Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 33 

Enlistment for the First World War in rural Australia: the case of north-eastern Victoria, 1914-1918 

Author: John McQuilton

{1} There is now a wealth of literature devoted to the men who enlisted during the First World War. C.E.W. Bean's work remains the starting point for those interested in the First AIF. Lloyd Robson's and Bill Gammage's pioneering works have been followed by studies by Patsy Adam Smith, Richard White, Alistair Thomson and Harvey Broadbent, amongst others. Albert Facey's A fortunate life opened a new genre (or at least revitalised an old genre) in the literature with the memoirs of the men who fought so far from home. [1] Women enlisting as nurses have not received as much attention, though Jan Bassett's work and the publication of the diaries of women such as Olive Haynes have at least staked a claim for recognition of nurses as a vital part of Australia's wartime experience. [2]

{2} It is curious to note, then, that statistical analyses of the characteristics of the men who volunteered remain thin on the ground. Ernest Scott and A.G. Butler produced statistical profiles of the First AIF as part of the Official History. Bill Gammage provided supplementary material which compared his diary and letter writers with both census data and the statistics compiled by Butler. Lloyd Robson produced a statistical analysis of a sample of members of the AIF based on personnel files compiled during the war. [3] This gap in the literature is even more marked when it comes to rural Australia. Suzanne Welborn, for example, provided some information in her book on enlistment in Western Australia, and my study of Yackandandah at war provided information for a rural shire. [4]

{3} Robson noted accurately, if somewhat dryly, that statistical analyses can baffle and unsettle. [5] Yet they do provide a broad context for any study of the men who went to war between 1914 and 1918 and allow more concrete answers to some of the questions that remain central in the literature dealing with the First World War - who went, for example: were they the young men lauded by Bean; and was the enlistment response in rural areas different, as Michael McKernan has suggested? [6] In this article I attempt to start filling in that gap by looking at the men who volunteered from one rural region in Australia: north-eastern Victoria. I use Robson in particular as my major point of comparative reference. [7]

General characteristics

{4} Just over 3,500 men volunteered from north-eastern Victoria between 1914 and 1918. [8] This represented 8.2 per cent of the regional population, 15.5 per cent of the region's male population and 41.3 percent of the males aged between 18 and 44. [9] The percentage of the eligible population enlisting was higher than the national average of 38.7 per cent. [10] Over half the men enlisting joined the infantry although, as might be expected, men from the farming districts were more heavily represented in the Light Horse and men from mining districts more heavily represented in the pioneer battalions. The men were overwhelmingly single: 90 per cent had never married. In rural shires such as Yackandandah and Oxley, the proportion who had never married reached 95 per cent. Married men were more likely to come from urban centres: Rutherglen, Wangaratta, Beechworth and Wodonga. Again, it is a proportion well above the national average, calculated by Robson at 82 per cent. [11]

{5} The north-east's volunteers were also younger than the national averages calculated by Robson (See Table 1, Age cohorts). Sixteen per cent were under 20, 44 per cent were aged between 20 and 24, 60 per cent were under the age of 25. (Robson's survey showed 14 per cent under the age of 20 and 38 per cent in the 20-24 year cohort, a total of 52 per cent.) [12] The average age of volunteers was 24, but the regional average masks a shift in ages during the war. The average age of men enlisting in 1914 was 23; it reached 26 in 1916 and fell to 24 for 1917 and 1918. More significantly, the median age fell from 23.5 in 1915 to 20 in 1918. In Yackandandah, it fell to 19. It was a clear indication that by the end of the war, recruits were drawn from the very young and men in their early middle age. The majority of men aged between 21 and 40 who were likely to volunteer had done so in 1915 and 1916. More significantly, the figures also strongly reflect the group that regional society had deemed "eligible" to go: the young, single men. Just on 18 per cent died while on active service. [13]

Enlistment responses

{6} Robson identified three major enlistment periods during the war: August 1914 to June 1915; July 1915 to August 1916; and the period from September 1916 to the end of the war. He then calculated the percentages of total enlistments for each period. The north-east shows a marked variation from Robson's figures, especially in the second period (see Table 2, Enlistment responses by Robson's periods). Fully 84 per cent of the region's volunteers had enlisted before September 1916, and recruitment fell away rapidly thereafter [14], bearing out Michael McKernan's observation that rural areas exhausted their pool of volunteers more rapidly than metropolitan Australia. [15]

{7} The second period deserves closer scrutiny. This was the time of Victoria's two major recruitment drives, July to September 1915 and January to March 1916. Combining them obscures differences that exist between the two. Table 3 sets out enlistments by calendar year and compares the north-east with Australia as a whole.

{8} Nationally, 1915 was the peak year for recruitment, helped no doubt by the extraordinary response in Victoria between July and September 1915. The peak year in the north-east, however, was 1916 when the proportion of regional volunteers stood almost ten percentage points above the national average. More significantly, there was a marked variation in the enlistment response at the sub-regional level, suggesting that metropolitan critics who chided rural Australia for "holding back" in 1915 might well have had a point. [16]

{9} In 1914 local government areas in the north-east were broadly divided into two groups: those where farming was the dominant economic activity, and those where mining was still dominant. Oxley, North Ovens, Rutherglen, Yackandandah, Towong and Wodonga were the "farming" shires (though mining was still an important part of Rutherglen's economy, and Wodonga was a major transport town). The mining shires were Chiltern, Beechworth and Bright. They recorded their strongest enlistment responses in 1915, especially Chiltern, where over 40 per cent of the shire's volunteers "took the risk" [17] in 1915. Although members of the recruiting committees in these local government areas tended to purr about the patriotic spirit of their districts, and there can be little doubt that the war hysteria which gripped the region in the aftermath of the Gallipoli landing and the first recruitment campaign played a part, the state of the mining economy was also relevant. Mining in the north-east had been in slow decline for forty years, especially in the Chiltern Valley, where flooding and poor leads had caused many mines to close and men to be laid off. This affected the local economy, especially the sector built up to serve the mining industry. It was these men, rather than the miners, who enlisted in 1915.

{10} The rural shires, by contrast, recorded their strongest response in 1916, and again the local economy provides an explanation for this. The first good rains that broke the drought had come in April, May and June 1915. For the first time in some years the farming community could look forward to a good year; in addition, prices for wool, wheat, meat and other agricultural goods had risen sharply after the outbreak of war. Rather wisely, the region's recruiting committees delayed the start of the 1916 recruitment campaign until the regional harvest had been completed. In some farming areas, such as Oxley, the proportion of volunteers recorded was a full ten percentage points above the 1915 figures. Farming districts may have held back in 1915, but they ensured that the enlistment response the following year would provide the largest number of volunteers during the war.

{11} There are, however, two anomalies in the table presented: Wodonga and Towong, where 1915 was the peak year for enlistments. [18] Local factors explain the anomaly. At the outbreak of war, work on the Tallangatta to Cudgewa railway, east of Wodonga, was halted and the workers were dismissed. [19] Some of the workers left the region, but others enlisted in 1915 in Wodonga and Tallangatta, the seat of the Towong Shire. [20] If these men are removed from the figures, then Wodonga and Towong fall into line with the response identified for the farming shires, though Towong still had a strong response in 1915. This reflected the role that loyalty to Empire was to play in the shire during the war, especially in its eastern reaches. Corryong, for example, registered the highest YES vote in Australia in the 1916 conscription campaign - 89 per cent voted for conscription. [21]


{12} It is difficult to draw comparisons between the occupational profiles of the men enlisting in the north-east and the AIF. Previous studies have examined the AIF as a whole, and its occupational make-up reflects, by necessity, the preponderantly urban backgrounds of the men enlisting. Rural Australia is lumped under the general heading "Country callings" or "Primary Producers", though there is no doubt that rural men were also found in the other categories used, from "Labourer" to "Professional" and "Tradesmen". [22] Similarly, attempts to draw comparisons between the occupations of the men enlisting and the occupational data provided by the Census for 1911 have proved less than satisfactory, partly because the area units used in that census were large, partly because the data is not detailed enough to allow effective comparison at local government level, and partly because the categories reflect a metropolitan bias. Occupational information for the region's male population was therefore constructed using the Commonwealth Electoral Roll for the Division of Indi in 1914 (see Table 4, Major occupational groups for the north-east's male workforce, and Table 5, Major occupational groups for the north-east's volunteers). This approach allows a more satisfactory analysis at regional level, even though it makes national comparisons more difficult. [23]

{13} The most striking feature of the occupational structure of men enlisting and the communities from which they came was the over-representation of labourers. Although labourers accounted for only 30 per cent of the male workforce they represented 37 per cent of men enlisting, a proportion substantially higher than Robson's 22 per cent and Gammage's 30 per cent. [24] This characteristic is even more marked at the local government level, and local government level figures suggest some underlying causes for the contentious question of what motivated men to enlist.

{14} The impact of the decline of the mining industry is clearly evident in the proportions recorded for Chiltern, Beechworth and Bright, where the discrepancy lies between 10 and 18 per cent. It is also echoed in the over-representation of tradesmen in Chiltern and Bright. Unemployment, or uncertain employment, must have been a factor in the decision taken to enlist. The figures for the farming shires (Oxley, Yackandandah, North Ovens, Rutherglen and Towong) reflect a similar phenomenon, although cast in different terms. From the end of the nineteenth century, most of the region's farmers had begun to capitalise their operations: machinery began to replace labour, and by 1914 a surplus pool of labourers existed in the farming districts. Unemployment and, more significantly, under-employment were common. [25] The majority of the men classified as "labourers" in these shires were the farmers' younger sons who would not inherit the farm, though they worked on the farm and took seasonal work. These were the men who volunteered in 1916. Ironically, the war had been so effective at soaking up this surplus pool of labour that evidence of a labour shortages had begun to appear in the farming shires by late 1916. Of the 566 cases heard before the regional exemption court set up during the conscription campaign, for example, 364 came from the farming districts. The central argument in the cases argued for exemption was the need to ensure that the labour needed for farming was protected. [26]

{15} Contrary to the pattern described by Welborn for Western Australia [27], farmers themselves were consistently under-represented among the men volunteering for the war, both at the regional and local government level. Age would have certainly been one factor in this characteristic. Many of the region's farmers had inherited the farm in their middle age and were too old to go. Possession of land itself would also have acted as a brake: despite the call to arms, the farm would not be lightly thrown away. Many of the farmers were the descendants of selectors, and the battle to hold the land against the unrealistic agrarian ideal projected in the selection legislation, as well as attempts by squatters to discourage selection, were still vivid in living memory. [28] In addition, as noted earlier, the war had meant substantial price rises for the commodities the farmers were producing. Metropolitan critics, like Donald McKinnon, the head of the State Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, savaged Victoria's farmers for not enlisting in 1916. [29] Yet there was ample evidence that the region's farmers had carefully worked out their contribution to the war effort. Families worked out who could go and who would stay to ensure that the farm survived and production of the commodities deemed vital for the war effort by W.M. Hughes could continue. The choices were not without their difficulties for the sons involved. In the exemption court hearings held at Chiltern in 1916, for example, Walter Withers' father noted that, despite the fact that Walter had been chosen to stay at home, "the boy had been anxious to go since the war started". [30]

{16} Two other occupational groups are worth noting because they represent a microcosm of the influence of class on enlistment responses and demonstrate how some elements, at least, were common nationally. At the regional and local government level, those in professional occupations enlisted in numbers out of proportion to their share of the regional workforce. Rutherglen's teacher, Charles Denehy, raised the first contingent of Rutherglen's volunteers. [31] He was one of several teachers who volunteered between 1914 and 1918. Local clerks also figured prominently amongst the volunteers, men like Edward Edwards, whose passionate plea to his parents in 1915 to allow him to enlist, despite the fact that he was still under 18, became a major tool in the 1915 recruitment campaign. [32] This matches the over-representation of the professional groups among volunteers identified by Robson, Scott, Butler, Gammage and Welborn. The miners, by contrast, represent the reverse side of the coin.

{17} Although miners comprised up to a third of male workforce in the region's mining shires, they were consistently under-represented among those volunteering. In Bright, for example, miners made up 34 per cent of the male workforce but only 20 per cent of recruits. In Chiltern, they made up 20 per cent of the male workforce but a mere 6 per cent of those who stepped forward for King and country. The miners were the most highly unionised members of the regional workforce, and anti-war sentiments such as those expressed by the Industrial Workers of the World, deeply deplored by the regional press, were certainly apparent in 1914. Bright's William Sharpe, for example, argued that the "real war" lay in Australia. "We have against us all the forces of reaction", he wrote. "Comrades, the fight is yours, and you have to win it." [33] During the war, the miners remained true to the more left wing elements in the Labour movement and supported the NO vote in the conscription campaign. They also faced an aggressive and successful campaign mounted by mine owners to reduce wages and working conditions, especially in the Chiltern Valley. [34] Faced with a decline in living standards, miners accepted Sharpe's argument that the "real war" lay at home. Miners moved to Western Australia, South Africa and the Philippines to seek work in preference to fighting in what many increasingly saw as an imperial war.

Religious affiliation

{18} One of the more contentious issues in an analysis of the First World War is sectarianism and, more specifically, the role of "Irish" Catholics in the war effort. The Easter Rebellion in Dublin and the high profile taken by the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Daniel Mannix, in the conscription campaigns, especially the second, led to allegations of disloyalty against Australian Catholics. This sentiment was alive and well in north-east Victoria, despite attempts by local leaders and the regional press to dampen the controversy. Rutherglen's doctor, John Harris, for example, publicly supported the YES vote in 1916 because, he argued, conscription would force the region's Catholics to meet their obligations to "uphold the honor of the Empire". [35] Perhaps not surprisingly, these elements can be seen in the religious affiliations of the north-east's volunteers (see Table 6, Male religious affiliations, north-eastern Victoria and Table 7, Religious affiliations of the north-east's volunteers). [36]

{19} There were four main denominations in the north-east in 1914. The Church of England was the largest group, with just over a third of the regional population (37 per cent). The Catholics were next, with 29 per cent of the male population. Presbyterians accounted for 18 per cent of the population and Methodists for 11 per cent. The region differed in one fundamental aspect from the state averages: the proportion of Catholics was significantly higher than the state average (20 per cent). The north-east had been an area of Irish settlement during the selection decades, and there were recognisable Catholic districts in the western parts of the region, especially in the Oxley, North Ovens, Chiltern, Yackandandah and Wodonga shires. [37] Conversely, the Anglican population increased in significance as you went east, especially in Towong Shire, where members of the Church of England accounted for 44 per cent of the male population, far above the state and regional average. The Methodists were strongest in the shires where mining was an important part of the local economy, especially Bright. Cornish immigrants, seeking work in the mining industry during the nineteenth century, had brought their faith with them. Some were still miners, but others had become farmers.

{20} As with the occupational groupings, there is clear evidence of disproportion between the religious affiliation of men enlisting and their communities. At both the regional and local government level, the Church of England was over-represented in every case but one. The discrepancy between the male population nominally affiliated with the Church of England and the volunteers was as high as 13 per cent in North Ovens. Presbyterians were also over-represented at both the regional and local government level. Here the regional pattern matches the national pattern described by Robson and Gammage. [38]

{21} Male Methodist recruits fell a little short of their share of the regional population, again matching the national picture [39], but there was a marked variation between local government areas and even within them. In the Methodist communities where mining was still an important part of the economy, the enlistment response mirrored the general enlistment response already described for miners as an occupational group. The divisions engendered were often bitter. In Wandiligong, for example, William Gribble was president of the local branch of the Political Labor Council, a Bright Shire councillor and a lay preacher. Gribble remained loyal to the Labor cause, campaigning for a NO vote in 1916 and 1917 and running unsuccessfully as a Labor candidate in the state elections held in 1917. He was vehemently opposed by Wandiligong's Methodist minister, Egan Lee, especially during the conscription campaign in 1916. Gribble gave up lay preaching and did not return to the pulpit until after the war, but he never lost the support of his co-religionists. It was Lee who proved to be out of step with his congregation. [40] Methodists in the farming shires like Wodonga and North Ovens, and urban centres like Beechworth, however, provided a stronger response to the call to arms. Matching the pattern described earlier for farmers, most were farmers' sons. [41]

{22} Catholic enlistments in the region also matched the national pattern of under-representation. They fell a good five percentage points below their share of the male population, and Catholic enlistments were consistently under-represented at the local government level. There were two shires where the under representation was substantial, Wodonga and North Ovens.

{23} Wodonga certainly had its share of sectarian controversy in 1917 during the battle for Wodonga's flagpole. The local Catholic priest had used the flagpole to promote fund-raising for his church, much to the ire of Protestant clergy in the town. In an intemperate exchange of letters in the local paper, the entire community became embroiled in argument. [42] The letters included allegations that the Catholics were "not doing their share". [43] Perhaps a legacy of anti-British sentiment did play a part in the decision of the shire's Irish Catholic population not to enlist, but it is also likely that the growing disenchantment of organised Labor with the pro-war government of Billy Hughes was just as important. Wodonga was a railway town and the workforce was highly unionised. They were also predominantly Catholic. [44]

{24} At 21 per cent, the disproportion in North Ovens, where the Catholics were the largest single denomination, was very high. They were concentrated in the southern half of the shire. Close by, in the northern reaches of neighbouring Oxley Shire, was a similar concentration of Irish Catholic settlement. It is likely that community's experience had created an anti-British sentiment which viewed with mistrust an English war. This was the core of Kelly Country, and at the end of the war, the Sinn Fein flag was found flying from a local school flagpole, much to the outrage of the shire's patriots. [45] Yet to attribute the low Catholic enlistment to sectarianism alone obscures two other elements of equal importance. First, the vast majority of the local Catholic population were farmers; as discussed earlier, farmers were consistently under-represented among the occupational groups joining the AIF. [46] Secondly, the notion of the "family farm" was still far more strongly entrenched in the Catholic community in the shire than elsewhere in the region. The farm was a family unit, and every member of the family was expected to contribute to the farm's income, not only by working the land but also by seeking work outside its boundaries. The men took on seasonal work, especially shearing, and daughters got jobs as domestic servants, continuing a pattern of economic activity first identified by the police during the Kelly outbreak. [47] The structure of family farming economics, then, also worked against enlistment. The events of Easter 1916 had no effect on Catholic enlistments within the shire. In fact, Catholic enlistments as a proportion of the total increased slightly in the following period, bearing out Robson's findings in his study of the AIF. [48] The poor response of Catholics had been there from 1914. [49]

The nurses

{25} The exact number of women from the north-east who volunteered as nurses is difficult to identify, but they numbered at least forty. [50] Most enlisted in Melbourne, where they worked, like Myrtleford's Elizabeth Rothery. All, of course, were single.

{26} In the patriotic brouhaha that accompanied the enlistment of the region's men, the nurses were often overlooked. Few attended the farewells given for the male volunteers and, when they did, they were something of an embarrassment for the male speakers, who found it hard to shift their focus from the need to kill the "Hun" to the role a woman might play in the conflict. The women themselves seemed to prefer a private farewell with friends and family, a quiet dinner in the local cafe or tea room, or a social at home. [51] In many respects, these women had already left the region years before.

{27} Nurses from the region worked in England, France, South Africa and on the hospital ships at Gallipoli. They also proved to be indefatigable letter writers, and their letters were widely circulated or printed in the local newspaper. The letters were important to women in the region, for they often lacked the evasions and pragmatism that characterised the letters written by the soldiers. They were, in a sense, an alternative to the masculine voices so dominant in the war effort.

{28} Sister Agnes Cullen Jones, from Bright, was among the most eloquent. In 1917, she found herself on the banks of the Somme. Its beauty was marred by the simple fact that it was the "bloodiest battlefield in the history of the war". She was sickened to see a lad fishing in the river and vowed never to eat fish again in France. She particularly remarked on the wild flowers that grew on the graves of the Australian dead and found them a more fitting tribute to the men, now "finished with the heart-scalding" experience of war, than the formal wreaths laid by the Queen. She assured her readers that "it would do many an Australian woman's heart good if she could see how beautiful the resting place of her boy is." [52] She frequently wrote home with news of the local men at the front and was not averse to commenting on their appearance. She found her brother, for example, "as fat as ever". She described the emotional difficulties she faced when nursing wounded Australian soldiers and, although she accepted as inevitable that the men would return to the front, it still grieved her to see them go. She had enormous respect for the German prisoners of war, claiming that they were unmatched in their ability to endure pain; she also noted that many of them by 1918 were little more than "boys". [53] And it was Agnes Jones who alerted the region to the serious nature of the Spanish Flu: as she remarked, "We have all got the wind-up pretty badly about it." [54] She returned home in 1919 and was rather non-plussed by the presentation of a large bunch of roses by the local patriotic committee. [55]

{29} The presentation made to Agnes Jones reflected genuine respect for the women who had volunteered. Every memorial in the region that names all who served lists the nurses. In Beechworth they were given their own marble panel. Elizabeth Rothery is probably the quintessential example. She enlisted in 1914 and served on the hospital ships at Lemnos and in hospitals in Bombay, Cape Town and London. In June 1918 she visited friends in Beechworth while home on leave; a few days later she was dead from appendicitis and peritonitis. Doctors were unable to operate because of her heart condition. The local paper reported that her last thoughts were of the boys. Beechworth's returned men gave her a military funeral. The coffin was draped with the Union Jack, and Rothery's uniform was laid on top. The coffin was carried through the streets observed by a large crowd. Six returned men acted as pall bearers, while others stood at the graveside with arms reversed. Three volleys were fired over the grave, and the Last Post was played. [56]


{30} In The Australian people and the Great War, Michael McKernan argued that the war in rural Australia was a different war. [57] This analysis of men enlisting in north-eastern Victoria between 1914 and 1918 supports that argument. Rural Australia did share some characteristics with the national profile described by historians. Those in the professional occupational groups were over-represented among the region's volunteers, but others, like the miners, were not. In terms of religious affiliation, Anglicans and Presbyterian were over-represented, but Methodists and, most strikingly, Roman Catholics, were under-represented. But it also differed significantly in other aspects.

{31} In north-east Victoria the proportion of men enlisting from the eligible age group was higher than the national average. More significantly, they were considerably younger and overwhelmingly single, two characteristics which reflect a regional consensus on who was deemed "eligible" to go. The peak year for enlistments was 1916 rather than 1915. The voluntary response also came earlier than that recorded nationally: by the end of the second recruitment campaign, 84 per cent of the men who would volunteer had done so. The collapse in enlistments after 1916 was therefore far more marked than that recorded nationally.

{32} Analysis of the occupations of men enlisting in the AIF shows that the region's labourers were the largest single group to respond to the call to arms, and in a proportion far higher than the national average. Although their motivations varied, there is no doubt that unemployment and under-employment played a part in the decision to enlist, both in the mining and farming shires.

{33} Farmers, however, did not enlist in proportion to their share of the population. The farmers were constrained both by their greater age and the belief that the land could not be lightly given up, although there is ample evidence that they had a far more complex view of the war effort than urban patriots were willing to concede. Farming families had worked out who could go and who was to stay. Although Welborn's analysis suggests a contrary picture, Caldwell's research reflects a similar experience in the Illawarra. Although Irish mistrust of Britain may well have played a part in the Catholics' relative reluctance to enlist, their poor response also reflected class divisions and, more importantly, the occupational structure of the Catholic population. The majority were farmers. The Easter Rebellion had no impact on Catholic enlistments. The most intriguing example of the relationship between class and religious affiliation is provided by the Methodists, among whom the miners and farmers were sharply divided.

{34} The nurses remain an under-explored element in rural Australia's war. If the north-east is typical, they avoided the public farewells given to the men and preferred to leave quietly. They provided an alternative voice to the view of the war presented by the men. There was no doubt that they were highly regarded by the men and women of the north-east, as the response to Elizabeth Rothery's death demonstrated. Her military funeral was, in fact, entirely unofficial. [58]



Table 1, Age cohorts (%)

Cohorts Robson North-eastern Victoria
18-19 14 16
20-24 38 44
25-29 21 20
30-34 12 9
35-39 8 5
>40 7 6

Sources: Robson, "The origin and character of the First AIF", p.739, AWM 8 Embarkation rolls

Table 2, Enlistment responses by Robson's periods (%)

  Aug 14 - June 15 July 15 - Aug 16 Balance
Robson [59] 24 50 26
North East 25 59 16

Sources: Robson, "The origin and character of the First AIF", p.738, AWM 8 Embarkation rolls

Table 3, Enlistments by calendar year (%)

LGA 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918
Oxley 6.9 37.6 46.5 7.4 1.6
Wangaratta 16.8 34.7 35.7 10.1 2.7
North Ovens 12.5 41.1 42.0 2.7 1.7
Rutherglen 20.9 30.4 35.9 8.2 4.6
Chiltern 13.1 41.1 22.1 5.7 7.0
Beechworth 10.8 39.4 37.5 9.3 3.0
Bright 15.1 39.3 35.5 9.1 1.0
Yackand'ah 9.2 35.3 44.4 9.7 1.4
Wodonga 13.4 39.6 35.1 9.0 2.9
Towong 9.1 41.6 40.5 6.6 2.2
Region 12.9 37.8 38.5 8.1 2.7
Australia 12.6 39.8 29.9 10.8 6.9

Sources: AWM 8 Embarkation rolls, Scott, pp. 871-2

Table 4, Major occupational groups for the north-east's male workforce (%)

LGA Labourers Farmers Miners Tradesmen Professional
Oxley 29.7 55.9 0.3 4.0 3.3
Wangaratta 23.6 12.9 0.7 17.9 12.4
North Ovens 26.6 51.2 3.4 5.2 2.7
Rutherglen 29.7 22.8 15.5 10.8 4.8
Chiltern 25.1 23.7 19.1 9.1 6.7
Beechworth 16.6 15.8 20.4 12.8 6.9
Bright 21.1 17.2 34.1 8.6 4.8
Yackand'ah 23.4 44.2 12.6 6.2 4.8
Wodonga 29.3 27.8 0.8 9.9 5.9
Towong 30.3 40.1 7.5 5.2 4.5
Region 29.7 27.7 12.2 8.8 5.8

Source: Commonwealth Electoral Roll, Division of Indi, 1914

Table 5, Major occupational groups for the north-east's volunteers (%)

LGA Labourers Farmers Miners Tradesmen Professional
Oxley 41.7 32.6 2.0 7.4 6.0
Wangaratta 32.3 10.8 0.7 19.9 14.5
North Ovens 34.8 30.4 3.6 9.8 7.2
Rutherglen 43.4 12.4 6.5 9.2 9.4
Chiltern 43.4 8.0 6.3 14.9 13.7
Beechworth 34.9 7.4 8.2 12.3 13.7
Bright 31.1 11.6 19.8 11.0 7.2
Yackand'ah 38.6 16.4 9.2 8.2 9.7
Wodonga 37.3 20.1 1.5 16.4 9.0
Towong 39.9 27.6 5.5 7.5 6.5
Region 36.9 18.0 7.0 11.3 9.6

Source: AWM 8 Embarkation rolls

Table 6, Male religious affiliations, north-eastern Victoria (%)

LGA C. of Eng. Presbyt. Methodist R. Catholic Other
Oxley 35.4 16.4 9.2 28.6 10.4
Wangaratta 37.0 18.1 11.4 24.6 8.9
North Ovens 32.3 9.5 13.6 38.0 6.6
Rutherglen 36.2 13.3 10.9 26.7 12.9
Chiltern 37.8 15.2 9.6 30.6 6.8
Beechworth 33.1 16.2 11.9 22.1 17.4
Bright 39.1 14.1 13.9 21.4 11.8
Yackand'ah 36.8 17.0 5.5 29.4 11.3
Wodonga 34.2 11.9 11.6 31.0 11.3
Towong 44.6 15.5 10.7 20.1 9.1
Region 37.1 17.8 10.9 28.5 5.7

Source: Commonwealth Census, 1901, Table 7

Table 7, Religious affiliations of the north-east's volunteers (%)

LGA C. of Eng. Presbyt. Methodist R. Catholic Other
Oxley 44.6 19.8 6.4 25.2 4.0
Wangaratta 49.8 19.2 7.4 19.2 4.4
North Ovens 45.5 12.5 21.4 17.9 2.7
Rutherglen 50.3 18.0 7.2 19.3 5.2
Chiltern 36.6 25.1 8.0 29.7 0.6
Beechworth 40.9 22.7 13.0 16.4 7.0
Bright 48.1 15.4 12.3 22.3 1.9
Yackand'ah 40.6 23.2 9.7 25.1 1.4
Wodonga 47.8 13.4 15.7 21.6 1.5
Towong 49.8 24.8 5.8 18.6 1.0
Region 46.2 20.1 9.5 23.1 1.1

Source: AWM 8, Embarkation rolls


1. See L.L. Robson, The First AIF: a study of its recruitment 1914-1918, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1970; Bill Gammage, The broken years: Australian soldiers in the Great War, Penguin, Ringwood, 1975 (1974); P. Adam Smith, The ANZACs, Nelson, West Melbourne, 1978; A Thomson, ANZAC memories: living with the legend, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994; R. White, "Motives for joining up: self-sacrifice, self-interest and social class", Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 9, 1986, pp. 3-16; R. White, "The soldier as tourist: the Australian experience of the Great War", War and society, 5, 1, 1987, pp. 63-78; H. Broadbent, The boys who came home: recollections of Gallipoli, ABC Enterprises, Crows Nest, 1990.

2. J. Bassett, Guns and brooches: Australian army nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992; M.O. Young (ed.), We are here too: the diaries and letters of Sister Olive L.C. Haynes, November 1914-February 1918, Australian Downs Syndrome House, Adelaide, 1993.

3. E. Scott, Australia during the war, Official history of Australia in the war of 1914-1918, vol. 11, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1989 (1936); A.G. Butler, Official history of the Australian Army Medical Services, 1914-1918, Canberra, 1943, vol. 3; L.L. Robson, "The origin and character of the First AIF, 1914-1918: some statistical evidence", Historical studies 61, 1973, pp. 737-49; Gammage, pp. 280-1.

4. S. Welborn, Lords of death: a people, a place, a legend, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1982; J. McQuilton, "A shire at war: Yackandandah 1914-1918", Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 11, 1987, pp. 3-15.

5. Robson, "Origin and character", p. 738.

6. M. McKernan, The Australian people and the Great War, Nelson, West Melbourne, 1980.

7. The north-east has been defined as the shires of Oxley, North Ovens, Rutherglen, Chiltern, Yackandandah, Beechworth, Bright, Wodonga and Towong and the boroughs of Rutherglen and Wangaratta. In 1919 Rutherglen Shire and Rutherglen Borough were amalgamated and, except where specifically indicated, the two have been combined for the purposes of this article.

8. Several sources were used to reach this figure. The honour rolls printed in the regional newspapers yielded 3,800 names. Removing duplicated names reduced the total to 3,720. Visually scanning AWM 8 "Unit embarkation nominal rolls 1914-1918" (Embarkation rolls), produced 2,793 names. However, as anyone who has used the Embarkation rolls knows, it is possible to miss names. Cross-checking the newspaper honour rolls against AWM 133, "Nominal roll of ex-members of the Australian Imperial Force" (Nominal roll) yielded a total of 3,592.

9. These figures were calculated using the Commonwealth Census 1911, Table 68, which gives the population for local government areas, and Table 33, which gives age cohorts by county. The relevant counties were Bogong, Benambra and, to a lesser extent, Delatite. An estimate of the population aged between 18 and 44 in 1914 was calculated by using the 15-40 age cohort with a third of the 10-14 age cohort added which gave a total male population of 8,700.

10. Scott, Appendix 5, p. 874.

11. Robson, "Origin and character", p. 739. Information on the branch of the service joined, the marital status and the ages of the region's volunteers was taken from the 2,793 men identified in the Embarkation rolls.

12. Robson, p. 739.

13. Again, there was variation within the region. Chiltern recorded a rate of 16.6 per cent, but Yackandandah, North Ovens and Wodonga recorded rates of 21.7 per cent. The different rates simply reflect the chance factor of war. Men from the shires with higher rates happened to have been members of the battalions that took part in some of the worst fighting in France.

14. A recent study of the Illawarra found a similar pattern in the region: 83 per cent of the region's volunteers had enlisted by the end of Robson's second period. See V. Caldwell, "Illawarra at war: an examination of the characteristics and experiences of the Illawarra volunteers during World War 1 and the impact of death on the home front", B.A. (Hons) thesis, University of Wollongong, 1999, p. 18.

15. McKernan, p. 189.

16. See, for example, the Beechworth United Shire Council Minutes, 2 July 1915 and the Ovens and Murray advertiser, 3 July 1915.

17. This had become a popular term in the region during the recruiting campaign in 1915. See, for example, Alex Miller's statement reported in the Ovens and Murray advertiser, 24 July 1915.

18. North Ovens could also be regarded as an anomaly because the differences between 1915 and 1916 were miniscule. However, tucked away in the shire's eastern reaches was a small pocket of mining districts centred around El Dorado. It was from these districts that the majority of enlistments came in 1915, matching the pattern described for Beechworth, Chiltern and Bright.

19. After considerable local agitation, work was recommenced in 1915 although the works were scaled down.

20. Information drawn from the 2,793 men identified in the Embarkation rolls. The railway workers could be separated by occupation and the address given for next of kin.

21. Corryong courier, 16 November 1916.

22. See, for example, the categories used by Scott, Appendix 6, p. 874, which were based on Butler, vol. 3, p. 890, cited in Gammage, p. 280, and Robson, "Origin and character", p. 745. Gammage recognised the problems with these categories by dividing his Labourers into rural and urban.

23. Of course, the subdivisions do not match local government area boundaries, but addresses allowed the reallocation of the male population to the relevant local government areas. The occupational structure for the men enlisting came from the 2,793 names taken from the Embarkation rolls.

24. Robson, p. 738, Gammage, p. 280.

25. McQuilton, "A shire at war", pp. 6-7.

26. Information drawn from the exemption court hearings reported in the regional press. The argument about the labour needs of farmers was not accepted by the presiding magistrate. Indeed, he could not even understand it. He probably agreed with metropolitan critics who suggested that labour needs for rural industry could be easily met by using the metropolitan unemployed!

27. Welborn, ch. 2. Significantly, Welborn's farmers came from the newly established farming areas in the state where little land had yet been alienated.

28. J. McQuilton, The Kelly outbreak 1878-1880: the geographical dimensions of social banditry, Melbourne University Press, 1979, ch. 2.

29. Wodonga and Towong sentinel, 9 September 1916.

30. Federal standard, 27 October 1916.

31. Rutherglen sun, 21 August 1914, 7 March 1919; B. Lloyd, Rutherglen: a history of town and district, Shoestring Press, Wangaratta, 1985, p. 134.

32. Yackandandah times, 29 July 1915.

33. Alpine observer, 4 September 1914.

34. Federal standard, 2 April 1915, 17 December 1915, 14 January 1916, 8 September 1916, 15 September 1916, 20 April 1917; Alpine observer, 24 December 1915; Rutherglen sun, 3 March 1916, 6 September 1916.

35. Rutherglen sun, 24 October 1916.

36. Information on religious affiliation was drawn from the Commonwealth Censuses for 1901 and 1911. Information on the religious affiliation of members of the AIF was drawn from the 2,793 names taken from the Embarkation rolls.

37. N. Coughlan, "The coming of the Irish to Victoria", Historical studies 45, 1983, pp. 68-86.

38. Robson, "Origin and character", pp. 739, 741; Gammage, p. 281.

39. Gammage, p. 281.

40. Alpine observer, 13 October 1916, 20 October 1916, 27 October 1916, 20 April 1917, 4 May 1917, 20 July 1917, 3 August 1917, 7 December 1917, 19 April 1918. Gribble was not unique. Chiltern's Thomas Howes was also a president of the local branch of the PLC, president of the miners' union and a shire councillor. Like Gribble, he also served a term as shire president. See Ovens and Murray advertiser, 9 August 1913; Federal standard, 2 October 1914, 16 April 1915.

41. The figures involved here are small, yet of the 100 Methodist volunteers from farming districts, 82 gave their occupation as labourer. Cross checking these names against the electoral rolls established that they were farmers' sons. The remaining 18 were the sons of rural labourers.

42. Wodonga and Towong sentinel, 8 June 1917, 15 June 1917, 29 June 1917, 6 July 1917, 20 July 1917, 27 July 1917, 3 August 1917, 10 August 1917.

43. Wodonga and Towong sentinel, 8 June 1917.

44. This conclusion is based on information drawn from the Commonwealth Electoral Roll, Division of Indi, Subdivision of Wodonga, 1914, which provided occupational information. The surnames of the workers involved were used as a guide to ethnicity and hence probable religious affiliation.

45. Ovens and Murray advertiser, 20 November 1918.

46. Using surnames as a guide to ethnicity and hence religion, analysis of the electoral roll showed that 80 per cent of the shire's Catholics listed farming as an occupation. A further 10 per cent listed seasonal work, like shearing, as their occupations. Caldwell found a similar correlation between Catholics and farming but also found a correlation between Catholics and other occupational groups that were under-represented amongst the Illawarra's volunteers: Caldwell, p. 25.

47. McQuilton, Kelly outbreak, pp. 49-50.

48. Robson, "Origin and character", p. 741.

49. It seems likely that the Catholic farming community in the shire had not capitalised their farming to the same extent as their non-Catholic neighbours. The Statistical registers for Victoria, for example, show a lower rate of farm machinery per capita for North Ovens than other shires in the region. However, there is no hard evidence to allow this conclusion to be more than speculative.

50. This number was calculated using the honour rolls printed in the regional newspapers, the honour rolls on regional war memorials and the Embarkation rolls.

51. See, for example, the Ovens and Murray advertiser, 28 July 1917.

52. Alpine observer, 21 September 1917.

53. Alpine observer, 11 January 1917, 11 February 1917.

54. Alpine observer, 10 January 1919.

55. Alpine observer, 30 May 1919.

56. Ovens and Murray advertiser, 19 June 1918.

57. McKernan, chapter 8.

58. The funeral had been arranged entirely by the local returned men and civic leaders. No permission had been sought from Melbourne for a "military funeral".

59. Using the enlistment tables provided in Scott, Appendix 1, p. 872, the percentages for the same periods were close indeed, 26 per cent, 49 per cent and 25 per cent. See Robson, "Origin and character", p. 738.

© John McQuilton