05 November 2015

Work, Literacy, Poverty and Conscription

Examining the lives of ancestors often involves delving into their working lives, their levels of literacy and their levels of poverty.  Several of my husband's Italian relatives came to Australia to escape both poverty and conscription between the 1880s and the 1920s.

This included Domenico, my husband's great grandfather, who arrived in Australia aged 21, in 1889.  I have since discovered this picture of him was from his wedding day.   He married at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in 1896.

In England, my father was fortunate to missed out on being called up for national service. If he had been born just a few days earlier, I may not have been born.

There is still conscription in many countries today. There was conscription in Australia at various times in the 20th century. My Australian-born father-in-law, then aged nineteen, was forced into the Australian Army in April 1941 as an alternative to being interned with his father, a naturalised British subject.

The Italian presence in Australia has covered the entire time of British colonialism and federation.  The earliest Italian family members in Australia had little knowledge of how to read or write.  They could not even speak English at first.

Italy relied on conscription since its modern founding in 1861.  It was finally abolished in at the beginning of this century.  The irony for my husband's paternal grandfather was that he had initially arrived in Australia in 1912, two years after his elder brother, to escape conscription and learn to run a business.  He succeeded and became engaged to an Australian-born young woman of Italian heritage in 1917.

Although there was no conscription in Australia during the First World War, my husband's grandfather was forced to return to Italy as an Italian conscript, leaving behind his business and fiancée.  In the same war, my husband's maternal grandfather was conscripted onto the frontline, where around half a million soldiers lost their lives.

My husband grew up with the possiblity that he could be conscripted himself, in Australia, but fortunately he was still too young when it was ended in December 1972.  His family had already considered sending him and his older brother into hiding.

Being able to make choices in life is eroded wherever there is military conscription without adequate humanitarian and educational alternatives, in my view.  This is especially the case when governments are inadquately supported by societies, and vice versa. 

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I especially appreciate historical insights.