Home front pressures a major problem for those who did not serve
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Home front pressures a major problem for those who did not serve

Men of war-service age who did not enlist during WWI could encounter discrimination and derision, no matter how valid their reasons.

In the small town of Montville in the hinterland of Queensland's Sunshine Coast there stands a war memorial that, at first sight, appears no different to the thousands of other similar monuments in towns around Australia.

It lists the names of the men from the town who served in World War One but below those names it also lists the 'Rejects' - the six Montville men who attempted to enlist but who, for one reason or another, were not accepted.

In its inclusion of the rejects, the Montville war memorial makes itself unique. For in the celebrations of the homecomings of soldiers during and after WWI, most communities around Australia ignored those who didn't serve. In fact, many shunned the 'shirkers' and were divided into segments of those whose family members had served and those who had not.

A letter to the editor, printed in several newspapers around Australia in July 1918, went as far as suggesting: "…why should there not be a series of badges worn for at least five years after the war. One for each man or woman who has given naval or military service, another for those ineligible for enlistment, and another for the mothers, wives, and sisters of either. Then, if a penalty of twelve months' hard labour were imposed on anyone illegally wearing such a badge, the cowards would be isolated, and justifiably looked upon as the scum of the community."

In fact, such a badge had been developed during the war for those who had volunteered but had been ineligible to enlist. Reasons for rejection were mostly to do with health - poor eyesight, bad teeth and issues such as hernia or venereal disease and poor physique. But the shame involved with simply being a man of serving age who was at home while his fellow countrymen were dying on battlefields was enormous.

"The pressure on eligible men to enlist throughout the war was intense," Professor Peter Stanley, a historian from UNSW Canberra, says. "The classic white feather [handed to a man as a sign of his cowardice] actually happened. Young middle-class women would present feathers typically to men that they knew, but also to strangers in the street."

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"The shame became so severe that authorities finally introduced a 'rejected volunteer' badge. You could wear it and on the trams, for instance, you wouldn't get dirty looks. It really points to the emotional toll of the war that was placed on people, even if they didn't go."

But poor health was not the only reason men may have decided not to serve. Of course there were people who claimed a conscientious objection to war, but the few records that have been kept around this statistic point to a very small percentage - around one in 30 men claiming this to be the case.

Most who chose not to volunteer did so for practical reasons. They had a family to provide for. They had a business to run. Their community depended on them.

"The most famous example of this is Robert Menzies," says Professor Jeffrey Grey from UNSW Canberra, series editor and author of The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War. "Menzies had two brothers who went to war and they agreed amongst themselves that Robert would stay because he would be a lawyer and therefore was likely to have a good income. This meant he could provide for their parents in old age. Otherwise, if all the brothers went to war and were killed, who would look after the parents?"

"These sorts of stories were reflected across Australia, and particularly in rural towns. Who would manage the station or the property unless one son stayed to do that? In regional areas there was a lot of push-back against conscription because communities would instead agree amongst themselves what they believed they could afford to give in terms of manpower for the war effort. If it was a small country town they may be able to afford to offer 15 young men to the war effort."

In a time before the automation of farming tasks the rural economy was very labour intensive and relied heavily upon muscle. A labour force was required to bring in the harvest and do the shearing and muster the herds, for instance. Towns simply couldn't afford to lose all of their workers.

Who would manage the station or the property unless one son stayed to do that?

Professor Jeffrey Grey

Even facing such challenges, the number of Australian men who enlisted during the Great War was about 417,000, and 324,000 of these men actually served overseas. But over half of the Australian men of eligible serving age (18-44) did not volunteer.

The question of conscription for overseas service came up, of course, during WWI and was voted down during two plebiscites in 1916 and 1917. Conscription was introduced in New Zealand, Canada and Britain but not in Australia. Ours was an army of volunteers, but voluntarism had its limits and those limits had been stretched by early 1916.

"A majority of Australians who served in the Army overseas in the First World War had enlisted by the end of 1915. It is a diminishing return after that," Grey says. "One of the problems is that the Australian government agreed to a force structure that was simply unsustainable from our population. Canada had a bigger population than Australia and it only fielded four divisions. We committed to five in France and effectively two more in the Middle East. But seven divisions was beyond our capacity."

Having created this commitment it then became a matter of prestige to try to maintain it, Grey says. It also became a pragmatic question of morale within the army itself.

"The last month of the war, with manpower pressures such that they had to begin disbanding battalions and distributing those men amongst other units, resulted in considerable disaffection amongst the soldiers," he says. "We had a problem, and not one that was going to be capable of resolution as the war went on."

So there was great pressure from many angles within society for men of serving age to sign up and ship out, but also to stay.

It was a very different society in the early 1900s, Grey says. Families were a fundamental economic unit, often multi-generationally. There were few of the supports, such as social security, that exist today. Society was less individualistic and more communal. So men who did not serve, while many of them were being extremely responsible and looking after the people around them, were also subject to feelings of shame and sometimes subjected to actual public ridicule.

Those who did not serve also faced great uncertainty, Grey says. Contracts within the mining industry in Australia, for instance, were often to supply German companies and industries. As soon as the war began, these businesses closed or scaled down to skeleton staff. And other exporters, especially agricultural businesses, had a very difficult time sending their products to market on the other side of the world.

"It was not at all clear how the wool clip or the grain harvest was going to make it to market in Europe and Britain," Grey says. "Ships were being taken for war purposes and were also being sunk by U-boats. This global shortage of shipping made it much harder to get the Australian produce to market."

The guilt, shame, uncertainty and heavy responsibility that came with not enlisting during WWI certainly did not make life easy for the men at home. Those who had volunteered but had been rejected attempted to cope by forming and joining the Rejected Volunteers' Association, a body that looked out for the rights of these men.

"The Rejected Volunteers' Association had a branch in each state," Stanley, who wrote the 'Society' chapters of 'The War At Home' section (Volume 4) of The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, says. "They thought that because they had volunteered they deserved greater acknowledgement and respect. But the Association didn't last much beyond the end of the war. Those that had actually served didn't care about them. They weren't eligible for the RSL and they ended up not marching on Anzac Day. So it was abandoned, which points to the triumph of the returned men. The people who could prove that they served were the only ones that got the attention."

So having suffered throughout the war, many of those who had not fought discovered when the war ended that there would little let-up in their feelings of shame and grief. And for those who had attempted to enlist but had been deemed unfit for service, it was as if they had never even volunteered.

In this light the war memorial in Montville takes on new meaning. It honours not only those who served but also shows respect to men who, during the Great War, suffered in a completely different fashion.

* This article was commissioned by UNSW Canberra, the Canberra campus of UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy. During the Centenary celebration period, UNSW Canberra will focus not only on WWI, but commemorate more than a century of service in other conflicts by Australian servicemen and women.

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