Category Archives: The narrative of the War

132. The Great Strike, August 1917

Throughout August 1917, a series of strikes spread along the eastern seaboard. The initial strike involved railway workshop employees in Sydney who went out over attempts to introduce a US style card system, based on Taylorism, intended to speed up work. This first action was on 2 August. However, virtually from the very next day, strike action began to spread to an ever increasing range of industries. In NSW, the strike spread across the railways, collieries and then the wharves. Initially, it took in the full range of workers in the railways, and then miners, wharf labourers and seamen. By mid August, strike action spread to Victoria where the key workers involved were the wharf labourers and seamen. On a lesser scale, other industries and specific enterprises became involved and the unrest spread to other centres including Broken Hill. All the various actions are usually described, collectively, as the ‘Great Strike’ of 1917.

The end to the NSW railway strike on 9 September is taken as the end of the Great Strike, even though some workers continued their action for some time after. For example, the Melbourne wharf workers did not vote to return until 4 December.

The Great Strike of 1917 was a conflict that went beyond industrial action, as large scale as this was. It is possible to see it more as a wider working-class revolt than a series of strikes. Certainly by 1917 there was considerable disaffection in the working class. There was ‘war weariness’ but the War had also eroded real wages. Price rises had been extreme. There was also war profiteering. Above all, there was widespread concern that hard-won, pre-War industrial conditions were being eroded under the cover of patriotism. Opposition to the Yes vote in the recent conscription referendum had been strengthened by the fear that conscription was to be used to weaken organised labour. As pointed out in Post 105 even soldiers on the front line shared this concern that conscription would be used to undermine the working conditions and job security of Australian workers. The sense that the hard-won industrial conditions of the (white) working class were under attack was very strong.

Another interesting feature of the Great Strike was the degree to which the traditional power brokers in organised labor – the union hierarchy and the ALP itself, as the political wing of the movement – were by-passed by more rank-and-file leadership and agitation. The organisation was entrusted to an ad hoc ‘Defence Committee’. Also, in many instances the traditional power brokers were opposed to the specifics of the industrial action. In several key instances, unions voted to strike, against the advice of the union leadership.

Importantly, the industrial unrest was not restricted to just the act of striking. There were very large public demonstrations and marches – portrayed as unruly, mob-like and dangerous by the popular press – in Melbourne and Sydney. The role of women in these highly visible activities was striking. In Melbourne through August there were almost daily demonstrations in locations such as Treasury Gardens, Exhibition Gardens and Yarra Bank. Extra police were brought in from rural areas to maintain public order. To some extent, the month long strife was more an expression of the ‘direct action’ promoted by radical worker groups like the IWW than the conventional strike. Not surprisingly, the press was keen to push the claim that this radicalisation of the workers was the handiwork of the IWW and other extremist labor or socialist groups. There was speculation that the massive social dislocation in Russia could even play out in some form in Australia.

Another important feature of the action was the so-called ‘black doctrine’. According to this doctrine, no unionist could work alongside a ’scab’ worker or handle or have anything to do with goods or services provided by scab labour. The speed with which this doctrine prompted other unions to strike and the way it acted as a rallying call – often against the direct advice of the union hierarchy – suggests that the ever-expanding wave of strikes represented not just specific industrial grievances but also a declaration about the fundamental beliefs of the union movement. Specifically, the focus was on the very definition of the union notion of ‘mateship’. This ties in with the argument that after 3 years of War, and ongoing attacks on the union movement, the working class itself pushed back with the equivalent of a public manifesto of what it stood for and what it would never tolerate.

Ironically, the ‘black doctrine’ was arguably the main reason for the failure of the Great Strike. Essentially it meant that the strikes went too wide, too quick and too shallow. While many industries across state boundaries became involved very quickly there were important segments in these industries, and other whole sectors of the economy, where production and business continued unaffected. From the beginning, union organisers had sensed the inherent weakness of the campaign but, it appears, workers generally were not in the mood to listen to their leadership. Indeed, even when the various strikes collapsed and the workers were forced back under very punitive conditions, many workers believed, unrealistically, that they had been on the point of victory and saw the return to work as a ‘sell-out’. This sense of betrayal was heightened by the severity of the conditions surrounding their return to work; and in many cases they were never taken back.

In a real sense the Hughes Government was always going to win. To begin with, after the split over conscription, the ALP was in a weak position. Further, it was clear that the union movement itself was divided over the strikes. Also, the popular press lined up behind the government. The government also had the very powerful War Precautions legislation to employ as required. Finally, Hughes set up the National Service Bureau which in effect recruited volunteers to act as strike breakers. The large number of such volunteers and the efficient organisation of the scheme were enough to break the strike.

When the strikes collapsed, the workers, if they were re-employed at all, had to accept reduced conditions. In many cases their positions were taken by those who had volunteered for Hughes’ scheme of ‘national service’. The strikers were defeated and a brief period of working-class solidarity and direct action, built round idealistic notions of ‘industrial mateship’, came to a bitter end. At the same time, the victory against the strikers virtually made it inevitable that any second vote on conscription would fail. Arguments that conscription was by its very nature an attack on the working class designed to break the unions and reduce wages and working conditions – as well as open the country to cheap non-White labour – were obviously set to have more appeal. Equally, those who argued that the War was nothing but a sordid trade war were going to attract considerably more attention. For many, the War was turning into a war on the Australian working class.

It is interesting to consider the attention that the strikes over August attracted in the local media in the Shire of Alberton. Overall, the ongoing, daily accounts of the strikes were left to the metropolitan dailies. At the same time, the Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative did highlight how serious the national situation was. The following appeared on 17/8/17:

Industrial Australia is now engaged in the greatest upheaval known in the nation. Emanating from the strike of the railway men in New South Wales it has extended in the past few days to numerous industries in which labor is concerned, and present indications are that serious trouble will ensue before a settlement is effected. The Federal Government is taking a firm stand in the matter, and appears determined to fight the Unions and those who have attempted to disturb and upset railway and shipping facilities. Gradually the strike mania is being extended by the originators to centres of industry which, prior to the outbreak, had no cause for complaint, but are drawn into the trouble by the influence of their fellow workers.

As usual, the local paper lined up behind the Hughes Government. It was keen to support the call for volunteers to break the strikes. There was not as much call in Victoria for volunteers from the country as there was in NSW. In Melbourne there were ample volunteers from the metropolitan area, including students from the University of Melbourne and private boys’ colleges. The following appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative on 24/8/17:

The Government is now receiving offers from country volunteers, and many have taken up the work in Sydney. An individual, a former sailor, walked into our offices [Yarram] yesterday and offered to go and help the Government wherever his services might be of any assistance. We believe a number of others have volunteered from this district.

The paper also reported on the Shire Council’s resolve to support the Government. The following resolution appeared on 31/8/17:

That this Council grant all possible assistance to the Government in the matter of providing labor during present strikes and that the [Shire] secretary be instructed to accept applications from volunteers.

And on 29/8/17 it noted the strong support from at least one local branch of the Victorian Farmers’ Union:

Alberton branch of Victorian Farmers’ Union … resolved that, in the event of it [strikes] becoming more serious, the Alberton branch pledged itself to endeavor to obtain volunteer workers to assist the Government.

The paper also reported (24/8/17) when the local police constable was called to Melbourne … to do duty should trouble arise.

The following article appeared on 29/8/17:

Serious Extension of the Strike Trouble to Womerah. Ferns Declared “Black” – “Trouble never comes alone” was demonstrated at the office of a leading grazier in this district last week. The overseer was waited upon by a deputation of three at “Smoko” requesting a substantial increase in wages, or ferns would be declared “black.” The increase was at once acceded to, pending official confirmation. The official presented the objects of the deputation under threat of dismissal. The strike was of short duration, extending from forenoon “Smoko” on Friday, 17th and terminating on Saturday, 18th when at 5 p.m. the spokesman was dismissed, and one of his senior colleagues resenting such treatment left in sympathy. The dismissed agitator when last seen, was making his way toward Morwell Shire seeking ”White Ferns” and “Pastures New.” We are pleased to state that the strike is ended, as it was causing much concern amongst local employers. The call for volunteer labor was quickly answered by one recruit, who has accepted the agitator’s place without the right of spokesman.

Presumably the article is meant to be a parody – albeit a very clumsy one – of the situation in Melbourne and Sydney. Country employers know how to handle unionists. There does not have to be any workplace bargaining, the boss just gets rid of those who cause ‘trouble’. And there are plenty of other workers who will take up the positions of those dismissed.

The article does at least serve to remind that organised labour was very weak in country areas. This was particularly so in areas like the Shire of Alberton, where the nature of settlement and ongoing development had meant that there was little, if any, history of organised labor. With the exception of the timber industry and state-wide industries like the railways, there was no large concentration of workers in the one economic activity or location. Instead, the stronger history of labour in the Shire was that of the struggling selector and the family-based farm.

The history of selection was one characterised by the lack of capital, equipment, technology, and services, including transport. There were major environmental challenges – drought, flood, fire – and the endless struggle to ‘clear the land’. In this  world, the sense of ‘labour’ was the diametric opposite to that which had grown up in the late 19C in the large urban centres of Melbourne and Sydney. In the rural setting, the focus took in, on the one hand, self-help and rugged individualism, with the family as the basic economic unit, and on the other hand a commitment to a form of agrarian communalism. Only by coming together at this second level were ‘settlers’ able to establish schools, community halls and services such as the bush nurse. Their understanding of ‘mateship’ was one of looking out for their own interests and being self-reliant but at the same time supporting the neighbouring farms in times of crisis or against common threats. Local farming families had to rely on each other to establish the necessary social, economic and even political infrastructure for the community survive.

Not surprisingly, in this environment there was an inherent fear of and antagonism to the idea of ‘organised labour’ and the threat of the strike. Moreover, even when casual labour was taken on – for example, the large number of young, single, immigrant English farm workers – the nature of the work, the isolation of the workplace and the living arrangements of the workers – commonly they lived on the farmer’s property – meant that there was a completely different master-worker relationship to the one that existed in the metropolitan factory.

For a more detailed analysis of prevailing attitudes to the unionisation of rural workers in the local area see Post 10.

One industrial action that caused great angst in the rural community was the strike on the railways or at the ports that held up the transport and/or export of their primary produce. It was unconscionable that their livelihood could be threatened by secondary industrial action that had nothing to do with them. They saw their interests exploited by organised labour in an industrial conflict that was not of their making. The appeal in August 1917 to go tho the city and stand in as volunteer wharf labourers was a very powerful and natural call to arms in farming communities.

It is also important to acknowledge that the rural communities also viewed the Great Strike as a direct threat to the War effort. As they saw it, the union movement was undermining the nation’s ability to prosecute the War. At the very least, the series of strikes was a major distraction and drag on the Hughes’ Government’s ability to proceed with its singular focus on maintaining Australia’s commitment to the Empire. At their worst, according to the official narrative, the strikes were intended to cripple the Hughes’ Government and pull Australia out of the War. The strikes were overlaid with accusations of treachery, if not treason. The hand of the mythically powerful and omnipresent Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was said to be behind it all. For its part, the Government was keen to retaliate by employing the considerable force of the War Precautions Act to defeat the strikes.

Even though they have faded from the nation’s memory, the events of August 1917 in Australia were highly significant at the time. The speed with which the strikes spread and the number of industries affected caused considerable anxiety. With only limited support from the union hierarchy – and even less from the demoralised and broken ALP – the workers themselves fashioned the strikes into the radical defence of their hard-won conditions and the commitment to fundamental union principles and values. The strikes were symptomatic of deep and divisive concerns about the true cost of the War and the future of the working class. The strikes became an expression of class solidarity and class conflict. But the strikes were also destined to fail and the Hughes Government was keen to settle scores. For all these reasons the “Great Strike’ of August 1917 was a unique chapter in our history. And at the time, the events of August virtually guaranteed that any second referendum on conscription would be defeated. As the workers saw it, the impact of the War was now being carried disproportionately by the urban working class.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative

For general background on the Great Strike see:

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW. [pp 329-335]

Bollard, R 2013, In the Shadow of Gallipoli: The hidden history of Australia in World War I, New South Publishing, UNSW, Sydney NSW [Chapter 6]

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 

89. Conscription Referendum 1916: key Yes backers

The table below represents approximately 30 local individuals who were closely identified with the Yes vote. The individuals came from 2 key groups. There were 17 who, in October 1916, effectively self-elected themselves to form the local (Yarram) branch of the National Referendum Committee to push for the Yes vote; and there were 14 who served on the 1916 Recruiting Committee, also referred to as the Yarram Recruiting Committee. The latter group was included because of its unanimous support for, and promotion of, conscription from early 1916. Several individuals belonged to both committees (C Barlow, B P Johnson, A J Rossiter and Rev F A Tamagno). There was one member – J Hawkins – of the local referendum committee who has not been included because there was insufficient evidence to build a background picture of him. The information about all the other individuals has been taken from the electoral roll and the local newspapers of the time: The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative and the South Gippsland Chronicle.

Obviously, there were other individuals in the community who publicly supported the Yes vote. For example, as was revealed in Post 85. Soldiers’ Farewells 1916  members of the committee responsible for organising farewells and welcomes regularly called for the introduction of conscription in their speeches. At the same time, the individuals in the 2 groups in the table below – Yarram Recruiting Committee and Yarram Referendum Committee – were directly involved in the most public and formal expressions of support for the Yes vote. Locals would have identified them as the key backers of the Yes vote. Moreover,  the key players in running the soldiers’ farewells and welcomes – Cr Barlow, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, W F Lakin, W G Pope, G E Ruby and Rev Tamagno – were also involved in either one or both of the Yarram committees featured in the table.

The point has been made many times that the narrative of the War – its immediate causes, the critical relationship between Australia and the Empire, the sacrifices involved, the heroism and distinctive fighting spirit of the AIF … – was controlled and disseminated by the ‘leading citizens’ of the local community. It was this group that organised and delivered the speeches – or sermons – and wrote the articles, editorials and letters. As a group it was made up of the leading professionals, managers and proprietors in the local community. The group also featured a small number of successful landowners. This group of ‘leading citizens’ was focused almost exclusively on Yarram. While this group controlled the narrative, including the part of the narrative that called on locals to enlist, the men who did enlist came overwhelmingly from the rural working class. Essentially, in this particular rural community – the Shire of Alberton – the middle class delivered the narrative and the working class offered the volunteers.

As the table illustrates, when conscription became the next chapter in the narrative, the group responsible for its promotion represented a simple extension of the earlier groups of leading citizens. In many cases the same individuals were involved. There were 3 managers ( B Couston, T Whitney and W F Lakin), 2 lawyers (B P Johnson, J H Hill), 2 clergymen (Rev F A Tamgano and Rev C J Walklate), 2 engineers (A W C Burston and W A Newland), 3 agents (P J Juniper, J J O’Connor and G E Ruby), 2 store keepers (J Bett and R E H Newberry), and 3 secretaries/clerks/civic officers (G W Black, M J T Cox, and W G Pope). The group also included the editor of one of the local papers (A J Rossiter) and a local builder (J S Graham). There was also a member of the local fire brigade (T Tempest) and a cream tester (E S Stocks). Lastly, there was a group of 6 farmers/graziers (C Barlow, W Bland, H G Bodman, N J Christensen, J W Fleming and W P Wilson). Most likely, three of this last group were involved more because they were local councillors than local landowners.

The table also shows that this particular group of citizens also featured a significant concentration of localised political power and influence; and people in the community would have certainly recognised that the backers of the Yes vote featured the Shire’s political elite. As well as the current Shire President (W Bland), the table also features the immediate past Shire President (N J Christensen), the long-serving Shire Secretary ( G W Black)  and 3 councillors: C Barlow, W Bland and J J O’Connor. Additionally, there was strong representation of the local court. C Barlow, H G Bodman, N J Christensen and B Couston were JPs in the Yarram Court of Petty Sessions, and B P Johnson and J H Hill acted as solicitors in the same court. The local court was a very significant institution in the community and all its matters were reported in detail.

Locals would also have known that the individuals in this group were heavily involved in other local committees and associations. Such involvement would have contributed to their status as ‘leading citizens’.  For example, as already indicated above, 7 of them were involved with soldiers’ farewells and welcomes. Similarly, 6 had been members of the Belgian Relief Committee: G  W Black, N J Christensen, M J T Cox, J W Fleming, P J Juniper, Rev F Tamagno.

There was also extensive involvement as committee or board members of other groups which did not have a specific focus on support for the War effort. For example, there was the Yarram Agricultural Society: C Barlow, G W Black, N J Christensen, B P Johnson, P J Juniper, W F Lakin and W G Pope. There were 6 on the Yarram and District Hospital Board: J Bett,  G W Black, A W C Burston, G E Ruby and Rev F A Tamagno. Another local committee with strong representation was the Yarram Mechanics’ Institute: M J T Cox, J H Hill, W F Lakin, R E Newberry, A J Rossiter, E S Stocks and T W Whitney. The Won Wron Railway Trust featured G W Black, W Bland and N J Christensen. There were also two of the group on the Yarram Waterworks Trust (C Barlow and B P Johnson). Similarly, two served on the local Historical Society ( J H Hill and B P Johnson) and another 2 on the local YMCA (N J Christensen and B P Johnson).

The number of the group who served on the management committees of, or held official positions in, the hierarchy of the local Protestant Churches and the Masonic Lodge (207) was striking. There was no equivalent representation for the local Catholic Church.  In fact, at this level, the Catholic Church was not represented at all. The details are displayed in the table. There were 4 members of the local Church of England Board of Guardians (H G Bodman, J H Hill, B P Johnson and A J Rossiter). Two of the group supported Rev F A Tamagno as members of the Board of Management for the local Presbyterian Church: J Bett and ES Stocks. G E Ruby was a steward who supported Rev C J Walklate of the local Methodist Church. Lastly, 8 of the group held official titles in the local Masonic Lodge (207): G W Black, A W C Burston, J W Fleming, B P Johnson, P J Juniper, W F Lakin, W A Newland and G E Ruby. J W Fleming held the position of Worshipful Master in 1916 and B P Johnson had held the same position in 1915.

The group as a whole was Yarram-centric. It claimed to represent the Shire as a whole but its members were almost exclusively residing and working in Yarram. Even most of the land holders whose properties obviously lay outside the town were tied to Yarram through their roles as councillors and/or JPs.

The last, very obvious, observation is that the table is exclusively male. Women were involved in a range of committees/associations within the local community and some of these were specifically connected to the War effort, for example the Red Cross and Belgian Relief. There was also a local branch of the Australian Women’s National League which, according to a report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (13/10/16) … decided to join forces with the local branch of the Conscription Referendum committee.  However, there is no evidence of what ‘joining forces’ amounted to and, overall, the formal, public push for both recruiting and conscription was seen as the exclusive responsibility of the Shire’s leading men.

The table represents the attempt to identify the range of local individuals who were seen as leading the push for the Yes vote in the 1916 referendum. There could well have been other individuals in the local community who were as public and vocal in their support. As well, there could have been considerable variation in effort across the individuals identified; and some might have been members of the committees in name only. For example, there is very little that can be uncovered in relation to both T Tempest and P W Wilson, both of whom were on the local referendum committee. At the other end of the continuum, the 4 individuals who appeared to have been the most influential were C Barlow, B P Johnson, Rev F Tamagno and A J Rossiter – the first 3 because they served on both the recruiting and referendum committees and also spoke regularly at farewells and welcomes, and A J Rossiter because of his role as editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative.

While there are limits to both the research and the analysis, the concluding point to make about this group publicly supporting the Yes vote is that it is at least possible to identify them. By contrast, the next post will look at the backers of the No vote and it will became immediately clear that it is simply not possible to identify an equivalent group of locals who led the campaign for the No vote. In fact, it is hard even to identify the backers of the No vote. Publicly at least, in the Shire of Alberton there was really only side of the debate that mattered.

References

Electoral Roll
Commonwealth of Australia, State of Victoria, Division of Gippsland, Subdivision of Yarram Yarram

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

 

88. Conscription Referendum 1916: the Yes vote

The next few posts will look at the first referendum on conscription held on 28 October 1916. This first post looks at the key groups and institutions in the Shire of Alberton that backed the Yes vote in the referendum. It will be followed by an examination of the key individuals in the local community who backed conscription. There will also be a separate post to look at the far smaller and less organised group of public backers for the No vote. That post will also look at the significance of the private, if not secret, No vote in the local community.

Previous posts have made it clear that in the Shire of Alberton there was widespread support for the introduction of conscription well before Hughes announced the referendum at the end of August (30/8/16). Post 87 showed that in early 1916 the Local Recruiting Committee came to the unanimous position that conscription was necessary. This was evident in the forceful letter that B P Johnson wrote to the Sate Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in late April, 1916. This declaration of support for conscription was doubly significant because the Local Recruiting Committee had been set up as a responsibility of the local council – the chair was the Shire President, its secretary was the Shire Secretary and several local councillors served on it – which meant in effect that the Shire of Alberton itself was seen as pro conscription. As well, Post 85 showed that the local citizens speaking at farewells and welcomes in the district – again, this included local councillors – had been advocating conscription from very early 1916. As argued, the speakers believed that the voluntary system had served its time and that only conscription could deliver the number of recruits required. They were convinced that conscription was ‘fairer’ and more ‘scientific’. It was over the same period, that the Shire of Alberton, along with most other local councils and municipalities in Victoria, supported the resolution of the Warragul Council in favour of conscription (March 1916).

Another key local body which also offered early support for conscription was the Australian Natives’ Association. In May 1916, the local ANA branch at Yarram supported the petition organised – in haste – by the Universal Service League, the key national pro-conscription body which itself had been formed as early as the second half of 1915.

Overall, in the first half of 1916, when Hughes had been in England – and, in theory at least, the issue of conscription was off the political agenda – key groups in the local community were already calling for the introduction of conscription and at every opportunity presented conscription as inevitable. Even at that early point, there was discussion on how Hughes would be able to introduce conscription, given the level of opposition in the Senate.

Once Hughes returned to Australia and publicly committed to conscription at the end of August 1916, local citizens and groups in the Shire of Alberton began to organise to support the Yes vote. As a brief indication of the strength of forces that the Yes vote was able to enlist, the following groups, as a minimum, can be identified as backing the introduction of conscription: the 2 local papers – The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, the South Gippsland Chronicle – the Shire of Alberton council, the local recruiting committee, the local branch of the ANA, and the clergy of the local Methodist, Church of England and Presbyterian congregations.

Despite the apparently overwhelming support for the Yes vote, it proved difficult to marshall people’s enthusiasm and support. This problem had been highlighted before. For example, there had been constant criticism in the local press at the small numbers of Yarram townsfolk who attended farewells and welcomes. The regular complaint was that for all their claimed declarations of patriotism, people were not prepared to put themselves out, and all the effort was left to just a handful of true patriots.

The first request to set up a local branch of the Universal Service League – the key, national pro conscription body – came in July 1916. B P Johnson was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (26/7/16) as having been requested by the organising secretary of the Universal Service League to set up a branch in Yarram.  There was also a brief rationale:

The league aims at conscription, because it is fairer to all, and because under the voluntary system we can neither support our men at the front, nor make the tremendous effort necessary in order to secure Australia from the menace of German domination.

However, nothing appeared to come from this early contact because 2 months later the paper reported (22/9/16) that at another public meeting Johnson had again raised the request that a branch of the Universal Service League be set up in Yarram. The matter was by then urgent so it was resolved to hold a public meeting on 25/9/16; but the report in the paper (27/9/16) of the meeting held highlighted, yet again, the lack of support from the townsfolk:

There was a disappointingly small attendance at the shire hall on Monday night

Johnson, who had … expected the hall to be packed and who feared that … some people’s patriotism was at a low ebb, pointed out that the plan was to launch the national campaign for conscription on October 1. Given the urgency, it was decided to adjourn the meeting and call yet another public meeting the very next night, but this time, in the hope of building numbers, it was to run after a scheduled ANA branch meeting.

At the meeting … there were a few more present than at the adjourned meeting. This time a committee was finally formed. However, the committee that was formed did not describe itself as a branch of the Universal Service League. Rather, from that point on, it was generally described as the local Referendum Campaign Committee.

In the month that was then left before the referendum, the committee managed to stage one large public meeting in Yarram and at least one meeting in one of the other towns (Goodwood) of the Shire. There were reports of meetings scheduled for Woodside (16/10/16) and Carrajung (24/10/16) but it is unclear if they went ahead. The meeting in Yarram was held on 10/10/16 and the guest speaker was Sir William Irvine, former premier of Victoria. The meeting was chaired by B P Johnson. It was written up, in detail, in both local papers:  Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (11/10/16) and the South Gippsland Chronicle ( 13/10/16). The meeting at Goodwood was held on 11/10/16 and the speakers that night were: Cr Barlow, Cr O’Connor, Rev Walklate and J S Graham. This meeting was also written up in the local papers.

The arguments for conscription presented at the meetings had certainly been well rehearsed. Irvine laboured what he saw as the direct threat Germany posed to Australia. He also claimed that those who had already enlisted had done so in the belief that they would be supported with reinforcements. He insisted that Australians had to honour the promise. Other speakers took up the theme of sacrifice and challenged those who claimed that Australia had already done enough to consider the sacrifices being made by people in the United Kingdom. Rev Walklate, talking about the true level of sacrifice required, sought to reassure the audience at Goodwood that even a high death rate amongst the AIF  could be absorbed. The sacrifice could be borne.

… according to statistics over 50 per cent of the males in this country were under 21, and even allowing for those who would be unfortunate enough to lose their lives, that would be sufficient to breed the proper race of people.

Another common argument was that Australia already had conscription – from 1911 – and the referendum was merely intended to extend the scope of where Australian soldiers could be deployed to protect the national interest. There were also all the accusations against the backers of the No vote. They were represented as German sympathisers or extreme, militant trade unionists who threatened not just the War effort but the state itself. And there were those who were just ‘cowards’ and ‘shirkers’. In the end after much applause, the following resolution was passed unanimously at the Yarram meeting:

“That this meeting of the citizens of Yarram and district pledges its support to the Government in this national crisis to secure an overwhelming majority for “Yes” in the coming referendum.” (Applause.)

Essentially there were no new arguments for conscription being presented. The same arguments had been made for a year at all local farewells and welcomes, and in countless newspaper reports, in both metropolitan and local newspapers. At the same time, the public meetings in October were important because they gave the local community the chance to identify with the cause. Local people in Yarram and across the Shire would definitely have known that, at least publicly, there was strong support for conscription. As will be shown, there was no equivalent level of public support for the No vote.

Support for conscription from the local Protestant churches was strong. The declarations of support were also written up extensively in the local papers. In its edition of 25/10/16, the South Gippsland Chronicle reported that At the Church of England and Methodist Church on Sunday last [22/10/16], strong appeals were made to the congregations to vote “Yes” in the coming referendum. It also reported that at Presbyterian services in the district a letter from the Public Questions Committee of the Church was read out. The letter clearly stated that the Government should be given the power to conscript:

To give the Government this power seems to the Public Questions Committee of our Assembly to be supremely just and necessary in this present life and death struggle, and to be a duty we are bound to face.

As will become apparent in the next post, the question of support from the the local Catholic Church was less clear cut. Bishop Phelan’s position was one of neutrality. Accordingly, he directed that public meetings, either for or against conscription, could not be advertised from the pulpit. In its edition of 20/10/16 the South Gippsland Chronicle reported Phelan’s position:

To my own flock, Catholics of Gippsland, I say the church holds no brief for any secular power, nor does she utter an authoritative voice on the question to be decided by the adults of Australia on the 28th. You are free, then, to vote as individuals, according to the dictates of your conscience. But in exercising that freedom, which the church in no way hampers, ask your conscience how far you are justified in despoiling another of that gift, the gift of human liberty, which you so highly prize.

The qualification in the last sentence introduced the difference between a free vote and one based on conscience. For Phelan, Yes was neither simple nor given; and to the local community of the time, it would have been clear that, unlike the Protestant Churches, the Catholic Church was not publicly declaring itself in favour of conscription.

Local Protestant clergy sought to counter this concern over conscience and human liberty. For example, a sermon by Rev Walklate (Methodist) had been reported at length in the South Gippsland Chronicle on 11/10/16.  Walklate tackled the question directly, … have we the moral right to compel men against their will to risk their lives in human slaughter? He concluded that conscription was morally just. However, his argument relied exclusively on religious – not moral – belief and, specifically, belief in the joy and reward of an after-life:

The sending of men to the front under such circumstances was desirable, even if it meant death, for such was the entrance into life under the principle laid down by our Lord, and to give up this life in the service of humanity was to enter into the widest service.

The role of the local press in supporting the Yes vote was critical. The most significant form of this support came from the extensive reporting of the activities of all those institutions, groups and individuals in the local community who were actively promoting conscription. Moreover, the readers would have seen the support for conscription as flowing seamlessly from the local papers’ earlier support for recruitment and the War effort in general. Conscription was presented as the next natural and inevitable step.

The local papers also made it clear that their editorial position was to support the Yes vote. For example, in the months leading to the referendum the South Gippsland Chronicle included extensive editorial commentary on the forces that were attempting to thwart PM Hughes. It wrote (8/9/16) of labor organisations that had been captured by shirkers, extremsists in the ALP who sympathised with the Hun and anti-conscriptionists who had captured Labor’s party machine.

Immediately prior to the referendum, both papers featured editorials and other material to support the Yes vote. On 27/10/16, the South Gippsland Chronicle under the heading Vote “Yes” for Australia featured a list of direct reasons why people had to vote yes, including the following:

Are you going to scab on the Anzacs?
How would the Kaiser vote on 28th October?
A win for “No” on 28th October would be very popular in Berlin.
Don’t forget that the men fighting in Europe are defending Australia.
A vote unrecorded is a vote given to Germany.
Australia is proud of its roll of honor. We want no roll of dishonor on referendum.

The same article also proudly proclaimed that 75% of the district would vote Yes.

For its part, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on the same day (27/10/16), in addition to all the vote Yes material from Hughes and other national bodies, featured the following poem by a local, Thomas Hurley of Woodside. The poem was entitled Awaiting An Answer and it appeared under the headline: Australia Will Be There.  Referendum Tomorrow: Vote “Yes”

Britannia asks her daughter dear
A question fair and square
The way is long, the task is hard,
Say, will you do your share?

Thy sons are brave, their arms are strong
With thoughts to do and dare.
Say, will you fill their tottering ranks,
Or leave them to despair?

And shall Australia’s answer be –
“I think I’ve done my share,
let black or yellow fight for me,
I really do not care.

“Of fighting I have had enough,
In fact I’ve had a scare;
So Mother, dear, fight on alone –
Australia won’t be there!

There is no doubt that there was widespread public support in October 1916 for the Yes vote in the Shire of Alberton. Such support completely eclipsed the level of public support for the No vote. Conscription was presented as the next necessary and natural step in the successful pursuit of the War effort. The referendum itself did not come as a surprise and the arguments in favour of the Yes vote had been rehearsed, extensively, for at least one year prior to the vote. The success of the Yes vote was never questioned. The only issue was how overwhelming the Yes vote victory would be.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

 

85. Soldiers’ farewells 1916

This post continues the work covered in Post 60. Soldiers’ Farewells 1915.

Over 1916, the local newspaper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – covered 35 farewells. It also reported on several ‘welcome home’ gatherings.

While the tone of the farewells was always heroic, the welcome homes could be far more confronting. For example, on 28/7/16, the local paper reported the welcome to Private William Sweeney who had been medically discharged after being badly wounded by a bomb at Gallipoli. Those speaking at his welcome praised his sacrifice but they also described him as having … returned a cripple and … practically a wreck. Similarly, at the welcome for Private T Jeffs of Carrajung which was reported on 13/12/16, it was noted that he was the first to return home from France and that at Pozieres he had … received severe injuries losing the sight of an eye. The report also noted that Private Jeffs had to have someone respond on his behalf because he had returned with ‘shattered nerves’.

Overall, farewells in 1916 matched those in 1915. The same committee continued to organise the events. Specifically in the case of Yarram,  the same group of town ‘patriots’ shared the responsibility for speech making.

The great majority of farewells took place in Yarram, at the Shire Hall, with far fewer farewells taking place in the smaller townships and settlements. In 1916, outside Yarram, there were farewells at Alberton (1), Womerah (1) Devon North (2), Madalya (2), Stacey’s Bridge (1), Gormandale (2), Willung South (1) and Wonyip (1).

The farewells themselves tended to be held for locals who had returned home after initial training and prior to embarkation for service overseas. There was the occasional farewell for a ‘non-local’, itinerant farm worker but, as noted in Post 60, this group of men, once they left the district to move into camp, tended not to return.

The farewells at Yarram were better organised but more basic in form and less well-attended. One reason why attendance at Yarram was a problem was almost certainly  because the speeches at these farewells were as much an exercise in recruiting as they were a celebration of the loyalty and sacrifice of the individual(s) leaving. Eligible men and their families were hardly going to attend and draw attention to themselves. The farewells in the other locations in the Shire were generally less strident affairs and more focused on the qualities of the individual(s) being farewelled. They were usually based on a dance or some other social event and they were far better attended. Speakers at these affairs tended to be local farmers.

An interesting exception to the normal routine and tone of the farewells held outside Yarram occurred at Madalya (19/5/16) when one of the speakers was Recruiting Sergeant Newland. He must have been in the local area trying to promote enlistments. As usual, all the local residents had come together for a social dance that went well into the night. The 3 young men being farewelled were brothers Alfred and Arthur Jones – 22 yo and 24 yo respectively – and Ernest Anderson 18 yo.

That night at Madalya, Recruiting Sergeant Newland targeted  the ‘eligibles’ and both his presence and message were intended to cut through the camaraderie, jollity and conviviality of the occasion:

He [Newland] expressed pleasure at being present to wish the three men good luck, but by the appearance of the hall he felt sure there were at least a dozen more eligible to go than the three who had enlisted. The Jones Bros. were only just making a start in life, and as to young Anderson, he was only a boy. It was, he thought, a shame that one so young should have to go, when older and more mature men hung back.

Newland then went on to defend his work as Recruiting Sergeant and, again, he was very keen to take on anyone there who did not like his role. He had no problem with making himself and his work the focus of attention that night:

He [Newland] thought it was a disgrace the way some men looked upon the recruiting sergeant, treating him as if he were the cause of the war, instead of helping him in his duty to get recruits. As far as the position went, he would far rather be in the trenches fighting. But being unfit for active service he intended to do his duty no matter what they thought of him. He referred to one young man who told him he was losing friends in the district because of his strong attitude but it did not concern him. If he were to lose friends in the execution of his duty they were very poor friends. He considered most of his friends were at the front.

The episode highlights how even in small, local communities where everyone had come together to farewell one of their own, the potential for conflict and recriminations was ever present. It also shows background resentment towards those calling for more enlistments.

Post 60 identified the most common themes touched on speakers at the 1915 farewells:

  • The moral strength of the volunteer
  • The unique character and success of the AIF
  • The greatness of the Empire and Australia’s duty to support it
  • The evil of Germany and the dire threat it posed to the Empire and Australia
  • The mother’s sacrifice
  • The pioneer as soldier

Overall, the same themes continued in 1916. There were variations in their emphasis but certainly all continued to be very evident, as is demonstrated below. However, what was strikingly different in 1916, particularly with the speeches delivered in Yarram, was the level and intensity of frustration and anger expressed.

The ongoing themes

note: the dates in the following refer to the date the farewell was reported in the local paper. The location where the farewell took place is also given.

The moral strength of the volunteer

Often, the moral strength of the individual equated to religious practice. For example, at a farewell to 2 men at Willung South (17/11/16), much was made of the fact that they were ‘regular attendants at our church services’ and that ‘Christian principles’ dominated their lives. In a similar tone, when Private H Missen was farewelled from Gormandale (11/1/16) he was given a special presentation – pocket wallet – from the local IOR tent and the claim was made that … fortified by the principles of the Order, he would be better able to do his duty. The evil of drink was often highlighted at farewellls.

The individuals were variously described as: all round good fellows (Yarram, 27/2/16), law-abiding boys (Yarram 23/3/16), stalwart young men who proved good footballers (Yarram 6/9/16), and men who had proved themselves plucky and manly on the football field (Yarram 22/7/16). An individual could be described as a straightforward young man, always ready to give a hand (Yarram 5/2/16), a most respected citizen (Alberton 22/11/16), one of the straightest men in the district (Yarram 10/8/16). When Private Glen was farwelled (Yarram 15/5/16) the speaker, Chalres Barlow, noted, a more reliable, trustworthy and sober man on a farm he had never met.

The unique character and success of he AIF

This theme certainly picked up in frequency and intensity after Gallipoli. The belief that Australian soldiers had proved themselves either the best or amongst the best in the world was taken as indisputable and speakers referred to it constantly. For example, at a major farewell in Yarram (26/4/16), the president of the Shire – Cr. Bland – stated:

The Charge of the Light Brigade faded into insignificance compared with the brave deeds of our Australian boys at Gallipoli.

B P Johnson at another farewell at Yarram (28/7/16) declared:

The children had read of the famous charge at Balaclava, of Woolfe, and other great deeds in history, but equal to anything was the charge of the Light Horse at Anzac (Applause).

Unlike Bland, Johnson was only claiming equivalence for the AIF, in terms of the glorious history of the British army. Like others, he continued to push the claim that the AIF,  born of the British army, had now become its equal. At another farewell – Yarram (17/5/16) – he declared:

The boys at Gallipoli showed the old British blood and their fighting qualities and achievements made the whole world stare.

Others were keen to identify what they saw as the unique spirit, ethos or culture of the AIF, not just its achievements in battle. W V Rymer – the former Anglican reader at Yarram, who had  served for a short time on Gallipoli before his health broke down – stated at a farewell at Alberton (22/11/16):

There was no name he (the speaker) loved better than “mate” or “cobber,” and that was why he was pleased to say a few words of appreciation to the young man who was joining the ranks. (Applause.)

The greatness of the Empire and Australia’s duty to support it

Declarations of loyalty to the Empire continued at farewells. Men who volunteered were still referred to as … only doing their duty in enlisting in defence of the Empire, of which we formed a part – Gormandale (16/8/16). The equivalent sentiment was expressed at Yarram (8/9/16). It was Australia’s war because it was Great Britain’s war and the Empire’s war. As a speaker at Madalya (19/5/16) put it:

It was Great Britain’s war, which included Australia and every part of the Empire.

The evil of Germany and the dire threat it posed to the Empire and Australia

The invasion of Belgium and the attendant horrors were still very common speaking points. And Germany remained a ruthless and powerful enemy. At a farewell in Yarram (5/4/16) B P Johnson exhorted those there:

Think of Belgium! God help us and our womenfolk if the Huns got hold of Australia. We have not by any means won the war. We are up against a ruthless and thoroughly prepared nation.

He returned to the theme one month later – Yarram (17/5/16) – when he reminded those present of the plight of … the women and little children of Belgium.

Some speakers were prepared to ramp up the attack on Germany and abandon any semblance of moral constraint or forbearance. W G Pope, who presided at a farewell at Yarram (10/5/16), ran a very hard line:

His opinion was that air raids should be made even on unfortified towns, and if a few German women and children were killed it simply meant that civilians must suffer for the crimes of the nation to which they had the misfortune to belong. And as Germans used gas in warfare we should use it too; and if we could do so we should try and discover an even worse kind of gas than that used by Germans. England must strip off the kid gloves and strike these fiends with the bare knuckles. (Applause). That’s the only sort of treatment they understand; kindness is wasted on them.

On occasion, speakers also referred back to the fears of White Australia before August 1914. Germany was obviously the present danger but it was not the only threat to Australia. As J H Hill reminded an audience at Yarram (17/5/16):

As time goes on and the Asiatic races get more powerful, the European nations will have to fight against an invasion like the Middle Ages.

The mother’s sacrifice

The anguish of the mother was still a common theme. B P Johnson expressed the standard form at a farewell in Yarram (28/7/16):

He felt sorry for a mother. The boys suffer pain for us, but what anguish must a mother feel!

However, as the number of married men who enlisted began to increase, the loneliness and anxiety of the wife had also to be taken into account. To accommodate the broader focus the term ‘womenfolk’ was commonly employed. C S McLeod at a farewell for a married man at Devon North (10/5/16) stated:

He felt sorry for the womenfolk who have a lot to bear when those they love leave for battle. It was they who were making the sacrifice. (Applause).

The pioneer as soldier

This theme was constant throughout 1916. B P Johnson at a farewell at Yarram (25/2/16) early in 1916 referred to the young volunteer – James Wight – as being ‘made of the same stuff’ as the pioneers … dating back to the forties [1840s], who came out from the Old Country and made Australia what it is today.

Cr Bland at a welcome home for 2 soldiers from Devon North (22/3/16) – Driver Gay and Private Sutton – expressed pride in the men’s service and declared that they had … proved they had the spirit so marked in their fathers in the older days.

Johnson was again exhorting the pioneer spirit at a farewell in Yarram in April (5/4/16). He claimed the 2 soldiers – Privates Percy Boddy and Robert McKenzie – … were honoring the descendants of pioneers who came to the district years ago, and these young men were showing the same pluck and determination.

Effectively there were 2 links to the pioneers. One drew the direct, historical link between pioneers who overcame the bush to carve out a prosperous future for their children and descendants – and thereby create the new nation of Australia – and those brave young men, their grand children or even children, who were now defending the same nation, as part of the Empire. The second link was more about character and how the soldier in the AIF had inherited the same essential traits that had enabled the pioneer to survive in the bush. Both were tough, loyal, no-nonsense, independent types. The men from the bush made the best soldiers.

The only qualification here was that the actual term ‘bush’ was not as commonly used in the context of Gippsland. Rather, people tended to talk in terms of settlers and selectors taming the forest and scrub. For example, at a farewell at Wonyip (6/9/16) the report noted that the 2 soldiers – brothers R W and R E Lee – were sons of early pioneers who had … done their share of turning a forest into green fields.

The issue of anger

Overall, the same themes identified in 1915 continued into 1916. However, while the themes remained constant there was a heightened sense of anger evident in the speeches, particularly those delivered in Yarram, and this anger reached its highest pitch at the time of the first referendum on conscription (28/10/16).

There were many targets of the anger: townspeople who were not prepared to put themselves out to attend a farewell; eligible men who refused to enlist; unions that undermined the war effort; and, by the end of 1916, all those opposed to conscription, including the ALP.

To understand the anger it is necessary to have a closer look at the composition of the committee responsible for organising the farewells and welcomes. In the main, and definitely in Yarram, the actual speakers at the farewells were members of this committee. The list of committee members was published in the local paper on 28/7/16 . The following table shows the committee members for 1916. It also shows the other relevant organisations in which individual members of the committee were involved.

The National Referendum Committee (Yarram branch) was the body set up in late September 1916 to promote the Yes vote in the conscription referendum. The table shows that the majority of members in the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee were actively involved in recruiting. Also, as will become apparent in later posts, several of its members – B P Johnson, Rev Tamagno and W G Pope – were key backers for the Yes vote.

As already argued, in Yarram, those involved in the organisation of soldiers’ farewells employed the functions to promote recruiting and push the Government’s agenda on the War. On the specific issue of conscription, the committee was pressing for it for more than year before the referendum was held. The committee was convinced that the voluntary system had failed and as 1916 progressed, they were increasingly frustrated because, in their opinion, the locals did not share their sense of urgency and commitment.

As they saw it, those in the committee were making significant sacrifices in supporting the work associated with organising and putting on the farewells and welcomes. They were doing their civic duty and working on behalf of others, both those being farewelled or welcomed and, as significantly, the rest of the community. They saw themselves as patriots working in the cause of the Nation and the Empire. They were committed. They knew what had to be done and they were prepared, as responsible citizens, to take leadership. They also believed that any farewell or welcome had to play a part in the overall effort to raise recruits. Even if no eligible men were in the audience, it was still essential to remind everyone there that enlistment levels had to be maintained and, later, improved dramatically. Specifically, they focused their attention on those men who, they believed, should have already enlisted.

Whereas they saw the necessity and nobility of their work, they too found, like Recruiting Sergeant Newland, that they were often met with indifference or hostility. Not surprisingly, as their efforts were compromised they reacted with anger.

Anger directed at townsfolk who did not attend farewells

As indicated, this was really only a problem in Yarram. Some farewells in Yarram were very popular – there was a major farewell to 22 men in April (26/4/16) which was very well attended –  but the numbers at many others were poor. It was common practice for the head teacher of Yarram SS – A E Paige, a committee member – to take a party of senior students from the primary school to farewells to increase the numbers there. There was even one farewell (30/8/16) where the attendance was so small that the ceremony was held not in the Shire Hall but in an office in the Shire Hall. Committee members were often reported as being embarrassed for the men being farewelled by small audiences. At a committee meeting in late March (29/3/16)  it was reported:

Surprise and disgust were expressed by several members of the committee at the small attendance at the various farewells etc. It was mentioned that many people in the town [Yarram] had not even put themselves out enough to attend once, although the soldiers were giving up everything for them.

Anger directed at those who would not enlist

It would have been virtually impossible for those speaking at farewells and intimately involved in recruiting to understand why some men refused to enlist. For the patriot, the logic of the situation – the Empire and Nation were both threatened; high levels of casualties called for more enlistments; every male citizen had the same civic duty to answer the call; ‘mates’ in their time of need could not be abandoned; it was ‘manly’ to fight to protect the weak – was irrefutable. It was especially galling that married men, and even men in their forties, were prepared to sacrificed so much by enlisting while younger, single men held back.

Those men who refused to do the ‘right thing’ were constantly targeted. When he farewelled James Wight at Yarram (25/2/16) B P Johnson singled out those holding back:

Those chaps who were standing back and not heeding the cry did not seem to realise what our nation was up against.

When A H Moore spoke at a farewell at Stacey’s Bridge (26/4/16) he made the point that … the brave lads were practically offering their lives on behalf of those who stayed behind. At the farewell for Sgt Filmer at Womerah (3/3/16) one speaker … spoke of the excuses made for not enlisting. There was too much of “I’ll go when so-and-so goes’. B P Johnson at a welcome home (22/3/16) contrasted the sacrifice of the 2 returning men with the cowardice of ‘shirkers’:

The war had taught all the lessons of sacrifice. When those who hung back saw these two young men, and contrasted them with their own cowardice, they would surely want to find a small hole to crawl in and hide.

Johnson was very fond of the term ‘shirker’. And he was prepared to use it widely, and not just for those who refused to enlist. At another farewell in April (5/4/16) he declared:

He did not think it [“shirker”] too strong a word. Every man who could not fight, and stayed home in comfort and did not give, was a shirker. Every sweetheart who stopped her lover, every father or mother who stopped their son, and every wife who stopped her husband from enlisting was a shirker.

Another common description of those who refused to enlist was ‘waster’. At a farewell in Yarram (28/4/16) Rev Walklate declared:

It was a mistake to see so many brave boys going out of loyal families, while wasters were holding back.

For patriots, the only way forward was conscription. Conscription would create a ‘level playing field’ and ensure that the sacrifice was spread fairly. They would no longer have to appeal, in vain, to the conscience of the ‘shirker’ or the ‘waster’. Johnson (28/4/16) captured the frustration and anger of the group when he declared that he favoured conscription because then the Government could effectively … get men by the scruff of the neck and seat of the pants and run them in. (Laughter).

As much as they favoured conscription, speakers were generally keen to identify the city, and not the country, as the natural home of the shirker and waster. Cr Barlow (28/4/16) declared his support for conscription, noted that some from the district were holding back but focused on his attention on the large cities:

He was proud to see so many good men going from the district to help finish the good work begun, but there were many more who should have gone. In his opinion the voluntary system is a rank failure. He could not understand why the Government did not come forward and take the men wanted  by conscription. His remarks did not apply so much to the country as to the cities, where thousands were attending race meetings and prize fights who were no good to their country.

Anger directed at those undermining the war effort and recruiting

One obvious target was the union movement. G F Sauer at a farewell at Yarram (28/1/16) attacked the bans on shipping and declared that … the lives of such men [trade unionists] were not worth fighting for. Another common call was that preference to unionists should be replaced by preference to returning Anzacs.

But by far the greatest anger over 1916 was directed at those in the ALP who opposed conscription. This will be covered in future posts but for now it is worth noting Johnson’s views as early as July 1916 (26/7/16) when various Labor Leagues – in this instance at Broken Hill – began the political manoeuvring – including the threat of strikes –  to oppose the introduction of conscription. Speaking of those workers in favour of such resolutions, Johnson declared,

It was the duty of all speaking in public to condemn them. In his opinion all such men should be interned. They were either enemies or traitors who ought to be shot.

 

When it had been formed in 1915 the focus of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee had been narrow and its work uncontroversial. However, over time, as it turned its attention first to recruiting and then to supporting conscription, it became a far more partisan and aggressive body. Its links to other local bodies pushing for the Yes vote in the first national referendum on conscription will be covered in future posts.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

70. The girl and the young soldier

The first part of the following account is based exclusively on a series of articles that appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative over the period late February to early March 1916. While relying so closely on newspaper articles calls into question the accuracy and scope of the evidence presented, it does at least position the modern reader as someone in the Shire of Alberton reading the same material 100 years ago.

Violet Freeman was a 19 yo working as a domestic (servant) for Mrs Ellen Barbara Alford of Commercial Street, Yarram. Violet’s step-father was Richard Cantwell, a farmer from Woodside. Violet had been working for Mrs Alford for ‘some three or four months’.

Violet was engaged to 21 yo Herbert Walter Tolhurst who had recently enlisted. The marriage had been organised for Monday 21 February (1916). Tolhurst was an English immigrant who had been working in the local area. He had met Violet when she was still living at Woodside and he had been working in the same area. It was suggested that Tolhurst … came from England for the purpose of gaining Colonial experience. His people are reputed to be well to do in the Old Country.

Tolhurst was to arrive at Yarram on the Saturday train (19/2/16) for the wedding on the following Monday (21/2/16) but he did not show. Nor was there any communication from him explaining his absence.

That Saturday evening, Violet left the Alford’s home at about 7 o’clock to meet friends. Mrs Alford saw that Violet was upset.

The next afternoon (Sunday 20/2/16), a group of children, down by Carpenter’s Bridge over the Tarra Creek, saw a body in the river. The police recovered Violet’s body from the creek at about 6.00pm that night. The body was found in shallow water. At the coronial inquiry held the very next day (21/2/16), Senior Constable McLeod stated that he

… could see no marks of violence, and from the appearance of the body she had evidently lay in the water and drowned. Her hands were clasped together. He was quite satisfied from the appearance of the body she had deliberately drowned herself. The body may have drifted to the shallower water. There was apparently no struggle, nor was the body in any way tied up.

In none of the reports was there any suggestion that any other person had been directly involved in Violet’s death. The focus was on the motivation for the suicide. There was no post-mortem carried out.

At the coronial inquiry, it emerged that … this was the second time he [Tolhurst] had disappointed the girl about marriage. The step-father claimed that he had not seen his daughter for about 4 weeks – when he had gone to Yarram to give his permission for the marriage – but he was aware that Violet was worried that Tolhurst would not marry her as promised. He stated that he believed Tolhurst’s rejection of his step-daughter was the cause of the suicide.

One of the articles, headed A Sad Case. Young Woman Commits Suicide. Disappointed By A Soldier, claimed that Violet had previously been to the camp at Seymour to confront Tolhurst over his true intentions, and that he had then promised to marry her. The same article attempted to sketch some picture of Violet’s disturbed state of mind on the Saturday after he failed to arrive. It noted that … On Saturday evening the young woman was seen outside the post office reading her Bible. The article concluded that that Tolhurst’s rejection of the planned marriage was the cause of Violet’s suicide:

The young woman had made arrangements for her marriage, having seen a clergyman and invited her friends. Keen disappointment had evidently driven her to the rash act. She is spoken of by those who knew her as a most determined girl, confiding in few, and keeping troubles to herself.

The coronial inquiry which sat on the Monday (21/2/16) – ironically, the day of the planned wedding – was adjourned for a week … in order to get Tolhurst interviews, also to ascertain if deceased had written to her relatives.

When the inquiry resumed (28/2/16), it was informed by Senior Constable McLeod that there was no evidence of any letter written to any relative. Additionally, the court heard that while Tolhurst had been given leave for Saturday 19 February, he had not reported back to the camp at Seymour and had been classed as ‘absent without leave’ since then. Therefore he could not be interviewed. The police constable who investigated Tolhurst’s movements at Seymour noted that the leave he had for Saturday 19 February did not extend beyond the week-end and that he … should have returned at latest Monday morning [21/2/16]. On this basis, Tolhurst did not in fact have leave to attend his wedding at Yarram on the morning of 21 February. The same police officer had also looked for but not found any letters for Tolhurst at the camp.

Faced with Tolhurst’s disappearance and no written communication, in any form, from Violet Freeman that could point to her motivation, the coronial inquiry closed and returned what amounted to an open finding.

To this point, all the articles were based on the open proceedings of the coronial inquiry, supported by witness statements from various locals who were directly involved. However, one week later (8/3/16), after the inquiry had closed, the paper published another story under the headline, Tarra Creek Suicide. Tolhurst’s Statement. Incredibly, this article was based on the witness statement that Tolhurst made to a police officer who interviewed him after he had been apprehended and returned to the Seymour camp (29/2/16). The statement would have been sent to Senior Constable Mcleod but, somehow or other, the editor ( A J Rossiter) of the local paper managed to obtain it and then reveal its contents in the paper. Perhaps Senior Constable Mcleod, even though the inquiry was closed, considered that it was in the local community’s best interest to learn about Tolhurst’s version of events; but it is hard to believe that he would have simply handed over the statement to the local press. Perhaps Rossiter was able to obtain the statement closer to its source at Seymour. The article in the paper is obviously based on the police report from Seymour:

I questioned him in reference to the suicide of Violet Freeman. Tolhurst was ignorant of the fact that the girl had taken her own life, and seemed terribly cut up when I made it known to him. He made the following statement, dated 29th Feb:- I broke camp at Seymour on 19th Feb. with the intention of going to Yarram to marry a girl named Violet Freeman. When I arrived in Melbourne I knocked about and spent about 10s or £1. I was robbed of the rest of the money I had, about 20s or £2. As I had no money I did not go to Yarram. I knocked about the city all last night, and had my meals at The Rest Rooms, St. Kilda Esplanade, and slept on the beach.

Anyone reading the above would form serious doubts about Tolhursts’s commitment to the marriage. Presumably, he kept ‘knocking about’ Melbourne until he was apprehended and returned to Seymour.

Tolhurst was also questioned about letters he received from Violet. The police would have been following up the issue of her motivation, keen to know if there was a final letter. Tolhurst’s comments point to Violet’s desperation for the wedding to occur:

The last letter I received from Violet Freeman was on the 17th inst. I also received a letter on the 15th inst. I received a letter about a month or six weeks ago, in which she said, “For God’s sake don’t slip me up.” She visited Seymour about a month ago. She had previously spoken of suicide.

In addition to the details presented in the local paper, people in the town would have also had background information on the couple. For example, it appears that Violet was Roman Catholic. At least her brother, Thomas Joseph Freeman, was. He enlisted just a few weeks after her death. Tolhurst, on the other hand, gave his religion, when he enlisted, as Church of England. Yet his name appears on the honor roll for the local Presbyterian Charge.  Violet was buried in the Alberton cemetery by Rev. Frederick A Hagenauer, the Presbyterian minister. Possibly, Violet was going to marry Tolhurst in the Presbyterian Church. Nothing is certain here, but it does appear that locals would have been aware that there was a religious dimension to the tragedy.

Clearly, at the time there would have been much conjecture and talk about what drove Violet to suicide. Equally, people would have made judgements about her character and certainly they would have had strong opinions about Tolhurst’s commitment, and his character generally. The possibility that Violet was pregnant – there was no suggestion of this in the newspaper reports – would certainly have been raised. Some would have taken Violet’s side, others might have felt that she was trying to force Tolhurst into marriage.

But beyond the personal tragedy of Violet’s suicide, the manner of how the case was reported is revealing. The whole story is presented as something of a morality play or even a ‘lesson’ for the local community: a story of what happens when people behave recklessly or irresponsibly. It also stands as a warning to others, with a clear message about trusting too much in young men enlisting and heading off to war. In this sense, whether intended or not, it was an apt counter to all the sermons of Rev Cox and others that focused exclusively on the image of the young soldier as ‘a soldier of Christ’. Clearly, not every young soldier was heroic, selfless and loyal. Perhaps there was even a message there about the need to be particularly careful with young, itinerants who were working in the community but who might not share the same set of values that the local community espoused.

What the people of Yarram probably never knew of Tolhurst after this episode was that he deserted.

Tolhurst’s service file shows that he was born in Maidstone, England. His mother as next-of-kin was still living there. The file also shows that he had had 2 years service in the Officer training Corps at Maidstone Grammar School, which does suggest a comfortable, if not privileged, social background. He gave as his address on his application to enlist as F Growse, Yarram [John Frederick Growse, farmer, Yarram], and he passed his first medical at Yarram on 3/12/15. The oath was taken in Melbourne on 13/1/16. Otherwise his file is very scant. The last entry consists of the proceedings of a … standing Court of Inquiry’ held on 13 April 1916 ‘for the purpose of inquiring into the illegal absence of HERBERT WALTER TOLHURST 18th. Light Horse Reinforcements. The inquiry established that Tolhurst…  had been absent without leave from 10/3/16 to the present date 13/4/16’. The finding was that ‘Private Herbert Walter Tolhurst is guilty of desertion from 10/4/16 and is indebted to the Government to amount of £10-1-10 for Kit issued and retained by him.

Like others, it is possible that Tolhurst re-enlisted under another name. It is also possible that he simply ‘disappeared’.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for Tolhurst Herbert Walter

66. Percy Allen WALLACE 273

Lance Corporal Wallace was the first of the men form the Shire of Alberton to die in France.

Percy Allen Wallace was born at Glengarry, Gippsland. The family must have moved into the Shire of Alberton when he was a child because both Percy and his younger brother – Leslie Roy Wallace – went to Yarram SS and both feature on the school’s honour roll. Percy Wallace also appears on both the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and the Shire of Alberton War Memorial.

At the time he enlisted, Percy Wallace gave his occupation as ’mill hand’ and also ‘butter maker’. He appears on the Electoral Roll as ‘butter maker’, with the address given as Yarram. His father – William Wallace – is also listed as a ‘sawyer’ of Goodwood Mills, via Port Albert.

The 2 Wallace brothers enlisted in late September 1914. It appears that Percy enlisted first, as one of the initial group at Yarram, on 21/9/14 and then Leslie went directly to Broadmeadows and enlisted 2 days later (23/9/14). Leslie served in the AIF until he was returned to Australia on Anzac leave in December 1918.

Private Percy Wallace’s first term with the AIF did not last long. He was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ on 19/12/14, just 3 months after enlisting. There is no indication what the medical issue was but when he re-enlisted on 8/2/15, just a couple of months later, he did acknowledge the earlier discharge – ‘medically unfit’.

Interestingly, the brothers appear on the Methodist Circuit honour roll, yet Percy’s religion was given as both Presbyterian (enlistment papers) and Church of England (embarkation roll), and Leslie gave his religion as Church of England. The anomaly points to the tendency to employ ‘CoE’ as the default Protestant denomination.

On his re-enlistment, Pte Percy Wallace joined 22 Battalion. He served on Gallipoli from late August 1915. In mid March 1916, the 22 Battalion left Alexandria and on 26/3/16 it disembarked at Marseilles. Within 3 weeks of arriving in France he was dead. He died of wounds – G.S.Wound Right leg & Left forearm – on 15/4/16.

22 Battalion had only moved into the front line trenches at Fleurbaix – about 10 Kms from Fromelles – the day before Lance Corporal Wallace was wounded. The entry in the war diary of the battalion details his fate:

Trenches (Fleurbaix). Sniping & observations, very little movement noticed. Patrol moved out from Sec 42. 1 officer 1 O/R. When returning at 11.20 PM when noticed & caught by M.G. fire. Lt McCAUL slightly wounded. L/Cpl WALLACE seriously wounded.

L/Cpl Wallace was taken to No. 8 Casualty Clearing Station but he died just over 12 hours later. He was buried at Merville Cemetery, with Rev. Anthony Fenn officiating.

The family back at Goodwood was informed of the death within 2 weeks. It took 2 more years before all the personal items – (1) Identity Disc, Letter, Photo, Testament, Cigarette Cards, Cigarette Case; (2) Cards, 2 Pieces Fancy Work, 2 Brushes – were returned to the family in 2 shipments.

There was extensive coverage of L/Cpl Wallace’s death in the local paper (Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative) from the end of April to late July 1916. Essentially, the coverage was based on 4 pieces of correspondence that the parents received in the weeks after their son’s death. The family must have provided this correspondence to the editor ( A J Rossiter) of the paper who then used the letters with their approval. As already noted – see Post 65 – Rossiter was a member of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee and a key supporter of the War effort. The cumulative effect of the 4 letters definitely pitched L/Cpl Wallace’s death as a classic and instructive example of heroic sacrifice in a just war.

Letters such as the 4 considered here were common and, obviously, they would have meant a great deal to grieving families, desperate for any personal accounts of their sons’ final moments. However, extensive publication of such letters in the local press was uncommon. Arguably, the editorial decision reflected the reality that L/Cpl Wallace’s death was the first death of a local from the Shire of Alberton on the Western Front. The War had moved from the Gallipoli Peninsula to France; and while there had been a hiatus after Gallipoli, this first death on the Western Front reinforced for everyone back in the Shire of Alberton that the local boys were back in the firing line. There would be so many more deaths to come that it would prove impossible to devote the same amount of copy to each of them. The reporting and grieving processes associated with the dead – and injured – had, inevitably, to become more abbreviated and succinct.

The first news of L/Cpl Wallace’s death came in the ‘editorial’ written by Rossiter for the edition of 28/4/16. At this point it appears that Rossiter did not even appreciate that the death had occurred in France. He was keen to remind readers that Percy had been a star local footballer. In fact, L/Cpl Wallace had answered the call to the sportsmen – particularly the footballers – of Australia, well before it had been made public in the mid 1915 recruiting campaign.

The sad tidings reached Yarram this week of the death of one of our soldier boys, Private Percy Wallace, son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Wallace, of Goodwood. But meagre particulars are to hand, stating that he died from wounds in the legs and arms on 15th inst., probably received in a skirmish with the Turks. … Like others who have enlisted, he was a foremost footballer in this district, men who make good soldiers, of that virile type Australia can ill afford to lose.

In the edition of 3/5/16, under ‘Personal’, Rossiter revealed the contents of the official telegram sent to the family via the postmistress at Port Albert. The cause of death was given – died from gunshot wounds arms and thigh, 15th April – and the customary expressions of sympathy from the King and Nation noted.

Then in the edition of 23/6/16, 2 letters were published relating to L/Cpl Wallace’s death: one from a British nurse working the casualty clearing station where he died; and the other from a mate in the same unit (22 Battalion).

The British nurse – Sister Jean Todd – gave a detailed account of L/Cpl Wallace’s death. Interestingly, in her letter there is no attempt to attach any of the usual expressions of duty done and sacrifice made. Nor are there religious platitudes. Rather, it is short and direct, with a pervading sense of resignation. At the same time, because the letter itself was an act of kindness, the parents would have read into the letter her sense of compassion for their son and taken comfort from the fact that she was there with him when he died.

I am deeply sorry to tell you of the death of your son, 273 Lance-Corporal Wallace, A. I. F., in this hospital [ 8 Casualty Clearing Station, BEF] at 1 p.m. on the 15th. He was admitted before mid-day suffering from gun shot wounds, right arm, right thigh, and the popliteal artery had been severed. From this he lost much blood. The artery was ligatured and restoratives of all kinds applied. He was conscious while the surgeon was dressing the wounds and while injections into the blood stream to try and replace wastage were given. Soon after he became delirious, very restless, finally unconscious, and passed away at 1 o’clock. It is an abrupt tale to send so far, but what more can I say. If possible we grieve more for our overseas men than our home men, but it does not save them.

The second letter was written by L/Cpl Percy Davidson, 22 B. This second Percy was a 20 yo from Tasmania. He described himself as a very close friend of Percy – I mourn his loss very much, as we have been like brothers to each other – and he therefore felt the need to write to the parents to express …  the heartfelt sorrow I have for you at this time. This time there was the conventional appeal to God’s mercy: … I pray that God will comfort and bless you. It was His Will, therefore we must bow to it. There was also the reassurance that he had ‘died like a man’: It may be some consolation to you to know that he died like a man and an Australian. There was also the flash of stoicism when Wallace assured Davidson, as the doctors were working on him – they were talking about amputating his right hand – “Oh, I’m not too bad, Dave [sic], and will write as soon as I am able.”

It is important to remind ourselves of what is happening here. The parents have given permission for the local paper to publish the most intimate letters of their son’s death. Not all parents would do this and there is no way of knowing parents’ true motivation in matter like this; but the more important point is that such accounts augmented the official narrative of the War by filling out the personal experiences of soldiers and their families. This was a level of reality that local readers could not ignore and it was a reality that had a powerful moral force behind it, built on notions of duty, sacrifice, national and Imperial identity, and divine sanction. It was an extraordinarily powerful human narrative; and it would have been very difficult either to challenge or stand outside it.

The last detailed report of the death of L/Cpl Wallace appeared on 28/7/16. Under the heading, Late Private [sic] Percy Wallace. Particulars Of His Death., Rossiter featured another 2 letters. The first was from the sister of Lt. McCaul – the officer who had been with L/Cpl Wallace on the patrol where they had both been wounded – and the second from the chaplain with 22 Battalion.

The letter from Miss Nora McCaul of Glenhuntley Road, Elsternwick to the Wallace parents explains itself.

In case my brother has not written or has not your address, I am sending you the following. Your son was wounded on or about April 13th, and I hear he died of his wounds. My brother was intelligence officer for the 22nd Battalion, and about the middle of April was told to choose a man and find out certain information from the German trenches. He chose your son, and at the same time said to him, “There will be no V.C.s to D.C.M.s hanging to this; probably all we will get will be bullets.” Your son was most anxious to go, and I believe the two set out about 11.30 p.m. They got the information and were returning when the Germans opened fire on them. As my brother said, “We both stopped bullets.” They then had to climb through barb wire entanglements and swim some icy water 6ft. deep. The next my brother remembers was in hospital in Boulogne. In a letter dated May 16th from there my brother says: – “I only heard today that the Lieutenant [sic]-Corporal, who was with me, has died of his wounds. I am awfully upset about him, not only because he was one of my best men, but also because I took him with me. Some one, of course, had to go with me, and I naturally chose a good man. He was an awfully good chap. I can’t say how sorry I am at his loss.” I hope this will all interest you. My brother after a month in hospital in Boulogne was moved to London. We had a cable last week, and although doing splendidly he is still unable to put his foot to the ground. Sincerest sympathy in your sad loss.

It is interesting to note just how important – and common – letter writing was at the time. There was a vast ocean of correspondence touching on soldiers’ deaths and their war experiences. However, as noted earlier, this particular case, where such extensive correspondence on one individual soldier’s fate was published in the local paper, was rare.

The second letter, the one from the chaplain – F H Dwinford, Church of England – ran to a very predictable script. He gave the briefest account of the actual death from wounds, reassured the family that the grave was …  in excellent order and has on it a wooden cross with a metal inscription … and focused on the manner of and purpose of the death. The death had not been in vain:

But one can only say, what one feels so much, that death for one’s country is a fine death, and a life laid down for Australia is a grand and noble sacrifice. And it is on the lives laid down in this war that a new generation will be built up.

The chaplain concluded with the customary reassurance that there was indeed a higher level of reality and purpose to the horror that then engulfed the world:

I can only hope with so many other chaplains that the great truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings consolation and comfort to you. Death is simply the passing away from one state of existence into another, and the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.

The parents – and the readers of the local paper – were meant to draw all manner of lessons from the tragic death of L/Cpl Wallace. He had lived and died the life of the good soldier and the true Australian. Interestingly, in the correspondence the Imperial references are not as apparent as the National ones. He was stoic in the face of suffering. There was meaning to his death and God would take him unto Himself. The tone of the British nurse is more problematic, but the overall effect of the letters is to gloss human tragedy. Of course, we do not know what effect the letters had on the family – both then and subsequently – although we would have to assume that they provided some support because, at the very least, they would have certainly raised the status of their son in the eyes of the local community. But, as argued, the effect on the individual family was only part of the story. Such reporting was fundamentally important in maintaining the uncritical and uni-dimensional narrative of the War, which had not changed in any substantive way since August 1914. It would be the same narrative that would inevitably support the introduction of conscription.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for WALLACE Percy Allen

Roll of Honour: Percy Allen Wallace

First World War Embarkation Rolls: Percy Allen Wallace

War Diary 22 Battalion