“Shirkers, slackers and loafers” - part 3
JUST over one hundred years ago the first results of the conscription plebiscite were displayed showing the “No” vote ahead by 81,000 votes. At the end of the counting the country had rejected giving politicians the power to compel men to kill or be killed. The passion and raw emotions that had been unleashed elsewhere across the nation, however, failed to surface here in the district.
In late September, Euroa Council President George Wale, presided over the first public meeting called in support of the campaign. Numbers were down, attributed to the poor roads and weather.
There was no debate, nor rousing speeches. The small gathering passed a motion … the citizens of Euroa … believed the voluntary system had failed to provide the necessary reinforcements … declare their unswerving loyalty to the principle of conscription for over seas service and pledge themselves to use their utmost endeavours to secure a successful issue in the favour of same….
For the first time women were given a prominent role in a local campaign. Gordon Maxfield’s mother, wife of the dentist, and Mrs Marke were elected to the local National Referendum Committee along with Rev Garde, Cr Platt, Alfred Burton, James Phillips and C. Stedman.
The committee decided the rest of the Shire would be divided up and left to a local committee to canvas votes. There is no evidence these local committees were created.
Since the outbreak of the war women had played a politically passive, yet, supportive role. Along with the local branch of the Australian Women’s Native League, the Red Cross had taken the lead in fundraising and organising numerous patriotic functions.
Now, local branches of the Red Cross and the AWNL actively canvassed for the “Yes” vote.
For the first time there were more women than men on the electoral roll and as a consequence the government targeted women. If one group could tip the vote in the government’s favour it would be the mothers, wives and sweethearts of the men at the front.
Appeals were made to women in the form of “letters” from the Prime Minister.
“Now is the hour of your trial and opportunity! Will you be the proud mother of a nation of heroes, or stand dishonoured as mothers of a race of degenerates?
Prove that you are worthy to the mothers and wives of free men! Set the world a glorious example! Bid you men go forth to do battle of their country.”
A second meeting organised by George Wale was held on the 18th of October at the Euroa Public Hall. This time some sparkle returned and the packed hall responded on cue with cheers to key points made by Frank Clarke MLC. Clarke shared the podium with the local recruiting officer sergeant Clements. The meeting was held without any controversy.
At Violet Town matters were farcical. On Friday the 20th October it had been arranged for Mr Colin Campbell to speak on behalf of the “People’s Party”. The speaker didn’t show, nor was anyone prepared to take the podium in his place. The small crowd went home. So ended the Violet Town’s Shire involvement in one of the great political issues of the period.
Last minute appeals for a “Yes” vote appeared in the press. There was not one article in the any of the three papers against its introduction. The local result was predictable with a resounding “Yes”.
Yes Euroa 448 Euroa Sth 401 Violet Town 271 Violet Town Sth 121 Avenel Seymour Kilmore Heathcote Shepparton Mooroopna Tatura Yes 292 559 294 614 1729 440 571 No 284 215 243 76
But, the nation voted “No” and this result floored the patriots. Following the national rejection of conscription, Theo Ford took the unusual step of putting his name to an editorial. Surprisingly he accepted the result and posed the question of “What Next?” He foresaw the collapse of the government, but urged loyalists to accept the result without “quibble or reproach”.
There was a marked variation in the vote across the Goulburn Valley. Voting was not compulsory, registration was. No 328 687 477 977 900 186 371
Local conditions explain much of the variation. The people in Euroa and Violet Town Shires had strongly supported the war. The ‘Farewells’ and ‘Welcome Homes’ were treated with much pomp and ceremony. The district had thrown its weight behind the various recruitment campaigns, especially in July in 1915. While both Shires had a viable and strong timber industry, many of those employed were transient workers. The two Shires lacked any semblance of an industrial base, so union influence was minimal at best
What of the bitter Catholic and Protestant conflict? Except for an enclave at Miepoll there was no strong Irish Catholic element in the areas outside the three towns. Even in Euroa where the Catholic Church had solid numbers, the town supported the “Yes” case. While Catholic Archbishop Mannix supported the “No” cause, the only hint of sectarianism occurred at Shepparton where a leaflet denigrating the attitude of Catholics was reportedly circulated in Shepparton and “surrounding districts”. The Rev Father Hogan of St Brendan’s stated he had voted according to his conscious, and no more would be said. By October 1916, 130 local Catholics had enlisted, 32 of who had made the “ultimate sacrifice.”
The voting in France started on October 16th. The vote of the AIF was in favour of conscription. 72,399 for and 58,894 against. Figures can be deceptive though. It was understood those men on transports or in camp voted “Yes”.
Those who had seen battle or were on the front had voted “No”. Longwood born accountant, Gordon Maxfield, writing from behind the front line at Favrevil some months after the vote, had difficulty trying to explain why soldiers voted “No”. Gordon believed anyone who thought they could explain the vote was a “goat pure and simple….”
“There are about 77 reasons why they wouldn’t stand it. I will mention what I consider the most important. 1. Ignorance of the real situation 2. Lack of appreciation of Australia’s duty and responsibility and danger 3. Hatred of the word conscription 4. The labour principals of the huge number 5. Fear of bringing near and dear relatives and friends to share horrors which many consider well nigh unbearable
6. The totally erroneous belief that Australia had done her share and more
Gordon acknowledged the men were not influenced by any means to vote “No”.
“Men in ignorance, voted as their conscious directed them. The average soldier can not or will not realise that he is just as truly fighting for Australia here, as every Frenchman is fighting for France…”.
The brave accountant had just explained why he was fighting and was prepared to give his life. He sums up the attitude of most in the Euroa district. Just over a week later, tragedy occurred when Gordon was killed but this is a story for another time.
BLOOD VOTE: Posters like this one were commonplace during the referendum vote, warning voters against ‘condemning a man to death’ by voting ‘yes’ for conscription.