Chapter 3: The Volunteers
Perplexing questions faced the young Australian in the last months of 1939. If he enlisted in the “special” force would it ever leave Australia, or would it remain on garrison duty – a dreary prospect for those adventurous spirits who would leap at the chance of overseas service? Were armies out-dated and would the war be “won by machines”? The Labour party, which in 1914 had backed the dispatch of an expeditionary force, now opposed it, and about half the population supported that party and listened attentively to its leaders. The Government had shown itself to be hesitant about raising a force free to go overseas, and had placed difficulties in the way of the enlistment of fully-experienced artisans and certain professional men. The call to the militia, in which had assembled 80,000 of the keenest citizens, was particularly faint. They were being asked to leave units they knew, and incidentally to accept lower pay in a force which might not offer even the adventure of foreign service. In some militia units officers who had either not volunteered or not been chosen for the special force were advising the men not to join it, saying that if they wished to serve abroad they would probably go just as soon if they remained in their own units.
Both the Ministers and the press, however, seemed to be convinced that there would be an embarrassingly large rush to enlist. “If Mr Menzies had announced its (the Government’s) intention to enlist two divisions instead of one,” the Sydney Morning Herald said, “he would more clearly have interpreted the nation’s wishes.” And, in Parliament on 17th September, Mr Street expressed the opinion that far more men than were needed would come forward. He added:
Preference for enlistment in this force will be given to the members of the militia who are within the age groups and who comply with the very severe medical standard that will be required. It is not anticipated that, in the whole of the force, more than 20 per cent will be without previous training.1
The first task of the Government, Street continued, was to give more training to the militia; the Government of the United Kingdom had recognised that for the present the best contribution that Australia could make was to defend itself. It was essential, he said, that the raising of the special force should not set back the training of the militia. Eventually it was announced that half of the vacancies in the new force would be reserved for militiamen, one quarter for men who had previously served in that or other forces, and one quarter for men from country districts where there had been no opportunities for military training.
The result of the evident indecision among political leaders as to the need for the new force and what its role would be was that none but the most eager spirits enrolled. The resolve to form the new division was
announced on 15th September, but the medical examination of recruits did not begin until early in October, though in the previous weeks many men had entered their names at the drill halls or had written letters offering to enlist. In the first three days after recruiting offices opened nearly 3,000 men were accepted in New South Wales, where the quota was 6,300, but thenceforward enlistments decreased day by day, and at the end of the first week there was reason to doubt whether the quota would be filled before November when the new units were to go into camp. By 13th October only 3,400 had been enlisted in New South Wales, and of those nearly one half were without previous military experience and only 1,200 from the militia, which numbered about 25,000 in that State. Yet, in a broadcast on that day Mr Street said that “among those upon whom the burden of war weighs most heavily in Australia today are the men of the militia, their wives and families and their employers” and that “the withdrawal of militiamen from industry had created a serious problem for employers.” Such words were not likely to increase the number of recruits for the new force. On 17th October the enlistments for the day in New South Wales numbered only 222 and 1,600 were still needed. There were no brass bands and no banners to lead men to the recruiting offices, but rather a series of obstacles to be overcome. One man2 who had driven from west of the Darling River in New South Wales to enlist at the nearest recruiting office later wrote his recollections of the day.
Coonamble (he wrote) had not been thrown off its balance by the war, or by the fact that men were arriving to enlist there. Bill and I strolled round the town and eventually and inevitably came to rest in a stock and station agent’s office. Coonamble abounds in such offices, so we were able to pick and choose, and the night wore on with talk about the rain, the flies and the wool prices. Just a home from home.
There was not a throng at the Town Hall next morning at 10 o’clock. But I met a man who had driven in to enlist, was desperately keen to get in but feared he wouldn’t be accepted. By this time the general atmosphere of unconcern, the Prime Minister’s speeches telling everyone to carry on, and the decidedly “carry-on” attitude of most of the people I met had had its effect on me. At Walgett, when Bill said I was going in to enlist, the response was such that I began to imagine people looking at me with a surprised air. In Coonamble Bob’s girl had raised her eyebrows and said: “But why?” I was beginning to feel half-hearted about it when I met this man who, although barred from enlistment by the fact that he was married and had two children and by virtue of his occupation also, intended to scheme his way into what he described as “the best life you can get.”
Eventually the Town Hall opened for business. A handful of men of all descriptions was waiting outside. When the time arrived I went through the door into a long and sombre hall, in the centre of which two men sat at a long table. One of them was in uniform and the other in plain clothes. As the civilian was talking to a prospective soldier, I approached the man in uniform.
“Name?” he asked. “Age?” “Twenty-nine.” “Occupation?” “Overseer.” The military man gave a quick look at the man opposite and then at me. “Don’t speak so loud,” he said. “Do you want to join this army?” “Well, I’m not a fanatic, but I’ve come a long way. Yes, I suppose I do.” “Well, you’re in a reserved occupation. If you want
to get in, you’d better give your occupation as something else.” He spoke in a low voice so that the man in plain clothes did not hear.
“I don’t want to be hauled up for perjury. What is this force likely to do?”
“You’ll probably go to Singapore,” replied the officer. “I can assure you that this will be the best force they will form – best equipped and trained. I’d have a go at it if I were you. Later on you might be dragged into a show not half so good.”
“Put my occupation down as a bookkeeper,” I said.
“Right. Now, any wounds or scars?” And so on, until he finished with me, and I and the partly-filled-in forms went over to the solemn figure across the table.
“Umm, bookkeeper, eh?” he said. “How many work on the place?”
“What does the executive staff consist of?”
“There is a manager in charge.”
“Is he always there?”
“Does he know you are here today, and why you have come?”
So the cross-questioning went on. I was determined not to tell a deliberate lie, and we both sparred with words. Then the manpower officer blinked behind his spectacles, held his pencil poised above the sheet for a few seconds in visible uncertainty. He turned the sheet over. On the left top corner were the words “Reserved Occupation” and a blank, and on the right top corner the words “Not Reserved” and another blank. Suddenly decisive, he moved, and put a cross in the right-hand space.
“Mind you,” he said, “this will possibly be altered, and you have to pass the medical test.”
“When will I know for certain?”
“Within a week. You will get a notice informing you one way or the other.”
“Well, can I get my medical test over? I’ve got 170 miles to go and it looks like rain.”
Indeed, only the most resolute or the most carefree were likely to surmount official barriers and public indifference; yet those obstructions had the effect not only of selecting a force of splendid soldiers in the making, but, when reinforced by a conviction (which seems to have been fairly general) that the people as a whole were not greatly interested in their fate, of deeply influencing the character of the force, and, by accident, breeding a sense of superiority which it never lost. What kind of men enlisted? Were they adventurers, or those brought up in an ardent loyalty to England now threatened by an old enemy, or men bored by humdrum lives, or (as was soon to be charged against them) the unemployed and unskilled in search of occupation – or some of each of these?
A hundred years from today, when Australia has produced a strongly-flowing native culture, and absorption in the affairs of east Asia and the Pacific have made Europe seem more remote, a later generation may be at a loss to understand why Australians (and New Zealanders) volunteered so readily for service half a world away. Nine out of ten of the recruits had been born in Australia of Australian parents, were intensely proud of their national independence and would have fought for it against all corners. But national character forms slowly, and although the Australian had already acquired a temperament, a manner of speech and a physical appearance that distinguished him from the people of the United Kingdom,
and, like other Dominion peoples, had acquired attitudes and habits of thinking that often made the colonial as irritating to the Englishman as the Englishman was puzzling to the colonial, all shared a common culture. In childhood both Englishman and colonial had listened to the same rhymes and legends, read the same books, sung the same songs. The Australian ate plum pudding on Christmas Day, honoured the King, knew the dates of the Norman Conquest, Magna Carta, Trafalgar and Waterloo, and played English games. His books and his theatre came mostly from England. Thence was still drawn a strong contingent of his intellectual and spiritual leaders, and his own scholars sought post-graduate training and experience there. Economic interdependence fostered personal and sentimental links. The resentments and jealousies engendered by knowledge of Britain’s considerable financial domination of Australian industry, of Australian public indebtedness to Britain and Britain’s cultural authority were weak in comparison with the ties of cherished sentiments.
Reinforcing this common culture was the powerful tradition of the Australian Imperial Force of twenty years before. So high was the prestige of that volunteer army that a desire to qualify for membership of its brotherhood and to march on Anzac Day was to some a strong motive for enlistment. Some men said that they enlisted to escape from uninteresting occupations, dull towns or suburbs, or domestic difficulties – in fact, for adventure; and this motive, mixed with other feelings of duty and of desire for self-enhancement, was undoubtedly powerful in a colonial community where men were often less firmly tied to home than in the old world, and were habitually on the alert for better opportunities in distant places. But the chronicler who follows these men through their training and campaigns must reach the conclusion that most of them were conscious of a peculiarly compelling duty towards the State and their fellow men. One of the new recruits (unable to define exactly why he himself had joined) questioned his companions but found all too shy or reserved to confess a serious reason for enlisting. Finally he decided:
The men who joined the army were the type who stood up in trams and gave their seats to women. There are people who are constitutionally unable to resist when a call is made, or when they feel they are under some obligation. I doubt whether many of them could tell why they enlisted. The real cause was something deeper than they could fathom. We could not see ourselves as fitting the glowing words of Masefield about the Anzacs at Gallipoli, and, although we were born with a tradition to carry on, and were proud of it, we were only too ready to admit that we were a ragtime army – though woe betide the militia or the civilian who suggested that. There was, I believe, a large body of men – perhaps the majority – who were adventurers at heart but common citizens by force of circumstance – how many of us are not – who saw in this call a glorious combination – the life of an adventurer with the duties of a citizen.
Events were to prove that the division enlisted under these conditions was to contain among its twenty thousand enough potential leaders to officer from top to bottom a force five times as large.
The average age was higher than was expected,3 a circumstance attributed by some observers partly to the trade depression of the early ‘thirties and partly to the confused pacifism of the period between the wars. These had produced a corrosive disillusionment among many of those youths whose characters were shaped in those years and made them cynical to appeals to patriotism. What did they owe to a State which had abandoned them to unemployment in the depression? And in their school days it had been the fashion to teach that wars were the futile outcome of conspiracy between dishonest politicians, soldiers and armament manufacturers – “butchers” and “merchants of death” – and that patriotism was an evil emotion.4 “Almost all contemporary left-wing writers of this generation and the last attacked the idea of nationalism,” wrote Rebecca West, after the war.5 “It was true that many of these attacks were made under the delusion that the words nationalism and imperialism mean the same thing, whereas nationalism – which means simply a special devotion of a people to its own material and spiritual achievements – implies no desire for the annexation of other territories and enslavement of other peoples. But a great many of these attacks were made under no such apprehension. It was genuinely felt that it was pure superstition which required a man to feel any warmer emotion about his own land, race and people than about any other. Why then should any man feel a lump in his throat when he saw his flag ... or feel that in a dispute between his people and another he must obey the will of his kin and not aid their enemy?”
There had been enthusiasm among the intellectuals of the left-wing in politics in Australia as in England for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War; that conflict exerted a special appeal to young men shaped by the depression and anti-militarist teaching, to whom it was presented as a war of radicals against “the Generals”, and thus appealed to
sympathetic readers of both Lenin and Erich Maria Remarque. But the Munich Agreement, the defeat of the Republicans in Spain and the pact between Russia and Germany had disillusioned and bewildered such people, and they returned to the attitudes of four years before. A majority of the leaders of this group stood aside from the struggle in places where they could wait and see how it developed. There can be no doubt that these influences, though less strong relatively in Australia than in England, reduced the number of youthful volunteers in 1939 and 1940, and caused the proportion of men in their thirties and early forties in the AIF of those years to be relatively high.
It is probable that news of plans to institute a large-scale Empire Air Training Scheme caused many young men who might otherwise have joined the AIF to hang back in the hope of entering the air force. Had not the Prime Minister said that Australia’s main contribution would probably be in the air? And, in fact, within a few months the number of applicants for enlistment in the air force would soon far outnumber those enlisted in the AIF
One of the reasons why the army leaders had not been in haste to enlist the new force was that militia units were occupying practically all the hutted encampments the army possessed, and new huts had to be built for the AIF. A camp for the 17th (Victorian) Brigade group, that is to say the infantry brigade of four battalions plus its normal share of artillery, engineer and other units, was constructed at Puckapunyal near Seymour, another for the 16th (New South Wales) Brigade at Ingleburn, near Liverpool, and a third, for the 18th at Greta in the Hunter River Valley. This third camp was not begun until late in November and the 18th Brigade was not concentrated until December; in the meantime most of these troops were under canvas in their own States. Before the camps were ready, the newly-appointed leaders had begun to form their units. They had to select at least a nucleus of officers and NCOs, prepare to receive large batches of recruits when the huts were ready, and assemble enough equipment to enable the men to be fed and bedded. During October several thousand recruits were sent to depots established by the area commanders at existing military camps to undergo training before the new camps were ready. On 3rd November advance parties of the 16th and 17th Brigades were to be in camp to prepare to receive drafts both from the training depots and the recruiting centres.
A particularly detailed record exists of the formation of the 2/2nd Battalion. It came into being at 9 a.m. on 24th October when the commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Wootten,6 a country solicitor who had formerly been a regular soldier, established his headquarters at Victoria Barracks in Sydney and enlisted an adjutant (whom he had chosen from the militia), a quartermaster and a regimental sergeant-major (from the regular forces). The following day he interviewed and enlisted two captains
and six lieutenants, and in the next two days two majors and an orderly room sergeant were added. One of the majors, I. N. Dougherty,7 had given up his militia rank of lieut-colonel which he had attained two months before at the uncommonly early age of 32.
On 2nd November the 2/2nd Battalion consisted of twelve officers, two sergeant-majors, one sergeant and forty-one privates from the militia, and these marched into Ingleburn, where they spent the following day attempting to remedy defects in the new camp and finding cooks to feed the drafts that would arrive next day. Some of the newcomers were to arrive from city and suburban drill halls; others were on their way from the Northern Rivers and Newcastle in a crowded and uproarious troop train.
There were sleeper-cutters and timber-getters from the Dorrigo, and cow-cockies and banana-growers from the valley of the Tweed. There were business men and tradesmen from cities like Newcastle, Grafton and Armidale. There were station owners and station hands from the frosty New England. There were school teachers and bank clerks from practically anywhere. And there was a sprinkling of plain hobos. ... Every man Jack had had a “send-off” and some had been almost poured aboard the train as it left their home town. ... They sang lustily and every town passed was a signal for vociferous calls and cheers. Bunting in the form of toilet paper startled mild-mannered churchgoers as it streamed from every window as the train sped through the outer suburbs of Sydney. Several gentlemen amused themselves between Gosford and Hornsby by climbing from window to window along the side of the train. They streamed off the train at Ingleburn carrying suit cases, sugar bags and every conceivable kind of dunnage.8
The 2/2nd Battalion received ninety men that day and 304 the next. Cries of “You’ll be sorry” greeted each draft. The new arrivals were issued with blankets, palliasses and straw, but, for the time, that was all there was to distribute. All had been warned to bring eating utensils and to wear working clothes. Some of the militiamen wore uniforms, but the coats, shirts, trousers and hats of the other recruits were almost as varied as their occupations. On 6th November 384 officers and men arrived from the recruit training depots, bringing the battalion’s strength to 17 officers (14 more were needed) and 815 other ranks (7 above the “establishment”).
It was not surprising that defects were found in camps so hurriedly built. As the first batches of recruits arrived at Ingleburn, carpenters and plumbers were still at work, and road graders were raising a haze of red dust. A report on the condition of this camp on 3rd November stated that roads were unformed, electrical appliances were incomplete, mess tables had been condemned by the engineers, horse lines were not fixed, and there were no stables or harness rooms. Kitchens and meat houses were not flyproof; orderly room staffs used butter boxes as chairs and packing cases as tables, and were making shelves with such timber as
they could find. From both Ingleburn and Puckapunyal went complaints that the drainage was inefficient and kitchens and meat houses not hygienic.
Although the Government had decided that half of the new force should be drawn from the militia, it was apparent that militia enlistments would fall far short of that proportion. Some commanding officers of the militia appeared anxious lest they be left with too few experienced junior leaders to carry on training efficiently during the coming three months in camp. In this they considered that they were supported by a direction of the Military Board that militiamen were not to be allowed to enlist if, as a result, their units would be unduly weakened. Fewer than ten men enlisted from some militia battalions; only one officer volunteered from one Melbourne battalion, only one from one Queensland battalion; it was noticeable that, as a rule, the largest number of officers and men volunteered from those battalions whose commanders had themselves been appointed to the AIF.9 In New South Wales on 30th October 3,018 of the new recruits were without military experience, 1,468 had previous experience but had not come directly from the militia, only 1,634 were from the militia.
Sir Henry Gullett considered the low rate of enlistment from the militia – partly an outcome of the unfortunate difficulty of creating any effective link between militia and expeditionary force – sufficiently serious to raise at a meeting of the War Cabinet on 28th October when recruiting was already beginning to wane. He said that officers were discouraging enlistment, evidently believing that a later division would be raised in which they would hold commands and take their men with them. Mr Street replied that he considered that this attitude was “not prevalent”, the real obstacle being lack of certainty of overseas service. The shortage of recruits from the militia, and particularly of officer volunteers, caused General Blamey such concern that he addressed a complaint to the Secretary of the Military Board, and suggested that steps be taken to counteract what he described as “deliberate passive resistance to the policy of the Government.” He proposed that commanders who had failed to cooperate be informed that they would not be considered for promotion, that his recruiting officers be authorised to visit militia parades and accept volunteers without interference and that, if units still failed to respond, a proportion of their officers be drafted to those that had been depleted by enlistments in the AIF. The diary of I Australian Corps gave the following reasons why, finally, only 20 to 25 per cent of the new force – fewer than 5,000 – instead of 50 per cent came from the militia: “(a) Absence of an inspiring lead by the Commonwealth Government; (b) reluctance on the part of many members of the militia to relinquish well-paid
positions to join a force which might not go overseas; (c) opposition, both active and passive, by commanders of militia formations and units.”10
However, so far as officers were concerned the shortage was a result partly of the fact that commanding officers offered appointments to only a proportion of those who volunteered, preferring to go short until they could select potential leaders from the fine material among the men and in view of this Blamey’s criticism was too harsh. For example, only about one half of the officers from the Victorian militia battalions who had volunteered were found suitable for the 17th Brigade.11 Even in January the battalions of that brigade still lacked officers, the 2/7th having only eighteen instead of thirty-four, the 2/5th only twenty-one. In the 16th Brigade the 2/3rd still lacked twelve officers. The vacancies were filled in February and March chiefly by promotion from the ranks. One possible source from which highly-trained junior officers could have been drawn was the Staff Corps, and the Royal Military College into which entries had been greatly increased in 1938 and 1939. But of fifty-seven (excluding New Zealanders) who graduated from the college in December 1939 it was regrettable that only four were posted to the 6th Division.
The decision to keep militia units in training had the effect of reducing the number of regular instructors and the quantity of equipment available to the new force, because the militia units were employing many instructors and using most of the equipment. The Military Board in October issued an instruction that the AIF be given priority in equipment, but militia formations offered considerable opposition to handing it over. For example, the 16th Brigade had been in camp for a fortnight before it received even rifles. At the end of November some men still had not even working dress and fewer than half had uniforms.12 A quota of instructors
was provided by the attachment of sergeants from the permanent artillery or from the training cadre of the Instructional Corps, but even so it was not uncommon for a subaltern or a sergeant to have to train a platoon single-handed.
By imperceptible stages, however, the civilians became soldiers. In later years the problems that then enmeshed them seemed comical. There were men who, after days in camp, did not know that they now possessed army numbers.13 “It is understood,” said a routine order of early November, “that there are men in this camp who have not yet enlisted.” But gradually, acting corporals and acting sergeants were selected; army routine and ritual ceased to be a mystery, and the elements of drill and musketry were learnt. A cotton overall working dress and a crumpled hat of the same material were distributed, which the troops named the “giggle suit” because it seemed to them to resemble the uniform of the inmates of a lunatic asylum; next came the loose-fitting battle-dress – tunic, trousers and cloth gaiters. The diarist of the 16th Brigade, which was the first to receive rifles and machine-guns, wrote after three weeks that “a straggly, nondescript body of men” had developed into “a compact unit”.14 Eagerly the men awaited a decision whether they would be sent abroad and when.
When the Federal Parliament reassembled on 15th November (it had risen on 22nd October) the fate of the new force was warmly debated. First Mr Menzies announced the Cabinet’s decision (made on 19th October) that compulsory training for home service be re-introduced from 1st January with the object of maintaining the militia at a strength of not less than 75,000. The first draft to be called up would be unmarried men who became twenty-one in the year ending on 30th June 1940. In support of this proposal to reintroduce conscription for home defence, which had been in abeyance since 1929, the Ministers pointed out that, as a result of enlistments in the AIF and discharges for medical reasons and to reserved occupations, the strength of the militia had been reduced to between 55,000 and 65,000. It was expected that when the decision to release married militiamen after one month’s training was carried out another 16,350 would be lost to the militia; and the Second AIF was still more than 3,000 short of its total of 20,000. Mr White15 (United Australia Party), himself a former battalion commander in the militia, said that enlistments were low because, whereas in 1914 there had been a clear call, today the young men were unwilling to enlist if they were to remain in Australia on five shillings a day. From one militia unit half of
those who had enlisted came from the unemployed, he said, and one-quarter of the remainder were unskilled. Mr Ward (Labour), who had spoken with fervour against the proposal to raise an expeditionary force, replied that so long as the dole for unemployed single men was 8s 6d a week, men would enlist merely for the sake of 5s a day with food and quarters. It was “a form of economic conscription,” he said.16 For the next fortnight the Cabinet was under fire both from those who thought Australia was doing too much and those who thought she was not doing enough.
On the day on which the House reassembled the War Cabinet had begun to consider cablegrams from Mr Casey, one of its senior members, who had gone to London to attend a conference of Dominion ministers.17 In these cablegrams, sent on 5th and 6th November, Casey had reported that the German Army now greatly outnumbered the combined French and British Armies on the Western Front, and the British Chiefs of Staff hoped that, if Germany did not attack in the West during November, there would be no large-scale fighting until April. They considered that immediate danger to Australia was remote, and tentatively suggested that the Australian division be sent to Egypt or Palestine for training as soon as possible, thus relieving British troops there, and that a second Australian division should be formed and sent to the Middle East making an Australian corps. Britain would provide Bren guns and anti-tank guns, but wished the 6th Division to bring its own field guns. On 13th November the Defence Committee recommended that the suggestions concerning the dispatch of the 6th Division and the formation of a new division be adopted, and suggested that the 6th Division should embark in December and January if ships were available. This question was considered on the 15th and 16th November by the War Cabinet, which finally decided to defer a decision until the full Cabinet had discussed the problem.
Meanwhile on 20th November the New Zealand Government informed the United Kingdom Government that it had decided to send the first echelon of its expeditionary force overseas. Immediately Mr Menzies cabled the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr Savage,18 that his Government did not wish to be out of step with New Zealand but nevertheless considered that it should watch the developments of the next three or four weeks before deciding to send its division overseas. Menzies said that reasons for delaying decision were the uncertain situation in the Far East, particularly if Germany invaded Holland, and lack of public enthusiasm in Australia because of inactivity on the Western Front and the small size of the British force there. He added:
Another consideration which has puzzled us is that whereas we are finding the greatest possible difficulties in obtaining even a fraction of the shipping needed for
some of our export commodities, it seems to be assumed that there would be no difficulty in securing ships and naval convoy for a military force.19
On 28th November, however, the full Cabinet decided that the 6th Division should go abroad when it had reached a suitable stage in its training, which it was expected would be early in 1940; but that it was averse to the shipment of “artillery or any other material needed for the maintenance of the militia forces unless it is capable of rapid replacement.”20 No action was taken on the suggestion of the British Chiefs of Staff and the recommendation of the Australian Chiefs that a second division should be formed.
When Mr Menzies announced this decision in the House next day the Opposition attacked it vigorously. Mr. Curtin promptly moved that “this House is of opinion that Australia’s manpower is required for the defence and safety of the Commonwealth, and is opposed to the dispatch of expeditionary forces.”21 He recalled that in the previous war it had been the maintenance of a similar volunteer army overseas that had led to the effort to introduce conscription. Mr Ward declared that the 20,000 men in the 6th Division did not represent the full number the Government would send abroad, and added:–
I ask military experts and alleged military experts in this Chamber to tell me whether the sending of 200,000 Australian men into a European battlefield will make any difference to the ultimate success or otherwise of what are known as the Allied forces.22
Mr Blackburn (Labour) expressed the opinion that all that could be gained from such a debate was that the world would be made aware that the representatives of half the Australian people were resolutely opposed to the raising of a force for service abroad.
The following day the opposition launched a more embarrassing attack. Mr Forde (Labour) moved that a private’s pay in the AIF be not less than seven shillings a day and one shilling deferred pay for an unmarried man, with an allowance of three shillings a day for a wife and one shilling and sixpence for each child; and that the pay for an unmarried militia private be eight shillings with the same allowances. At that time, although the volunteer militiaman was being paid eight shillings a day, a rate that had been fixed in 1938 to encourage recruiting, the AIF unmarried private received only five shillings with a promise of an additional shilling deferred pay after embarkation.
Some of the Government’s supporters had also spoken against the low rates of the soldiers’ pay. On 5th December Mr Menzies announced that
the unmarried volunteer militiamen would still receive eight shillings a day for his three months’ period of training, after which the militia would pass into reserve “as a reasonably-trained force”; the conscripted militiaman would, however, be paid five shillings a day; the unmarried private in the AIF would be paid five shillings a day in Australia, and an additional two shillings a day ‘deferred pay after embarkation. An additional three shillings a day would be paid to married men and one shilling for each child. The Prime Minister pointed out that these increases would add £900,000 to the cost of the militia in 1939–40 and £1,000 a day to the cost of maintaining each 20,000 men of the overseas force. He admitted that, for a few months, the volunteer militia private would be paid three shillings more than the AIF private in Australia.
The decision made by the Government (said Menzies) was made because it considers that the payments to Australian militiamen are not in the nature of wages, but should be fixed having regard to all of our vast commitments in relation to defence and with proper regard to the general circumstances of the country. In other words, the call to military service is a call to patriotism. It is not, and cannot be, a mere business deal, and I believe that no Australian expects it to be.23
Enlistment presented no financial problem to most young unmarried men. Particularly was this so to unmarried sergeants and officers, the more provident of whom saved more money in five or six years of service than most civilian workers on wages or salaries save in a similar period, and this was a partial compensation for the loss of experience and promotion they suffered. For the married man, however, response to the “call to patriotism” offered no such comfort. If he was a private the most his wife and, say, one child, could receive was £2 16s a week. The average basic wage was £3 19s and only a fraction of those who enlisted had been used to living on this minimum sum. The soldier who made a maximum allotment to his wife would be left with one shilling a day for himself, about enough to keep a moderate smoker in tobacco and to buy an eighteen-penny air mail stamp each week for a letter to his wife. If the soldier was over 30 he could not hope to rise above the rank of warrant officer.
The rates finally allotted to the Australian soldier were enough to enable the wife and children of a married private to subsist; the rates proposed by the Labour party were higher, but they, too, would have placed the soldier’s wife on a few shillings less than the average basic wage.24
In retrospect it can be seen that, with this debate on the Government’s decision to reintroduce compulsion for the home army and send the AIF abroad, and on soldiers’ pay, the long and bitter controversy which had begun with the conscription campaign of 1916 had almost ended. The deeds had been done – conscription for home service had been reintroduced and an Australian force was going overseas – yet the speeches of
even the most ardent of the Opposition’s shock troops contained little of the rancour that might have been expected by those who recalled the acrimonious debates of ten to twenty years before. Three months later Mr Curtin was to deny emphatically a statement by Mr Menzies in the heat of a by-election campaign that, when Labour was returned to power, it would recall the AIF. “We will provide adequately so that the voluntary principle will maintain the first division,” he said. “That is definite. The men are there and we will not abandon them, but the question of sending further divisions is one which the electors of Corio have now an opportunity to vote upon. I make it quite clear that Labour is opposed to that being done.”25 Indeed, so far as the AIF which fought in the Middle East is concerned, the differences between the two political groups in Australia pass out of its story at this point. Curtin’s statement at the by-election campaign was to be underlined in the following June after the fall of France, when the Labour party’s conference resolved on national training for defence, complete participation in the Empire Air Training Scheme, and the reinforcement of the AIF abroad.
In the meantime, even before the men were in uniform, a strong pride – a “defiant pride” one diarist called it – had begun to develop in the new force, stimulated by the coolness which arose between the AIF and the militia and, perversely, by the widespread conviction among men of the AIF that the public believed that the force was composed of the rag-tag and bobtail of the people. Several men of the 16th Brigade have recorded their surprise, when the brigade marched through the streets of Sydney on 4th January, to find the streets lined with cheering people, and to read in the newspapers next day flattering comparisons between the men of the new and the old AIF
The long khaki-columns (wrote the Sydney Morning Herald) thrilled the heart of Sydney as it has not been thrilled for a quarter of a century, since that still spring day in 1914 when the First AIF marched through the same streets on its way to Anzac and imperishable glory ... the marching was magnificent.
In respect of the quality of the men and of its growing self-esteem the comparisons were justified; in addition the division was slowly gaining in numbers and experience. At the end of November the 16th Brigade had reached 96 per cent of its full strength, although there was still a considerable shortage of officers. Groups of young leaders attended schools and returned from them with higher standards of skill and discipline which they in their turn helped to impart to their units. The opinion of the divisional staff was that, at this stage, the 16th Brigade had reached “a reasonable standard of platoon training.” “The standard of efficiency of officers was generally the chief weakness. ... The material in the ranks was good and reasonably well trained and further progress depended on the capacity of officers.”
Wisely perhaps, the commanders made training less intense than became the rule later. For example, week-end leave was frequent and womenfolk were allowed to visit the camps on Sundays. Amenities were few and the lack of them worried some experienced observers who were anxious lest the discipline of the force should suffer because of this. However, the fact that the men were camped near enough to the cities to spend their frequent leaves there, prevented the lack of organised entertainment and non-military education from becoming a pressing deficiency at this stage.26
Meanwhile steps were being taken to transfer the force to the Middle East. On 15th December an advance party of an Australian overseas base commanded by Brigadier Morris,27 and of the 6th Division with Colonel Vasey as the senior officer, the two groups totalling fifty officers and sixty other ranks, had joined a similar party of New Zealanders in the liner Strathallan bound for Palestine to reconnoitre a training area and prepare for the reception of the remainder of the force. They were to be followed in January by a convoy containing the 16th Brigade group, the Reconnaissance Regiment, the 2/1st General Hospital and detachments of other units, the whole contingent totalling about 6,600 men.28
On the 9th January the men who had straggled up the road into Ingleburn in the early days of November, wearing civilian clothes and carrying their possessions in bundles and suitcases, marched down that road again, uniformed, in threes, keeping step, proud and excited. Their final destination was a well-kept secret – perhaps Singapore, perhaps India, Egypt, Palestine or England – but the fact that the first large body of the Second AIF was about to embark was widely known. As the troop trains travelled through the suburbs housewives waved, and when the liners in which the men were to embark moved into the harbour the foreshores were crowded with onlookers.
The 16th Brigade group embarked in the liners Otranto, Orcades, Orford and Strathnaver, none of which had been fully converted into troopships
so they still contained some of the luxuries of peace, and each carried only 1,300 to 1,600 soldiers, not many more than their normal complement of passengers.
At 10 o’clock that morning the Otranto and the Orcades steamed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge to moorings in the outer harbour, while tugs, ferries, little coasters and even railway engines ashore sounded cock-crows on their sirens. Next morning the four transports moved out of the harbour past the battleship Ramillies which was to be part of their escort, while the men crowded rails and rigging gazing with sentiment at the disappearing city. At 3 p.m., out of sight of land, they joined six other transports containing the 4th New Zealand Brigade. With Ramillies leading, the cruiser Canberra on one flank and Australia on the other the convoy steamed south in this order:
|Strathaird||Empress of Canada||Rangitata|
It was an unforgettable sight (wrote the 16th Brigade’s diarist – Corporal Roland Hoffman29) to see these ten ships, seven of them luxury liners, flanked by warships of the British and Australian Navies. They kept in perfect formation – it seemed as if their engines might be throbbing in unison. Here were approximately 13,000 troops on their way. Here was the spearhead of Australia’s and New Zealand’s challenge to Nazism, or any other “ism”, that might menace the Empire and democracy at large. It must have given every man who watched this advance a great surge of satisfaction to be of it, a sense of privilege to be one of the chosen of the Second AIF
Outside Port Phillip Bay on 12th January the Empress of Japan carrying part of divisional headquarters, some base troops and others, joined the convoy. At Freemantle all were given leave and crowded Perth for a last uproarious night in Australia. The convoy sailed from Freemantle soon after midday on the 20th. On some transports the men themselves were still uncertain where they were going, but, the day before the ships reached Freemantle, the German radio had announced that they were on the way to Suez.