Posted By Fran Farrall on June 24, 2011
There are a number of social and economic issues that arose in rural areas and communities during the years of the First World War that went beyond the change of social dynamics with the departure of the men for military service.
The difficulties faced by a rural community is illustrated in the well documented shire of Yackandandah, in north-eastern Victoria. The economy of this region was based on the mining of gold, tin and molybdenite which is used in the production of hardened steel and mixed farming consisting of beef, diary, sheep and wool, and wheat. Within the district of Yackandandah were the areas of Kirby Flat where 83% of the men who enlisted were from just four families; in Dederang 53% of the men who enlisted were from four families of the area; while in Bruarong 40% of the men who enlisted from the one family; from the district as a whole 301 men enlisted and of these 249 served overseas, and proportionally this was 15% of the male population, and 40% of the eligible men. The loss of these experienced and skilled agricultural workers resulted in a fear of economical hardship.
Economically with the outbreak of war local wool sales were suspended for two months and diary products bound for England were delayed in port. However as Australia was a major source of food and raw materials for Britain and thus Australian agriculture was considered as a major contributor to the allied war effort. The Commonwealth Government in 1915 established a marketing scheme that guaranteed the sale of the wheat harvest at a minimum sale price as well as the sales of meat and diary, while the entire wool clip of 1916 was claimed on the behalf of the British Government at pre-war market prices. Domestically the market value of animals also rose noticeably during the years of WW1: bullocks were valued at ₤11/12/- in 1913 and rose to ₤21/3/- just two years later; lambs in 1913 had the market value of 17/3 and by 1918 had risen to ₤1/8/7 ; with diary cows rising from ₤ 9/8/- in 1913 to ₤20/2/- in 1918. During the war years the market value of the mineral molybdenite reached ₤100/ton, and wages that were available within the mining industry were between ₤2/2/- and ₤3 per week, with engine drivers earning as much as ₤9/-/- per week, were an incentive for some men not to enlist as payment rates were on par with the Army.
Several factors contributed to an individual enlisting in the military, apart from patriotism for country, king and empire, an awareness of social obligation to protect ‘hearth and home’, were social pressure and economical need. Anonymity within a small rural community was impossible to achieve as it was general knowledge held by all regarding an individual’s age, martial status, religious beliefs, social ethics and the family’s situation, while it is with ease a scholar is able to establish the economic stimulation for enlistment. Regular employment in the rural sector was hard to obtain as property owners invested in the emerging farming technologies and machinery, added to this economic situation were the complexities of the drought that resulted in fewer possibilities for employment which in turn resulted in the Army being considered as a source of regular income. The personal desire for adventure born from the boredom that arose from the limited employment opportunities, the security of a regular wage higher than what was available in the rural sector; which had the maximum wage of ₤1/5/-, whereas in the Army the minimum pay was ₤2/2/-; and as in the case of the Bell Brothers an opportunity to redeem their reputations in the eyes of their local community for they both served time for the wounding of a bull.
As a strategy of compulsory conscription only ever had a dubious popularity within society, there were major differences between the urban rural perspectives and attitudes towards the debate of conscription which was the result of two factors. The first factor was that politicians failed to appreciate and understand the demands and requirements of the agricultural sector and rural communities which were hesitant to accept a further reduction in the source of manpower, which they considered a threat to their prime responsibility to feed and clothe both the men serving and the population of the nation. The voluntary system for enlistment was successful in rural Australia as it allowed for patriotism on one hand, yet was coupled with practicality on the other regarding the practical issues of maintaining successful agricultural operations to meet the needs of the markets both at home and abroad.In October 1916, and again in December 1917, Prime Minister Hughes sought through referendums the approval of the people to introduce conscription for military service, however on both occasions the policy, because of the numerous contributing factors and their interweaving nature, was ultimately defeated after giving rise to bitter and divisive public debate.
Within the social sphere of the wider community the ethnic group which attracted hostile attention was the largest non-British proportion of the population, the Germans. They had been able to maintain their cultural identity through the Lutheran Church, the establishment of their own schools and educational institutions and the settlement of townships, such as Handolf in South Australia. This negative perception of their German neighbours gave rise to social unease, if not unrest, in small rural communities.
Due to war time shortages there was an increase in the value of agricultural produce that resulted in an optimistic, yet unrealistic, outlook for post-war rural expansion, however the Government’s scheme to settle returned servicemen on alottments ultimately failed. Several contributing factors contributed to the failure of the scheme that included the falling market price, the want of working capital, the geography and climate of the sites chosen, agricultural choices and techniques used and the resulting soil erosion, the fertility and quality of the soil, the size of the alottments and finally the individual’s knowledge and education regarding the establishment and development of the properties. The failure of this scheme was the main contributing factor to the continuation of war-time economic stress in rural communities.
- Fry, Ken; Soldier Settlement and the Australian Agrarian Myth after the First World War; Labour History, Vol.48; 1985.
- McKernon, Michael; The Australian People and the Great War; Collins; Sydney; 1984.
- McQuilton, John; A Shire at War: Yackandandah, 1914-1918; Journal of the Australian War Memorial, Vol 11; 1987.
- A Rural Shire at War: Yackandandah and World War I (Chapter 16); Journal of the Australian War Memorial, Vol 11; 1987