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The Home Front
The Conscription Debate
Pakenham & the Great War
August 1914

In early August 1914, War broke out in Europe. This was the culmination of tensions which had been building up for several years between two rival power blocs: Britain, France and Tsarist Russia (the ‘Entente’) were pitted against Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary and her other allies (the ‘Central Powers’). Both sides were initially confident that this would only be a “short, victorious war” over by Christmas. The conflict though, escalated into the bloodiest, most destructive war known to that time. With millions of soldiers from around the world engaged in a titanic struggle to the death, the conflict quickly became known as the “World War”, the “Great War” or (wishfully) “the war to end all wars”.


Once war broke out, Britain turned to her extensive overseas empire for assistance, and Australia’s contribution to the war effort was significant. Between 1914 and 1918, over 400,000 Australians enlisted to serve in the armed forces, from a population of less than five million. Serving alongside British and Allied forces, Australians fought with bravery and distinction in theatres of war as far flung as tropical New Guinea, on the narrow beach and steep hills at Gallipoli, in the deserts of Palestine and Syria,  through the muddy morass of the Western Front and on the high seas. More than 60,000 Australians paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives while more than 150,000 others were wounded, including gassed or shell-shocked. This meant Australia had one of the highest per-capita casualty rates of any nation involved in the conflict. Many of those who returned unscathed bodily nonetheless suffered emotional and psychological scars more painful and long lasting than any physical wound could be. Given the scale of Australia’s contribution, it was virtually impossible to find a family, school or local community that was not touched in some way by the War.

Local patriotic enthusiasm 

Pakenham’s residents responded enthusiastically in August 1914 to Britain’s “call to arms” against Germany. Reflecting an immediate welling up of patriotic spirit, the local St Patrick’s Catholic Ball, which was held a day after the declaration of war, kicked off with the singing of the national anthem “God Save the King”, with its rousing, martial strains: “Send him victorious, happy and glorious ...” (Ferry 2016, p. 42). In an article entitled “Pakenham’s Enthusiasm”, the South Bourke & Mornington Journal also reported that “Pakenham is not going to forget her part in this, the greatest battle the world has ever known, and it is sincerely hoped will be the last”. It was also reported that the manager of the Toomuc Valley Orchard (TVO) was organising a special concert in aid of The Argus newspaper’s Patriotic Fund to which it was hoped that residents would “roll up in even greater numbers than they always do when called upon for any special effort ... more particularly as several young fellows from our midst have now gone to headquarters in Melbourne to fight and numbers of others have volunteered” (SBMJ 20/8/1914, p.2).