Ministering Angels, the Camden District Red Cross, 1914-1945.
Author Ian Willis
Publisher: Camden Historical Society
Ministering Angels ‘is an example of innovative and groundbreaking work in local history, and succeeds in demonstrating a new way of linking detailed local studies to larger themes in Australian history’. Dr Emma Grahame (Editor, Australian Feminism: A Companion, OUP, 1998. Editor, Dictionary of Sydneyhttp://www.dictionaryofsydney.org, 2007-2012)
Ministering Angels is a peer-review publication that tells the story of conservative country women doing their patriotic duty in an outpost of the British Empire. From 1914 Camden district women joined local Red Cross branches and their affiliates in the towns and villages around the colonial estate of the Macarthur family at Camden Park.
They sewed, knitted and cooked for God, King and Country throughout the First and Second World Wars, and during the years in-between. They ran stalls and raffles, and received considerable community support through cash donations from individuals and community organisations for Red Cross activities.
Using the themes of soldier and civilian welfare, patriotism, duty, sacrifice, motherhood, class and religion, the narrative explores how the placed-based nature of the Red Cross branch network provided an opportunity for the organisation to harness parochialism and localism for national patriotic purposes.
The work shows how a local study links the Camden district Red Cross with the broader issues within Australian history and debates involving local history, philanthropy, feminism, conservatism, religion and other areas, while at the same time illustrating the multi-layered nature of the issues that shape global, national and regional history that can impact rural volunteering.
The book delves into the story of how Camden’s Edwardian women, the Macarthur Onslows and others of their ilk, provided leadership at a local, state and national level and created ground-breaking opportunities that empowered women to exercise their agency by undertaking patriotic activities for the first time.
In their wake Camden women created the most important voluntary organisation in district history, a small part of the narrative of the Australian Red Cross, arguably the country’s most important not-for-profit organisation. Their stories were the essence of place, and the success of the district branches meant that over time homefront volunteering became synonymous with the Red Cross.
Ministering Angels is a local Red Cross study of volunteering in war and peace that provides a small window into the national and transnational perspectives of one of the world’s most important humanitarian organisations.
The Anzac story has been a central part of the Australian cultural identity for over a century and the contradictions that emerged around it have shown no sign of going away. Historians have been unpacking the meaning of Anzac for decades and seem to no closer to any definitive meaning.
Yet for one old gentlemen at the inaugural lecture in Knowledge Series of the University of Wollongong Alumni Dr Jen Roberts was ‘a brave lady’ to ‘present the truth’ about the Anzac story in her evocative lecture ‘Men, myth and memory’. The Alumni audience was a mix of ages, and interests and included past military personnel.
Robert’s powerful presentation left none of the alumnus present in any doubt about the contested nature of Anzac and that there is far from just one truth. Anzac is a fusion of cultural processes over many decades and it has been grown into something bigger than itself.
The Anzac acronym, meaning Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, was first used by General Sir William Birdwood and its legal status was confirmed by the Australian Government in 1916. Anzac has survived its 1914 imperial connotations, the 1960s social movements and its supporters have successfully broadened its meaning to embrace all Australian conflicts, including peace missions. Some argue that this has created a dark legacy for current serving military personnel, while others choose to take cheap pot shots at those who question the orthodoxy. The Anzac story needs to be inclusive and not exclusive, and while the current service personnel are the custodians of the Anzac story it can sometimes be a heavy responsibility.
The Anzac story is ubiquitous across Australia and is embedded in the heart and soul of every community in the country, especially in the first half of the 20th century. Yet within this narrative there are contradictions and tensions and one of those is related to modernism. The war that spawned Anzac was a product on industrial modernism, yet at the same time causing the catastrophic destruction. Anzac shrines of commemoration and remembrance are a product of Interwar modernism, particularly the work of Rayner Hoff. Yet these same artists were supporters of Sydney bohemianism with its anti-war sentiments, complicated by tensions created by other forms of global modernism particularly in Europe. Other contradictions range across issues related to gender, militarism, nationalism, racism, homophobia, and a host of other areas.
Roberts makes the point that the Anzac mythology and iconography points to Australian exceptionalism and then neatly outlined how this is not the situation. She analysed the horrors of war and how this is played out within the Anzac story.
The tension within the meaning of Anzac, according to Roberts, is represented by the official state driven narrative stressing the honour, duty and sacrifice through commemoration, remembrance and solemnity, while on the hand there is the unofficial story of the digger mythology. The digger is not a professional soldier, he is egalitarian, loyal to mates and a larrikin – a good all-round Aussie bloke.
The official/digger binary highlights the contradictions with the Anzac tradition and its meaning for the military personnel, past and present. In 1941 an 18 year old country lad called Bruce Guppy from the New South Wales South Coast volunteered for service with the 7th Australian Light Horse. Guppy volunteered because his brothers had joined up and the military looked to have better prospects than working as a dairy hand. Gunner BW Guppy had little time for jingoism or nationalism as a laconic sort of fellow and stated ‘life is what you make it’. He was a yarn-spinning non-drinking, non-smoking, non-gambling larrikin, who saw action in the 1942 Gona-Buna Campaign in New Guinea and later trained as a paratrooper. His anti-war views in later years never stopped him from attending every Sydney Anzac Day March with his unit, 2/1 Mountain Battery, and the camaraderie they provided. A lifetime member of the RSL he never discussed his wartime service with his family, until I married his daughter.
Guppy had five brothers who saw active service in the Pacific conflict, with one brother’s service in BCOF in Japan cited in Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine. Guppy would not call himself a hero, yet willing participated in Huskisson’s Community Heroes History Project in 2007. Guppy was something of a bush poet and in 1995 wrote in a poem called ‘An Old Soldier Remembers’, which in part says:
‘Memories of those dark days
Come floating back through the haze.
My memory goes back to my mother’s face
Saddened, yes – but filled with grace.
The heartache for mothers – we will never know
For it was for them we had to go.’
So it surprised no-one when Bruce Guppy made the national media in 2013 when he handed Alice Guppy’s Mother’s Badge and Bar to the Australian War Memorial. Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson was moved on his death in 2014 and personally thanked the family for his ‘wonderful’ contribution to the nation.
For Guppy Anzac Day embraced both meanings expressed by Roberts: The official commemorative remembering; and the larrikin enjoying the company of his mates. The meaning of the Anzac story has changed during Bruce Guppy’s lifetime and the experiences of his digger mates who served in the Second World War.
While many lay claim ownership of the cultural meaning of Anzac, Roberts contends that the organic growth of the Dawn Service is an example of the natural growth of Anzac and its sensibilities for different parts of Australian society.
Roberts examined the two aspects of the Anzac mythology – the site and the myth. She maintained that many lay claim ownership of the cultural meaning of Anzac and pondered the meaning of the slaughter on the Western Front. She asked the audience to reflect on the words of Eric Bogles song And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda covered by an American Celtic band the Dropkick Murphys. This contrasted with the opening statement by an Alumni organiser, who was ex-military, that the outstanding achievements of the 1/AIF which are celebrated in military training in Australia are: the withdrawl at Gallipoli; and the last mounted cavalry charge at Beersheba. While recent research about Gallipoli POWs from Turkish sources has shown a different side of the story of the conflict.
The Gallipoli peninsula is a site of pilgrimages from Australia, while being the only locality in modern Turkey with an English name. Roberts compared the small group who went to the 1965 50th anniversary with the lavish all expenses tour of the 1990 75th anniversary sponsored by the Hawke Labor Federal Government. She maintains this was the start of the contemporary pilgrimage industry. Roberts drew on personal experience and related anecdotes from her five visits to Gallipoli peninsular with UOW students who took the UOW Gallipoli Study Tour, with her mentor, friend and sage UOW Associate-Professor John McQuilton (recently retired).
Gallipoli pilgrimages have grown as popular interest in the First World War increased as family historians started searching for own digger-relative, hopefully finding the cache derived from finding a connection with the Gallipoli campaign. The Howard Government promoted soft patriotism, and this was followed by later conservative governments which promoted official celebrations of the Centenary of Anzac. The official involvement of government has increased the jingoism of these anniversaries and the noise around the desire for the cultural ownership of the Gallipoli site, to the point where the Howard Government attempted to direct the Turkish Government how to do civil engineering roadworks at Gallipoli.
Brand Anzac, which Roberts dislikes, has been used to solidify national identity and spawned Anzacary and the commodification of the Anzac spirit, with souvenirs and other ephemera, as well as jingoism and Australian exceptionalism from the national to the local community level. Anzac mythology and memory tends to forget the grotesque side of war and its effects. First World War servicemen suffered shell shock (PTSD), and took to alcohol, gambling, domestic violence, divorce and suicide, and became the responsibility of those on the homefront.
The Anzac mythology disempowers and marginalises people, it is about nationalism, jingoism, racism, and stereotypes, while offering hope, glory and answers for others. The Guppy brothers and their comrades felt they understood the meaning of Anzac. Roberts maintains that the ideas around the Anzac story belong to everyone and, while offering contradictions for some and realities for others, it is these members of the Australian community who need to make a choice about the meaning of Anzac.
By 1918 the war had been dragging on into its fourth year. Soldier casualties were large and still growing. Patriotic fundraising was a major focus for those at home and the Australia Day fundraisers had been important since their establishment in 1915.
The first Australia Day was held in 1915 on the 30 July as a fundraising for the Gallipoli casualties as they returned to Australia. January 26 was known as ‘Anniversary Day’, ‘Foundation Day’ and ‘Regatta Day’. Australia Day was not fixed on January 26 until 1935 when there was agreement of all states and territories and the imminent approach of the 1938 Sesquicentennial celebrations.
Australia Day in 1918 in Camden
In early 1918 Camden Red Cross workers supported the national Australia Day appeal, which aimed ‘to relieve the sufferings of Australia’s men who are suffering that Australia shall be free’. (Camden News 18 April 1918) Camden mayor George Furner called a public meeting on 23 March at a not so well attended meeting of the Camden Red Cross sewing circle. An organising committee was formed of the Camden Red Cross and council officers. The fundraising activities were to include the sale of badges and buttons, a Red Cross drive, a public subscription, a prayer service, a lecture and a door-knock of the town area.
The Australian Day activities started with the united prayer service (2 April) held at the Forester’s Hall in Camden run by the Protestant clergy. It started at 11.30am with Rev. Canon Allnutt from St Paul’s church at Cobbitty, Rev CJ King from St John’s church in Camden and Rev GC Percival from the Camden Methodist Church. All businesses in Camden were shut for the duration of the service and there was ‘an attentive and earnest gathering both town and country’. (Camden News, 4 April 1918)
A public lecture was presented by Senior Chaplain Colonel James Green (8 April) held at the Foresters’ Hall on his experiences on the Somme battlefield in France. The Red Cross ‘drive’ started the same week (9 April) and resulted in the sale of Red Cross badges to the value of £54 with only 200 left to be sold before the market day (23 April).
A Red Cross market day was held on 30 April and the Camden press maintained that ‘with so many gallant sons in the battlefields; her women folk have since the very outbreak of war have nobly done their part of war work’. Flags and bunting were draped around the bank corner and were supplemented with Allies’ flags and lines of Union Jacks in the ‘finest’ local display and music was provided by the Camden District Band. The displays were opened by Enid Macarthur Onslow and in her words touched a ‘solemn’ note when she spoke of the ‘sacrifices mothers and women’ towards the war effort and the responsibilities of those who stayed at home. The whole event was a huge success and raised £225, which made a cumulative total of £643 in the appeal to that point.
The Camden Red Cross branch then conducted a raffle, with first prize being an Australian Flag autographed by Earl Kitchener. The Camden press maintained
that if you haven’t got a ticket in the Kitchener Flag yet you will have one by the end of May unless you hide from the Red Cross ladies in town. They want to sell a lot and they are not going to let you go until they have extracted a two shilling piece from you. (Camden News, 9 May 1918)
And the reporter was not exaggerating. The total effort of the Camden Red Cross for the Australia Day appeal came to £748, which also included donations from Sibella Macarthur Onslow of £100, Mrs WH Faithfull Anderson of £25 and £100 from the Camden Red Cross. (Camden News, April and May 1918) [In todays worth that is about $100,000 from a population of around 1700]
Australia Day at Menangle and Narellan
The Menangle Red Cross decided that ‘a big effort’ was needed and a garden fete (18 May) was organised by Helen Macarthur Onslow, Enid’s daughter, at her home Gilbulla. The fete was opened in front of a large crowd by the wife of the New South Wales Governor, Lady Margaret Davidson. The New South Wales governor, Sir Walter Davidson, presented two engraved watches to two local returned soldiers. The fete raised a total of £85 and the total Menangle Red Cross collections were well over £100.
The Narellan Red Cross put on a concert at the Narellan Parish Hall (27 April) and tickets were 2/- and 1/- and raised £51. Together the sale of Red Cross Drive Badges and donations the branch raised £80. Out at the Douglas Park Red Cross the branch ran a social and raised £22. (Camden News, April and May 1918)
Learn more about local Red Cross activities during the First World War.
A little known military facility in the local area during the First World War was the Australian Light Horse Camp based on the Menangle Park racecourse in 1916.
Drunken riots at Liverpool
The establishment of the camp was the result of drunken unrest amongst the troops at the Casula and Liverpool military camps in February 1916 that was later called the Battle of Central Station. These events also contributed to the success of the campaign for 6.00pm closing in New South Wales that was not repealed until 1955.
After the soldier riots the Casula camp was closed and the ‘troops in training’ were distributed to other camps, including one at Menangle Park in February 1916.
Menangle race track
Military authorities leased the race track off the Menangle Racing Club.
The racetrack was first surveyed by military authorities in January 1916, although Campbelltown Showground had been inspected in September 1915.
Poor conditions in camp
The conditions of the Menangle camp in March 1916 were less than adequate. One correspondent to the Sydney press complained the camp was unprepared and the men had to grub out stumps and prepare the site for a permanent camp.
The writer complained that the men were busy on labouring duties when they could have been busy doing military training.
It would have been more effective, the correspondent felt, for a private contractor to clear the camp site.
The ‘discontentment’ amongst volunteers was caused by ‘wasters’ who, apparently, were quite happy for labouring duties to continue for up to 6 months.
Training involved forced marches in the local area. In mid-1916 over 1000 men, accompanied by over 100 horses, marched to Camden through Campbelltown on manoeuvres headed by a military band.
They were marched to Camden showground where they were dismissed for an hour where they had lunch.
The Camden press reported that it was an imposing spectacle having such a large number of troops marching through the town area. The mayor, GF Furner, welcomed the troops to Camden and he then hosted the officers at lunch.
According to the notes on the photograph:
Officers of the Light Horse Camp, Menangle. European War, November, 1917.
This photo was donated from “Camelot”. The Lt Clem Bate on the left end of the middle row was a friend of the Anderson Family and he probably gave them a copy. He was the uncle of Mr Jeff Bates who was an MHR for the Camden area for many years (as well as previously an MLA). The Lt R.V. Moore in the back row is Mr Val Moore of Glenmore, Camden. The Lt Veness in the back row is the other local in the photo. He came from Menangle.
In June 1916 reinforcements for the Camel Corps were posted to Menangle camp for training and exercises. The Sydney press stated the Abdul Wade of Bourke had lent 6 camels to the army for training exercises at the camp for members of the Camel Corps. Four of the animals were for riding, while the other two were pack animals. They were sent to Menangle camp by rail from Bourke under the care of an Afghan camel driver.
The Australian War Memorial states that the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC) was formed in January 1916 in order to deal with the revolt of pro-Turkish Senussi tribesmen in Egypt’s Western Desert. The first four companies were recruited from Australian infantry battalions recuperating after Gallipoli. Four battalions were eventually formed up and units saw action in Palestine in 1917 and 1918. Units were disbanded in mid-1918.
In July 1916 a further 1000 men from the Australian Light Horse and Trench Mortar Batteries at Menangle Camp did a route march through Camden. They stopped for lunch, after which they gave a demonstration of high explosives, grenades and bomb throwing for the amusement of the local community.
In July 1916 Colonel Lenohan, the officer in charge, stated the military band played at the camp every Sunday afternoon. He reported in the Camden press that he would welcome visitors and he offered to show them around the camp.
In early 1916 the Menangle Red Cross decided to donate a badly needed hospital tent to the Australian Light Horse at a of cost £34. It measured 20 x 30 feet (6×10 metres) and could be partitioned off and used for several purposes, or used as a whole for a camp hospital with a capacity of 14 beds.
The press report noted that it would ‘prove a boon to those recovering from sickness, or to any one ‘off colour’ and in need of a quiet rest and medical attention’. The cost of the tent ‘considerably diminish[ed]’ the cash reserves of the small Menangle Red Cross branch but was felt that it was greatly needed by the men.
In May 1916 Brigadier General Ramaciotti inspected the camp and stated that there was a fine billiard room for 10 tables under construction and a well-appointed canteen.
The Camden and Menangle Red Cross branches supplied the camp hospital with eggs, cakes, scones, pyjamas, hand towels, pillow slips, sheets, towels, and cakes of soap in 1916 and 1917.
The men’s Red Cross branches at Menangle and Camden sent across trays and bed rests that they constructed at their carpentry workshops.
As the hostilities on the Western Front wound down there was less need for training facilities and Menangle camp closed in May 1918.