LightBrigade


LATE ON A February night in 1916 Ernest William Keefe, a trooper training with the Sixth Australian Light Horse Depot, was shot through the right cheek and killed by the Metropolitan Police at Sydney's Central Railway Station. For much of the day thousands of troops from Liverpool had rampaged through the city in a booze-fuelled rage. After Trooper Keefe was shot, at 10.45 pm, the decade-old station quickly emptied, but gun smoke lingered in the thick summer air. Moments earlier five hundred soldiers and civilians, boots and shouts throwing violent echoes around the tiled cavern of Central Station, came up against a military picket.

The angry mob threw stones and bottles, and turned a fire hose on the authorities. A soldier shot a revolver into the air, and those in the picket, which included two policemen, returned fire. According to the police report to the New South Wales Coroner, the picket and police fired fifty shots, seriously injuring seven in the crowd, including a civilian.

Keefe was only nineteen. He was one of the thousands of young men from the city and far-flung country towns who had responded to the recruiting marches over the previous three months and the December ‘Call to Arms' from Prime Minister William Hughes urging men to join the Australian Imperial Force. Keefe was training in the Light Horse Brigade, which was again making a name for itself in the Middle East. Instead of finding glory or death in battle ‘in the greatest war of all time', Trooper Keefe was buried in the Church of England section of Waverley Cemetery, the victim of a battle close to home.

The death of Trooper Keefe marked the end of a strike that had begun almost fourteen hours earlier and caused riotous chaos throughout the city. The seeds of ‘the mutiny', as it was called, were sown just before the 9 am parade at Casula Camp, in south-western Sydney, on 14 February 1916 – Valentine's Day.

The AIF had maintained bases in the Liverpool area since 1903, but the camp at Casula was established much later, to accommodate and train recruits before they went to the Great War's foreign battlefields. The overcrowded base housed about six thousand troops and was adjacent to the Concentration Camp, which housed thousands of enemy aliens in what some soldiers considered were better conditions. These dusty tent settlements operated with military routine, yet with increasing unease. A Royal Commission had investigated the complaints about overcrowding, lack of ventilation and abuse of alcohol at Casula a few months earlier.

The disquiet at Casula found focus on the morning of 14 February, when the recruits were told their training was being extended by four and a half hours, from thirty-six hours a week. They were angry about the overcrowding and lack of a wet canteen at the camp, and the difficulty of getting leave. The extra drill was the last straw. A report in The Bulletin the following day described conditions as ‘a dam about to burst' that began ‘in cold blood, in bitter sobriety'. The men were hungry for war, not more training, but they wanted to be treated with respect and to receive what they considered to be a fair go.

That February morning thousands of soldiers reached breaking point. They refused the direction to extend training hours and decided to strike. One of the convicted ringleaders, sixteen-year-old Private F Short, later said in his court martial that outside his tent ‘there was a big crowd...nearly all the camp. They were going from one tent to another pulling people out. "Now, you have to come with us."' According to Captain Smith, a senior officer at Casula, around midday about 2,500 soldiers out of 5,600 remained at the camp.

The mob marched to nearby Liverpool in full flight. There they swarmed into the pubs and hotels demanding free grog. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that at the Commercial Hotel, opposite the Liverpool railway station, the soldiers rolled eleven hogsheads onto the street and drank them dry; the publican estimated that they had stolen a ‘hundred gallons' of rum. A bulk store was raided: an axe was used to break down the door and £1,500 of stock was stolen. Several police, including Constable Tillet of Cabramatta, were assaulted. Three hundred soldiers tried to break into a second hotel and then another hotel opposite it. The riot progressed like a tropical storm, with quiet followed by waves of destruction. Captain Smith described the action: ‘There would be a lull for a quarter of an hour, then they would continue again. The number would come down to a hundred or a hundred and fifty, and it would suddenly increase again by men coming from different directions, who would form a larger body, and the new lot of men would rush the hotel.'

 

FROM 1PM THE soldiers started rushing trains leaving for the ‘50-mile' journey to Sydney – they had long thought they were entitled to free train travel and now took it. Later in the afternoon the police, with the aid of twenty reinforcements from Sydney, managed to keep those remaining in Liverpool out of the other pubs, which lined the streets, and and send them back to Casula.

Shortly before 2 pm the first train arrived at Central Station. Half-drunk soldiers piled onto the main platform and ‘quickly formed up in fours'. Organising themselves, they started marching from the platform, heading out of the station and up George Street. The Sydney Morning Herald reported, ‘Here they made a really fine picture, and keeping good time...the men marched as if on parade.'

In front of the first column the protesting soldiers rigged up a Union Jack, regimental colours and a placard: ‘Strike. We won't drill 401⁄2 hours [sic].' Any semblance of discipline among the soldiers, drunk on rum and the luck of getting so far, soon broke down. They raided fruit carts, eating some produce but also throwing it at each other and passers-by. As the troops marched north up George Street, passing vehicles became targets. ‘Motor cars, motor bicycles, lorries, drays' were commandeered. There was little the former occupants could do but smile at the long column of men in dungarees and khaki marching down the street, and let them take possession. Many people in the city, though initially frightened, were sympathetic and impressed by the spectacle – thousands joined in the riot later in the day.

By 2.30 pm an estimated three thousand soldiers had reached the city. There they were received by a panicked hundred-strong police force and an even more frightened Cabinet. The Chief Secretary sent regular notes to the Premier describing, with increasing alarm, what was happening as the troops took over the city: ‘Three thousand men are now marching down George Street and the military authorities do not know how they got there.'

Four hundred troops marching in rank arrived at the door of the Evening News later in the day and demanded that the poster in front of the office declaring ‘Riot At Liverpool' be changed to ‘Strike at Liverpool', and an apology delivered.

The parade of marching troops continued to thin as groups broke off to raid nearby pubs. Yet the momentum of the day carried many of them on to Circular Quay, before they turned around and took a ‘smoko' next to the Domain gates.

 

AFTER THE REST at the Domain the troops made a run at the Assembly Hotel, opposite the police headquarters. It took a pitched battle with police to get them out. During the afternoon the chaos of the mob turned into a city-wide riot. Hotels were raided and those that were closed had windows broken and charged. The Bulletin concluded, ‘If all the beer in Sydney had been buried in stone vaults at the moment that the human tornado struck the city, it would have stood a big chance of being torn from its place of seclusion.'

By this stage there were several groups in different parts of the city, as each train from Liverpool deposited between three and six hundred troops. One group rushed towards Broadway and Toohey's Brewery, another marched up Eddy Avenue; two hundred men ran down Shepherd Street. The fruit stalls in the Queen Victoria Building were cleared out and broken.

The riot peaked at 5 pm. A thousand drunk troops in George Street, near Hay Street, almost overwhelmed the few police trying to maintain order. At the Regent Street Police Station about seventy soldiers, some carrying lead pipes, threatened to charge the station and free ‘our boys' who had been arrested. Throughout Haymarket the police made baton charges against the troops.

Both the German Club on Phillip Street and R Kleisdorff's tobacco store on the corner of Hunter and Castlereagh streets were attacked. Outside the Criterion Hotel one of the troops, pointing to a name above the sign, shouted ‘Here's a German' before the mob got inside and started demanding drinks from that ‘German bastard'.

The locus of the riot moved to the Queen Victoria Building by 9 pm. There, about five hundred troops rushed around in a crowd of four or five thousand people. A mob collected across the road, on the Druitt Street side of Town Hall, when three revolver shots were heard and the crowd surged, overpowering the few police and forcing ‘many women to take refuge in the grounds of St Andrews Church'.

The military leadership eventually responded, deploying fifteen hundred soldiers as pickets, and the entire Sydney police force joined them in what became a full-scale battle with the mob of striking troops. Police eventually trapped many of them in the city centre.

What happened in the final hours of mayhem, between this exchange in Druitt Street and the death of Ernest Keefe, is unclear. The trail of historical documents peters out. But what is clear is that the riot ended where it started, with the chant ‘Will we drill forty hours? No!' answered by rifle fire.

 

THE FOLLOWING DAY, at 11 am, most of the striking/rioting soldiers reported for a compulsory parade at Casula. In the weeks that followed 279 troops were discharged, thirty-six were convicted in state courts and the ringleaders were sentenced to up to five years of hard labour. Others were sent to faraway battles, and some of those involved in the Liverpool riot went on to fight on the Western Front and in the Middle East. Within months the Casula base was closed and those who had yet to be sent abroad were relocated elsewhere. The bullet holes at Central were filled with putty and the memory of the Valentine's Day riot slowly evaporated.

Although the battle began as a dispute over working conditions it gave the temperance movement, which had been gathering support for many years, a compelling argument to convince the people of New South Wales to vote in June 1916 for the six o'clock closing of all pubs. The Bulletin denounced the link as ‘hysterical...pub hours were no more to blame than the railway timetable or the width of the Redfern tunnel'. Yet if the events of Valentine's Day 1916 are remembered at all it is as the trigger for six o'clock closing – a policy that remained law in the state until 1955. 

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