In the early years of the War, vigorous recruiting campaigns were conducted throughout Australia and it is common to find venues associated with, for example, public lectures presented to encourage young men to enlist. Many Australian communities can still identify the places where such campaigns were conducted in their town.
The small community of Henty, about half way between Albury and Wagga Wagga, is situated on the Melbourne to Sydney rail link and provides an interesting example. For more than a century Henty has provided services to a largely rural community.
In 1917 a Red Cross fundraiser and a simultaneous recruitment campaign conducted by the AIF were held on a single evening at the Henty School of Arts. Both organisations used wounded veterans of the Gallipoli campaign as a drawcard. Usually organised by local Red Cross committees, the event at Henty on Thursday 22 February was no exception.
Tom Skeyhill, the ‘blind soldier-poet’ was considered an outstanding public speaker and a huge drawcard. His supposed injury was later shown to be counterfeit. Although he was never accused of shirking his duty at the time, people in Hamilton, his home town, doubted that he was blind. He was, however, immensely popular wherever he lectured, usually working with other diggers, most of whom boasted in their press releases about wounds they had not received. Tom’s manager, Private Bobby Pearce, and his various magic lanternists, though claiming spurious injuries, performed an extremely powerful if somewhat hypocritical service in the recruitment of reinforcements. They also raised large amounts of money for charities such as the Red Cross.
Recruiting lectures by Tom Skeyhill were conducted all over Australia in 1916 and 1917 in halls such as the Henty School of Arts and hundreds of towns might discover their own ‘Skeyhill story’. But it was an incident after the Henty lecture that became notable national news. Skeyhill apparently fell down a steep flight of stairs at the adjacent Central Hotel, his concussion commanding press attention for a couple of weeks all over the country.
Skeyhill’s early work on the lecture platform had been encouraged by Major General McCay (later Lieutenant General Sir James McCay), who was genuinely wounded and repatriated to recover, late in 1915. McCay wrote a foreword to Skeyhill’s Soldier Songs from Anzac, which sold more than 50,000 copies during his two years of recruiting in Australia. Usually, events such as that at the Henty School of Arts were main points of sale for his book.