World War I or as it was known, the ‘Great War’, began on 28 July 1914 when the Austro-Hungarians fired the first shots in preparation for the invasion of Serbia. As Russia mobilised, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg before moving towards France, leading Britain and Australia to declare war on Germany on 4 August of that year.
For Australia, as for many nations, the First World War remains the most costly conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted (8.5% of the population), of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
In stark contrast to today’s almost instantaneous news services confirmation of Australia’s involvement dribbled through to an anxious public. On 5 August the Orange Leader reported:
War fever has attained an epidemic degree in our midst. Everybody thinks war and talks war, and are waiting, the latest details as it filters through the telegraph and telephone. All day long people have been watching the special notice board for the posting of press messages, with the latest particulars.
On the 7 August the Leader advised that from that day they would be issuing a, special war edition each day at 1pm which would be available from the ‘leading agents, runner boys, and at the office, at a cost one penny.’
The outbreak of war was greeted in Australia, as in many other places, with great public enthusiasm. One of the first people in Orange to enlist was Dr Neville Howse then aged 50 and at that time Mayor of Orange. Howse had previously served in the Boer War where he had been awarded the Victoria Cross, and held the rank of honorary medical officer in the Army Medical Corp. His sudden departure took everyone by surprise including the other doctors in the practice who found a note propped on the mantelpiece that read ‘I have gone to the war, you can do what you … well like with the practice N R H’.
In response to the overwhelming number of volunteers, the authorities set exacting physical standards for recruits. Among those who volunteered from the district in August 1914 are many familiar ‘Orange’ names. Edmund Thomas Cornish, a labourer at the Dalton Brothers mill and resident of 90 March Street enlisted on 24 August aged 21. As a Sergeant with the 10 Field Artillery Brigade he would be killed in action almost four years later at Amiens in France. His younger brother Walter, who had enlisted in 1915, had died 11 months previously while another brother, Thomas, had been invalided home suffering from shell-shock.
The journalist writing of Edmund’s death in the Leader on 2 September 1918 reflects the effect of the war on families when he wrote ‘It can well be said of the Cornish family that they have done their bit for the Empire’.