The war on the home front

What is there wicked about a glass of good beer?

Today is the centenary of the AIF’s departure from Albany.

Strangely, for all the media coverage, and expense, it is not often mentioned that this party has little to do with West Australians. Our boys departed through Fremantle, not Albany, and there seems little money to be spent on recognising WA’s role in WWI.

So we thought that Dodgy Perth should get in on the heritage juggernaut and offer up our own slant on the Great War.

West Australians were trained at Blackboy Hill, located a couple of kilometres east of Midland town centre.

The canteen was provided by the YMCA. This proved controversial, with the YMCA accused of operating the mess as a profit-making concern, overpaying its manager, charging rent to the canteen for use of a government erected building, and generally ripping off the enlisted men.

So, on Monday 28 September 1914, the officers opened a ‘wet’ canteen in a tent at Blackboy Hill. They believed that this would be good for morale, keep the men away from the local pubs and at camp, and limit alcohol consumption to beer rather than spirits.

All in all, you would think, an improvement to the training camp to which no one in their right mind could object. However, this was Western Australia.

Naturally some pasty-faced wowser, the Mike Daube of his day, took to the letters page to rail against this threat to civilisation:

Drink makes cowards, robs men of stamina, induces fatigue, diminishes shooting accuracy, warps the judgment, and destroys every military virtue. Many of the excesses, so abhorrent and terrible, attributed recently to the Germans, were committed under the influence of strong drink.

This letter did bring a rebuke from one reader, who vainly stood against the rising tide of wowserism:

What is there wicked about a glass of good beer? The knights of old lifted their vizors and drunk huge draughts of ale and then went out to fight for England, home and beauty.

Perhaps it had not been politic to have removed one of the YMCA’s tents for the wet canteen. They retaliated to this insult (and end to their monopoly at the camp) by requesting that the camp commandant, Col. Leslie Kyngdon, ban the consumption of beer. He told them to get stuffed.

In any event, an emergency meeting of the YMCA board was convened and they drafted an urgent wire to the federal Minister for Defence:

The Executive of the Young Men’s Christian Association of Perth most emphatically protests against the introduction of the wet canteen into the Blackboy Hill military camp. It realises the great danger to the younger portion of the troops, and also the serious counteraction of the social work of the Association. Col. Kyngdon refuses cancellation of permission for wet canteen. We earnestly request your protection of the young soldiers of this State.

At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, on Sunday 4 October, the wet canteen was ordered to be closed. It had survived less than a week.

Wowsers 1. Enlisted Men 0.