A simple code of mateship and nationalism explains the enduring appeal of the Returned & Services League of Australia. The unswerving loyalty to mates and assertive Australian nationalism which give the League its strength are easy to understand. The membership is largely self-educated: the men of World War I who remained in control of the League until well after World War II had few formal educational opportunities, and the men and women who served from 1939 to 1945 received their education in uniform.
The leadership of the League has rarely been drawn from the military or social elite. Popular generals, including John Monash and Harry Chauvel, were called but not chosen. The egalitarian nature of the League reflects more than the soldiers' suspicion of 'brass hats' and the wider Australian desire to cut down 'tall poppies' - the League has been a social and spiritual home for less-wealthy and less-educated veterans, and although affluent and professional veterans are often loyal members of the League, they have alternative avenues for fellowship.
Although the League is one of the most representative and broad-based community groups, certain characteristics distinguish its membership. Members are mainly male and tend to be older than the rest of the population. The views of country veterans receive more than proportionate weight, thanks to the long-standing policy-making processes. Thus age, education, and bush bias make the League different from other organisations. All three attributes contribute to making an organisation which is cautious about accepting change. Thus the League can accurately be described as "The voice of stability in changing times". (Sir Albert Abbott, Queensland branch president, 1985 State Congress.)
That voice has often been strident; sometimes because harsh words were needed to protect the interests of the returned or the dependents of those who did not return, and sometimes in defence of a principle or belief dearly held.
"Returned" is the key word. Overseas service, and only overseas service, entitled a man or a woman to membership. To widen or not to widen eligibility for membership has been the most divisive and bitterly contested issue in the League's history.
Recruits accepted for overseas service but who never left Australia were ruled ineligible shortly after World War I. A plebiscite of sub-branches voted the same way in 1947. Faced with literally a dying organisation, members finally approved a plebiscite resolution for widening membership in 1983.
Ironically, New South Wales was the state most in favor of wider eligibility in 1947. The reverse was the case in 1983 and the most populous state took a further two years to accept the national plebiscite result as binding. Long-held beliefs die hard. Members in other states grudgingly accepted the change. "You only need to smile at a recruiting officer to become a member of the League these days" is a comment that sums up the feelings of many members, who concede the need for new recruits, but without much enthusiasm. In fact, the post-1983 criteria for membership is six month's service in the regular services or the reserve in Australia or overseas.
The voice of stability which ensured that criteria for membership remained unchanged for sixty-seven years extends to the League's attitudes on external issues. Policies on repatriation, ANZAC commemoration, compulsory military training and ties with Britain have altered little over the seven decades. This unchanging sense of purpose and direction is a source of strength to the organisation, particularly in its most crucial sphere or activity - the welfare of those who served and their families.
Would the returned have become such a potent force in Australian society if the ethos of mateship had not already been deeply ingrained before World War I?
What is certain is that the mateship of the Australian bush, the city larrikins in their "pushes", and the solidarity of trade unionism spilled over into the first Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and hence into the returned soldiers' movement. The same spirit pervades the League today, be it in the form of cutting firewood for the wife of a fellow member in hospital, or raising money at a Diggers Golf Day for one of the League's war veterans homes. In the early years mateship meant jobs, establishing the repatriation system, and remembering those who did not return.
Professor Ernest Scott, the author of "Australia During the War (Volume XI of the Official History of the War of 1914-1918)", takes issue with the League's own historian for its first decade (Dr Loftus Hills) who maintained that the organisation's main achievement in the postwar years was forcing the Government to pay an acceptable war gratuity of 1s 6d for each day served overseas: "Probably the most striking achievement of the League is the obtainment of the War Gratuity, involving, as it does, a sum exceeding twenty-nine million (pounds)".
Scott said that securing employment preference was a greater achievement, "A result of these and similar measures has been largely to eliminate, so far as Australia is concerned, the peculiar problems of unsettlement which have followed the return of crowds of veterans from most of the great wars of history. Much unemployment of veterans has indeed occurred - consequent partly upon war strain and injury, but mainly upon economic and industrial stresses. This also has been alleviated by the activity of the League, Legacy clubs, and other agencies in finding employment for returned men."
The early correspondence of the League is about jobs, jobs, jobs. The returned men had every right to expect employment, since that was the carrot held out by the politicians to encourage recruitment. The Labor government decided in July 1915 that preference in Government employment would be given to returned soldiers, whether they were unionists or not. In 1917 the Nationalist government reinforced the Labor promise: "The Ministry will give effect to its policy of preference of employment to returned soldiers, and as far as possible, and subject to the provisions of the Public Service Act, no fit single man of military age will be employed in a position that can be filled with equal advantage to the nation by a returned soldier or eligible man". Ensuring that successive governments kept their promises on employment preference, and trying to find jobs by other means was only one aspect - albeit one of the most important - of the transition to peace.
The dictionary definition of repatriation covers all aspects of the lives of those being repatriated; that is, returning to their homeland. Thus, the provision of jobs either in the public service or on the land through soldier settlement was part of what the nation owed to those who left Australia to fight. Repatriation came to have a narrower meaning.
Inevitably shortened to "repat", the meaning evolved to describe the welfare system developed to cater for returned soldiers and their families; hence repat hospital, repat pension and repat doctor are phrases which have slipped into the language.
That Australia's repat system is the most generous in the world is a claim made by politicians and the League alike. Its accuracy is impossible to prove or disprove, but the range of pensions and benefits has certainly been the envy of veterans' organisations in other Commonwealth countries. The entitlements had to be fought for in peace as well as war. Prime Minister Billy Hughes owed much of his political success to the soldier vote, but he made their representatives fight hard for every benefit. Having grudgingly conceded as little ground as possible, Hughes would then argue with League officials over who should claim the credit. Relations between the "Little Digger", as he was nicknamed, and the ex-diggers were not always cordial. On the war gratuity negotiations, Loftus Hills records that eight separate meetings were held between Hughes and a League subcommittee, "and they were not at times run on the lines of a Sunday School conversation". Hughes was correct on one issue - he had no love of statutory authorities (" ... I have appointed commissions and they have afterwards told me to go to blazes") and hence wanted the repat machinery to be under direct ministerial control. The League wanted a commission to which it would have the right to nominate members and to maintain an arm's length from political responsibility. The League has usually been able to convince politicians of all parties, particularly on repat issues, but the Repatriation Commission has not always been receptive.
Nevertheless, maintaining the separate identity of the repat system will be the League's last bastion. The organisation has never wavered from the position that the war pension and similar benefits are a right, not an act of generosity. In Scott's words, "The League is foremost in taking up these cases, and by constant pressure has secured regulation and administration the fairness of which usually satisfied even the exacting standards of its own officials". With its repeat activities (as in other areas) little has changed, yet as a welfare organisation the League need apologise to no-one.
Politicians, leaders of would-be rival veterans' organisations and even governors-general have urged the League to confine its activities to matters of direct concern to its members. Such admonitions show little understanding of the cult of the Australian soldier and the role of the League in sustaining that central theme of national identity. "Beginning with the ANZACs themselves on Gallipoli, the soldiers forced something of their own homely presence into the legend of nation-creators and empire-sustainers", wrote Donald Horne in "In Search of Billy Hughes".
The tall lean bushman of "The Man From Snowy River" and "Shearing the Rams" was replaced by the tall lean ANZAC as the quintessential Australian following the Dardanelles Campaign. The digger is still the most appealing Australian hero figure judging from the popularity of contemporary books, films, and television programs on our history.
The League assumes the right to speak out on any issue. Naturally men who bear arms to preserve a way of life in war believe they earn a special right to have their say in peace, but the League's outspokenness served other purposes. The return to civilian life after years away fighting in mud, sand, or jungle is a jarring experience. The League has been an important element in the transition from war to peace. Socially, sub-branches provided a link with the extraordinary bonds of war. Politically, the League provided a peaceful avenue for the anger and tension which could easily have turned to violence.
In 1919 returned soldiers were involved in rioting and lesser disturbances in many cities and towns. Sometimes, as in Brisbane, the soldiers were responding to pro-Bolshevik demonstrations, and rough justice was meted out to the red flag wavers (the origins of the League's anti-communism are deep-rooted). The ugly situation in Brisbane was turned into peaceful, if rowdy, demonstrations after the League intervened. In Melbourne a procession of marchers, many in uniform, commemorating the war dead became an unruly mob. The wilder elements of the crowd bailed up State politicians and injured the Premier. Thanks to the League, the national day of commemoration, ANZAC Day, is a day of peace.
Australian military experience has been one of uprooting a civilian population, sending the men away to fight and, sometimes literally, drafting the women in support.
No-one should be surprised therefore that Australians are fascinated by their own military history. The original citizen soldiers, the ANZACs, fought and died and created a legend, and the sons of the ANZACs lived up to their fathers' expectations. The men sent to fight in the post-World War II conflicts shared similar backgrounds, as the regular soldiers of Malaya and Korea were mostly World War II veterans. The conscripts of Vietnam were as random a cross-section of the population as that surveyed by any opinion pollster.
A military caste is anathema to Australians. Conventional wisdom dictates that we should have a professional army, navy and air force capable of defending us from aggressors and maintaining treaty commitments, but the professional serviceman should also know his place. The citizen soldier who answered his country's call to arms, voluntarily or involuntarily, is not so constrained. To the contrary, the citizen soldier, by virtue of his service, has a right to speak out and be heard on any issue of concern, particularly those affecting the security of the nation at peace which he fought to protect in war.
The citizen soldier only has one vote and that vote has one value. He understands that because he fought for democracy. The democratic system also allows him to organise those who think like he does to form a political party, or a group to influence political parties. Returned men established such a pressure group whose membership and structure is the envy of all political parties, but that does not fully explain why the League's achievements have been the envy of most other pressure groups.
Good politicians can assess public opinion - their survival depends on being able to sniff the breeze of electoral change. Each Federal electorate contains an average of a dozen League sub-branches. The League is pervasive. Even a politician who remains aloof from the veteran community cannot escape. The badge is clearly visible on buildings, even though they may be clubs that no longer have a direct link with the organisation that spawned them. The familiar badge is also seen regularly in the death columns as members pay their last respects.
Research conducted specifically for this book shows that for most of its history, League attitudes have been remarkably in accord with the views held by the rest of the community. The League's long-standing policies on ANZAC Day commemoration, compulsory military training, Defence spending, communism, and ties with Britain are those of a clear majority of all Australians as measured by public opinion surveys.
Generally, and predictably, League attitudes find greater favor among the older and less well-educated groups, but that was not so in a recent poll done on ANZAC Day. League policy states that ANZAC Day should be commemorated as Australia's national day of remembrance, and public opinion surveys reflect that view as shown below. The age breakdown of the 1980 poll showed the strongest approval - 81.3% - among the youngest age group, the eighteen to twenty-four year olds.
"The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance"
The motto of the RSL has an interesting history.
In the fourth century BC Demosthenes enunciated the spirit of the motto although he used these words:
"There is one safeguard known generally to the wise,which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust"
In 1770 the following words were apparently first used by John Philpot Curran in his speech upon his election as Lord Mayor of Dublin:
"The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance."
Then Wendel Phillips, in an address before the Massachusetts Anti Slavery Society in 1852 said:
"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"
Some people have attributed this also to Thomas Jefferson but no one has found any records of Jefferson using the sentence.
In the early 1920's the Victorian Branch of the League suggested that the League should have a motto, and the NSW Branch of the League recommended:
"The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance"
In November 1923 the 8th National Congress of the RSL agreed on the motto recommended by NSW.
The badge is a symbol of a readiness at all times to render service to Crown and country, and to former comrades. It is a time-honoured emblem - one that has been worn with a deep sense of pride by the most revered in our land and one that glorifies all privileged to wear it.
Neither wealth, nor influence, nor social standing can purchase the badge, which may be worn in honour only by those who have rendered service in the armed forces of the Crown or its allies.
The wattle is symbolic of Australia. The leek, rose, thistle and shamrock are symbolic of and represent the link with Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland respectively.
In the badge the red represents the blood tie of war that exists between comrades. White stands for the purity of motives in joining the League - to render service without thought of personal gain or ambition. The blue indicates a willingness to render that service to a comrade anywhere under the blue sky - wherever he or she may be.
Depicted in the center of the badge, and encircled by the name of the organisation, are a sailor, soldier, airmen and servicewoman marching together with their arms linked in friendship. This is to show that within the circle of the League, all Services and all ranks march together in unity and comradeship.
We would ask that you look upon your badge as an inspiration to good citizenship, cherishing it as a symbol of all that is best in our national life and living up to the high ideals on which the organisation is based.
The badge has evolved as the League has evolved.
1915 to 1919, badges were state based Returned Soldiers Associations, in 1916 a national Returned Soldiers Association badge appeared and gradually replaced the state badges.
By 1919 the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League badge had evolved, after a reduction in size in 1922 it remained in use until 1941.
From 1941 until 1966 the Returned Sailors Soldiers and Airmans Imperial League badge was used until a change of name in 1966 when the Returned Services League badge was introduced; with a change of crown in 1971, the badge remained in use until 1990.
In 1990, the present Returned & Services League badge was introduced.
The Women's Auxiliary badge has remained structurally unchanged since its inception in 1922, reflecting only the change of initials of the League.
The changes to name and badge since 1916 reflect the nature of the League and its ability to adapt to reflect stabilised changes about it.
In 1923, the 8th National Congress of the League, adopted the Motto "The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance". The motto and its significance is clearly reflected in League policies on National Defence and support for the Australian Defence Force.
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."
The Ode is taken from the elegy For The Fallen, by English poet and writer Laurence Binyon and was published in London in The Winnowing Fan; Poems of the Great War in 1914. The fourth verse, which became the League Ode, was already used in association with commemoration services in Australia in 1921 and not only adorns War Memorials throughout the British Commonwealth but is at the heart of all rites of the RSL.
For The Fallen
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn in drums thrill: Death august and royal
Signs sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again:
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labor of the daytime;
They sleep beyond England's foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
felt as a wellspring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars that are known to the Night.
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
to the end, to the end, they remain.
(1869 - 1943)
On and around 11 November each year, the League sells millions of red poppies for Australians to pin on their lapels. Proceeds go to League welfare work. Why a red poppy?
The red poppy, the Flanders poppy, was first described as the flower of remembrance by Colonel John McCrae, who was Professor of Medicine at McGill University of Canada before World War One. Colonel McCrae had served as a gunner in the Boer War, but went to France in World War One as a medical officer with the first Canadian contingent.
At the second battle of Ypres in 1915, when in charge of a small first-aid post, he wrote in pencil on a page torn from his dispatch book:
In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders' fields.
The verses were apparently sent anonymously to the English magazine, Punch, which published them under the title . "In Flanders' Fields".
Colonel McCrae was wounded in May 1918 and died after three days in a military hospital on the French coast. On the eve of his death he allegedly said to his doctor, "Tell them this. If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep".
An American Miss Moira Michael, read "In Flanders' Fields" and wrote a reply entitled "We Shall Keep the Faith":
Oh! You who sleep in Flanders' fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew,
We caught the torch you threw,
And holding high we kept
The faith with those who died,
We cherish, too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders' fields.
And now the torch and poppy red
Wear in honour of our dead
Fear not that ye have died for naught
We've learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders' fields.