Labor Goes to War: Labor MPs and the Great War

Lawrie Daly

World War I and the Labor Party bring to mind the 1916-17 Conscription debates, the defection of Labor leaders Hughes and Holman and the bitter political and sectarian divisions that appeared on the Home Front. But not all Labor politicians stayed to debate the war – some enlisted. This is the brief account of four such Labor Members of Parliament. Labor MPs who put their political careers on hold to ‘join the colours’. All were Australian born and two were of Irish Catholic background. One lost his life, one was decorated for bravery and three ultimately lost their seats in parliament. All were casualties of the bitterness of the times. This is the story of: Sergeant Ted Larkin MLA, Captain Ambrose Carmichael MLA, Senator Lieutenant Colonel James O’Loghlin and Sergeant Alfred Ozanne MHR.

Ted Larkin MLA – Sportsman, Soldier, Politician
‘It is the duty of public men to set an example in this time of national need’, Edward Rennix Larkin told his constituents in 1914. With this comment, former policeman and Labor MP for the State seat of Willoughby was one of the first to enlist in World War I.

When struck by illness in Egypt he was offered passage home but insisted on embarking with the AIF’s 1st Battalion to the Dardanelles. Australia’s Official War Historian Bean praised Larkin’s example and leadership qualities amongst his men. At dawn on 25 April 1915 the 1st Battalion landed at Gallipoli. Sergeant Larkin’s platoon scaled the heights to Pine Ridge, above ANZAC Cove. Turkish reinforcements massed for a counter attack to drive the Australians from the high ground. In the afternoon of that historic day Sergeant Ted Larkin’s life ended in a hail of machine gun fire.

An outstanding sportsman, he had been captain of the Newtown Rugby Union Club. Larkin represented Australia in the first ever Rugby test against New Zealand in 1903. He was also prominent in the sports of cycling and swimming.

An excellent organiser, Larkin became the first full time secretary of the infant NSW Rugby League in 1909. His personal efforts and enthusiasm resulted in Rugby League being established in country centres and Catholic schools. Ninety years on these groups are still strongholds of the sport. The history of Rugby League rates Larkin as one of the game’s most competent administrators.

Always a staunch Labor Party supporter, Larkin surprised most observers by winning the north shore seat of Willoughby for Labor in the 1913 State election. The contest was decided by a controversial second ballot, where the two leading candidates contested a ‘run off’ election a week later if no absolute majority was gained on polling day.

Larkin was a gifted public speaker with a ‘big love for the underdog’. He proved to be a capable performer in State parliament and a promising political career was in the making. Larkin advocated the building of a bridge across Sydney Harbour.

But the call to arms in 1914 saw him inspired with a sense of loyalty to king and country. Ted Larkin was typical of many who enlisted. He wrote: ‘Should anything befall me I hope my two boys will grow up with a strong sense of patriotism’.

Patriotism took a heavy toll on the Larkin family. Ted’s brother Martin was also killed at Gallipoli. Ted Larkin left a grieving widow with two young sons. When news of his death arrived in June the reaction typified the 1915 attitude to the war. Churches and sporting groups urged their members to follow Larkin’s example and ‘join the colours’.

His memorial service at St Mary’s Cathedral was told that the war was: ‘a deadly struggle between might and right, between freedom and enslaving militarism.’ In none of the eulogies was there a hint of the Conscription debate, barely a year away, which would split Larkin’s Labor Party and the entire community.

The NSW Rugby League donated the proceeds of the 1915 City Cup final, £171/1/-, to Larkin’s young family. A memorial to Sergeant Ted Larkin (with the incorrect date of death) and Lieutenant Colonel George Braund, Liberal Member for Armidale, is predominant on the southern wall of the NSW Legislative Assembly Chamber. Larkin and Braund were the only serving members of any Australian parliament to fall in the Great War.

Ambrose Campbell Carmichael MLA – The Education Minister Who Went To War
At the outbreak of World War I Ambrose Campbell Carmichael was the State MP for Leichhardt and NSW Minister of Public lnstruction in the Holman Labor Government. Carmichael had entered State politics in 1907 and was a minister in the first NSW Labor Government of 1910.

Carmichael was a controversial identity in State politics, but had been a capable and respected Education Minister. He guided radical reforms to open up high school and university education to poorer and country students through the Amending University Act linking the public school system to Sydney University. He also appointed school doctors and nurses.

In early 1915 he resigned from the Ministry (over an issue of precedence with Premier Holman) and shortly after enlisted as a private soldier. He was 48 years of age. He announced he would recruit a thousand riflemen to join him and undertook a recruiting drive, ‘Carmichael’s Rifleman’s March’, which yielded over a thousand volunteers as it moved from town to town. They were called ‘Carmichael’s Thousand’ and made up the 36th Battalion. The pride of the 36th was its band, reflecting Carmichael’s interest in music. As Education Minister he had established the Conservatorium of Music and promoted music and the arts.

‘Car’ as he was called, was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant. The 36th Battalion sailed in March 1916 and moved into the lines in France during the last weeks of the Battle of the Somme. Carmichael was wounded at Houplines on 21 January 1917. In this action he was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing troops cut off by the enemy. In May he was promoted to captain and wounded again in October.

In February 1918 he was invalided back to Australia travelling as honorary aide de camp to Sir Walter Davidson, the new Governor of NSW. Upon his arrival, Carmichael, still an MP was feted as a hero. Urging the need for more troops on the Western Front, Carmichael undertook a busy round of speaking engagements. He spoke of the war bringing a new equality. ‘Unionist and capitalist’ had shared the horrors of the front line and peace would bring a ‘democracy based upon the brotherhood of man’, he said. Although burdened with a permanent limp from his wounds he became active in recruiting and raised a second ‘Carmichael’s Thousand’ and returned to France in September 1918.

Carmichael had been absent from Australian politics during the two conscription referenda of 1916 -17. However he indicated that as the Labor Party had introduced compulsory military training before the war, conscription should naturally follow. As a consequence he was out of step with the Labor Party of 1918. In 1919 he left the Party and sat on the cross benches, losing his seat in the 1920 elections after forming his own Soldiers and Citizens Party.

On his death in 1953 the Legislative Assembly moved a condolence motion. Liberal and Country Party MPs spoke of his military record and his contribution to education. Ex-digger Fred Cahill, Labor MP for Young spoke movingly of Carmichael’s leadership, personality and character. Towards the end of his speech he stated: ‘I should know, I was Number 733 of Carmichael’s Thousand.’

Senator Lieutenant Colonel James 0’Loghlin – Critic of ‘Kaiser’ Hughes
At 62 years of age Senator James Vincent O’Loghlin was not the army’s youngest recruit in 1914. At a farewell dinner in early 1915 he told the Minister for Defence: ‘If you cannot put me in the firing line, put me as near to it as you can.’

South Australian born, James O’Loghlin was a journalist and in the 1890’s edited the colony’s Catholic weekly paper the Southern Cross. A staunch advocate of the cause of Home Rule for Ireland, he was president of a number of Irish Australian organisations. Upon being asked why he had enlisted with the AIF he is reported to have said: ‘If there is a fight on, an Irishman wants to be in it.’

O’Loghlin also had a passionate interest in the military. He had been involved in South Australia’s volunteer forces since 1883, and raised and commanded the Irish Corps, 10th regiment from 1901 to 1910.

He was a member of the South Australian Legislative Council from 1888 to 1902 and served as Chief Secretary in the Kingston Liberal Ministry from 1896-1899. He sat in the Legislative Assembly between 1910 and 1912. Joining the Labor Party after Federation, O’Loghlin entered the Senate in 1907 as a casual vacancy, only to have this overturned by the High Court. He was finally elected to the Senate as leader of the Labor team in 1913.

O’Loghlin served twice overseas during the war. He attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel as an officer commanding reinforcements for the AIF in Egypt and Gallipoli and later in France.

Back in Australia he served on the Federal Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1917-18. He returned to Australian politics in early 1917 to find his Labor Party colleagues sitting on both sides of the chamber. His former Labor leader Prime Minister Billy Hughes now leading the anti-Labor Nationalist (Pro Conscription) Government wrongly claimed Lieutenant Colonel O’Loghlin as one of his.

Of his former colleague Billy Hughes he stated: ‘It seems to me that the conduct of the Prime Minister at that crisis (the Conscription issue) was pure Kaiserism, and I am opposed to Kaiserism, whether that Kaiserism comes from Willam Morris Hughes or Willam Hohenzollern’. O’Loghlin was distressed at the divisions in Australian politics. He told the Senate in 1917: ‘There is more war here in Australia than there is at the front, and it is being conducted more bitterly.’

O’Loghlin was defeated at the Senate election of 1919. Re-elected in 1922, he died in December 1925 after five decades in public life.

Alfred Ozanne MHR – Absent Without Leave?
Following the death of his brother at Gallipoli, the Federal Labor Member for Corio, in Victoria, Alfred Thomas Ozanne, joined the ranks in 1915. Ozanne had won the marginal seat of Corio in 1910, lost it in 1913 and regained it at the 1914 election.

With over ten years service in volunteer regiments Ozanne soon attained the rank of Sergeant and sailed for France. Prior to leaving England for the front in 1916 Ozanne took final leave in London. Developing a severe ear infection he was admitted to a private hospital. Although reporting his illness to the military he found upon return to his unit that he had been listed as Absent Without Leave and charged with desertion. An investigation struck out the charges but at the end of 1916 the army discharged him on medical grounds, giving him permission to board the first available ship back to Australia.

At home Ozanne’s electorate had voted for Conscription. Prime Minister Hughes claimed Ozanne as one of his supporters in the Labor split. Ozanne later claimed that Hughes had cabled him pressuring him to stand as a Nationalist candidate. However a cable from Ozanne stated that he would not desert the official Labor Party and would contest the coming 1917 election as its candidate for Corio. Hughes’ Nationalists had undertaken not to oppose sitting servicemen at the poll. Ozanne meanwhile could not get a passage back to Australia until late March, ensuring he would miss the campaign. In Corio anonymous leaflets began to appear accusing Ozanne of being a deserter. The local Geelong press began asking questions. Wartime censorship saw to it that little could be done to clarify the position for Ozanne’s benefit. An independent, John Lister, a returned serviceman, announced he would stand against Ozanne if the latter’s loyalty was in question. The Corio electorate was flooded with anti-Ozanne and pro Nationalist pamphlets. A week from the poll Hughes’ Defence Minister Pearce released an unsigned cable on army letterhead from London. It stated that Ozanne had been absent without leave but omitted to indicate the charges had been made in error. Taking this as confirmation of Ozanne’s desertion the Nationals endorsed Lister as their candidate. Army correspondence that would have cleared Ozanne completely was conveniently not released. Meanwhile Ozanne’s vessel was unaccountably delayed at sea and he reached Perth only a day before the poll, sending a long cable explaining his innocence.

Ozanne lost the seat but received a rousing welcome from his supporters upon return to Corio. Subsequent attempts to have a Royal Commission into the whole affair were defeated on party lines.

Alfred Ozanne never re-entered politics and died in 1961.

Others Who Served
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all Labor MPs who served in the Great War. Others served, as did many future MPs. These included:

Sergeant William Johnson was serving Mayor of Auburn and former Federal Member for Robertson (NSW) 1910-13. Johnson was killed at Passchendaele in 1916.

Lance Corporal Charles Fern MLA, State Member for Cobar (NSW) who was invalided home from France and died in 1918 leaving a widow and four young daughters in dire economic straits.

Warrant Officer David McGrath MHR, Federal Member for Ballarat. McGrath was Labor’s official scrutineer amongst the troops on the Western Front for voting in the 1917 election and the second conscription referendum. He returned from France and lost his seat in 1919 by one vote (although regaining it in a subsequent by-election.)

Gunner George Yates MHR, Federal Member for Adelaide. After serving on the Western Front in 1917-18, Yates was jailed for 60 days for inciting a mutiny on board a homeward bound troop ship.

Captain William Dunn MLA, State Member for Mudgee (NSW), who served on the Western Front, was commissioned in the field and returned to a long and distinguished career in State politics.

Private Ernie Durack, State Member for Bathurst and Leader of the Opposition. Durack resigned from Parliament the day a snap election was called in 1917. He joined the AIF and embarked for the Western Front, following rumours of an extra marital affair about to be made public.