A hero’s welcome home

During 1919, the immense task of demobilising and repatriating the AIF got underway. Naturally, most of the soldiers were eager to get home as soon as possible, but the availability of shipping proved to be a tangible problem. Consequently, many soldiers remained in France, Belgium or England for months awaiting their turn. Meanwhile, in an effort to help them adjust back to civilian life again, the Army arranged educational, vocational and employment opportunities. Some of the soldiers had become engaged or married while overseas, and arrangements needed to also be made for fiancees, wives and children to travel to Australia. 


The return of the men was eagerly awaited by their families, friends and sweethearts back in Pakenham, with news of their impending return home often publicised in the local press. George Paternoster drove all the way to Melbourne to bring his son Artie home, with flags strung across Main Street in front of the family store to mark the occasion. That evening, Artie was treated to a social at home with his family and relations who had also come down from Melbourne (PG 14/2/1919, p. 2). Around the same time, Paul Holdensen and Albert Nye also received “hearty welcomes” from their families and friends in Pakenham Upper (Ibid). Reporting on the return of the local Diggers, the Pakenham correspondent for the South Bourke and Mornington Journal commented: “Quite a number of our boys who volunteered from here have recently returned from active service. Some who were mere lads when they went have come back to us stalwart, well developed men, with the measured tread of veteran soldiers” (SBMJ 12/6/1919, p. 2). 


A further series of official welcome home socials were arranged by the Soldiers‘ Welcome Home Committee. One was held in early December 1918 to honour six Diggers who had returned home since June, including Gunner Ern Gabbett, who was on special “1914 leave”. Another original Anzac, Ray Maher was to have also attended, but fell ill on the voyage back to Australia and was hospitalised in Fremantle (PG 6/12/1918 p.3). This welcome home was said to be more joyous than the one held in May 1918 because the returning men had been victorious. The Pakenham Hall was decorated in “patriotic colours”, with supper tables laid out. The soldiers were given a “hearty welcome”, with speeches by Cr Bill Stephenson, Dr Douglas White, John Henry, Arthur Greenwood JP and other prominent citizens. There was much praise for the soldiers’ deeds, with Arthur Greenwood describing them as “worthy sons of Australia, and a credit to their mothers”. There was also a strong emphasis on the need to help the soldiers now they were back. Tribute was also paid to those who had made the “supreme sacrifice”, and sympathy expressed to their families. The soldiers were then presented with medallions. When presenting one to Ern Gabbett, Cr Bill Stephenson not only praised Ern’s “noble services rendered abroad”, but also the hard work his wife Eveline had done for the war effortwhile he was away: “we hope that now you are re-united you will have every happiness and prosperity” (Ibid). Medallions were also presented to the families of the late Arthur Carter Williams, John Hehir and Albert Kempster, while the medallion for the late Vincent Morton was sent onto his family (Ibid). Several other official welcome homes were arranged at Pakenham East during 1919 and into 1920, as groups of soldiers returned home. In October 1919, 23 soldiers were honoured at a social attended by the local Federal Member of Parliament, Captain Bruce, who spoke of the deep appreciation the people of France and Belgium had for the Australian soldiers: “Compared with the soldiers of other nations, he [the Australian soldier] stood alone - he had in him something different to others”. Captain Bruce then spoke of the Australians’ two outstanding qualities of character: gallantry, which was manifested in “brave deeds and wonderful accomplishments” and “wonderful feats of arms”; and chivalry, including their “many deeds of kindness”, for which they would be always remembered, especially by the poor peasants of France (PG 17/10/1919 p. 2). 

Welcome home socials were also organised by the Pakenham South and Pakenham Upper communities for their boys. About 300 enthusiastic people crowded into the Pakenham Upper Hall in October 1919 when most of the local soldiers had returned. The Pakenham Upper Hall was decorated with greenery for the occasion, together with hundreds of flags and the words “Welcome Home” on the stage. Amongst those present were about a dozen of the returned soldiers together with Sister E. Melville, who had seen service at Salonika and England. Each soldier was given a beautiful framed certificate, the design of which included the British and Australian flags, laurel wreaths of victory and native Australian wildflowers  and a photograph of the recipient soldier. The certificates carried the words: “Honour the Brave”, “For God, Empire and Home” and “He answered his Country’s call”, with the following dedication: “From friends at Pakenham Upper in grateful recognition and high appreciation of services rendered in the Great War”. The signed certificates were presented to the returned soldiers by Justice Frederick Mann of “Goronga”. After the presentations, Private James Thomson, on behalf of the other soldiers, spoke of the special debt of gratitude the soldiers felt to the women of Australia in providing clothes and other material comforts during the War: “They had done much towards winning the War” James said. Private George Keable remembered their fallen mates, saying that each man who had fallen had earned “more than a V.C. .By giving their lives, they had earned the honour and respect of the whole British nation”. He also paid tribute to the sacrifice made by the parents who had sent their sons to the Front. Two special “welcome home” cakes (made by Mrs Janet Ramage and Mrs McLean) were cut by the soldiers and distributed to those present  (PG 10/10/1919 p. 3).






Pakenham South’s welcome home was held on 14 November 1919, when 180 people gathered at the Pakenham South State School to welcome home nine local volunteers and to honour the sacrifice made by two others. The Diggers were welcomed with a musical programme provided by local talent, Bert Stone’s orchestra and the Koo Wee Rup brass band. The numbers included “Home, Sweet Home”. Two of the returning soldiers, Andy Blackwood and Jack Ellett, also sang, which “gave great pleasure to the audience, both being encored” (PG 21/11/1919 p. 2). In his words of welcome to the soldiers, Shire Clerk James Ahern “expressed a hope that all would be enabled to settle on the land around South Pakenham, where he was confident a ‘model farm’ would be the result” (Ibid). Cr Bill Stephenson presented the Diggers with what was described as “exceptionally fine medals”. After a supper (including the “soldiers’ cake” donated by Mr and Mrs Harry Worship) everyone danced “until the early hours of the morning” (Ibid). The last official welcome home in the district was held in May 1920. to honour the return of Warrant Officer David Clancy and Privates James, 

Bridge and Dean (PG 7/5/1920 p. 2).


Honouring the local Red Cross volunteers too

Fittingly, locals who had served in the Red Cross Society during the War were honoured in July 1920 with the presentation of certificates signed by Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, wife of the Governor General. These certificates, which were awarded for three or more years service, were received by Elizabeth Thomas, Eveline Gabbett, Nellie Mulcahy, Louise (“Cissie”) Hagens and Hannah White (PG 16/7/1920 p. 2).