A long weekend in Melbourne at the end of autumn. The first football matches of the season; people go to theatres and to church; country horse racing is popular and extra train services are running; workers parade through the city behind colourful union banners to mark the Eight Hour Day anniversary and its public holiday—there is only one city mail delivery that day. These are unremarkable days except for an historic date—Sunday is April 25, 1915.
Saturday, April 24: The war is happening, somewhere, as ordinary lives continue. A gentleman advertises for board “with family where French is spoken”. It’s time to catch the last of the season boat excursions to Queenscliff and Sorrento. A businessman offers Argus readers a useful service: “dead horses and cattle removed free of charge”. The football season raises questions of why the players haven’t enlisted but the popular matches continue and draw barrackers whose “remarks are frequent and painful and free”. The Fitzroy–Carlton match is a draw. For sports lovers there is lawn tennis, shooting, bowls, croquet, amateur athletics, baseball, golf. There are new plays in the theatres, new variety acts, lectures, concerts. Ships from Port Melbourne are sailing around Australia and around the world to San Francisco, Plymouth, London, Wellington, Falkland Islands, Java, Singapore, Port Moresby, Yokohama, Durban and Cape Town.
The names of two soldiers who died in Egypt, suffering from measles and pneumonia, have just been released by the Defence Department. Breaking war news that day includes a report on Allied naval action in the Dardanelles: “But what land army is to co-operate in the ultimate assault is not yet disclosed.”
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Just recently 322 Australian soldiers returned from Egypt—they were men who had sailed away in the second contingent the previous December. They have travelled home, away from the “stinks” of Alexandria, on the same ship which had led the flotilla in December—the SS Ulysses. The returnees included the sick and those injured in accidents and others being rejected for criminal or disciplinary reasons—in newspapers the names of the discipline cases are listed separately from the others. This passage of the Ulysses, as seen by the Argus, reads like the blurb for an unwritten history or work of fiction to place beside Angela Thirkell’s marvellous Trooper to the Southern Cross (1934)—a novel about the voyage of soldiers returning to Australia:
On account of the nature of its passenger-list, the ship in the early stages of the voyage became known as “the misery ship”, but, in spite of the fact that the diseased, the broken, the unfit, and the disgraced made up the bulk of the company, the trip proved one of the happiest possible, the returning soldiers spending most of their time in singing, sleeping, and eating.
Amongst the less happy travellers was a group “with venereal trouble and syphilis [who] will be detained by authorities until they are no longer a menace to the community”. Four men “mentally affected were also placed on board. They were kept under surveillance constantly.” The discipline cases were paroled when at sea and worked their way back.
On this same Saturday venereal disease and soldiers are on the minds of the social workers at Truth who complained that “these ‘delicate’ subjects are not brought into the limelight, and unwary and unsophisticated youth and young men pay the price of their ignorance”. Truth also defended the reputations of the distant boys:
The Australian soldiers (last heard of in Egypt) are highly indignant of the reports that have been broadcast regarding them kicking over the traces and playing old Harry in general in Pharoah Land. In writing, one of them states that, beyond riding a camel occasionally into a private bar and calling for a whisky and soda from its hump, or giving cause for a search party to be sent to yank them back to camp from the chateau of some interesting French lassie, or getting tight on special occasions and endangering their lives by scaling the Pyramids, they haven’t done a single thing to bring odium upon themselves. Certainly a New Zealander in a festive moment lifted the veil off a passing Egyptian girl, but otherwise they have done nuffin.
That evening Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher was a guest of the annual Eight Hour Day banquet. Elsewhere, at the pictures, West’s were turning away hopeful patrons from their sold-out screenings of the Italian epic film Cabira. It is screened as a full orchestra plays background music, and presents dramatic representations of Etna erupting, the storming of Carthage and the Punic War—the latter was the highlight for one critic: “It is in those days of war that the wonder of Hannibal leading his legions across the Alps can be even more appreciated than before. As his army is seen winding through ice and snow (and the scene is beautifully tinted) wonder never ceases.”
In Sydney there has been a military parade and the governors of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales are preparing to visit the Blue Mountains and the Jenolan Caves while the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, is taking the night express (change at Albury) for his return to Melbourne.
Sunday, April 25: a quiet, ordinary day except perhaps if you were one of the Catholic kids at Gisborne in the Macedon Ranges who was confirmed that day by Archbishop Mannix. For most people perhaps an ordinary, dullish Melbourne Sunday with midday dinner of roast with gravy, peas, pumpkin, potatoes and tea and dessert—then a good lie down through the afternoon until tea time.
Monday, April 26: From eight o’clock crowds are heading into the city for the procession which will begin at Trades Hall and proceed to the Exhibition Building. The crowds are large though numbers are slightly down on previous years. Some workers are now overseas while others may be in the country looking for work. Even with lower numbers the extra trains bringing people into the city are packed. No one yet knows of the Australian landing at Gallipoli.
At ten o’clock the march, with bands, begins. There are politicians (of course), baby carriage makers, carters and drivers, tobacco workers—their banner shows Sir Walter Raleigh enjoying a puff while the cigar makers carry a huge cigar—quarrymen, wharf labourers, hawkers and dealers, sauce and pickle workers, pastry cooks, glass bottle blowers, lift attendants, hairdressers and wig makers, bill posters, felt hat trimmers and straw hatters. The rain holds off. Horses draw the big, colourful union banners. There is an old-fashioned “steamer” fire engine, the grocery workers have a moving grocery shop and throw out samples into the crowds, there are many fine new banners, the tinsmiths are led by two knights in shining tin armour, the popular cordite workers have a band and include a marching group of young women workers in their white coats.
Possibly among the 170 storemen and packers is my uncle, Bill Beazley. My mother’s brother is thirty-seven years old—he is much older than her and is the eldest child of my grandfather’s first of three marriages (including a shotgun ceremony aged seventy-five). A married man, Bill Beazley works as a storeman at the Mutual department store, opposite Flinders Street Station. This is the last time he will celebrate the Eight Hour Day holiday, for within a year he will be dead. He is not a soldier, yet when he dies his death will attract more attention than most of the 60,000 Australians who died during the Great War.
His story is simple and brutal. Travelling home from work at eight o’clock on a Wednesday evening the following January, he had found a place in the open air on one of the outward-facing seats of the cable tram dummy when it was struck going uphill by a Carlton and United Breweries delivery lorry travelling downhill. The impact was so violent that he was thrown to the roadway and under the tram wheels, which severed his right foot above the ankle and badly crushed the left. Fully conscious, he was rushed to Melbourne Hospital. Despite the amputation of his left foot he did not survive. He died in January 1916, just weeks before the Australians and New Zealanders withdrew from Gallipoli. The inquest verdict was manslaughter by the lorry driver.
For the crowds that followed the procession to the Exhibition Building there was a program of sporting events with athletics and bicycle races, and a musical recital in the main hall. The Eight Hour Day anniversary was also celebrated with more country race meetings, cheap bay trips, matinees, an Irish concert at the Masonic Hall and an operatic evening at the Athenæum. That night there was some violence in the crowded city streets as several men were robbed and assaulted. There was the usual procession of prostitutes and probably a flutter of “queans” on the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets; their presence had lately been noticed and complained of by Truth. After the crowds left the city on overcrowded trains there was a robbery at the Trades Hall. Thieves stole four hundred pounds after forcing a window in the ground floor offices of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters—an inside job?
Among the 11,164 marchers that day some had worn khaki. Young enlisted men were walking with their workmates for the last time before being sent overseas. Other young men who had not joined the forces were criticised in letters to editors for their lax behaviour. Signing himself One Of The Unfortunates, a young man presented his defence: “I have to support my mother, who is a widow, but in spite of this I intended to enlist, but was informed that I would not be accepted on account of not having sufficient teeth.” For the Great War, good health was necessary to be killed or maimed or to breathe in the “asphyxiating gas” the Germans were reportedly using. In George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, the narrator recalls his post-war childhood: “Jack and I must have spent a good part of our boyhood in the fixed belief that grown-up men who were complete were pretty rare beings—complete, that is, in that they had their sight or hearing or all their limbs.”
Tuesday, April 27: That Australians were involved was still not known even as the Argus reported that a “general attack upon the Dardanelles by the Allied fleet was resumed on Sunday. The disembarkation of the army was covered by the fleet, and began before sunrise at various points on the Gallipoli Peninsula.”
The Town Hall is packed out that evening for a grand concert, organised by Madame Nellie Melba, in aid of the Belgian Fund. She performs four songs and there is patriotic music and singing and loyal speeches. The walls of the auditorium are hung with fabric—the black, red and yellow colours of Belgium—and the stage is covered in gum leaves. When the Governor-General arrives with his wife and staff the audience thunders out the national anthem—“God Save the King”. Melba also acts as auctioneer in the selling of Allied flags: “Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to try and sell all these flags. I want a great deal of money from you.” She succeeds. When two small Australian flags sell for only £60 and £40 she says, “Forty pounds for Australia! Why, the Germans would give more than that.” The evening raises over £6100.
Wednesday, April 28: Finally Australia learned of the Gallipoli landings. Given the floods of oratory and prose that have accompanied Gallipoli, the breaking of the news was gloriously and dramatically laconic. That afternoon at about three o’clock, Labor member Frank Anstey asked a question in the federal House of Representatives:
I ask the Assistant Minister of Defence whether he is aware that a statement has appeared to the effect that the Allied Forces, under Sir Ian Hamilton, have landed in the Dardanelles, and whether he has authority for saying that the Australian troops form part of the general’s command?
Jens Jensen, the Assistant Minister (Defence Minister George Pearce was a senator) replied, “Information has been received that a portion of the soldiers who were recently in Egypt has been sent across to the Dardanelles.”
Mr Littleton Ernest Groom (Liberal Protectionists): “A portion of the Australian force?”
Mr Jensen: “Yes.”
Sunday, May 1: News of the landing at Gallipoli has sobered Australia with the reality of casualty lists the country will live with for over three more years. The previous day the first partial lists of the dead and wounded had been published. Further names were released during the day after families were contacted, and the Argus prepared a special Sunday edition.
That morning there was a musical service at Scots Church in Collins Street. In the church built by her father Melba sang “Magdalen at Heaven’s Gate”—the occasion and the song were very different from her performance in a patriotic context just days before. The poem by Henry Kingsley had been arranged for Melba by Liza Lehmann and was recorded by her in America in 1913. The simple, sober and striking text with a refrain of “Let her in! Let her in!” ends with the opening of Michael’s gate into Paradise—“And Magdalen went in.” In the emotions of that week it must have been an extraordinary experience, for performer and congregation, and understandable that the Argus reporter should write, “It was a grand cry to heaven.”
After the city church services many people walked to the Argus building instead of returning home. Dinner for many may have been late that day. The crowd waiting for the special edition soon blocked the road. When the copies appeared their mood was sombre. There were no scenes of emotional distress, as the families affected had been previously advised and their grieving was being done privately. A photo outside the newspaper office shows serious faces as some stand about and others are carefully scanning the open pages. Inside the newspaper office the scene was more animated as the newsboys and suburban newsagents collected their stocks of papers. And then it was all over: “the crowd quietly melted away, and the ringing cry of the newsboys could be heard echoing through the quiet streets selling their papers to the casual passers-by”.
A week in our history with a soaring Melba song and the cries of the street boys, often from the slums, and perhaps my father among them—these are not images or a soundtrack often recalled by modern Anzac-haters.
Source: Trove and the access it offers to the Argus, Australasian, Age and Truth for April 1915