The Somali Revolt: Diggers and Discipline

The Problem of Discipline

Then they worked us—Gawd! They worked us, til we knoo wot drillin’ meant;
Till men begun to feel like men, an’ wasters to repent.
— C.J. Dennis, The Moods of Ginger Mick

anzac sun IIMy grandfather Derko yelled wordlessly at old men on television. A bleeding brain had stolen the words, but you could feel the anger. They weren’t listening. They were too busy marching with their heads high, their medals flashing in the sun. Some of them Nan would pick out as friends, Derko’s fellow “Rising Suns”. The television commentators were pondering if in the distant future, say the year 2000, there would still be an Anzac Day. There were fewer and fewer marching each year.

Derko never wore his medals. Nan had shown them to me once without him knowing. She held a finger to her lips. They were kept in a cigar box she kept among her hats at the top of the cupboard.

He got up from his chair and limped up and down the lounge room, grunting, waving his arms at the marching men. He was trying hard to tell them something important, and was distressed that he couldn’t. Nan switched the channel to a football game and promised him some steak and kidney pie to quieten him.

I knew better than to ask my father about what was going on, so I asked my mother.

“It’s something to do with the war. You know about the cannon ball.” I asked more questions. “I don’t really know. He would never talk about it.” And now he couldn’t. I was six.

He usually wasn’t upset like this. Benignly happy, even content perhaps. He often had a loopy grin. Chris and I would wait until he was hosing his roses then we would secretly turn the tap off. Chris would watch intently, waiting for him to peer at the end of the hose. At the right moment Chris would quickly turn the tap back on full bore. Derko just laughed. He’d pick us up and rough-house with us. We were his little larrikins.

My father wasn’t sure what he thought about Derko, but later he told me I should be proud of his war service. He fought for our country in the Great War. My father told me stories of having packing crates for furniture and eating bread and dripping while his mother sobbed. He said his old man would get smashed on the week’s wages at the Mayfield RSL every Thursday.

Years later my father took me to the same club and bought me a black-and-tan even though I was fourteen. At nine o’clock the music stopped and the poker machines fell silent. Everyone had to stand up for a minute’s silence to remember fallen soldiers. My father stood stiffly at attention, as if he was in primary school or an ex-soldier. But neither of us had ever fought in a war. Our battles were far more domestic. I said to my father that if I was drafted to Vietnam in a few years time I’d refuse to go.

Derko died from strokes when I was eight. His coffin had an Australian flag draped over it. I found out much later that Nan had given my father a box of Derko’s papers, and my father had put it in a filing cabinet without opening it. I think he respected his father for going to war, but was angry at the silence that followed.

The silence had more repercussions. My father, guilt ridden over his own imagined inadequacies, stood to attention in the Canberra War Memorial some years later, tears on his face as he remembered his father refusing to talk of the Great War or even to him. But I grew up firmly of the belief that soldiers were heroic, fearless, and above all else, disciplined. They got on with the job. They knew how to grin and bear it.

Decades went by. My mother found the box in the filing cabinet, carefully ironed the letters and ephemera, sorted them and put them in a photo album with brown plastic covers. On the cover she inscribed Derko’s initials in gold paint, and gave it to him for his sixtieth birthday. He put it back in the filing cabinet without opening it. He just didn’t want to know. Several years after my father died, my mother found the album again in the filing cabinet as she was cleaning it out, and showed it to me for the first time.

The letters didn’t say much about the battles he saw on the Western Front, complaining that if they did say anything it would be deleted by the censors. A newsletter, The Rising Sun, issued to Australian troops by the YMCA just twelve days before the war ended, told of the marvellous rations and leave arrangements the troops were enjoying, and the bonhomie amongst troops and officers. The whole newsletter was written in a jocular style, as if the whole war thing was a lark. Next to the report on the wonderful rations Derko had written in neat, small capital letters in the margin, “LIAR!” And then by the margin of another article about how everyone was having a jolly good time fighting Germans he’d written, “NOT TRUE!”

Among the letters I found a notebook, with some yellow newspaper cuttings interleaved with the pages. The handwriting in the notebook wasn’t the neat small handwriting of the letters. It was uncharacteristically hurried and messy with lots of abbreviations, an invented shorthand of sorts. It detailed the places and dates he fought (a punishable offence) and described the voyage home. It looked as if it had been written on board ship as an aide-mémoire. It was almost like a secret diary, and in many respects it was.

Derko was wounded in the leg by shrapnel at Amiens on August 10, 1918, during a “stunt” at the Battle of Amiens. Led by the Australians and Canadians, Allied forces had launched an offensive to push through the German front lines to victory. The battle was one of the major turning points of the war. Derko was stretchered out to Birmingham. His wound never really healed, as it was impossible to remove all the shrapnel from the bone. After spending some time in Birmingham he was transferred to Harefield, and then again in late October he was moved to Weymouth. There was talk of the war ending soon. He wrote, “All Australians who stand a chance of getting back to Aussie are sent here.”

The interesting thing about these documents is their focus on the personal. The momentous battles and events he is taking part in hardly get a mention. It was not that he was incapable of writing about larger events in detail, because his notebook is filled with a day-by-day, and in the end hour-by-hour account of what happened as he and his fellow wounded steamed home.

The sequence of events was described in the newspaper clippings. They described “trouble” aboard the Hospital Transport Ship Somali. They showed that as the Somali steamed towards the Australian summer, Derko was beginning to understand the true nature of discipline.

Derko was a twenty-year-old passenger aboard the Somali when it left Devonport, England, on December 11, 1918. He had been in England for nearly four months, recovering from the shrapnel wound.

The Somali, a small and ageing P&O liner capable of carrying just ninety first-class and seventy second -class passengers, was packed with more than 1000 B-class soldiers. The classification meant they were medically unfit for frontline service.

Every man was checked in going aboard and when I got to the foot of the gangway I sang out my name and number (convict 7032) and was told to stand aside. If a whiz-bang had burst two inches away I could not have been as surprised as I was then. A few more chaps were treated in a similar manner and we all had faces as long as Gus’ nose. When the whole crowd had gone aboard it about was 4.30 pm and there were about 100 in the same boat as myself. My friend and I were discussing all kinds of plans and imagined stowing ourselves aboard when an officer came to the floor of the gangplank and began to call out a list of names. He got the 70 out of his mouth and I yelled “Here sir” and was on the boat in half a second—I could have cut out a furlong at that rate in about 12 seconds. I took care to keep out of questioning range until the boat pulled out.

A mix-up with his pay meant that he had walked on board virtually penniless, but that was no matter: his penchant for card games meant that even though he went aboard with just one shilling, a few days later he had five in his pocket.[1]

It was a bit rough outside and this tub rocks and rolls like the Hunter [River Ferry]. I was not and have not been a bit sea sick and eat like a horse. I came aboard with one shilling and on Sunday night was holding five shillings so am feeding up on other people’s cash—I suppose a man will be broke in a few days but a chap has to play cards or something to keep alive.

As it left port an English military band played “Auld Lang Syne” for the trip home. Despite the crowding, Derko was just glad to be on the ship. While everyone was happy to have been ordered home, for many the thought of leaving England left them with mixed feelings. Many of the Aussies were leaving wives and sweethearts in England, girls they had not known until lately, and to whom they soon hoped to return. Derko had determined to “cut off all correspondence with any girls in England although I had a fine time with many of them”.[2]

Normally, the rigours of such crowding on a troop ship would have been relieved by shore leave at various ports, but this was not the case on the Somali. The troops jostling for space on the small boat had little idea as they left Devonport that they would be cooped up on board for weeks. Authorities in all the ports they visited were deeply concerned about a threat more murderous than even the Great War, the Spanish influenza.

The flu outbreak at the end of the First World War has been described as one of the greatest disasters in human history, killing between 50 million and 100 million people between March, 1918, and June, 1920. It has been argued that its virulence grew out of the crowding and unsanitary conditions of trench warfare.[3] Then as now, there was no real way of combating the viral disease, let alone coping with the onslaught of a pandemic that killed between 10 and 20 per cent of all those it infected. Although the flu was abating, even disappearing altogether from some cities while the Somali steamed on its long voyage home, authorities across the world were nervous of new breakouts. A crowded ship-load of ill and wounded soldiers was treated with immense caution.

By the time the ship reached Port Said on Saturday, December 21, the crowded conditions were starting to unsettle many of the soldiers. The ship dropped anchor that afternoon, and the men were told that as far as the captain and officers in charge were concerned, shore leave would be imminent. Everyone paraded in dress uniform and waited on deck for the order to disembark. They stood on the deck for three hours, waiting for the order. Finally at six o’clock the soldiers were told that the port authorities, fearful that the ship might be harbouring influenza cases, would not allow them to land. No explanation was given as to why it had taken three hours to convey the information to the troops. As many accounts relate, a large part of military life is spent standing on parade, waiting. Nonetheless, the men on board the Somali were “naturally disappointed”.

I was never in the cadets, and never served in the army. But I could well imagine waiting on parade for three hours. Much of my early school life was spent standing on parade, for nothing. On hot days one of my friends was able to fake a very believable case of heatstroke just to get out of schoolyard drill.

Eighteen years before I attended New Lambton Boys’ Public School, it was the headquarters for the No. 2 Fighters Sector, a Royal Australian Air Force unit. The authorities, concerned by Japanese attacks on the steel town of Newcastle and needing office space, had commandeered the school for four years from 1942. Even though the Air Force moved out in 1946, something of the military legacy remained. Boys often had to salute their male teachers and call them “Sir”, as if they were little soldiers. And like officers overseeing soldiers in training, the teachers spent hours every week instructing their charges in the finer points of military marching.

“Men,” the principal, Mr Young, would often say while surveying his little, bare-kneed charges as he stood ramrod straight on the top step leading to the eight clapboard classrooms, a cane resting on an open upturned palm like a baton, “remember what your fathers and your grandfathers did for you. March with your heads high. Make them proud they fought for this country. They offered their lives so you could be free. And for God’s sake, men, march in time.”

Mr Young would give the command and we would all stand at attention, feet together, arms by the side with fingers pointing down, head held unnaturally high. Mr Lovett would put the marching music record on an old gramophone connected to the school’s PA. At the sound of Mr Young’s whistle, we would start marching on the spot. Another whistle would be the signal for 3A and 3B, the eight-year-olds, to march around the perimeter of the assembly and then to their classrooms, with each subsequent whistle allowing the most junior class remaining to march forward. Each class column was led by its class captain. As we marched past Mr Young, he kept a sharp eye out for any asynchronous arms or legs. We had been told all this was character building, and would turn us into men, but the most important thing, we were told, was it taught discipline. “Discipline,” Mr Young said, “is what made this country a great nation. Discipline is sadly lacking in the youth of today.” Mr Young would nod to himself with the righteousness of conviction. “By the time I am finished with you, you will know discipline. And you will respect it.” I tried to imagine having the discipline to fight a war so my grandchildren could be free to practise marching. I was starting to have my doubts about discipline.

This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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So too were the men on board the Somali. As soon as it was dark Derko and a few others climbed the ropes over the side of the ship and were rowed to the dock by one of the Egyptian merchants who had been crowding the boat with their small vessels. The “Gippo” asked two dinar each for the fare, but on being threatened with “all kinds of torture” he reduced the fare to “two and six” for the lot. The Aussies spent the night having liquid “refreshers”, then returned to the ship at eleven o’clock. Rather than trying to climb back up the ropes, they decided to brave going up the gangway.

I fully expected to get the first red ink in my paybook. Eight of us got in a boat and were pulled out to the Somali, we gave the Gippo one shilling for the eight of us and walked straight up the gangway and not a word was said. I must say that the officers in that case were sports. I was told afterwards that officers and all had got ashore via the rope over the side. The ship weighed anchor the next day.[4]

Relations between the men and officers were cordial, and the incident shows something of the larrikinism for which Australian soldiers were by then famous. A larrikin could be, and often was, an excellent soldier. But a larrikin was also someone who was not afraid to question authority, especially if he believed the authority was being exercised only for authority’s sake.[5] Cam Riley encapsulates this idea when he says:

Australians held themselves to a different form of discipline. It was a collective form of discipline that was without the strict hierarchy of British discipline. The Australians were without the respect that the British officers believed that they were due simply because of their rank.[6]

In other words, Australian soldiers only endured discipline if they could see a point to it. They had no fear of authority: discipline certainly didn’t mean blind obedience. This had been a point of contention between soldiers and commanders during the war. There had been several instances of troops refusing to obey orders, incidents the authorities characterised as strikes, but which were in fact mutinies. Most of these occurred when battle-weary soldiers in depleted battalions were ordered to press hard against the retreating Germans. Because the flow of new recruits had all but dried up, battalions that should have had nearly a thousand men had only a few hundred.

For example, the 59th Battalion had no sooner reached its bivouac on September 14 after a week of fighting than the men were told to return to the line. Three platoons refused with the support of their officers, who told authorities the men “believe their action to be the only way they can impress the [higher] authorities with their needs”. A week later the 1st Battalion was ordered back to the front halfway through a relief break. One company refused, and when the battalion finally moved forward it did so with just ten officers and eighty-four men: 119 had gone missing. They were all later tried with desertion, a lesser charge than mutiny, which carried the death penalty. Charles Bean notes that in these soldiers’ “strikes” the men selected to represent their views were “not the ‘bad hats’ or of the demagogue type, but the men most fitted to lead in action … Strict discipline was maintained.”[7]

It was the idea that discipline should be a collective decision, not an imposed order, that had prompted the illegal shore leave in Port Said. The soldiers reasoned that if there was flu on board, someone would have become sick with it by then.

Shortly afterwards, shore leave was refused in Port Suez, again because of fears that the men were carrying the flu. The ship anchored too far off shore for anything to be done. There was just no way of getting ashore. Unbelievably, on a ship where even enough space to sling a hammock was a luxury, the troops were joined by an extra 110 light horsemen. A ship designed to take a maximum of 160 passengers was now carrying more than 1110 soldiers.

somali small

When it reached Colombo, the Somali took on 1500 tons of coal, and once again, shore leave was refused. About forty troops waited until it was dark and then used a rope to board an empty coal barge. They then used the tether ropes to pull themselves ashore. Derko marvelled that such an exotic place could have electricity and trams, and he spent the night wandering around the markets, attending a boxing match and going for a rickshaw ride. Just before dawn the men quietly returned to ship for roll-call. Their escapade was never detected.

Derko was lucky to have managed to get ashore twice. Most of the men had not been on land since they had left Devonport. The next day the air was thick with coal dust, and yet, despite that and the intense heat, no shore leave was granted. Derko wrote that they all took their lot “like lambs”. They were certainly corralled like sheep. By the time the ship set sail for Fremantle, the crowding was starting to cause problems.

Despite calling in on several ports, the ship had failed to pick up adequate supplies of fresh water. What there was, was rationed for drinking only. There was no soap, and no way of keeping clean. In the unsanitary conditions Derko’s wound was “breaking down” and he was starting to get headaches. His wound was supposed to be dressed three times a day, but that wasn’t happening. He was worried that some of the bone at the base of his wound had died. The ship’s doctor—there was only the one—told him he would probably have to have another operation in Australia.[8] Moreover, the “weather fit to compare to hell” of the southern summer on the Indian Ocean was adding to the privations. It was too hot to do anything. Against orders, the men stripped down to their shorts in an effort to stay cool.[9] The sea was oily and the ship was an oven. A storm was brewing.

For no discernible reason, four days from Fremantle, an order was issued that “troops would parade with all gear, hammock and blankets dress—as ready for going ashore at Fremantle”.

The order was as pointless as some of the commands these men had endured in the trenches. To what purpose would such an order be given? To re-establish the hierarchy of command? To teach discipline? When the time for parade arrived not a soul was to be seen on deck. No one was dressed, no gear was out. The officers forced the issue by insisting on an impromptu inspection of the men below decks. The troops were reminded that due to a quirk of military regulation regarding the wounded, they were, technically speaking, under arrest until they disembarked. It was hinted that if they didn’t show some discipline soon they would be treated as prisoners. What cordial relations there had been between troops and officers was breaking down. The troops’ defiance of direct orders, according to Derko, left “a bad impression with the officers and indirectly we soon began to feel the effects”.[10]

The Somali docked at Fremantle on January 19, and 106 West Australians were allowed to disembark after a farewell concert on the promenade deck, which featured a speciality dance by Private Smark, an acrobatic turn by Sergeant Dunn, and the overture to Wagner’s Tannhauser played by Sergeant Hodson on the piano, and the ship’s orchestra, which consisted entirely of Sergeant Taylor on the violin and Private James on the cello.[11] It was an enlisted men’s concert only. All the officers, their pride wounded by the lack of discipline shown by what was now being called “that kit mutiny”, refused to attend and kept to their quarters. Nonetheless the night was a “huge success” even though the remaining troops were told that none of them would be allowed shore leave.[12]

At Fremantle, the quarantine situation for the rest of the trip was explained to the men. The authorities in the other states were satisfied that if they underwent formalin steam baths and inhalations daily between Fremantle and Adelaide, they would be considered clear of any signs of influenza, and allowed shore leave when the ship was due to dock at Adelaide on January 28.

The men did not protest about this, even though a formalin steam bath and inhalation is not something for the faint-hearted. Formalin is an aqueous solution of the carcinogen formaldehyde, which irritates the eyes and mucous membranes and results in streaming eyes and nose. At the concentrations the men had to breathe, it causes headaches, burning sensations in the throat and difficulty in breathing. Though not known at the time, it has absolutely no effect on controlling the Spanish flu. By good fortune, no one had any signs of even a cold. The doctor on board sincerely believed he was on a “clean” ship.

Water was badly needed but only fifty tons was available to be taken on board. After a couple of days the Somali left Fremantle and headed towards Albany to pick up extra water there.

The ship anchored at the entrance to Albany Harbour on Thursday night and took on board 800 tons of fresh water. Even though lighters were alongside the Somali as soon as it anchored, the process took a while, as the ship workers refused to work at night. Again no troops were allowed to go ashore. The boredom and overcrowding were only alleviated by the delivery of Australian newspapers, the first ones the troops had seen in years.

There was no chance of getting ashore—the ship had deliberately anchored some distance away to prevent that happening. But the men crowded on deck to take in what sights they could.

From what we could see of Albany it was very pretty but I guess a chap would soon be turned off living there as it seems away from other civilisation. [13]

After lunch on Friday January 24, the Somali weighed anchor and started its 1023-mile run to Adelaide. That night the Somali starting “rocking better than any baby’s cradle had ever done”. Even though it was the middle of summer, the wind was bitingly cold, and hard to endure for the large number of men who had nowhere else to sleep but on deck. The seas were up. But spirits were too. Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney were now just days away. They had survived the war. Soon they would be home. On Saturday night the men held a dance. The next day albatrosses, wheeling and circling on the stiff winds, followed the ship.

The Somali anchored off the Adelaide seaside suburb of Semaphore on Tuesday morning, January 28.[14] Two medical officers came on board to inspect the men, but left without conveying anything to Captain Warner or Major Harry Frood Arnell, the ship’s military commander. Assuming the lack of communication meant that the Fremantle agreement was still good, Major Arnell told the South Australians to hand in their kit and hammocks and for everyone to present for parade the following day in preparation for going ashore. This time, in full anticipation of being able to leave the ship for the first time since some had illegally hopped over the side in Port Said and Colombo, everyone turned up for parade, and waited in formation for the disembarkation orders. It was a hot, clear January day. Many of the South Australians were thinking of their families, waiting at the Port Adelaide docks.

Shortly after nine o’clock Captain Warner told Major Arnell he had received a cable saying the ship was quarantined for a further seven days, even though there was no trace of flu on board. At one o’clock, Major Arnell finally informed the waiting men that disembarkation would not occur that day, as there were still concerns that the ship might be contaminated. He didn’t say when disembarkation would be allowed. There was no explanation as to why it took several hours for him to tell the troops. Perhaps he was still trying to instil a sense of discipline into a group of young men who were no doubt excited by the prospect of being reunited with their families.

george yatesAmong the men hearing this news was a forty-two-year-old labourer who had been elected to federal Parliament for the seat of Adelaide. Gunner George Edwin Yates (right), who served in France after enlisting in 1918, had a wife, a daughter with a grandchild he had never seen, and a sister waiting for him on the docks. He immediately organised a petition of South Australian soldiers asking that some remedy be found. Later in the day, he organised a broader petition for all the soldiers, which was signed by several hundred men. He personally presented the petitions to Major Arnell, but was rebuffed. Yates suggested that Arnell tell the port authorities that the situation was intolerable. Again, Arnell refused to make any representations on the soldiers’ behalf to the shore authorities, especially any suggesting, as Yates would have it, that he could not be responsible for anything that happened should the petition demands not be met. The whole idea of “something happening” was preposterous.

“What can happen?” Arnell demanded.

“I don’t know,” Yates said. “The men are at breaking point. Anything could happen.”[15]

Major Arnell, concerned over the men’s petitions and Yates’s remarks, decided to contact the shore authorities asking for the men to be let off, but received no reply.[16] The ship continued at anchor and the men, sapped by the heat, could not muster enough energy to continue their protest. They would be off the ship in the next day or so, they were sure.

On Friday morning[17] January 31, the South Australian men were again told to parade in full uniform, hand in their kits and hammocks, and await the order to disembark. Arnell told them a tug would rendezvous at ten-thirty to start taking them ashore. They all assembled at nine-thirty. Ten-thirty came and went. At about noon, after they had stood in formation for two and a half hours, it was clear nothing was going to happen. Yet it took more than another hour and a half before Major Arnell formally dismissed the men. He told them there was “no room” on Torrens Island.[18] They had been standing on parade for more than four hours.

Some of the men were disgusted by this treatment. When the “dismissed” order was finally given, Arnell later claimed they deliberately damaged their kits in a wanton show of vandalism. When Arnell ordered them to retrieve their kits and return to their quarters, some just walked over the bags, stomping on the contents. Major Arnell stood silently watching the deliberate slight at authority, furious at the insubordination.

The South Australians were now getting increasingly anxious to reunite with their families, and the rest of the men were keen to enjoy some shore leave. They had been waiting three days to disembark. They had been cooped up on the Somali for fifty-four days. During the afternoon Yates attended a series of meetings to discuss the situation. The ship was so crowded separate meetings had to be held at either end of the ship just so speakers could be heard. At each of the meetings Yates asked, “Should we just grin and bear it?” A witness at the court martial recounted how Yates at one meeting had said:

… it was a shame for the men to be kept on board like this, the men were returning from active service and the authorities in Adelaide evidently did not know their business as there was no influenza on board the ship and that they had every right to put them off, and if they did not put them off, they would be compelled to put them off.[19]

Whether Yates or a member of his audience made the suggestion that boats and anything else that would float be lowered so the men could just row ashore themselves was the subject of conflicting accounts. But there was no doubt that the suggestion, once made, was greeted enthusiastically.

At four o’clock Yates realised a mutiny of several hundred men was about to occur. He went to Major Arnell and Captain Warner and told them. The men had had enough, he said, and unless a “satisfactory” response was received from the port authorities in the next two hours, the men would “take matters into their own hands”. Captain Warner replied:

I hear there is talk of lowering the boats down and lowering yourselves ashore … You are a Member of Parliament. I know you have influence with the men. You will understand you will be responsible for doing this. I am not going to allow you to lower the boats down and I shall take all precautions that I can. The ship is in quarantine, and the authorities to the best of their ability are doing this to prevent the contagious disease spreading, and it is an irksome thing but we have all got to put up with it.[20]

After meeting with Yates, Warner and Arnell made arrangements with the officers for all gear, including oars, to be quietly taken from the lifeboats. If the troops seized the boats they would have to fashion their own oars. Arnell also sent a cable to shore which read:

Troops on board Somali refuse to be detained any longer. Delegates give me until 6pm to arrange landing. Dr Hones [the Port Medical Officer] action in delaying them have strongly condemned. If no reply by shore time troops will take possession of Boat. Reply line of action urgent, position serious. (Major) Arnell.[21]

At 5.20 p.m. a reply from the senior naval officer at Port Pirie was received addressed to “The Master”, Captain Warne, which cryptically stated, “You can inform troops that if they obey present instructions it is the intention of quarantine authorities to release ship on view 07.30 am.”[22] The “present instructions” were that the ship weigh anchor and steam out to sea. Warner and Arnell showed the message to Yates, who queried what was meant by “on view 07.30am”. Arnell assured Yates that it meant what it implied: that quarantine would end the next morning.

Yates again held meetings with the troops. They cheered him in the belief that early next morning they would be allowed to land. Meanwhile, the Somali was heading full steam out to sea, the idea being to make any attempt by the troops to get ashore using the lifeboats unfeasibly risky.

But while they were heading away from port, a rumour, later verified, started to spread that what was meant by “on view” was actually Monday, and that the troops would spend, at the very least, a further two days at sea. Anger was turning to sullen fury. Some started wondering aloud why they couldn’t take over the ship, return to Adelaide, and just get off. They had the numbers. Again, they were talking mutiny, and this time the feeling was very widespread. Alarmed that official intransigence was inflaming the troops’ ire, Yates again visited Warner and Arnell in the captain’s cabin. Arnell later testified that Yates made his position absolutely clear to Warner:

“Well captain, we are very sorry, you are a victim of circumstances. We are not satisfied with the present state of things, and if you do not turn back we shall have to put somebody else in command, in other words, commandeer the ship.”[23]

Warner tried appealing to Yates, saying he was a “worker”, just like the rest of them. And as a worker, he, like Yates, knew how to respect discipline. “Of course I know you men are very irritated. We are all very irritated at these regulations,” he said, and then continued, “Look here, I have had to go through the mill. I was in sailing ships and I know what it means to work, and I am a working man, just the same as you. But discipline is discipline.”[24]

Captain Warner again cabled the shore saying unless the ship turned round, mutiny looked inevitable. In response the shore medical officer mentioned in Arnell’s cable, Dr Hones, came out to the ship on a motor launch. He gave a speech to those troops who could hear him in an attempt to explain to the troops why quarantine was necessary and would continue.

After his speech Dr Hones made ready to return to shore, but as he did so, several soldiers spontaneously grabbed him. He tried to shake them off, but they held on. They told him he couldn’t return to the launch until he agreed to allow the Somali to return to Adelaide, and allowed shore leave for everyone. After some hours, he agreed.

Many thought that once freed Dr Hones would renege on the deal, but he was as good as his word. The ship returned to port the next morning. To the delight of the troops, a tug pulled alongside soon after to take the first lot of men, the South Australians, ashore at Torrens Island. Tugs continued all day. Derko spent his first hour on Torrens Island enjoying his first proper bath in months. All the troops were treated to a “spread” (a banquet), a moving picture show and some live theatre.

It seemed to the soldiers as if reason had finally prevailed, until word spread that Yates had been arrested the moment he had stepped ashore. A prisoner now, he was sent to Melbourne to await his general court martial seven days later. The authorities weren’t going to let this lack of discipline go unpunished. The troops wondered who else of them would have to face imprisonment and a court hearing before they could finally be free of the war. They found out in Port Melbourne when Private George Friend, who had assisted Yates by helping organise the meetings at either end of the ship, was welcomed home by military police.

Whether the military authorities were keen to downplay these events, or whether the journalists at the time had difficulty fully accessing the information, or both, is hard to tell. The newspaper reports on the incident glossed over, or omitted, much of the above. For example, not even the court martial papers tell of Hones’s detention. The longest article found, one clearly inspired by someone sympathetic to Yates, was in the Adelaide Advertiser of February 5. It stated: “There was no mutiny. The men were not incensed against either the captain of the boat or the officer commanding.” [25]

The article went on to say that what the men objected to was the disregard of the authorities on shore to the fact that 1100 men were “packed like sardines” on a boat with dwindling amenities. The authorities seemed oblivious to the fact that the men were desperate to get off the boat.

At the subsequent trial in Melbourne, when asked how he would plead to the three charges relating to mutiny, Yates responded, “Not guilty.” He was asked to sign the charge sheets to formally acknowledge the charges against him. He refused. Two of the charges were “Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” and “Endeavouring to persuade persons in His Majesty’s auxiliary forces to join a mutiny”. Yates was eventually sentenced to sixty days detention, but he was allowed to serve the remainder of his detention in South Australia from mid-March, so that he might be visited by his family.

Lieutenant Burgess for the prosecution was keen to point out in his closing remarks that no mutiny actually occurred on the Somali. No soldier broke Australian quarantine. And there was considerable doubt as to whether Yates was the instigator or mediator of the troops’ dissatisfaction. In his own defence, Yates viewed himself merely as a helpful intermediary.

It’s a matter of viewpoint whether Yates got off lightly. He had told Arnell that “heads will be hurt”. But what was ultimately more wounded perhaps, was the official order of things. Yates, as his defence counsel noted, had been seen by his prosecutors as prejudicing good order and discipline.[26] Yates’s mistake was that as a democratic parliamentarian he believed in consultation, negotiation and fairness. But what he, my grandfather, and all the troops aboard that ship discovered, was that the discipline they had been subjected was neither consultative, negotiated nor fair.

Is it something characteristic of the Australian psyche, or is it a broader phenomenon, that often discipline is simply about the brutal exercise and acceptance of power, and that its exercise, if it is about anything at all, is about maintaining a hierarchy of power? Those who impose discipline often do so not just because they can, but because they want to show they can.

I learnt this several years ago when working at a major Australian bank. The bank was to undergo its third “restructure” in eighteen months. “Restructure” was a term used by personnel officers (they called themselves human resources managers) to denote the mass firing of staff in order to boost profits.

After the sackings the survivors, including myself, were taken on a “team building” weekend at a five-star hotel on the New South Wales Central Coast. The team building consisted of “change management consultants” showing lots of PowerPoint slides with short bulleted points. The presentations were stupefying. Perhaps they realised this, because we were given “fun” exercises and activities in between the presentations to help us put our “green hats” on. If a change management consultant said you had a green hat, she meant that you were showing signs of being a good bank employee. In one exercise we walked around the conference room pretending to be goldfish, opening and shutting our mouths silently. Whoever blew the biggest imaginary “bubbles” won a green hat and a bottle of wine. In another exercise we all watched and then discussed an old American video on how geese would make good employees, because they always followed their leader. The geese in the video followed their leader for so long some of them dropped out of the sky through exhaustion. Sometimes the leader would change, but the rest of the geese would hardly notice, and diligently fly in formation behind. We had to get together in small groups and write down with crayon on pieces of butcher’s paper five ways in which we could all be more like geese.

“Why do we have to be goldfish? Why do we have to be more like geese? Is any of this really necessary?” I asked the facilitator. She frowned, even though she had invited all participants to raise any concerns. The first time she had asked, there was job-insecurity silence from everyone. It was only the second time she asked that I responded. She told me the sort of questions I was asking meant I was “wearing a black hat”. To wear a black hat, she further explained, was against the “rules of the weekend”, as it “signified negativity”. Even so, she said she would attempt to answer the questions in the hope that I might trade my black hat for a white one.

“We are doing these things to build team spirit. A team that works well is a cohesive team. Another reason why we do these exercises is to give everyone in the ‘new team’ for the ‘new bank’ a sense of renewed discipline. You need discipline. That film shows you how discipline in a team can help achieve truly great things. Those amazing geese fly thousands of miles you know.”

It was only then I realised something that I believe Yates, my grandfather, and the 1100 other men aboard the Somali slowly came to realise during that hot January in 1919. Discipline is often not about building character, and was not a formative force in the building of this nation, nor in the fighting of its wars. No wonder my grandfather never marched. Anzac Day, Mr Young, the bank executives and all those who insisted that discipline led to strength of character were in fact attempting to steal something from my very sense of identity.

Perhaps it had already been stolen long ago, because it was only then I asked myself what would my fellow bank employees and I have done if we had been on the Somali instead of the air-conditioned conference room of the Terrigal Crowne Plaza?

Would I have refused to present myself for a meaningless parade on deck, knowing it would have no result except the satisfaction of the commanding officers at seeing men obey their commands? Would I have held Dr Hones by the arm, telling him that he, just like me, would not be seeing his family that evening? Or would we all have just done what we were told, standing pointlessly to attention for hours on deck in the fierce summer sun, without even black hats to shade us from the blistering light, nursing our wounds and silently enduring the endless waiting?

Jamie Derkenne is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University.

[1] Walter Derkenne, Personal Communication, Letter to father inscribed SS (sic) Somali 19 December 1918.

[2] Walter Derkenne, Notebook, p3

[3] Connor, Steve, “Flu epidemic traced to Great War transit camp”, January 8, 2000, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/flu-epidemic-traced-to-great-war-transit-camp-728112.html, accessed October 11, 2010.

[4] Walter Derkenne, Court Cambric brand ruled notebook inscribed on front cover with pencil “WGD” with handwritten pencil notes, 29 pages numbered, 1 unnumbered, in the author’s personal possession, written on board the Somali December 1918 to February 1919.

[5] Dean, Peter Assessing and Reassessing Anzac in 2010 University of Notre Dame, Australia, Australian Policy and History, http://www.aph.org.au/files/articles/assessingReassessing.htm+australian+soldiers+larrikinism&cd=9&hl=en&ct=clnk accessed October 12, 2010.

[6] Riley, Cam ANZACs: The Domestic Cultural Revolution http://www.southsearepublic.org/article/67/read/anzacs_the_domestic_cultural_revolution/australian_flying_corps/ accessed July 12 2012

[7] Bean, C.E.W. The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918, Australia in the war of 1914-1918, vol. VI: 938 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1941) https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1069923/

[8] Notebook 13

[9] Notebook 14-15

[10] Notebook 16-17

[11] HMT Somali Souvenir Program – The Rising Sun Concert Party, DL folded brochure dated December 1918, January 1919 (in personal possession)

[12] Notebook, p18

[13] Notebook 18

[14] Untitled series of documents relating to the General Court Martial of Gunner Edwin George Yates, (Court Martial transcripts) Series A471 Control Symbol 1106, accessed October 9 – November 2, 2010 at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/scripts/Imagine.asp?B=99619&I=1&SE=1 : 238. Walter Derkenne (Notebook 22) gives the time as 9pm..

[15] Court Martial, 238

[16] Court Martial, 237

[17] Walter Derkenne’s account in his notebook differs from the court martial evidence, in that he says on p23 of his notebook “On Thursday night 30th the South Austs. were told they would be going ashore at 10am.”

[18] Court martial 238

[19] Court Martial 215.

[20] Court Martial 46.

[21] Court Martial 174.

[22] Notebook 24

[23] Court Martial 47.

[24] Court Martial 44.

[25] r,Adelaide Advertiser February 5, 1919, at http://newspapers.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/5636728 accessed October 6, 2010

[26] Court Martial 216

7 thoughts on “The Somali Revolt: Diggers and Discipline

  • en passant says:

    I think you are conflating different issues by trying to blame ‘discipline’ as the basis of the issue. I think the self-discipline of the soldiers was remarkable given the situation into which they were ressed. You are a little too harsh on the officers and NCO’s on the Somali as they had no power to change the intransigence of comfortably based shore bureaucracies. It was civilian bureaucrats who allocated 1,100 men to travel on a slow, overcrowded steamer, not the military. That said, I think Major Arnell failed in his duty to those under his command by not being more forceful in standing up to authority at whatever personal risk to himself and his career. Don’t forget, those on board the Somali were men who had risked their lives for each other and to achieve the objectives that were asked of them. They were then badly treated by the very authorities that had demanded their sacrifice. Jealousy? Envy? Guilt at their own failure to serve? Who knows, but I learnt a long time ago never to expect gratitude from any government, nor for any politician to look you straight in the eye and keep the most sincerely given promise. It is beyond their comprehension and character that their word should be their bond.

    Just a point about Australian military leadership. I was told (and I have believed it ever since) that anyone who has to use rank to get things done is not a leader, but a mere manager.

    The behaviour of your bank (which bank?) is typical of modern managerialism in which people are just commodities. Until the recent shock cancellation of the 457 Visa rort a friend of mine (who is an employee!) was asked to sign a paper accepting a 30% reduction in pay from 1st July. If he did not, his position would be outsourced, he would be made redundant, the company would declare ‘no Australian wanted the job at the rate offered’ and a 457 visa would be applied for.

    Treason has many names, including 457 visas, managerialism, globalisation, ‘Free Trade’, outsourcing, open borders, renewable energy and the names of 95% of our elected politicians. The case of the Somali just goes to show that like Europe, Australia has always has its share of pettifoggers, nanny-staters and totalitarians. That they have risen so far in recent years and damaged the country so badly is a sad reflection on the decline of Australia since the minor incident aboard the Somali.

  • padraic says:

    Jamie. I think I know the real reason why the men were not allowed off the ship and it was not bloody-minded discipline. It was probably for public health reasons other than the ‘flu. Some years back I was doing some public health research and came across an archived letter written by a State’s Chief Medical Officer who was concerned that some of the soldiers returning from WW1 in Europe and the Middle East may have contracted venereal diseases and if not properly managed could transmit it to their wives and girl friends back in Australia. This would be a major public health disaster and this fear, in the case of the “Somalia”, would have increased after the soldiers went out “on the town” in Egypt which at the time was not the most hygienic of places. It was a time before penicillin and managing venereal diseases was difficult – the only remedy was Tryparsamide which took a long time to effect a cure. The letter I read mandated removal of troops from the ship to a secure military location for medical inspection. The vast majority deemed to be disease free were released into the community while a small minority were often put on to public works in a remote location and treated until cured, after which they could be released into the community. In those days such public health matters were not widely known and discretion was the byword, because it would have been unfair to men regarded as heroes and who had suffered so much in warfare to socially condemn some of them on return. The men would not have been told the reason for these public health restrictions because of the stigma attached and were supposed to do as they were told through blind military obedience, without a proper explanation as to why.

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    Yeah, a top story!

    Diggers have always had their own ‘Digger justice’ and the better top brass shared the values (Monash, Elliot). That is one of the reasons why the Australian military fighting spirit is (has been) so great.
    Some stories:

    * The diggers counted Monash ‘out’ 10, 9, 8, etc.… when Monash (mounted on his horse) chided the troops for taking a sensible (but unauthorised) swim rest in the Suez Canal. The troops arrived at their destination, well ahead of schedule.

    * One Anzac battalion refused to disband in 1918 because of their loyalty to the battalion colours. Elliot, the CO, wore their colours into the General’s mess, as a token of solidarity for the men when they did stand down as ordered. ‘Pompey’ Elliot was threatened with court martial by a Pommy General for his show of solidarity. Monash, to his credit, intervened and chastised the Pommy General – ‘’that man has just stopped a general mutiny in the AIF’. All was resolved without officialdom’s heavy hand!

    * Brigadier Elliot once singled out a soldier smoking on parade, barking that he would shoot him for smoking. Another soldier (the smoker’s older brother), yelled ‘You shoot him, I shoot you.’ Elliot ordered the insubordinate arrested and brought to his tent. He then promoted the insubordinate to corporal saying ‘anyone who stands up to me is a true leader.’

    My father was a Rat of Tobruk and fought with the 2/5th at Milne Bay. In the rare times he told me anything, he said about his trip over to the Middle East, ‘The nights were dark and the decks were slippery.’ Bad officers who sought honours over the dead bodies of their men were not to be suffered!

    In another story from my father, a senior Pommy officer addressed the men, ‘We will fight, and if we have to, we will die.’ The inevitable voice from the back came ‘Pigs ******g arse we will.’

    General (later Field Marshal) Blamey, probably under orders from ‘dug out’ Doug (Douglas MacArthur) attacked the ‘chocos’ on the Kokoda track, (the ones that stopped Hori’s men at Isurava), saying ‘it’s the rabbits that run that get shot’. From then on, everywhere Blamey travelled (hetravelled to the front line), Blamey would be greeted by diggers waving lettuce leaves, carrots etc. My father (a private), did not like the Blamey types.

  • padraic says:

    Don, your comments are very accurate. While I had a different view as to the reason why the men were kept on the ship I am with both you and Jamie on the mindless “discipline” so beloved of the British army in particular and some of our own. My father was in the Army in New Guinea at the time when the 7th Divvy soldiers came back from the front line and were assembled on the wharf at Moresby prior to sailing back to Australia for some well earned leave. Blamey came down to address them and began his speech with “My boys…” My father said the men immediately responded with the biggest “raspberry” you had ever heard and drowned out the rest of the speech. Blamey was incensed and cancelled the leave and sent them back to the front line. On another occasion a newly minted young officer, fresh from Officer Training in Australia, came into my father’s camp in the New Guinea bush where on a day to day basis the men wore shorts, boots, and a singlet because of the heat and humidity and only dressed up for formal parades or going on patrol. This youngster wanted the men to salute him each time they walked past him. Now, the men were OK at saluting on formal occasions but this was a bit much, so after a few weeks they all lined up out of sight alongside the Officers’ Mess and when the young officer came out the front door the whole unit emerged one at a time from around the corner and saluted him. He had to stand there for what appeared an eternity to salute back. He never asked them again to salute him unless a formal occasion demanded it. Some years back I met an ex Air Force pilot who had been in New Guinea and he told me that at the end of the war he had to fly up to Buna from Moresby to collect some officers and fly them back to Moresby. On arrival in Buna they were invited to refresh themselves at the Officers’ Mess which they did, into the early hours of the morning. Much the worse for wear and basically no sleep they staggered out next morning on to the tarmac where the officers were already waiting to board the ‘plane. One officer, when he saw the state they were in, gave them a officer-type dressing down. So when they were over the Owen Stanleys they gave the passengers a demonstration of their aerobatic skills to feed the worst fears of the passengers. When they landed at Moresby the formerly irate officer was now ashen and speechless. There are more stories like this and I think the Australian soldiers’ views of mindless discipline helped them cope with the stressful reality they faced. Getting back to the public health aspects – the Health authorities had learned lessons from the 1st World War and my father said when they were being sent home after the war the troop ship took over a week to sail from Moresby to Cairns, during which time the men were checked by doctors and treated for dysentery, malaria, dengue etc before docking. They were then sent on a slow train into a “Victorian winter” in camps outside Melbourne. This was to bring out sub-clinical malaria that may have been missed on the ship. They stayed there doing drills on the parade ground and relaxed. They were given leave passes to see the footy games in Melbourne on Saturdays if they felt up to it. The whole idea was to gradually get them used to civilian life again and when they were confident enough they were demobilised and went home. The public health emphasis was not only on their physical health but also their mental wellbeing so they could readjust better to civilian life.

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    Great stories, thanks for that. The 7th Divvy boys would have gladly and proudly marched back to the front line if it meant their raspberries had ‘got up Blamey’s kilt’!
    Monash, not the cad (Blamey), should have been made Field Marshal.

    • rodcoles says:

      You say “It was an enlisted men’s concert only”. I’m not an Army bloke (Navy 40+ years), but I think the term “enlisted men” is incorrect especially in the context of the events described. Surely it should be “Other ranks”. I’m very pro-American, but not to the extent of language takeover.

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