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.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative