Brisbane at War

1899 - 1918


Barry Shaw (Ed)

Tingalpa QLD: Boolarong Press  2017

Paperback    252pp   RRP $29.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, July 2020


This collection of eleven papers presented at Brisbane History Group’s seminars in 2012, 2014 and 2015, and is their 26th publication of papers. The first two papers look at the Boer War as Australia embraced Federation, and the remainder comment on events during the First World War.

A brief overview of the medical advances prior to the Second Anglo-Boer War prefaces the provision of medical coverage of forces in South Africa. Six part-time Queensland reservist doctors served alongside civilian nurses and stretcher bearers. More casualties were caused by enteric fevers than battle as the need for personnel to implement the fundamentals of hygiene were conspicuously absent from Contingent planning.

The Netherlands continued its posture as a neutral nation and during the Boer War did not champion its countrymen who had migrated to South Africa. This was to remain its stance until invaded by Germany in 1940.

The outstanding accomplishments of twelve Brisbane Grammar students who served in both the Boer War and World War I provide an insight on a small but incredible group, nine of whom survived both conflicts. The group produced two brigadier generals, four lieutenant colonels, three majors, one captain, one lieutenant and one corporal. Several of these men on returning in 1918 went on to fill important positions in public life.

The Port of Brisbane saw numerous ships converted to troop carrying vessels and one hospital ship over the duration of the War.  Four ships carried troops to Albany (WA) to join the First Convoy. Mines were laid off the coast of Queensland in 1917 by the German minelayer SMS Wolf causing one sinking. This vessel also captured the Burns Philp ship Matunga off Rabaul, then sunk her. At the end of hostilities, troopships were sometimes arriving in Australia at the rate of one a day until Christmas 1919. Quarantining the ships because of Spanish Flu became a major issue.

One paper is devoted to the underage enlistees from the Brisbane area. Some were ‘retrieved’ by parents before going in to training, but a number did go on to see overseas service. Attention is paid to how their families coped with them becoming fatalities of war.

Over-represented in the Queensland doctors and nurses who volunteered were the number from the field of paediatrics. They provided magnificent care on the battlefield, but a consequence was the impact of their absence on the young children of Queensland. Colonel Arthur Butler returned to be Senior Paediatrician at Brisbane’s Children’s Hospital, then in 1922 was appointed full-time National Medical War Historian for World War I. The last of his three-volume work was published in 1943. He was one of the principal founders of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Vida Goldstein established the Women’s Political Association in 1904. By 1915, with women having achieved the vote, interest in the WPA was waning, and with mounting casualties in the Gallipoli and the potential for compulsory military training, in July Goldstein formed the Women’s Peace Army. A Queensland branch was formed in October of the same year. Strongly anti-war, it was heavily involved in the Conscription Referendums of 1916 and 1917.

Canon David Garland experienced life in Dublin before migrating to Australia in the 1880s as a fundamentalist Protestant to Toowoomba, He came to embrace Anglo-Catholicism, and it was his influence on the Anzac Day Commemoration Committee in 1922 that saw the Anzac Day Service as we know it come into being.

Two wealthy families set out to have their lost sons remembered ­­by donating a stained glass window to the newly-constructed St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane. Ignoring competent local suppliers, the contract for their construction went to an English company, and that was the beginning of a saga that finished up in shambolic fashion.

The last two papers deal with theatre and drama during the War. Events were not limited to being indoor or onstage. There were street parades, sporting events, lectures and anything else that could be used to raise ‘patriotic’ monies. Audience renditions of patriotic songs were very common during performances. Participants came from the entire community, with the staff of some department stores staging events in their stores. The tenor of performances changed as the war progressed. Initially scenes of battle re-enactment were quite common, but these were replaced by items that provided humour and escapism to relieve the strain many households were under. The audience were kept up to date with the latest war news – during interval at a performance of The Toreador in November 1914, the announcement of the sinking of the German light cruiser SMS Embden by HMAS Sydney brought the cheering audience to its feet to sing Rule, Britannia!

After the Table of Contents, brief CVs of the contributors and a table of the 60 high-quality black and white illustrations follow. Considerable effort has been made to have comprehensive tables, notes, and references included. One constant irritant throughout the papers was the partial capitalisation of proper names and titles; for example, most were written as ‘the Brisbane courier’, ‘the Golden book’ and ‘the William Tell overture’.  

An excellent work covering the often-overlooked social aspects and impacts of war.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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