Pages from Hunter Region in the Great War


Australia’s former colonies had only become federated into a Commonwealth in 1901 and the national

capital, Canberra, was no more than a twinkle in the eyes of planners. National politics were characterised

by inter-state rivalry and by an over-arching sense of loyalty to, and dependence on, the British Empire.

People watched, mesmerised, as the long-simmering tensions in Europe came to the boil and the crisis

between Serbia and Austria-Hungary threatened to engulf the Continent in war. Australians crowded around

newspaper offices, waiting for the latest news. In Newcastle, word of the Commonwealth Government’s

offer to help Britain was announced from the stage of the Victoria Theatre, prompting the audience to cheer

while the orchestra played God Save the King. Newcastle’s Anglican Cathedral offered prayers for guidance.

German ships quickly slipped out of Newcastle Harbour, making their escape while they still had time.

The Port of Newcastle was placed under Defence Department control and naval reserves were put in charge.

Local military engineers, under Major James (Monty) Corlette, were detailed for duty. The 34-year-old

Corlette, an engineer with the Hunter District Water Board, was destined soon to travel to Gallipoli.

News of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany was displayed in Newcastle outside the Bolton

Street office of The Newcastle Morning Herald on Tuesday August 4, 1914, after that day’s paper had

already been printed. Hundreds of people gathered there to read “the most thrilling announcement yet made

in the history of Australia”. With remarkable prescience the Herald’s editorial on August 3 had observed

the declaration of war by Germany against Russia, noted that France would be bound to join and concluded

that if England followed suit, the resulting war would be “one of the greatest on record, a cataclysm of

horrors”. War seemed inevitable. The question was how big the conflict would be. “The best hope that can

be entertained is that the contest, if it must be played on a gigantic scale, will be short and sharp,” said the

Herald, commenting also that “the onlooking world will . . . fail to see in the causes which have led to the

present situation a sufficient reason for plunging the great nations into the horrors of warfare”.

The Herald was sad too, that Australians of different ethnic backgrounds would find their respective

countries of origin at war. “Australia numbers many Germans and not a few Italians among its citizens.

Germans are to be found in every city of Australia who are held in high esteem, and are personally liked.

That the two home countries should be at war, will come as a terrible shock,” the paper remarked. “That

there will be enormous losses of life on both sides, both on land and sea, seems undoubted. But all hopes of

compromise are apparently now exhausted,” wrote the Herald on August 4.

According to the Herald on August 6, “the momentous news that war had been declared by Great Britain

against Germany was received at Newcastle without any demonstration”. “The gravity of the news and its

sobering effect were fully recognised as was shown by the earnest demeanour of the people and although,

as has been remarked, there was an absence of ostentatious demonstration, the spirit of ardent patriotism

was amply in evidence and on every hand were heard from many able-bodied young men, and older ones,

expressions of a willingness and desire to take part in assisting the motherland.”

Across Australia the atmosphere was euphoric. Recruiting for the promised 20,000 men was hardly

needed, especially since the six-shilling-a-day volunteers’ pay compared favourably to many civilian jobs.

News of war had immediate consequences. Australians rushed their banks, fearing for their savings.

Coal companies, foreseeing disruption to trade, cut their workforces suddenly, with little compunction.


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