Brigadier Tim Hanna AM, President of RSL-SA Good evening everyone and welcome to our cocktail function to acknowledge and celebrate 100 years of the RSL in South Australia.
I would first like to acknowledge that this land that we meet on today is the traditional lands of the Kaurna people and that we respect their spiritual relationship with their country.
I would like to officially welcome a few of our guests including:
Rear Admiral Ken Doolan AO RAN (Retd), National President of the RSL
Our RSL Life Members, Service Members and Affiliate Members
Our staff and volunteers, and
Our many sponsors and kindred organisations who we work with, in partnership.
2015 has been a significant year with many events and activities to capture the Centenary of the Gallipoli Landings on 25 April 1915.
From the RSL’s perspective our focus has been recognition of all service since the Boer War of 1899. It is important to us that our home, Torrens Parade Ground, is where 1,534 soldiers left Adelaide for the South African War and many others have since.
It was equally important to the RSL that this year we recognised the 70th Anniversary of Victory in the Pacific, with 300 World War II veterans in this room and the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.
We are very aware that 2016 will recognise the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan with a service at the Vietnam War Memorial outside this building.
Every anniversary is important and commemoration will always be a significant part of the RSL business. There are, however, many other layers to the RSL and tonight we would like to share some of them with you as we trace our roots back to 1915, reflect on one hundred years of service, and celebrate mateship.
Joining me tonight for this presentation will be:
Jock Statton AM, Vietnam veteran and RSL SA President from 2004 – 2012
Jill Hoare, current Director of the RSL SA Board, and
We all know that the world changed on 28 July 1914 when war broke out across Europe, and Australia’s involvement increased dramatically with the landing of Australian troops on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915.
The birth of the RSL can be traced back to a Board Meeting on 8 December 1915 at the Cheer Up Hut near Adelaide Railway Station. Our troops had been in Gallipoli for 228 days, and many, as we know, did not survive the first day. Many more troops were wounded and returned home. On 13 October 1915 Adelaide was the first city in Australia to host an ‘Anzac Day’ event.
On 8 December 1915 South Australians hosted the first returned servicemens’ meeting chaired by a Major Baker. The vision for the meeting was made very clear - with wounded and injured troops returning home from the war front, there was a need to ensure that veterans had a voice and were being looked after by the country they had served.
Their vision remains relevant to this day.
The organisation was named the Returned Soldiers Association – RSA – and Mr W.J. Sowden was elected as the first President. W.J. Sowden was to later become Sir William Sowden. Sir William Sowden had no military background, having instead worked on newspapers for more than 40 years. However, he was notably patriotic, and served as South Australian President of the Australian Wattle Day League and as Chairman of the Violet Memory Day League.
Twenty members joined the RSA – 15 were privates, two were sergeants and three were officers.
Meetings in 1916 were held at the Cheer Up Hut and Adelaide Town Hall. The first constitution was adopted in 1916. In the same year W.J. Sowden was succeeded as President by the Reverend J.C. McPhee, who had been the senior chaplain to the 1st Australian Division in the Dardanelles.
Positivity surrounding the RSA quickly spread and our first sub-branch was formed in Broken Hill in 1916, followed by Mt Gambier, Peterborough, Pt Pirie and Gawler in 1917. Darwin RSA was also established in 1917 and became part of the SA umbrella.
The other significant milestone of 1916 was a meeting in Melbourne, with four states in attendance – South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland – which recommended a name change to the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia. This milestone is considered the birthdate of RSL National and we will celebrate that Centenary in Melbourne next June.
In 1917 one of South Australia’s most distinguished soldiers from any era commenced his connection with the RSL. Captain Arthur Blackburn VC, CMG, CBE, ED – later Brigadier Blackburn VC - attended meetings from May 1917 and was elected as President in 1918. Blackburn served as President until 1920. He filled the role again, after being a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, from 1947 until 1950.
Arthur Blackburn was instrumental in establishing the first sub-branch conference on 12 and 13 September 1918 at Austral Gardens, now known as Ayers House. The tradition of annual sub-branch conferences continues today.
With World War I reaching its conclusion in 1918, membership reached 14,000 in 1920 as thousands of men and women returned home and adjusted to civilian life.
Arthur Blackburn’s experience, and the experience of many others, placed the RSL in a strong position to advocate on behalf of veterans and widows. The agenda included land settlement for veterans, employment and re-training programs, and improved health care as the RSL became known as a powerful lobbyist movement.
In 1924 the RSL created The Sailors, Soldiers and Nurses Imperial League Necessitous Circumstance Fund to raise revenue for welfare services. This fund was to become the Poppy Day Trust Fund in 1948 and still exists today, raising funds every Remembrance Day for veteran services.
In the 1920’s money was also raised to create the first offices for the RSL. The public were invited to donate and a target of £20,000 was required. When donations reached £32,000, the building plans were extended to include a Memorial Hall.
The responsibility for the funds and the building rested with three trustees, including Blackburn. The RSL purchased and re-developed the Prince of Wales Hotel at 27 Angas Street, with new offices opening in 1924. The building included dining rooms, function rooms and accommodation – providing services and activities that are still part of the RSL business today. As a boy I fondly remember visiting the Prince of Wales on a number of occasions, accompanied by my grandfather (an RSL member) as my great uncle, a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war, managed and lived at the hotel for a period.
During the 1920s progress was made with state-wide debates including the declaration, in 1921, that 25 April – Anzac Day – would be declared a public holiday in South Australia. Lobbying also commenced for a State National War Memorial that was eventually unveiled on 25 April 1931.
By the end of the 1930s, as World War II approached, the RSL had a healthy membership of 12,600, significant offices and staff in Angas Street, and a growing reputation for advocacy on behalf of its members.
Presentation 2: 1940 – 1965
Jock Statton AM, President of RSL SA from 2004 – 2012 Just as the RSL was getting comfortable the war broke out in Europe in September 1939 and by 1941 war was also being waged in the Pacific.
Conscription was effectively introduced in mid-1942, when all men aged 18–35, and single men aged 35–45, were required to join the Citizens Military Forces (CMF).
Over 575,000 Australians served in World War II with South Australian troops departing from this Drill Hall and the Parade Ground.
A pro-active RSL perhaps had some insight into the extent of the war and adopted a name change in 1940 to accommodate airmen. The Returned Sailors, Soldiers and Airmens’ Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA) was registered and which resulted in a new logo.
It would seem that this new branding strategy had some success as RSL SA membership peaked at 46,745 in 1946, a record high that has not been met since. Over 9,000 members from the Royal Australian Air Force joined the league, joining 31,000 from the AIF, nearly 3,000 from the Navy and 1,100 from the Militia.
In fact, we were so popular that in June 1947 we started our own RSL Band, with practices every Wednesday night in a dedicated band room at the Angas Street Headquarters.
While the public were genuinely happy to see the end of World War II, there was considerable work to do for our returned service men and women. A larger membership required better services and communication.
In 1947 the welfare office interviewed 9,000 ex-servicemen and women, an average of 180 per week. The interviews focused on pension wants, social service claims and other problems. Many sub-branches appointed their own welfare officers to keep up with demand in the local community. Every Sunday representatives of the League would visit the wounded in hospitals across Adelaide.
For those veterans who still had their health, the RSL Sports Association was very popular, with over 2,000 members participating in weekly competitions including electric light cricket, bowls, football, billiards, snooker, tennis, badminton and table tennis. The Association established the first curtain raiser for servicemen at Adelaide Oval, prior to an SANFL game, a tradition that continues today with the AFL.
Communication also improved when the RSL created its own publication arm - Back Publishers - in March 1947. The newsletter was also called ‘Back’. The first edition stated that “the engine of the League is not built on erratic principles. It is not powered for table-thumping and bullying, braggarting and bushranging, nor does it embrace any single political or religious creed. It functions for the common good of members and the community alike, working quietly for right and justice”.
Highlights of the Back publication included the business cards, or classified ads, of all the members who had returned home and started their own business.
The magazine evolved over time and was later called ‘Sentry-Go Magazine’ – complete with Cover Girl, which was our first step into the ‘quest’ fundraising movement. Interestingly, the magazine collapsed in 1961 when it was declared that the ‘impact of television has resulted in a substantial drop in advertising revenue’.
Other means of communication were adopted and from 1949 the League had its own radio show on 5AD, every Thursday night following the 10pm news. The radio broadcast was used for all sorts of announcements and appeals, including a tribute to our real Queen, a young Elizabeth the Second, prior to her coronation in 1953.
At this time over 7,000 Australians had served in the Malayan Emergency from 1948, and 14,000 Australians served in the Korean War from 1950, supported by the implementation of the National Service Act in 1951.
The coronation, however, was viewed as a celebration, and an opportunity to be motivated by someone so young. RSL members were asked to embrace the call for service as Queen Elizabeth had done, and in fact emulate the Queen, to aim high in service to humanity and in courage and unselfishness.
Other sources of reflection were also adopted from the mother country. The RSL established its first Field of Remembrance in 1954, with 279 crosses planted in the lawns outside Government House. The concept of the field had originated at Westminster Abbey, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II continues to plant a cross every year.
With proactive use of both radio and print media, the number of sub-branches in South Australia expanded rapidly, reaching 222 by 1962. Some sub-branches, like Glenelg, had 1,900 members. Only 56 of the sub-branches were in suburban Adelaide as every small town across the state and Northern Territory formed an RSL sub-branch to welcome home its veterans.
The expansion required a new approach to working with sub-branches who individually had their own constitutions, governance structures, leases and licenses, and their own approaches to member recruitment and retainment.
Strong and stable leadership at the time was critical, with Blackburn returning as President from 1947 to 1950, Sir Thomas Eastick CMG, DSO, ED serving from 1950 to 1954, and again from 1961 to 1972, and Sir Arthur Lee MC and Bar serving from 1955 to 1961.
Tom Eastick commanded the 2/7th Field Regiment during the North African campaign in World War II, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1943, had additional posts in New Guinea and Borneo, including Military Governor of Sarawak in 1945, and was knighted in 1970.
It was Eastick who convinced the Board that every financial member should receive a printed copy of the annual report and financial statements. Eastick had the State Board meeting every fortnight to satisfy the growing agenda which included quicker land settlement for veterans, a growing waiting list for the purchase of homes, and more doctors in all districts to assist with repatriation.
On the employment front, the RSL lobbied to have 50% of all taxi licenses awarded to ex-servicemen, while those veterans who entered into training programs were awarded with more liberal allowances.
Commemoration was still very important as the RSL coordinated the 1965 Anzac Jubilee March, commemorating 50 years since World War I. Thoughts of remembrance were interwoven with thoughts of concern as Australians entered the Vietnam War.
Presentation 3: 1965 – 1990
Jill Hoare, Current Board Director RSL SA The 1965 to 1990 period started and ended with name changes to capture an evolving RSL.
In 1965 the RSL adopted a shorter name - Returned Services League of Australia (RSL), and in 1990 we changed again, to the Returned & Services League of Australia Limited. This evolution opened the membership criteria to include reservists and national serviceman more obviously.
The significance of the change in 1990 is that we also modified our logo. A fourth person was added to the RSL shield – the service woman. It did however take some time for this to occur.
The 1960s and the 1970s were a challenging time for the RSL as we responded to the Vietnam War and the second wave of feminism in Australia.
Over 50,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1975, and we had that many again protesting on Adelaide streets. We also had 3,500 Australians serve in the Malaysia - Indonesia Confrontation from 1963 to 1966.
Membership figures during this period dropped from 33,000 in 1960 to 24,000 in 1975. It suggests that the RSL in South Australia did not realise the boom in membership similar to that which was achieved after World War II but it was not all doom and gloom.
It is true that some veterans from the Vietnam War did not at first find a warm and universal welcome from the RSL. Nevertheless, as the decades have rolled by, their participation in our movement has strengthened – and, notably in the past 20 years, their active involvement has been gratifying.
At the same time, women in South Australia were also excluded from public bars, which meant they had very little chance of accessing an RSL sub-branch.
But just as some sub-branches were very welcoming to Vietnam veterans, other sub-branches embraced the concept of the Women’s Auxiliary.
While many of us here tonight may not agree with the word auxiliary – the women were much more than supplementary support – it did allow many women to connect with the RSL and support their loved ones.
Women were certainly eager to help when World War I broke out, but their attempts to take on many traditional male roles were mostly blocked. In fact, there were even times in the 1920s when women were banned from Anzac Day services.
In World War II, with so many men gone to war, Australian women were finally able to enter the workforce in men's roles in unprecedented numbers, and the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) recruited thousands of women for military duties such as manning radios and anti-aircraft machinery, as drivers and in other clerical roles.
We also had thousands of Australian nurses serve overseas in World War II, and some of these women were taken as prisoners of war and 71 were killed while serving.
It was Thomas Eastick in the 1960s who encouraged the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary and a Central Coordinating Council chaired by Lady Eastick. A trophy was established – the A.J. Lee Trophy - named after Past President Arthur Lee – to encourage competition amongst the auxiliaries. This certainly increased the fundraising efforts across the state, with Orroroo winning the first trophy in 1964.
By 1966 the RSL had 66 Auxiliaries throughout South Australia, The Northern Territory and Broken Hill. In addition to selling Anzac pins and poppies, the women created ‘Operation New Life’, which supplied clothing to Vietnam.
It is quite possible that the influx of women into the RSL did result in positive change in the older, male generation, which also helped to open doors to Vietnam veterans returning home in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
One of the support mechanisms during the Vietnam War was the RSL Australian Forces Overseas Fund which provided packages to the Australian Defence Force serving overseas. The packages were usually sent mid-year and at Christmas time and contained various items to remind personnel of home, and included ANZAC biscuits, confectionery, nuts, muesli bars and a letter of appreciation on behalf of all Australians.
This service at least provided some comfort to our service men and women in Vietnam that they were in our thoughts while away from home. The concept of sending surprises overseas expanded to include a variety of singers and entertainers for concerts abroad.
Back in Adelaide, during the 1960s additional funds were being raised to add wings to the War Veterans’ Home at Myrtle Bank and the first five Darby and Joan Cottages were built as an accommodation option for veterans. The cottages opened at Semaphore and expanded to Wallaroo, Mount Gambier, Clovelly Park and Campbelltown.
The investment in bricks and mortar provided a strong foundation for financial sustainability and a business model that has evolved over the years. RSL SA now has a strong relationship with RSL Care which manages and funds residential aged care and retirement living facilities for veterans across South Australia.
The building continued in 1989 when RSL-SA, with assistance from government and veterans' groups, established Errol Noack House at Mitchell Park to provide emergency accommodation for up to 27 ex-service persons and their families in times of crisis or when undergoing medical treatment.
Errol Noack was born in North Adelaide and attended Concordia College. He was working as a fisherman with his father when he was conscripted into the Australian Army. On 24 May 1966, after just ten days of service in South Vietnam, Errol died of gunshot wounds during an operation. He died at the age of 21 – the first Australian conscript to die in Vietnam - and became a symbol for the growing anti-war movement.
Fortunately, as time went by, the late 1970s and 1980s were a relatively peaceful time for Australians although we did have peacekeeping operations in Rhodesia, in 1979, and in Namibia in 1989. As part of the RSL’s mission to acknowledge all service, the South Australian office has supported the creation of the RSL SA Peacekeepers Sub-Branch.
Membership of RSL-SA was 23,000 in 1990 and while the numbers never reached the heights of 1946 it was certainly healthier in its diversity.
Presentation 4: 1990 – 2015
Major Ben Flink, Current Board Director, RSL-SA The 1990s kicked off with the focus on Darwin. The 1991 Anzac Day service, coordinated by Darwin Sub-branch, included a visit from Prime Minister Bob Hawke who had many duties on the day including the opening of the gymnasium on HMAS Coonawarra.
The First Gulf War had commenced and the Prime Minister made special mention of the Navy and the peacekeepers in the Territory who had the responsibility of protecting our northern shores. He also acknowledged the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who were living in the north and had served in Darwin during the bombing of World War II.
Our relationships with our northern neighbours and with our First Australians would dominate the national agenda for the next 25 years.
The First Gulf War, from 1990 to 1991, and the Middle East Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, were to involve over 36,000 Australians.
The world was a volatile place with peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, Rwanda and East Timor.
A new breed of soldier was returning home – the contemporary veteran – and new services and technologies were required.
My own encounter with the RSL, as a contemporary veteran myself, occurred like this. I couldn’t discuss my troubles with friends and family. I felt depressed, alone, and estranged from those who would understand – men such as my platoon sergeant. I just wanted to talk to someone. So I literally Googled ‘RSL Christies’, and drove down to my local Port Noarlunga Christies Beach clubrooms.
I walked in and said to the bartender: ‘I’ve just got back from deployment. I need someone to talk to.’ He immediately introduced me to the president – and even though the president was a complete stranger, there existed an unspoken pact of understanding. I opened up about what was troubling me, and I felt relieved.
On the basis of my own experience, therefore, it is absolutely critical that our RSL branches everywhere remain open for business. A veteran needing help might walk in today, tomorrow, or next week. RSLs need to be alert for that moment when that veteran reaches out for help.
It is fair to say that the RSL, and many other organisations – were slow to respond to the contemporary veteran. Membership for RSL SA declined from 25,000 in 1990 to 13,000 in 2010 as our World War I veterans passed on in large numbers. This is not to say that RSL SA was idle as there were significant achievements at the turn of the century.
In 2000 the RSL introduced the Anzac Eve Youth Vigil for youth groups from across the state to assist with their understanding of the Anzac legacy. The twelve hour vigils commenced at 6.00 pm and have since expanded to 16 locations across the state.
Strong relationships with the State Government were also forming. As a result of RSL presentations to the state, the Rann Government established Veterans SA, the Premier’s ANZAC Study Tour, the Veterans Advisory Council (VAC), the Veterans Health Advisory Council (VHAC) and the ANZAC Day Commemoration Fund.
In 2004, RSL SA secured a new State Branch Office and Memorial Hall here at Torrens Training Depot, with staff moving from Angas Street. Even the John Dowie sculpture made the trip, and we now share wonderful facilities with History SA, the Vietnam Veterans Association, Soldier On and the Royal Australian Air Force Association.
We also continued to build memorials that were both significant and overdue. Working in partnership again with Government, we supported the fundraising and opening of the Vietnam War Memorial in October 2006 with guest of honour Lieutenant General Sir Donald Dunstan.
In 2009, our very own Jock Statton opened the Gallipoli Underpass on Anzac Highway complete with memorial gardens and walls.
In November 2013, RSL SA again worked alongside the State Government which opened the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial with previous Governor General, Dame Quentin Bryce AD, CVO as guest of honour. Funding for the memorial, and the body of research that demanded its build, was a result of considerable work by many significant South Australians.
In 2014 a new type of War Memorial was born. The RSL Virtual War Memorial was launched and it would soon become the leading website of its kind in the country.
The VWM has over 600,000 military records and a contract with the South Australian Education Department that will see the site integrated with the school curriculum.
As we learn more about the Centenary of Service we also become more familiar with emerging issues like PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a health condition that is a sleeping giant of the veteran community.
RSL SA has taken a partnership approach to exploring this condition and other issues affecting veterans and their families. RSL SA has financially supported Trojans Trek, the Repat Foundation and their research agenda, and we are also an active contributor to current discussions on the Transforming Health agenda.
Perhaps our most visible project in relation to veterans’ health is the Operation K9 program - another great example of working in partnership, this time with the Royal Society for the Blind. Assistance Dogs are trained to support veterans who are diagnosed with PTSD and we have another four dogs graduating from this program on Thursday.
Many would be pleased that amongst the veterans in the Operation K9 program are a Vietnam veteran, a female veteran, and a contemporary veteran. If the RSL can adopt its own words, and recognise all service, then we have a bright future.
As we approach 2016 we have a greater understanding of the RSL business. We are still in the hospitality game, with 134 sub-branches and our recent purchase of the Avoca Hotel, which offers greater choice for the contemporary veteran.
We are still in the accommodation business, with RSL Care managing aged care and retirement living, and both parties funding Homes for Heroes, a new program for homeless veterans.
And we still have many members – over 12,000 – who we predict will need our support and services for the next 70 years.
Our future will require innovation, and we have examples with Operation K9 and the Virtual War Memorial, that we can form partnerships and deliver excellent outcomes. We will need to communicate better, and we will need to respond quicker in ways which are meaningful to a changing veteran demographic.
As a contemporary veteran, a business man, a husband and a father I certainly thank the RSL for connecting with me and I am confident that, as our founders envisaged 100 years ago, veterans do have a voice and we are looked after by the country that we served.
Brigadier Tim Hanna Ladies and Gentlemen,
I hope you enjoyed that very brief insight into the rich history of the RSL in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Broken Hill.
Thank you to our speakers. Please now enjoy the camaraderie of the evening as we all reflect on the achievements of the last 100 years and the possibilities for the RSL over the next 100 years.