'Unionism in Excelsis - Soldiers on Strike', Liverpool 14 February 1916, Daily Telegraph, 15 February 1916, p 7

‘Unionism in Excelsis – Soldiers on Strike’, Liverpool 14 February 1916, Daily Telegraph, 15 February 1916, p 7

The soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force who fought in WW1 are usually remembered as heroic and patriotic. But they weren’t always compliant to military rule and were prone to cause trouble, both here and overseas.

Conditions in the recruitment camps at Liverpool and Casula were overcrowded and uncomfortable. In 1916, a year and a half into the war, the volunteers started agitating for better conditions, demanding more flexible leave arrangements and a canteen serving alcohol. When the recruits were told at morning parade on Monday 14 February 1916 that their weekly training regime would increase from 36 hours to 40 and a half hours a week, all hell broke loose.

The soldiers declared they were going on strike and decamped without permission. News of the strike travelled fast among the soldiers and by late morning about 3,000 men marched from Casula into Liverpool where they joined up with the Liverpool recruits.

They ran riot through the town. They packed into the hotels demanding drinks and distributing it out on the street in pots and pans, smashed and looted shops and overran the train at the railway station and headed into the city.

Mrs Elsie Collimore, interviewed 30 years ago, remembers scenes from the 1916 soldiers riot in Liverpool, which happened when she was a little girl.  The euphoric and drunk soldiers reached Central station by about 11am and kept pouring into the city into the afternoon. Initially the protesting soldiers formed up and marched down George Street behind a placard protesting at their increased training load. But discipline soon disintegrated.

For a few hours anarchy ruled the streets of Sydney. The police were powerless to control the mob. Hotels were raided for booze, fruit stalls overturned, shops at the Queen Victoria Building and Grace Brothers at Broadway were smashed. The drunk soldiers targeted businesses with German affiliations – such as Kleisdorff’s tobacco shop in Hunter Street and the German Club in Phillip Street.

In the end the police called other military recruits from the Sydney Showgrounds to assist in bringing the soldiers under control. They were gradually pushed back towards Central and sent back out to Liverpool. However a fiery remnant of protesters took a last stand at Central in the evening, throwing missiles at police. This provoked a response. In the melee shots rang out. When things calmed down, Ernest William Keefe, a 20 year old trainee in the Light Horse, lay on the ground dead, and 6 or 7 others in the crowd (including a civilian) were injured. The shooting sobered everyone up.

It’s hard to know exactly how many recruits participated in the riot. There were both military and civic trials. At least 279 trainees were discharged from the army. And over 30 men were charged in the civil courts with riotous behaviour, assaulting police, damaging property, indecent language and the like.

Liquor Referendum sign, urging citizens to vote fro 9pm closing and 8pm as their 2nd choice. Located on the corner of Riley Street and William Street looking SW towards Yurong Lane, 1910. (City of Sydney Archives NSCA CRS 51/1831)

Liquor Referendum sign, urging citizens to vote fro 9pm closing and 8pm as their 2nd choice. Located on the corner of Riley Street and William Street looking SW towards Yurong Lane, 1910. (City of Sydney Archives NSCA CRS 51/1831)

The unintended consequence of the riot was much more lasting. One of the soldiers’ gripes was that they wanted a canteen at the training camp serving alcohol. Well, they managed to spoil it for everyone, playing right into the hands of the temperance movement. An early-closing Referendum was scheduled for the 10th June on the liquor question. The temperance movement, supported by the conservative Sydney Morning Herald, demanded the closing of all bars until the war was over. The drunken behaviour of “Black Monday” was condemned as unpatriotic and made NSW “the shame of Australia”. Four months after the riot, the citizens of Sydney voted to close all pubs at 6 o’clock. This law remained in place until 1955.

So when you are having a beer at your local pub this Sunday on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 soldiers riot, spare a thought for the soldiers. While we might admire them for standing up for better conditions, their behaviour transformed pubs in Sydney forever.

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