Category Archives: The narrative of the War

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.


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.


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.


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’.


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.


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


65. Yarram Recruiting Committee, 1915

The last post looked at the key function organised by the 1915 Recruiting Committee. This post looks at the committee itself.

The committee was set up at a public meting in Yarram on 25  June 1915. The meeting was in response to the request from the Victorian Parliament to all local councils/shires to form a local committee to assist in the planned recruiting drive.

In the circular, headed State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, Victoria which was sent to every local government area, there was the specific directive: It is desirable that these local committees should include representatives of all sections. Moreover, the list of suggested activities in the same circular made it clear that the committee was intended to represent and cover all social groupings or classes. For example:

5. Where there are large workshops, suitable men should interview the workers and speak to them during the mid-day meal. [emphasis added]
8. Football and race crowds should be appealed to by leading sportsmen.
10. The ladies of the various localities may be encouraged to form committees of their own.
11. Friendly societies, trade unions, and other gatherings should be attended to.

According to reports in the local paper, Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, on 30/6/15, the public meeting to set up the recruiting committee was poorly attended. In fact, there were often reports on the difficulty of encouraging people to join such committees and the corresponding need to rely on the usual civic stalwarts. However, it was also possible that others did not volunteer their services because they knew who typically would serve on such committees. Whatever the reason, the people who answered the newspaper call to join the recruiting committee did represent a particular and restricted group within the local community. The Yarram Recruiting Committee did not ‘include representatives of all sections.’

The committee at Yarram was exclusively male and there was no equivalent female committee set up. The committee was also Yarram-based or Yarram-centric. Admittedly, several members had rural properties outside Yarram but even these members of the committee – most were local councillors – were regularly in Yarram for their council work and other civic duties. Yarram by the early 20C had become the capital town – commercial, retail, business, local government – of the Shire of Alberton. However, there were residual misgivings over the shift of power and influence from Alberton, the former capital. Equally, many of the small townships and centres some distance from Yarram – over difficult roads and terrain – were convinced that Yarram received preferential treatment in terms of development and facilities, and that it functioned to meet its own interests and not the wider interests of the Shire as a whole. So there was an underlying degree of animosity directed at Yarram from other locations across the Shire. For its part, Yarram simply assumed power for itself. For example, all the various recruiting committees over the period 1915-1918 were labelled as iterations of the Yarram Recruiting Committee, not the Shire of Alberton Recruiting Committee.

If the Yarram Recruiting Committee was exclusive in terms of gender and the Shire’s geography and local politics, its class bias was even more pronounced.

In all there were 18 men who were identified as being members of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1915. Eleven men attended the first public meeting (25/6/15) called to form the committee and subsequently, over the course of the year from July to December 1915, another 7 men either joined or were co-opted.

The first table gives the essential details for the members of the 1915 committee. Previous posts that have looked at soldiers’ farewells and other public meetings to do with support for the War have shown the extent to which the speakers came from the ranks of the local professionals, managers, proprietors and leading land holders. This group of men matches the same profile.

Four of those on the 1915 committee actually enlisted in the AIF. Henry Crawford Bodman (Henry Bodman jnr) – had even enlisted before the committee was formed. One of the men – Rev George Cox – was comparatively old (43yo) and married, with 3 children. Cox was one of the most vocal supporters of the War in the Shire. He had great difficulty in enlisting and served for less than one year. He was discharged on medical grounds. He completed all his service in the AMC in Australia in military hospitals. The youngest (20 yo) of the 4 to enlist, Cyril Johnson was student studying in Melbourne. Presumably, he attended the first meeting of the committee with his father because he was in Yarram at that time. He was killed in action on 14/5/18. Edward Gabbett was married and 34 yo. He was badly wounded and had a leg amputated. He returned to Australia for a medical discharge in February 1918. Henry Bodman jnr, 21 yo, was wounded, ‘dangerously’, but survived the War and was discharged as medically unfit in November 1919. Overall, it is a grim picture of 4 men who went beyond calling for enlistments and enlisted themselves.

The second table details the extent of the committee members’ wider membership of committees, boards and other executive bodies across the community. Clearly, the members of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee were well involved in key institutions and associations –  Yarram and District Hospital (the hospital was opened in 1915), Yarram Mechanics’ Institute, Yarram Waterworks Trust, ANA Yarram branch, Yarram Agricultural Society, Y.M.C.A., even the Yarram Town Band – and this level of involvement would have identified the committee members as leading and influential citizens in the community. Additionally, many of them held significant positions of political power: several local councillors (including the 2 Shire presidents over 1914-1915), the editor of a local paper, and 2 justices of the peace who presided in the Police Court/Court of Petty Sessions in Yarram.  There were also several members of the Yarram Recruiting Committee who held executive positions in friendly societies and who would have been well-known in the local community for advocating positions of moral and social improvement, e.g. the Independent Order of Rechabites and its temperance platform.  Members of the committee were also involved in the local churches – with the apparent exception of the (Roman) Catholic church – and 2 members were very involved with the local Masonic Lodge (207).

The involvement of the local Roman Catholic church in committees and activities to do with the promotion of patriotism and support for the War will be examined in detail shortly. It was a complex issue.

Overall, the Yarram Recruiting Committee was made up of ‘leading citizens’ from the local professional and managerial elite of Yarram, supported by several large and successful land holders who also played significant political and social roles in the Yarram community. In fact, rather than representing all sections of the diverse community (communities) that made up the Shire of Alberton, the Yarram Recruiting Committee of 1915 was narrow and sectional in its membership. No doubt those on the committee would have responded that the committee was made up of all those who were prepared to become involved and commit to the effort required; and that such committees were always only ever made up of like-minded citizens prepared to take on the necessary responsibility.Moreover they could have also argued that it made little sense to duplicate committees across the entire shire and Yarram was the natural location to establish the committee.

The composition of the Recruiting Committee also supports previous claims that the narrative of the War – including the sub-narrative of recruitment for the War – was formally controlled by a particular elite within the wider community.

However it does not follow that because one particular group controlled the narrative of the War all other groups listened to and followed the narrative. As the last post showed, the Recruiting Committee’s monster recruiting drive staged in Yarram was, at least in terms of having people enlist on the spot, a failure. Also, as argued, it is highly likely that the intended target group for the recruiting meeting stayed away precisely because they knew the specific detail of the narrative that was going to be presented and/or they simply refused to identify with the types – leading citizens – who were presenting the narrative.

Again, the apparent failure of the Recruiting Committee to attract recruits through its specific activities cannot be taken as proof that enlistments at the time – July and August  1915 – were falling. Indeed the opposite was true. Consider the following 2 communications from the 3rd Military District, Melbourne to all local government areas. The first was dated 3 August 1915:

Owing to the unusually heavy enlistments for the A.I.F. at present tents cannot be supplied as rapidly as the recruits are coming into camp, therefore please do not send any more recruits forward until the the 12th instant except such as are out of employment and very anxious to go into camp at once.

The second was dated 10 August 1915:

Please continue enlisting for the Australian Imperial Force, but do not send any more recruits forward until after the 31st instant, except such as are out of employment and very anxious to go into camp at once, others may be granted leave until September 1st.

There were to be iterations of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee over the next few years. As will become clear, when the enlistment surge finished in the second half of 1915, and recruitment targets could no longer be met, the members of the committee moved effortlessly to back conscription.


Background details of those on the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee have been taken from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, the relevant Electoral Roll and Rate Book, as well as from:

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

Correspondence and communication between the 3rd Military District  and the Shire of Alberton (Shire Secretary) are from the Archives of the Shire of Alberton:

Shire of Alberton
File Number 703-0
War Files
“Recruiting Campaign 1915” (cover sheet)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why should the married men go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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

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