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Think Piece – South Australia’s Home front History

Thursday 5 November, 2015

Catherine Manning History SA_Edite_2As Maureen Leadbeater previously noted in her article about the origins of Violet Day the story of the women, children and men left behind in South Australia during the First World War is one that is less familiar to us, than that of those who served overseas. Despite the weight of coverage of First World War history as we navigate our way through the Anzac Centenary commemorations, this remains broadly true. Reading the papers of the time, however, there is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of those South Australians ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort.  These newspaper reports are full of lists of names showing how much money each has contributed, how many pairs of socks they have knitted, or in regional areas how many sheep, or fleeces, have been donated.

Activities such as knitting for the troops might by today’s standards be dismissed as ‘busy work’ designed to give comfort to those who took part. Doubtless it did, but knitting ‘comforts’ performed a very real and practical service during the First World War. Army kit did not extend to ‘comforts’ and soldiers were only issued with three pairs of socks, which didn’t stretch far in trench warfare. ‘Trench foot’ was not simply an unpleasant condition to be endured, it was a potentially disabling and serious physical injury caused by the damp conditions in which men on the front lived.  It’s no surprise then that many of the reports about servicemen being farewelled record a pair of socks presented among the gifts made by the local mayor or other dignitary presiding.

Fundraising was also a key activity for those on the home front. This included organising local fêtes, dances and concerts through to national scale fundraising efforts for the Red Cross or other organisations contributing support to the troops. Many of the activities were similar to pre-war events, but during the First World War they came with a patriotic label and were dedicated to fundraising in particular.  Wattle Day, for example, was first celebrated nationally on 1 September 1910. When war broke out in 1914 the efforts of Wattle Day were redirected towards raising money for the war effort through the sale of buttons, or badges, sprigs of wattle to wear, decoration of public buildings in wattle and planting of wattle trees at memorial sites.

New activities and commemorations began around this time too with Violet Day one of the notable events established in South Australia, continuing through to 1970.  The Cheer-Up Society was founded on this day (5 November) exactly one hundred years ago. It provided practical support that included provision of meals and a place for servicemen to go prior to departing, and upon returning from the front. The Schools Patriotic Fund, designed specifically to provide a focus for children’s contributions to the war effort, is another example from the many organisations which formed at this time.

The stories of these activities, undertaken in small urban and regional communities, are just as important as those on the national stage. The community exhibitions that have been part of First World War commemorations to date illustrate the strong community interest there is in the home front story. The City of West Torrens’ Cheer-Up Hut, At Home, In War: Unley 1914-1918 at Unley Museum and Homefront During Wartime at Mallala are just a few examples.

There are many more stories to tell about the home front during the First World War. It was an event that had a huge impact on our communities, and the after effects have continued to resonate through history. While the commemorations of 100 years since this tragic period in world history continue, and the men and women who served are being remembered, let us not forget the people here in South Australia.

Catherine is Curator, Online Programs at History SA where she develops website content for the SA History Hub, working with the Online Programs team to develop digital projects across South Australia’s museums. Catherine worked as a curator at the Migration Museum for eleven years. It was there that she developed a passion for community engagement, oral history and diverse interpretations of history.

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