The Queensland home front during the First World War

This blog post is part of a series of essays commissioned by Queensland State Archives and written by historian Brian Rough.

It would not be unreasonable to imagine that, as Australian soldiers marched off to war, they left behind them a home front which was politically homogeneous and uniformly resolute in its support of the troops it was sending to war. Yet this was not the case and Queensland in particular was in a state of political flux. With an increasingly active and unionised workforce, vocal and radical anti-war groups, and a change of government in 1915, the people of Queensland struggled to find a partisan approach towards the war. Despite these issues, the Queensland Government had a duty to support the war effort, to keep social conflict to a minimum, to provide reasonable living and working conditions for its citizens, and to look to the welfare of returned soldiers and families of soldiers who did not return.

As the most visible public servants across the state, the Queensland Police were intimately involved in government actions throughout the war. Additional duties were thrust upon them, even as the numbers decreased due to officers enlisting in the armed forces. These duties included enforcing some of the provisions of the National Security Regulations, and the War Precautions (Alien Registrations) Regulations. Police were required to maintain the internal security of the state and to administer support to the war effort and to recruitment. One of their earliest tasks was tracking members of the British Reserve Forces in Australia to notify them of their call-up on the outbreak of war. Foreign-born reservists of combatant counties were considered to be prisoners of war, and although they were paroled to move freely within the community, they had to regularly report to police.

Anti-German feeling led to a Cabinet direction in 1916 that persons of German or Austrian birth were not to be employed in the public service if there were British nationals available for the task. The 65 German-born Queensland police officers were not dismissed, though they were scrutinised by their senior officers. Throughout the war Queensland police were required to maintain secret surveillance on members of the Turkish, Syrian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Italian communities across the state. At the behest of the Queensland War Council, police also provided assessments of the moral character of soldiers’ wives who were receiving assistance.

Correspondence relating to the requisition of sea vessels for use in the war effort, 29 September - 6 November 1914
Correspondence relating to the requisition of sea vessels for use in the war effort, 29 September – 6 November 1914

The Queensland War Council and subsequent Local War Council Committees were established in 1915 principally to help recruit and provide support for returned soldiers and for the families of those who were disabled or killed in war. The Queensland War Council Chairperson was the Premier of Queensland. The council was the primary force in the repatriation of Queensland soldiers until the Federal Government established a similar entity in early 1918. In the early part of the war the council supported the establishment of the Anzac cottages and the tuberculosis home schemes. The Queensland Government’s Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act 1917 provided land and financial assistance for which all returned servicemen could apply. Another measure to support returned servicemen was the preferential employment scheme adopted by the Public Service Board.

Queensland did not require women to take employment in war industries as they had in Britain, and full-time employment for women did not significantly increase. Relatively small numbers of women were accepted as military nurses, and only after prolonged lobbying were the Voluntary Aid Detachments of the Red Cross able to send units to overseas hospitals. It was in voluntary organisations that women made their direct and most significant contributions to the war effort. These organisations took on the responsibility of providing comforts for sick and wounded soldiers here and abroad, and providing frontline troops with morale-building gifts and articles of clothing. The Red Cross Society began work almost immediately upon the declaration of war. From initial knitting circles, the scope of Red Cross support expanded rapidly to include teaching handcrafts to convalescent soldiers, mending hospital clothes and providing food and other necessary supplies to local and overseas military hospitals. So strong was the mobilisation of Red Cross ‘kitchen ladies’ that in addition to providing food for the Rosemount, Kangaroo Point and Lytton military hospitals, they were also able to supplement food to asylums, orphanages, and public hospitals. Other voluntary organisations – the National Council of Women (which was an amalgam of 41 other societies), the Queensland Soldier’s Comfort Fund, the Babies of the Allies Clothing Society, the Women’s Mutual Service Club, the Soldier’s Pastime Club, Sailor’s and Soldiers Residential Club, and the Christmas Box Fund to name but a few – provided similar services. The social and economic value of such voluntary work was considerable.

Queensland women also exercised their right to vote during the war years. The Military Service Referendum Act 1916 and the War Precautions (Military Service Referendum) Regulations 1917 were contentious, the debate concerning conscription dividing Australian society on religious and political grounds. Women rose to their feet to speak publicly in support or against the proposals. Both attempts to conscript men for military service were defeated. At the height of the second conscription referendum, the Queensland Government, which had a stated anti-conscription position, took the extraordinary step of stationing armed police on the Government Printing Office to prevent the Commonwealth Government censoring anti-conscription material.

Queensland society changed considerably during the war years. The strains on the local economy prompted the government to embrace the acquisition of state-owned industries in an effort to keep living standards affordable. This social experiment also divided the population, and, as the war drew to a conclusion, the state was no less polarised by political ideology. There was however, and arguably still is, an empathy shared for the survivors of Queensland’s 57,705 enlistees, for those who were killed, and for their families. This has manifested itself in many ways – in the erection of war memorials in many towns across the state, in the Anzac Day ceremonies that have been held annually for almost 100 years, and in the 2014 Anzac Centenary.

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3 Responses

  1. TR

    The Queensland War Council ‘Chairperson’? They didn’t have political correctness in 1915. It would have been Chairman – from the Latin “mannus” meaning “hands on.”

  2. Kate Howard

    I have found this to be most informative. My grandfather who did not enlist, kept a diary during 1916 which I have and which has some very poignant entries causing me to further investigate the climate in which he was living. Your blog has been most enlightening in that regard. Thank you.

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