line. We cannot conceive that any right-thinking man will have been so influenced by anti clap-trap to record “No” at the polling booth – tantamount to signing the death warrant of thousands of our boys in the trenches.

As indicated, the vote in the Shire of Alberton was overwhelmingly in favour of conscription. The Shire had not been affected by the ‘clap-trap’ of the ‘Antis’; and its moral compass and unswerving loyalty to the Empire remained true. It could start 1918 confident that it was one of the few places in Australia that had remained ‘loyal’.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

148. Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League (of Australia), local branch

The local branch of the Returned Sailor’s and Soldiers’ Imperial League (of Australia)  – RSSILA – was formed in Yarram at a meeting on 22/6/17. The meeting was reported in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 27/6/17.

By that point in 1917, the estimate was that approximately 30 local men had returned from the fighting. At the meeting there were 10 present and a further 5 apologies. Of the 10 who were present that night, half (5) were not from the local area. They were returned soldiers who had come to the Shire of Alberton after their discharge.  Presumably they had come seeking work, given the acute (farm) labour shortage in the area. The presence of these early ‘outsiders’ was to be a pointer to all the other returned service men who would come to the Shire after the War when the soldier settlement scheme commenced. This movement of ex-service men into the district would have further implications for the very notion of ‘local’.

Importantly, with several significant exceptions, the group of men who formed the local branch of RSSILA were younger and from a different socio-economic profile than the members of the existing committees that had supported the War effort from 1914. This ‘new guard’ was a generation separate from the ‘old guard’ and, as has been shown previously, they were predominantly from the rural working class, with also a concentration of sons from family farms. The old guard, on the other hand, represented the social and economic elite of the community. The generation and class differences were at least in part responsible for the tension that was to arise between the 2 groups. It was a tension that was to continue well after the War.

There were 3 significant exceptions to this observation, and all 3 people involved were elected to key leadership positions in the local RSSILA branch. Dr Rutter was older than most – 35 yo – when he enlisted in May 1915 and he was married. His professional status as one of the local doctors was also atypical and more in line with the old guard. He was elected at the inaugural meeting as president. William Newland was also older – 34 yo when he enlisted in August 1914 – and also married. Further he had fought for several years in the Boer War. Additionally, he had been the local recruiting sergeant and had worked closely with many of the old guard. Newland was elected as secretary. The third exception, elected as treasurer and vice president, was Eric Thomas Benson. Benson was to become the most public spokesperson for the newly formed branch. It was Benson who had convened the inaugural meeting. Yet he was an outsider. He had been born at Warrnambool and enlisted from there. He had been repatriated to Australia from Gallipoli at the end of 1915 and discharged on medical grounds – ‘neurasthenia’ and ‘shell concussion’ – in May 1916. His service record notes that he was cited for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ on Gallipoli. He arrived in Yarram in late 1916 as the bank manager for the State Savings Bank and remained in the district until the early 1920s. He had worked as a (bank) clerk prior to enlistment. Presumably his war service had helped with his promotion in the bank. Benson had enlisted at 21 yo and was nearly 15 years younger than both Rutter and Newland and much closer in age to the generation of returning men. Even though he was, relatively young, his occupation – bank manager – naturally aligned him with the old guard. Yet, initially at least, Benson was the most outspoken critic of the old guard.

At the first meeting, Newland gave the rationale for the RSSILA. He was reported as stating:

There was a lot of men coming back who would not be in as sound a position as when they went, and no other association existed that had the welfare of the soldiers at heart, although many people had individually.

Newland’s focus was clearly on those who had been wounded or were suffering other disabilities or sickness and who had been discharged on medical grounds.

Benson’s comments on the other hand appeared to look beyond the immediate concern for those medically discharged. He was flagging the broader issue of repatriation for all. This was now a major issue, and the idea – and even ideal – of the soldiers settling on the land was gaining much attention:

There were a lot of men coming back, and it was the duty of those who had returned to help them, and see that they got a fair deal. Repatriation was receiving attention from the State and Federal Governments, and when the scheme had been completed and a man applied for land the local branch of the league could help him.

Both Newland and Benson were asserting that it was the primary, if not exclusive, right – and responsibility – of the returned soldiers to care for and represent themselves, assisted by both Government and the broader community.

Newland was also reported as making the following defence of the league’s activities:

Mr Newland strongly condemned any idea that the league was going to to foster idleness. Members were supposed to help themselves, and if they could not do so they would be assisted by the league.

Presumably, this sort of reassurance was required in a community that had a strong history of self-help and reliance, as well as an entrenched fear of organised labour and unionism. There could be no suggestion that help was going to those undeserving of it or that the league could be a front for union or socialist agitation.

Immediately after the local branch was established, either Newland or Benson – or both – began to appear as speakers at the functions organised by the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee. In the report of the farewell for Privates Dennison and Jones published in the local paper on 11/7/17, about 3 weeks after the local branch was formed, Rev. Tamagno was reported as praising the new body. He also used the development as an opportunity to continue his criticism of the local community over its general lack of support for the War effort.

Referring to the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Association, he [Tamagno] said he was pleased to see representatives [Newland and Benson] present. The value of such an association was recognised, because of the hundreds and hundreds who have returned and are returning to this land. It seemed to him that not enough was being done for these men in our midst, so the men had to do it themselves. It showed the dilateriness and absolute neglect of district residents in not recognising the worth of these fellows. He asked the children [school children from Yarram SS attending the farewell] when they grew up, to do their part for the men who, voluntarily, fought for them and their country.

Later at the same gathering, a soldier was welcomed home and this time Sergeant Newland spoke. The criticism of the ‘gentlemen’ who had farewelled the local soldiers was very evident:

Sergeant Newland spoke on behalf of the local branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ League (sic). He remembered when the first send off was given to men from Yarram and district, a few gentlemen spoke about the brave soldiers, and said what would be done for them when they returned. But what had been done? He offended a man yesterday because he told him there was too much talk and not enough doing. There is a lot to be done for the men, and there would be trouble if it is not done. They had formed a league to battle for their interests, and apologised to none. Organisation was needed, and he felt sure of the help and sympathy of all in the district.

There was an even more striking example of the antipathy between the old and new guard. It occurred at a farewell to 3 local men in early October. The function was of course organised by the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee. On the day, Councillor Barlow was in the chair. Benson’s comments were direct and accusatory in tone and, presumably, Barlow himself  – see Post 147 – was the target:

Mr. Benson, of the local branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League (sic), said it had been determined to have a representative of the league present at these gatherings. They recognised the call for men was never greater and he was glad to see lads going forward to take the places of others in the trenches. This district had done wonderfully well, seeing that over 800 had gone, but the sacrifice should be more equal. There were those who stayed at home, hiding behind mother and father. There were some in families of men who take a leading part in public meetings remaining at home. He wished the boys a safe return.

The fault lines were clear: the new guard was accusing the old of not honoring commitments to the men who volunteered; and, worse, it was calling into question the very patriotic integrity of its members. And sitting behind such claims was the conviction that the only genuine voice for the returning soldiers resided with the RSSILA.

Notwithstanding such thinly veiled antagonism between the 2 bodies – the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee and the local branch of the RSSILA – they continued to work together. It appears that the issue of repatriation was greater than their dispute. In late July 1917, they held a joint meeting to discuss a common approach to repatriation. This joint meeting  took place on 9/8/17 and was reported in the local paper on 10/8/17. Once again Benson’s comments, as reported in the local paper on 1/8/17, were very pointed:

Mr. Benson said that in Yarram they had a good organisation for sending off the local lads with a cheery good-bye, and also in welcoming home the returned men, but unfortunately the good work stopped there.

The discussion that followed looked at models – the most favoured one was that of the local recruiting committee – for the creation of a committee to promote repatriation in the local community. The meeting agreed to send a joint deputation to the Shire Council … urging immediate action in the formation of a local committee to deal with repatriation of district soldiers.

For its part, Council recognised the need for an organised approach to repatriation but it wanted more details on what the Federal program was to involve. Council was also reluctant to delegate its powers. Interestingly, it had not had difficulty in delegating power to the local recruiting committee. It appears however that by this point – late 1917 – Council appreciated that repatriation was to involve some form of a land settlement scheme and it was certainly reluctant to hand over local powers in the area of land management.

As events turned out, the local repatriation committee was not formed until April 1918, and by that point the very public animosity between the various groups had dissipated. The initial tension between the old and new guard had been accommodated, principally, it appears, through the efforts of Benson. Effectively, Benson shifted in his local politics to align himself more with the old guard. However, even if the public dispute had softened, major underlying tensions continued. They would continue through to at least the 1920s.

In summary, it is clear that by the end of 1917 the politics surrounding the repatriation of the AIF was definitely starting to divide the local community.Traditionally, as we have seen throughout this blog, the old guard of the district had promoted recruitment, organised farewells and welcomes, issued shire medallions, supported the Yes vote in the conscription referenda, promoted anti-German sentiment and the exposure of German sympathisers, supported fund-raising and other activities, put on special commemorative and memorial services, and some of them had even supported temperance as part of the overall War effort. One of their constant complaints was the rest of the community, or at least many in the local community, did not share their sense of Imperial Loyalty and commitment to the War effort. From late 1917 there was another voice and another source of division. The new guard were younger and from a different class background. They had no traditional place in the local politics of the community. Some of them were literally ‘outsiders’ who were new to the district. Many were recovering from serious wounds and poor health. Most faced uncertain futures in terms of employment and a ‘normal’ life. However, they held the status of returned Anzacs and they shared an exclusive sense of ‘mateship’. Unlike their elders who spoke about the War, they had had direct, first-hand and terrible experience of it. They demanded the right to be heard.

In part, people at the time would have experienced the division as a clash over narratives. From 1914, the old guard, made up of the community’s elders and senior citizens – its political elite – had emphasised the narrative of loyalty, duty and sacrifice. But their narrative was largely symbolic. They spoke from the position of authority and respectability and their direct, personal involvement was limited. From the end of 1917 there was a new group with a new narrative. This narrative was based on their direct and traumatic experiences at the War. Many carried their wounds – ‘badges of honour’ – to prove it. The central themes of the new narrative were suffering, fairness and recompense. The real issue from that point was how the different narratives could co-exist. As will become clear, the particular outcome in the Shire of Alberton was shaped by the dynamic of local politics.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

147. Soldiers’ farewells and welcomes in the second half of 1917

In the second half of 1917, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, there were 3 separate occasions when soldiers were farewelled and another 4 when they were welcomed home. There were a further 2 occasions when both farewells and welcomes were held together.  Overall, 13 men were farewelled and 9 welcomed home. With one exception – a farewell at Womerah for 3 locals in late July – all the farewells and welcomes were staged in Yarram.

The composition and work of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee continued as for the first half of 1917 (see Post 120).

At a committee meeting held on 26/7/17, and reported in the local paper on 1/8/17, the members reviewed their efforts and stated that they had either presented or sent overseas a total of 343 shire medallions, together with the accompanying card. At the same time, they pointed out that as … there are about 800 soldiers on service from this shire, they were keen to … hear from those who have not received the medallion and card. The major discrepancy between the number of medallions issued (approx. 350), the number of men said to have enlisted from the Shire of Alberton (800) and the number of names recorded on the Roll of Honor (446) will be explored in a future post.

The themes highlighted by those who spoke at the farewells continued unchanged. Heroism, duty, sacrifice and a sense of loyalty to both the Empire and the Nation continued to be stressed; as were the natural fighting qualities of the men and their determination to uphold the name of the Anzacs. The point was made constantly that these were men who now knew the dreadful realities of the War they were to face. If Rev. Tamagno or Raymond spoke they would inevitably emphasise the honesty and sobriety of the men and urge them to remain true to their Christian faith. The sacrifice of the parents was also stressed.

The themes employed for those welcomed home were similar. The men’s efforts in creating the glory of the Anzacs was a constant. Their bravery and heroism was without equal. Their wounds were proof of their honour. Speakers could only imagine the horrors they had had experienced. They had shielded those at home – and defended the sanctity of Australian women – from the evils of German militarism. They had gone as volunteers. Above all, their sacrifice had to be repaid.

As has been covered in previous posts, there was often tension at the farewells. Commonly, speakers were critical of the low number of locals who attended. They could not understand what they saw as people’s indifference. It was common practice for the head teacher of the Yarram State School  – E A Paige, a member of the committee – to bring senior students with him to swell the numbers.

Additionally, at both farewells and welcomes, speakers would regularly attack the ‘shirkers’ and ‘eligibles’ for refusing to do their duty. They also expressed grave fears that locals generally failed to understand how dire the overall War situation was and how critically important it was for reinforcements to reach the AIF. They urged women to play a more decisive role in supporting the War effort and, in particular, winning the support of men for conscription. And, with the second referendum on conscription imminent – the vote was held on 20/12/17 – speakers called passionately for the Yes vote so that, as they saw it, the ‘shame’ and ‘stain’ of the first vote could be removed.

While such tension at the farewells and welcomes had been evident for at least one year, there is evidence that in the second half of 1917 the underlying tension in the local community was worsening. Even the members of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee came under attack. Those who had been the most public advocates for the War were now being criticised.

B P Johnson, a committee member, was arguably the most prominent Imperial Loyalist in the entire local community. He spoke forcefully at public meetings in support of all aspects of the War effort, including, at that time, the second conscription referendum. But at the welcome home, in July 1917, for Private S G Jeffs, Johnson felt the need to defend himself from what he saw as malicious gossip. During the official welcome, Johnson noted that a friend had told him of comments that had been recently made about his son. The gist of the comments was that Johnson had used his influence to ensure that his son was kept away from the front. The brief background to the case was that the son – Cyril Johnson – had worked in the pay office for about 6 months from August 1916. He rejoined his unit, 6 Battalion, in France in April 1917.

In the account published in the local paper on 20/7/17 Johnson, during the course of the welcome to Private Jeffs, defended both his son and himself. According to Johnson,

He [Johnson’s son] was ordered there [pay office] by a doctor on account of an injured arm, and getting tired of being amongst so many cold footers, he tried till he got across to the front. That man [the one making the claim] did not go himself, but he allowed other men’s sons to fight for him. It was bad enough to have a son away, without having nasty words thrown at us.

Cyril Johnson was killed in France on 14/5/18.

There were other examples of how members of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee came under attack and felt the need to defend themselves. At the welcome home to Private John Clark in November 1917, Benjamin Couston and Councillor Charles Barlow, both members of the committee, made public statements to counter personal attacks. As with Johnson, the comments were made in the course of the official welcome to Private Clark.

In fact, on the day, Couston gave the reply of thanks on behalf of Private Clark. But immediately after calling for support for the Government in the conscription referendum, he launched into a defence of his own position. As reported in the local paper (21/11/17), he drew attention to the fact that he had been sent a white feather:

He received by the post the other day a magnificent tribute to himself and his two sons in the form of a white feather (which he produced), which was no doubt the consequence of some remarks he had made a few days previously. He was willing to offer himself straight out if the individual who sent this feather would come forward and do likewise, and would also have his two sons do the same. (Applause). But as most people would know, he was not eligible. The ages of his two boys were 17 and 19 respectively. The latter was at present in a bank in New South Wales. Some years ago he had hurt himself whilst cycling, and had volunteered for the war on four different occasions, even pleading for a certificate of fitness, but he failed. The lad had told him the other day that he was giving himself a chance, and in two months would be in khaki. (Applause). The other boy was also anxious to enlist, and said he would do so when he was 18.

The younger boy – Kenneth Fletcher Couston – did enlist (3/1/18) in Yarram when he was 18 yo.

Benjamin Couston had arrived in Yarram in late 1916. He was the manager of the Bank of Victoria in the town. He sat as a JP in the local police court and was obviously a key local identity. From early 1917 he had been president of the Yarram Recruiting Committee. But, like Johnson, his integrity was being challenged.

The other committee member to defend himself that day was Councillor Charles Barlow. Barlow was another leading spokesperson for the Imperial Loyalists. He was a very public figure. In fact, on the day he chaired the welcome for Private Clark.

As indicated, at the welcome there were strong expressions of support for conscription. For Barlow at least, it appears, there was a strong personal commitment. The following remarks appeared in the account in the local paper. Barlow was speaking after Couston had mentioned his white feather:

The Chairman said that certain remarks had also been made about him, but fathers were not always their sons’ keepers. There was no man more strongly in favor of conscription than himself, although it might be said that he had sons who were not at the war. He prayed that the referendum would be carried, and then if he had eligible sons they would have to go.

Clearly some locals were beginning to question Barlow’s right to impress ideas of patriotism, sacrifice and duty on others.

From the start of the War the group of Imperial Loyalists, based principally in Yarram, had dominated the key committees – the ones actively and directly designed to support the War effort – and through this work they had controlled the official narrative. They represented the professional/ proprietorial/ managerial/ landed elite of the community and they were backed by the local churches – although Catholic support was qualified – and one of their number (A J Rossiter) was the editor of the influential local paper. However it appears that by the end of 1917 this group of leading citizens was being challenged, primarily on the basis of its moral authority.

Conceivably, this situation could be explained in terms of War-weariness. The endless calls for more effort, more reinforcements and the constant criticism of people’s lack of awareness and involvement as well as their indifference proved too much. The local community, which in reality had done and sacrificed so much, simply grew tired of being preached at by their ‘betters’ and rebelled, at least in part by attacking their integrity.

At the same time, there appears to have been at least one other dynamic involved. Essentially, another group emerged round this time  and this group – returned soldiers – directly challenged the right of the ‘elders’ of the local community to control the ongoing narrative of the War. In one sense it was a generational clash. It could also be described in terms of a clash between an ‘old’ and a ‘new guard’, where the latter was now demanding the right to be heard. There is no doubt that this new political force in the local community challenged the work and authority – and to some extent even the integrity – of the existing committees, especially the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee.

The next post will look more closely at the establishment of  the local branch of the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Imperial League which was formed in Yarram at the end of June 1917.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He appealed for fairness:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The South Gippsland Chronicle also noted:

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

Shire of Alberton archives

Shire of Alberton archives

Recruiting Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Catholic Position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

The activities of the 1917 Yarram Recruiting Committee came from:

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

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

123. Yarram Recruiting Committee – first half of 1917. Part A

This is the first of 2 posts which explore the work of the local recruiting committee – commonly referred to as the Yarram Recruiting Committee – in the first half of 1917.

An earlier post – Post 104 – explained how, after the failure of the conscription referendum in October 1916, the local recruiting committee, based in Yarram, was disbanded. There was the belief that patriotic regions like Gippsland had been betrayed by the voters of Melbourne, and the local committee did not see that they should continue their efforts in the face of what they perceived as ingratitude and betrayal. Besides, the committee had long held the view that the voluntary system had failed and they were not committed to it.

However, Imperial Loyalists could not simply abandon the War effort and in time – by April 1917 – the same broad group of locals re-formed the local recruiting committee and tried once more with the voluntary system. But there was little doubt that they, like all those involved in recruiting, held no – or at least very little – hope that ‘voluntarism’ would work. And, in the background, there was still the belief that conscription would, ultimately, be introduced. All this tension was evident in Circular 85 which was sent to local recruiting committees in early June 1916 by the State Recruiting Committee. The circular stated the fundamental problem which, interestingly, was described solely in terms of Imperial duty.

The number of recruits volunteering has greatly decreased of late, notwithstanding the fact that the need for Reinforcements is more urgent than at any period of the war. It is quite realised by the new State Recruiting Committee that extreme difficulty is experienced in inducing the eligible men to attend Recruiting Meetings, and the consequent discouragement caused to some members of the Committees, nevertheless it will doubtless be agreed that continued efforts should be made to constantly and insistently bring before the minds of the public, the responsibility which is imposed on them as citizens of the British Empire to make every sacrifice to bring this titanic, tragic and ghastly war to a triumphant conclusion for our beloved Empire and gallant Allies.

The strategies the circular suggested covered the likes of enlisting the support of the local press, appealing to women, and winning the support of the relatives of serving soldiers. There was also the constant call for more public meetings or ‘demonstrations’ for the purpose of recruiting. In all this there was the claim that the voluntary system could work, if only local recruiting committees would get behind it:

It is quite wrong to think that the voluntary system has failed and if the enthusiasm and interest which characterised the previous Recruiting Campaigns were revived better results would be forthcoming. Public meetings would be greatly conducive to that end.

And, above all, there was one thing that local committees could not do:

It is recognised that great antagonism is displayed to the voluntary system by many people, but as voluntarism is the present method of obtaining recruits it is the National duty of very person to assist that system by shouldering the responsibility of reinforcing our brave and heroic men at the Front. It should be remembered that by (sic) passing resolutions that voluntarism has failed, greatly lessens public interest and enthusiasm and consequently has a detrimental effect upon Recruiting.

This was the essential background to the work of the local recruiting committee in the first half of of 1917: they were obliged to work with – and had to be seen to be supporting – a system of recruiting in which they did not believe. They saw the voluntary system as undermining the War effort to which they were so passionately committed, and they knew that it would never produce the number of recruits required. On this last point, as will be shown, there was abundant proof at the time that voluntarism did not work.

One quick pointer to the lack of recruits from the Shire of Alberton over the first half of 1917 is  the low number of railway warrants issued. These warrants were issued to men who had passed an initial medical at Yarram and who were heading to Melbourne to complete their enlistment process. Some men went to Melbourne to enlist without seeking a travel warrant and not all men who were issued with a travel warrant ended up enlisting. As will become clear, passing the medical in Yarram was no guarantee that the enlistment would go ahead. But for all the limitations, the number of warrants issued is at least a guide to the level of enlistment. In the first half of 1917 only 35 such warrants were issued by the Shire Secretary, whereas in the equivalent period in 1916 the number was 145.

The following tables show the membership of the local recruiting committee for both 1916 and 1917.

1916

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

1917

B Couston (Chairman)
G W Black (Secretary)
W Bland
B P Johnson
A J Rossiter
J W Fleming
W F Lakin
Rev F Tamagno
W A Newland
F L Merritt (Rec Sgt)
J Bett
G Bland
Dr J Rutter
R H Spokes
E T Benson

Yarram Recruiting Committee, mid 1917. Archives of the Shire of Alberton

It is apparent that most members from 1916 continued in the re-formed 1917 committee. There was a new chairman of the committee, Benjamin Couston. He was the manager of the Bank of Victoria in Yarram and had only arrived in the town in late 1916. He quickly established himself as one of the town’s prominent citizens. He served as a JP in the Yarram Police Court. He was on the committee for the Mechanics’ Institute and, as for most of those on the recruiting committee, he had been one of the local organisers for the National Referendum Committee. He matched the typical profile of the local Imperial Loyalist.

In 1916, the recruiting sergeant had been a local returned service man, William Andrew Newland. Newland continued on the recruiting committee in 1917 but his actual recruiting role was taken on by another returned service man, Frank Leslie Merritt, who had been repatriated to Australia in June 1916. While Recruiting Sergeant Merritt was not from the Shire of Alberton, he was one of 4 brothers from Welshpool who had enlisted. The family was celebrated in Welshpool because every son had enlisted. One brother – Charles Cecil Merritt – was to die of wounds in November 1917.

One important difference in 1917 was that in addition to Newland and Merritt, 3 other returned men joined the committee: Dr John Rutter, Robert Henry (Tim) Spokes and Eric Thomas Benson. Rutter and Benson were to play key roles in setting up a branch of the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ League. Rutter was definitely a local but Benson only moved to the area after his medical discharge in mid 1916. It appears he came to Yarram as the manager of the local State Savings Bank. Like Couston, he quickly established himself as a prominent citizen and, amongst other appointments, was on the board of guardians for the local Church of England. He would go on to play a key role in the second conscription referendum, for the Yes vote. Importantly, the degree of membership overlap between between the 3 most high profile patriotic groups in the local community – the Yarram Recruiting Committee, the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ League and the Soldiers’ Farewell and Reception Committee – was very strong and as for 1916 the members would go on to become the key players in the 1917 referendum campaign.

The actual efforts of the recruiting committee in the first half of 1916 were very limited. The most significant function, a memorial service combined with a public recruiting meeting or ‘demonstration’ held in May 1916, will be the subject of the next post. But apart from this major event not much appeared to happen. The committee provided some promotion for war savings certificates. This Commonwealth scheme was advertised in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 2/5/17. The recruiting committee was meant to be the key backer of the program … to explain the advantages of small investments – that everyone should have a war certificate to help win the war. … while the war lasts it will be necessary to have a continual flow of money into the Commonwealth Treasury for the same purpose. To meet this, War savings certificates in denominations of £1, £5, £10, £100 and £1,000 are offered for sale at a discount, repayable in full in three years from date of issue.

There was also a recruiting film shown in Thompson’s Hall in Yarram on 26/4/17. The film was “A Soldier’s Life in the A.I.F.” and it traced the life of a volunteer from recruit to trained soldier. It also featured scenes taken onboard HMAS Sydney. The film was run as a fund-raiser and according to the local paper it raised about £5 for the local Red Cross. The chair of the Recruiting Committee, B Couston, introduced the film and, again according to the local paper, he …referred to the immensity of the struggle in which the Empire is engaged, and the urgent necessity of securing all the men possible at the front. The report continued that at interval a Lieutenant Crowe gave an address. In response to the appeals made that night, 6 men went up on to the stage as volunteers. Later that same night they were medically examined by Dr Rutter and of the 6, four were passed as fit. However, no names were given in the report and there is no way of knowing what happened to them after that night.

Lieutenant Crowe is interesting. He was attached to the central Sate Recruiting Committee and at that point he was active across Gippsland trying to gather volunteers for the “Sportsmen’s 1000” or the “Sportsmen’s Unit”. He had contact with the Yarram Recruiting Committee from late April 1917 and there is a newspaper report – 2/5/17 – which has him informing the committee that even though people had told him that he would have no luck in the Shire of Alberton he had proved them wrong. It was also Lt. Crowe who recommended the memorial service – next post – and he organised the speakers and the AIF band for the occasion. The local committee was impressed with Lt. Crowe’s approach and organised a car and driver for him to continue his recruiting efforts in the district. After his work in North Devon and Jack River, the local paper published a positive account of his efforts and featured a list of locals who had been recruited through his efforts. However a critical analysis of the list of names, which appeared in the paper (4/5/17), highlights the difficulties those promoting recruiting faced.

Lt. Crowe’s success was significantly exaggerated. The newspaper report covered 3 categories of men who had volunteered. First, there were the 7 volunteers who failed the local medical exam, several of whom had failed the exam previously. Then there were the 6 who were under-age and who had to get their parents’ permission. Of this second group it appears that only one – Leonard John Quirk – did go ahead and enlist. He enlisted on 23/5/18 as an 18 year-old. These first 2 categories gave only 1 recruit from 13 men/boys who were keen to enlist. The third category was that of men who passed the medical, presumably with Dr Rutter. There were 12 in this group but it appears that only 3 of them ever enlisted. It appears that the others failed the follow-up medical in Melbourne. Perhaps the rate at which Dr Rutter passed the men as medically fit was partly driven by his commitment to support recruiting. It is also worth noting that the minutes of the Yarram Recruiting Committee (20/4/17) recorded the attempt by Lt. Crowe … to have Dr Rutter appointed a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, so that the doctor’s examination would be final, and recruits could be put through without delay. The 3 men who were successful, in that Dr Rutter’s initial medical assessment was upheld, were all only 19 yo. They were: Harold Bergen Elliott, Selwyn Bruce Cunningham and Cecil George Holman. All 3 survived the War. Overall, of the potential group of 25 volunteers keen to enlist, only 4 – all minors – were taken as recruits by the AIF. Despite Lt. Crowe’s optimism and inflated claims, voluntarism was not working.

Lastly, there was the strange situation that blew up with Sgt, Merritt in late May 1917. Without any prior warning, the Yarram Recruiting Committee was advised by the State Recruiting Committee that Merritt was to be dismissed, forthwith, on the grounds of “lack of vigour and strange conduct at recent meetings”. To that point, the local committee had had no issues with Merritt’s behaviour and there had been no complaints directed to them. They wrote (31/5/17) to State Recruiting Committee with obvious indignation:

We regret that your Committee should take such drastic action without reference to this Committee. The most astounding feature of the case is that your Committee should take such drastic action without formulating definite charges against Sergeant Merritt and giving him a chance of defence. We respectfully urge that, in common fairness to the Sergeant, a full inquiry be made, and that he be given every opportunity of stating his defence.

There was an immediate reply (1/6/17) which apologised that …your Committee should feel in any way overlooked by the action taken, as it is the urgent desire of the Committee to do all that is in its power to assist the difficult work of the honorary Recruiting Committees. Again, it did not spell out the charges, other than to state that the complaints came from ‘his recruiting officer’ – possibly Lt. Crowe or Sgt. Merritt’s superior in Sale – … supported by several other persons who attended the Yarram Demonstration. This ‘demonstration’ would have been the combined memorial service and recruiting meeting held in Yarram on Sunday 20/5/17. With only this briefest of explanations the State Recruiting Committee held its line but did, at least, undertake to review the matter. Then on 5/6/17 the central body wrote and reversed the directive …Serge. Merritt may continue his engagement at your centre.

It was all a mystery – perhaps Merritt did not meet the ‘standards’ of the more specialist State-wide band of recruiters who were in Yarram for the occasion – but, arguably, the most important observation is that the State Recruiting Committee knew how difficult it was to maintain a system of local recruiting committees across the State, particularly when the voluntary system was not working, and it could not afford to be seen as an interfering and arbitrary outside power. Essentially, it took the line that if the locals were happy with their recruiting sergeant then there was little point in getting them off-side. At the end of November 1917, Sgt. Merritt was transferred to the Traralgon and Warragul districts.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

The activities of the 1917 Yarram Recruiting Committee came from:

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

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

120. Soldiers’ farewells and welcomes in the first half of 1917

As indicated in earlier posts, by early 1917 recruitment had fallen away dramatically. Moreover, after the defeat of the conscription referendum in late 1916, even enthusiasm for promoting recruiting had waned. Those who had been enthusiastic members of the local recruiting committee – who had also strongly supported the conscription campaign – felt betrayed by the referendum result and, temporarily at least, withdrew their efforts. This issue will be covered in a future post.

At the same time, there was still the occasional farewell for a new recruit and, increasingly, there were welcome homes for those returning to Australia wounded. This meant that the work of the local ‘send off and reception committee’ – Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee – continued. This post looks at the work of this committee in the first half of 1917. It is also worth recalling that the key members of this committee – the likes of B P Johnson, Councillor C Barlow, E A Paige, H G Bodman, G F Sauer and Rev F Tamagno – were also the key players in the local recruiting committee, and they had also been the key backers of the Yes vote in the recent referendum. They belonged to the group identified as Imperial Loyalists, in that they backed the Empire completely and supported the national government in its every attempt to support Australia’s efforts as part of the Empire.

Farewells

It appears that there were only 3 formal farewells in the first half of 1917.

Benjamin Sutton

The first was for Ben Sutton in April. It was written up in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 4/4/17. The farewell was immediately prior to his embarkation for overseas. At the time of his farewell he was married and 28 yo. The marriage must have taken place sometime after his enlistment because his enlistment forms have him as single. He came from a local farming family.

The report noted that not many people were there:

Several local residents and visitors met at the shire hall yesterday morning [Tuesday 3/4/17] to bid farewell to Private Ben Sutton, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Sutton, Yarram.

B P Johnson, on behalf of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee presided. In his speech he specifically mention the lack of volunteers:

Mr. B. P. Johnson presided, and referred to the few farewells nowadays. It was evident that young men were content to let the boys fight and die for them, and not go and help. Ben Sutton realised that the boys wanted help, and although a married man he was going to do his part.

This theme about the effect that the lack of volunteers to replace those killed and wounded had on the troops in the front line was very common. Johnson, in his praise of Sutton for volunteering, was quoted as declaring:

A doctor, writing from the trenches, says if the Australians were not soon relieved they will die of sheer exhaustion. Wounded men were sent back to the fighting line. Ben Sutton realised this and goes.

As with all other farewells at the time, Ben Sutton was presented with the shire medallion and the accompanying (prayer) card. And as for all other farewells , those there sang the National Anthem and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”.

Allan Corrie

The second farewell was for Allan Corrie. It was held at Port Albert and it was written up in the local paper on 9/5/17.

Allan Corrie was only 18 yo. In fact, his parents had made him wait until he was eighteen before giving their permission for him to enlist. He was the son of the local police constable in Port Albert, Robert Corrie. Allan was home for his final leave. There was a large crowd there and the farewell was held on a Saturday night.

As the farewell was held in Port Albert, the speakers that night were Port Albert locals. One of the locals – Peter Todd, Palmerston – when praising the loyalty of the young Corrie … made some scathing remarks about shirkers. He then called for volunteers, from the crowd of well-wishers there, to come forward … but none were forthcoming.

Corrie was presented with the shire medallion and also a ‘wristlet watch’. His father responded on his behalf. Private Corrie survived the War and returned to Australia in June 1919. He subsequently also served in WW2.

James Brown

The third farewell took place in June and was for James Edward Brown. It was written up in the local paper on 6/6/17. Brown had only enlisted recently (24/3/17) after he had been rejected earlier for poor teeth. He was 40 yo and married, and it appears his wife was living in Carlton. He was the older brother of Darcy Brown who had also enlisted. The parents were from Stony Creek. The mother died while both sons were on service.

At the farewell, Cr Barlow noted how hard it was for the father. He pointed out how 2 sons had enlisted and one of them had already been twice wounded:

It seemed hard, he said, that the father should have to give up the only eligible son left, but so many would not respond to the call.

James Brown, at age 40 yo, was probably another example of someone the AIF should not have accepted. As things transpired, he never made it to France. After extended illness in the UK he was repatriated and discharged as medically unfit – ‘premature senility’ – in July 1918.

At his farewell, Private Brown emphasised how he was only doing his duty. He told those there that … he thought it was the duty of every eligible man to go to fight. He promised his best, and hoped to return with the other boys after wiping out the Germans (Applause.)

Welcome Home

Over the same period – January to June 1917 – the local paper reported on 5 welcomes. Obviously, these receptions were for men who had been repatriated either wounded or seriously ill. Consequently, the stage was set, literally, for speeches that contrasted, vividly and directly, the differences between those who still refused to do their duty and enlist, and those who had paid a terrible price for their loyalty.

Robert Spokes

The first welcome home reported in the local paper (14/3/17) was for Robert (Tim) Spokes. He was picked up from the train station at Alberton and driven to the Shire Hall in Yarram where there was a large group of adults and school children. E A paige, the head teacher of Yarram SS declared that if their guest had arrived yesterday (Friday) – as planned – the whole school would have been there to welcome him.

Spokes had enlisted as one of a large group (25) in July 1915. He was only 18 yo at the time. He had been badly wounded – GSW rt arm and r thigh – at Pozieres and repatriated to Australia. He was discharged as medically unfit on 17/4/17, about one month after the welcome home at Yarram. His right arm had been amputated following the injury and by the time he reached Yarram, as the paper put it, he had been … provided with a substitute. It would have been a devastating handicap for someone who was probably only 20 yo.

As he was under 21 yo when he enlisted, both parents had to give written permission. The father had written – and both parents signed – the following note. On the face of it, it was an explicit description of Imperial loyalty:

I give my Consent to my son Robert Henry Spokes to enlist as a soldier to serve King George.

Councillor Barlow presided and after a verse of the National Anthem and “God Bless Our Splendid Men” he started by talking of the debt owed to Private Spokes:

When they saw the condition he was in, carrying marks of war to the grave, they felt they could not repay him for what he had done.

Reverend F Tamagno informed those there that Private Spokes’ condition reminded them of the true nature of war and challenged them that they … could not realise the the strains on muscle and mind of the men in battle. Tamagno praised the young soldier as the model of voluntarism. He praised him as one of those … who had not been sent for, but went of their own accord (applause) – men who volunteered from farms and industries, rich and poor, all of the same quality of heart – it was the spirit of voluntarism.

And, of course, there was the criticism of those who refused to volunteer. He wondered aloud whether … many of these brave fellows who come back will chastise, because of the wounds they bear, those citizens who failed to do their duty. (Applause.)

H G Bodman was far more direct and he turned the occasion into a recruiting drive. He declared to all those there:

It was their duty to send all the men available. (Applause.) If men could see a soldier come back, and sit down in their comfortable homes with no incentive to take a part, he would say they were cowards. The boys who went had done their duty, and there were no better soldiers than the Australians. (Applause.) Yet they had men all round the district not game to take this boy’s place. Though old he was willing to do his part. He had one son there, and if he did not come back it would be a sacrifice for his country he would be proud of. It is for all to think, that unless reinforcements are sent to fill the vacant places, they are failing in their duty. (Applause.)

B P Johnson also laboured the theme of reinforcements. It was a stark moral argument: those men who could volunteer but who chose not to – for what in terms of the logic were entirely selfish reasons – were not just not letting down those serving overseas in the AIF – in the sense that they refused to do their ‘share’ and help their ‘mates’ – but they were also effectively condemning them to death:

He [Johnson] wished he could impress on every body that unless reinforcements are sent few of our men will come back. How many eligible to go, and do not go; how they stand back, and let their brothers fall and not be relieved, was more than he could understand.

In light of the ambivalence of the AIF members towards both the War and the issue of conscription – see Post 105 – we can only speculate what Private Spokes made of the way his homecoming was used for recruiting. The newspaper report noted that he himself did not speak. Instead, he replied via the Chair that … he felt proud that he responded to the call when he did.

As per normal, the welcome closed with “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”.

Oliver Leemon

The welcome home to Corporal Oliver Leemon was reported in the local paper on 25/4/17. He had enlisted as a 22 yo in September 1915.

Corporal Leemon was another wounded soldier from Pozieres. He had been hit, most likely by shrapnel, in the head, knee and arm. The actual medical discharge was dated 27/4/17, just 2 days after his welcome home at Yarram.

The occasion was chaired by G F Sauer and the paper noted that the crowd was disappointing, conceding that both the weather and the timing of the event were poor. Sauer hoped that their guest … would soon be restored to health.

Sauer also felt the need to attack the ‘scum’ of Melbourne over the way returned soldiers were supposed to have been treated at the time. Without giving any source he related how:

One soldier who returned minus an arm, was told that he was a fool to go over there and come back like that, whereupon the single-armed hero punched him. It was the spirit of the Anzacs and it showed they were of pretty good stuff.

Sauer also felt the need to raise the exploits of the Australians at Bullecourt to epic levels:

He could not express in words all that the soldiers had done on the other side, and especially their achievements during the past few days. Where the Australians had attacked was stated to be an insurmountable barrier. It was marvelous how the Australians went through the German lines, held by the Prussian Guards, the flower of the German army, and supposed to be one of the best regiments in the world. Our boys went on to the fields of France and beat them bad.

By early 1917 it was common practice to describe, unashamedly, the Australians fighting on the Western Front as the best soldiers in the world.

David Muir

There were 2 welcomes for Sergeant David Muir. One, at Yarram, was reported in the local paper on 16/5/17 and the other, at Alberton, on 25/5/17.

David Muir had been a well known sportsman in the local area. Before the War, he had been secretary of both the football and cricket clubs at Alberton. He had enlisted in April 1915 as a 23 yo.

However he was certainly not fit when he returned home. The reports of the Yarram welcome referred to his ‘broken health’ and noted that he was no longer … the once active Dave of football fame. He was suffering from rheumatism, trench fever and heart problems. As well, the report noted, he had been on the troopship Southland when it was torpedoed in September 1915 in the Agean Sea. He was said to have spent 2 1/2 hours in the water.

The Yarram welcome was held on a Monday afternoon. The Shire Hall was packed and there were many school children present.

At this welcome, B P Johnson set out to use Sergeant Muir’s story as a recruiting narrative. Interestingly, even though it hard been rejected not much more 6 months earlier, conscription was again being openly spoken about:

… Sergeant Muir, cricketer and footballer, went in for a sterner game. It would be noticed that he bore the letter A on his shoulder, a proud letter which showed he was an Anzac a name known throughout the world (Applause.) Dave is not the robust man he was, and we must remember that he made himself what he is for us. The obligation is on each and everyone not to allow the boys to suffer on their return. Dave’s place is vacant at the front, and anyone who can should go and fill that place. A number of returned men have fought, returned wounded, and are going back again to help their mates. That was the proper spirit. It was said that conscription would be brought in. Those who do not want conscription should go and make the voluntary system a success, and all should work to win the war.

After the speeches, Geo Davis had to respond on behalf of Sergeant Muir because …. what he had been through was so nerve-racking that he could not speak at a home-coming welcome.

Like all the others welcomed home, Sergeant Muir was presented with the shire medallion.

As indicated, not long after, there was another welcome staged at Alberton for Sergeant Muir. It was a social evening held at the Alberton Hall. The paper noted people came from Yarram, Port Albert and Tarraville.

All the speakers that night referred to his health. They all hoped that he would son be ‘restored to health’, and many wanted to see him again on the football field.

The local police constable, Robert Corrie, said of Sergeant Muir:

He went away to do his bit for his country, and he is home again proud to think he has done his duty. It was lads like Serg. Muir and Private Spokes who were upholding the name of Australia, and they who are at home cannot do enough for them. He hoped Serg. Muir would regain his usual strength.

Similarly, another local, Mr Todd from Palmerston, was keen to employ the commonly expressed sporting – particularly football – analogy:

… Sergeant Muir [was] an honest player on the football field, like all Australian lads, and he was glad that they were also honest in going and fighting for their country.

This time, Sergeant Muir did speak on his own behalf. He stated that even though he had returned with broken health, he was better off than many of those still in France. He urged those there to not forget …the boys at the front, as they could not realise what they were going through. He reminded everyone of the need to write to the men and he even mentioned the importance of such basics as sending them cigarettes and newspapers.

John Robinson

John Robinson had enlisted very early in the War (24/11/14) as a 21 yo fisherman from Port Albert. He has already been mentioned in a previous post – Post 38 – where he was one of 3 volunteers from Port Albert, former students of the Port Albert SS, who, according to locals, were not given an appropriate farewell by the school. His welcome was written up in the local paper on 27/6/17.

He had been badly wounded – gsw rt thigh severe – in July 1916. At the time of his welcome in the Mechanics’ Hall at Port Albert he had already had 3 operations and the local paper noted that he was about to have yet another … to have more lead taken out. He was discharged as medically unfit on 4/10/17. He was yet another young man returning from the War with a serious disability and the rest of his life before him.

Robinson was well known in the local area. In fact, the paper made the claim:

It is safe to say that no local lad was better liked than Jack Robinson.

It also noted that many people were there and that,

Two car loads of his relatives, including his grandfather 80 years of age, came from Paynesville at a few hours notice.

Those who spoke at the welcome were locals, including Constable Corrie. As was common, the speakers turned the wounds the soldier bore into some sort of badge of honour. One of them noted that he (Robinson) had gone to the front at a time when he knew the dangers and that he had … returned a soldier and a man. Another referred to him as bearing … the honored scars of battle.

One prominent identity who spoke that day was Father Sterling, the local Roman Catholic priest. Sterling had finished his work as an army chaplain by this point and had again taken up his duties as parish priest. Robinson was Church of England and it appears that the only reason Sterling spoke was because he was asked to. The following report, as published in the local paper, makes clear what Sterling thought of the standard farewell and welcome functions held in the shire. The comments also begin to explain the overt hostility that was directed at him from this point on.

He just happened to be in Port Albert, and accidentally heard of the welcome home to the returned soldier, and dropped in to show his sympathy with the gathering. He thought that the Government ought to apply the War Precautions Act to stamp out a public nuisance which had become very accentuated since the war started. He referred to the dreary drivel poured out by every local orator on the occasion of a farewell or welcome-home social. The singing and dancing were held up while one person after another got up and gave interminable speeches, trying without success to spend a quarter of an hour or more in saying what the chairman could easily say in five minutes or less. How often had they been present at or read of such gatherings. The chairman generally opened proceedings by saying everything it was possible to say about the guest of the evening; the next person spoke of the guest as a citizen; the next as a neighbour; the next as a sport; the next as a member of some friendly society; the next as a white man and Nature’s gentleman, and so on ad nauseum. The only person who does not come forward nor say anything is just the one person who could tell the exact truth, and that person is his wife. If she was to speak of him as a husband. (Laughter.) He had no intention, therefore, of prolonging the agony for the young soldier, or desecrating the honoured name of Anzac by referring to what they all felt gloriously proud of – the immortal deeds of our soldier boys.

In one sense, Sterling’s criticism is simply that the proceedings are too drawn-out, repetitive and ponderous. However, some at least would have heard in his comments the belief that a particular group of locals had turned these occasions into very public – and highly reported – demonstrations of support for the War, including conscription, and thinly disguised recruiting meetings. The members of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee would hardly have appreciated having their efforts trivialised and ridiculed in such a manner.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative