Friday, 7 November 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 6 - WW1 and a tarnished dream

So what was it that took place in Woodside between January 1914 and November 1914 to prompt this footnote to a supposedly happy time:

Woodside contained all German people, whom I found most good and kind, at that time. However after the outbreak of War between England and Germany I concluded it was much better to leave them.

Ethel clearly felt her loyalties to be divided, particularly as she had taken so well to German society, middle-class and cultured. She may have learned the language and formed emotional bonds, not merely within the household where she was employed but perhaps with a special individual: in her Journal Ethel is quite good with descriptions of her comings and goings, but offers us scant insight into her deeper feelings. The war in Europe had broken out in August 1914, so by the November she must have heard that brothers Charley, Tom and Bill were actively involved in France and India. Did she feel uneasy at some perceived act of betrayal? Or had she become unsettled by the overt anti-German feeling pervading Australian society? Manning Clark, in his History of Australia, tells us this had begun with politicians urging the populace:

to entertain the kindest feelings towards the Mother Country...As the forces of war were marshalled, wild expressions of loyalty broke out in the streets of the capital cities.

Such understandable sentiments, however, quickly deteriorated. For instance:

outside the Age office in Melbourne when Germany was mentioned the cry went up to go and wreck the consul’s office. For a few minutes ugly feelings swept over the crowd: hoodlums came to the fore. Angry voices called on Australians to show the Germans what the boys of the “Bulldog Breed” were like.

The Australian press systematically poisoned the minds of its readership until Lutheran clubs, churches and schools were closed, and even looting and burning began to occur.

So the month of November 1914 saw Ethel back in Adelaide. Perhaps she lodged a night or two at the Charles Street hostel, as Bessie Moore in 1913 had indicated would have been her right. But, whatever positions she was offered over the next ten months, Ethel confides to her Journal that “the tables completely turned”, “nothing but Ups and Downs”, “failure…misfortune continually greeting me.” Anti-German feeling was probably more vociferous back in the city, and any opportunity to take a passage back to England impossible. After all, she had just written to sister Minnie that “nothing is safe to cross the Sea at this critical Time.” Indeed Germany had declared all enemy shipping to be legitimate targets. Ethel, by now twenty-nine and all alone, was torn as to what action she could take:

At last I made up my mind to make a great change, and go far out into the Country.

There was to be no rural retreat this time, instead the smallest town, in the driest desert, on the driest continent on earth, echoing Dante’s poetic evocation of one of the circles of Hell: “a plain which from its bed rejecteth every plant”. She was reluctant to condemn the Germans she had come, through her work, to appreciate. What she needed was an opportunity to sacrifice, endure, and to display the brave spirit she had exhibited on her voyage from England. She found it on board the ‘Ghan’, a rail link between Adelaide and Alice Springs, constructed in 1877, and named after the Afghan tribesmen and camel drivers brought to Australia in 1860 by Burke and Wills, explorers of the Interior.

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