About drglenndavies

Dr Glenn Davies is a teacher, author, republican activist, and historian. In any spare time, which seems increasingly rare, he is an occasional science fiction writer and reviewer, and has been an Aurealis Award Science Fiction Short Story Judge. He believes strongly in the epithet ‘publish or perish’ – no matter how constant and demanding the teaching load, it is vital, as historians, to be writing.

Queen’s Birthday – a public holiday without meaning

Queenslanders took the day off work today, not in recognition of their hard work, but to recognise a monarch who will most likely be sleeping through the public holiday held in her name.

Australian’s love their public holidays even if the reason for the occasion is a little vague. For goodness sake, we even have a public holiday in Melbourne for a horse race and in Brisbane for an agricultural show. Nevertheless, the Queen’s birthday purpose is the most vague of them all.

But where are the community events with Queenslanders feasting on finger sandwiches, washed down with a pot of Earl Grey tea, followed in the afternoon with re-watching The Crown. The lack of any public activity around the Queen’s Birthday Queen’s Birthday public holiday shows how the concept of monarchy is out-of-step with contemporary Australia. 

National Director of the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) Sandy Biar said the Queen’s official website indicates the date didn’t rate a mention at Buckingham Palace:

The head of our country should be someone who lives here, is proud to be an Australian and is in touch with Australians.

Apparently more than 5.1 million Australians holding a day in the Queen’s honour still isn’t enough to get the attention of Buckingham Palace. It’s time the day was set aside to honour those who would truly appreciate it instead, such as our frontline service men and women and volunteers”.

So, on the day more than 5.1 million Queenslanders acknowledge the ‘Birthday of the Sovereign’, the Queen and Buckingham Palace appear not to be aware about it at all. Despite an entire day being set aside in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, Queensland’s tribute – the state named in honour of her great-great-grandmother – seems to have gone entirely unnoticed.

It has always seemed absurd that Australians acknowledge the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II at a completely different time to her actual birthday. Around Australia in 2020, the Queen’s Birthday public holiday will be held on the second Monday in June — except in WA on Monday, 30 September and in Queensland on Monday, 5 October,

Queen Elizabeth II will turn 94 on Tuesday, 21 April 2020. You have to wonder when will she be allowed to put up her feet? Most 93-year-olds are long retired, but not that trouper the Queen. My grandmother will be 95 later this year. She’s a hardy soul, but there’s no way she would be up to the frantic pace needed to be a world leader. Even though retirement plans for many people keep going further and further beyond 60, Queen Elizabeth II has still well and truly exceeded this. Prince Philip was able to officially retire in August 2017 at 96 after his dramatic announcement of his intention to retire from active royal duties in May 2018. So surely it’s time for the British monarch to step down and start having afternoon naps.

After the election of the LNP Newman Government in 2012, until its shock electoral loss in January 2015, there was a steady outpouring of ideological revisionism aimed at bolstering the concept of monarchy in Queensland. During 2011, there had been widespread consultation by the Bligh Labor Government on changing the public holiday system in Queensland. It was agreed, in 2012, that Labour Day would remain in May and the Queen’s Birthday public holiday would move from June to the first weekend in October, while retaining a one-off Queen’s Diamond Jubilee public holiday in June 2012. However, Australia completely ignored the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

All this was thrown out the window later in 2012 when legislation was passed through the Queensland Parliament by the newly elected LNP Newman Government to move the 2013 Labour Day public holiday from the historically traditional 1 May to the first Monday in October and the Queen’s Birthday public holiday back to its previous June timing. The change in attitude towards the public holiday timetabling suggested the Newman Government was determined to take a conservative monarchical stand. With the election of the Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland in 2015, one of the first actions was changing the Queen’s Birthday public holiday for 2016 to the first Monday in October and restoring the Labour Day public holiday to the first Monday in May. With this move Queensland had become a little less ‘Queenie’, but no one seemed to have noticed the move.

Surely, this must be the most irrelevant and outdated of all public holidays? Although the Queen’s Birthday public holiday is observed as a mark of respect to the Sovereign, there are never any public celebrations or community engagement around it whatsoever. The Queen’s Birthday holidays don’t remind us of anything good about our country. At worst, they tell us Australia’s head of state gets the job by inheritance and that Australians are subjects of a foreign crown — the opposite of democracy and liberty. The lack of any public activity in Australia around the Queen’s Birthday holiday is a clear example of how much the entire concept of monarchy is out-of-step with contemporary Australia. It appears Australians will turn out and show respect to the Queen when she is here but when she is not, then the concept of monarchy becomes irrelevant. Australians may like the celebrity surrounding the monarch and the royal family when they visit Australia but are then totally uninterested in any form of royal celebration when the “party girl” is not here. You can’t have a party without the “party girl” — which brings up the issue of an absent head of state.

We have our own identity as Australians. The Royals represent Britain, but cannot represent us or unite us as Australians. Australians believe in freedom and equal opportunity, not that some are born to rule over others. Monarchist’s can prattle on endlessly about how retaining the monarchy brings stability and is cheaper than having a homegrown head of state and the like. But when you boil it all down, you can’t escape the fact there’s something a little unnatural about a grown child of, shall we say, 230 years, still electing to live in mummy’s back bedroom.

It is a disgraceful fact that without constitutional change the citizens of Australia will not even be consulted on our next head of state. Since his birth, Prince Charles has known he will take over the top job. One morning we will simply wake up to hear news from England that will change our country for decades to come.

Deciding to pack our bags and finally leave our Buckingham Palace nursery room isn’t being rude to the Queen. It’s just the natural order of things and the Queen has reportedly acknowledged as much to past prime ministers. We can have respect and affection for Britain and its celebrity royals but still question why we do not have our own head of state. The royals are welcome to visit as representatives of Britain, but I look forward to when the British people and their royal family will welcome a visit by the first Australian head of state.

How many more Ashes tours must we endure with the Barmy Army taunting us with their song, ‘God Save Your Queen’? Time to cut the apron strings, assert our independence and let one of our own people serve as Australian Head of State.

Reference List

For the past nine years I’ve been arguing the lack of any public activity around the Queen’s birthday shows how the concept of monarchy is out-of-step with contemporary Australia.

7 October 2019 | When the Queen’s birthday isn’t even a birthday, it’s time to move on

1 October 2018 | Paving the way for independence: Citizen’s Day instead of Queen’s Birthday

22 April 2018 | The Queen’s (real) birthday — time to talk succession planning

2 October 2017 | Royal poll shows there may not be a King’s Birthday holiday in the future

12 June 2017 | Queenslander’s silent on no Queen’s Birthday holiday 

21 April 2017 | Operation London Bridge: For the term of ‘her’ natural life

3 October 2016 | Three birthdays for the Queen — Isn’t it time for a Republic? 

13 June 2016 | Bring on the Republic of Queensland

9 June 2015 | Goodnight knights and dames: Taking the Queen out of Queensland 

9 June 2014 | Another Queen’s Birthday — isn’t it time to break free?

21 April 2011 | Happy 85th birthday Queen Elizabeth II. Time to retire? 

Wattle Day for an inclusive Australia Day

THE FIRST DAY OF SEPTEMBER has many names. Some welcome it as spring’s dawn, a time to celebrate nature’s renewal. For others, it is National Wattle Day — a time when the smells of spring are in the air as well as Australia’s vivid gold blossom.

In Australia, the wattle is the largest genus of flowering plants. In Australia, you could plant two or three different wattles for every day of the year and still have plenty left over, for Australia has more acacia species than the year has days. These acacias are extremely diverse and found in habitats from rainforest to arid lands.

I have written before on how Wattle Day is celebrated annually on the first day of spring. A sprig of Australia’s national floral emblem, the golden wattle – Acacia pycnantha – is traditionally worn on the first day of spring. The green and gold of wattle leaves and blossoms were declared our national colours in 1984; in 1988, the wattle was adopted as the official national flower; and National Wattle Day was formally declared on 1 September 1992.

Australians may have made a home for themselves among the gum trees, but it is the wattle tree that has found its way into Australian republican symbolism. In 1993, the Australian Republic Movement gave its support to Wattle Day celebrations being held throughout Australia on 1 September. Wattle captures something crucial to the success of the republic — feeling for country. It is a unifying symbol.

September 1 marks the 28th anniversary of the declaration of National Wattle Day, as well as the 27th anniversary of the Australian Republic Movement giving its support to National Wattle Day celebrations throughout Australia.

Wattle Day has been celebrated annually on the first day of spring since 1910. However, the first known use of wattle as a meaningful emblem in the Australian colonies was in Hobart Town in 1838, when a resident suggested wearing a sprig of wattle to celebrate the golden jubilee of the landing at Sydney Cove. In this seemingly small gesture lay a suggestion of an independent Australia.

Wattle is a broad and inclusive symbol of an egalitarian, classless, free citizenry. It grows in all parts of Australia, differing varieties flowering throughout the year. This democracy of wattles – the fact that they grow in all states – was the overpowering reason why the wattle and not the waratah was chosen as the floral emblem in the early 20th Century.

Wattle celebrations first arose as occasions when earlier generations of Australians stood up and said: “I am from this land. This place is home.”

It is a symbol that comes directly from our land. Wattle is Australian and represents us all. Like the Southern Cross, the appeal of wattle is not first and foremost to the idea of nation — but to the idea of place.

In 2017, Terry Fewtrell, President of the Wattle Day Association, proposed in the Sydney Morning Herald that:

We could link National Wattle Day, with Australia Day as joint days on which we celebrate Australia, this land, its waters and environment, its people and our nation. National Wattle Day would not compete with Australia Day, rather it would complete Australia Day. It would do what Wattle has always done — unite us.

Perhaps we could also see its blossoms as a metaphor for the land waving its flag to remind us to care properly for it. It is precisely wattle’s long presence in and deep association with the land that sets it apart as a national symbol and endows it with added meaning.

Wattle touches all levels of society.

Early pioneers and World War I diggers were buried with a customary sprig of wattle. Then Governor-General Sir William Deane took wattle blossoms to Switzerland to commemorate young Australians who died there. Prime Minister John Howard also wore sprigs of wattle at ceremonies after the Bali bombings.

Terry Fewtrell said in a 2014 Australia Day speech that:

“…wattle has journeyed with us in kitbags, pockets and letters to places that become synonymous with our shared story; be they Gallipoli, Kokoda or Swiss canyons.”

Australian athletes wear wattle-inspired green and gold uniforms and those honoured with an Order of Australia receive awards with an insignia designed around the wattle flower.

Let’s all take a moment this National Wattle Day and reflect on the wattle flower which symbolises an egalitarian, classless, free citizenry.

So, when the blaze of wattle lights up the Australian landscape each year, let’s all remember that the wattle is a symbol of our land that unites us all.

The golden wattle, Acacia pycnantha is already our national floral emblem. Why not extend the symbolism a step further? Wattle Day may be the answer to the debate around celebrating Australia Day on January 26. Spring represents hope and renewal, so needed in our nation right now and in the foreseeable future. But above all, 1 September would be so much more inclusive.

Happy 2020 Constitution Day, Australia!

Happy Constitution Day! Today marks 120 years since Queen Victoria provided Royal Assent for the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900.

Constitution Day in Australia is observed annually on July 9 and acknowledges the day the Constitution of Australia was approved in 1900.

This day commemorates when the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was passed by the British Parliament and given Queen Victoria’s Royal Assent. On 1 January 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was officially established when this Act entered into force.

Constitution Day is not a public holiday in Australia and is arguably the least known of the notable days in the Australian calendar. In 2000, the commemoration for the centenary anniversary of the Constitution of Australia was established. However, the commemoration was not widely held after 2001.

The National Archives of Australia revived the observance in 2007, as this is where the original Constitution of Australia document is preserved.

Copies of the Act, the signed Royal Assent and related documentation have been dubbed Australia’s “birth certificates“. However, unlike Australia Day, Anzac Day or Melbourne Cup Day, Constitution Day is linked inextricably to a set of defining documents. It also commemorates the outcome of a democratic process — the votes of 573,865 people in the six Australian colonies, in the referenda of 1899 and 1900.

The Constitution of Australia is the first national constitution anywhere in the world to be put to a popular vote. As it did in a number of areas of social reform around this time, Australia led the world in constitutional development.

The Constitution of Australia has a special status in that it can’t be changed in the same way as other laws can be changed. It is a supreme law — that is, it overrides other laws. The Federal Parliament can change ordinary laws, such as the Marriage Act, by passing amendment laws, but it can only initiate proposals for changes to the Constitution. The approval of the people of Australia is necessary for any change to the Constitution, just as the approval of the people of Australia was a step in the process of creating the Constitution in the first place.

Many proposals for constitutional change have been discussed since 1901, but most have not got as far as a referendum or have been rejected at referendum. There have been 42 proposals to alter the Australian Constitution passed by the Federal Parliament and submitted to referenda, but only eight have been successful — the last in 1977.

1999 was the last Referendum. Geoffrey Sawer stated we are a “constitutionally frozen nation”. Perhaps it’s time we started to defrost our nation.

Over the past few years, Australia appears to have gone through a “Constitutional crisis“. Since October 2017, Section 44 (i) of the Constitution has become the subject of national attention, with 15 parliamentarians being disqualified, or resigning pre-emptively, due to breaking this Constitutional clause, which refers to dual citizenship.

Section 44 (i) states that a person is disqualified from running for office if they are:

‘ … under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power.’

The Constitution of Australia takes the form of a statute and was drafted in broad terms, so as to last over a long time. It provides the foundation of the body politic. The Australian High Court is the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution and as has been shown, it is clear that “unknowing” is no defence.

The Australian High Court acknowledged its decisions on the dual citizenship referrals was harsh but correct. This has led to certainty and stability for overseas-born British citizens. The decisions are clear. This is the future.

On this 2020 Constitution Day, Australia’s “Constitutional moment” isn’t over. The ghost of Section 44 (i) continues to hang over both Federal chambers.

We all hope the dual citizenship fiasco has been resolved for the Federal Parliament through better processes. If not, expect the High Court to interpret the Constitution of Australia Act to the black letter of the law.

Happy civic birthday, Australia!

Tune in to Big Ideas on ABC Radio National at 8pm on 9 July 2020 to hear Paul Barclay talk to a panel of experts about the Covid-19 pandemic and the constitution.

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/covid19-and-the-constitution/12421534

How have state and federal relationships (the Federation) equipped the nation to address this ongoing public health, and economic, crisis? What historic precedents are there for this pandemic in Australia?  How effectively have we limited the spread of the virus in to indigenous communities? Presented in conjunction in with the National Archives of Australia

Speakers

Dr. Paul Sendziuk – Head of the Department of History at the University of Adelaide.

Pat Turner – CEO of NACCHO, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

Professor Kim Rubenstein – Co-Director, Academic, the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra

Queensland Day – another wrong date

It’s the Queen’s Birthday weekend all around Australia except for Western Australia and Queensland who have the long weekend in October. Coincidently the 6 June was also Queensland Day which commemorates when Queensland officially separated from New South Wales as an independent British colony on 6 June 1859. The problem is the true Queensland Separation Day is 10 December 1859.

Moves towards Queensland becoming a colony began with a public meeting in 1851 to consider separation from New South Wales.

As the push for separation gained momentum, Queen Victoria was approached to consider establishing a separate colony based on Moreton Bay. The Queen gave her approval and signed the Letters Patent on 6 June 1859, now known as Queensland Day. Not surprisingly, she favoured the name Queensland over suggestions to call it Cooksland in honour of Captain James Cook.

The only problem with celebrating 6 June 1859 is that 160 years ago, nobody in Australia knew it had happened. We are talking about a period before the telegraph, when all communication was by sea mail. It was many, many, weeks before anybody knew the key documents to create Queensland had been signed and were on their way to the south seas with the new Governor.

Indeed, Queenslanders were completely oblivious to what Queen Victoria was about to do. Even as the key documents were being signed to make Queenslanders resident of their own colony, Queenslanders were getting ready to elect members of parliament to their old colonial parliament in Sydney.

All this is just another example of the ambiguity of Australian history. So many of the dates we celebrate as part of our road to nationhood are often ambiguous. Australia Day celebrates the arrival of 11 boat loads full of military men and convicts, few of whom actually wanted to be here. Trying to name a date when most of the Australian colonies started self-government is complex, and even trying to name a day when Australia became fully independent of the British government in Westminster is ambiguous.

NSW had been granted responsible government in 1856, always with the proviso that the Moreton Bay colony would be separated. The administrative arrangements for this had been underway in 1859 when a political crisis took place in NSW forcing the colony to an early election. With a new electoral act in place that greatly expanded the right to vote, the 1859 NSW election was historic in breaking the control of the colony’s ‘squattocracy’.

But the early election meant that Queensland had to elect MPs to the NSW Parliament for the third time, even though it was known that in the future, notice of the separation of the colony would arrive from London.

The Queensland leg of the NSW election started on 10 June 1859 when nominations from the hustings took place for the division of Brisbane. 13 June saw nominations for Ipswich. A day later saw William Henry Walsh elected unopposed for the vast district of Leichhardt. In the next week Robert Cribb defeated William Tooth in East Moreton and Henry Mort won West Moreton.

The final elections took place on 5 July when Gilbert Eliott won The Burnett and John Douglas and William Handcock were elected for the two-member district of Darling Downs.

One final election involving Queensland took place on 6 July. The 1859 NSW electoral boundaries included three specialist electorates that covered the Gold Fields. The right to vote was slightly modified for the Gold Fields districts, the holding of a mining license creating the right to vote rather than registration at a fixed address covered by the state’s magistracy system.

The members elected for Queensland continued to hold their seats until 1 December when NSW proclaimed the separation of Queensland.

On 20 July 1859, the new colony of Queensland held celebrations when they were told Sir George Ferguson Bowen would be the colony’s first Governor. Fireworks, cannon fire, flag raising and the sound of gunshots expressed the public’s sentiment.

Governor Bowen arrived in Brisbane, with his wife Lady Diamantina Bowen, on 9 December 1859.  He disembarked at the (City) Botanic Gardens and with his party travelled along George St and Queen St to Adelaide House, the first Governor’s residence.  Adelaide House, overlooking the Brisbane River at Petrie Bight, was built by Andrew Petrie for Dr Hobbs and was to become the temporary residence while the Government House at Gardens Point was under construction.  It was from the balcony of Adelaide House that Queensland was proclaimed.

Then on 10 December 1859, the newly appointed Governor of Queensland George Ferguson Bowen formally read the proclamation in Brisbane, creating the colony of Queensland.

December 10 became an official holiday throughout Queensland, and it was celebrated in many ways over many years.  Sports carnivals, cricket matches and race meetings were popular events. Trips to the seaside – Sandgate and Redcliffe and Wynnum for the Brisbane folk – were undertaken, and country train stations reported record crowds travelling on special excursion trains.

Separation Day was to remain a public holiday for 60 years, until 1920.  With Federation in 1901, national matters were overtaking state concerns, but people did not want to give up a holiday, even though Queensland had moved on from a pioneering colony in the 1850s and 1860s to a modern and prosperous state of the new Commonwealth of Australia.

So December, not this weekend, is the real occasion to celebrate Queensland Independence. That such a long gap exists between Queen Victoria’s signing of the authority and its implementation five months later shows just how slow communications were in the days of sail.

VE 1945 – the roadmap out of lockdown for one Australian soldier

75 years ago Europe was just coming out of ‘lockdown’ after Victory in Europe was declared on 8th May 1945. After nearly six years, the war in Europe was finally over. On 16th May 1945, my great uncle Private Donald Davies was officially declared in his Australian war record a ‘Recovered POW’. As a Prisoner of War for four years in total, first in Campo 57 in Italy and later the notorious Stalag-344 near Lamsdorf, Germany he experienced the ultimate lockdown. VE Day 2020 commemorations of the defeat of the Nazis in Europe have been muted due to the devastation across Europe brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As nations around the world are currently struggling to develop the road out of COVID-19 lockdown it is worth reflecting on the road out of POW lockdown for one ordinary Australian soldier 75 years ago.   

Donald Walter Davies

Following the outbreak of World War II on 3rd September 1939, the Australian government announced the decision to raise the Second Australian Imperial Force for overseas service.

The 2/15th Battalion was an Australian Infantry Battalion that consisted predominately of rural workers from central western Queensland, drawn from 11 Brigade CMF – 26 Battalion (Longreach, Hughenden and Cloncurry), 31 Battalion (Townsville region) and 42nd Battalion (Capricornia). John Mackenzie-Smith documents:

They were scarcely trained and severely deprived of arms which consisted of antiquated .303 Enfield rifles and bayonets, one Tommy gun, one-clapped-out 2 inch mortar, one Bren gun and probably grenades.

My great uncle Donald Walter Davies was a single labourer who enlisted in the 2/15th Australian Infantry Battalion on 1st June 1940 in Cairns, north Queensland. He was 21 years and 2 months old. By 7th June 1940 he was undertaking basic training at Redbank, Brisbane. On 26th December 1940, Private Davies embarked from Sydney arriving in the Middle East on 3rd February 1941. He was not to return to Australia until 8th August 1945. He was to be enlisted for 1956 days, which included 61 days active service in Australia and 1687 days in active service overseas.

The Italian Army had occupied the North African port of Tobruk until its capture by Commonwealth forces in early January 1941. The Italians were driven back across Libya, where the Australian 6th Division captured Bardia, Tobruk and Benghazi. More than 130,000 demoralised Italian troops surrendered

As the Italians collapsed in North Africa, Hitler was forced to intervene. In February 1941 General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps arrived in North Africa to support the Italians. Rommel was a remarkable and brilliant commander. The British advance had continued until Rommel’s counteroffensive on 31st March drove the British and Commonwealth troops back to the borders of Egypt, although a defiant force of 14,000 Australian troops as well as a smaller number of British troops held the port of Tobruk against the Germans in a siege that lasted for eight months.

In April 1941, things were going well for the German armed forces. Yugoslavia and Greece were falling, and plans for the conquest of the Soviet Union were moving forward. In a series of earlier campaigns, they had conquered Poland, the Low Countries, Norway, and France. Though tentative plans to invade England had been shelved after the desperate and heroic British defense in the Battle of Britain, U-boats were now trying to slowly starve the stubborn British into submission.

As British and Commonwealth forces fell back, the Australian 9th Division, only recently called to the front from Palestine, was ordered to move to Tobruk from its position in Derna to the west. By dawn on 7th April 1941, most of the Ninth Division was east of Derna. During breakfast the 2/15th Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel R.F. Martin, along with his headquarters staff and part of the 8th Light Anti-aircraft Battery, had been surprised by a company of German panzers. After a short sharp fight, nine officers and 215 men from the 2/15th became the latest prisoners of the Third Reich. It is most likely one of these was Private Donald Davies.

By the evening of 9th April 1941 the Ninth Division, accompanied by a multitude of supporting troops and stragglers, withdrew stoically into the Tobruk perimeter. General Lavarack’s orders on 8th April 1941 included:

Your main task will be to hold the enemy’s advance at Tobruk, in order to give time for the assembly of reinforcements, especially of armoured troops for the defence of Egypt … To gain time for the assembly of the required reinforcements, it may be necessary to hold Tobruk for about two months.”

Private Donald Davies’ official war record states he was reported ‘Missing in Action. Believed POW’ on 13th April 1941. He was believed to have been captured at Derna on 7th April 1941, one week before the important Easter Monday Battle.

On 14th April 1941, Private Donald Davies’ comrades still in the field from A Coy, 2/15th, 9th Division were headquartered as the brigade reserve less than four miles behind the Red Line, where the roads to El Adem and Bardia intersected. In 2014, John Mackenzie-Smith documented the pivotal role A Coy, 2/15th, 9 Division of scarcely trained and basically equipped soldiers from Queensland’s western and provincial areas had against the superbly armed, battle-hardened unit of the Wehrmacht that had recently been involved in the blitzkrieg which brought Western Europe to its knees. that delivered the final blow.

In 2014, John Mackenzie-Smith documented in Tobruk’s Easter Battle 1941 : the forgotten fifteenth’s date with Rommel’s champion how the initial Australian and British victory over Rommel’s Afrika Korps on Easter Monday 1941 (14th April 1941) at Tobruk was Germany’s first defeat in World War 11. In the desert sands outside the coastal city of Tobruk the Axis juggernaut would learn of the tenacity and maturing skill of their British and Commonwealth opponents.

It was not until 10 July 1941 that there was official confirmation that Private Donald Davies a ‘Prisoner of war’, or POW.

Uncle Don Davies

Some 8591 Australians became prisoners of war of the Germans and Italians in the Second World War. They included airmen and soldiers of the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions. Most of these were infantry captured in 1941 during the campaigns against the Germans and Italians in North Africa, Greece, Crete and Syria. Unlike the thousands captured in Singapore, these men were usually taken in small groups, and sometimes as individuals, such as shot down RAAF aircrew. Those POWs captured in North Africa were sent to Italian, Greek or German camps. Most remained captive for more than three years and endured cold, hunger and a spirit-crushing boredom. Private Donald Davies’ POW captivity was to last a little over four years.

In the first year it was unclear where he was held. But by January 1942 he was in the Italian internment camp, Campo 57 at Gruppignano. From late 1943 until early 1945 he was in German Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf. His was to be a long war.

When most Australians today think of POWs, they will probably recall stories of the men and women who were prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. There are some understandable reasons for this: they represented the highest number group of Australian POWs of any conflict, then or since; and their experience was of unprecedented brutality and horror.

Conflict Australian POWs captured Mortality Rate
Boer War (1899-1902) ~104* Unknown
World War One (1914-1918) 4,070 9%
World War Two (1939-1945) 22,376 (Pacific)

8,591 (Europe)

36%

3%

Korean War (1950-1953) 29 3%

There were two main reasons why Australian POWs in Europe died in such low numbers compared to their Japanese counterparts: they were generally better treated by the Germans and Italians, and they had access to regular Red Cross parcels as well as medical supplies. There was also the possibility of being repatriated well before the war was over, due to reciprocal prisoner exchanges between the Allied and Axis countries. POWs were also allowed to regularly send and receive mail – an important morale booster and a way of keeping in touch with loved ones at home. While there are elements of truth in these generalisations, comparisons between the two groups only serve to diminish the genuine suffering of European POWs. They also returned to a public that was focussed on the stories of Australian POWs in the Pacific and, apart from the stories of the escapes from the German camps, knew little about life in captivity in Europe.

There is little known officially of Private Donald Davies’ first few years as a POW. It is likely that at first he was held in a temporary camp in Greece. The first mention in his war record is on 2 September 1943 as being held in Italian Internment Camp 57. Australian POWs who were not officers were held in Campo 57, at Gruppignano near Udine in north-east Italy. The camp was commanded by the very harsh Colonel Vittorio Calcaterra. This Italian officer died before he was able to be charged with war crimes.

The first evidence of where Private Donald Davies was being held captive was a letter written in January 1942 from Campo 57 to his mother in north Queensland. In this first letter he refers to Audrey who he would marry after the war and Nell, his sister. He talks here of not yet receiving any parcels from home but tries to keep the letter with a hopeful tone. This would have been his first white winter – as a north Queensland boy he would never have experienced the cold from snow before.

January 31 1942

Dear Mother

There is still very little I can say in a letter but here goes to do the best I can. Up to the time of writing I have not received any parcel but am still hoping. I have had one letter from Audrey and one [?] message. Twice this week it has snowed in noticeable quantities. I have only had one message from Nell. I can’t write to everyone as I only get paper for one letter per week and it is better for one to get all and pass the news on. Then I love to write to occasionally to Audrey. Then to add to my tale of woe I have a very bad cold which makes things pretty bad but still I’ll see it out as I fail to see how this can go much longer. Well this is about all so I must close with

Love

Don

In the second letter to his mother he again refers to not receiving any packages from home. However he does receive regular food parcels from the Red Cross. This letter also has been censored with 2-3 lines blacked out. The context of the letter suggests it was a critical comment about the Italian authorities holding up Red Cross parcel deliveries.

February 22 1942

Dear Mum

Just the usual note to show the usual. I am as usual quite well. I have not received any parcel from you yet. The worst of the winter is now over and I think I have weathered it quite well. The chilblains are a bit painful though. I had my first letter from Nell this morning. It has taken a long while to reach me being several months old. Wrote to Agnes last week. I only remember one girl of that name and believe me she is easy on the eyes. Yes we get a parcel of food from the Red Cross weekly. Theoretically that is. Sometimes owing to a hitch somewhere or other they don’t turn up. [Black censored 2-3 lines] This is about the lot so I’ll say cheerio.

Love

Don

In the third letter to his mother he discusses social activity at Campo 57 and some of his health problems. Food was poor in the Italian internment camps, and housing was crowded and insanitary. Although there is reference to a dentist in the letter the prisoners usually had to improvise their own medical treatment to cope with both pneumonia and kidney disease. There is a sense of his growing depression and frustration at the lack of contact with family and the outside world.

19 May 1943

Dear Mum

Things have all quite a lot improved recently. Since I last wrote you I have had a slight attack of dysentery. Nothing to worry over though and I am as well as ever again. Also I am having a spot of trouble with my teeth. The dentist says that most of it is due to that fracture I had at college. I am not getting very much mail these days but I am glad of what little I do get. I have taken on the boxing again. I have a chap teaching me who has been in with most of the good men at home. My boxing sense is as good as ever but I am fearfully slow with my hands. That can be easily rectified though. Since my capture I have had two letters from Nell. Not a bad average is it. I am getting a little tired of writing and getting no reply. You might mention it to her next time you write. This is all for this time so will close with kind regards to all.

All love

Don

The final surviving piece of correspondence is a postcard to his sister-in-law, Ann. Although it is brief the message suggests that parcels and messages from family was now getting through to the POWs in Italy.

5 July 1943 [Postcard]

My Dear Ann

Had a letter from you a while back. Thanks for the card of the kid. He sure is a fine boy. Had a parcel from Mum dated 4th January. Am doing quite well at present.

See you soon

Love

Don

In September 1943 Italy surrendered to the Allied forces. Some prisoners were able to escape to Allied lines in the confusion. Those unable to get away were rounded up and sent to Germany. Private Donald Davies was one of the Australian POWs who was to eventually find himself in a German POW camp.

When Italy capitulated in 1943, all POWs in Italian hands were transferred to German control. POWs were held in over 40 major camps all over Germany, from Lithuania to the Rhine. About 8,600 Australians became prisoners of the Germans. They included 7,115 Australian soldiers captured in North Africa or Greece; 1,476 airmen, mostly bomber aircrew shot down over Germany in 1943–45; and a few sailors.

Private Donald Davies’ official war record reports on 10 May 1944 he was interned as a POW in STALAG 344 at Lamsdorf, Germany. While officers and other ranks were rarely separated into different camps in Japanese captivity, in the German case this was the rule: officers went to ‘oflags’ and all other ranks to ‘stalags’. Men accepted unaccustomed responsibility: one Australian warrant officer became the de facto commanding officer of 11,000 Allied prisoners of war in Wolfsberg camp.

Guardroom at entrance to Stalag 344

Stalag VIII-B was a notorious German POW camp, later renumbered Stalag-344. It was located near the small town of Lamsdorf in Silesia. The camp initially occupied barracks built to house British and French prisoners in World War 1. It was opened in 1939 to house Polish prisoners. There were approximately 100,000 prisoners from Australia, Belgium, British India, British Palestine, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and Yugoslavia pass through this camp. By 1943, the famous camp for Allied flight personnel in Sagan Stalag Luft III had become so overcrowded that about 1,000, mostly non-commissioned flight personnel, were transferred to Lamsdorf. In 1943, the Lamsdorf camp was split up and renumbered Stalag 344.

 

In January 1945, the Soviet armies advanced into Germany and reached Stalag 344 on 17th March 1945. What was the chain of events at this time for Private Donald Davies is unknown except that by 27th May 1945 he was back in the United Kingdom. It is a good assumption that he was one of the fortunate POWs in that during the months of March and April 1945 he must have got far enough to the west to be ‘liberated’ by the American army. When the Soviets ‘liberated’ the eastern German POW camps many of the POWs still present were marched westward in groups of 200 to 300. This was the so-called ‘Death March’. As a result many POWs died from the bitter cold and exhaustion.

Private Donald Davies from north Queensland had a long war comprised of 8 weeks and four days active duty in North Africa followed by over four years in Italian and German POW camps. Family legend has that he was valuable in the Italian POW camps due to his understanding of Italian having grown up around the large communities of Italian immigrants who had around the cane fields of north Queensland in the 1930s. The legend continues that because of his linguistic expertise he was involved in a number of escapes. As a result of this he was sent to a more secure German POW camp. This seems a little fanciful as not only does the Italian peninsula contain so many different dialects but he was actually transferred to Germany as a result of the capitulation of Italy in 1943. What is intriguing though is the events that led from him being ‘liberated’ from Stalag 344 to his arrival in the United Kingdom. On this we have no information.

It states in his war record that Private Donald Davies was officially declared a ‘Recovered POW” on 16th May 1945 – eight days after VE Day on 8th May 1945. He spent time in England where the photograph of him in Scottish dress was taken on 28th May 1945.

Uncle Don 2

However, on 4th July 1945 he embarked from the United Kingdom for Sydney arriving on 2nd August 1945. On 8th October 1945, Private Donald Davies was discharged from the 9th Division. He went on to have a long and successful life.

On this 75th anniversary of his official notification of being declared a ‘Recovered POW’ from the Battle for Tobruk it is worth spending a moment and reflecting on the service of one ordinary Australian soldier and his long road out of POW lockdown.

Labour Day 2020: family, freedom, and a fair-go

Labour Day is a public holiday held on different dates in different Australian states. It has its origins in the eight hour day movement, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest. In Queensland, Labour Day is always held on the first Monday in May, and has historically been referred to as May Day. As Queensland unionists today break out their virtual hats and placards, it’s a time to consider the history of Labour Day and its wider significance, with its connection to the Australian ideals of mateship and egalitarianism.

Labour Day, like Anzac Day, is a day when we remember the sacrifices our forebears made: the mateship, the loyalty and the determination to build and protect the freedom and rights we now enjoy. Both are also occasions when we recognise the ongoing struggles of today, and thank those standing beside us in the fray. Today we celebrate those workers and union delegates who stand alongside their mates and colleagues to preserve and better the working conditions of all Australians. We celebrate the toil of men and women everywhere, and in these economically dark times we also extend our hands and hearts to those who have lost jobs and pride.

For, like Anzac Day, Labour Day is – above and beyond its historical significance – a day all Australians can celebrate our egalitarian society, our innate sense of fairness and equity, and our willingness to campaign side by side for a better world. It is the day we celebrate the winding back of the exploitation and oppressive working hours that were the norm in the early nineteenth century during the Industrial Revolution. It is a day we remember the efforts of the labour movement which brought us the eight hour day and over the ensuing decades of struggle such basic advances as minimum wage levels, safety in the workplace and the right – bar a brief return to the industrial relations Dark Ages during the Howard era – to bargain as a collective.

For Labour Day is not a celebration of militant trade unionism. It is not a conga-line of left-wing ratbags winding their way through the streets chanting slogans calling for the downfall of capitalism. Labour Day, particularly in today’s world where ordinary hard-working people are increasingly left bleeding on the economic roadside from collateral damage inflicted by the global recession, is about family, freedom, and a fair go. It is about empowerment in a world where individuals still too often have little control over their own destiny when it comes to the workplace.

The history of Labour Day in Australia spans over 150 years. It is an important annual event that commemorates the granting of the eight-hour working day for Australians and remembers those who struggled and succeeded to ensure decent and fair working conditions in Australia. The day known as Labour Day in Queensland and the Northern Territory and May Day in other Australian states, is a celebration of workers’ achievements throughout history.

During the mid to late 1800s the working day was long and arduous, where some employees would work up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Many Australians saw the need for better working conditions and in the 1850s there was a strong push for this. On 21 April 21 1856, stonemasons at the University of Melbourne marched to Parliament House to push for an eight-hour working day. An agreement with employers for a 48-hour week was eventually reached and Australian workers welcomed the new eight-hour day. A victory march was held on 12 May 1856 that year and each year after that. In 1856 the new work regulations were recognized in New South Wales, followed by Queensland in 1858 and South Australia in 1873. In 1874, Tasmania joined the other states in adopting the shorter eight-hour working day. In 1879 the Victorian Government made one further step towards better conditions for employees by proclaiming a paid public holiday that year. However, while a change was made to the hours worked each day, the five day work week we enjoy today took almost a century longer to be adopted finally in 1948.

In Queensland, the first Labour Day celebration took place in Brisbane on 16 March 1861 and was essentially a celebration by a small number of skilled building workers who had recently achieved an eight-hour working day. The date of the event was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the first workers achieving the eight hour day in Queensland. For more than 20 years, the bulk of workers who did not enjoy an eight hour working day were excluded from the celebrations and the focus was on celebrating trade union achievements. The small number of elite Queensland trade unionists who participated in the eight hour day celebrations showed little sympathy for their fellow workers who laboured in excess of eight hours.

The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight hour day. The historic strike of 1 May 1886 was a culmination of a concerted struggle. Chicago was the major industrial centre of the USA. Police attacked striking workers from the McCormack Harvester Co., killing six.

On 4 May 1886 at a demonstration in Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality a bomb exploded in the middle of a crowd of police killing eight of them. The police arrested eight anarchist trade unionists claiming they threw the bombs. To this day the subject is still one of controversy. The question remains whether the bomb was thrown by the workers at the police or whether one of the police’s own agent provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from charging workers.

In what was to become one of the most infamous show trials in America in the nineteenth century, but certainly not to be the last of such trials against radical workers, the State of Illinois tried the anarchist workingmen for fighting for their rights as much as being the actual bomb throwers. Whether the anarchist workers were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They were agitators, fomenting revolution and stirring up the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph Fischer were found guilty and executed by the State of Illinois.

In Paris in 1889 the International Working Men’s Association (the First International) declared 1 May an international working-class holiday in commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Martyrs. The red flag became the symbol of the blood of working-class martyrs in their battle for workers rights.

In light of the labour movement’s successful push for an eight-hour day, a large May Day meeting was held in Melbourne on 1 May 1890. Other Australian capital cities also held May Day meeting at the same time. On 1 May 1890, the Brisbane Workers editorial stated:

May Day, this is our May Day, the by-gone jubilation of our forefathers for the reconquering of by the bright sunshine of the bitter northern winter, the new-born celebration of the passing of the workers’ winter of discontent. In Germany, in Austria, in Belgium, in France, all through Europe, in the United Kingdom and in the great English speaking republic across the Pacific, millions of workers are gathering at this hour to voice the demands of Labor for fair conditions of laboring. Never in all history was there such a meeting”.

The spirit of the activists and early workers organisers is summed up in Bernard O’Dowd’s poem, May Day where he calls for Australians to stand up united and maintain their rights to an eight-hour work day.

Come Jack, our place is with the ruck
On the open road today,
Not with the tepid “footpath sneak”
Or with the wise who stop away.

A straggling, tame procession, perhaps,
A butt for burgess scorn;
Its flags are ragged sentiments,
And its music’s still unborn.

Though none respectable are here,
And trim officials ban,
Our duty, Jack, is not with them,
But here with hope and Man.

The Labour Day date was moved from May to the second Monday in March in some parts of Australia after World War II.  Since 1948, Labour Day in Western Australia has been observed on the first Monday in March and marks the granting of the eight hour working day to Western Australians. For a large section of the Brisbane labour movement it remained important that the Labour Day celebrations be changed to enable participation by all Queensland workers and that the date of the procession from the traditional one on 1 March to 1 May. The main arguments for changing the date of the celebrations was to make them part of the international campaign, begun by the International Labour Congress in 1889, to make 1 May an official workers holiday around the world. This campaign was given a major boost when, on 1 May 1891, hundreds of striking bush workers held Australia’s first May Day procession through the streets of Barcaldine.

Henry Lawson

On 1 May 1891 more than 1000 striking shearers participated in a May Day march in Barcaldine, Queensland where their leaders wore blue sashes and they carried banners and the Eureka flag. It was reported that cheers were given for “the eight-hour day”. Henry Lawson wrote “Freedom on the Wallaby” to mark the day:

So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle.

From May 1893 the holding of Labour Day and May Day in Queensland has proceeded hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, over time, the reasons for shifting Labour Day so that it corresponded to May Day have been forgotten. But, equally clearly, the now largely forgotten campaign to link the two had made Labour Day in Queensland a significant occasion, when not just the eight-hour working day is celebrated but also the international solidarity of labour. In fact, Queensland unionists are almost alone in celebrating Labour Day on or around May Day as most other states still time their celebrations to coincide with anniversaries of eight-hour day victories.

The annual Labour Day holiday and march are a celebration of the historical triumphs of workers, particularly the achievement of the eight hour working day. Indeed the number eight has often been spotted on many union buildings in Australia to symbolize an eight hour working day.  For example, the Eight-Hour monument featuring a golden globe bearing the 888 symbol was erected in Spring Street in Melbourne in 1903. The numbers are in support of British socialist Robert Owen who believed that people should have 8 hours to work, 8 hours for recreation and 8 hours to sleep. This philosophy helped foster The Eight Hours Movement.

Right across the world, members of trade unions and their supporters march at this time of year (usually on 1st May) in support of their fellow workers. The first Labour Day parade was held in Melbourne on 21 April 1856. Today parades across Australia remind us of the accomplishments made by the unions on behalf of the workers.

So celebrate Labour Day. Celebrate trade unions, freedom of association, vigorous debate and working families. For that is the sum of us.

Happy Birthday – Advance Australia Fair and Waltzing Matilda

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‘The Jolly Swagman’, Winton: sculptured by Daphne Mayo

19 April is the 36th anniversary of the adoption of Advance Australia Fair as our national anthem for the second time. 19 April 2018 began the four day event of the first Winton’s Way Out West Fest celebrating the rebirth of the Waltzing Matilda Centre and the 125th Waltzing Matilda Day. The contest of popularity between Australia’s national anthem and its national song appears likely to continue into the future.

Not so long ago, on 19 April 1984, Australia finally got a national anthem of our own, when Bob Hawke’s Labor government replaced the use of the British anthem, God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair.

Advance Australia Fair had first been adopted by the Whitlam government in 1974 after it was chosen by 51.4 per cent of Australians in a survey of 60,000, defeating Waltzing Matilda, chosen by 19.6 per cent of those polled.

But the decision did not stick. A change of government brought God Save the Queen back into use.

In May 1977, the Fraser Liberal government had the Australian Electoral Office conduct a poll, or plebiscite for the national anthem in conjunction with a referendum. Advance Australia Fair was the clear favourite with 43.3% of the vote, ahead of Waltzing Matilda with 28.3%, and God Save the Queen at 18.8%, and Song of Australia on 9.6%. Yet even that overwhelming vote did not see an Australian anthem restored until 19 April 1984.

Waltzing Matilda is Australia’s best-known bush-ballad, and has been described as the country’s unofficial anthem, or national song.

On 6 April 1895, Waltzing Matilda was performed publicly for the first time in the dining room of the original North Gregory Hotel, Winton. The current brick incarnation opened in 1955, after three previous versions burnt down.

north gregory hotel

Winton today is a flyspeck on the vast Mitchell Grass Downs, 1400 km north-west of Brisbane and almost two hours’ drive from Longreach. In 2012, Winton organised the inaugural Waltzing Matilda Day on 6 April, the anniversary of its first performance in 1895.

At the beginning of the 1890s, a long economic boom that had sustained four decades of rising prosperity ended abruptly. This precipitated a series of great strikes in which trade unions were defeated culminating in the violent 1894 shearers’ strike in north-west Queensland. Striking shearers armed themselves, woolsheds were burnt, men guarding property were fired on, and non-union workers were assaulted. Police and troops were sent in. Martial law was re-introduced in Winton.

In September 1894, on Dagworth Station, north-west of Winton, striking shearers fired their rifles and pistols in the air, setting fire to the woolshed. The owner of the homestead and three policemen gave chase to a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, also known as ‘Frenchy’. Rather than be captured, Hoffmeister shot and killed himself at the Combo Waterhole. It has been widely accepted that the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda are based the incident.

800px-Combo_Waterhole-Alun_Hoggett

Combo waterhole, near Kyuna in western Queensland – archetype of ‘a billabong. under the shade of a coolabah tree’: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Combo_Waterhole-Alan_Hoggett.jpg

Poet, lawyer and journalist Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson started it all when he travelled up from Sydney in 1895 to meet his fiancée of six years, Sarah Riley, whose family owned property in the district. In Winton they ran into Christina Macpherson, an old school friend of Sarah’s, whose brothers owned nearby Dagworth Station. Christina’s father had convinced his daughters to travel to Winton after the death of their mother only weeks before.

The Paterson, Riley, MacPherson group travelled together from Winton to Dagworth.

Over the ensuing summer, a firm friendship grew between the group and Christina’s brothers, who had such a different life from Paterson.

As a squatter, Christina’s brother Bob MacPherson had most of the stories to tell. Paterson rode with him across the property, hearing tales of shearers’ strikes, union upheaval and the burning of shearing sheds just 8 months before on the very ground they travelled. There was even a gun battle between Bob’s station hands and 16 shearers resulting in the loss of life, lambs and public order. Shearers had set fire to buildings and public feeling against employer and employee had been high.

Bob told Paterson of how he had accompanied a Police Constable that same day of the gun battle to find the culprits. Instead, they found the body of shearer Samuel Hoffmeister, lying near a waterhole, killed from a self-inflicted bullet wound.

Evening was a good opportunity for the group to get together and amuse each other with their talents. One evening, Christina MacPherson played a march called ‘Craigielee’ that she had heard at the Warrnambool Races near her home in country Victoria the year before. Paterson was inspired to put words to it and penned the now famous words of Waltzing Matilda to amuse the group.

Days later, back at the Riley house in Winton, the group made their changes to the song, and decided to perform it publicly at the North Gregory Hotel on 6 April 1895.

The ballad of Waltzing Matilda was born.

Many details are contested but by the time Banjo left town he apparently was no longer engaged, and Christina and Sarah were not speaking. He barely spoke of the song again.

450px-Down_on_his_luck

Frederick McCubbin (1889) Down on his Luck. held in Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth\

Waltzing Matilda tells of a swagman waiting for his billy to boil beside a billabong and singing to himself as he does so. A sheep strays into the scene and the swagman grabs it for his tucker. A squatter, presumably the sheep’s owner and three policemen descend on the hapless swagman, but rather than surrender he jumps into the billabong and drowns.

The song quickly became popular locally, and soldiers sang it in the Boer War, spreading it across state boundaries when they returned home. But it was as an advertising ploy for Billy Tea that embedded Waltzing Matilda in national mythology.

From the 1890s, the Billy Tea packet showed a swagman drinking his billy tea and conversing with a kangaroo carrying a swag and billy. In 1902, James Inglis and Co., who imported Billy Tea, acquired the lyrics but wanted them to be rejigged. The association in the Waltzing Matilda lyrics between the billy and death needed to be repositioned for a beverage marketed as a refreshing and uplifting brew.

The task of commercialism the song fell to Marie Cowan, the wife of Inglis’s manager. Cowan added the word ‘jolly’ to the opening line and injected ‘billy’ into the chorus, ensuring its repetition and its association with the product. She also capitalised the ‘B’ and added inverted commas:

And he sang as he watched and waited till his ‘Billy’ boiled,

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

The sheet music provided with the tea acknowledged Paterson as author and Cowan as the arranger of the music. The song, the tea and the billy came together to firmly secure the popularity of all three.

Waltzing Matilda song book

The billy was democratic, used by men and women, rich and poor, black and white, workers and leisure-seekers, but it its association with the bushmen, and in particular the swagman, gave it national meaning. Like the swagman, the billy was dependable, resourceful, practical and egalitarian, even anti-authoritarian.

In the upsurge of national sentiment that marked the last two decades of the nineteenth century, artists and writers identified the bush as the real Australia and the bushman as the real Australian. It was in this context that the billy could stand for the nation.

In the stories and poems of Henry Lawson and ‘Banjo’ Paterson, in the art of the Heidelberg School, and in bush ballads and folk songs, somewhere there was nearly always a billy, an almost obligatory motif to establish the authenticity of the scene.

Henry Lawson’s first major collection in 1896 was called While the Billy Boils.

While the boiling billy was usually a call to yarn and chat, however in Henry Lawson’s 1891 ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’, it was a call to arms:

But Freedom’s on the wallaby

She’ll knock the tyrant’s silly

She’s going to light another fire

And boil another billy

We’ll make the tyrant’s feel the sting

Of those that they would throttle;

They needn’t say the fault is ours

If blood should stain the wattle

For Lawson, the billy stood for the rebellion of workers against the bosses and so it symbolised the push for democracy and republicanism that marked late-nineteenth century Australian bush nationalism. Lawson was giving these conversations ‘while the billy boiled’ credit for the very creation of Australia as a nation.

The Waltzing Matilda Centre was built in Winton in 1998 after celebrations to make the song’s centenary. After battling years of drought, the western Queensland town had its landmark Waltzing Matilda Centre gutted by fire in 2015, leaving the community devastated.

Waltzing Matilda Centre

In 2018, matilda resumed her waltz with the official reopening of the $22 million iconic Waltzing Matilda Centre with one of the biggest inland music and culture festivals ever held in Queensland. Winton’s Way Out West Fest attracted 8000 people to the tiny town, where the population is normally a tenth of that, with online news coverage of the opening seen by more than 70 million people and generating 4.5 million social media views. Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszcuk were part of the star-studded weekend of festivities, along with The Living End, John Williamson, Jessica Mauboy, and many others.

Even though there may be an ongoing contest of popularity between our national song and our national anthem, they both reflect our national streak of independence.

For Henry Lawson, the ‘boiling billy’ was a call to arms, whereas for ‘Banjo’ Paterson the ‘billy’ represented the dependable, resourceful, practical and egalitarian, even anti-authoritarian nature of the Australian people.

It seems unimaginable today that Australia did not have its own national anthem until the 1980s. It will seem unimaginable to future generations that we delayed adopting our own head of state for so long after coming of age as a nation.

It will, likewise, take a second attempt to cut Australia’s final Constitutional link to the British monarchy, to reflect the full independence that Australians already feel in their hearts.

The question is not whether this will happen, but when.

 

1918 HMAT Boonah tragedy echoes in current cruise liner crises

The refusal to allow cruise liner Artania to dock in Fremantle echoes of the quarantining of HMAT Boonah in Fremantle for ‘Spanish flu’ in late 1918.

The troopship_SS Boonah

HMAT Boonah

The sagas of cruise liners and COVID-19 infections are occurring around the world. This is an issue of pressing interest for Australia. At the forefront of the minds of Australians is the recent quarantining of Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan, the current Ruby Princess cruise liner infection debacle, the 100s of Australian’s trapped on cruise liners anchored off the North and South American coasts, and the direction of six foreign cruise liners along the NSW coast to leave Australian waters and return to their home ports. Just over one hundred years ago, HMAT Boonah arrived in Fremantle, WA, arrived with over 300 Australian soldiers infected with ‘Spanish flu’.

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, or ‘Spanish flu’ remains among the greatest natural disasters of recorded history. Emerging in Europe in the final months of the Great War, in little over a year the pandemic swept around the world, killing approximately 80 million people, at least four times more than the deaths caused by the First World War. Few families or communities escaped its effects and possibly 25–30 per cent of the world’s population was infected with influenza in 1918-1919.

While its exact origins are still debated, it’s understood that the “Spanish Flu” did not come from Spain. The name seems to have arisen as reporting about influenza cases in war-affected countries was censored. However, as Spain was neutral, frequent stories appeared about the deadly flu in Spain.

It’s unlikely that the Spanish Flu changed the outcome of World War I, because combatants on both sides of the battlefield were relatively equally affected. However, there is little doubt that the war profoundly influenced the course of the pandemic. Concentrating millions of troops created ideal circumstances for the development of more aggressive strains of the virus and its spread around the globe.

During 1919 the ‘Spanish Flu’ resulted in about a third of all Australians becoming infected and nearly 15,000 people being dead in under a year. These figures match the average annual death rate for the Australian Imperial Force throughout 1914–18. More than 5000 marriages were affected by the loss of a partner and over 5000 children lost one or both parents. In 1919, almost 40 per cent of Sydney’s population had influenza, more than 4000 people died, and in some parts of Sydney influenza deaths comprised up to 50 per cent of all deaths.

It wasn’t just the influenza pandemic victims who were affected. Across Australia, regulations intended to reduce the spread and impact of the pandemic caused profound disruption. The nation’s quarantine system held back ‘Spanish Flu’ for several months, meaning that a less deadly version came ashore in 1919. But it caused delay and resentment for the 180,000 soldiers, nurses and partners who returned home by sea that year.

The 1200 troops on-board HMAT Boonah was the last Australian troop ship to leave Fremantle, WA bound for the trenches of the Western Front in World War One. But it wasn’t the battlefields of Europe that claimed dozens of their young lives, instead meeting their fate with Spanish influenza in Perth’s southern suburbs.

As the last troop ship to leave Australia sailed towards Europe, the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. Three days the HMAT Boonah docked in Durban, South Africa to re-coal before heading back to Australia. Although the Aussie troops weren’t allowed to go to shore in Durban, they mingled with local men re-coaling the ship to buy ostrich feathers as souvenirs. This encounter proved a deadly mistake for dozens on-board infected by the ‘Spanish flu’.

As the disappointed soldiers sailed back across the Indian Ocean, they referred to themselves in the Boonah Buzzer, an on-board publication produced by the soldiers, as part of the ‘too blooming late brigade’. The Boonah Boomerang, or The Log of the Lucky Ship, another on-board publication, recorded that one man had already been lost at sea after becoming delirious and jumping overboard in the night. By the time the troopship reached the shores of Fremantle, Western Australia on 11 December 1918, more than 300 of the men on board were infected.

The HMAT Boonah wasn’t allowed to dock in Fremantle and initially the soldiers were refused permission to disembark and was left anchored in Gage Roads. The disease had not yet affected Western Australia, and the authorities were hesitant to allow the troops to disembark. The conditions aboard were very poor and overcrowded. The food was of very poor quality, the potatoes so bad that the doctors ordered them to be thrown overboard. It would have been heartbreaking for the Perth soldiers to come so close to home soil, to actually see the lights of Fremantle, and to know there family was waiting for them and they couldn’t leave the ship. The contingent of WA soldiers was on the verge of revolt.

Woodman's Point - today

Woodman Point Quarantine Station – today

After a few days anchored in Gage Roads, after much public outcry, approval was granted for 300 of the most unwell soldiers to be ferried to the nearby Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station. It took three days for the sick men to be off-loaded but the next problem was a lack of medical staff to tend to them.

With no medical staff to care for the soldiers, authorities desperately turned to a ship of military nurses on board SS Wyreema, also on its way back to Australia. The SS Wyreema from Sydney included a group of forty Australian army nursing sisters bound for Thessalonica (Salonika). The SS Wyreema turned around at Cape Town when Armistice was declared and arrived back at Fremantle on 10 December 1918.

The small station was soon overrun with sick troops, who were set up in tents outside. Meanwhile Woodman Point was becoming seriously over-crowded. Built to take 30 patients at most, it was now housing 600. Then people started dying.

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Sister Rosa O’Kane

Sister Rosa O’Kane was selected as one of the 20 volunteers to tend the infected soldiers at the Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station Hospital. It was at the Quarantine Station that she contracted ‘Spanish flu’ and was the first of the hospital staff to die on 21 December 1918. Her death was deeply felt, and served as a tragic omen to her hard-pressed colleagues. Of the 20 nurses from the SS Wyreema who volunteered to care for the infected soldiers, 15 contracted the Flu, and four made the supreme sacrifice––Army staff nurses Rosa O’Kane, Doris Ridgway and Ada Thompson, and civilian nurse Hilda Williams. The tragedy also claimed the lives of 26 soldiers.

The HMAT Boonah was quarantined in Gage Roads for nine days. Cases of influenza continued to break out on the ‘Boonah’ and the number of men sent into quarantine rose to 381 and the death toll had already reached 8. The men still in quarantine aboard the ‘Boonah’ tried to make the best of things. However, the Boonah was an iron vessel and little shade was provided for the large contingent still on board. Some started fishing and caught a number of sharks and large fish some of which were deposited in the ship’s pool to keep them fresh.

The press soon took up the case of the men stuck on the ship. The WA government wanted to take the troops to Rottnest but the Commonwealth insisted they stay at sea until the ship had been clean of new infections for 24 hours. To be a clean ship, it had to be clean of infection for 24 hours. However, everyday fresh cases were discovered. The Returned Servicemen’s Association threatened that if the men weren’t brought to shore on Rottnest Island, they would go out in boats and take the men themselves. Then, all of a sudden, on 20 December 1918, because of the political furore that was taking place, the ship was declared clean. This was completely untrue because when the HMAT Boonah cleared Fremantle Harbour, but before it reached Port Adelaide, where the men disembarked, another 20 cases were discovered.

Torrens Isnald Quarantine Station_SLSA B-43143

Torrens Island Quarantine Station, Adelaide

Most of the dead were buried at Woodman Point, south of Perth. In the 1980s they were moved to Hollywood War Cemetery in Nedlands. However, the graves of nurses Rosa O’Kane and HG Williams still remain. In the century since, the surroundings are overgrown with bushland, but the graves are maintained by the Friends of Woodman Point Recreation Camp.

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I’d like to consider myself a friend of Woodman Point. In January 2020, I spent a beautiful, windy, blue-skied Perth afternoon guided through the restored buildings and museum displays of Woodman Point Quarantine Station. Past president of the Friends of Woodman Point, Jenni Carder and her daughter also took me on a rare visit to the grave of Sister Rosa O’Kane. Few people know of this vital institution that served Australia well from the opening in 1886 until it finally closed in 1979. There are few commemorations to remember the devastating pandemic. However, the restoration of Woodman Point Quarantine Station serves as a reminder of Australian soldiers and nurses who died of ‘Spanish flu’.

 

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In Perth, the combination of the city’s relative isolation and effective state border quarantine control ensured that ‘Spanish flu’ didn’t appear significantly there until June 1919. Perth experienced a spike in infections after crowds gathered to celebrate Peace Day on 19 July 1919.

It seems to be for a country surrounded by water, the management of nautical entry would have been better developed since the Boonah Tragedy of 1918.

Woodman's Point @ Isolation Hopital

Leaping into the last day of summer

Happy Birthday.pngThe last day of summer signals the season turning, time moving on. But every four years there’s an extra day between the end of our southern summer and the beginning of autumn. 29 February is a day to contemplate time passing.

My beautiful daughter was born on a leap day. Four years ago, she was five years old in leap years. No longer a Leap Day calendar.jpgteenager. Today is her sixth birthday. We always celebrate her birthday on the last day of our Australian summer. This is an evocative time as it is when you are supposed to celebrate life, to get out and about – and live.

Our daughter’s birth 24 years ago brought a transition for her mother and I. No longer just the two of us. Now mother, father and child. A new family.

Faculty of Engineering.jpgOur daughter spent her fifth leap year studying Engineering in Prague. We are all so very proud of her. Our adventuring daughter of the Great Southern Land. But for her the seasons were all topsy-turvy in the northern hemisphere. Her fifth birthday was the last day of winter. Then came her special day, her interregnum – 29 February 2016.

The next day was spring.

We spent a beautiful spring afternoon in Prague with her not long after her last leap birthday. Prague is a city that appears to have slipped through time without the wear and tear of the world acting upon it. It missed most of the devastation that major European cities dealt with during World War 2, and is home to PraPrague Clock.jpggue Castle, and the historic Charles Bridge. The Old Town Square is a spectacle in itself. The 1410 Prague Orloj on the Old Town Hall is one of the few still working astronomical clocks of medieval Europe, after having been saved by locals from a Nazi arson attempt. On the zodiac face of this magnificent clock religion meets science where death in the form of a skeleton strikes the hour while figures of all 12 apostles step out above the action.

Thinking of leap days always reminds me of Frederic from ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. As a child he had been apprenticed to a band of tender hearted, orphaned pirates by his nurse who, being hard of hearing, had mistaken her master’s instructioFrederic.jpgns to apprentice the boy to a pilot. Frederic, upon his 21st birthday, rejoices that he has fulfilled his indentures and is now free to return to respectable society. Poor Frederic was born on 29th February 1856 and though he was apprenticed to a band of pirates until he turned 21 on 1st March 1877, his apprenticeship is until his 21st birthday, which won’t be until 29th February 1940, when he’ll be 84 years old. Frederic then swears to the love of his life that he will return in his 80s and marry her.

Of course, Gilbert is wrong in his maths. The action in ‘Pirates’ can’t be taking place on 1st March 1877. For Frederic to be 21 on 29th February 1940 the contract must have been signed on 1st March 1873, as there is no leap year in 1900. Beware the fine print in any contract.

For millennia humans had no need or word for second, minute or year, though on a larger scale there were the seasons. They changed gradually, predictably. The sun, moon and shadows were the only clocks humans had, apart from the clock within – the beating heart, measuring out our brief lives.

When agriculture arrived with the need to prepare for planting or, as in Egypt, an annual flood, the astronomers came into being. And the pace began to quicken. With the rise of civilisation there arose a pressing need to keep track of the passage of time and plan for the future.

The first Babylonian calendar was made up of 12 lunar months of 29 and 30 days. This was later adapted by the Romans. However, using the moon is not an effective way to divide up a year. By 46 BCE, the Roman calendar was running 90 days behind the seasons. Julius Caesar was advised by astronomers to ditch the lunar system and define a year according to the sun. He did but he also added an extra day every four year as his new Julian calendar was about 6 hours short of a true solar year.

After all this, the Julian calendar was still 11 minutes longer than a real year. This doesn’t seem much but by the mid-16th century the calendar Gregorian calendar.jpghad moved ahead 10 days. The problem was the shift made it difficult to establish when to celebrate Easter. Pope Gregory XIII’s solution was to remove leap years from the last year of centuries not divisible by 400, and remove 10 days from October that year. In doing this the calendar now gained only half a minute a year. The Gregorian calendar had arrived.

Calendar’s give humans a grasp of chronology, a sense of what happened, in which order, a way forward. Chronology is important as knowing the exact order in which events occur helps us understand the cause and the effect of those events. This allows us to step back and view the ‘big picture’ of our history – how and why events unfold in the way they do, and how they are related.

The traditional view of history as a study of the family tree of kings and queens, lists of dates, and a single, agreed narrative, have been superseded. One of the strengths of history now is it is contestable. You have to weigh evidence to find out ‘what really happened’, not merely read a textbook interpretation of it. Yes, facts and dates are still important. Yes, there should be some established certainties. But there are spaces between those certainties – and those spaces are often the most interesting, the most thought provoking – to explore.

Calendars and time are not based on human needs but within astrophysical occurrences. Human versus Nature. The age-old struggle. Through most of history, time was fixed by astronomical reference points. The Earth spins once, let’s call it a day.

No more.

Now the absolute reference has shifted from the stars to the atomic beams in their vaults. Particles are considered steadier than planets. Never mind the uncertainty principle as it is the heavens that can’t be relied on. Stars drift. The Earth shivers ever so slightly. With the oceanic tides acting as brakes, our planet slows in its rotation by fractions of a second each year. These anomalies matter in a time-gripped age.

We human beings of the twenty-first century are obsessed with time. It rules our lives. Think about this. Time use to depend where you were on the Earth. Before 1883, people used a sun clock to tell solar time. Each community kept its own time, basing that time on the sun’s position in the sky. But the sun always moves across the sky. Noon in one town would be four minutes later than noon fifty kilometres to the east. According to solar time, it’s noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. In 1883, to regulate time for the sake of railroad schedules, the United States adopted what is called standard time, designating time zones and requiring all communities within a time zone to keep the same time – even though the standard time didn’t quite match solar time.

No matter what, the Earth continues to slow.

My wife and I were chatting with our daughter through Facebook messenger on the morning of her fifth leap birthday. She had just walked the few blocks from her University College at the Czech Technical University to the Engineering Faculty building. As she hovered outside the revolving front door she FB messengered us on her mobile phone, all in a flurry. Her hair was covered in snow and she complained she didn’t know what the etiquette is for entering a building when you are covered in snow. Do you have to shake it all off first, do you wait until you get inside, or is there some other arcane ritual unbeknownst to an Aussie girl? It was quite funny really. Brisbane girl hits Central Europe in winter. They say that Prague in the winter is not for the faint hearted.

shivering earth.jpgSeason turning into new season and time passing. Leap years came about because of the need to align our Gregorian calendar with Earth’s revolutions around the sun. I’m a big fan of bringing about overarching order from chaos.

Leap days let us know how small we humans really are in the scheme of things. Perhaps it’s a good thing to be reminded there are bigger forces around us. The transition of seasons will happen, simple, ancient, true. No matter whether you’re ready for it or not, no matter what political party is in power, no matter the state of the economy, the great old Earth turns regardless.

Leap days are corrective measures to bring humans and nature back into alignment. And yet it is these little spaces between certainties that are often the most interesting and thought provoking. So let’s take a collective leap into that last day of summer and all embrace a little uncertainty in our lives.

The cold case of Germanicus – 2000 years ago today

2000 years ago today, the greatest Roman emperor that Rome never had was allegedly assassinated. The Roman general Germanicus was heir to his adopted father Emperor Tiberius. As a famous general, and a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he was widely popular and regarded as the ideal Roman long after his death. To the Roman people, Germanicus was the Roman equivalent of Alexander the Great due to the nature of his death at a young age, his virtuous character, his dashing physique, and his military renown.While in the eastern provinces, he came into conflict with the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnia Piso. During their feud, Germanicus became ill in Antioch, where he died on 10 October 19 CE, at only 33 years of age. His death has been attributed to poison by ancient sources, but that was never proven. Seutonius relates that he had “dark stains” covering his body and “foam on his lips,” which he seemed to suggest was poison. Supposedly, after Germanicus’ cremation, his heart had been found intact among the charred remains – “a heart steeped in poison is supposedly proof against fire.” This is of course nonsense by modern scientific standards

Germanicus’ death aroused much speculation, with several sources blaming Piso, acting under orders from Emperor Tiberius. This was never proven, and Piso later died while facing trial. Intriguingly, once Piso had died, the investigation into the assassination of the next Roman emperor stopped. There has never been identified a definitive assassin of Germanicus.

Tacitus says Tiberius was involved in a conspiracy against Germanicus, and Tiberius’s jealousy and fear of his nephew’s popularity and increasing power was the true motive. Suetonius went on to write: “According to the general verdict, Tiberius craftily arranged Germanicus’ death with Gnaeus Piso as his intermediary and agent.” This is unlikely as following Germanicus’ campaigns in Germany, he was given command of the eastern provinces – a sure sign he was intended to rule.

What is more likely is that Sejanus, the son of Tiberius’ first Praetorian Prefect Strabo and now leader of the Praetorian Guard in Rome, had a hand in Germanicus’ death. The ever ambitious Sejanus may have wanted to eliminate Germanicus because he believed that he himself could one day be emperor. It is highly unlikely that Tiberius and Sejanus worked in collusion, as a few years later Sejanus was behind the murder of Tiberius’ son, Drusus. The style of Drusus’ murder was similar to his cousin and adopted-brother Germanicus’ and would not have happened if Tiberius was implicated in Germanicus’ death.

Perhaps one of the oldest of cold cases may be solved with the discovery of the ‘Memoirs of Agrippina’, written by his daughter Agrippina the Younger. We know the ‘Memoirs of Agrippina’ once existed as they were referred to in the writings of the Roman historian, Tacitus, as well as mentioned by Pliny the Younger, however there are no extant versions that survived beyond antiquity. We can only hope.

RIP, Germanicus Julius Caesar.

Nicholas Poussin, The Death of Germanicus (1628), oil painting. Collection Minneapolis Institute of Arts.