Valour & Violets

Valour & Violets
South Australia in the Great War

Valour & Violets
South Australia in the Great War

by Robert Kearney
and Sharon Cleary

In his dedication of Valour & Violets, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon. Martin Hamilton-Smith said, among other things; In over 100 years this is the first, and best, substantial attempt to tell the story of South Australians during the Great War. He should know. The book shows clearly that there was nothing Great about it. Valour & Violets describes how South Australians endured their greatest tragedy since 1836. WWI impacted every corner and level of society, rich and poor, from Adelaide to the surrounding country to the far outback.

It's appalling history and long-time consequences remain a dominant feature of global as well as Australian history of a young nation barely 14 years old. The exceptional heroism of men and women at home and abroad is shown as never before. Many of them have been named for the first time and their photographs included. The book’s covers honour two of them with many more photographs included in its four hundred pages.

It includes the familiar stories from the German South Australian communities destroyed by the war and government regulations. It is also a tribute to the wives, mothers and grandparents who had to cope with the death of their sons, often more than one, or care for their physically and economically battered husbands and sons or had to raise fatherless children. In this Great War there was hand-to-hand fighting with rifle and bayonet. There were also the cavalry charges with mortar and gas attacks the norm. If all this was not gruesome enough there were the tanks, machine guns and even planes.

It was a war of attrition where young lives were slaughtered by the thousands and more than 5,500 South Australians paid the ultimate price for King and Country. Young lives were thrown away at a rate that would never be tolerated today. The authors have clearly shown that we were keen to create an impact on the international stage, fighting alongside Britain. The landing at Gallipoli created the ANZAC legend, our most revered cultural institution.

Valour & Violets also honours the more than 30,000 South Australians who lived through the ordeal, returning to their civilian lives and into the loving arms of families and friends, during a time when PTS was not heard of yet. Their ordeal did not end when the war officially ended. For many it was the beginning of silent suffering and trying to forget. Many died shortly after the war and a number of men took their own life.

Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, FASSA, of Flinders University, stated in her foreword much the same. The war resulted in a lost generation, which doesn’t just refer to those that died far too young but also the 14,000 physically and psychologically damaged men who survived. Our communities were full of emotionally scarred families, grieving mothers and fathers, wives, sisters and brothers who had lost loved ones, some of them buried on the other side of the world, often with no known grave. Private Thomas Patrick Collins of Yongala who died on 29 May 1915 was buried in Alexandria, Egypt. Some outback towns lost a generation of young men and with it their community’s future.

There have been multiple histories written about Australia’s role in this war, but none specifically about the contribution and impact on South Australia and South Australians. This impressive account provides a unique window into how South Australians prepared for war, how they lived through it and assesses the impact. It contains an eclectic array of stories, often told for the first time.

It relates the stories of families who lost multiple sons. The five East brothers of Forest Range joined up, but only two came home. Of the five Leane brothers two were killed whereas the Potter family also of Yongala lost three sons, only one came back to tell the story. The Powell family of Wilpena station had four children join up, three sons, two of them being doctors, and one daughter, Edith. Charles who had joined up in August 1914 was killed in 1916.

By the end of 1916 Britain and her dominions had suffered nearly half a million casualties. One of them was Vernon Cameron Gregory of Morchard who was killed while serving with the Camel Corps. His two brothers survived. One of the youngest to be killed was Joseph Theodore Sleep who had told the enlisting officer that he was 19. When he was killed on 10 May 1917 it was discovered that he was only sixteen.

The three Carman brothers saw much action and all were killed. Of the five Weaver brothers who enlisted only one survived. The three Carraill brothers of Tungkillo all lost their lives between 1916 and 1918. However the five Sandercock brothers of Parkside, who also saw a fair share of the action managed to come home.

The book starts with the evolution of a South Australian army which had its baptism at the Boer War in which six South Australian contingents served between 1899 and 1902. Compulsory cadet service was introduced and 13,000 South Australian boys between the age of 14 and 17 registered for the Universal Military Training Scheme. When the Royal Military College opened two South Australian boys were among the first intake. Both were later killed on distant battle fields.

When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, 20,000 Australians enlisted within 6 months. Among them were 2,000 South Australians, Germans, Russians, Chinese, Afghans, Indians and many others. Young South Australian men on holidays in Europe at that time enlisted in the British Armed Forces. Three days after the start of the war Britain instructed Australia to seize the German Colonies in Nauru, Caroline Islands and New Guinea. Among the small force which attacked were 80 South Australians. Able Seaman Henry William Street was the first to be killed.

Among the first to feel the very unpleasant impact of the war were the ‘Germans’ living in South Australia. They included the South Australian German Consul and Chairman of BHP, Hugo Carl Emile Muecke, son of Carl Muecke who had arrived in Adelaide in 1849 and was naturalised in 1866. Another well known ‘German’ was Hans Heysen. In October 1914 Torrens Island Internment Camp was established. With the passing of the War Precautions Act, the German language newspaper published since 1850 was closed down. A total of 50 German Lutheran schools were also closed. Regardless of the cruelty at the camp and the discrimination suffered by those still free, German-Australians continued to enlist.

From Norway was Edvart Andreason who was a naturalised British subject. He too paid the ultimate price. Albert Richard Perry of the 10th Infantry Battalion, a wholly South Australian unit was among the first to land at Gallipoli. Albert was from Goolwa and one of 34,959 South Australians to enlist. Of the original 1027 men of this Battalion 615 were born in South Australia while the remainder were migrants or their children. There were several other South Australian Battalions and many South Australians served in non-South Australian Battalions.

To house the many volunteers Training Camps were established at Morphettville, with accommodation for 3,000 men, Cheltenham and the Mitcham Camp which held 4,000 men at any time. A total of 33,000 men passed through. The Camp’s Post Office processed 50,000 letters a month. On 20 October 1914, some 1700 men left Outer Harbor on their way to England but while at sea learned that it was to be Egypt.

In March 1915 South Australia’s 27th Battalion was raised commanded by former Major of Unley, Colonel Walter Dollman. The Majority of its officers and men were from or near Unley. What makes this well-researched book and its story even more interesting is that most men and women named have a short biography and photograph included. There are also hundreds of other photographs, some of them never seen before.

When news arrived of the casualties at Gallipoli South Australians were horrified and shocked. On the first day 605 Australians were killed including 55 from South Australia. The taking and defending of Lone Pine resulted in 2,300 casualties. Other horrendous battles at the Nek and Hill 60 accounted for a 50% casualty rate. By the time they withdrew from the peninsula this number had increased five times. The killings at Gallipoli only stopped on 20 December 1915 when 41,000 soldiers had been withdrawn without the loss of a single man. Some would join the Imperial Camel Corps while the rest would finish up at the Western Front. Little did they realise that it would take another 3 years before all the killing would stop.

Many battles were fought in Belgium, France and the Middle East, with unbelievable and devastating numbers of men and women killed, before it was all over. At the battle at Fromelles 5,533 Australians were wounded or killed, 718 were South Australians. At Passchendaele Australian casualties numbered 38,000. Bullecourt claimed more than 10,000 casualties. By the end of 1917 Australia had lost more than 38,000 men.

What is surprising is the number of Aboriginal men who enlisted and served with honour. Especially if we take into account the way they had been treated and still were treated. Raymond Runga from Naracoorte was awarded the Military Medal on 23 August 1918. In the army Aboriginal men were considered and treated as equals but when they came home everything was back to what it had been before. They were not allowed to drink in hotels with their mates. They were not permitted to take part in Anzac Day marches and were not eligible for veterans’ benefits. It would take many years before changes were made to this intolerable situation.

A total of 2,286 women, mostly nurses, joined the Australian Army Nursing Service. Among the South Australians were Alma Mary Hancock, Margaret Graham, Martha King, Olive Haynes and Elizabeth Mosey of Robertstown. Female doctors were not allowed to enlist for overseas service but 24 did anyway. They travelled overseas at their own expense and enlisted in England. Dr Laura Fowler and Dr Phoebe Chapple were South Australians. As many as 205 medical practitioners and students served in the war, including 18 year old Hugh Cairns. He survived the war and became the first Professor of Surgery at Oxford University.

The nurses, doctors and stretcher-bearers were all loved by the men but the impact of the war on the thousands of nurses was usually overlooked. They were entitled to a war pension. However that would be little compensation for the mental scars they would carry, as a result of their service, for the rest of their lives. They had seen the bloody horror and ravage of war first-hand.

Although a large part of the book relates the military side of the story, the authors haven’t forgotten what went on at home in South Australia during these years. South Australians were very supportive of the war effort. Within a short time Patriotic Funds and Societies were established. There were the Belgium Relief Fund, Trench Comforts Fund, Children’s Patriotic Fund, League of Loyal Women, Edith Cavell Army Nurses Fund, Cheer-Up Society, and the Wounded Soldiers’ Fund to name but a few. The Returned Soldiers Association was formed at Burra on 8 December 1915. On 2 July 1915 the inaugural Violet Day was held followed by the first Anzac Day on 13 October 1915.

The success of the Cheer-Up Society relied heavily upon donations of fresh meat and vegetables. From this came the idea of encouraging children to become involved. Juvenile branches were established in Adelaide, Bute, Kapunda, Marrabel, Wallaroo and other places. The most successful was the Soldiers Cabbage Patch League established by Amy Tomkinson. Comfort packages included balaclavas, scarfs, mittens, socks and books written by CJ Dennis, especially Ginger Mick.

At the same time there were also the organisations who actively opposed the war and later conscription, as did the majority of Australians in two referendums which caused the South Australian Labor Party to split. Other organisations who opposed conscription were the Women’s Peace Army and the Sisterhood for International Peace. Those opposed to conscription included the Australian Freedom League, Irish Catholics and the Anti-Military Service League. They were later joined by the Trade Unions.

While thousands of men were farewelled to the war hundreds came home wounded. To cater for the wounded and the sick a hospital was established at Keswick. It took almost a year after the war was finished to bring all the wounded men and women home. South Australians were shocked by the condition of the servicemen. Many were also infected with the Spanish Flu. In January 1919 about 150,000 servicemen were in France, Belgium and the United Kingdom. Another 20,000 were in Egypt, Syria and other places.

Many came home without arms or legs, blind or deaf, with chronic respiratory illnesses, on crutches or in wheelchairs. Others suffered from trench fever, influenza, dengue fever, typhus, dysentery, skin diseases, blisters, pressure sores, trench foot, venereal diseases, which affected 15% of the men, bronchitis, emphysema, fibrosis of the lungs, asthma, vertigo, palpitations, vomiting or horrific facial disfigurement, which made them almost unrecognisable by their family and friends.

In an effort to look after the returnees the South Australian government decided to resettle them as farmers, giving them free training, land and financial assistance. A training farm was established at Pompoota with the first ex-soldiers arriving in March 1916. Successful trainees were allocated a block of land in February 1917 at Wall Flat and Caloote. From November 1917 block were made available at Moorook, Berri, Cobdogla, Neeta, Jervois, Swanport or Mount Remarkable. They were also given an advance of £500. In June 1918, trainees numbered 68 with 55 men being allotted blocks. Another 78 men from the Mount Remarkable Training Farm had also been settled.

To pay for all this and the leaflets and posters used extensively to rally the public in support of the war, the cost of the military efforts and the settlement of returning servicemen, the government floated War Loans. They would be repaid with interest at a later date.

After the losses at Gallipoli enlistments had fallen. In an effort to bolster the numbers recruiting standards were lowered. The age limit was reduced from 19-38 to 18-45. The height requirement was changed from a minimum of 167 cm to 153 cm. Those who didn’t volunteer often would receive a white feather personally or in the mail. Although most South Australian politicians were in favour of conscription, the majority of voters were not. Very few South Australians volunteered after 1918.

The war affected many ordinary people one way or another. Many sports were suspended as most young men were training in Army Camps or serving overseas. People also thought it disrespectful with so many at the front and being killed. However Australian Rules Football was played in Adelaide, in Europe and Egypt whenever possible. At the front soldiers were killed and wounded by the thousands. During the second half of 1917 German submarines were causing havoc in the northern seas, sinking any ship, including merchant ships.

Extra manpower became available when America entered the war, but Russia had pulled out. With an all-out attack on Ypres it was hoped that the bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend could be captured. Explosives were buried at Hill 60 and Hill 63 by tunnelling which involved many brave South Australians. Cables were buried over a distance of 15 km and when exploded the sound was heard in London. It killed 700 Germans and shattered moral especially after more than 10,000 Germans were killed in the battle. The battle of Amiens was the most significant undertaken by the Australian Corps.

Meanwhile the troops in Palestine fought two battles at Gaza in which South Australia’s 9th Light Horse took part. On 31 October 1917 Beersheba was taken with 31 Australians killed and 36 wounded. Their success ultimately changed the course of history in the Middle East and would give the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine. The surrender of Damascus was signed on 30 October 1918 and in that part of the world fighting between the Allies, Turks and Germans came to an end. During one of the major battles at Hamel three South Australians, Tomas Caddy of Kapunda, Arthur Errington of Kooringa and John Hill of Woodville, were awarded the United States’ Distinguished Service Cross, the highest US military award possible. Victoria Crosses were awarded to another four South Australians, Joergen Christian Jensen, Arthur Blackburn, Roy Inwood and Philip Davey for their Valour in other battles. Regardless of this good news there were still the massive casualty lists with the result that volunteers were hard to come by.

Extra efforts were made at home to solve this problem and the public was now treated to newsreels shown before the movies started. Filmmaker WJ Lincoln made a film about Nurse Edith Cavell who was shot by a German firing squad for assisting more than 200 men escaping German detention. It was screened throughout Australia. Leslie Lester from Burra made films specific to local audiences, filming events of interest as much for commercial reason as for posterity.

One South Australian who did an enormous amount of work to photograph and film Australians in action was Sir George Hubert Wilkins of Mount Bryan East, a polar explorer, pilot, soldier, geographer and photographer. He was awarded the Military Cross and Bar by King George V and was highly respected by the Australians and Germans who often would stop firing when he was filming.

In France the Hindenburg Line was broken but with very high casualties. By now the Anzacs, all volunteers, had made their mark and were regarded as the spearhead of the British Army. Unfortunately the Anzacs didn’t always behave the way they should. Many took French leave and didn’t think much about discipline. There were six times more Australians in military prisons compared to Canadians, New Zealanders or South Africans.

Finally on 10 November Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and signed the Armistice the next day. Ten days later WWI came to an end when the German Navy surrendered at sea. When Adelaide received the official confirmation thousands of people poured into the city from all directions. The next day 40,000 assembled on North Terrace to hear the Premier speak in stirring tones, patriotic flags were flown everywhere and a public holiday declared for 14 November. At last the killing had stopped.

Now it was up to the government and the people of South Australia to look after the wounded, rehabilitate them and try to renew friendly relations with German South Australians and others who had been treated so badly. This part is covered in some detail in the last chapter Bringing Them Home. The authors have also included a glossary of military terms and several appendices with facts and figures as well as maps. This beautifully presented, easy to read and highly informative book should take pride of place in anyone’s library.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Valour & Violets, PB 400 pp.
with numerous Colour and BW photographs,
index and references is available at $75.00 from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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