Melbourne at War – Stop 5

Stop 5 is Melbourne Town Hall

Young men were encouraged to enlist and Melbourne Town Hall was a major recruitment centre. It was also the Victorian centre for the Australian Comforts Fund (originally the Lady Mayoress’s Patriotic League) which organised ‘comforts’ for soldiers on the battlefields.

From here, make your way to QV and the former Melbourne Hospital near the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets.


“My fellow Britishers. When the day came that the British Empire would be endangered, its children in the far-out dependencies would be prepared with any sacrifices for Empire and peace. They were all in the same boat. Never mind what their position might be; never mind whether they were rich or poor, they were all together.”

And so began the call to war. A capacity crowd of over 2000 people gathered at the Melbourne Town Hall on 6 August 1914 – 2 days after the war was declared. Red, white and blue Union Jacks and two huge banners ‘For God and Country’ and ‘Fear God and Honour the King’ hung from the building reflecting the massive sense of loyalty to the British Empire and the cause of a ‘just war’.

The atmosphere was jubilant and enthusiastic. Patriotic speeches from the Premier, Leader of the Opposition and civic leaders rallied the crowd to the backdrop of organ music and anthems.

“Irish Australians … forget old injustices and stand shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, to fight the battle of the Empire … an Empire whose flag flew all over the world, from east to west, the greatest empire the world had ever seen.”

Young men were encouraged to enlist and Melbourne Town Hall was a major recruitment centre. The men were given a medical check and their height and weight measured.

They needed to be fit and healthy, between 19 and 38 years of age (known as the fighting age), and at least 5’ 6” (or about 1.7mts) tall. If accepted they were sworn in and sent off for training at the military camp at Broadmeadows. Hundreds of men enlisted in the first weeks of the war with the Town Hall remaining as a recruitment centre for the rest of the conflict.

And despite the Defence Act initially prohibiting Aboriginal people from serving in the military, as the war progressed over 400 Indigenous men enlisted and went to war. Along with their non-Aboriginal compatriots, they served with bravery and distinction. They were equal in risks taken and lives lost. But only one Indigenous Victorian was ever allowed a soldier settlement block of land.

“The recruiting people were really putting the pressure on, telling the young people this was the war to end all wars and that we must win it, with all sorts of promises of the generous treatment the wounded and maimed would receive. Whole pages of the daily papers were full of lists of casualties. I felt that as I was born in this generation, I must do my part. I used to pass the Melbourne Town Hall on the way to the Working Man’s College twice a week. It was the recruiting depot. Soon … I bauled in, was examined and passed; they were not interested in age.”

Generally it was thought to be easier to enlist than not to. There was a lot of pressure to enlist. You were called a ‘cold foot’ if you didn’t enlist and often got a white feather. This was an insult to say that you were a coward.

But the enthusiasm for war was not universal. There were many who saw the war as a path to disaster … a bloody and dirty trade war leading to a whole-scale sacrifice of the nation’s youth.

As the war continued, and as the casualties mounted, so did the recruitment drives seeking more men to fill the trenches and replace those who had fallen. Recruiting standards were also lowered and men could enlist at a height of 5’2” and 45 years of age.

Active sportsmen were encouraged to join the Sportsmen’s Battalions, and Australia’s war hero Albert Jacka led calls that another 50,000 men were needed to fight.’

Join Together
Train Together
Embark Together
Fight Together
Enlist in the Sportmen’s Thousand
Show the enemy what Australian sporting men can do.

The Melbourne Town Hall was also the Victorian centre for the Australian Comforts Fund. Originally called the Lady Mayoress’s Patriotic League, the fund was a huge army of women that organised ‘comforts’ for the soldiers on the battlefields.

Parcels of tobacco, cakes, condensed milk, biscuits and other food, newspapers and clothing were packed and shipped overseas. But the most sought after item was socks, since the soldiers were unable to wash or dry their socks in the mud and cold of the trenches.

Over 80,000 pairs of hand-knitted woollen socks were sent to the soldiers in 1916 at the height of the Battle of the Somme.

Throughout the war, the Town Hall and other public buildings posted enlistment propaganda and news bulletins. This was before the days of radio, television and the internet, so the only way to find the latest news was by way of bulletin boards.

During the war, Swanston Street and the Town Hall witnessed a regular and melancholy scene of dozens of cars and ambulances carrying badly wounded soldiers from the hospital ships. These processions occurred with dreadful regularity, bringing home to the people of Melbourne the reality of this awful war.

“Sunday May 18, 1919. We berthed in Melbourne and disembarked. There were a large number of cars to drive us from the wharf and a large crowd lined the route. It was a good welcome home and it was good to see Aussie faces again. … Forty five of us enlisted from home, all the unmarried men of the district. Of these, 15 have died overseas and of the rest, only three of us had not been wounded. Several of those wounded died within a few years of their wounds. We were proud of the district’s record. We thought there would never be another war while the men who had been through it lived. How wrong we were.

“On the troopship leaving Melbourne, in conversation with one of my mates, Harry Potter, that evening as the lights of Melbourne were disappearing he swore if he ever got back to Melbourne he would scrub out the Town Hall with a toothbrush; he did not live to keep his promise.”

From here, make your way to QV and the former Melbourne Hospital near the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets.