Dr Peter Stanley’s account of the murkier side of the Australian armed forces shared the 2010-2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History.
Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder in the Great War takes a “warts and all” look at the behaviour of the diggers in World War I. Transgressions included failing to salute, going AWOL and even murdering fellow soldiers.
In this extract from the book, Dr Stanley explores the vices that awaited the Australian army during leave in Britain, including “loose women” and “giggling girls”:
“24. ‘Street temptations and evils’:Australians in Britain
By November 1915 there were already 10,000 Australians in Britain, mainly wounded and convalescents from Gallipoli. Australians were popular in Britain, especially when they were still a novelty. Some clearly relished the adulation. William Campbell, an artilleryman wounded on the Somme, made friends in York while convalescing. Campbell, supposedly believing he had been awarded the Victoria Cross, wore the distinctive maroon ribbon to a gathering at which he announced his engagement to his host’s daughter, Jessie Gawthorp. The publicity—‘V.C. HERO’S ROMANCE’—undid him. Knowing her son, Campbell’s mother wrote to the army questioning the news of the VC. It was false—he had bought the ribbon from a York tailor. But was he impersonating a hero, or deluded?
Campbell, a Melbourne salesman, evaded conviction with the help of a canny solicitor, who successfully represented him as the victim of a hoax, and he survived the war to return to York to marry Jessie.
Horseferry Road became the focus of the Australian presence in London. Allocated a run-down Methodist training college commandeered for the duration, the Australian headquarters and its various branches created an Australian military enclave in the heart of London. But the area was ‘sordid and objectionable’, an Australian journalist wrote. Bean bluntly condemned it as a ‘slum’. Many of its residents lived off visiting soldiers.
Observers excused Australian soldiers as ‘country lads, inexperienced in the ways of towns’. Some were indeed naïve, astounded by the scale and magnificence of even a blacked-out imperial capital and inexpert in dealing with its more opportunistic inhabitants. Besides their awe at historic buildings they had only ever heard of, they gaped at its traffic-clogged streets, its vastness, the modernity of escalators and the wonders of the Underground. And they goggled at the duplicity, rapacity and outright venality of some of the women they met—or rather, the women who sought them out. Less sophisticated soldiers became, as The British Australasian conceded, ‘easy prey to the more brazen kind’ of woman. From the moment leave drafts arrived at Paddington or Victoria, swarms of women assailed them. The Governor-General recorded how the Catholic Archbishop of Perth described how ‘half a dozen women pounced on any stray man’ they met; presumably he had heard rather than experienced this. Well-paid ‘colonials’ attracted women on the make.
The New Zealand High Commissioner told a War Office conference discussing VD how he had seen ‘four gaudily dressed girls’ accosting soldiers in Oxford Street. Ignoring the Tommies, ‘it was the Australians they evidently wanted’.
But Australian soldiers also acquired a reputation as drunken, rowdy, lustful and even dangerous. They shared this reputation with other ‘colonial’ or ‘oversea’ forces, the Canadians and New Zealanders, who between them had as many divisions in France as Australia did.
Miss Margaret Dawson created a storm in 1917 by telling The British Australasian newspaper that VD in Britain was spread ‘only’ by empire troops—a demonstrably false proposition. Miss Dawson, organiser of the first women’s police forces, was defending the reputations of women munitions workers, but she attracted the ire of The British Australasian, jealous of Australian soldiers’ name. Miss Dawson’s volunteers—protected by an armband, a lingering Victorian respect for a lady and a Metropolitan constable hovering discreetly in the background—often encountered ‘colonial’ soldiers on leave and their temporary escorts. The lady volunteers intended to ‘befriend those young girls who are excited by the abnormal conditions of the moment’, but street-wise young women irritated by Miss Dawson’s volunteers often told them to ‘fuck off ’. While the ladies avoided ‘professional prostitutes’, it took nerve to accost an under-age girl on the arm of a tipsy soldier. Miss Dawson persevered, pioneering modern British female police, but she also alienated both those she tried to protect and their companions. With the infantry divisions’ shift to France the number of Australians in Britain increased dramatically. They occupied camps in Hampshire, Dorset and particularly Wiltshire up to and beyond the war’s end. These ‘command depots’ would become familiar to virtually all Australians. Enchanting in spring and summer, the hutted camps mostly located on the rolling downs of Salisbury Plain became dreary, cold and windswept in the long winters.
The number of Australians thronging these depots at any one time hardly fell below 50,000 for the rest of the war; more than half as many as served in France. While many were convalescent or in training, exactly why more men were not sent to France even when the AIF became desperate for reinforcements has never satisfactorily been answered, especially when those in Britain caused unending trouble.
Major General Sir Newton Moore, formerly Agent-General for Western Australia in London and a keen Militiaman, was the first commander of the AIF Depots in Britain. (The troops nicknamed him ‘Salutin’ Newton’ after his preoccupation with military formalities.) Recognising that the depots needed firmer discipline, the Minister for Defence, George Pearce, then appointed General Jim McCay. It seemed wise to keep McCay away from the front—he irritated both his men and his superiors (Charles Bean called him ‘the most disliked general’ in the AIF). But the post certainly required an officer prepared to take on the increasingly serious disorder evident in Australian camps in Britain. McCay acted energetically. He ordered that men overstaying leave by more than a fortnight would face courts-martial, and he endorsed heavier penalties. He ordered that men on charges lose all pay and allowances—threatening allotments to their dependants. McCay (a civilian soldier though of the most ‘regular’ persuasion) used an argument his men ought to have grasped—‘in civil life no one is paid unless he does the work’.
The arrival of thousands of young Australians disturbed the tranquillity of the villages and market towns of Wiltshire. Sutton Veny, a village of 600 people, had a camp of 20,000 men beside it, many Australians. Codford, with 500 residents, was soon surrounded by fifteen hutted camps, eventually holding many thousands of Australians. The first mention of Australians in the Wiltshire Times in 1916 reported on Henry Williams, ‘a brawny son of Australia’, his face cut and bruised, standing in the dock at Swindon Police Court. Charged with being drunk and disorderly, a constable testified that it had taken four men to subdue him. By October 1918 it surprised no one that a constable found Florence Minty committing ‘an offence’ with an Australian soldier in Warminster market place on a Saturday night.
Florence seems to have been what contemporary jargon called an ‘amateur’, but the Australians’ arrival certainly attracted British women hoping to make a profit. Reports in local newspapers disclose that groups of young women became ‘undesirable visitors’ in woods, barns, stables and cottages near the camps. One February night, for instance, Sutton Veny camp police arrested four young women camped in a hut with four soldiers, keeping out the chill with Australian army blankets (stolen and exchanged for sex). The police had followed the sounds of ‘bad language’ and ‘women laughing’. The women, all from London, were fined several pounds apiece for soliciting; the soldiers faced the camp orderly room next morning.
We have no clear picture of the ‘amateurs’ who lived off Australian and other soldiers. Most are nameless, personality or motive unrecorded.
They baffle us just as they perturbed the military authorities. The one who emerges in lurid colour is a young woman from working-class Camberwell, London, named Matilda Twiss, better known to Australians as the notorious ‘madam’ of Sydney brothels and sly-grog and cocaine rackets, Tilly Devine. Barely fourteen at the war’s outbreak but pretty and well developed, Tilly had worked as a prostitute around the Strand, earning up to £15 a week for several years. In 1916, she began to sleep with Australians on leave and at seventeen met Jim Devine, a member of a tunnelling company. Jim, like many Australians on leave in London, sought a willing partner. He got more than he may have bargained for in the sharp-witted Tilly.
Though young, Tilly was smart, and saw in Jim a future unlikely in Camberwell or the Strand. It is possible that she was charmed by his claim that he owned a kangaroo farm (but having met hundreds of Australians she must have seen through such leg-pulling). It is more likely that she saw in Jim a ticket out of what she surely knew was a job that could leave her sick or dead. But marriage did not lead to respectability. As Larry Writer put it in his book on Tilly’s Australian career, ‘let no one accuse him of jealousy … he insisted that Tilly stay on the game’. Jim Devine was sullen, strong, foul-mouthed drunk or sober and ready to drink and gamble with her and to beat her if she crossed him. He lived off Tilly’s earnings both in Britain and for several years after she arrived in Sydney as a ‘war bride’.
Soldiers found girls like Tilly almost anywhere in Britain, outside almost all camps, and in any city they visited. The depots proved to be magnets for what Eric Evans called ‘prostitutes and loose women’. In Weymouth (‘never high-class’) he found ‘giggling girls, showing every encouragement’, with park benches, lawns and beaches ‘occupied by couples in loving embrace’. Evans sourly remarked that he was ‘seldom in the mood for a “hook” under such doubtful conditions’. Again, this sex was consensual as well as commercial. Many of the women whom Australian soldiers met on leave were what became known as ‘flappers’. The term today connotes the ’twenties, but it reflected the dramatic wartime change in behaviour that saw adolescent girls out dancing and drinking in numbers, places and ways never before seen.
AIF authorities scrambled to cope with the epidemic of VD that followed leave in Britain. Medical officers recognised the importance of prompt, confidential, penalty-free treatment. ‘Blue Light’ rooms (Room 100 for other ranks, 101 for officers) opened in the courtyard of the Horseferry Road headquarters where men could seek early treatment at all hours. Each man arriving in London on leave was given a card. ‘No Names, Regimental Numbers or questions regarding identity will be asked’, it assured them.
From October 1916 Bulford Barracks, on Salisbury Plain, housed the main Australian hospital treating VD patients. It was soon nicknamed ‘the College’ (because so many Australians had ‘graduated’ from it).”
Originally from Liverpool, Dr Stanley is Head of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia.
Until 2007 he was also curator at the Australian War Memorial and has written over twenty books on Australian history. Dr Stanley is adjunct Professor at the Australian National University and a Visiting Associate Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy
For Pier 9 Dr Stanley has written Digger Smith and Australia’s Great War, Bad Characters, Simpson’s Donkey and Commando to Colditz. He is well known through his Anzac Day TV commentaries and appearances in documentaries such as Revealing Gallipoli and the new series In Their Footsteps.
Dr Stanley has also written about the Second World War (such as Tarakan: an Australian Tragedy, and Invading Australia), medical history (For Fear of Pain), and British India (White Mutiny) An experienced battlefield researcher (he wrote the pioneering guide A Stout Pair of Boots) he has led tours to Borneo, Egypt, Crete and the Western Front.