menu Menu
Great Southern Line | Research Report Part Three: The experience of leaving and returning home
Dr Mary Hutchison
By admin Posted in The Great Southern Line on February 21, 2018 3 Comments
Great Southern Line | Research Report Part Two: NSWGR - Wartime and repatriation Previous Great Southern Line | Research Report Part Four: Themes and Elements of Experience Next

Great Southern Line Anzac Story

Part Three

Southern Tablelands Arts

Research Report

Historical background and stories 1914 -1920

Dr Mary Hutchison

Part Three: The experience of leaving and returning home



From the Collection of Kate Olsson Welcome home, Family portrait. 
Mowbray Park, known as Waley Home in the post war years, donated by the Waleys for the care of shell-shocked soldiers. C1920.

Photograph at Picton School of Arts.  (School of Arts 048 (6) Wollondilly Heritage Centre.)  Roy Howard met his wife when he was convalescing at Waley Home after the War.

Family and community support for soldiers during the War

Across Australia families and communities contributed to the overall war effort as members of fund raising and support organisations and groups on the ‘homefront’.  These included a wide web of branches of the Red Cross, ‘comforts funds’ established to support individual fighting units and a mass of local fund raising initiatives.  Many of these activities were predominantly the province of women.  Women also volunteered for the Voluntary Aid Detachment which took them into various areas of homefront war work including helping in hospitals and convalescent homes.

Local newspapers provide insight into the range of homefront activities in individual localities. Berrima Museum’s exhibition, The Southern Highlands 1200, Wollondilly Heritage Centre’s exhibition, Her War, and the memorabilia copied and documented for the Great Southern Line Anzac stories project by STARTS, substantiate newspaper descriptions with examples of photos and objects. Information here focuses on examples of activities particularly relevant to the experience of railway workers and the role of railway stations, at the three hub localities.

Farewells and welcome homes – the role of the railway station

Farewells and welcome homes were an important ritual and could involve occasions held by several groups – family and friends, workmates etc.  These were held in family homes and public meeting places.  The railway station was also an important site of farewells and welcome homes whether of large numbers of troops such as from the military camp in Goulburn, or of several local residents. These might be accompanied by the town band, speeches by the mayor and other dignitaries, and a procession to or from the station.  They took place at relevant stops, small or large, all along the line with the support of citizens’ groups and organisations.  At stations with Loco departments (Goulburn, Picton), the loud ‘cock-a-doodling’ of engine whistles set off by the workers was a frequent feature of departure and return.  This was especially the case where fellow railway workers were concerned.

The following description of a farewell at Goulburn highlights the progress along the Southern Line of a troop train transporting soldiers from the Goulburn military camp:

The Light Horse Band played the men to the station… A tremendous crowd of people assembled at the railway station and the gallant soldiers were given a rousing farewell as the train sped on its way. Detonators were exploded and the engines shrieked their cock-a-doodle doos. The detachment arrived at Moss Vale at about where a small crowd of people assembled to wish them bon voyage. (Scrutineer and Berrima District Press 28/10/1916 p 2)

Farewell and welcome home gifts

Gifts were often given at farewells and welcome homes. Common gifts were wrist watches – luminous ones sometimes – shaving outfits, smoker’s outfits, safety razors, wallets and belts.  Less usual – a balaclava hat and a sheepskin vest.  The idea of the boomerang (returning, an Australian icon) was highlighted in Milne’s presentation of two mounted boomerangs to the First Railway Supply Detachment and was also present more generally – for example a special farewell present from a young lady to one soldier in the Southern Highlands described as a ‘boomerang mascot’ (a pin perhaps?).  A typical expression wishing for a safe return: and that at the termination of this dreadful war they would return to their friends again (Southern Mail 18/4/1916 p.2). Knitted socks from the local Red Cross were given at a Mittagong farewell.

Gifts could become treasured mementos of return or as representations of soldiers who did not return.  The silver welcome home badges presented to Bob Curtis and Bill Guthrie at the welcome home event for them at the Guthrie home at Big Hill as a commemoration of the occasion, embody not only the mens’ experience of war but also that of their families (see memorabilia from Curtis family, photos and scans of objects, STARTS). Different examples in the Southern Highlands 1200 exhibition at Berrima are a silver cigarette case with the two cigarettes from Cairo presented as a farewell to a soldier who did not return, and a silver sugar bowl bought by another soldier killed in action to send to his new baby sister.

Ambulance trains

As the war continued ambulance trains transporting wounded returning soldiers became a more familiar site.  Goulburn’s Welcome Home Committee played a role in meeting these returnees and at Moss Vale where trains stopped for refuelling, the Blue Gum Girls, started by Mrs Ethel Tomley who managed the refreshment rooms across the road from the station, were always on hand. They distributed flowers, cups of tea and chocolates.  They also provided meals in association with the Red Cross.  As well as meeting ambulance trains they were a familiar part of welcome homes at the station and having formed their own choir could also turn their hand to entertainment.

Fund raising and the provision of ‘comforts’

Fund raising and other work to support the troops was part of homefront activities in every locality. Red Cross branches played a key role in this as well as in farewells and welcome homes and the provision of ‘comforts’ to send to troops. Comforts funds were created to support particular fighting units with items such as clothing and non-perishable food.

Goulburn was home to a branch of the comforts fund that supported the 6th Railway Operating Company which included a number of Goulburn Loco workers. The fund was established in Sydney by Tamar James, sister of the Company commander, Captain William James.  In Goulburn the president was Thomasena Moore, mother-in- of Company member James Donald, whose wife Jessie also served on the Committee.  In August 1918 the GEPP reported that Mrs Moore had knitted 112 pairs of socks for the Company.

Violet Day Moss Vale

One of the ways the Red Cross in the Moss Vale area raised funds was through the sale of violets on Violet Day.  In June 1918 sales of violets accompanied by afternoon teas, sales of fruit etc raised funds for the Soldiers’ Club.  In Moss Vale itself, violets were sold by members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment at the Moss Vale railway station, raising 10 pounds and 5 shillings (Scrutineer and Berrima District Press 19 June 1918, p2.).

Convalescent homes – Moss Vale and Picton

Several large early pastoral settlement houses in the Moss Vale and Picton areas became convalescent homes for soldiers.  These played an important part in regional Homefront activities with local organisations raising funds for them and VADs assisting in the care of patients. Moss Vale, Picton and small stations on the line served the homes.

Honouring and supporting those who served

War memorials

Honour Boards in localities and work places were a form of honouring those who served from early in the War and in Goulburn and Picton railway honour boards were erected at the respective stations.  Goulburn’s board remains at the station. The plans for a more substantial railway war memorial on the lawn in front of the station on Sloane Street, if the Railway Commisioners approved, did not materialise (GEPP 3/4/1917, p4).  The Picton Post reported on the erection of the Picton Board on 3 March 1915 (p3) but its whereabouts are unknown.  Citizens also raised funds for town war memorials. The Bowral War Memorial is on land donated by NSWGR.  In Picton, Porter, Alexander Ingleton, contributed to fund raising for the Picton Memorial School of Arts as a musician (see stories summary).

Anzac day commemorations

Anzac Day commemorations became an important part of the yearly calendar and NSWGR gave employees leave to participate (CME circulars).  Events such as a large group of original Anzacs stopping at Moss Vale on the way between Melbourne and Sydney, attracted crowds of well wishers.

Practical support for returned soldiers

Community organisations were active in providing support and raising funds for soldiers and their families in need.  Soldiers’ clubs and leagues advocated on behalf of returnees particularly in relation to issues such as employment and financial hardship.  Government ‘repat’ hospitals and private homes for soldiers who were in need of constant medical care became features of community landscapes.  Workforce groups, including from NSWGR, as well as other organisations including schools (Goulburn eg) got involved in voluntary activities such as building homes for returned men and their families.

Celebrating Peace

The peace bonfire built in the Moss Vale area July 1919, National Library of Australia 3919215

Banners, flags and illuminations were bright and heartfelt aspects of welcome homes and peace celebrations.  Hand made welcome home banners were especially poignant (eg William Wilson photo of welcome home STARTS memorabilia).  A welcome home banner made by a mother is on display in Her War at the Wollindilly Heritage Centre.  Another example is the sign Murleen Brouwer (nee Smith)’s grandmother  put up on a board above the garden gate of the family house near the North Goulburn Railway Station.  Her three sons were able to see it as they came back into Goulburn on the train (Memories of Goulburn 2013)

Peace celebrations in Sydney included streets ‘ablaze with light and colour’, brilliantly illuminated buildings.  Warships in the harbour were outlined with electric lights and there was a display of rockets and searchlights.  Central station was decorated and illuminated (Scrutineer and Berrima District Press 23/7/1919 p.4) In Picton, as sin Goulburn, the news of Armistice arriving at the telegraph station was greeted by piercing whistles from engines at the Loco Depot. In Picton the following day there was a procession, floral arches were erected and flags and banners were flown (Red Poppies and the White Waratah 115)

Returning to work with NSWGR

 Although NSWGR had generous repatriation policies in place and a number of the men whose stories have been collected returned to work and continued until retirement, this was probably not as easy for them as it might seem.  Stories of those who were not able to continue in their position, resigned early or changed from their original job suggest the complexities of returning to work after years of living in a world of horror incomprehensible to those who had not been part of it; after living long term with death, injury, sickness and survival.  With the passage of time there would have been changes in the work environment that were difficult to adjust to and the ongoing tensions in some areas of the workforce as a result of the strike, may have produced further adjustment difficulties.  In addition railway work was physically demanding, requiring good eyesight, good hearing, strength and stamina.  The stories show that a number of our returnees retired before the statutory 65 years or died, either on the job or after retirement, below the age of 69 which was the average life expectancy for men of the generation who served in WW1.

On the other hand, the hierarchy and regulation of railway work, and the camaraderie between men in certain areas of the railway workforce, may have offered a degree of security after years in the military (not Robert Muir who later ran a general store).  Perhaps working in relative isolation, outdoors, in fettling gangs may also have suited some of those who returned – for example Roy Howard who became a railway employee after the war and went on to become a much valued member of the workforce who as a ganger ‘held the Bowral length’.

The experience of returning railway workers, or of those who were employed by NSWGR as returned soldiers, may be gleaned from the individual stories and the context of the more general experience of repatriation in the aftermath of a long global war.


Repatriation and the legacy of war

(see appendix viii: ‘Australian veteran’s health WW1’, MAPW; appendix ix: Marina Larsson ‘Unsung Healers’, Memento 38)

Of a population of less than 5 million, 416,809 men aged between 18 and 44 volunteered for war service – not far off 40% of the population.  Of these, 324,000 served in the field of battle.  Overall there were around 60,000 deaths, 150,000 wounded and 87,865 grave illnesses (Millen; Larsson).  A new form of wound which was not well understood at the time was produced by chemical warfare. Officially 16,496 AIF troops were exposed to gas attacks.  Death rates were low but this masked long term health effects such as long term upper and lower lung damage that worsens over time (Millen). (eg Robert Curtis story ). Thousands of returned soldiers died slowly during the 1920s and 30s (Larsson p.235).

By 1920, 90,000 ex-servicemen were receiving war disability pensions.  The War itself had ended.  The return of soldiers was a new chapter – the ‘aftermath’.

Bill Gammage writes of the difficulties returned men had in adjusting to civilian life.  A gap opened up between returned soldiers who had shared an intense and largely incommunicable experience far from home, and those who had no first hand knowledge of it.  On both sides there were misunderstandings and perceived injustices, often particularly felt in relation to the legal support for returned soldiers’ preferential access to employment.  There was a tendency for returned soldiers to seek each other’s company exclusively, looking for the mateship and camaraderie that had been central to surviving a shared experience of horror.

Marina Larsson and others have focused on the ‘aftermath’ in relation to the family and community experience of caring for loved ones who had been physically and mentally injured.  For families this was often an intense and long term experience with little Government support apart from a rigorously assessed pension.   The stigma of physical disability and the lack of understanding psychological trauma meant that much of this experience was essentially private.

An important aspect of the post-war context was the lack of public discussion about the difficult, horrific and life changing impact of war and the extent to which they continued into peacetime.  With key government supports in place, and forms of commemoration such as ANZAC days established, ‘grin and bear it’ as Rod McLean said, was the accepted way forward.  There were few words for the long term effects of the grief, loss and trauma resulting from war. Official language spoke of ‘disability’.  Families spoke of men being ‘changed’.  Some didn’t speak of it at all as examples of our stories show. (William Wilson, Robert Curtis stories).  This situation shaped what Larsson sees as the ‘social’ wounds of war which affected those connected to servicemen with long term physical and psychological wounds and ‘touched the lives of successive generations of Australian families after 1918’ (Larsson p. 18).

Previous Next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Cancel Post Comment