Category Archives: Recruiting

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”

121. Messines: G Martin & W E Babington

 

Two ‘locals’ – Gordon Martin and William Edward Babington – were killed in action on 8 June 1917 at Messines.

The fighting at Messines was heralded by the detonation of 19 mines under the opposing German lines. The German troops were demoralised and many surrendered. The allied troops were able to secure their objectives. Messines also saw the more accurate and effective use of artillery. The ‘creeping’ barrage was used to significant effect, although there were still casualties when the advancing troops went forward too quickly. A large number of British tanks were employed and there was more effective targeting of enemy positions, thanks in part to better maps and improved observation techniques. Overall, the military operation was judged ‘successful’.

However, if the battle was judged a ‘success’, the casualties were still very high. As Beaumont (pp.323-4) puts it:

Messiness has been heralded as a classic illustration of what could be achieved on the Western Front when an operation was well planned by competent leaders [The planning by Monash, in charge of 3 Division, was said to be exemplary] and the infantry were asked to advance no further than the distance covered by their own artillery. … It should also be remembered that Messiness [7-14 June] cost 26,000 British casualties, of whom almost 14,000 were from II Anzac Corps, many of them victims of gas.

One of the 2 local men – Martin – was from 39 Battalion and the war diary for this battalion described how the men were subjected to heavy gas shelling even before they reached the assembly trenches for the attack. They had to move through Ploegsteert Wood where the gas was incredibly thick. Using their box respirators they struggled though the heavy gas in the dark. According to the account in the Offical History (Vol 4, Chapt XV) many officers collapsed from the effort involved in keeping the men moving.

The total number of casualties for 39 Battalion, to the point when they were relieved early in the morning of 9/6/17, was approximately 470. There were comparatively few deaths, but 300 were wounded and another 145 were missing.

The other local man – Babington – was from 37 Battalion and the overall casualty level was similar. The casualties, to the point the battalion was relieved – 11 am on 9/6/17 – were 492. In this instance there were 67 deaths, 331 men were wounded and only a handful of men missing.

For the AIF, ‘victory’ at such a cost was unsustainable, particularly given the very low recruiting numbers back home.

 

Gordon MARTIN (179)
39 Battalion KiA 8/6/1917

Gordon Martin was a volunteer whose military service was not remembered in the local area. His name does not appear on any memorial in the Shire of Alberton. Yet he definitely enlisted from Yarram. He had his initial medical in Yarram with Dr Crooks on 28/1/16. A railway warrant (#260) for travel to Melbourne to complete the enlistment process was issued in his name by the Shire Secretary on the same date. The address that appeared on the embarkation roll was Barry’s Hotel, Alberton. The occupation given was ‘operating porter’, suggesting that he was employed at the Alberton Railway Station. Possibly he had not been living and working in the Shire very long but the reality is that he did enlist from there. There is no evidence that he was ever given a formal farewell from the Shire.

To make his life even more unknown and unrecorded, there is very little detail of his military service and the circumstances of his death. There is no Red Cross file for him and his family did not complete the information for the (National) Roll of Honour. Nor is there any correspondence in his service file to throw additional light on his life in the AIF.

Gordon Martin was born in Dunolly. His enlistment was completed on 21/2/16 – nearly one moth after the medical in Yarram – and at the the time he was 22 yo and single. His religion was Church of England. His father – John E Martin of Seymour – was given as his next-of-kin. He enlisted as reinforcements for 39 Battalion.

Private Martin embarked for overseas on 27/5/16 and reached the UK on 18/7/16. He joined 39 Battalion in France on 23/11/16 and was killed in action at Messiness on 8/6/17. His family was notified of the death at the start of July (2/7/17). He was buried at Strand Military Cemetery, Ploegsteert, Belgium. Personal kit – Identity Disc, 2 Note Books, Photos, Testament, Prayer Book, Fountain Pen, Scissors, Cigarette Case, Razor – was returned to the family in March 1918.

As already indicated, while the casualties for 39 Battalion at Messiness were very high, relatively few men (24) were killed. Private Martin was one of them.

 

William Edward BABINGTON (228)
37 Battalion KiA 8/6/17

Unlike Gordon Martin, William Babington was very well known in the local area and his name appears on many memorials: the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor, the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial, and the honor rolls for the Yarram State School, the Presbyterian Charge and Stacey’s Bridge.

William Babington was born on 22/9/1891 at Trentham. He grew up in the local area, attending Yarram State School. His father – William Dunn Babington – was a dairy farmer at Jack River where he had a 114 acre property. The son worked on the family farm and on his enlistment papers he gave his occupation as ‘dairyman’. The mother was Williamina (sic) Babington. There another brother – John Sutherland Babington – who had enlisted very early in the War (16/9/14). He was younger (20 yo) and at the time was also helping on the family farm. All his military service was in the Middle East and he returned to Australia with the rank of sergeant in July 1919.

When the father completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour he indicated that Stacey’s Bridge was the place with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’. William Babington was also closely identified with Devon, where, prior to enlisting, he had been the captain of the local football club.

At the time William Babington enlisted he was 25 yo and single. His religion was Presbyterian and he appears to have been actively involved in the church as a young person.

Private Babington had his first medical on 21/1/16 in Yarram with Dr Crooks – this was exactly one week before Gordon Martin’s medical – and he was re-examined in Melbourne on 16/2/16. The official date for his enlistment was 8/2/16 and he joined as reinforcements for 37 Battalion. There was a formal farewell for him and 20 other local recruits – Gordon Martin was not there – held at Yarram on 24/4/16. It was reported in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 26/4/16. On the occasion, he and the others were told that, The charge of the Light Brigade faded into insignificance compared with the brave deeds of our Australian boys at Gallipoli. It was one of the many occasions when the farewell was used to appeal for more volunteers. The Shire medallion was handed to the men.

Private Babington embarked from Melbourne on 3/6/16 and reached England on 25/7/16. There was a period of further training before he proceeded to France and joined 37 Battalion in November (22/11/16). He was promoted to lance corporal in March 1917 (5/317).

On 1/11/16 the local paper published a letter written by Private Babington which covered, in detail, the voyage from Australia on the troopship Persic, and first impressions of the enormous military camp on Salisbury Plain near Amesbury. He noted of the camp, You will hardly believe that this camp is 12 miles by 13, nothing but huts as far as the eye can see. He also noted that … there are over 40,000 Australians camped here.

Lance Corporal Babington was killed at Messines on 8 June 1917. One witness statement in the Red Cross file had the date of death as 7 June, the first day of the battle. There are other inconsistencies in the several witness statements but, generally, it appears that he was shot, in the chest, and died within a few minutes. Several refer to him being shot by a German sniper and as he was a lewis gunner it is highly likely that he would have been targeted. Some witnesses reported him being buried but others were unsure, and one even reported that he saw the body still in the field three days after he had been killed. Most agreed that if he had been buried, the grave would have been in Ploegsteert Wood. There is also a record of the grave being SE of Messines. However, in the end, there was no formal identification of any grave and Lace-Corporal Babington’s name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres.

The cable to advise the family of the death was dated 22/6/17. However, it appears that the information did not reach the family until 26/6/17. Three days later, on 29/6/17, the death was reported in the local paper:

Mr. W Babington, Stacey’s Bridge, received the sad message on Tuesday night that his son, Lance Corporal W. E. Babington, had been killed in action on 9th (sic) June, 1917, and conveying the sympathy of King and Queen and Commonwealth. Lance Corporal Babington previous to enlisting was a popular young man, a good footballer and captain of the Devon team, and worked with his father as a dairy farmer. … Lance Corporal Babington paid the supreme sacrifice for his country. The sympathy of our readers will be extended to Mr. and Mrs. Babington and family at Stacey’s Bridge in the loss of their son.

The article also described how The night before the sad tidings reached his parents a letter came by mail, saying he was fighting only 200 yards from the enemy.

Then on 21/9/17 the following additional article on the death of Lance Corporal Babington appeared in the local paper under the heading A Gippsland Hero. The father obviously provided the paper with the correspondence he had received from the UK. It is worth quoting the letter in full because it illustrates how the all-pervasive, background narrative of the sacrifice of the Christian soldier was so commonly applied at the time and in such a highly personal way. No matter how dreadful the loss of the son, there was a strong and comforting religious ‘explanation’ of the tragedy.

Mr. Wm. Babbington (sic), Stacey’s Bridge, has received from the chaplain at the front particulars relating to his son’s death. He writes: – Dear Mr. Babington. – You have had the official word of your son’s death in action, Lance Corporal W. E. Babington, No. 228. on the 8/6/17. It was in the great battle of Messiness, that splendid victory, but won only by much sacrifice, and your fine lad was one. He was a hero. I have just been talking with O.M.S. Redd[?], of his Company, who was beside him when he fell. It was right up to the very forefront of the attack, and your boy was fearlessly brave – was one of those who by their indomitable courage made the attack so successful. A shot from the enemy, however, got him, and he died on the spot. His comrades thought the world of him, and the O.M.S tells me it nearly knocked the heart out of him to see your boy fall. They were fine fellows, these boys of ours, good souled and fine spirited. As their chaplain I thought very much of them, their earnest interest in the real things that count. How keen they were for religious ministrations, and at services and communions they gave splendid attendance. They went into the fight well prepared, and the God above them gave them strength and courage. As He will give to you for your great sorrow. God help you is our prayer. We always pray for you all in our services. Your boy with the rest was keen on these things, yours in much sympathy.
A. Irving Davidson, Presbyterian Chaplain to the Regiment.

Personal kit was returned to the family in March 1918: Calabash Pipe, Folding Scissors, 2 Notebooks, Cards, photos, Letters.

 

The contrast between the 2 men killed on the same day highlights just how significant the locals’ definition of ‘local’ could be.  It also throws light on the fate of the itinerant, working-class volunteers: if a person was not tied to a particular location, his effort and ‘sacrifice’ could easily dissipate, if not disappear.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 4 – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917 (11th Edition, 1941)

Gordon Martin

National Archives file for MARTIN Gordon 179
Roll of Honour: Gordon Martin
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Gordon Martin

William Edward Babington

National Archives file for BABINGTON William Edward 228
Roll of Honour: William Edward Babington
First World War Embarkation Rolls: William Edward Babington
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: William Edward Babington

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

 

116. W S Filmer

Walter Stephen FILMER (4426/2Lt)
22 Battalion   KiA 3/5/1917

Walter Stephen Filmer was born at Noradjuha near Horsham. However he grew up south of Horsham, closer to Hamilton. He attended the state school at Byaduk and when he enlisted his mother – his father was dead – was still living there. Similarly, on the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour, his mother gave Byaduk as the location with which he was ‘chiefly connected’.

At the time of enlistment in February 1916, he was single, 22 yo and he gave his occupation as school teacher. His religion was Presbyterian. On his enlistment papers he indicated that he held the rank of 2nd lieutenant in the Citizen Forces. His mother also recorded – for the (National) Roll of Honour – that he had had two and a half years experience, as an officer in the Senior Cadets, in the Hamilton and Casterton district before he joined the AIF.

Walter Filmer trained as a teacher in the Hamilton area which was where he had the involvement with the senior cadets. Then, as a very young man, he was appointed to the state school at Womerah in the Shire of Alberton. The school had only been opened in 1906. Filmer would have been appointed there in 1914. He was the head teacher at the school when he enlisted. He was well known in the district. Initially, he played football for the local team West Alberton but then in April 1915 he transferred to the team based on the local Fire Brigade. He was a member of the local branch of the ANA and his name is recorded on the their honor roll.

He played a key role in the raising of the first group of recruits from the Shire.  There are numerous references in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – from the period. Given his recent experience with the senior cadets he was soon playing the role of drill instructor and giving the young volunteers their introduction to military discipline. The following appeared on 9/9/14:

A capable instructor [ for drill] has volunteered in the person of Lieut. Filmer, who has had charge of the citizen forces in Hamilton and Casterton district, and he will be assisted by helpers who have had military experience in various arms of the service, and a suitable building has been arranged, viz, the new stables at the Co-operative Store, by the courtesy of the directors. It is proposed to start forthwith, and a parade of all interested is called for Friday evening [11/9/14] at 7.30 p.m. at the place named. This movement has the co-operation of the rifle club and ambulance association.

Another report (11/9/14) noted that his position as drill instructor had been approved by the military authorities:

Lieut. W. S. Filmer has received a letter from the headquarters of the 3rd military district stating that his offer to instruct local riflemen and civilians is much appreciated, and expressing the hope that a great number will avail themselves of the offer. Drill starts this evening in the Co-operative Store stables at 7.30.

Other reports (16/9/14, 18/9/14) made it clear that he also played a role in vetting the initial large group of recruits and conducting their formal enlistment. In fact, the following assessment by the editor (Rossiter) which appeared in the paper on 23/9/14, just after the first large group of recruits had left, made it clear that Lieutenant Filmer’s role had been very significant:

Arrangements [for drill sessions] were made with the directors for use of the large stables at the Co-operative Store, which made a first-rate drill room. Each Friday evening Lieutenant Filmer gave instruction, and to him and the gentlemen mentioned [Rev. Geo Cox, Mr. Jas. Farmer and Mr. Geo Davis] is credit due for having started the recruiting movement in this district. But for Lieutenant Filmer’s efforts we doubt whether as many young men would have responded to the “call to arms’.

At the time, Filmer could only have been 20 yo and it is reasonable to speculate how the local men and boys would have responded to his drill instruction. Certainly, the Shire of Alberton had been an exempt  area under the universal compulsory military training scheme then in place – senior cadets were not introduced in the local area until August 1915 – and so the response by the young locals to military instruction and notions of military discipline might have been challenging. Also Filmer’s youthfulness would have set up some natural antipathy. Besides, he played football with many if not most of the recruits; and they were probably disinclined to take his military rank and bearing all that seriously. It does appear that for all his enthusiasm and commitment, there were some issues. For example, one report in late August 1914 talks about Lieutenant Filmer still ‘persevering’ with the drill instruction. Another discussion, reported in the local paper nearly one year later (6/8/15),  suggested that Lieutenant Filmer’s efforts were not up to the mark:

Mr. Fleming fired a telling shot. He explained that unless drill was conducted by a warrant officer sworn in until termination of the war, the effort would be in vain. It must be under military authority.

At this very point in time, Filmer was involved in the establishment of the local senior cadets. However, the concern seemed to be that his military qualifications and status, while suitable for the cadets, were not up to the mark for those enlisting in the AIF. He would have found this criticism harsh.

Through 1915, Filmer was a strong advocate for the recruiting campaign. At a farewell held at Womerah for 3 new recruits – D Brown, J Loriman and J Morgan – he praised the loyalty of the men, championed the Australian soldiers and made it clear that he also intended to enlist. His comments were recorded in the local paper on 4/8/15:

These men [the 3 recruits] were certainly doing their duty. Personally he envied them very much, but trusted that before long he would be permitted to go with them. He advised them to try to emulate the example set by the brave Australians on Gallipoli, of whom the naval men said, “Fiercer fighters God never made.”

When the Education Department approved of his enlistment, he was given a large send-off from Womerah. It was reported in the local paper in detail on 3/3/16. He was praised as a dedicated and very popular teacher, a selfless and highly regarded member of the local community who went out of his way to help others, and a true patriot. The night of the farewell saw atrocious weather and the road to Womerah was described as unsafe. Yet despite the dreadful conditions, it was noted that people travelled from Yarram to attend. Those there from Yarram included A J Rossiter, editor of the local paper, and A E Paige, head teacher of Yarram SS. ‘Sergeant’ Filmer, as he was referred to that night, was presented with the Shire Medallion and a ‘valuable pair of prismatic field glasses’. The field glasses would be returned in his personal kit after his death.

Private Filmer enlisted in Melbourne on 2/2/16. He was taken on as reinforcements for 22 Battalion. He gave his address as ‘Helensville’, Yarram. He included his previous military service with the Citizens Forces. While he was enlisted as a private, by early March 1916 he was made sergeant, the rank by which he was referred at his farewell.

His group of reinforcements left Melbourne at the end of March 1916. There was further training in England and then in September 1916 he finally joined 22 Battalion in France. His promotion history was complex and in the end there had to be an enquiry and formal ruling. Effectively, he was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on 16/12/16.

In February 1917, 2nd Lieutenant Filmer spent about 3 weeks in hospital with parotitis/mumps but rejoined the battalion on 9/3/17. Two months later he was killed in action on 3/5/17, the first day of the Second Battle of Bullecourt.

22 Battalion’s involvement in Bullecourt 2 is covered in its war diary. The strength of the battalion that went into the battle – another 200 men had been detached for other divisional duties – was 21 officers and 618 other ranks.  Zero hour was 3.45 a.m. on 3/5/17 and the troops went in with a covering barrage. The enemy replied with its own barrage at 4.49 a.m. The battalion was able to push through to its second objective after approximately 2 hours of heavy fighting but, as the diary records, because of the failure of the British troops – 185 Brigade – to take the left flank they were left hopelessly exposed and forced back. The fighting was intense, with bombing parties from both sides moving along the German trenches which the battalion had initially been able to take, or, at least, gain some foothold in. The battalion came out of the line the next day at 4.00 a.m. when it was relieved by 3 Battalion. The casualties – ‘killed, wounded, missing, died of wounds, wounded and missing’ – for just that one day of fighting were 438 or 70% of the force committed. Of the 21 officers, 16 (76%) were casualties, including 2nd Lieutenant Filmer who was killed. There was no chance to recover bodies. Lieutenant Filmer’s name is recorded on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.

There is a detailed Red Cross report for Lieutenant Filmer. There were several witness statements to the effect that he was wounded, severely, and that he died shortly after. All agreed that the body had been left when the Australians fell back. The points of difference were over whether he had been hit by shrapnel or a bullet, how long he survived after being wounded, and whether he was conscious or not. One statement had him conscious and even telling those there that he ‘knew he was done for’.  The following statement by Private H A Morris (4498) gives the basic information:

I saw him lying dead on 3rd May, just on the 1st. trench we took (old German trench 1.) at Bullecourt, just at daylight. He had been hit by a shell and I believe only lived a very short time. Someone whose name I cannot recall spoke to him before he died. I was knocked out later the same morning near by and his body had not been brought in when I left about 7 a.m. I knew him before he got his commission and came out with him. He was a fine chap.

Tellingly, there were many similar testimonials to his character in the witness statements. He was commonly described as a fine chap, a good sportsman/footballer and someone who was popular.

In the Red Cross report there is correspondence from February 1918 from the mother, at Byaduk, asking that they – the Red Cross – carefully check POW records. She stated that she had had a letter from a Captain L A Kennedy, of the same battalion (22 B), giving an account of her son’s fate. She wrote that Kennedy stated that … my son was wounded & left in a trench on the Hindenburg line on the 3rd of May 1917. Captain Kennedy says that they applied a field dressing to his wounds & made him as comfortable as possible but they were driven out of the trench by the enemy & could not take him with them. Capt K. did not think my son would live but the fact remains that he was alive & left in the hands of the enemy and if he did live he must be prisoner of war.

The mother’s interpretation of Kennedy’s account, not surprisingly, was that it left open the possibility that the had been taken prisoner. The Red Cross replied in April 1918 that they very much regretted that there was no trace of her son as a POW and that there was no reason to doubt the official report of his death.

Lieutenant Filmer’s death was specifically noted in the battalion’s war diary at the time. The cable advising of his death was dated 19/5/17, just over 2 weeks after his death. The official report of death was dated 10/6/17.

His death was reported back in Gippsland in the local paper on 25/5/17. His success in the AIF as an officer was emphasised, as was his record as head teacher at Womerah. In fact, Lieutenant Filmer had kept in contact with the school while in the AIF. In March 1917 (7/3/17), about one month before he was killed, the local paper reported at the opening of the new Womerah school that a letter from Lieutenant Filmer had been received by the local district school inspector (R H Greenwood). In the letter Filmer was reported to have said that … he would rather put in another two years in the Womerah mud than be in the trenches. He had kindly recollections of the old place in the hills.

The local paper also reported (1/6/17) that the school had erected a ‘fine flag pole’ and that … On Tuesday [29/5/17] the flag was flown at half-mast in memory of the late Lieut. Filmer. The local paper also reported (14/9/17) on further commemorations:

An enlarged photo of the late Lieut. Filmer, formerly head teacher at the Womerah school, has arrived in Yarram. The enlargement, which is a handsome piece of work, suitably inscribed, is being presented to the Womerah school by the pupils of late Lieut. Filmer, as a tribute to the respect in which he was held by them…

Another enlargement of the Lieut. Filmer has been sent to Mrs. Filmer, mother of the late soldier, by parents of the children of Womerah school.

Even though he had only been in the district for not much more than 2 years, Lieutenant Filmer had obviously made an impression on the local community. Probably what struck people was the seriousness of his manner and commitment, and this impression would have been reinforced by his relatively young age.  His name is recorded on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial.

Personal kit, including the binoculars, was returned to the mother in October 1917. It came in a sealed valise: Numerous Books, Letters, Cards, Photos, Maps, 1 pen Knife, 2 Pencils, 1 Collapsible Cup, Binoculars in Case, 3 Sword Frogs, 1 Revolver in Holster, Ammunition Pouch, 1 Bolt, 2 Scarfs, Cigarette Case, 1 Pyjama Coat, 1 Mirror, 1 Testament, Regimental Colours, 1 Pipe, 4 Collars, 1 Pr Mittens, 1 Tie, 6 Handkerchiefs, 1 Pr Riding Breeches, 1 Linen Bag, 1 Kit Bag Handle, 1 Leather Purse, 1 Disc, 1 Badge.

There was a brother – Albert George Filmer – who also enlisted (14/2/17). He was farmer and he enlisted in Queensland. He was wounded in September 1918 and invalided to the UK. But he did survive the War, returning to Australia in January 1919.

 

 

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for FILMER Walter Stephen 4426/2 Lt
Roll of Honour: Walter Stephen Filmer
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Walter Stephen Filmer
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Walter Stephen Filmer

105. The soldiers’ vote denied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murdoch undoubtedly is a fine strong helper. …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Bean’s diaries

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

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

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

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

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

General histories

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

The national scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The local scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and it ended:

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

At this point, Rossiter, as editor, added:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

The Age

The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

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

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