The local branch of the Returned Sailor’s and Soldiers’ Imperial League (of Australia) – RSSILA – was formed in Yarram at a meeting on 22/6/17. The meeting was reported in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 27/6/17.
By that point in 1917, the estimate was that approximately 30 local men had returned from the fighting. At the meeting there were 10 present and a further 5 apologies. Of the 10 who were present that night, half (5) were not from the local area. They were returned soldiers who had come to the Shire of Alberton after their discharge. Presumably they had come seeking work, given the acute (farm) labour shortage in the area. The presence of these early ‘outsiders’ was to be a pointer to all the other returned service men who would come to the Shire after the War when the soldier settlement scheme commenced. This movement of ex-service men into the district would have further implications for the very notion of ‘local’.
Importantly, with several significant exceptions, the group of men who formed the local branch of RSSILA were younger and from a different socio-economic profile than the members of the existing committees that had supported the War effort from 1914. This ‘new guard’ was a generation separate from the ‘old guard’ and, as has been shown previously, they were predominantly from the rural working class, with also a concentration of sons from family farms. The old guard, on the other hand, represented the social and economic elite of the community. The generation and class differences were at least in part responsible for the tension that was to arise between the 2 groups. It was a tension that was to continue well after the War.
There were 3 significant exceptions to this observation, and all 3 people involved were elected to key leadership positions in the local RSSILA branch. Dr Rutter was older than most – 35 yo – when he enlisted in May 1915 and he was married. His professional status as one of the local doctors was also atypical and more in line with the old guard. He was elected at the inaugural meeting as president. William Newland was also older – 34 yo when he enlisted in August 1914 – and also married. Further he had fought for several years in the Boer War. Additionally, he had been the local recruiting sergeant and had worked closely with many of the old guard. Newland was elected as secretary. The third exception, elected as treasurer and vice president, was Eric Thomas Benson. Benson was to become the most public spokesperson for the newly formed branch. It was Benson who had convened the inaugural meeting. Yet he was an outsider. He had been born at Warrnambool and enlisted from there. He had been repatriated to Australia from Gallipoli at the end of 1915 and discharged on medical grounds – ‘neurasthenia’ and ‘shell concussion’ – in May 1916. His service record notes that he was cited for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ on Gallipoli. He arrived in Yarram in late 1916 as the bank manager for the State Savings Bank and remained in the district until the early 1920s. He had worked as a (bank) clerk prior to enlistment. Presumably his war service had helped with his promotion in the bank. Benson had enlisted at 21 yo and was nearly 15 years younger than both Rutter and Newland and much closer in age to the generation of returning men. Even though he was, relatively young, his occupation – bank manager – naturally aligned him with the old guard. Yet, initially at least, Benson was the most outspoken critic of the old guard.
At the first meeting, Newland gave the rationale for the RSSILA. He was reported as stating:
There was a lot of men coming back who would not be in as sound a position as when they went, and no other association existed that had the welfare of the soldiers at heart, although many people had individually.
Newland’s focus was clearly on those who had been wounded or were suffering other disabilities or sickness and who had been discharged on medical grounds.
Benson’s comments on the other hand appeared to look beyond the immediate concern for those medically discharged. He was flagging the broader issue of repatriation for all. This was now a major issue, and the idea – and even ideal – of the soldiers settling on the land was gaining much attention:
There were a lot of men coming back, and it was the duty of those who had returned to help them, and see that they got a fair deal. Repatriation was receiving attention from the State and Federal Governments, and when the scheme had been completed and a man applied for land the local branch of the league could help him.
Both Newland and Benson were asserting that it was the primary, if not exclusive, right – and responsibility – of the returned soldiers to care for and represent themselves, assisted by both Government and the broader community.
Newland was also reported as making the following defence of the league’s activities:
Mr Newland strongly condemned any idea that the league was going to to foster idleness. Members were supposed to help themselves, and if they could not do so they would be assisted by the league.
Presumably, this sort of reassurance was required in a community that had a strong history of self-help and reliance, as well as an entrenched fear of organised labour and unionism. There could be no suggestion that help was going to those undeserving of it or that the league could be a front for union or socialist agitation.
Immediately after the local branch was established, either Newland or Benson – or both – began to appear as speakers at the functions organised by the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee. In the report of the farewell for Privates Dennison and Jones published in the local paper on 11/7/17, about 3 weeks after the local branch was formed, Rev. Tamagno was reported as praising the new body. He also used the development as an opportunity to continue his criticism of the local community over its general lack of support for the War effort.
Referring to the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Association, he [Tamagno] said he was pleased to see representatives [Newland and Benson] present. The value of such an association was recognised, because of the hundreds and hundreds who have returned and are returning to this land. It seemed to him that not enough was being done for these men in our midst, so the men had to do it themselves. It showed the dilateriness and absolute neglect of district residents in not recognising the worth of these fellows. He asked the children [school children from Yarram SS attending the farewell] when they grew up, to do their part for the men who, voluntarily, fought for them and their country.
Later at the same gathering, a soldier was welcomed home and this time Sergeant Newland spoke. The criticism of the ‘gentlemen’ who had farewelled the local soldiers was very evident:
Sergeant Newland spoke on behalf of the local branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ League (sic). He remembered when the first send off was given to men from Yarram and district, a few gentlemen spoke about the brave soldiers, and said what would be done for them when they returned. But what had been done? He offended a man yesterday because he told him there was too much talk and not enough doing. There is a lot to be done for the men, and there would be trouble if it is not done. They had formed a league to battle for their interests, and apologised to none. Organisation was needed, and he felt sure of the help and sympathy of all in the district.
There was an even more striking example of the antipathy between the old and new guard. It occurred at a farewell to 3 local men in early October. The function was of course organised by the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee. On the day, Councillor Barlow was in the chair. Benson’s comments were direct and accusatory in tone and, presumably, Barlow himself – see Post 147 – was the target:
Mr. Benson, of the local branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League (sic), said it had been determined to have a representative of the league present at these gatherings. They recognised the call for men was never greater and he was glad to see lads going forward to take the places of others in the trenches. This district had done wonderfully well, seeing that over 800 had gone, but the sacrifice should be more equal. There were those who stayed at home, hiding behind mother and father. There were some in families of men who take a leading part in public meetings remaining at home. He wished the boys a safe return.
The fault lines were clear: the new guard was accusing the old of not honoring commitments to the men who volunteered; and, worse, it was calling into question the very patriotic integrity of its members. And sitting behind such claims was the conviction that the only genuine voice for the returning soldiers resided with the RSSILA.
Notwithstanding such thinly veiled antagonism between the 2 bodies – the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee and the local branch of the RSSILA – they continued to work together. It appears that the issue of repatriation was greater than their dispute. In late July 1917, they held a joint meeting to discuss a common approach to repatriation. This joint meeting took place on 9/8/17 and was reported in the local paper on 10/8/17. Once again Benson’s comments, as reported in the local paper on 1/8/17, were very pointed:
Mr. Benson said that in Yarram they had a good organisation for sending off the local lads with a cheery good-bye, and also in welcoming home the returned men, but unfortunately the good work stopped there.
The discussion that followed looked at models – the most favoured one was that of the local recruiting committee – for the creation of a committee to promote repatriation in the local community. The meeting agreed to send a joint deputation to the Shire Council … urging immediate action in the formation of a local committee to deal with repatriation of district soldiers.
For its part, Council recognised the need for an organised approach to repatriation but it wanted more details on what the Federal program was to involve. Council was also reluctant to delegate its powers. Interestingly, it had not had difficulty in delegating power to the local recruiting committee. It appears however that by this point – late 1917 – Council appreciated that repatriation was to involve some form of a land settlement scheme and it was certainly reluctant to hand over local powers in the area of land management.
As events turned out, the local repatriation committee was not formed until April 1918, and by that point the very public animosity between the various groups had dissipated. The initial tension between the old and new guard had been accommodated, principally, it appears, through the efforts of Benson. Effectively, Benson shifted in his local politics to align himself more with the old guard. However, even if the public dispute had softened, major underlying tensions continued. They would continue through to at least the 1920s.
In summary, it is clear that by the end of 1917 the politics surrounding the repatriation of the AIF was definitely starting to divide the local community.Traditionally, as we have seen throughout this blog, the old guard of the district had promoted recruitment, organised farewells and welcomes, issued shire medallions, supported the Yes vote in the conscription referenda, promoted anti-German sentiment and the exposure of German sympathisers, supported fund-raising and other activities, put on special commemorative and memorial services, and some of them had even supported temperance as part of the overall War effort. One of their constant complaints was the rest of the community, or at least many in the local community, did not share their sense of Imperial Loyalty and commitment to the War effort. From late 1917 there was another voice and another source of division. The new guard were younger and from a different class background. They had no traditional place in the local politics of the community. Some of them were literally ‘outsiders’ who were new to the district. Many were recovering from serious wounds and poor health. Most faced uncertain futures in terms of employment and a ‘normal’ life. However, they held the status of returned Anzacs and they shared an exclusive sense of ‘mateship’. Unlike their elders who spoke about the War, they had had direct, first-hand and terrible experience of it. They demanded the right to be heard.
In part, people at the time would have experienced the division as a clash over narratives. From 1914, the old guard, made up of the community’s elders and senior citizens – its political elite – had emphasised the narrative of loyalty, duty and sacrifice. But their narrative was largely symbolic. They spoke from the position of authority and respectability and their direct, personal involvement was limited. From the end of 1917 there was a new group with a new narrative. This narrative was based on their direct and traumatic experiences at the War. Many carried their wounds – ‘badges of honour’ – to prove it. The central themes of the new narrative were suffering, fairness and recompense. The real issue from that point was how the different narratives could co-exist. As will become clear, the particular outcome in the Shire of Alberton was shaped by the dynamic of local politics.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative