Turbulent times: the darker side to Orange's World War I enlistment history

DIFFERENT VIEW: Doctor Julie Kimber chose the impact of World War I on the people of Orange as her subject for her PhD thesis.

DIFFERENT VIEW: Doctor Julie Kimber chose the impact of World War I on the people of Orange as her subject for her PhD thesis.

DURING the scores of commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War today, we are remembering the men, young and old, who served and died in the war.

We also remember the wounded, in mind and body, crippled from their service.

We remember, too, the voluntary spirit of those women whose war efforts supported these men. 

We will hear, as we have done for years past, how the nation, which had been federated for only 14 years, was “born” at Gallipoli.

But how much of the divisions at home during that war will we remember?

It’s a story familiar to historians of the period, but one that is largely absent from our public remembrances.

Orange’s history, like that of so many other towns and cities across Australia, tells a different narrative from the ANZAC legend, and the conclusions to be drawn from it are rather more problematic.

The unanimity of August and September 1914 vanished in the years that followed.

By 1915, with increases in unemployment and the cost of living, a harder, more intolerant, attitude towards outsiders had formed.

And, as the war’s death toll mounted, “out-of-work” and “able-bodied” young men became the most watched and talked-about group in town. 

The Orange Leader, a precursor to this paper, targeted these “slackers” who, it claimed, “would sooner see the Germans victorious than volunteer for active service”.

It created a “Roll of Honor”, which listed the names of the volunteers and regularly denounced those not yet on the list: “Nothing short of conscription will shunt many of our burly young manhood into the firing line. Some of their cowardly skins would be all the better for a little Turkish bronzing.”

When we think of the First World War, we might do well to remember this pressure to enlist.

Such pressure was formalised when local recruiting agencies joined with police in persuading teachers and businesses to help identify young men between 18 and 21 - men who did not yet have the vote but who would be cannon fodder for the war.

The Leader made much fun of the young man who, when asked by police why he had not enlisted, answered simply that he was “frightened”.

In August 1915, Sir Neville Howse – the ex-Mayor of Orange now serving at Gallipoli – sent a cablegram home exhorting people to: “Ostracise every healthy young man who does not volunteer immediately”.

In the days that followed, dozens of young men were sent white feathers, signals of their perceived cowardice.

At the height of this pressure the council locked out members of the local football club from Wade Park, and they were mocked in the paper with a dirge about “hot footballers and cold feet”.

As sympathies hardened, even the women of the Red Cross were ridiculed for knitting mittens for soldiers, seen as “a waste of the ladies' time”.

These pressures, and the bitterness they evoked, caused relationships in Orange to sour. 

After Prime Minister Hughes announced a vote on the question of conscription, many of them turned toxic.

Pro- and anti-conscription leagues were formed and in the lead-up to the first vote, in October 1916, the town witnessed dozens of rowdy meetings.

At each one, pro- and anti- speakers were “counted out”, eggs were thrown, disorder reigned and police intervened.

The picture of the soldier son of the Mayor was booed when shown in the theatre.

Businesses supporting either side were boycotted. 

Despite the public denunciation of “slackers” by local politicians and the press, by polling day it was apparent that the antis would prevail.

In Orange the vote was decisive: 2973 against, 1245 for.

Across the country, opinion was much more evenly divided (1,160,033 against, 1,087,557 for) but Hughes' setback split the Federal Government, led to the formation of a new political party, and foreshadowed a second plebiscite on the issue at the end of 1917.

Again the antis won – but not without significant damage to personal relationships in the meantime.

By 1918, with war-weariness entrenched, some were prepared to step beyond the bounds of the anti-conscription struggle and actively call for peace.

One such brave soul was the East Orange Congregational Minister, Thomas Roseby.

His services on “Peace and War” in his parish church attracted pacifists and loyalists alike: on one occasion he was attacked, mid-sermon, by a group of returned soldiers.

Three months shy of war's end, Roseby was silenced by the draconian War Precautions Act, which made it an offence to do or say anything “likely to prejudice recruiting”.

In late November, Orange welcomed home its favoured hero, Sir Neville Howse, who three years earlier stated that “every able young man who does not enlist should be sterilized”.

Howse now called for the “unpleasantness and friction” of the war years to end. 

By forgetting our shared divisive past, and by not celebrating the dissenting voices in our history, we have fulfilled his wish.

But the Great War was a tragedy of immense proportions.

Over 60,000 families in Australia were left without a son, father or brother. 

More than 100 of those came from the town of Orange itself, at least 10 per cent of whom were under 21.

Maybe it is now time to recognise that, in the long run, it was the dissenting voices that were right about the tragic folly we call the First World War, and that to repeat Howse’s jingoistic bluster at the height of hostilities is to dishonour the sacrifices of those young men, and of the many citizens who resisted the pressure to enlist.

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