Category Archives: The role of the Press

93. Conscription Referendum 1916: the (private) No vote

Previous posts (87, 88, 89 and 91) have covered the strength of the public campaign for the Yes vote in the Shire of Alberton. All relevant local institutions, from the local council itself through to the local press, actively and  wholeheartedly supported the Yes vote. Conscription had been widely supported by the district’s professional, business and managerial elite from early 1916. The local Protestant churches had even preached to their congregations the responsibility to vote Yes. The only potential limit to the Yes vote was the ambivalent position of the Catholic Church: the individual could certainly vote Yes, but, unlike the Protestant position, Yes was not mandated and, rather, had to be guided by an informed conscience. Other than this, the idea that a local could – let alone would – vote No was not publicly entertained.

Immediately prior to the referendum, Thomas Livingston, the local member for Gippsland South in the Victorian Parliament, was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (27/10/16)  as predicting, confidently, that the Yes vote would be 75%. In the event, the Yes vote – for the sub-division of Yarram – was 66%.

The response of the 2 local papers to the loss of the referendum is instructive. Both took the course of criticising the national result while at the same time lauding the high level of patriotism evident in the strength of the Yes vote in the Shire.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, in its first edition after the referendum (1/11/16) found the national result ‘deplorable’ but its real focus was the proven loyalty of country Victoria and, in particular, Gippsland:

The country vote in [Victoria] favoured “Yes” in every electorate but three, these being Ballarat, Bendigo, and Grampians. The seven other country electorates voted for conscription and Gippsland … gained the distinction of securing the greatest majority for conscription of all the Victorian electorates.

Similarly, the South Gippsland Chronicle, in its first edition (1/11/16) after the referendum also praised the loyalty of those in Gippsland:

It is gratifying to note the overwhelming vote in favor of Conscription given by the people of the Gippsland division, a “Yes” majority being shown in every portion of the electorate with the exception of a few small places. The totals for the division were – Yes 16,056, No 7,725. Majority for Yes 8,331.

The quoted figure gave the Yes vote for the whole of Gippsland as 67.5%.

The same article broke the vote down by electoral sub-divisions and for the Yarram sub-division – effectively the Shire of Alberton – the results were reported as 1,144 Yes, 573 No, with 24 informal votes. This gave the Yes vote for the Shire of Alberton as 66%.

As strong as the Yes vote was in the Shire of Alberton, and Gippsland generally, there was still the question of why one-third of the local community had voted No.  At least part of the answer came in the editorial in the South Gippsland Chronicle on 3/11/16. The paper claimed that it was the pre-emptive decision by the Hughes Government to apply existing provisions under the Defence Act to call up – for military service within the Commonwealth – all single men between the ages of 21 to 35.

On the assumption that there would be a successful Yes vote, Hughes wanted the military training of the first group of conscripts underway as soon as possible, and before the referendum had even been conducted. This strategy would mean that reinforcements could be sent to the Western Front as quickly as possible. While the initiative smacked of contempt for the democratic process, the real problem for Hughes was that the call up – and more significantly the exemption process that it involved –  forced the rural community to experience at first hand what conscription would mean for them; and they were left in no doubt that it posed a serious threat.

The editorial of 3/11/16 noted specifically that the call-up telegraphed the Government’s intentions once the referendum had succeeded.

The results following the referendum, should it be carried, were clearly defined by the Prime Minister, and men were even called into camp for home service in order to receive part of their training and be ready to go abroad should they be classed as fit after the people had conferred the necessary power on the Government. This was undoubtedly responsible for many who would otherwise have voted “Yes” going to the poll and helping to secure a majority for “No.” It cannot be denied that the calling up of men has inflicted a great hardship in many cases, and, as was instanced at the exemption court held at Yarram last week, made it almost impossible for those who remain behind to carry on their former vocation.

In fact, the Government had been telegraphing its intentions on conscription from the time of the War Census in late 1915. People surmised that the purpose of Schedule 1 of the census – to be completed by all males aged 18 and under 60 – was to provide the Government with data that could inform a system of conscription should the voluntary system not deliver sufficient reinforcements. Then in December 1916, Hughes issued his Call to Arms which involved a personal letter to every eligible man between 18 and 45. The men had to submit a formal response to the letter. Those who failed to return the form would be identified and pursued. The expectation was that the men targeted would enlist immediately or in the near future. If they refused to enlist they had to submit reasons and they could be challenged, in person, by the local recruiting sergeant. It was obviously a considerable shift away from a purely voluntary system.

As discussed earlier – Post 87 – there was obvious ‘push back’ in the Shire of Alberton to this drift to conscription. We know that some locals refused to return their Call to Arms forms. But, more strikingly, we know that of the 188 who had returned their forms by January 1916, 66% had selected the option to refuse to enlist. 8.5% of those who received the call from Hughes had already enlisted, 18% indicated they were prepared to enlist immediately and 7.5% said they were prepared to enlist at a later time. This left the 66% who refused the Call.

Clearly, as the drift to conscription – vigorously promoted by the Yarram-based local recruiting committee – continued to gain momentum there was growing opposition. However, this opposition took the form of a private response – failure to complete the form or failure to respond appropriately – rather than any public, organised demonstration of dissent.

The dynamic involved in the of growing (private) opposition to conscription was driven by the fundamental structure, and related ethos, of the local farming community, where the key social institution was the family farm.

As has been covered in the 2 posts – Post 60 and Post 85 – that looked at speeches given at farewells in 1915 and 1916, one of the most common themes was that of the pioneer as soldier. The young men enlisting were said to show the same spirit and character as the pioneers who had settled the district from the 1840s. The pioneers had opened up the land, battled the elements, overcome isolation and brought civilisation to the frontier of settlement. Within this general narrative, there was a particular focus on the selectors from the 1860s who had struggled to break the monopoly of the squatters and establish a new social and political landscape of family farms spreading out from small towns and settlements. The selectors had a particularly hard struggle as they attempted to establish themselves with meagre levels of capital. Often they had little background in farming itself and their access to relevant technology was limited. The parcels of land they secured were often too small, isolated or poor in quality. There was very weak infrastructure, particularly in the area of transport. Many of the selectors  lived in exceptionally challenging, if not primitive, conditions. They also felt they had little support from all levels of government. They were by themselves. But against this background, the narrative held that they had survived. They were tough, resourceful, independent and hard-working. They were the pioneers who had made the district what it was.

However, on the specific issue of labour, the pioneer as soldier theme featured a major internal contradiction which, inevitably, played out in the 1916 referendum.

Arguably, the most important resource for the selector trying to establish the family farm was the labour of the family itself. The absolute importance of family labour – the parents and the children – to the success and survival of the family farm had been a fundamental given from the very beginning of selection. The family worked as an economic unit. And the economic realities in  turn helped shape the social identity of the family, in areas such as inheritance, marriage, the generational expansion of the family enterprise and the care of the parents as they aged. This took place in a period that pre-dated modern social welfare provisions.

The actual pattern of labour on the family farm was complex. Individual landholdings could be so small, or the land so difficult, or the seasons so bad – and any number of other factors, and combinations thereof – that in many cases the ‘family farm’ was not viable without some family members working outside the farm as wage earners. Sons could work on other farms as labourers and daughters could work as domestics, either on other farms or for the middle-class families in rural towns.

Importantly, labour in these rural communities was generally not organised. The selections were too small, the nature of the farming – eg dairy farming, vegetable growing – required fewer workers per individual farm, the settlement was too dispersed and there was a long-standing, natural antipathy to the trade unions of the urban working class, as their industrial action often compromised the interests of the rural economy.

In the political and economic environment of the Shire, the assumption was that the family farm had to have the power to control its labour resources and employ them to meet its needs, in a difficult and complex environment. It was this fundamental belief that was directly challenged by conscription.

For the first 2 years of the War, individual families had decided by themselves how best to balance the need to manage the farm and ensure its survival with the concomitant need to ‘answer the call’ and discharge their ‘patriotic duty’.  However, the introduction of conscription would see the imposition of rigid and impersonal rules that would take away all the autonomy, flexibilty and individual judgement that farming families had previously exercised.

The two key events in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 conscription referendum that gave farming families the clearest understanding of how conscription would work, and how it would take away their autonomy, were the registration process held on 14/10/16 and the exemption court held in Yarram on 27/10/16.

Registration: Yarram, 14/10/16

The day set aside in Yarram for men to register under the Commonwealth’s call up arrangements was Saturday 14 October 1916. On the day, all single men, and widowers without dependents, aged between 21 and 35, had to register. Those who had previously been rejected for military service also had to register and undertake the medical.

The day was seen as a major event in the Shire. On 13/10/16, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative reported:

Yarram tomorrow will present quite a military air, with officials in kharki [sic], some half-dozen doctors, about a dozen clerks, and between three to four hundred single men, with divided minds as to the necessity of enlisting. It is wonderful, even when called for home service, how many “unsound” men there are! However, these matters will be decided by the doctors.

Rossiter, the editor – and also member of the Yarram Recruiting Committee and keen supporter of conscription – clearly saw the occasion as a chance to identify all those local men who were shirking their duty. His reference to the men being called up for ‘home service’ was highly disingenuous.

The next edition of the paper (18/10/16) gave a detailed report of what had happened on the day:

Yarram was thronged with young men of military age last Saturday, when they were required to report themselves, whether considered fit or unfit for military service. A busy day was spent by Capt. Macfarlane and four other military officers, three doctors and 14 clerks filling in attestation forms. The duties commenced at 9 a.m., and by 3 p.m. the main rush was over. In the time, 222 single men were examined, 102 of whom were fit, 10 unfit, and 110 doubtful. 116 of the number applied for exemption.

With few exceptions the demeanour of the men was excellent. Some rejoiced at the prospect of going to the front, having previously tried and been rejected.

Those who did not report on Saturday will have put themselves to serious inconvenience. Within seven days they must report at Warragul. Failure to report means salutary punishment of a kind that will reflect discreditably on the men.

One man refused to take the oath, but this makes no difference. To camp he will go if passed as fit.

The doubtful ones [110 of the 222 medically examined] were ordered to attend at Korumburra for final examination. This arrangement has since been varied. The medical board will shortly attend at Yarram, and save the men the inconvenience of travelling down the line.

An exemption court will sit at Yarram on 27th and 28th inst., when reasons for declining service will be fully gone into. This court is public, and the proceedings will be published in the local and daily papers. Those who have reasonable excuses need have no fear of advancing their claims for exemption.

Whereas between 300 and 400 men were expected at the registration, only 200 were there on the day. The low turn-out tallies with other accounts (Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, P 2015 p. 112) that claim that, nationally, only one-third of men bothered to register. As already noted, a similarly poor response had occurred earlier when local men had not returned their Call to Arms forms.

Only 50% of the men medically examined that day were passed as fit. Many of those who failed would have failed previously. Strikingly, half of all the men who registered on the day applied for exemption. The overall results were hardly encouraging. Rossiter attempted to put a positive gloss on the affair, writing about the positive ‘demeanour’ of the men. But his last paragraph reads as a thinly veiled threat to those pursuing exemption.

The Exemption Court, Yarram, 27/10/16

The exemption court sat in Yarram on the day before the referendum and the reports of what transpired at the court did not appear until the Wednesday (1/11/16) after the referendum. However, similar courts had already been held across Gippsland. Also, the reports in the local paper make it clear that there were many people there on the day watching the proceedings. In all, locals would have known, before the referendum, of the judgements made being handed down at the exemption courts.

Rossiter was true to his word and the proceedings were covered in great detail. The individual particulars, including full names and reasons presented to the court, were given for each request for exemption. Rossiter gave the number of applications for exemption on the day as 124. However, this number does not tally with the number of individual cases he reported.  For example, he stated that 41 exemptions were granted but in fact in his report only 33 exemptions are recorded as having been granted. Presumably, there were so many cases handled in one day that he had great difficulty in keeping up with proceedings. At the same time, putting to one side the problems with tallies, his report certainly does give a description of how the court worked. Regulations required that the applicant had to appear in person before the court and represent himself. Solicitors were not permitted.

According to Rossiter’s report, 31 of the 33 exemptions granted on the day were because either the applicant was the only son (11) or the required number of sons – at least one half – had already enlisted (20). These were provisions covered in the  regulations. The other 2 cases involved the situation where the applicant was the ‘sole support’ of ‘aged parents’ or a ‘widowed mother’. One of the cases involved John Henry James Price – labourer of Blackwarry – who was one of 3 sons. Only one brother was in the AIF – under the at least one half ruling, 2 brothers had to enlist – but the applicant claimed to be the sole support of his parents. The other case involved F J Pearson who was one of 3 sons in the family. No son was in service, but 2 of the siblings were not yet of military age and this son, the oldest, supported his widowed mother.

The 33 cases where exemption was approved were, in terms of the regulations, clear cut . What focused people’s attention was how the other 63 individual applications fared. According to Rossiter’s account, 32 of the 63 applications for exemption were rejected, 15 men were given temporary exemption and the remaining 16 cases were adjourned.

Employing Rossiter’s account it is possible to divide the exemption requests into 2 categories: those involving families where there had been no enlistments at all, and those where, according to the formula, not enough sons had enlisted.

Families with no enlistments

In terms of the first category, there were 26 families, involving 34 individual men, where no eligible son had enlisted. Apparently, the number of families across the Shire of Alberton where no eligible son had enlisted was low. However, the important qualification is that there could have been other families that completely ignored the registration process and did not seek exemption.

Of the 34 individual men applying for exemption, 19 were refused outright, 7 were given temporary exemption and 8 were adjourned. Rossiter’s brief notes on each case make it clear that the reasons for the exemption related to the family’s economic interests or welfare. There was only 1 case where a position of ‘conscientious objection’ was registered. It involved the 3 Kallady brothers – Ambrose, Allan and Leo – from Devon. There were 4 brothers in the family and therefore 2 had to enlist. There was some brief discussion of what their understanding of ‘conscientious objection’ involved – would they, for example, defend their mother, sister, or even themselves – and the army officer assisting the police magistrate presiding over the court suggested options such as ‘stretcher bearer’ and ‘putting barbed wire entanglements in front of trenches’. In the end, the magistrate found that the 2 fittest of the 3 brothers of military age would have to serve. The case was then adjourned to 7 December for objections to be heard.

Several examples from this first category highlight the way family dynamics – including the ages and marital status of the sons – affected the outcome. For example, George Lewis Brunlow was a fisherman from Port Albert. He was one of 3 male siblings but both his brothers were married and therefore not required to register. He claimed to be the sole support for his invalid sister. His application was refused, presumably on the basis that his married brothers could or should pick up the responsibility for the sister. On the face of it, conscription was redefining an existing family arrangement.

B Hanrahan was one of 2 sons. As his brother was married, he had had to register. He claimed an exemption on the basis that he owned the farm and he partly supported his widowed mother and her 6 children, presumably his younger siblings. The application was refused, again overturning an existing family arrangement.

The more common reason for claiming exemption was the economic hardship or threat to the viability of the family farm or business that the loss of labour would cause. For example, Eric Oliver Hobson was working on the family farm at Yarram. There were extensive landholdings at Yarram and Won Wron. There were 3 sons in the family, one of whom was married. Under the regulations this unmarried son (Eric) had to serve. The father claimed that as a dairy farmer with a large herd he depended on this son to look after the stock. The father claimed no one understood the stock like this son. The son also kept the books. The father claimed he had tried, unsuccessfully, to find someone to replace his son. He stated that if his son went he, the father, would have to give up dairying. The magistrate said he was bound by the regulations and refused the application. He did add that the son could seek a temporary exemption, but only after he had reported for duty at the camp at Warragul.

William Thomas Charles Stonehouse operated a blacksmith business at Yarram. He had 3 sons, all of them single. Under the formula, 2 of them (J E Stonehouse and W Stonehouse) were required to serve. The father explained that all 3 sons helped in his business and if the 2 of military age went the business would have to be closed as he, the father, could not work and he had not been able to secure other workers. The application was refused.

There were 6 sons in the Vardy family from Alberton West. 3 sons were married. The other 3 sons – Leslie James Vardy, F E Vardy and Percival John Vardy – were required to serve. There was a family farm of 100+ acres; although it appears only 1 son was helping the father on the farm. Presumably the other 2 sons were working as labourers on other farms.  The magistrate noted that the 3 sons were a significant source of revenue for the father. The application was refused.

William Macaulay, a farm labourer, was one of 3 sons, one other of whom was married. He was 32 yo. He claimed that if he went it would cause great hardship and loss to those at home. The family had a farm – 180 acres – at Stacey’s Bridge. The father claimed that the farm could not be worked without his son. A temporary exemption to 27/1/17 was granted.

Families with insufficient enlistments

This second category, covering 29 individuals from 28 families, featured the cases that would have caused the most disquiet in the district. These were families where men had already enlisted but now, under conscription, more would be taken. Once again, the impact, would affect both the welfare of the family and the financial viability of the farm. Of the 29 requests for exemption, 13 were rejected outright, there were 8 cases of a temporary exemption being granted and 8 cases were adjourned.

John Joseph Egan – labourer, Alberton West – worked on the small family farm at Alberton West. There were 5 sons but 3 were married. This meant that the remaining 2 had to serve. One was already in camp. Exemption was claimed on the basis that the father was too old to work the farm and this son – John – was the only son available to help. Exemption was refused.

Joel William Trigg was involved with a family farm of approximately 170 acres at Alberton West. There were 3 sons which meant 2 had to serve. One was already in the AIF and the other brother had been judged medically unfit, which meant Joel had to go. He claimed that he would be forced to sell out if he was forced to go. The application was refused.

There were 6 sons in the McPhail family. Only 2 were serving in the AIF which meant one more son was required. The father claimed that this son, Archibald McPhail, was not fit enough to go in the trenches but the medical officers had recently passed him. The application was refused.

There were 5 sons in the Wight family with 2 in the AIF, one of whom had been wounded. At least one of the other 3 sons was below military age. The son seeking the exemption – David Wight, had a 100 acre farm at Carrajung. He worked with his father. The application was refused.

There were 9 sons in the Lay family with 4 on service with the AIF. This left still one son required. Of the 5 remaining, 3 were married and one was only 18yo. This meant that Leslie Gordon Lay had to serve. The application for exemption was refused on the grounds that even though he and his younger brother were supporting the family farm, he – the applicant- was not the sole support of his parents.

There were 6 sons in the Cantwell family, with 2 in service. James Hennessy Cantwell – labourer, Stacey’s Bridge – claimed that he supported the family – there was a family farm of less than 100 acres – and that the father was ailing and the mother an invalid. He claimed that if he were called he would have to sell the cows. Rossiter’s notes stated that exemption was granted until the cows were sold.

Nigel Hugh McAlpine had 40 acres of land at Carrajung in his own name. There were 3 sons in the family but only one was in the AIF. Nigel applied for exemption on the grounds that the brother in the AIF had left him (Nigel) in sole charge of his farm and stock. The third brother was unfit because of a knee injury. Nigel was reported as declaring that if he was forced to go his farm would ‘go to the dogs’. He was given a temporary exemption until 27/1/17.

In summary, Rossiter’s notes on the individual cases covered by the exemption court were brief and perhaps not always accurate. Also, the claims made by those requesting exemption might  have been overdrawn or misleading. At the same time, the proceedings of this court held in Yarram, and others in Gippsland, would definitely have been closely followed in the local community; and it would have been clear that conscription was set to have a major negative impact on the traditional autonomy of the family farm and farming families. The proposed level of control over both the labour agenda and social dynamic of the family farm was of a form and degree never seen before.

Exemptions for the dairy industry

It is also important to note that there was a feeling in the community that the general labour demands of the dairy industry had been ignored. As has been shown in many previous posts, by far the largest group of men enlisting in the AIF in the Shire of Alberton came from the rural, itinerant, working class. By the end of 1916 the size of this group of enlistments had reached the order of 600 men. They simply described themselves as ‘farm labourers’ or just ‘labourers’. It was a very significant pool of labour to withdraw from the local economy. At the same time, the number of men coming from the family farm was in a definite minority; and the preceding cases help explain why it was so difficult to release sons from the family farm. Yet conscription promised that even more of this labour pool would be withdrawn. Locals formed the view that despite reassurances from the Commonwealth Government the dairy industry was not being protected.

In an article that he wrote on 25/10/16, just before the exemption court sat, Rossiter wrote how in the ‘interests of production’ many claims for exemption could and should be granted. Then after the court he wrote (1/11/16) critically on the lack of exemptions granted. He used highly qualified language but others would have seen the court proceedings as a deliberate attack on the local dairy industry:

There was much concern locally in regard to a great number of applications for full and temporary exemptions made at the exemption court held on Friday last. A number of claims were made by dairymen and others engaged in that industry in various ways. The applicants who were refused exemption were informed that they must report at Warragul camp on Friday next, it being understood by them that no exemption would be granted without reporting at camp. In view of the critical situation thus presented, and of the fact that the Prime Minister had stated that rural workers, engaged in producing industries, would be allowed exemption, the position created by the court authorities caused some uneasiness in the minds of dairy farmers and those engaged as milkers by them.

The reference to the Prime Minister’s promise of exemption for rural workers is very important. It appears that as the referendum drew near Hughes became concerned that the farmers’ vote could go against him. Perhaps he received intelligence of how the call up in rural districts and the operations of the exemption courts were being received. In the week before the referendum, he issued a detailed statement which was published in the metropolitan papers (for example The Age 25/10/16 p. 7). He reminded the farmers of all the Government had done for them – purchasing their crops, setting prices, securing shipping – and declared that,

It [His Government] has given them generous exemptions. It has released all the labor necessary for their industry; their lands will be tilled, their crops harvested; members of their families will be left to carry on the farms, and sufficient labor to carry on their industry will be exempted.

Hughes also acknowledged that there was concern over the labour shortage in rural industries. He put a positive spin on the cause:

The men from the country parts of Australia have responded magnificently to the appeal for recruits, much better than the great cities. The consequence is that labor for the rural industries is relatively scarce, while in the cities there is a surplusage [sic] of thousands of eligible men.

Hughes concluded by promising again that the rural industries would have the labour they needed and, at the same time, conscription would ensure that those in the cities also did their share:

The farmers and the men on the land will have the labor they require, and the eligible men in the cities will be compelled to do their duty.

The problem was that this was not the experience of the local farmers in Gippsland. There was a critical shortage of labour and there was no real evidence that exemptions were available. The only exemptions being granted were temporary, and ‘temporary’ meant only until the end of the year (31/12/16). Further, men could, initially, only apply for exemptions after they had been admitted to the military camp (Warragul). When this very restrictive requirement was relaxed at the end of October, it was replaced with a general exemption … to all engaged in the dairying industry, including milkers to the end of the year. But, again, the exemption was only temporary and only to the end of the year; and now the men had to submit a statutory declaration from their employer – or the heads of households in the case of families – to support the claim. Once again, there was considerable tension between what was being promised and what was being experienced. The fact that men being given exemptions were finger-printed – purportedly to prevent fraud – added to the general level of antagonism.

The first 2 years of the War had demonstrated very high levels of loyal and patriotic support across the Shire of Alberton. The support was demonstrated in areas such as recruiting, fund raising and public demonstrations for the Empire. The local community was an inherently conservative one. There was a natural antipathy towards organised labour. It supported PM Hughes’ efforts to overcome the ‘industrialists’ in his own party. The middle class professionals, mangers and proprietors in the community – concentrated in Yarram – presented a narrative of the War that was aligned with the Government’s position. Publicly, the local community was pro-conscription and this was reflected in the final voting figures. In the lead up to the referendum there was no indication of any organised, public No campaign. However, events over October 1916 presented the local farming community with a clear picture of what the reality of conscription involved and there is little doubt that many would have seen it as direct threat to both their livelihood and the traditional autonomy of the farming family. Without any show of public opposition – they did not even need to draw any attention to themselves – they had the option to vote No; and, presumably, many did. Their votes help explain why, in such a conservative rural community, and with no evidence of organised public opposition, one-third of electors voted against conscription.

References

The Age

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Connor, J, Stanley, P, Yule, P 2015, The War At Home, The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War Volume 4, Oxford University Press, Melbourne

See also

Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume XI – Australia During the War, ‘Chapter IX The First Conscription Referendum’. 7th Edition 1941

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

91. Conscription Referendum 1916: the (public) No vote

On the strength of the meeting held for the No vote at Yarram on 12/10/16, there was little evidence of any public support for the anti-conscription case in the Shire of Alberton. This was in sharp contrast to the high level of support for conscription evident in the very public, organised and ongoing campaign for the Yes vote, as detailed in earlier posts.

The meeting on 12/10/16 was written up, in great detail, in both the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (18/10/16) and the South Gippsland Chronicle (18/10/16). The sole speaker for the No case that night was Senator Blakey, one of the Victorian team of ALP senators. Blakey was on a tour of Gippsland and he knew that he was in for a tough time. He had tried to speak at a similar public meeting at Leongatha 2 days earlier (10/10/16) but, according to the report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 13/10/16, he had not even managed to make himself heard:

The largest public meeting ever held at Leongatha took place last Tuesday night. Senator Blakey attempted to deliver an address against conscription, but he was hooted, and as soon as he rose to speak the audience stood up and sang the National Anthem. As Senator Blakey tried to make himself heard a cabbage thrown at his head inflicted a cut in his forehead. … He was on the platform for about an hour and a half, but he was not allowed to give expression to his views.

Two days later at Yarram things were only marginally better. While nothing was thrown at him and he did manage to deliver his speech – albeit with a barrage of interruptions – the reports make it clear that the very rowdy and antagonistic audience was not on his side. The meeting started on a negative note when Cr Buckley, introducing Senator Blakey, made the point that while he was prepared to introduce Senator Buckley as a guest speaker he wanted to  make it clear to everyone in the audience that he personally intended to vote Yes. The clear message was that the Shire council was decent enough to support Blakey’s right to speak but they certainly did not support his position.

Not surprisingly, Senator Blakey’s opening remarks were a plea for a fair hearing. He hoped that there would be no … repetition of of the drunken orgy at Leongatha …  because the … matter was too great to treat in a spirit of levity and hoodlumism. But the interruptions were constant. Blakey struggled to get his argument across in any coherent, planned way. Finally, at the end of the meeting, in an obvious attempt to hijack proceedings and make Blakey look foolish, the following resolution was put:

That, in view of the voluntary recruiting not being sufficient to meet the requirements of our army and reinforcement of men at the front, this meeting pledges itself to vote “Yes” at the coming referendum.

The resolution was seconded and put, but the vote in the end was indecisive, with only a handful voting either way. The newspaper report suggested people were either confused or annoyed that the motion had been put. Even the avowedly pro-conscription Rev Walklate … protested against a speech advocating “Yes” being made at a meeting in a hall paid for by those advocating “No”. Such niceties aside, it was abundantly clear that the meeting would never have been able to pass any resolution in favour of the No vote. Further, the reports make it clear that Senator Blakey was by himself. There were no references to other individuals or groups supporting him, either on the stage or in the audience; and most of those who asked questions at the meeting – Rev Tamagno, Rev Walklate, R E H Newberry, J Bett, F C Grano – have already been identified in earlier posts as backing conscription. Blakey would have cut a lonely figure. As a formal attempt to galvanise the No vote in the local community the public meeting was a complete failure.

There are no references in either of the local papers to any other meetings for the No vote held in either Yarram or the shire as a whole. Similarly, there are no references over the period August to October 1916 to the formation of a committee to promote the No vote. Nor is there even reference to specific individuals in the local community advocating the No vote. In short, there is no evidence that there was an organised, public – or even visible – No vote campaign in the Shire of Alberton for the 1916 referendum.

It is also worth looking briefly at the arguments presented at the meeting, both by Blakey himself and his opponents. Blakey argued that conscription per se was morally indefensible. He claimed that Hughes himself had gone back on his word, given in 1915, to not introduce conscription. He held that Australia had done its ‘fair share’ and that the cost of introducing conscription and committing to an even greater sacrifice was beyond the nation’s capacity. He criticised the metropolitan papers – the The Age and The Argus – as shamelessly biased.  He raised the fear that even married men would be conscripted, and there was the usual aside on the fear of cheap ‘yellow’ labour. There were also claims that Hughes was using the censorship laws to stifle the No campaign. For those opposed to Blakey, the major issue was that the AIF had to be reinforced and supported – it was the clearest example of national duty – and conscription was the only way this end could be achieved.

Importantly, none of these arguments were tied specifically to the Shire of Alberton. Blakey could just as well have been addressing an audience In Melbourne. There was no local dimension to the debate.  Nor was the audience divided on any ‘partisan’ basis. Most significantly, there was no mention of any organised Catholic presence at the meeting. In fact, there is no reference to Catholics at all in the extensive reporting of the meeting.

Interestingly, in his history of the Shire, Adams (1990 p186) presumes that the Catholics in the community did represent a bloc opposed to conscription.

Conscription became an important issue late in 1916 and a committee was formed in Yarram with B.P. Johnson as President to forward the movement. When the conscription referendum was held in November [sic] 1916, Yarram voted 1144 to 573. There was a strong Catholic “no” vote reflected in this result.

[Adams’ figures give the Yes vote 67% and the No 33%.]

However this argument appears too simplistic. Certainly for the 1916 referendum, there is no evidence of a Catholic bloc opposed to conscription; and it is too easy to assume that Catholics were the ones who voted against conscription.

The Catholic question was complex. We have already seen that the Catholics enlisted in numbers that generally matched their place in the Shire’s demographics. The argument of the pro-conscriptionists that the men at the front could not be abandoned – this appeared to be the strongest argument in the community – would have been as appealing to the Catholic families of men who had enlisted as any other group. Moroever, the most recent high-profile Catholic enlistment at the time was Fr Sterling, the parish priest, who had enlisted as recently as 21/10/16 as a Captain Chaplain. His enlistment would have been seen as a very public demonstration of loyalty and duty.

There is no evidence that the local Catholic community campaigned against the 1916 conscription referendum. Moreover, previous posts have shown that the local Catholics had actively supported the War effort over the preceding 2 years. It is also relevant, closer to the 1916 referendum, that the assistant priest – Fr W H O’Connor – who arrived in June 1916 to support Fr Sterling, was keen to lend his voice to support for the War effort. In fact, unlike Fr Sterling, Fr O’Connor was even prepared to speak on the same platform as some of the most outspoken patriots – and also pro-conscriptionists – in the community. For example, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 9/8/16 Fr O’Connor was one of the key speakers at a public meeting to celebrate the second anniversary of the War. The others on the platform with him were the Shire President, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, Rev Tamagno and the Federal MHR, G Wise. Fr O’Connor spoke at length in favour of the Allied efforts and against German tyranny. He spoke about the local men who had … made the sacrifice and who died nobly and well and who … had offered up their lives for the cause. And he made it clear that in his previous parishes he had called on members of his faith to enlist:

In other parts it was my lot to encourage men to enlist, and [ I ] need only to tell them of their duty and they would go forth and do it. The young men from this district have done likewise and responded to the “Coo-ee” call for assistance.

At the same time, Catholic support for the War was not as unqualified as that of the local Protestants. Bishop Phelan’s position, for example, that the Catholic Church was ‘neutral’ on the matter of conscription, and his significant qualification that the individual citizen’s vote should be shaped by an informed conscience, was at great odds with the very public and uncritical support for conscription from the Protestant churches. Moreover, previous posts have pointed out how fundamental differences in areas such as schooling encouraged sectarianism in the community over the War years. Additionally, events in Ireland post Easter 1916 definitely saw many Irish Catholics question the Australian Government’s total support for the Empire. They also, inevitably, chose to see the AIF not as a component of the British (Empire) Army but as as a distinctive, independent and truly nationalist Australian force, which meant it was possible to support the AIF – and to a lesser extent continue to justify the War – and be anti-Imperialist. But none of these important shifts were on public view in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum.

Overall, there is no hard evidence that for the 1916 referendum, in the Shire of Alberton, there was an organised, public campaign amongst the local Catholics for the No vote. It is possible that Catholics followed Bishop Phelan’s advice and voted according to their conscience. But if they did so it was a private choice made via secret ballot. In any case, given the appeal of the dominant political argument of the day, it makes more sense to believe that the Catholic families would vote Yes, to support the reinforcement of their men at the front.

While it is not possible to identify a Catholic bloc publicly supporting the No vote, there was even less chance that there was an organised and visible bloc of ‘industrialists’, radical unionists, IWW agitators or even just ALP supporters campaigning for the No vote. Most of the rural workers had enlisted and, in any case, there had never been an organised labour movement in the Shire. Individual ALP voters might have opposed conscription and voted No, but, again, it was via secret ballot. It was a politically conservative community. The local papers were full of anti-union stories. They reported how the ‘machine’ of the industrial wing of the ALP was undermining PM Hughes’ authority and destroying the party itself. There were regular stories of how unions generally were undermining the War effort. Unionists were described as ‘traitors’ and ‘shirkers’. But all this was happening in Melbourne and the other capital cities.

Overall, there is no evidence that there was a public, anti-conscription campaign in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum. Instead, we need to look at the reality of the private No vote in the Shire. On Adams’ figures above, it was one-third of the voters. In a community where there was no public campaign for the No vote and, instead, apparently overwhelming support for the Yes side, it was a significant private vote.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

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

 

 

88. Conscription Referendum 1916: the Yes vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

 

87. Yarram Recruiting Committee, 1916: ‘dead to all sense of patriotism or shame’

This post continues the work of 2 earlier posts. The first, Post 64: Monster (recruiting) Meeting at Yarram, July 1915 covered the work of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1915 and the second, Post 65: Yarram Recruiting Committee, 1915 looked at the composition of the committee.

Both the work and direction of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1916 were set largely by 2 initiatives of the Commonwealth Government in 1915. In July 1915, the Commonwealth Government passed legislation for a War Census. Then in late December 1915, the Commonwealth, under the banner of  The Call to Arms, issued to every eligible male a direct request to enlist in the AIF.

The First Schedule of the War Census Act 1915, had to be completed by all Males aged 18 and under 60. The questions in the schedule tested the respondent’s eligibility to serve in the AIF:  his age, marital status, number of dependents, health, nationality, previous military training and, if born in a ‘foreign country’, the status of his ‘naturalization’ . The schedule even asked for the ... number and description of fire-arms and quantity of ammunition you possess.

Future posts will consider the 1915 War Census in more detail but, for present purposes, the significance of the census was that by the end of 1915 the Commonwealth Government had, in theory at least, a record of all eligible men. It could therefore set realistic targets for an expanded AIF.  The Government determined that it would increase the size of the AIF by 50,000 men and that, concurrently, the ongoing enlistment rate had to be lifted by 9,000 men per month.The next step was to use the information gained via the War Census and communicate directly with every eligible male between 18 and 45 to press them to enlist. This was the recruiting initiative described as The Call to Arms.

The form that men were required to complete was accompanied by a plea from the new PM, W M Hughes who had replaced Fisher when he resigned at the end of October 1915. The 2 major appeals Hughes played to in his Call to Arms were incipient mateship and nationalism:

Our soldiers have done great things in this war. They have carved for Australia a niche in the Temple of the Immortals. Those who have died fell gloriously, but had the number of our forces been doubled, many brave lives would have been spared, the Australian armies would long ago have been camping in Constantinople, and the world war would have been practically over.

We must put forth all our strength. The more men Australia sends to the front the less the danger will be to each man. Not only victory but safety belongs to the big battalions.

and

This Australia of ours, the freest and best country on God’s earth, calls to her sons for aid. Destiny has given to you a great opportunity. Now is the hour when you can strike a blow on her behalf. If you love your country, if you love freedom, then take your place alongside your fellow-Australians at the front and help them achieve a speedy and glorious victory.

On behalf of the Commonwealth Government and in the name of the people of Australia, I ask you to answer “Yes” to this appeal, and to your part in this greatest war of all time.

In short, at the very end of 1915, all eligible men in Australia were asked, under the voluntary enlistment scheme then in place, to enlist in the AIF. If they were not willing to enlist immediately, they had to indicate when they were prepared to enlist, and if they refused to enlist at all, they had to submit written reasons why. Clearly, the Government was determined to push the ‘voluntary’ system to its limit.

At the same time as the form to all eligible men was sent out, PM Hughes wrote to all municipality and shire heads asking for their support. Specifically, he requested that the existing local recruiting committees – established in 1915 – be prepared to accept and manage the completed forms. In his letter to all local government heads – published in The Argus on 2/12/15, p.7 – Hughes acknowledged that the support of the local recruiting committee was critical:

… the success of the scheme scheme depends almost entirely upon the efforts of the local committees, and I appeal to you to put everything aside in order that this great national duty may be effectively and quickly performed.

This particular recruiting drive involved all 3 levels of government. The initiative rested with the Commonwealth, and its working was effectively designed by the Commonwealth Statistician. The scheme itself was run at the local government level, where the Mayor or Shire President – backed by the Town Clerk or Shire Secretary – was responsible for the work of the local recruiting committee. And the administration of the national scheme was delivered at the state level via the relevant Central Recruiting Committee or State War Council.

In 1915, local recruiting committees across Victoria had organised high profile, public recruiting meetings. This new set of responsibilities at the start of 1916 with the focus on the individual was very different. First, the committee had to impress on the locals that the forms had to be completed and returned to them, as quickly as possible. There was limited provision for a respondent to bypass the local committee by sending the form direct to the state recruiting body, but in the case of Yarram only a handful of local men took up this option. Once the local committee received the forms, it had to submit a return which would enable the Commonwealth Statistician to track down those who had failed to return their form. The local committee then had to go through the returns it had received and establish the relevant numbers of (1) those prepared to enlist immediately, (2) those prepared to enlist later and (3) those who refused to enlist.  Finally, and most significantly, the local committee was expected to establish a ‘local inquiry committee’ … to personally canvas those refusing to enlist. While the definition of ‘canvas’ was left somewhat vague it was clear that the overall intention was to first identify and then apply ‘pressure’ – even if the local recruiting committee did not have any legal authority – to those in the local community who refused to enlist.

In theory, this new scheme would have appealed to the Yarram Recruiting Committee. Throughout 1915, the committee had complained that it could not get access to the men it needed. They simply refused to attend public recruiting meetings. Similarly, they avoided the farewells and welcome homes which doubled as recruiting appeals. But this new Commonwealth scheme focused specifically on the group of eligibles and, potentially, brought them into direct contact with the recruiting committee.

However, in practice there was an obvious reluctance on the part of the local recruiting committee to become personally involved in challenging locals who refused to enlist. This was hardly surprising. It was one thing to believe passionately in the cause of the War and promote the duty of all to enlist either in print or at public meetings, but quite another to directly confront individual locals, whom you personally knew and interacted with in many and complex ways, and pressure them to enlist.

At Yarram, the sub-committee of 5 set up … to consider the replies of those who refuse to enlist was made up of Rev F Tamagno, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, D P Fahey and G F Sauer. However, virtually as soon as the committee was set up, 3 members – Tamagno, Sauer and Fahey – indicated they would not serve.

Correspondence in the Shire of Alberton archives indicates Rev Tamagno quit because he was himself of military age. In his letter (17/1/16) he stated,

I feel that I ought to retire from the Recruiting sub-committee. I am of military age, & I think that it will be better on that account to resign.

Presumably, he recognised the problem in pressing others to enlist when he himself had not.

For Daniel Peter Fahey, a farmer from Devon, there is only a brief note, dated 8/1/16, from the Shire Secretary ( G W Black) that Mr Fahey informed me by phone that he could not see his way to act. Intriguingly, when Fahey was asked to join the committee, there was a specific reference to the fact that he was to represent the ‘Labor interest of the sub-committee’:

At a meeting of the local Recruiting Committee to-day [5/1/16], you were appointed the member in the Labor [sic] interest of the sub-committee to consider the replies of those who refuse to enlist.

It is not clear what was intended. Perhaps Fahey was viewed as a local farmer who knew what the labour situation was in the district: someone who could assess the validity of claims men made about not being able to enlist because of labour demands on the farm. But whatever his exact role, Fahey made it clear he did not want to be involved.

George Frederick Sauer was a draper – Draper, Gents’ Mercer, & Shoeman –  in Yarram. He was very active in local politics and was president of the local ANA. He had been involved in recruiting. But on this occasion he wrote back (6/1/16) and stated, I have considered this matter and find I cannot accept the appointment. Possibly, he considered that such a position was not in his commercial best interest.

With 3 of the 5 selected for the committee refusing to serve, Cr Barlow was appointed as a replacement and the committee’s size reduced to just 3: Cr Bland, Cr Barlow and B P Johnson. At the same time, the sub committee did have the support of the local recruiting sergeant. This position was created at the start of 1916 and the person appointed – he had been specifically requested by the Yarram Recruiting Committee – was William Andrew Newland.

Recruiting Sergeant Newland had worked for the local council before the War – he was a mechanical engineer – before enlisting in 1914. He had been badly wounded at Gallipoli (26/5/15) and was returned to Australia (6/8/15) for medical discharge (22/12/15). He had married locally before he went overseas and his wife was living at Yarram. Newland had risen to staff-sergeant in the AIF and he began his work as recruiting sergeant at the start of January 1916.

The Prime Minister’s recruiting campaign was not well received in the local community and the results were underwhelming. At a committee meeting held 19/1/16 and reported in the local paper on 21/1/16, Recruiting Sergeant Newland gave a breakdown of the returns for the Commonwealth’s Call to Arms.  184 replies had been returned, as directed, to the local recruiting committee. Another 4 locals had taken advantage of the option to return their form to the State authority. Of the total of 188, 16 men had already enlisted (8.5%), 34 indicated they were prepared to enlist immediately (18%) and another 14 (7.5%) were prepared to enlist later. The total figure for enlistments was 64 (34%). This left 124 (66%) who had refused to enlist. The clear majority of local men targeted in the Commonwealth’s recruiting campaign at the very start of 1916 rejected the call to enlist.

There is little evidence to indicate that those on the local recruiting committee, or more specifically the sub-committee set up to ‘canvass those refusing to enlist’, did actively pursue local men who effectively ignored the Commonwealth’s Call to Arms. Indeed, there was little they could do. For all the posturing, threats and warnings, the system was still a voluntary one and locals could simply ignore the local recruiting committee.

At the same time, there is evidence that Recruiting Sergeant Newland certainly took his work seriously. As soon as he started in January 1916, there were reports in the local press (12/1/16) of him … impressing upon the minds of eligibles the necessity of enlisting. He was also said to have … startled not a few ignorant folks … with the warning that they needed to complete their Call to Arms returns. Importantly, within a week or two, because of the new scheme, Newland had a list of all those in the district who had refused to enlist. In March 1916, he was at the Binginwarri sports and was reported (24/3/16) … to be seen giving the why and wherefore to young men whom he had his eye on. In fact, Newland developed a reputation for aggressive challenges to eligibles.  The following was reported in the local paper on 14/4/16. It reveals both the forceful way Newland went about his job but also the push-back that this approach could create:

It would be interesting were phonograph records produced of Sergeant Newland’s interviews with certain young fellows who would do well in the fighting line. Onlookers can plainly see that arguments wax warm at times, and we warn those approached that the sergeant should be treated with respect, otherwise trouble may ensue. Recruiting is a matter that cannot be treated lightly. Sergeant Newland has the law on his side, and his province is to inquire into the reason men for for service do not enlist.

The local recruiting committee put out an appeal in the local press (28/1/16) for volunteers to drive Recruiting Sergeant Newland to the more isolated townships and settlements in the district. Again, this allowed him to tackle, on a face-to-face basis, those who had refused to enlist. There was a pool of volunteers, and this practice explains how Newland appeared at a farewell at Madalya (19/5/16) – covered in Post 85 – where again he aggressively challenged eligibles who were there.

While the Commonwealth Government had made it clear that The Call to Arms campaign was to be the priority, the local recruiting committee did persevere to a limited degree with the more conventional practice of the public appeal by an invited speakers. In February, Thomas Livingston, the member for South Gippsland, and minister in the State Government, was visiting the area. He was persuaded by Cr Bland as Shire President to address a large crowd at a Red Cross fundraiser at Yarram.  The speech was written up in the local paper on 18/2/16. As always, the possibility – or threat – of conscription was raised. Livingston appealed to all eligible men there that day:

We must have 50,000 on 50,000 [sic] men, and that is not enough. Go now, at the right time, and help the men already at the front. Yarram and district had done well recruiting, but other parts had not done as well. If the voluntary system does not prove effective, conscription will be brought in, for they were not going to lose the British Empire.

Cr Bland, as Shire President, concluded the recruiting appeal with a fairly base warning:

If they did not get the soldiers required conscription must come in, and those who were pressed men would not get the pay of the voluntary soldier.

Other initiatives of the State (Victoria) Parliamentary Recruiting Committee were employed in 1916. One of them, after Easter, involved a series of recruiting trains that stopped at major stations in country districts. The train featured speakers from both the Commonwealth and State Governments, returned soldiers, bands, local recruiting sergeants etc. The train for Gippsland was scheduled for May and the designated stations were: Warragul, Trafalgar, Moe, Morwell, Traralgon, Sale, Bairnsdale, Stratford, Maffra, Leongatha, Korumburra and Wonthaggi. Apart from the fact that the train did not reach the Shire of Alberton, there was not much confidence in the basic plan. For many, such activities were little more than a distraction and people had to accept that conscription was inevitable. For example, in his editorial on 24/5/16 A J Rossiter – a member of the Yarram Recruiting Committee – wrote:

With much truth, Mr. G. H. Wise M.H.R. remarked at the A.N.A. meeting in Melbourne that “no longer should time be wasted in holding recruiting meetings, nor in stalking through the country in ‘special trains’. ” Last week Gippsland was visited by a train crew, and towns were enlivened by Royal Park Band music and electrified by talk on the part of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. One or two records will suffice for the whole. At Stratford two volunteers came forward, both unfit for service. Three stepped out at Traralgon and eleven at Sale. Of the dozen recruits at Leongatha two were returned soldiers, and others had been previously rejected. Both at Leongatha and Korumburra a number who gave in their names would have enlisted in any case, so after all there is little the special train jaunt can take credit for – beyond good intentions. We agree with Mr. Wise in regard to conscription.

Clearly, by mid 1916 the Yarram Recruiting Committee had lost confidence in the voluntary system. Public appeals no longer had much effect, and even the direct approach employed in the Commonwealth’s Call to Arms had been convincingly rejected by the majority of eligible men in the district. The direct, face-to-face encounters between the recruiting sergeant, acting on the committee’s behalf, and local eligibles were tense, time consuming, difficult to organise and generally unproductive. Moreover, as either representatives of local government or just private citizens, and all of them acting on a voluntary and patriotic basis, the individuals on the committee would have felt considerably frustrated, and possibly even threatened, by what they saw as high levels of opposition to, and anger directed at, their work.

However, all the talk of conscription was effectively undermining the worth of the voluntary system. The situation was set out in a letter from the State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in March 1916 to all local recruiting committees in Victoria.

You have no doubt observed in the public press that there is a movement in various parts of this State to bring in conscription in some form. Local recruiting committees and sergeants report to us that this talk of conscription is detrimental to recruiting, in the first place because it gives those who are looking for some excuse an opportunity of saying they are waiting for conscription, and, secondly, because it tends to make some members of local committees relax their efforts. Those of us who are engaged in this campaign know nothing about conscription. We have been asked, and we have undertaken, to carry the work through on the present basis – which is voluntary. It is clearly our duty to do our best to make this campaign a success, however much our personal opinions may vary as to its efficacy. We would, therefore, ask you to see that the good work which your Committee and others have already put in should be strenuously maintained until such time as the present scheme is superseded by some other by the National Government.

The national background to this push for conscription in early in 1916 was that Hughes was in the UK and the Australian Government’s strategy, under Senator George Pearce the acting PM, was to leave the decision on conscription until Hughes returned, in early August 1916. In the absence of Hughes, political pressure from sectional interest groups for conscription was intense. These groups will be covered in future posts.

Given the background, the appeal from the State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee was hardly convincing and all those actively involved in recruiting appeared to be looking forward to the introduction of conscription. Certainly this was the case with the Yarram Recruiting Committee. In late April 1916, B P Johnson, as acting head of the local recruiting committee, wrote to the State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee:

…  it is the unanimous opinion of the Committee and of the Sergent [sic] that the voluntary system has had its trial and that compulsion is now necessary. In holding recruiting meetings it is impossible to get at the men who are standing back, they will not attend, and the only volunteers we can hope to obtain now are from families who have already done their share and can ill afford to spare others. In our opinion the voluntary system is unscientific, is wasteful and is grossly unfair. It is no good talking to the shirkers, compulsion is the only thing that will move them, they are dead to all sense of patriotism or shame. … We who have sons, brothers & other relatives at the front are most keen & will continue to work to that end, but we feel strongly, from our now rather extensive experience, that only compulsion will give us the success we earnestly desire.

Overall, for the local recruiting committee in Yarram, 1916 represented a wasted effort. The conventional public appeals no longer worked, Hughes’ bold – but also naive – plan at the start of 1916 with his Call to arms had identified those locals who refused to enlist but it too had proved ineffective. Recruiting Sergeant Newland had taken his work seriously and energetically, and directly confronted locals but, again, under the voluntary system there was no ultimate compulsion.  In short, as far as the committee was concerned, nothing worked. Their voluntary and patriotic efforts were frustrated. Their hard work produced no results. They were conscious of anger and opposition directed at them in the community. They saw conscription as the only way forward. In fact, it is reasonable to argue that the real focus for the committee in 1916 was not the promotion of recruiting but the introduction of conscription; and it was significant that after the failure of the conscription referendum at the end of 1916 the local recruiting committee was disbanded.

The composition of the 1916 Yarram Recruiting Committee

There is little in the Shire of Alberton archives covering the work of the recruiting committee in 1916. The suggestion is that after the first few months of 1916 not a great deal happened, at least at the committee level. In September, after Hughes returned from the UK, there was another burst of action on the voluntary system – Hughes effectively gave the scheme one last chance to prove itself – but it appears that this work principally involved Recruiting Sergeant Newland.

In the archives there is a undated, handwritten list of the membership.

Recruiting Campaign 1916
Committee:-

Cr Bland (Chairman)
Cr Barlow
Cr Christensen
Messrs M J T Cox
W F Lakin
E S Stocks
B P Johnson
G E Ruby
J W Fleming
P J Juniper
A J Rossiter
Rev F Tamagno
G W Black (Secretary)

Neither D P Fahey nor G F Sauer are included on the list. Both refused to serve on the special sub-committee set up to vet the replies of those who refused to enlist. Rev F Tamgano’s name does appear, even though he also refused to serve on the same sub-committee and formally resigned from the larger committee.  It appears that the list was drawn up at the very start of 1916 because it is substantially the same as the 1915 list.  The membership list again points to the type of local citizens who identified with the work of the recruiting committee. Post 65 looked at the same people and concluded:

Overall, the [1915] 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.

The same situation applied in 1916 and, as has already been intimated, this particular group of local citizens was set to act as the core support group for the Yes vote in the conscription referendum.

 

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

The Argus

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

The activities of the 1916 Yarram Recruiting Committee came from:
Shire of Alberton
File Number 703-0
War Files
“Recruiting Campaign 1916 – Call to Arms”

See also:

Honest History
Divided sunburnt country: Australia 1916-18 (2): the War Census

85. Soldiers’ farewells 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ongoing themes

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

The moral strength of the volunteer

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

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

The unique character and success of he AIF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mother’s sacrifice

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

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

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

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

The pioneer as soldier

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

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

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

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

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

The issue of anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anger directed at townsfolk who did not attend farewells

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

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

Anger directed at those who would not enlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anger directed at those undermining the war effort and recruiting

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

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

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

 

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

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

71. Fromelles

Twelve of the men associated with the Shire of Alberton were killed at Fromelles (19-20 July 1916), or Fleurbaix as it was commonly referred to at the time. Based on the research so far, this number represents the largest single loss of life for those from the Shire in any single battle of WW1.

Each of the 12 men is covered in following posts which are organised by battalion:

29 Battalion

Reginald Maurice COLE 417
David Frederick LIVINGSTON 1168

31 Battalion

Harold MATES 515
Henry Victor WILLIS 983

59 Battalion

Herbert GILFOY 2641
Vincent GRENVILLE 1811
Isaac James LEAR 4130
Aubrey LIDDELOW Captain
Frederick Archie LIDGETT 4832
Leonard John NEIL 2406
Stephen SLEIGH 3244

60 Battalion

Charles John CLAYTON 850

For an account of Fromelles see Beaumont (2013. pp 189-200). Fromelles featured the litany of military failures that characterised so much of the fighting on the Western Front. Beaumont notes the following: the military objective was compromised from the start and there was little if any chance of a successful strategic outcome; the Germans knew the attack was imminent; the planning was poor and rushed; the British and Australian artillery was not up to the task and failed in its pre-attack objectives; the Germans held the higher ground and their defensive fortifications had been well-developed over nearly 2 years; previous allied attempts to overcome the German lines – and in particular to neutralise the infamous ‘sugar loaf’ machine gun fortification – had failed, and only very recently; part of the attack plan involved troops moving over an expanse of no-man’s land that far exceeded the agreed maximum limit for such an operation on the Western Front; the troops, both British and Australian, were inexperienced in terms of the Western Front; communication failed at a critical point in the battle; and, finally, senior leadership was poor. Given this background, it was hardly surprising that the attack, which began late afternoon on 19 July and ended early morning the next day, was a failure. The level of casualties was unprecedented for the AIF. Beaumont writes of the 5th Division losses: 5533 casualties, of whom 1917 were killed or died of wounds, 3146 wounded and 470 taken prisoner.

Fromelles was the first major battle involving the AIF on the Western Front. Admittedly, it was overshadowed by Pozieres later that same month (July 1916) and everything that followed, but the remarkable feature of Fromelles was how little knowledge, or even awareness, of the battle and the scale of the casualties was known in Australia at the time. It was only after the War that the ‘truth’ of Fromelles emerged. For example, in its Saturday edition of 10 April 1920 (p.7 ) The Argus ran a story under the headline: Fromelles 1916! A Glorious Failure. What Really Happened. The last sentence read,

The Total casualties among the Australians from noon on July 19 to noon on July 20 were 178 officers and 5,335 of other ranks.

However, in 1916 the details were heavily censored. There were reports in the Australian press immediately after the battle, but the account was highly qualified. Bean’s official report was published in both The Age (p.7) and The Argus (p.7) as early as Monday 24 July 1916. Both papers did include Bean’s comment that, The losses among our troops engaged were severe. But ‘severe’ was not quantified. Moreover, other details in Bean’s report gave a contradictory picture. For example, when he described the efforts made to enable Australian troops trapped in the German trenches to return to their own lines Bean played down the level of casualties:

This work [cutting communication trenches through to the German trenches] enabled the troops to carry out the retirement with loss which was slight when the extraordinary difficulty of the operation was considered.

Given what Bean had heard, and seen for himself, the entire account was very disingenuous. Moreover, in both papers, the story of Fromelles was presented as part of the wider Somme offensive. The headlines, for example, in The Argus on July 24, 1916 for the section where Bean’s report was included were as follows: Australia’s Share In Great Offensive.  A Heavy Engagement. All is well on Somme Front. Important Russian Gains.

For Bean there was the obvious potential to make the connection between Fromelles, which was after all the first major AIF action on the Western Front, and the heroic story of Anzac. Fromelles presented the AIF with the opportunity to prove and strengthen their reputation from Gallipoli. This would have been a point of considerable interest for those back in Australia: the next chapter as it were in the story of Anzac. But Bean did not have the heroic style of an Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. Moreover, his praise for the men was decidedly qualified:

Our troops in this attack had faced shell fire heavier and more continuous that was ever known in Gallipoli. Many of them were quite untried previously. The manner in which they carried it through seems to have been worthy of all the traditions of Anzac.

Overall, Fromelles was effectively ‘buried’. Presumably, the primary intention was to conceal the level of casualties and therefore it was important not to represent Fromelles as some separate and highly significant battle. And the idea of using the battle to position the Anzacs on the Western Front was, given the level of casualties and the total failure of the action, far too risky. At the time, Fromelles was little more than the AIF’s wretched introduction to truly industrial-scale killing. Fromelles had been a disaster and all involved needed to move on from it as quickly as possible.

One great irony of the reporting of Fromelles appeared in The Argus in the same edition of Monday 24 July 1916.  Immediately after Bean’s account – the one that had as its last sentence, The losses among our troops engaged were severe. – the paper included a very short article headed, A German Claim. It probably attracted very little attention, and would have been easily dismissed as enemy propaganda, but in fact the figures it quoted were remarkably accurate:

London, July 23.
The following official German communique was received in London on Friday night:-
“An English (sic) attack in the Fromelles region yesterday by two strong divisions was repulsed. We made prisoner 481 men, and counted 2,000 bodies in front of our lines.”

In the posts that follow, the protracted and generally unsuccessful efforts made by families back in Australia to uncover exactly what had become of their sons, husbands and brothers who had gone missing on either 19 or 20 July 1916 in France, highlighted the extent to which levels of mystery and confusion were allowed to mask the horror of Fromelles.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative carried no report at all of the  battle at either Fromelles or Fleurbaix.

References

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.
The Argus
The Age
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

 

70. The girl and the young soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for Tolhurst Herbert Walter