Category Archives: The politics of commemoration

193. Armistice: the returned soldiers celebrate

This is the third post in a short series that has looked at various celebrations held in the Shire of Alberton in the week after the signing of the Armistice. The focus of this post is a victory celebration held in the Mechanics Hall on Monday evening,18 November 1918. It was a ‘men-only’ show and it was organised by the local branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ League [Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia] (see Post 148). It was put on ‘to celebrate the glorious victory over the Huns’. The report of the evening appeared in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on Wednesday 20/11/18.

The report does not indicate exactly how many of the returned men were there that night. I estimate that by November 1918, about 150 men from the Shire of Alberton had returned to Australia for medical discharge. This was from the approximately 800 men with a link to the Shire who had enlisted. However, not all those who enlisted from the Shire – for example, itinerant farm workers – returned to the Shire. Further, the event was held in Yarram on a week night and returned men from outlying towns and settlements would have faced difficulty in attending. Also there would have been returned men who for variety of reasons chose not to attend, or were not able to attend. At the same time, there was a functioning local branch of the RSSILA operating in Yarram and, allowing for all the qualifications, it is reasonable to suggest that there would have been up to 50 returned men there that night.

Also present were the fathers and (younger) brothers of those who enlisted and who were still overseas. Various ‘fathers’ associations’ had operated over the period of the War. The other major group of men there that night was made up of those who had been ‘rejected’ when they had tried to enlist. They belonged to an association identified in the newspaper report as the ‘Rejected Volunteers Association’. The paper made it clear that while the ‘rejected’ were glad to be present they certainly did not see themselves as the equal of the Anzac and their celebrations were therefore more restrained.

Noticeable in the gathering was the number of rejected men – we might almost say dejected men, by the thought that they were unable owing to some physical defect to join the boys at the front. But they were triers, at all events. With the fathers they enjoyed the fun more soberly, glad to see the returned boys as happy as juveniles.

Obviously the event was focused on the returned men and their ‘victory’. It was their opportunity to celebrate this victory and be recognised by the local community. The first item that night set the tone. It was a performance by some of the returned men:

A number of boys from “over there,” in merry mood, favored the company with a round of trench songs, quaint and original, which served to prove that in the midst of battle, and housed in trenches, there was that exuberance of spirit characteristic of the Australians, a spirit that was never dormant, even at the door of death.

The accompanist on the piano was described as the ‘dinkum oil’.

The Union Jack was pinned to the stage curtain and below it was a large banner declaring ‘God Save Our King’ [George V] and all the tables were adorned with the colours red, white and blue.

The program for the night involved a series of toasts, each accompanied by a speech. The first toast was to the Empire, given by Mr B Couston. Couston was the manager of the Yarram branch of the Bank of Victoria. He had been active in recruiting and also the push for the Yes vote in the 1917 referendum. He was an outspoken Imperial Loyalist.

While there were several references to a distinctly Nationalist (uniquely Australian) sentiment that night, such displays were very much set within the pervading sense of imperial loyalty and destiny. Couston, for example, outdid himself with praise for the Empire. He took the final victory as unshakeable proof of Britain and the Empire’s greatness. Extracts from his speech suggest how little had changed since the same ‘boys’ were farewelled in 1914:

The British Empire was one of the best and greatest empires that had ever existed, and during the past four and a half years the traditions of this great empire had been nobly upheld.

Britain was essentially a peaceful nation, and always strove to maintain peace throughout the world. She only went to war to see that justice was meted out; the rights of small nations should be protected.

Wherever the British flag was flying the people got justice, and they had faith in her. She had come out of this great struggle with more glory than in any other conflict she had been engaged in. She was opposed to the nation who respected neither life nor anything else, and the lads who had responded to the call of the mother land had nobly stood for and upheld the tradition of the great British Empire. Now they could glory in the victory, and could develop the resources of their country at the expense of those who had been subdued.

There was nothing that could make them [the ‘hearts of Britishers’] forget the violation of justice by Germany, the trampling down and outraging of Belgium and Servia. The Germans stopped at nothing, outraging women and children, and even went into the monasteries and defiled them.

For Couston, the War had established that Australia had proved itself worthy of membership of the Empire and that Australians were worthy of the title ‘British’:

…the people of the dependencies of Britain were just as loyal as the old countrymen. Colonials knew they came from the noblest and purest of blood, and had flocked round the grand old flag showing how proud they were to belong to the greatest nation the world had even seen. (Applause.)

Perhaps Couston allowed himself to be carried away in the last burst of patriotic praise but the claim about the ‘colonials’ belonging to the ‘greatest nation the world had ever seen’  set definite limits to any notion of a unique variety of Australian nationalism. For Couston, Australia’s national identity, national interest and even national destiny did not exist outside the Empire.

There followed a toast to ‘The Allies’, because while it had essentially been a British triumph, the allies had also played a part, at least in reducing the length of the War. The allied powers specifically mentioned were Italy, Servia, Roumania, Portugal, Japan, America, France and Belgium.

In proposing the toast of “The Allies”, the speaker proclaimed,

… all recognised that the British Empire was one of the greatest and best, but at the same time they would all recognise in such a gigantic war as had just been gone through, that without the aid of the Allies hostilities may have gone on for many years.

Clearly, the millions of Russian dead had slipped off the political balance sheet, presumably because, in the end, Tsarist Russia had failed the Allies; and now the world faced the Bolshevik menace.

The toast to the Allies finished with a parting shot at Germany. Germany … deserved not one particle of sympathy, and nothing was too bad for her, and he [the speaker] trusted the Allies would never forgive her for the atrocities committed.

Next, a toast to ‘The Boys at the Front’ was given by E. N. G. Gabbett, one of the returned men. Edward (Goldie) Gabbett enlisted in 4 Light Horse Regiment as a 34 yo in July 1915. He had tried to enlist earlier but had been rejected on the basis of ‘insufficient teeth’. He was married and he came from Sale. His medical was taken at Yarram but the enlistment was finalised at Melbourne. He reached France in March 1916. He was wounded by a high explosive shell in November 1916 and his left leg had to be amputated. He was returned to Australia and discharged on medical grounds in February 1918. He was one of three brothers who enlisted. A younger brother, Norcliffe Gabbett, only nineteen, had been killed at Gallipoli.

Gabbett steered a deft path in praising the various units in the AIF and noting their respective strengths. He singled out the ‘battalion stretcher bearer’ for praise. Gabbett also continued the anti-German theme and pushed it to extreme lengths. He was reported thus,

He did not like speaking about the Germans as it made his blood boil. He had seen their work in Belgium, and he hated them like poison; they were the worst of the worst. He would never trust a German, no matter where he came from. There was only one good German – and that was a dead one. (Applause.)

Lt. Einsiedel, a visitor – and a visitor with a German name – then proposed the toast to the ‘Fathers and Mothers of the Boys’. He spoke about the sacrifice of parents who had lost sons, particularly those who had given permission for their under-age sons to enlist.

Although some parents had lost their sons, those boys were not lost to them and their memory would live forever and be honoured throughout the land. Parents would, in bearing their burdens, know that the sacrifice they had made had not been in vain. (Applause.)

Mr George Bland responded to Lt Einsiedel. Bland was a well-known local farmer and civic leader. He had a played a key role in the soldiers’ farewells and welcomes home. He was also a temperance supporter. He continued with the customary platitude about the dead not really being dead. According to him,

Those lads who had been killed were not lost to the parents. They had only gone before, gone before to join that deathless army which would always live.

The next speaker was Mr. John Biggs. The Biggs family was Catholic and 5 sons had tried to enlist but only 3 were accepted. At the time, one of the sons – Corporal John William Biggs – was a prisoner of war. He had enlisted as a nineteen-year-old in May 1916. He had been captured in the major German push in April (1918).

Biggs managed to combine the two themes of the dead not being lost and Germany’s guilt,

Those lives that were lost were not lost in vain, as it was through those boys victory had been won. He [Biggs] was afraid the Allies were going to be too lenient with Germany. The present was no time to talk of justice to Germany. Let justice be given to France and Belgium first.

Biggs then moved on to more local concerns. Specifically, he started talking about repatriation and his comments took on a decidedly militant, if not agrarian socialist, tone. For Biggs, the past 4 years had seen many promises made and now it was time to deliver. Probably, Biggs was being critical of all those local civic leaders who had called on all the local men to enlist in the name of duty and patriotism. There was an obvious suggestion of class conflict in what he said:

When all the boys come back they should be provided for, and the Government should see they were properly looked after. The Government should compel the wealthy members of the community, those who had made money out of the war, to disgorge. There were men who were living idle lives holding big properties and producing next to nothing. The land should be acquired compulsorily. Let the Government pay a reasonable price for it and give it to the boys. No one had a better right to it than those who fought for it.

Finally, it was the turn of the ‘The Triers’. This toast was proposed by Mr David Muir, another returned local soldier. Prior to enlistment he had been a popular and well-known footballer and cricketer but he had been discharged in mid 1917 with ‘broken health’. Muir referred to those rejected as men …who through no fault of their own, were not soldiers. He spoke of them as …

– the disappointed triers. They had in fact formed an Association and were affiliated with the Returned Soldiers’ Association, being recognised as men who were prepared to do their share. Those who had the glorious privilege of donning the khaki, and enjoying all that the soldiers enjoyed, realised how disappointed these men still felt.

In responding to the toast, the Rev C. J. Walklate touched on a subject which was obviously still very raw. Unlike the ‘triers’ there had been other locals who had been fit and healthy and who could have enlisted but chose not to do so. And there was the related issue of people who continued to deal with these ‘shirkers’ and who therefore condoned their lack of duty and gave them respect to which they were not entitled. Moreover, according to Walklate, the shirker sometimes received even more attention than the genuine soldier:

They had men in their midst who could have left their properties and fought, while their work could have been quite easily carried on without them. These people should have been asked why they did not go. Even now they should be waited on and asked their reasons for failing to enlist. The matter should be taken up at once and settled for all time. If those men had no good reason then they should be relegated to social and political oblivion. Still there were people who hob-nobbed with those who neglected their duty. They had an example of it during the peace celebrations the other evening when in the hall at a dance. It was impossible to pick out the returned man. The favors and smiles were showered on the shirkers. There should be sufficient sense of shame left in those men who had not volunteered to be missing from such gatherings. However, those who had gone and those who had tried should move themselves in the matter, so that the line of distinction could be shown between those who had fought and tried and those who had not; then the public could see how the wind blew. (Applause.)

The fact that those rejected on health grounds had gone to the length of creating their own association indicates how concerned they were by the fear of being labelled a ‘shirker’. On some local memorials the names of those who had been rejected were even included. However, what was arguably more poignant was the naïve belief that there could ever be any sort of ‘comradely’ link between those who had served overseas in the AIF and the ‘triers’. It might have seemed a hopeful premise before the men returned, but once they did return there was obviously no shared experience whatsoever to hold the two groups together.

At the end of the toasts that night, on a more practical note, there was talk of the three associations – Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ League, the Fathers’ Association and the Rejected Volunteers’ Association – coming together behind a proposal to establish some sort of amenity – an ‘institute’ – where, once they had all returned, the local former soldiers could meet and socialise. On the night it seemed the most ordinary of suggestions but, in fact, this proposal was going to prove very divisive in the local community, particularly when the returned men showed signs of wanting the right to do things their way. The ‘mateship’ of the returned men was to prove more exclusive than the locals imagined.

The night ended with a toast to ‘Our Fallen Comrades’ – ‘honoured in silence’ – and, finally … The National Anthem, Rule Britannia and ringing cheers wound up a most pleasant evening.

One final observation is that there is some doubt over the person of Lt. Einseidel who was there as a guest that night. As indicated, he proposed one of the toasts and he was certainly introduced as a special guest:

Amongst the number was a soldier who had gained distinction by gaining at Bapaume a military cross, Lieutenant R. Einsiedel, who saw 2 years 10 months service.

There was no Einseidel who enlisted as a local and no record of the name on the local electoral roll or in the Shire of Alberton rate book. Possibly, he moved to the local area after he was discharged, but it is hard to find evidence of this. Possibly he was passing through Yarram at the time of the celebration. In terms of war service, I have not been able to find anyone of the name Einseidel receiving – or being recommended for – any honour or award. The name itself is very uncommon and the closest match I can find is 2 Lieutenant Rupert Einsiedel. He was born in Victoria but enlisted in Queensland. He served overseas for only a short time – approximately 4 months – before being returned to Australia and discharged, in August 1917, on medical ground – recurrent rheumatism. He did not serve in France but spent all his time in England undertaking officer training. The two versions of Lt Einsiedel obviously do not line up. Perhaps the local paper got the name wrong. Perhaps someone knew of the ‘real’ Lt Einsiedel and assumed – and also embellished – his identity so he could win favour in ‘out-of-the-way’ rural towns. At the same time, we have already seen how returned servicemen themselves were quick to identify ‘fakes’ and ‘imposters’. Lt Einseidel remains a puzzle.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

191. Armistice celebrations in the Shire of Alberton

The Armistice was signed at 5.00am on Monday 11/11/18 (Paris time) with all hostilities to cease six hours later (11.00am). Word reached Australia Monday night and the next morning Tuesday 12/11/18 Australians woke to newspaper headlines that declared, for example, Germany Accepts Defeat. Armistice Signed on Monday. Completer Surrender (The Argus Tuesday 12/11/18) and The War Ends. Germany Surrenders. Armistice Terms Signed. (The Age, Tuesday 12/11/18)

In line with its normal publication schedule, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative did not appear until Wednesday 13/11/18. The headline (below) which appeared in the edition noted that the local paper had posted the information of the War’s end, at its office in Yarram, as soon as it came though on the Monday night. Amazingly, the same edition also pointed out that, in fact, the Armistice was celebrated locally – and also very prematurely – from around midday on Friday November 8.

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 13/11/1918. Courtesy NLA

Friday November 8

According to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, word reached the town late morning on Friday 8 November that the Armistice had been signed. In an article with the headlines, Victory Celebrated. Premature Owing to Unfounded Rumour. Thorough Enjoyment Nevertheless. … the paper traced the source of the rumour first to the Alberton Railway Station and then to telegrams, including one from the (Melbourne) Stock Exchange. The signing of the Armistice was expected imminently and the anxious anticipation in the community meant that these reports were taken as fact. As the paper tellingly put it,

by 11 o’clock townspeople could not further restrain themselves. Flags were flown from every vantage point, stores were raided for the Allied colors, and none could settle down to work. Gaily bedecked motor cars were in evidence, and in their exuberance of spirit, owners clothed their canines in the colors. One dog hoisted a miniature Union Jack whenever he raised his tail. The school children were let loose, and headed by a few “instrumentalists,” who tin-whistled no particular tune, formed a procession through the town. They sang songs, and spectators cheered. The whole was a pleasing spectacle quite spontaneous, and worthy of the town.

However, an urgent telegram from the editor (A J Rossiter) to Reuters to confirm that the Armistice had been signed brought the response that this was not the case. At the same time, there was also a report from the State Department in Washington that the Armistice had not yet been signed. At this point, as the paper put it, ‘enthusiasm subsided a little’. But there was still considerable excitement and confusion. Rossiter blamed The Age for misleading headlines that day and noted that people became convinced that the Commonwealth Censor was trying to withhold the news. To add to the tension The Age itself, on the same day – Friday 8 November – reported on a rumour – ‘peace had been declared’ – that had spread wildly at Flemington Racecourse the day before, Thursday 7 November. On the Friday, there were more rumours about all leave from Broadmeadows being cancelled. Also on the Friday, word reached Yarram that the hotels in Melbourne had been closed, adding strength to the rumour of the War’s end. The hotels in Yarram remained open on the Friday and, according to the paper, there were no incidents as patrons celebrated in the ‘old way’. Word was also coming through by now that that on both the Continent and in America the victory was being celebrated.

Against this background the President of the Shire – Cr Barlow – decreed that local celebrations were to go ahead that night (Friday 8 November), including a bonfire on the show ground. The President’s decision, according to the paper, ‘led to criticism in some places’ but the paper also made it clear that the decision was widely supported. The paper also supported the decision, even if, strictly speaking, the Armistice itself had not been signed.

… but the children and young folks having made up their minds for the fun, the president was right in his ruling, while the spirit was in the air. There was sufficient cause for rejoicing, even though the armistice was not signed. The British Fleet had sailed through the Dardanelles and taken Constantinople, Turkey’s armies had surrendered unconditionally, and Austria, too, had surrendered. Surely this was sufficient for all round rejoicing, without the final scratch of the pen to complete absolute victory. Victory was near enough, at all events, for heartfelt rejoicing, and the people could restrain themselves no longer.

So that Friday night – November 8 – the town celebrated, three days before the actual Armistice. As the paper described,

The town at night was thronged, and wore an unusually gay appearance. Shortly after 8 o’clock a monster procession, headed by the Town Band and the Fire Brigade, moved from James-st., along Commercial-st., to the show ground. While the people were assembling the bonfire was lit, when could be seen the large attendance, numbering with the children upwards of 2,000.
Unfortunately, there was a shortage of fireworks on the night. Once the crowd settled in the grand stand, proceedings began. The ‘Doxology’ was the first item sung, followed by ‘Rule Britannia’, the ‘National Anthem’ and then ‘God Save Our Splendid Men’.

Cr Barlow and Revs Williams and Walklate then addressed the crowd. They commented on the Allied victory, and asked the people to thank God for deliverance from the hand of the Hun.
The speakers were duly cheered.

However at some point that night it must have seemed strange to those there that they were celebrating victory before the Armistice itself had been signed. The newspaper report noted that Cr Barlow told everyone there that once the Armistice had been definitely signed the Government would ensure that the news was wired to every shire in the nation. The realisation that they had been too fast of the mark must have eventually sunk in. This probably explains why the actual speeches that night were limited; and, essentially, there was not much more to do after the short speech by the two reverend gentlemen. As the paper put it,

For an hour afterwards the crowd lingered on the showground, entertained by the band, which gave a programme of well-played music.

Monday (night) November 11

Saturday and Sunday must have been quiet days as neither was mentioned in the paper’s report. But then on Monday night, when planning was underway in the shire hall for another (proper) celebration once the Armistice had been signed, word finally did come through that … an armistice had been signed, and the war had terminated at 6 o’clock that morning.

Finally, it was all for real, and it is clear from the report that there was an incredible release of emotions. There was also a dramatic sense of witnessing a unique historical event. The newspaper’s report captures the wild scenes as they unfolded in a country town. There is the overpowering sense of victory, and the attendant triumph of righteousness. Importantly, the Armistice was never seen in the strict sense of an armistice – The Age on 12/11/18 provided the precise military definition –  but as a certain Allied victory.

The welcome news was conveyed by the “Standard” representative to the meeting [then planning the real celebration for the Armistice], and the meeting appropriately sang the National Anthem and God Save Our Splendid Men. … A big crowd assembled outside the “Standard” office, where the news was posted, and song and cheers broke the stillness of the night. Minor bells tinkled, and the heavy toll of the fire bell, and the boom of Dr Rutter’s cannon announced to people several miles out that the big historic event had been achieved – the Hun was defeated. The town at once gave itself up to rejoicing. Fireworks, too, flashed the glad news, and never has such an enthusiastic scene been witnessed in Yarram. Mrs. Dwyer thoughtfully ran her piano on to the footpath, and for an hour or more a street concert was held. Never have patriotic songs been more lustily sung, and never have the words of “Rule Britannia” and the “Marseillaise ” had such significance. Britain had “ruled the waves” and with the gallant French the two nations had “fought on to victory” with the other brave Allies. Excitement was intense. The severe tensions of the past few agonising years had been relieved, and a thankful spirit prevailed. It was an historic and memorable event, such as will never again be witnessed by the present generation. The world war was over, and the blessings of a righteous peace at last vouchsafed. The doors of Thompson’s hall were thrown open by Mr. Toft, who invited all to participate in enjoyment, and for several hours, till the wee sma’ oors, (sic) young folks enjoyed a dance and general hilarity. It was a night that will never be forgotten.

Tuesday November 12

The next day, Tuesday 12 November, was declared a public holiday across Australia. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative reported that in Yarram a combined thanksgiving service was held in Thompson’s hall. The presiding ministers were Rev Opper (Church of England) and Rev Walklate (Methodist), with the Rev. Mr Williams (Presbyterian) as an apology. The paper described the service as ‘largely attended.’

The service opened with the National Anthem and ‘Our Splendid Men’. Other hymns included, ‘O God Our Help’, ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’, ‘Lest We Forget’, and ‘Jesu, Lover of My Soul’.
As per usual, the service was Protestant. According to the clergymen it might have taken God four long years but He had finally awarded the Allies the victory for which they had struggled. They been victorious because they had been fighting for principles. Their battle had been of a higher order.

All through the war the Allies had shown their inflexible determination to gain the victory, and nothing could lure them from the aim which they achieved. They set out to gain right over might, spiritual over material. They have been fighting for principles enshrined in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the patriotic church of Christendom has spoken with no uncertain voice. Our duty therefore is to return thanks to God, it would be base ingratitude if we refused or neglected to give thanks to the Great Ruler who has given us the great victory.

It is an open question as to how many at the service that day truly believed the God had finally intervened on their behalf and delivered them the victory. However, it was a religio-political line that had been preached consistently for the preceding 4 years and it would have seemed perfectly apt, even credible. Also, there was certainly no doubt that the ‘patriotic church of Christendom’ – as opposed, presumably, to the more politically and religiously ambivalent, if not outright suspect, church of Rome – had been beating a very loud drum for the four years of the War and it now intended to proclaim its (proprietary) victory.

That night (Tuesday), there was another celebration at the show ground. This was a decidedly more lively affair than the thanksgiving service. It was also a more genuine spectacle than the premature affair that had been staged on the Friday night. The celebration started about 8.00 o’clock with a procession of school children. Dr Rutter’s (home-made) cannon was pressed in to service again. The Royal Salute was played on a bugle and the usual ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ were sung by everyone there. A score of patriotic songs followed. A paragraph from the paper captures the mood,

Two bonfires were ablaze, in which were burnt the effigies of the Kaiser, Crown Prince and von Tirpiz. Indeed, they were blown up. The grand stand was electrically lighted, and fireworks shot skywards at frequent intervals. The Town Band played selections on the grand stand. All round an hilarious time was spent.

There were of course significant limits to communication at the time, and limits even to the range of Dr Rutter’s cannon. Consequently, news of the Armistice did not reach some townships until early the next day. The following report from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative of Wednesday 13 November describes how the news reached Toora, about 40 kilometres from Yarram.

The news that Germany had submitted to the Allies’ terms of peace, which was officially wired by the Lord Mayor to Major H. A. Jacobs, Toora, first thing on Tuesday morning [12/11/18], spread like wildfire and the streets were quickly thronged with cheering crowds. Church, school and other bells were started ringing, that at the Church of England being manned by a group of school boys who rhymed their peals to a tune of Peace, Peace, Peace, while buildings became immediately ablaze with flags and banners of all nationalities bar enemy. The school children, to whom a holiday had been granted, were soon abroad, hurrahing and hurrahing louder and more vigorously than all. Heavy rain falling at the time quite failed to damp the ardour of the people’s receipt of the glad tidings that peace had been declared for the time being, Germany having signed the Allies’ terms for an armistice, and that hostilities were to cease at dawn of the previous morn (sic). The joy was touchingly near, real and sincere.

The Armistice was also celebrated in the local (primary) schools. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (22/11/18) featured a detailed report on celebrations at the Devon North State School held on the Wednesday 20/11/18.

It would have been perfectly natural that celebrations took place in the local (state) primary school. As we have seen repeatedly, the local state school was a critical focus for the War effort, not just in terms of fund raising and other drives to provide comfort and support for the troops but also in the way the narrative of the War was employed – by teachers, inspectors, town elders, local Protestant clergy, the school governing body, the local press – to reinforce amongst the children the sense of loyalty to the Empire and the Nation. The values laboured were those of duty, loyalty, honour and sacrifice. The report in the local paper described how the speakers there that day emphasised that final victory had come from unwavering commitment to such basic values.

It was community celebration:

On Wednesday afternoon the parents and children of Devon North met at the school to express their delight at the successful termination of the European war. The large attendance evidenced the thoroughly loyal spirit, mingled with the deep feelings of relief.

After the National Anthem was sung, the importance of the occasion was explained to the children. They were then warmly praised for their … sustained efforts in support of all war movements. They were also urged to take pride in the school’s long honor roll which featured the names of approximately 60 former students.

That afternoon, the comments made in relation to sacrifice, patriotic loyalty and Imperial duty were virtually identical to those made when the first volunteers left the train station at Alberton in September 1914.

The honor roll, with some 60 names, testified to the loyalty of the residents, and the children were requested to reverence it and cherish the memory of those whose names appeared on it. Should the Empire at any future time demand assistance he [The president of the Shire, Cr. Barlow] was certain that the call would be just as readily responded to. His earnest request was that the children should strive to be worthy of their glorious heritage, and that they should do their utmost to maintain the Empire in the proud position it occupied today.

Cr. Barlow also laboured the theme of national – and imperial – greatness being based on ideals, values and principles. The enemy, on the other hand, was claimed to have pursued only material and worldly things.

In closing, the Shire President could not resist an appeal to the higher authority.

… so long as it [the British Empire] adhered to its present principles, its position was assured. Nations that had based their greatness merely on worldly matters had to-day even their names blotted out; therefore, they [the students] were requested to entrust themselves at all times to the Supreme Ruler.

Presumably, the Supreme Ruler was a reference to God the Almighty rather than George V., even if, as head of the Church of England, King George was the ‘Supreme Anglican’.

The ceremony finished with a mix of formality, conviviality, fun and, of course, the mandatory session of sports.

After the saluting of “The Flag”, afternoon tea was supplied and a programme of sports proceeded with.

All the speech making associated with the immediate local celebrations of the Armistice described the victory in terms of the Empire’s unconquered greatness and the associated triumph of its religion, Protestantism. Essentially, this was a perspective that looked back, to the world of pre-August 1914. All declared that the War had been won by the right side, with the right history, the right religion and the right values. Therefore, according to this logic, order would now be restored. The past could become again the present. Unfortunately, the world, the Empire and Australia itself had changed far too much for that to happen.

References

The Argus

The Age

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

181. Returning home in 1918

This post examines the series of welcome home celebrations staged in the Shire of Alberton in 1918 to the end of hostilities in November. In all there were 29 such celebrations reported in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – over the period. On a few occasions a welcome home was combined with a farewell to one or more soldiers about to embark for overseas service. Of the 29 occasions, 8 involved welcome home events in Yarram and the rest were divided across the smaller towns and settlements in the Shire: Stacey’s Bridge (2), North Devon (4), Alberton (2), West Alberton (1), Port Albert (1), Won Wron (3), Wonyip (1), Binginwarri (1), Willing South (1), Stradbroke (1), Kjergaard (1), Carrajung (1), Lower Whitelaw (1), Lower Bulga (1).

Some men who had in fact returned prior to 1918 were also ‘welcomed’ again at some of the events in 1918. Also, men could be welcomed home in more than one location. Commonly, they would attend a welcome in Yarram and then they would also be welcomed home in their particular township, or even in more than one township. Some men returned to Australia before 1918 but they remained in hospital in Melbourne for extended periods and did not return to the Shire for an official welcome until some time in 1918. Lastly, there could have been some men who enlisted from the Shire of Alberton and who returned to Australia for medical discharge in 1918 but who never returned to the Shire. With all these qualifications in mind, it appears that over the course of 1918, 40 men were welcomed home in the 29 formal events referred to above.

By way of comparison, prior to the 40 men in 1918, 12 men had been formally welcomed home in 1917, 8 men in 1916, and one person – William Andrew Newland who became the local recruiting sergeant – in 1915. Clearly, over 1918, there was a dramatic increase in the number of men being discharged. Some would have seen this increase as incontrovertible evidence of the desperate need to provide reinforcements for the AIF. At the same time, all would have seen it as dramatic proof of the escalating human cost of the ‘sacrifice’ that had been exacted over the past 4 years.

The local state school was often used as the venue for welcome home celebrations. For example, there was a major function held at the Yarram school on Anzac Day 1918 when 12 men were welcomed not just home but also to their old school. It was the largest welcome home event staged in 1918. Other local schools involved in welcome home celebrations included Stacey’s Bridge, North Devon, Willing South, Lower Whitelaw and Lower Bulga.

There appear to have been a number of reasons why the school was such a popular venue. In the case of Yarram there was the ongoing issue about attendance at such functions. As noted previously, there was the constant complaint from speakers at these events that not enough locals were prepared to show up and demonstrate their support for the men, either those leaving for overseas or those returning wounded. At a welcome home as late as October 1918, Councillor Barlow was reported in the local paper (11/10/18) lamenting the poor attendance but, at the same time, acknowledging the presence of the school children. The lack of attendance was only really an issue in Yarram. Events staged in the other townships were invariably well attended. They also almost always featured a more expansive program which included a social and/or dance to ensure a genuine community celebration.

While staging the event at the school guaranteed an audience, much was also made of the appropriateness of the school per se. Speakers claimed that it was the local school that had formed the initial, critical character of the men who had enlisted. Rossiter, the editor of the local paper, expressed this argument when he spoke at a welcome home for Robert McKenzie at Devon North State School in February 1918. His comments were reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 22/2/18:

It is fitting that these send-offs and welcomes should take place in the school, for here, as in every country community, the school is the centre of local interest, and when we consider that in nearly every case it was in this school that these soldiers have received their early training in love of country, it is highly desirable that it should be in that building they should be bid “god speed” or “welcome’.

Rossiter’s comments placed the local school as a critically important institution in the formation of the Australian soldier’s character. In the report (26/4/18) of the 1918 Anzac Day welcome home ceremony referred to above, Rev. Walklate, another of the district’s outspoken Imperial Loyalists, highlighted the specific significance of the school curriculum. It is clear that the experience of WW1 was redefining the traditional (Imperial) narrative that had prompted such high levels of patriotic loyalty and duty at the outbreak of WW1. The claim that Australia’s true history only really began with Gallipoli was by then common place. Even Federation – less than 20 years earlier – had been replaced.

Rev. C. J. Walklate said that the 25th April three years ago was the beginning of Australian history. They [the school children there that day] had read of the exploits of our explorers, who had mapped out the land for civilisation to come and make homes for the present generation. But the tragic landing at Gallipoli eclipsed everything else. They had read of the charge of the Light Brigade, but what the Australians had done put that feat in its shade, when they landed against such great odds on 25th April 1915.

In general, the themes highlighted at the welcome home events were often identical to those used at farewells. For example, much was made of the sacrifice and heroism of those returning and both qualities were often contrasted with the self-interest and cowardice of those ‘eligibles’ who refused to go. B P Johnson, welcoming the returned soldiers, reflected pointedly at the same Anzac Day event:

Many have died, but their names will never die; memory of them will live far beyond those eligibles who remain at home.

Johnson would learn just one month later that his own son had been killed (14/5/18).

The soldier as the true son of the ‘pioneer’ was another common theme. There was a very large welcome home social – 170 in attendance – held at Won Wron in early May 1918. One of the speakers was reported (8/5/18) as declaring that … the character of the child came from that of the parents, so there was no need to wonder at it. These parents were the pioneers of Gippsland and assisted in making history for Australia, while their sons made history for the world.

The outstanding fighting qualities of the Australian soldier was another common theme. J J O’Connor (9/10/18) declared at a welcome home in Yarram that the … Australian soldier was recognised as the best fighter on the side of the Allies. It was a common claim.

Not surprisingly, the most common theme was that of ‘repatriation’. Speakers laboured the idea that the men returning, both those returning wounded and the thousands who would be discharged at the end of the fighting, had to be ‘looked after’. The details of any large-scale repatriation scheme were still sketchy but the ideal of ‘repatriation’ had become a given. There had to be both recognition and recompense. In 1918, civic leaders were fearful that the local community did not appreciate the size of the problem and would even be indifferent to the men’s situation, as they been indifferent to so many other aspects of the War. Just before the Armistice, at a welcome home to A J Martin in Yarram on 30/10/18, B P Johnson was reported in the local paper (1/11/18) as declaring:

There was a big thing facing the people of Australia in regards to the returned men, and that was repatriation: and as yet the public did not seem to grasp it. In this district it was not very apparent, as most of those who had returned had, in their independence of spirit, not asked for help. However, the time would come when men would return to the district who needed help, and the people must be ready with that assistance, for if anyone deserved a helping hand it was those men who had fought for us. It would not be conferring a favor but simply endeavoring to repay in a small measure a debt that was due. No matter what was done for the returned lads, it would only be as a drop in a bucket compared with what they had done for us.

In rural areas, the idea of repatriation equated to settling the returned soldier on the land. It was seen as a natural reward for their effort and it was commonly believed that returning soldiers would be the very type that could make a success of it. Also, the common labourers and farm workers amongst them had won the chance to better themselves by becoming land owners. At another welcome home at Won Wron on 11/10/18 – reported on 16/10/18 – one of the local farmers was reported as hoping that … the Government would do its duty by such as he [D’Arcy Brown, the soldier being welcomed home] who had risked his life for Australia. The boys had fought for it [land] and it was theirs, if the Government did right it would give, not sell to returned soldiers the land they required. They had gone forth and fought for it while others just as able remained at home, getting high wages and at ease.

While, not surprisingly, the common sentiments expressed at the welcome home events were those of relief and gratitude, the events also highlighted the ever-present division in the local community. This was particularly the case involving the larger more set-piece welcomes, especially those held in Yarram or those that featured leading Imperial Loyalists as the key speakers. In such instances, the welcome home presented a public platform to attack eligibles, press for recruits and chastise the community generally for not lending sufficient support for the War. A striking example of this behaviour was the welcome home at North Devon on 13/9/18. It was reported in the local paper, in great detail, on 18/9/18. The event, which was very well attended, had a dual purpose: to welcome home and present a special medallion to 8 recently returned local men and also to honour the … memory of those who had fallen. The returned men sat on the stage throughout. The event was organised by the North Devon ‘Old Boys’ Association’, a local committee that throughout the War had been very active in ensuring all those who left from and returned to the district of North Devon were recognised and celebrated. However, for some reason, the key speakers on the day were two of the most outspoken Imperial Loyalists from Yarram. Benjamin Couston was the bank manger of the Yarram branch of the Bank of Victoria and the Rev Cyril John Walklate was the Methodist minister from Yarram.

Couston started his long speech by praising the returned men on the stage. He declared that, Every heart should be pulsating for the men who had done their duty to their country and had returned home. He then noted that, The people did not appreciate fully what these brave men had done. He then declared that … these men are heroes, and no honor that is bestowed upon them would adequately repay them for what they had done. If the whole wealth of this prosperous district were handed to these men, it would not be one-tenth of what was their due.

Continuing in this effusive style, he could not pass up the opportunity to remind those in the audience that they themselves had been fickle:

They would remember when the lads left this district that there was cheering, singing and flag waving, but some of those who did those things soon forgot the lads.

The real target however was the man who refused to enlist. Couston, who invariably described himself at such gatherings as ‘the father of two soldiers’, saved his fiercest criticism for the eligibles, some of whom he had recently seen playing football at Yarram. There was menace in his remarks:

Why was it that some stood on one side? They were never touched with that patriotic feeling which should be within the breasts of all. When he saw a number of men assembled together the other day at Yarram playing football he asked himself the question. Why weren’t these men playing the game yonder, why weren’t they helping their pals? To his own mind there was only one reason, and that was cussed selfishness. But the time would come when these men would dearly regret their selfishness, as they could not expect to be treated in the same way as the men who had sacrificed themselves.

Couston continued and attacked those who were in favour of negotiations for peace, the ‘pacifists at Trades Hall’ and those who wanted ‘revolution’. For Couston, It was no time to talk of peace. In his mind, the War had to be pursued until Germany was totally crushed, and therefore he urged,

If there was one man in Devon who was eligible he asked him in God’s name to go.

Following Couston, Rev Walklate’s primary focus was not the men on stage being welcomed home, but those who had died. His theme was the universal one of sacrifice, Christian sacrifice. He preached that life only had meaning if it was lived in the spirit of sacrifice. There could be no other measure:

The living of life must be measured by the spirit in which that life was given. Unless the spirit of self-sacrifice entered into man’s life that life was not lived in the true meaning of the word. It was probably hard to understand, but it was true. The men who had fallen and those who are prepared to go forth and make the sacrifice are the men who live. If that spirit of sacrifice died then the men lived no longer. The parents and loved ones of the fallen heroes had done their part, and had lived because they had sacrificed themselves.

With the returned men sitting on the stage as props, Walklate continued his sermon on real life. It was not about ‘wealth’ and ‘social position’ but about ‘sacrifice’. The length of life was not as important as its spiritual quality. There was of course the mandatory text and its explication:

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” Men worshipped in different creeds, but the final test was whether it was done under the name of Jesus Christ or not. The final test was the test of Jesus Christ, that a man live in that spirit and that he lay down his life for his friend. These men, and these alone, had reached the stepping stone into eternal life.

To make it clear that he too was targeting eligibles, Walklate spoke of the returned men who had confided in him that they felt spurned by locals, while they saw eligibles – who had ‘failed in their duty’ – being favoured. He declared:

One man who had fought and bled [like those on the stage] had told him that many girls were keen to catch the glances of the shirker, but hardly noticed the returned soldier.

Walklate went so far as to condemn, in the religious sense, the man who would not accept his responsibility. Such a person would not enter the kingdom of God. He warned … those who were enjoying the comforts of this life would find out their mistake later on, as they would soon die, and they could not live again. Only sacrifice, in this case in the cause of the Nation and Empire, could guarantee eternal life:

The entrance to eternal life was by sacrifice, and if people did not respond to life’s responsibilities, they would have an awakening [fateful reckoning] in the life to come.

The final speaker that night was a local, the father of Edwin Alford who had been killed in April that year (Post 158). Alford had just been given a medallion for his dead son. He rounded out the condemnation of all those who had refused to enlist:

Mr. Alford said he would value the token received that evening all the days of his life. He was an Australian, and was proud to be one. He also felt proud to know that his boy had gone and done his duty. He would sooner any son of his fight and die for his country than to remain home and be a coward. He said to those fathers who had sons, to send one to the front to see themselves from dishonour. Neither himself nor his wife would wish to have a son who shirked his duty. (Applause.)

It is clear that those on the stage that night were being welcomed back to a divided community where there was much grief, frustration, anger and bitterness.

The returned men themselves

The men welcomed home in 1918 were the ones who had been repatriated to Australia for a medical discharge. They returned home with their health significantly compromised. In several cases they were not able to attend welcome home ceremonies because they were still recovering in hospital in Melbourne. In other cases, when they attended such functions they were not able to speak because of ‘nerves’. In other instances they appeared before the locals as amputees. The standard approach to handle the nature and extent of battle wounds was to appeal to notions of manhood and Empire. As W G Pope declared at a welcome home in March 1918 (reported on 20/3/18):

He was sorry to see some of them wounded, but these scars would be their glory for the rest of their lives. They had proved to be men of the same description of our Nelson and Wellington heroes.

The report in the local paper also noted the similar remarks of Rev A R Raymond, the local Anglican clergyman:

Rev. A. R. Raymond extended a hearty welcome to the soldiers, men who could say they bore marks on their bodies in fighting for King and Country, and in defending right we were [as] proud of them as they were proud of their marks.

Beyond such platitudes, it is worth examining in more detail the condition in which the men returned. Of the 40 men welcomed home in 1918, only two had not been discharged on medical grounds. Henry Cook had been discharged for ‘family reasons’. Four brothers from the family had enlisted, but by 1918 the parents were not able to cope by themselves. The other person was Sydney Collis who had been returned to Australia on Anzac Leave and, in theory, was to return to France for the planned offensive in Spring 1919. However, the medical condition of both these men was problematic. Cook had been wounded – gsw back – and had suffered from shell shock, while Collis had been hospitalised earlier with enteric fever.

Of the remaining 38 men, some had been discharged for ongoing medical issues. One was discharged for chronic bronchitis, another for defective eyesight, a third for hearing problems and a fourth for gastric ulcers and tachycardia. Two men, both in their forties, were discharged for (premature) senility.

The remaining 34 men were discharged on medical grounds that specifically related to battle field experience. Two had been ‘gassed’ and one had been discharged with ‘trench feet’, including ‘blood clots in the legs.’ There was a group of 4 men who had been discharged because of neurasthenia. While only 4 men were discharged solely on the basis of this condition, neurasthenia often occurred in the medical notes of men discharged for other (medical) reasons. The condition was commonly described in terms of ‘shell shock’, ‘paralysis of the legs’, and often tachycardia was included.

The largest group of men (25) were medically discharged because they had been wounded by gunshot (gsw) or shrapnel (sw) or, in the case of Gallipoli veterans, by ’bomb’. The wounds in these instances were most commonly to the chest, back, legs, arms and thigh. Sometimes the wounds were ‘multiple’. There were several amputations – leg, hand, arm – associated with these wounds.

Clearly, even after they had been discharged from hospital, the general health of this group of returned men was going to be problematic. While they were welcomed home as heroes, the reality was that they were to face compromised health, most probably for the rest of their lives. This would affect their lives generally, including work prospects. It also meant that those who were relatively young – most were in the mid to late twenties – and single (33) were most likely going to have to rely on the support of their parents and siblings. The fortunes of the families of the 7 married men would also be compromised, and the burden of care would fall heavily on the wife.

It is also important to note that the most common occupation for men in this group of returned soldiers (50%) was that of ‘farm worker’ or ‘farm labourer’. There was another 25% of the group who came from the ‘family farm’. Essentially, even with a pension and even if they managed to find and keep work or perform a productive role on the family farm, these men were always going to struggle financially. They did not have financial resources to fall back on. Again, notwithstanding the degree to which they were feted on their return – and told to wear their wounds as ‘badges of honour’ – the reality was that their lives had been seriously compromised. The cost of sacrifice fell disproportionately on the rural working class.

There are 2 additional interesting observations. The first is that a significant number of the men – 9 of the 40 – had been UK immigrants who had worked as farm labourers in the Shire before they enlisted in the AIF. Rather than be discharged in the UK these men had returned to Australia and then, once back in Australia, they had chosen to return to the very district where they had worked before the War. Presumably their overall decision was shaped in part by issues such as the need for ongoing medical care and the provision of pensions but, at the same time, the decision to return to the very district where they had worked before the War suggests that they saw themselves as true ‘locals’. Perhaps they also reasoned that they would be better supported in their (adopted) local area.

The other interesting detail is the fact that 25% of the group actually went on to become soldier settlers after the War. There are 2 pertinent observations here. The first is that the figure tends to confirm the view that had soldier settlement as the ‘natural’ vocation for returned soldiers. The thinking at the time was that such men had the right experience, skills and character for the challenge. They were tough, independent and resourceful. Because of their experiences in the AIF they could make the scheme work. Moreover, in the spirit of some form of ‘rural socialism’ these soldier ‘battlers’ deserved the chance to secure land and move beyond the lot of the (itinerant) rural working class. Men wounded in battle had sacrificed even more and the logic had to be that such men deserved the chance as much as any other returned soldier. The other observation is that men whose health had been as compromised as it was for this group, would inevitably struggle more as soldier settlers than those whose health was relatively intact. Essentially, this view holds that these men were set up to fail.

In the last year of the War a record number of wounded men returned to the Shire of Alberton. They were welcomed as heroes. They were promised that everything possible would be done for them and that their sacrifice would never be forgotten. At the time, their sacrifice was also used to condemn those in the community who had refused to enlist. The men themselves must have seen that the community they returned to was divided. What they could not see was the future in which all the promises made would be qualified and their relative standing in the same community compromised. The currency of their scars would decline and the reality was they would never be able to slip back into their old lives and take up again where things were before they enlisted.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

52. Update 3

Memorial at Bourgues. Both wars are given equal prominence on the face of the memorial but, as is the case everywhere in France, the great majority of the names of the dead come from WW1.

Click to enlarge. Memorial at Cher (Bourges), September 2015. Both wars are given equal prominence on the face of the memorial but, as is the case everywhere in France, the great majority of the names of the dead come from WW1. For a dramatic illustration of this point, click on the slide of  Estaing 1 below.

 

I was in France for September and the research and writing had to be put on hold. But now it is time to return to the blog.

One of the first tasks over the next few weeks will be to identify all the men from the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in the first half of 1915. I will provide a detailed analysis of this group, employing the same methodology as for posts 22 and 23 when I looked at the group that enlisted prior to the end of 1914. Then, early in the new year, I will cover all those who enlisted in the second half of 1915; and I will continue to apply this six-monthly analysis through to the end of the War.

Additionally, I am going to continue the earlier theme on the more extreme forms of patriotic behaviour that started to manifest themselves in the local community from early 1915. I specifically want to look at the anti-German feelings that arose. This will complement posts 38 and 41.

It is also appropriate to analyse the first farewells for men leaving the shire. There were significant differences between the formal farewell staged in Yarram and the more social and inclusive farewells in the various townships.

Similarly, it is now relevant to look in detail at the early recruiting committee established in Yarram: its composition, agenda and success.

However, more immediately, I want to reflect a little on my month in France. The major activity was a 200K walk in a fairly isolated region in France. It was the ‘Via Podiensis’ or the first 200K of the pilgrimage route of the Camino – ‘le chemin’ in French – from Le Puy en Velay to Conques. It is a stunning walking trail through a part of France that few people see. In fact, probably the only reason any traveller would ever be there would be to walk this particular section of the centuries-old pilgrimage route of St. Jacques, or St. James, which runs all the way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

It is very rural and the country is rich in both agriculture – the famous green lentils of Le Puy – and dairying. But like so many other rural areas it seems to have experienced significant population movement, as the youth, in particular, have moved to larger cities. It was most noticeable when walking through the small villages or hamlets that there was hardly anyone to be seen. Overall, there were similarities with Gippsland, or at least the part of the Gippsland that was covered in the former Shire of Alberton.

One similarity that struck me immediately was that even in the smallest village or hamlet there was a memorial to those who were killed in WW1. As is the case in Australia, these memorials also incorporated names from WW2 – and, additionally for the French, names from the wars in Indochina and Algeria – but by far the greatest number of names recorded the dead from WW1.  I have included a gallery of some of the memorials. Most of these towns now have only small populations. One hundred years ago there would have been more people living in them – just like the equivalent places in Gippsland – but most were only ever small towns or villages in an isolated part of France. Yet every one of them has a substantial memorial, with the names of those locals who were killed in WW1.  In both Australia and France, people from the local area, however it was defined, felt the powerful need to record the names of their dead. In France, the convention appeared to be that the dead were described as ‘children’ (enfants). Correspondingly, we often referred to our soldiers as boys, but not usually in the formal context of memorials.

The presence of all these memorials  – not just the ones I saw on the walk but also those in the larger towns and cities I visited, like Toulouse and Bordeaux – also reminded me of the incredible struggle that France faced in WW1. The nation was invaded by Germany in 1914 and the whole of the War, at least on the Western Front, involved French efforts first to withstand and then drive back the invading German army. It was a struggle on a scale never before seen. The numbers are staggering: with conscription, the French forces, including colonial troops, reached 7.5M . The generally recognised figure for combat deaths is in the order of 1.4M and the number of those wounded is commonly given as 4M. The scale of losses from key French battles is as shocking. For example, the largest war cemetery in France is at Notre Dame de Lorette (Ablain-Saint-Nazaire) near Arras. In one year, between October 1914 and October 1915, some 100,00 French troops were killed in the immediate vicinity.  Verdun is an even more sobering example. The monumental ossuary there – Douamont – contains the bones of some 130,000 men killed at Verdun between February and December 1916. Over the same period, the total number of French killed was 162,000. The German dead numbered 143,000.

What also played on my mind was the question of what the French made of WW1, in this the centenary year. Obviously, like us in Australia, they have had special commemorations. But my concern was not so much the question of the scale of the commemorations but rather their deeper meaning.

In Australia, this year’s WW1 commemorations – or, more particularly, the Gallipoli commemorations – have focused on national identity. Gallipoli, according to accepted truth, proved our national identity, defined our core values and even gave ‘birth to the young nation’. So, as a nation, our stake in WW1 has always been, and still remains, fundamentally important and very positive. At the same time, it will be interesting to see, as the next few years unfold, if our commemoration of events on the Western Front will be as significant. What happened to the AIF on the Western Front was far worse than at Gallipoli, but how will we commemorate it? And how will we remember what happened in Australia over the same period?  How, for example, will we commemorate the two conscription referenda when the nation voted against the wishes of the government-of-the-day, and when the No vote was represented as a betrayal of the soldiers at the front? Did those votes tell us anything about national character? Or will they pass unremarked? Similarly, will we pay any attention at all to the centenary of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland?

I cannot claim to know how the French interpret WW1 one hundred years on, but I can make the case that they do not have such a one-dimensional and simple take on it as we do. For example, in keeping with our historical preoccupation with WW1 as an exercise in nation building and the definition of national character, we make much of the larrikin spirit of the AIF and in particular the reluctance to submit to military discipline and respect the officer class. For the French however there was Verdun, where the slaughter was so great and so unrelenting that the Army mutinied. It is far harder to gloss that particular historical reality into any celebration of national character. Also for the French, the victory in 1918, at such dreadful cost, was followed, not much more than 20 years later, by defeat and occupation. That occupation saw resistance, but also collaboration. 200,000 people were deported from Vichy France. The difficult legacy of those times is still evident in French society and politics today. I was struck, for example, by schools that record – at the very front of the school so that every student sees it – the names of Jewish students deported to death camps. It is a legacy that also touches on questions of national character, but in ways that are more problematic and contested than our simpler, commemorative version of national history. Then there is the obvious truth that Europe 100 years on from WW1 is a very different place. For a start, Germany, even though defeated in 2 world wars and divided for 50 years has clearly emerged as the dominant political and economic powerhouse of Western Europe.

You could extend this line of thought and consider how other major powers involved in WW1 now see and commemorate it, for example, Germany and Russia.  And if I was walking in Ireland and started to muse on how WW1 and its legacy played out in that particular nation’s history I would find anger, frustration and two markedly different versions of a powerful sense of betrayal.

The walk in rural France is over and it is time now to return to the blog on the social history of the impact of WW1 on a particular community in Gippsland. But is is worth keeping in mind that the commemoration of history is never a politically neutral exercise.

References

For more background on French commemorations, memorials etc, see Chemins de Memoire There is a (partial) English translation.

Specific French memorials:

Notre Dame de Lorette
Douamont  (Battle of Verdun)

For a comprehensive account of the British Empire’s approach to the burial and commemoration of its war dead in France see:

Crane, D 2014, Empires of the Dead: How one man’s vision led to the creation of WW1’s war graves, William Collins, London.