Post 96. Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial gave a brief history of the monument in Commercial Road, Yarram. This post examines in detail the local politics leading up to first the construction and then the dedication of the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. As for the previous post on the establishment of the Diggers’ Club in Yarram, it also highlights the nature and degree of the tension in the local community in the first few years after the War.
The decision to erect a memorial to the soldiers of Alberton Shire was taken at a council meeting on 13 May 1920:
A Soldiers monument (sic) be erected in Commercial Road,Yarram, cost to be referred to next year’s estimates, form and price to be decided at next meeting.
This was just after a presentation by the Melbourne firm of Corben & Sons. The actual cost indicated at the time was £550.
While the Shire’s decision appeared clear-cut, the way forward was to prove difficult.
To begin with, the editor – A J Rossiter – of the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – was keen to influence the debate over a suitable memorial. Indeed, initially at least, Rossiter had an entirely different proposal, which he promoted in the pages of the paper. In a sense, it was all a case of deja vu, as the previous post highlighted similar efforts by Rossiter to push his proposal for a grand, commemorative civic hall over the returned men’s wish for a more exclusive and lower-key Diggers’ Club. This time, Rossiter was keen on ’swimming baths’. Prior to the Shire’s resolution of 13/5/20 on the construction of the memorial on Commercial Road, outside the Post Office, Rossiter had been pushing his ‘public baths’ proposal. An editorial on 10/3/20 – two months before the council meeting – outlined his proposal. It began with an acknowledgement that his previous ambitious proposal had been rejected; but, as far as he was concerned, that was no reason to hold back from yet another bold, public venture:
Since the bold proposal of a public hall, embracing a soldiers’ club, did not find favor, why not a public memorial in the form of swimming baths? We have before advocated swimming baths for the rising generation, and have pointed out the necessity for every child to be taught the art of swimming. The old Mechanic’s Institute was at one time suggested as a suitable site, because of a natural watercourse that intersects that property. The public might well join issue with the Shire council in establishing public baths as a memorial to district soldiers, and the donor roll could be placed at the baths, instead of being hid in a comparatively obscure place in the shire hall which so few enter. Public baths as a memorial would be far before a granite monument in the main street or at the shire hall, because of their utilitarian character. Whatever is done by the shire council must cost a fair sum. No paltry donor board would suffice as a district memorial to the soldiers who fought for their country.
As matters progressed, the call for the memorial swimming baths appears to have slipped away. However, Rossiter had yet another proposal to replace the baths – the extension and refurbishment of the Shire Hall so that it could accommodate 1,500 people. In another editorial on 2/6/20, Rossiter raised the £550 figure for the proposed memorial in Commercial Road, and claimed that it would represent money ‘thrown away’. He wanted … something better done with the money. He had a far more beneficial and utilitarian proposal:
The town does not possess a hall worthy of the name, and none has the facilities which the public are justly entitled to. The proposal we have in mind as a fitting memorial to our soldiers is to re-model the shire hall, and build at the rear a balconied hall to seat about 1,500 people.
In the same editorial, Rossiter called for a public meeting to discuss the whole issue:
A memorial, in the form suggested, would for all time commemorate the deeds of not only the fallen, but those who have been spared to us. If remodelling the shire hall find favour amongst our readers, in place of the proposed monument, we would suggest that a public meeting be called as early as possible.
And there was yet another option. The third option focussed on the so-called (Soldiers’) ‘Memorial Park’.
When a new cemetery had been established at Yarram in 1902, the graves from the ‘Old Yarram Pioneer Cemetery’ had been relocated to the new site. In 1911, an act of the Victorian Parliament had provided for the old cemetery site to be converted to a park. Subsequently, from August 1914 several, local Friendly Societies – the local branch of the Australian Natives’ Association appears to have been the major player – undertook to turn the ‘old local burial ground’ into a ‘pleasure place for the populace’ . The details appeared in the local paper on 21/8/14. The Friendly Societies were to take advice from Shire personnel and organise working bees. The plan called for … the planting of palms, trees and shrubs in preference to flowers, and suggested a large grass plot in the centre where children could play, and where a bandstand could be erected. It was recognised that the amount of work involved was considerable and that a time frame of at least 2-3 years was required.
Over the period of the War, not a great deal of remediation work in the park was undertaken. Then, in mid 1918, a public meeting was held to consider … the question of beautifying the old burial ground, south of the town, and form a memorial park. By the end of October that year, there was a formal committee of the ‘Yarram Memorial Park’. There was also an agreed schedule of work to be undertaken by volunteer organisations, including the ANA, the Returned Soldiers’ Association, the Soldiers’ Fathers Association, the IOR and the local Traders’ association. It was all detailed in the local paper (25/10/18). Again, the scope of the remediation work was extensive. In fact, the scope was arguably too ambitious. In June 1921, in the South Gippsland Chronicle (1/6/21), the ’Soldiers’ Memorial Park’ was described as a ‘carefully fenced thistle patch’. The account described how, after an enthusiastic start, the effort slipped away:
The area was cleared and graded, the paths were laid out and gravelled, a fence was erected, and then – Yarram’s short-lived energy “petered out”
So, in mid 1920, the third option for the district soldiers’ memorial was to focus efforts on what was being described as the Soldiers’ Memorial Park and, potentially, include in the park a dedicated memorial of the kind proposed for Commercial Road. The Shire President at the time (J J O’Connor) was a strong backer of this proposal.
Given the range of proposals and what appeared to be strong community interest, the Shire council undertook in June 1920 to defer the decision on the soldiers’ memorial for two months, on the understanding that in the interim there would be a public meeting to canvas views in relation to, at least, the three proposals being put forward. The meeting was scheduled for 21/6/20. In the ads that appeared in the local press there were calls for a large attendance:
A large attendance is requested, and relatives of fallen soldiers are specifically invited to attend.
It is relevant here to point out that in the lead up to this public meeting on the soldiers’ memorial, the local paper was again targeting the politics associated with the Diggers’ Club. The point is that in the background to the local politicking over the soldiers’ memorial, there were ongoing charges being made against the local returned men. This situation could well have affected the locals’ interest and involvement in the whole business. As we will see, hardly anyone attended the public meeting on 21/6/20, despite all the publicity on how important it was.
In an editorial on 26/5/20, Rossiter had been almost gleeful in reporting trouble at the Diggers’ Club. He commenced with,
Has the Yarram Diggers’ Club so soon met trouble?
He then retold the story of how the returned men had held themselves ‘aloof’ from the local community by insisting on their own club rooms. He also argued that the resulting Diggers’ Club, as it was set up, was supported by local subscriptions; and those who had contributed financially understood they were contributing to a facility that would be available to all returned men, with the only restriction being a ‘small members’ fee’. The previous post revealed that, in time, the membership was also extended to include fathers’ of men who had served and also those men who had been ‘rejected’ on medical grounds.
Rossiter then claimed that there were significant divisions within the club over the very issue of membership. There was a ballot system to determine membership and Rossiter claimed that ‘certain rejects’ had been ‘black balled’ in the ballot process. This in turn had led to the resignation of the ‘chief officers’ of the club’s management committee. There were no further details on the men denied membership, nor on the fate of those said to have resigned from the committee. Obviously, the issue of which ‘rejects’ would be admitted to the Diggers’ Club was always going to be contentious. Rossiter was quick – and also keen – to point to the potential outcome for the club. He warned that … the public will be quite alienated, and the club too soon become a white elephant.
Overall, in the lead up to the public meeting on 21/6/20, the background politics associated with returned soldiers had become both public and contentious.
There was a detailed account of the public meeting in the local paper on 23/6/20. As indicated already, the attendance was very small. In fact, the number given was only twelve, ‘including one lady’. The paper claimed it was ‘farcical’ to suggest the meeting was either ‘public’ or ‘representative’. In any event, the meeting proceeded and the Shire President outlined the three proposals:
The three proposals that had been made were a monument in the public street, to cost about £500; the completion of the public park and the erection of a smaller monument in it; and the erection of a memorial hall.
The President declared that he favoured the second proposal – the Soldiers’ Memorial Park – but acknowledged that the Shire had already settled on the first, the monument in Commercial Road. He doubted that the memorial hall proposal would receive public support. Rossiter then spoke to his proposal of the hall, pointing out the benefits for the wider community. However, he also made the point that should his proposal not win support then he would finally quit his ‘effort to get a public hall for Yarram’. This was to be his last effort for the commemorative public hall for Yarram, which he had been pushing from the end of the war.
Councillor Barlow was obviously perturbed by the whole business. He argued that such a small meeting could hardly make any decision of import. Further, he maintained, the basic issue related to the whole of the Shire of Alberton and the narrow focus on Yarram – for the hall proposal – was inappropriate. Further, in relation to the same proposal, he had trouble reconciling what he saw as a business venture – the Shire would take out a loan and then seek to repay it by charging usage costs etc – with the commemoration of the soldiers’ sacrifice. He even went as far as accusing the backers of trying to … make money out of the lives of their fallen soldiers’ lives that had been given for their freedom. It was a strong claim. Barlow was obviously not about to change his support for the Shire’s initial vote to to establish the monument in the main street of Yarram, where the total cost would be covered by the Shire.
There followed further discussion over the merit of even considering alternative proposals if the councillors’ minds were already made up. In the end, the meeting closed without any motion being put. From that point, Rossiter’s proposal for the memorial hall in Yarram was dropped.
After the agreed two months for public discussion had passed, the matter was taken back to council. At the meeting on 12/8/20 the discussion focused on whether the monument was to in the park or in the main street. Incredibly, the vote was tied at four each way. The deciding vote of the President determined that the monument would be erected in the park. So notice was then given that there would be a vote to rescind the original council resolution of 13/5/20 – the one that had the monument in Commercial Road – at the next meeting. However, at the next meeting (9/9/20), the resolution to rescind the original vote was lost. At the same meeting, the following resolution was passed:
That the design for [the] soldiers’ memorial, submitted by H. B. Corben & sons, and numbered 5, to cost £550, be adopted; that it be surrounded by a bluestone and chain railing at an additional cost of £50; and that it be erected in Commercial Road, Yarram, opposite the post office.
Finally, there was a definite decision on the form and location of the soldiers’ memorial for Alberton Shire. It would be dedicated just under one year later. The back story to this decision highlights simmering divisions in the local community over the key question of ownership of the business of commemoration.
The unveiling of the memorial
The Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled on Wednesday, 10 August 1921. The ad for the event specified that it would occur … immediately after arrival of train from Melbourne (about 3.30 p m). The train station at Yarram had been opened earlier the same year (February 1921). The event was written up in the local papers – both Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative and South Gippsland Chronicle – on 12/8/21. The number of locals who attended was put ‘between 400 and 500 people’.
The two dignitaries presiding at the unveiling were the local Federal member G H Wise and Major-General C F Cox. Cox had served on Gallipoli, and then throughout the Sinai-Palestine campaign, with distinction. After the War he was elected to the Senate as a Nationalist.
The account in the local paper noted that the Shire President – John Barry – opened the proceedings by referring to the 700 men who had left the district to fight and the 80 who had died. In his comments, Senator Cox described the memorial as … a credit to the district and a fitting tribute to the boys who saved the country.
For his part, Wise was more political with his remarks. He was keen to refute the claim – it was most commonly identified with Archbishop Mannix – that the War had been waged for merely economic reasons or, more specifically, over trade. Wise insisted that … Those people who thought the past war was a trade or financial was were making a great mistake. For Wise it had been a war to check German power and militarism. It had been a war … fought to end all inhumanities and guarantee freedom and liberty. Arguably, the most significant point here was that Wise felt the need to make the comments. Wise also referred to what he saw as the ‘levelling’ effect of the War:
One of the aftermaths of the war was that it brought all classes on a more equal footing.
At the actual unveiling of the memorial, the Last Post was played. And at the conclusion, B P Johnson gave a ‘hearty vote of thanks’ on behalf of the community.
That night, there was a formal dinner for Wise and Cox and other invited guests in the Yaram Club Hotel, put on by the Shire President, John Barry JP. Prior to the event, newspaper articles had made it clear who was to be invited:
Invitations are being issued to members of the soldier land settlement committee, the repatriation executive, and representatives of the Returned Soldiers’ League.
In the Archives for the Shire of Alberton there is a list of those who were invited. The actual list runs to approximately 55 guests but there is no corresponding list of those who did actually attend. It was an all-male affair. In the write up in the papers the number who were present was described thus:
Between 40 and 50 of the most representative citizens sat down to the dinner at the Club Hotel that would have done credit to a city caterer.
What is clear though is that the single largest group of invited guests consisted of members of the Soldier Land Settlement Committee. There were 18 of them. The second largest group – approximately 15 – would have covered all the Shire representatives: councillors, Shire Secretary, Shire Engineer, Clerk of Works, Treasurer … There was also a small number from the local repatriation Committee. Finally, in terms of distinct groupings of guests, there were approximately 10 returned men. Presumably, they were all associated with either the Diggers’ Club or the local branch of the RSSILA; although it does appear that one or two of them might also have been soldier settlers.
What this all means is that the returned soldiers themselves were a definite minority at the function. Precedence was given to what effectively was the previous generation, the very one that that committed the men to the War. It was something of a classic example how even the commemoration of the War was dominated by the earlier generation. Further, as we will see later, the local Soldier Land Settlement Committee exercised considerable authority over the returned men or, more specifically, those who tried to set themselves up as successful soldier settlers. Not surprisingly, many of the returned men would have felt that everything was skewed to the interests of the previous generation, the one that had not done the fighting.
At the formal dinner there were the usual toasts – ‘The king’, ‘health of the federal Parliament’, ‘the AIF’ … – and B P Johnson appears to have served as MC.
Wise spoke again at the dinner and it was evident that he was defensive over the range and intensity of disquiet in the community about the Government’s management of post-War expectations. For example, he referred to what he saw as the folly of the ‘public indignation meetings’ that were increasingly being called across the country. He defend the Government’s record on ‘soldier service homes’ and claimed the Government had ‘done their best’. And there was criticism of those – he referred to the ‘wealthy’ – who attacked the Government over the level of the War debt.
Another speaker that night was William G Pope. Pope had been a prominent Imperial Loyalist during the War and a backer of the returned men’s push for their own club rooms after the War. He was responsible for the toast to the AIF. His comments reflected those of Bean in that he saw the legacy of the AIF becoming a driving force in Australian history. He acknowledged that the AIF had officially ceased to exist, but then launched into the following, mutli-themed panegyric:
… it [The AIF] will live in Australian hearts and have a beneficial influence on our national life and character for all time, as in every true Australian heart the glorious deeds of the A. I. F. are enshrined for ever. There imperishable glory is the beaconllght on the hill, to which in future all who love and would serve Australia must turn for inspiration, and in the men who lighted it are the descendants of those men and women of British stock whose never-failing courage has laid the foundations of that Commonwealth or British nation, which is the hope of the world.
Returning to a more mundane level, Pope finished with a critique of those upset about the level of war indemnity or reparations that Australia was not going to receive from Germany. The background here was that there had recently been reports -for example, South Gippsland Chronicle, 20/7/21 – that Australia’s share of war indemnity had been reduced from £30M to £400,000, compromising overall repatriation efforts. Pope dismissed the concerns, arguing that the potential of reparations was hardly the reason Australian had gone to war.
It is interesting that even at such formal, commemorative events, the general disquiet in the community about the overall situation in Australia, just short of three years after the Armistice, kept intruding.
For his part, Senator Cox did not have much to say. He was full of praise for the 700 men from the Shire who had all left as volunteers. But even he finished with a call for a significant increase in immigration, as a matter of urgency.
There were several letters touching on both the unveiling ceremony, and the formal dinner, published in the local press immediately after. Predictably, there were complaints about the guest list for the dinner. A letter (12/8/21) from ‘A Dinkum Digger’ intimated that not only were the diggers generally under-represented but some of the diggers invited were not ‘genuine diggers’:
… I would like to ask who was responsible for the issuing of the invitations? Why was it that several Diggers were invited and partook of a hearty meal (and doubtless felt the effects of a bad head the following morning), and other real Diggers were quite overlooked? Why this state of things should be is puzzling. We hear of a dinner and on looking round the guests we see people with no claim to a seat as a Digger, and we also see many with no claim at all as a guest on such an occasion. What was the controlling influence in the choosing of the guests? Did it not count that a man who had really seen service for 4 1/2 years, from first to last, and who had ‘borne the burden and heat of the day,’ should not be asked. Why was it that so many of these real Diggers were not invited, while there were guests with no such record partaking of the good things and ‘eating the fatted calf.’ It seems evident that the same old trouble, class distinction, must have crept in. It is painful to think of such a thing after hearing the address of Mr Wise in the afternoon, when he commented on the fact of how the war had done away with this, and instanced a case of where he had seen hundreds of men on a transport all on an equal footing. Surely it must have pricked the consciences of some of the guests last night when they must have noticed the absence of some Diggers, men perhaps not holding ‘soft jobs’ or clerkships, but Diggers all the same, and justly entitled to a seat at the festal board.
The idea of the ‘genuine’ digger had history. For example, Johnson himself had fought off claims earlier in the War that his son had a secured a position away from the front lines. The AIF had regularly sought to ‘comb out’ men involved in clerical and support roles to reinforce those at the front. But, more generally, there was always the question of whose service in the AIF counted the most or, at least, for more than others’ service. Clearly, in this instance the claim was that some of he diggers at the dinner did not have the same entitlement as others who had served throughout the entire War. Perhaps it was a criticism on those who had taken on positions of responsibility in the local organisations to do with returned men. Clearly, there was politics associated with the operation of the Diggers’ Club. It was always going to be a vexed question. There were even shades of the same dilemma in the case of those ‘rejected’. For example, how many formal attempts and rejections did it take it take before someone became a genuine ‘reject’? Arguably, the more important point here is that the issues of entitlement and status were being raised publicly. The point was being made that not all diggers were ‘equal’.
It was not only the local returned men who were put out by events associated with the dedication of the memorial. One other criticism was that the local school children had not been sufficiently involved in the unveiling ceremony. In the South Gippsland Chronicle of 17/8/21 there was a letter from the head teacher (A M Parratt) of the Yarram State school. He was obviously upset that the children had not been asked to have a formal presence at the ceremony. There was some important history here. All through the War, the then head teacher, A E Paige, had ensured that the school children were always available, even at short notice, to attend formal and semi-formal functions. For example, Paige would quickly organise for a group of school children to attend a farewell organised for a departing recruit. The school children had become a feature of all such public occasions. But, on this occasion, they had been passed over. The new head teacher made the point that … the school was never asked to attend. Had there been an invitation, the school, most definitely, would have been there. In fact, it had a right to be there, and at the dinner as well:
The teachers and children were all willing to march down had we been asked. After all that the children did for the soldiers we were conceited enough to expect an invitation; we also thought that the schools of the district might have been represented at the dinner, either by a teacher or a member of the school committee, but those in authority thought otherwise.
There were even other letters with advice on how the whole ceremony could have been better staged.
The critical observation in all this was that even the acts of commemoration were capable of creating and stirring division. And while some of the tension and division was superficial, manufactured and even trivial, there were other issues that were deep and serious.
The last point to note is that when the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled on 10/8/21, the actual names of the dead had not yet been added. Provision had been made for the names of 80 dead to be inscribed. But it was to be nearly another 10 years before the names were added. This detail will be the subject of a future post.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
South Gippsland Chronicle
Archives, Shire of Alberton
Minute Book October 1913 – April 1921
File: 285-292Box: 377