Category Archives: Sport & Community

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

 

64. Monster (recruiting) Meeting at Yarram, July 1915

In late June 1915, the Victorian Parliament, on a bi-partisan basis, launched a recruiting drive. The plan was that the week 5 -12 July would be a special recruiting week. Over the week, State Parliament would be adjourned and all members would support their constituencies in the recruiting campaign. While the central aim of the program was to boost the level of recruits, there was also the intention to involve the whole community in support for the war effort.

In Yarram the special meeting was set down for Monday 5 July and Thos. Livingston MLA (South Gippsland) was to be the guest speaker from the Parliament.

The dominant theme expressed in this first, state-wide recruiting campaign was “Come over and help us”,  represented as the plea being made by the men at Gallipoli.  A special poster – Will they never come? – was commissioned for the campaign. It measured 7 feet 6 inches high x 6 feet 8 inches wide. In Yarram it was pasted to a wooden frame and displayed on the Bank of Victoria fence.

The most striking feature of the 3 speeches given at the Yarram so-called ‘monster meeting’ to launch the week of recruiting was the speakers’ conviction that the reasons for enlistment were so obvious and so powerful that appeals should hardly have been necessary. The detailed report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 7/7/15 featured an undercurrent of frustration, if not anger, on the part of the speakers and the clear warning that conscription would most likely be required to force people to see and perform their duty.

The usual theme of the barbarity of German soldiers featured strongly. Livingston was reported thus:

Mr Livingston impressed his hearers with the [German soldiers’] slaughter of the aged and infirm, the killing of children and marching away with their bodies on the bayonets….

And Rev. Tamagno had … heard of a little Belgian child in Victoria, whose arms had been cut off by the Germans. She saw the [Australian] soldiers in uniform, and asked were they going to fight the Germans. Informed they were, she said, “Kill them, trample them to death; they killed my father and mother, and cut off these arms of mine. “

Tamagno set all this in the context of the divine retribution that God would exact on the ‘horrible blood-thirsty nation’ that was Germany:

As sure as there is a Creator that rules, that nation [Germany] will not go unpunished. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord.”

There were also the usual references to the integrity and greatness of the Empire, and Australia’s loyalty to and self-interest in the defending it. And now, integral to the call of the Empire, there was the direct ‘cooee’ from the ‘gallant boys’ on Gallipoli.

However, as indicated, there was also the sense of outrage that people refused to do their duty. When the Rev. Cox stood to talk … He said it was the first time in his life he had to appeal to men to do their duty.  Cox then, as reported, appealed for married men to enlist. Such a call was, for the time, out of order; but Cox was merely using it as a rhetorical device:

And why should the married men go?

His answer was that while the young men might pretend to be patriotic, they were more interested in playing football. Therefore,

That’s why the married men have to go. The unmarried slackers won’t go.

Rev Tamagno also had the young, unmarried men clearly in his sights:

He hoped it would not come to conscription [this is July 1915], but if he had his way he would call up all the young unmarried men in smashing numbers, and bring the war to a conclusion.

And like Cox, Tamagno also focused in on the local football competition. He claimed he had no problem with football per se but there was a more important game to play. He wanted the young footballers to face the question of their duty to the Empire:

There are still many “best” in this shire who have not considered the question, but who follow the swollen leather, and have their names on the lips of spectators.

The attack on football was hardly new and it was by then Victoria-wide. It was very evident in the official poster – Will they never come? – for the recruiting campaign. In the Shire of Alberton, the local football competition closed down at the end of July 1915. Too many players from the teams in the local competition had enlisted. Additionally, it was too hard to stand against the community view that football had to stop.  There was however the occasional, one-off game played to raise money for the Red Cross or some other War-related charity.

As the most popular and high profile sport in the community, football was an obvious target for those pushing for higher levels of recruitment. The logic was presented starkly: why should young men – particularly the fittest young men – be wasting their time on football while their peers were fighting and dying for the Empire? At the same time, there was another agenda. Certainly in the Shire of Alberton there was a view that football promoted anti-social behaviour – drunkenness, gambling, violence and obscene or ‘filthy’ language – and at a time when the War effort required a form of ‘moral re-awakening’ from everyone on the ‘home front’, football was an obvious target.

At the very time that the local football competition was shut down another more suitable pursuit for the youth of the Shire was introduced.  When the 1911 universal training scheme was introduced, the Shire of Alberton was declared an ‘exempt area’. However, in early 1915 the local branch of the ANA formally requested that the district’s exempt status be reversed. Accordingly, in late June, senior cadets were established in Yarram. All male youth between 14 and 21 yo who lived within a 5 mile radius of Yarram had to register. Within this 14-21yo cohort, the largest group, at least 50, were enrolled in the senior cadets (14-17yo) and their training commitment was 60 hours per year. From the beginning there were strict warnings to those who failed to register. They could be prosecuted and even sent to Queenscliffe for detention and training if they failed to meet their responsibilities. On 23/6/15 the local paper reported how 20 youth from Essendon had been prosecuted and sent to Queenscliffe  and it quoted the police magistrate’s comments:

It is hard to understand in these times, when your brothers are fighting at Gallipoli, for you and your country, that you can be guilty of standing about and refusing to put in your drill of an hour and a quarter a week. I would prefer to be shot rather than be guilty of such conduct. I cannot imagine anything more despicable on God’s earth …

As an accommodation for those lads involved in dairying, parade times were made at 2.00 PM instead of 3.00 PM. Traveling up to 5 miles to Yarram – and back again – to attend a drill session on a Saturday afternoon, on top of your work on the family farm, would have been a major imposition.

As an extension of the antipathy directed at football and its spectators – and football was essentially a working-class code –  the newspaper report (30/6/15) of the planning meeting for the monster recruiting meeting provided another insight on how those involved in recruiting viewed their target audience. At the planning session, there was debate over where the meeting was to be held. The final decision was to hold it in Thompson’s Hall. In part, this location was the most central. Equally, the discussion on the choice of venue highlighted that this was the area where a large number of the very type they were looking to recruit could be found most nights, presumably drinking. As one of those at the planning meeting (Cr. Bland) put it:

… Thompson’s Hall was more central. Every night about sundown there was a class of men about the streets.

Another of those present (Cr. Barlow), noted that if the venue was too far away, this group … having so far to walk they would not go.

There was also some in-house banter about the type of men in this group. One joked that it was all very well to target this group but most of them would fail the medical because of their teeth (1). This prompted laughter.

It is hard not to read into all this a degree of animosity directed at the very men – their background, physical appearance, social mores and even their sport – the community’s leading citizens were targeting for recruitment.

For all the effort that went into the recruiting meeting on July 5 the results were poor. The local paper (7/7/15) reported that Only two young men of the large audience came forward as recruits … The 2 volunteers that night were reported to be Thos. H Stephens and Reg. Whitford. Tom Harley Stephens was a labourer from Mullundung. His attempt to enlist was subsequently unsuccessful. Reg Whitford had already been rejected and he was again rejected on this occasion. However it appears that his persistence paid off because he was finally accepted in February 1916.

Importantly, the dismal result of the Yarram meeting was hardly a true measure of the recruiting levels from the Shire of Alberton. In fact, July 1915 saw what was probably the highest monthly level of enlistments from the Shire. This was apparent in the last post (Post 63). Further, in terms of total enlistments to the end of July 1915, the files of the 1915 Recruiting Committee indicate that from the start of the War to that point, the Shire Secretary had recorded 198 men who had enlisted directly from the Shire. He also noted that another 40 had tried to enlist but failed the medical. As well, many men had enlisted by themselves in Melbourne. While the July meeting itself was a complete failure in terms of enlisting men directly from its audience, it was certainly not the case that men were not volunteering.

Moreover, those who planned the recruiting meeting knew that enlistment levels were high. They also knew that the pool of available recruits in the large regional centres like Yarram was, by then, very limited. In fact, as reported in the local paper (30/6/15), Rev. Cox made the point in the planning stages that unless the recruiting meeting could attract men from the townships and settlements outside Yarram the exercise would be futile:

Rev. Mr. Cox said the town had been fairly well exploited. Men were wanted from the country. If the country men were not coming in the meeting would be a frost and a failure. It did not matter what hall the meeting was held in.

There are significant tensions here. Why, for example, did the local recruiting committee hold a recruiting drive based on Yarram if the pool of available men was so limited? Also, if the local men were volunteering in such numbers at that time, why did so few – effectively none of them – volunteer that night at the special recruiting meeting?

Part of the answer to the first question is that the meeting was never just about recruiting. The content of the speeches shows that such meetings were highly orchestrated celebrations of public affirmation: of the Empire and Imperial Duty, of the moral imperative to take up arms against the inherent evil of German Militarism, of the need to seek God’s blessing and always stand in His way, of the need for the entire nation to come together and support the War effort… The closest equivalent activity was a church service, and on this particular occasion 2 of the 3 speakers were religious ministers. Some of the clergy and community elders even saw the War as the chance for men to lead better lives: to lead them away from the failings and vices of the lower orders, via the discipline of army life in the cause of Imperial duty.

Another part of the answer lay in the significant change to the concept of voluntaryism. At the start of the War the term involved a genuine choice, in that it was accepted that some men would choose to enlist – for a range of reasons – while others – for a different range of reasons – would choose not to enlist. Moreover, at the time when the AIF was being created there was no suggestion that everyone who volunteered or wanted to volunteer would be accepted. The AIF could afford to be highly selective. In this setting, those who chose to enlist were feted but those who chose not to enlist were not condemned. However, by mid 1915 the fundamental notion of choice had been removed by patriots like Rev. Cox and Rev. Tamagno. For them, voluntaryism had now become a universal obligation, in the sense that every eligible man was expected to choose to volunteer.  Effectively, it did not matter if the rate of voluntary enlistment was high because the call was that every eligible young man should enlist.

The answer to the second question as to why so few men chose to enlist at the actual recruiting meeting was also tied to the issue of voluntaryism or individual choice. In the early days of the War no doubt some men enlisted impulsively, even recklessly. But in the post Gallipoli period men volunteered with a much clearer understanding of what was involved. The decision to enlist was generally neither simple nor without complications. The impact that enlistment could have on the operation and success of the family farm has already been noted. The decision to enlist was also a deeply personal one and the individual had to balance a range of competing demands. Despite all the pressure, real and perceived, the decision was ultimately a personal choice.

Against this background, it was highly unlikely that men were going to be swayed by the orchestrated carry-on of a recruiting meeting. It was also unlikely that eligible men would even attend in the first place. They would have been very reluctant to be singled out, and lectured at and hectored by those who had appointed themselves as patriots, claimed a higher sense of morality and even professed to know the duties and responsibilities of the men in the audience better than the men themselves. Many of the men would have interpreted what was said at these meetings through a class lens that inevitably had them in the inferior position: they had to be deficient in some way – morally, socially or intellectually – because they had not yet enlisted. They were ‘shirkers’ because the ‘patriots’ on stage had called them such.  For other men, the showmanship and theatricality of the whole recruiting performance would have been too much, particularly for the types who, when it came time to enlist, deliberately slipped away and made no fuss or drew any attention.

These recruiting meetings staged as public spectacles were repeated over the War but the results, in terms of genuine, successful enlistments, never improved on the first effort. Basically, the people on the stage failed to understand their intended audience and their efforts were met with passive resistance.

 

Notes

(1) The poor state of men’s teeth was a common reason for failing the medical. Even with close screening men with compromised dental health did make it into the AIF, and on Gallipoli the extent of dental problems became a major medical concern.

Local doctors carrying out the initial medical examination were certainly aware of the issue of poor dental health. In fact, Dr. Pern requested that the Shire Secretary write to the AIF seeking a more definite standard:

31st May, 1915
Dr Pern, of Yarram, who is examining recruits, has requested me to ask if it would be possible for the Department to give more definite instructions with regard to the teeth of recruits. The instructions state that a recruit must have sufficient sound teeth of his own to efficiently masticate his food. Dr Pern says this is rather indefinite, and he wishes to know if the Department could state how many unsound teeth on each jaw will disqualify a recruit. Dr Pern states that when he was examining for the Navy in England this was stated in the instructions, and he believes it would be an advantage to the local doctors and the recruits if such instructions could be issued in connection with the A.I.F.

The response (7th June, 1915) would have disappointed Dr Pern:

The regulations regarding teeth are : — A volunteer must have sufficient teeth (permanent) to masticate his food properly. By this it will be seen that the teeth must be in opposition and the whole question is left in the hands of the examining Medical Officer. A certain number of teeth cannot be laid down, as by this system the teeth need not be opposite, and as long as volunteers had the number laid down he would have to be passed.

Presumably, everyone in Yarram knew that men could fail, and were failing, the medical on the condition of their teeth. In a time well before any sort of universal health service access to dental care and treatment, there would have been a strong correlation between social class and dental hygiene and this, essentially, was the basis for the shared mirth of those planning the recruiting meeting.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Material relating to the activities of the Yarram Recruiting Committee was located in several sections of the Shire of Alberton Archives.
The correspondence regarding the issue of dental standards came from:
Shire of Alberton
Archive one
File Number 703B
Recruiting & Enlisted men (Box 398)

The activities of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee, including minutes of meetings, came from:
Shire of Alberton
File Number 703-0
War Files
“Recruiting Campaign 1915” (cover sheet)

1. Death of a Footballer

The title of this first post is taken from the headline to a story that appeared in the local paper – The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on Friday 22 May 1914. It covers the death of a local footballer from injuries he sustained in a match played at Port Albert.

The short version of what happened is that in the game played between the Port-Goodwood and Ramblers teams at Port Albert on Saturday 16 May 1914 there was a heavy collision over a contested ball, and Wilfred (‘Friday’) Lawson, from the Ramblers, was so badly injured he had to be taken back to Yarram in a jinker. That night his father did not return home until around 6.00pm and when he saw his son’s condition he sent for the local doctor – Dr Pern – who saw Lawson a little later that same night. He believed that Lawson’s bowel had been ruptured.

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