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Thursday 24 March, 2016
Rural Australia fascinates us and is a seductive subject for popular Great War narratives and iconography. Think, for example, of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) and the recentThe Water Diviner (2014) of Russell Crowe. In both films the digger protagonists are boys from the farm and from the peaceful if harsh spaces of Australia’s immense interior. Yet paradoxically, the histories of Australia in the Great War have focused on metropolitan sources and given much less attention to the rural experience at home and on the battle front. I agree with historian Michael McKernan, who in 1980 suggested that, for rural Australia, the War was ‘a different war’.
Serious exploration of this ‘difference’ is more recent with the work of John McQuilton (for north-east Victoria, 2001); for SA by Peter Donovan (2011, on Kapunda) and Philip Payton (in 2012, on Moonta), who build on Jenny Stock’s research of 1978 (on the rural response to conscription).
Brothers Sidney and Stanley King from southern Yorke Peninsula came to my attention through my wife’s family history. First generation, native-born Australians of Cornish immigrants, the King family had been among the first pioneer farmers to arrive on the Peninsula in the 1870s. Both brothers enlisted in the 43rd Battalion in April 1916 and fought in France and Flanders in 1917 and 1918. Their personal experiences of the War are reflected in Sidney’s war diary of 1917, and in their letters, photographs and artefacts lovingly preserved by Sidney’s descendants. Their community’s experience is amply reflected in the local newspapers, The Pioneer and The Clarion News (Yorketown). On the basis of these documents, McKernan was correct: it was indeed ‘a different war’ for rural Australia.
What made the battlefront different was the comforting fraternity of familiar faces. ‘A fellow sees some rotten sights’, wrote King, as indeed he might after Messines and Ypres; but he also saw people from Yorke Peninsula whom he knew and whose families were on intimate terms with his own, or were part of townships he frequented for work and play. These men sought each other out among the myriad battalions of the Empire and along the trench lines. They enquired about each other’s fates, looked after each other’s interests and well-being, accompanied each other at Pierrot shows and shared the dubious experiences of French estaminets (cheap bar/cafés) for their beer and interminable helpings of eggs and chips. They went on furloughs together to Paris or Nice. The letters to and from home are replete with references to Peninsula soldiers and their families; about the goings-on in the townships and farms; about the weather and the rains, or lack of it. More interestingly, Sidney and Stanley frequently observe French farms and farming practices with bemused curiosity or stunned surprise, and compare them to those of their far more extensive holdings around Curramulka and Minlaton. Thus, their mateship was rooted in the personal relationships of home, and their farming origins had an important impact on their experience.
The same can be said of the home front. Adelaide had its parades and rallies, of course; but in smaller communities similar events, held in fields, barns and Institutes, were more intense. People knew each other. Families were all-too-familiar with each other’s social standing and history. Classes were less separate, economic interdependence more crucial. Relationships were therefore significantly more personal. This conditioned the war experience. Events like farewells, coming homes and torchlight processions included a greater mix of occupations and interests. The ambient Germanophobia reflected in the pages of the Pioneer in 1916 would target fellow townsfolk and former family friends and the social pressure to enlist could be much more powerful than in the cities. Social isolation is less bearable in country towns. The young women of Moonta Mines and Yorketown who were enjoined by recruiters to wear buttons shunning the shirker could make life very unpleasant for any irresolute young man.
Of course, rural SA was not an undifferentiated block, all of one mind. This is amply demonstrated by the responses to major events like conscription on which Peninsula townships took vastly different positions, with significant variations from the State averages. The building of memorials after 1919 was also one that divided townships and districts and reflect different social values within the Peninsula as well as vis-à-vis Adelaide.
We have much more to learn about SA’s response to the Great War and especially about the rural experience of the War both in the trenches and at home. This ‘different war’ merits greater attention, and ought not to be left solely to the imagination of filmmakers.