On July 1, 1915, the residents of Yass were invited to attend a public meeting to discuss how to make “July 30 a national day, in the fullest meaning of the word”. The young Commonwealth had been established just fourteen years earlier, 26 January 1901.

They were frightening times! The war that was to engulf Europe and millions of lives had been declared July 28 1914. Australian troops had been pinned down at Gallipoli since April 25 1915. The response in Australia was to fundraise for the war effort any way they knew how.

The Red Cross had been established in Yass on 17 August 1914 less than two weeks after Britain declared war on Germany, with Mayoress Mrs Browning as President. The Australia Day event under discussion was to be a whole town and district affair to raise funds to enable the Red Cross to provide comforts and nursing assistance for sick and wounded Australian Soldiers and Sailors. Stirring speeches and strong sentiments flourished in Council and letters to the paper.

“Australia Day will give an opportunity to those who have so far evaded their responsibilities as sponsors for those at the front…For the honour of the Australian Commonwealth, for the glory of the Empire, and for their own reputation as members of a common human brotherhood”

“A lost limb, a fractured bone can change a brilliant prospect into a human cloud, disheartening, mentally paralysing their view of life. It is for such as these the fund will be applied. To alleviate even in a small degree the pains of the present, compensate, if possible, for the loss of much that makes life worth living; to assist to the end those who must still live and suffer”

“If our wealthy stay-at-homes …will not recognise the debt they owe to those who have died; or those who have suffered, and to those still fighting in the front to preserve their country from aggression, their elders from slaughter, and their women-folk from that which is much worse, they will stand forever condemned”

Yass and District rose to the occasion. Donations would be accepted “day or night” and the volunteer Hon Secretary Mr F Byrne took his job seriously, braving the elements in all kinds of weather. The Yass Courier noted, “A man who can feel patriotic in his pajamas with the glass dropping to the thirties (one degree Celsius) is the sort of man that the country wants just now.”

A sports day, a procession down Comur street, and a patriotic concert at night was decided upon for Yass township. Murrumbateman ran a skating evening and Bookham district held a race meeting.

At Bookham, ladies attending came dressed as Red Cross nurses and when the horse races were finished, Mr J J Cahill of Bowning acted as auctioneer. Donated sheep, turkeys, chooks, pigs, bags of chaff, potatoes, and corn were auctioned and reauctioned, buyers competing in their generosity. Flowers, cakes, and even a spinning jenny were raffled and re-raffled.

The paper was fulsome in its praise of the Yass town procession and the Municipal Council – “There can be no two opinions about the class of embellishing, both in novelty and in general effect being in excess of any previous effort.”

Australia Day July 30, 1915 resulted from a desperate kind of patriotism and compassion. It wasn’t until 1946 that all States agreed to celebrate Australia Day on January 26. Some understanding and compassion for the impact of European settlement on Aboriginal Australia would be a worthy inclusion on what should be a day of unity.

By Judith Davidson for Yass and District Historical Society

Images courtesy of YDHS Archives