1917 - The long haul
Australians were confronted by war on a scale they had never experienced. Tensions on the home front rose through 1916 and 1917.
The casualty figures from Gallipoli in 1915 and the Somme in 1916 outstripped voluntary recruitment so the federal government attempted to introduce conscription for compulsory service in the AIF. NSW voted ‘No’ on the two occasions that a referendum was held on the issue of conscription during the war. The only other states to vote ‘No’ on both occasions were Queensland and South Australia.
Amid the acrimony about conscription, economic conditions were also deteriorating. The price of food and basic goods almost doubled during the war but wages fell by a third. From late 1916 the number of workers striking for better wages and conditions began to increase.
The war’s worst strike began among NSW railway workers in August 1917. After retrenchments, the denial of a wage rise and longer hours, the introduction of time cards was the last straw. The strike spread quickly to the docks and the coal mines. By the middle of September 69,000 men had stopped work. It became known as the NSW General Strike. It lasted 82 days, involved 100,000 workers many of whom lost their jobs and divided the community.
Amid the unrest of 1917, the Commonwealth and NSW governments sought to crush the dissent. Prime Minister Billy Hughes had The War Precautions Act, The Defence Act and The Unlawful Associations Act to help control protests. The NSW Government did not have the same powers but used existing legislation in creative ways.
NSW Nationalist Party Leader George Fuller became Chief Secretary (the second most important cabinet position). As Chief Secretary he was responsible for the police, the judiciary, and surveys such as the 1915 Census of Horses and Owners for Military Purposes. He was the censor and, under The Theatres and Public Halls Act 1908, licensed indoor and outdoor entertainment venues. This law was used to silence any who questioned the government.
No end in sight
These attacks on the cultural, social and political lives of the people of NSW only added to the sense of exhaustion from a war that had dragged on for three years, with no end in sight.
76,836 Australians became casualties in the battles of 1917 including Bullecourt, Messines and the four-month campaign around Ypres, known as the battle of Passchendaele.
William Whitely Gocher
One of those lost at Messines was William Whitely Gocher from Newtown in inner-city Sydney. Gocher enlisted in October 1914 in the 13th Battalion aged 22 years. He served at Gallipoli and was transferred to the 45th Battalion in Egypt. He sailed from Alexandira to Marseilles in June 1916, survived the Battle of Pozieres and won promotion to Sergeant and awarded a Military Medal. In early 1917 he was accidentally wounded in the face during a grenade training session but recover in time to participate in the fighting at Bullecourt. he demonstrated "dash, determination and coolness under fire" leading a team during a bombing raid at Geudecourt and was awarded a bar to his Military Medal.
On 24 April 1917 Gocher was promoted to Second Lieutenant, but six weeks later, after more than two years of combat, he was killed when leading his platoon on the first day of the Battle of Messines. Gocher is buried in the Messines Ridge Cemetery.
Patrick Joseph Bugden
Twenty-year-old Pat Bugden (1897-1917), had been a hotelkeeper from the north coast of New South Wales before he enlisted in Brisbane. He went on to fight with the 31st Battalion at Polygon Wood in late September 1917. As his battalion advanced, it was swept with machine-gun fire because the British on the right flank had not kept up the attack. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his outstanding bravery over the three days. On two occasions he led small parties to silence the enemy posts. Five times he rescued wounded men trapped by intense shelling and machine-gun fire. Once, seeing that an Australian corporal had been taken prisoner, he single-handedly rushed to his comrade's aid, shooting and bayoneting the enemy. He kept fighting until he was killed on 28 September 1917.
Excerpts taken from the NSW Centenary of Anzac commemorative book NSW and the Great War.
Featured image: Frank Hurley, ‘Desolation’ or ‘All that is left of the long wall of the Cloth Hall at Ypres’. From Colart Studios, The pictorial panorama of the Great War... [SLNSW PXD 481]