Battle of Kosturino: the Irish-Australian connection

December 7 marks the 101st anniversary of the Battle of Kosturino, a little-known action in the little-known Macedonian campaign during the very well-known First World War. While this minor clash in the Balkans in December 1915 is of little significance in the overall context of the war, its interest for me as an Australian is that the battle involved troops from the 10th (Irish) Division, recently transferred from Gallipoli where the division’s 29th Brigade had served alongside the Anzacs during the August offensive at Lone Pine, Quinn’s Post, Chunuk Bair and Hill 60. At the Battle of Kosturino a small contingent of Australian soldiers served alongside the Irish.

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Romeo Drobarov of Salonika Battlefield Tours at the memorial to the 10th (Irish) Division at Rabrovo, Macedonia

While the centenary of the battle was commemorated last year, it is only recently that I visited Kosturino, prompting me to write this post and a short account of the battle: Battle of Kosturino: the Irish-Australian connection.

My visit to the battle site was facilitated by Romeo Drobarov of Salonika Battlefield Tours, who has a detailed knowledge of the battlefield and of the various actions that occurred in and around the locality during the Macedonian campaign. For Australians interested in going there, the journey is not difficult at all. It involves a flight to Athens and a train trip to Thessaloniki, from where Romeo will collect you and drive you to and around the battlefield.

22nd Australasian Irish Studies Conference, Adelaide

The Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand held its 22nd conference at Flinders University, Adelaide from 29 November to 2 December 2016. The keynote speakers were Professor David Fitzpatrick (Trinity College Dublin), Professor Melanie Oppenheimer (Flinders University) and Dr Maggie Ivanova (Flinders University). Numerous other papers were given on various topics under the common theme of “Change, Commemoration, Community”.

At the conference I gave a paper entitled “The Paradox of Prophecy: Hugh Mahon and the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal rights” in which I examine Hugh Mahon’s progressive approach to Australia’s indigenous peoples, including his unsuccessful parliamentary motion in 1901 calling for a constitutional amendment that was eventually adopted in 1967. Nevertheless, Mahon was also a strong supporter of the white Australia policy, urging strict controls on immigration and describing non-Europeans in the most disparaging terms. The paper seeks to resolve the apparent paradox between Mahon’s prophetic views on Aboriginal rights and his overtly racist and restrictive attitude towards Asian immigration.

Centenary of the 1916 Conscription Referendum

During the First World War the Australian government in 1916 and again in 1917 asked the Australian people to approve the introduction of military conscription for overseas service. On each occasion the Australian people by a narrow margin said no. The first referendum was held on 28 October 1916, just six months after the Easter rising in Dublin. It soon became the orthodox view that the Irish Catholic vote was decisive and that the Easter rising and the British government’s response to it were major factors influencing Australian Catholics of Irish descent to oppose conscription.

Soon after the result was known, the Australian prime minister, William Morris Hughes, claimed in a letter to the leader of the British Conservative Party that ‘the selfish vote, and shirker vote and the Irish vote were too much for us’. In August 1917 Hughes wrote to his British counterpart David Lloyd George, ‘The [Catholic] Church is secretly against recruiting. Its influence killed conscription’. But it was not only supporters of conscription who regarded the vote of Australian Catholics of Irish descent as decisive. The Catholic Press, which had opposed conscription, declared soon after the vote, ‘It would be futile to deny that the continuance of martial law in Ireland was perhaps the strongest factor in swelling the “no-conscription” returns’. Labor’s Frank Anstey wrote, ‘[I]f there had been no Easter Week in Ireland … there would have been no hope of defeating conscription in Australia’.

Many historians agreed. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter rising Ken Inglis wrote, ‘Had it not been for the Sinn Feiners and Sir John Maxwell [military governor in Ireland], Australian conscripts would have gone to France.’ However, subsequent research has questioned the significance of the vote of Catholics of Irish descent and the influence which the Easter rising and its aftermath had on their voting intentions.

 In a paper I gave to the Australian Catholic Historical Society on 16 October 2016, I discussed Catholic attitudes to conscription in 1916-17 and examined whether it was the Catholic Church which killed conscription, as Hughes claimed, and to what extent events in Ireland influenced the result.

Sydney Commemorates the Easter Rising

 

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Sydney commemorates the Easter Rising: Outside Mitchell Library during a break in the screening of films on the Rising (Mike O’Flynn)

Under grey skies, reminiscent of weather in Dublin, a crowd of more than 300 gathered outside the GPO in Martin Place at 10 am on Easter Monday to hear Irish-Australian actor Maeliosa Stafford read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, first read 100 years ago outside the GPO in Dublin. The reading was part of a day of commemoration organised by the Aisling Society of Sydney to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising.

Before the proceedings began Kevin O’Connor kept the growing numbers entertained by playing Irish tunes on his fiddle. Once the GPO clock had finished striking the hour, I gave a short address on the significance of the Easter Rising for Ireland and Australia. (A longer version can be read by clicking here.) This was followed by the reading of the Proclamation, after which those fortunate enough to have secured tickets moved to the Mitchell Library for the screening of three films on the Rising: excerpts from Ireland Will Be Free (1920); the docu-drama A Terrible Beauty (2013); and the feature film Irish Destiny (1926).

In the Dixon Room of the library Indigenous elder Ken Canning gave an acknowledgement to country before Irish Consul General Jane Connolly formally opened the film screening. In between films members of the audience came forward to relate personal stories of their family’s involvement with the Rising.

Organiser of the event Tony Earls is to be congratulated on what turned out to be a very successful and enjoyable day of commemoration. The event was funded by a grant from the Irish government’s 1916-2016 Centenary Programme.

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Maeliosa Stafford reading the Proclamation. On his left is Tony Earls (Mike O’Flynn)

Photographs of the day’s proceedings taken by Mike O’Flynn can be seen by clicking here. A video of the reading of the Proclamation can be seen on YouTube.