Roma Soldiers in the Shearer's War of 1891

While the topic of Roma soldiers is in the air with the Roma Remembers celebration coming in September, I thought I'd pass on a tale about the first Roma soldiers and their first taste of action.


While military groups were raised in other parts of the Queensland colony a lot earlier - such as Mitchell!, Roma didn't join the 'soldier drive' until the threat of Russian invasion in late 1884. It took a number of goes before the first Roma Volunteer Rifle Corp were raised at a public meeting in May 1885. Being volunteers, they voted for their own officers and NCO's, who were then gazetted as officers of the Queensland Defence Force. The only official serving member of the Queensland Defence Force in this part of the west for many years was Dr Cuppaidge, who was a member of the Medical Corps and an honourary member of the Roma Volunteers. He would leave Roma to take charge of the Queensland Medical Corps among other duties.


The men were not well paid, in fact they had to serve twelve months before they were paid their first Capitation Grant of £2 10s. This was a form of compensation to cover the cost of the uniform and other accessories, which the soldier had to buy from his own pocket. To counter this, the Roma contingent held several functions and public appeals to collect enough money to purchase their uniforms up front. To become eligible for this grant at the end of a year's service, the soldier had to prove himself 'efficient,' which meant that he had to attend a minimum number of drills and also shoot a certain score at the rifle range. Those qualifying as 'extra efficients' - ie attending more drills and shooting well - earned themselves special badges, which they could wear on their sleeve.


At creation the Corp numbered some 83 men, of which we know about 80 of the names. The size of the Corp varied over time, the usual number being about 50 or so depending on the general employment and climatic conditions. They quickly formed a military band, and over time added further sub contingents, such as the Northern Rd group, the Mitchell group, and the darlings of the Defence Force - the Roma Cadets, many of whom would later go on to feature in WW1.


The soldiers attended the yearly encampment, which was held throughout the Empire at Easter. The Roma soldiers trained it down to Fort Lytton, Brisbane, and for the week played soldiers: drilled, shot, and skirmished their way around Brisbane with the other state soldiers and basically worked together as a force. For some of the young men and also the cadets, it was their first trip outside of the west, so they also got to see the ocean and a big town for the first time.


The men drilled twice per week after work, and approaching the Easter encampment would often drill every night under a good moon. Beyond that, they would have weekend rifle contests against other soldier groups- usually the Mitchellites, military socials, church parades, and the occasional wargame around town and firing display on public occasions.
The soldier's first test came in 1891.


'WAR IN THE WEST' was the most eye-catching headline for the year 1891.

Patriotic feeling was running very high in Roma with the troubles surrounding the shearer's dispute in other districts getting ample coverage and comment in Roma. While there was very little trouble from the shearers in this district, aside from a meeting or two at the Mount Abundance sheds and the burning of the Amby railway shed, very keen interest was shown in both sides of the argument. The local paper's outlook was more against the unionists.


As the troubles spread, contingents of troops from Toowoomba, Dalby and Warwick passed through on the train out to Charleville, where 400 or so protesters were gathering in sympathy with the strikers, many of these protestors being ring-ins from down south.
Sometime on the 1st of April the local captain of the volunteers was advised that the Roma contingent were to be activated, which would be a hell of a message to get on April Fool's day. The following morning the troops mustered at the drill hall and 40 of the 50 or so were selected to go on 'active duty,' generally being the longer serving members. A number of 'on the spur volunteers' also turned up but were turned away. Non-military people also accompanied the expedition, though their name or function was not identified.


'By 8.30 sharp the men drew into position at the platform. The members of D Company were formed in the station yard after having piled arms and greeted friends or given a "good bye" to sweethearts and wives, and were then marched to the carriages, of which they took possession without loss of time. After inspection to make sure that everything was right, the signal was given, the engine whistled, and the train moved slowly away from the front of the densely crowded platform, amidst the cheers of the people, which cheers were heartily responded to by the soldiers and noisily taken up by a crowd of little boys roosting closely together at the first gate [Arthur St crossing], and away our gallant fellows sped on the way to Charleville, carrying with them the heartiest wishes of their friends here. And nearly every person was a friend that day.'
- [Western Star - 4th April 1891]
The men arrived unannounced in Charleville that night, and were hastily put to camp in the Divisional offices [Council chambers.] The scene in Charleville was quite crowded with a lot of rioters, unionists, shearers and sticky beaks. 'No sort of preparation had therefore been made, but although it is improbable the men were sent to bivouac without supper, the unusual delay and roughness attendant on a camp in and about the divisional board office will prepare some of them for the greater roughness of a campaign in the Australian bush. Any how, they have with them the best wishes of the people of Roma, and if they should have the luck to find themselves in a scrimmage, in which they are sure to acquit themselves well, it is hoped none of them will be seriously hurt.' - [Western Star - 4th April 1891]


Over the next day a few stragglers joined the group, bringing the final number of the Roma contingent to 42 with two or three civilians. While no mention is made of what effects the loss of the 40 men had on the town, there must have been some inconvenience associated with the vacancy in their working jobs. The town clerk was missing, as were several businessmen, a hotelier, bakers, railway employees, general labourers and farmers. In the end most were to be absent for some two months, while a small group were gone for three.


Conditions in the Charleville were not the best, as steady rain had recently fallen flooding a number of the district creeks. The men from Roma camped the best they could in the Council yards and remained under command of their own captain, while the men of the Toowoomba Mounted Infantry under Captain Hutchison were stationed at the Police barracks to protect the jail.


The first trouble the soldiers had to contend with was when a load of prisoners was brought to town a week or so after they had settled in. Twenty-two prisoners from Oakwood were brought to town charged with the arson and riots at the Oakwood shearing shed. They came under police control in two Cobb and Co coaches or mounted on chained horses, escorted by 20 men of the Toowoomba Mounted Infantry. The going for the little force was quite heavy owing to the wet clay roads, so by the time the group had arrived in town a large assembly of some 400 pro unionists had gathered to surround the convoy as it delivered the prisoners to the jail. Loud cheers where given by the crowd as the prisoners disembarked, but they were led into prison none the less. The crowd then began giving choruses of booing for the Governor, some government ministers, and then the Toowoomba Mounted Infantry.


The protestors then moved on about the town, cheering as they passed certain hotels and the residence of a prominent Carrier's Union boss, before stopping to give 'three groans' outside the Pastoralist's Association building. At the Divisional Board offices the group stopped and gave rousing cheers in an effort to test the loyalties of the Roma Corps. As their cheering was unanswered, they cheered again for the Roma soldiers, who still made no response, clearly indicating that they had chosen not to support or show sympathy for the rioters. The crowd then gave 'three groans' for the Divisional Board, before moving on to the Charleville Times office where they again gave 'three groans' for both the paper and then a special 'boo hoo' for the local newspaperman in particular.


After that the grand procession broke up, and as evening approached, the Roma and Toowoomba soldiers combined, most likely bivouacking at the police barracks where they kept pickets on guard over night in case troubled flared.


No doubt there was some sympathy among the Roma men for the general situation with the unionists, though the soldiers were under strict supervision to ensure that any such feelings were not shown publicly. It is certain that Roma itself was not so concerned with the fate one way or the other of the unionists, but that the soldiers who were in Charleville did their duty as representatives of the crown.


'No doubt amongst them some men who are unionists, but who have no sympathy whatever with the perpetrators of the outrages now taking place in the west. They know well enough that fire raising is not and never was contemplated in the formation of the unions, and there is no sort of doubt that now the men are called upon by the duly constituted authorities to put down these outrages, and if it should come to shooting the perpetrators, it will be done. So much can confidently be asserted from the general demeanour of these men - they are Australians although some are unionists, and they will discharge their duties as Australians now they are called upon. Probably they will be unionists after the present troubles are well over.'
- [Western Star - 4th April 1889]


These words were written by the newspaper editor and may not reflect the wider community. We know that he was an extremely patriotic Australian from his many other comments throughout the years and the fact his son was a cadet and later WW1 hero. While we might then assume that this was just his opinion, reports of other meetings and even the later trials of some of the prisoners in Roma did not stir up much general public outcry in Roma which would indicate general outrage at the calling out of the army against the unionists.


The only hint we have from Roma sources that not everyone agreed with the current turn of events was a brief report in the Western Star after the 'war' that a sergeant had been demoted to the ranks for 'misconduct' very late in the operations. No reason is given, and it is very surprising that no other mention of it is made considering the local interest in the soldier's activities.


However, we can't leap to conclusions that he was demoted due to 'misconduct' associated with sympathies for the strikers. At one social gathering he was quoted as proposing 'a hearty vote of thanks to the officers and visitors for their presence, for whom Major Moore, PM, Adjutant Hutchinson, and Captain King responded, each expressing much pleasure at the manner in which they had been entertained.' One suspects he might have simply had too good a time.


Aside from the hardships of camp life, the Roma soldiers also found ways to amuse themselves, and by the sound of it they had a 'jolly good time.' They had their own musicians as part of the company to provide entertainment, and they also got on very well with the permanent Charleville population.


After their run in with the strikers on arrival they quickly organised a social gathering of entertainment for themselves and the Toowoomba soldiers. 'One of the men writing says that on Saturday night last a "social" gathering was held there, when the members of D Company, 4th Regiment, entertained their comrades of the Mounted Infantry and others. Reports come to hand of various entertainments being got up, sometimes it is a "Salvation Army" affair, when the testifying is unique; but anything will do to remind the Romans of home and its associations.' - [Western Star - 15th April 1891]


More concern was shown in Roma for the health of the men due to over indulgence than any concern over injury due to rascally strikers. '..they are becoming so strong and hearty that they will hardly be known when they return from the wars. The outdoor exercise and camp work are developing their physique splendidly. Some of them have already increased in girth to an extent that some trouble is found in mending uniforms and replacing "bursted buttons." They have in fact become more like those comfortable fellows known as "labor organisers" or labor agents than the slim pale faced lads who went away some weeks ago.' - [Western Star - 18th April 1891]


By a special order of the Government, those worn out uniforms would later be replaced under a one off grant, due to the fact that many of them did not stand up well to the rigours of active service.


Further entertainments were given such as 'a concert given in aid of the Charleville Anglican Church, they [the soldiers] were well represented, both in the audience and in their efforts to make the affair a success. Mr Clelland did great service in the ticket selling line; and some of our local musicians added greatly to the pleasure of the evening by discoursing sweet music at the entrance to the hall. The programme was a fair one for a bush town, and passed off well, many of the performers receiving encores. Financially the concert was a success, and the promoters are alive to the fact that this is in a great measure due to the help received from their many friends, amongst whom they number some members of the Roma detachment.'


Unfortunately for Mr Allan Clelland, while he was enjoying himself in Charleville, things weren't so good at home. While 'at the front' his building business was wound up with some £400 in debt owed, which was further complicated by the fact he did not have enough assets to cover it. He was to later apply for insolvency.


Mr Alfred Bing also had some difficulties around this time, and near the end of the campaign while leading a contingent of Romans out near Augathella he submitted his resignation as an officer in the Defence Force. On returning to Roma his business partnership with Campbell was dissolved and he moved on to greener pastures.


While the majority of the Roma troops served in Charleville, 13 of them were sent to the main theatre of action around Augathella, where they were under charge of Lieutenant Bing until his resignation, whereupon they were under Lieutenant Stephens, who is presumed to be a Dalby soldier. A number served on the properties 'Burenda' and 'Oakwood' where it was their duty to guard the woolshed and other buildings against the unionists favourite habit of burning them down. The soldiers tended to stand guard overnight, working in 4 hour shifts and accompanied by civilians in the employ of the properties.


Even in the hot seat, they had their priorities right - 'We have fine times here, with nothing to do all day, and plenty of good food.' - [Western Star - 23rd May 1891] Those in Augathella dined at a Hotel, and those on the properties were tended to by the station cooks. While the 'war' was on a few even obtained leave to return to Roma and attend to some business.


While there were shots fired at the stations where the soldiers were, such as a brief attempt to get to the Burenda woolshed, no shots were recorded as being fired by the Romans. They were also involved with escort duty, but no mention is made of any particular moves by the strikers to bring harm to the Roma boys. They were certainly intimidated a number of times by massed groups of strikers and supporters who tried to coerce the soldiers by mass protest and bullying.


As the month of May closed, the situation in 'the West' stabilised enough for the Government to stand down the Roma troops and the Brisbane Field Battery.


'A telegram received in town yesterday says that the members of D Company of the Defence Force, now out campaigning about Charleville, are ordered home... The home is Roma, We are sure the people of Roma will welcome the return of "our boys." But will "our boys," after the somewhat easy campaigning they have really enjoyed, be anything like the decent fellows who went away? We hope they will, although the experience of being in the army may have put some queer notions in their heads. Lads who go on a two months campaign usually do pick up new ideas, and as "old soldiers" they may surprise some of us. The old people have some sort of hold of them however, for so far nobody has been hurt; and most of us recollect the old saw about the "King of France marched up a hill with 20,000 fighting men, and then marched down again." There was a lot of glory in that! Our veterans, whose whiskers are not yet grown, had better not "blow" too much. Of course the fault is not theirs; the other fellows did not really mean to fight.' - [Western Star - 30th may 1891]


The first lot of 25 or so returned to town on the 1st of June, with three officers remaining in Charleville to support the remaining soldiers and to wait for the arrival of the other Roma soldiers from Augathella. They returned to Roma on the 22nd, while the last soldiers returned on the 26th along with soldiers from Toowoomba, Dalby, Warwick and Ipswich.


Surprisingly no mention is made of a public welcome home of the soldiers. In fact everything was very low key, as there were no follow up reports on their service while away either. A special dance was held for them, and after the event a special parade was held to discuss 'important business.' No mention is made of the nature of the business, though it is likely there was discussion on whether or not the corps should be converted to a mounted corps 'as that branch of the service is found to be better adapted to any description of military operations in the interior than any other. The mounted infantry can ride long distances in a short time, and are fit for active work after a fatiguing journey.' - [Western Star - 24th June 1891]


While trials of some of the strikers was held in Roma after this period, the soldiers returned to their normal life and disappear from any associations with the continuation of the strike. '… the men are doing their best to resume their usual duties. They do not appear to take kindly to ordinary occupations. Our men do not seem to enjoy the return to work life and every day work. Being "out west" at six shillings a day, which enabled them to "put on side" amongst buxom lasses out there and attend the dances has to a great extent demoralised the young Romans, and it will take some time for them to settle down to the usual routine of life. Some of them have lost a stripe or two, and that may account for more than one gruesome face. Altogether, however, the lads seem to have benefited by the campaign, since they look strong and healthy.' - [Western Star - 10th June 1891]

Those who went to war from D Company, 4th Qld (Darling Downs) Regiment:
Captain FWE Faithful - Banker
Lieutenant AJ Bing - Storekeeper
Lieutenant Thomas A Spencer - Auctioneer/Commercial Agent
Colour Sergeant Alfred Flack - Painter
Senior Sergeant Leach - Baker
Sergeant J England - Labourer
Corporal Alfred Marstin - Carpenter
Corporal Charles Edwin Knowles - Railway Employee
Corporal William Wanstall - age 59
Lance Corporal Cornelius Powell - Railway Employee - age 46
Pte John Auchter - age 45
Pte William Auchter - age 16
Pte R Baldwin -
Pte Harry Batzloff - Butcher
Pte Albert E Bell -
Pte Alexander Caldwell - Selector
Pte James Caldwell - Draper
Pte GL Chrystal - Town Clerk - age 43
Pte Allan Clelland - Builder - age 51
Pte D Clelland -
Pte Robert Clelland - Carpenter - age 20
Pte Thomas Conway - Saddler - age 35
Pte Daniel Cunningham - Railway Employee - age 61
Pte J Faulkner - either John William - Printer (most likely) or Joseph - Labourer, both aged 16
Pte Frederick W Fielden -
Pte Alfred Ernest Johnson - Saddler - age 16
Pte Malachi Kelly - Accountant
Pte Tim Laycock - Farmer
Pte Benjamin Leach - Baker
Pte Henry J Leitch - Carrier
Pte Jonathon Linnett - Labourer
Pte Thomas McEwen - Publican - age 57
Pte Charles Merritt - Fruiterer or Labourer - age 16
Pte Francis Joseph Mullavey - age 18
Pte Thomas Pierce - Labourer
Pte R Regan -
Pte Frederick Seitz - Farmer
Pte William Sloane - Carrier - age 44
Pte J Sparks - either John - Tailor or Joseph Henry - age 18
Pte W Truckle -
Pte GP Williams - Carpenter
Pte William Rainnie Wilson - Bootmaker - age 33
Attached to the group were
Mr Brown, Mitchell - most likely William Brown - Selector - who may have been a citizen of some union such as the Carrier's Union who was under escort. A Mr Brown was later arrested in Charleville for inciting a riot, but it is not clear if it was the same man.
W Cook, printing office, Charleville - most likely a citizen who was under protection
Plus 1 or so unnamed others who may have been dignitaries for one side or other of the dispute or perhaps even the Roma Military Band members. No mention is made of the Roma troops escorting non union shearers west, which the Warwick troops had done the week before.
Bombardier O'Halloran, Qld Defence Force. Attached to the Roma troops while in Charleville, he helped them with military matters such as drill while the 'war' was on.