The Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen & Women (NSW)
Ex-Services’ Associations have existed for centuries as fraternities of those that have experienced the horrors or camaraderie of military service. There have been many in Australia, often locally formed and loosely coordinated while others were formed nationally with state branches and sub-branches. From the dozens that formed after the Great War, it is likely that none exist today in their original form.
The terms ‘demobilisation’ and ‘repatriation’ may have lost significance in modern Australia. But every family was touched by WW I and II and veterans issues were some of society’s biggest post-war challenges – and the landscape upon which our origins lie.
The origins of the RSL are as the “Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia” (RSSILA), formed in 1916 by the first to return and it was staunchly for “returned” soldiers. It was later renamed as RSSAILA (to include airmen) and then RSL three times: ‘Returned Soldiers’, ‘Returned Services’ and finally the ‘Returned & Services League’ when it opened its membership to all veterans irrespective of where, when or how they served in the 1980s.
The origins of the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen & Women are through the cooperation and merger of several existing Associations, primarily the two that formally merged.
•The “Demobilised Soldiers’ Association” was founded on 24 March 1919 in Melbourne originally by and for AIF recruits who had enlisted for overseas service but had not embarked for Europe before the armistice was signed (and therefore ineligible to join RSSILA). The NSW Branch was formed on Tuesday 17 February 1920 at the YMCA Hall, 325 Pitt St, at a meeting presided by Colonel J. Lamrock, himself a returned soldier but as Commandant of the Liverpool AIF camp was aware of the recruits’ plight. The meeting elected Mr R. Weaver (MLA) as the first NSW State Branch President.
A major purpose of the Association was to further the rights of their members, who had enlisted in the AIF but who were disadvantaged by the prioritisation of those returning from war in regards to repatriation employment, pensions, war service homes and other benefits. Having achieved much of its objectives in the 1920s, some State Branches of the Association are reported to have fallen into ‘recess’ until WW2 when they were revived nationwide as the “Demobilised Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen’s Association of Australia” to pursue similar objectives for the new generation of forgotten volunteers.
•The “Second Australian Ex-Service Men’s Association” was founded in 1941 in Queensland originally by and for “returned” WW2 personnel wanting their own Association separate to the RSL and Diggers’ Associations. However the NSW Branch, founded in 1942, and other State Branches declared membership is open to “…any discharged servicemen or women who are not eligible to join any other league.” By May 1943 the NSW Branch had sub-branches in Coogee, Rose Bay, Manly, Auburn and Sydney. The Queensland and NSW Branches ran candidates in the 1943 Federal election. The advertised address, 17 Castlereagh St, would become home to the Legion.
AMALGAMATION AND FORMATION OF THE LEGION
After months of discussions, the State Branches of the Demobilised Sailors, Solders and Airmen’s Association and at least the NSW Branch of the Second Australian Ex-Service Men's Association, agreed to merge and rename as the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen & Women. There are several published dates in 1944 identifying meetings in different cities that created the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen & Women - due largely to the degree of coordination and agreement required from multiple organisations, their state branches and their members.
The foundation of the NSW Branch was first announced and heavily publicised as occurring on Thursday 18 May 1944 by Mr B.J. McDonald, who would become the first President, later National President and was possibly the most influential person of the Legion’s early years. The merger was later reported as being completed by approval of the two Associations’ Presidents at a meeting of the joint committees on 1 June 1944.
From its inception, the Legion was intended to be an amalgamation of ex-services organisations through a broad membership criteria – being that members had to have served and have had honourable discharge. Other smaller ex-service associations were invited to amalgamate, join as sub-branches, or to simply close and have their members join the Legion.
INCORPORATION OF THE NSW BRANCH
On 10 October 1944, the NSW Branch of the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen & Women was formally incorporated under the Companies Act 1936 (NSW) as a company limited by guarantee not for profit. On that day at 6.45pm, a Special Meeting of State Council was held at the Legion Offices at 17 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, chaired by the President, Mr B.J. McDonald, and the first motions of the company were recorded.
Incorporation was a significant occasion for the NSW Branch of the Legion, however it was largely business-as-usual. There was already an existing State Council, structured meetings, Legion office address, sub-branches, by-laws, formal executive positions, paid employees and active representations to Minister contesting sections of the Repatriation Act and other policies affecting veterans. The Federal Council of the Legion had already been established with NSW representatives having already attended meetings in Melbourne.
The first meeting heard the matter of the Legion’s Pension Advocate, who had been so overzealous in his work at the Assessment Appeals Tribunal and in his opinions of the Entitlements Tribunal’s Medical Board, that he was banned by the Minister from both.
The meeting also heard that the Legion Badge had been registered, but under advice from Mr Starfirld, a Patent Attorney, copyright was impossible. The most significant item of expense listed was that for Angus & Coote jewellers (74£ 9s 7d), the producers of the first batch of NSW Legion membership badges.
PURPOSE AND VISION
The NSW Branch of the Legion grew rapidly after WW2 with dozens of sub-branches across the State. The Legion was highly active in gaining employment for members and in making representations to the Government, often directly with Ministers, regarding a range of policy issues that were impacting veterans, including:
•Lobbying to the War Repatriation Commission and Minister
•Veteran’s employment opportunities and access to prioritisation
•Access to the War Service Land Settlement Scheme
•War pension costs and breakdowns of Government allocations
•Increased incapacitation benefits for war injuries (TPI)
•Providing subsistence to ex-POWs •Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder referred to as Shell Shock, Combat Stress or War Neurosis.
•Recommending Service Pensions for Torres Strait Islanders
•The refocussing of Ex-Services Association efforts for welfare activities
•The Japanese peace treaty, international relations and Japanese immigration
•White Australia policy and the need for population growth post-WW2
•Commentary on the changing international environment (eg. Indonesia and PNG)
•Repatriation Act Amendments, including ex-nuptial children of service from Asian conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam and Malaya •Nuclear veterans and supporting the compensation for those working at Maralinga
The NSW Branch of the Legion established several companies to assist veterans, including:
•Special Welfare Service (1944) assisting veterans’ claims •Special Housing Advisory Bureau 1944
•Cooperative Building Societies (at least nine) with lending capital over £1M.
•“Legion Cabs” was formed in 1947 after an approach was made to Government, leading the way for other ex-service organisations to form taxi companies. The first 50 licences allocated to the Legion were drawn by ballot.
•Associated initiatives created many jobs for veterans through the Australian Legion Cab Service, Legion Cabs (Trading) Cooperative Society Ltd and Legion Insurance Company Ltd. The taxi operation employed veterans in head office, workshops, radio operations and service station attendants.
•The “Australian Legion All Services Welfare Society” was formed in the early 1950s and was its own registered charity to expressly raise funds and deliver welfare directly to veterans, also creating an ‘auxiliaries’ structure at the sub-branches to achieve this.
PURPOSE AND VISION
As the short-term needs of veterans were met and the years passed since the last mass demobilisation and repatriation consumed the nation, the purpose and vision of the Legion perhaps became less clear.
After the WW2 repatriation era, new veterans joined but at a small fraction of those eligible to do so. The needs of those discharging from peacetime service were far less dire than in 1945 and, like the founders of the Second Australian Ex-Service Men’s Association in 1941, some veterans of newer wars felt their particular needs would be better served through the creation of their own Associations, such as the National Servicemen's’ Association and the Vietnam Veterans’ Association, rather than through existing Associations.
The Legion Sub-Branches began to decline from the 1970s, even before the RSL opened its ranks to all servicemen and women. Some were closed formally by member resolution but others resisted, instead ending in a disorderly collapse with little, if any, formal records.
Similarly, many smaller veterans’ Associations of the WW2 era began to decline and several joined the Legion as thematic sub-branches in an attempt to survive, such as:
•The 8th Division Sub-Branch
•The Australian Women’s Land Army Sub-Branch
•The Summerland Area Ex-Servicewomen’s Association Sub-Branch
By the end of the century, Government lobbying was just an annual discussion of the Legion’s National Council. By 2010, the National Council had ceased to meet and by 2016 was written out of the NSW Branch constitution altogether. Representation to Government had ceased.
According to the NSW Government, 200,000 veterans resided in NSW in 2020 with 1200 new veterans discharging to NSW annually, yet Legion membership was declining at a rate over 10% per annum. By 2022, the Legion had just seven remaining sub-branches with 300 members.
AMALGAMATION WITH RSL NSW
Following several unsuccessful strategy review events in 2019 and 2020 to identify a long-term plan the Legion, the State President, Mr Gary Bigg, proposed a merger with RSL NSW and both organisations’ Boards signed a Memorandum of Understanding on core principles in July 2021. The proposal was disseminated to all Legion members and General Meetings were held at every remaining Legion Sub-Branch to discuss the proposal and identify options for forming as entities under the RSL NSW Constitution.
The merger resolution was passed by members at the 77th State Branch Annual General Meeting held at Cootamundra on 5th February 2022. The merger and transition to RSL NSW control was completed on 27 September 2022 with the Legion State Office closing on that day and the Legion company was deregistered as a separate entity.
Under the terms of the contract signed by the RSL NSW President Mr Ray James, and CEO Mr Jon Black, the RSL NSW agrees to:
(a) Permanently publicly recognise and celebrate the Legion, its sub-branches and its members as part of the history and legacy of RSL NSW;
(b) Subject to the requirements of the RSL NSW constitution and operating procedures, accept all Legion members as RSL NSW members in the applicable membership categories as defined in the constitution of the RSL NSW;
(c) Recognise the service of members to the Legion and its sub-branches as being equivalent to service to the RSL NSW and its sub-branches for the purposes of honours, awards and other acknowledgements; and
(d) Endorse and submit to RSL National the nomination for ‘RSL Life Membership’ of those Legion ‘Life Members’ who meet the criteria for ‘RSL Life Membership’ under the RSL National constitution.
Formed in 1944 during World War, 2019 marks our 75th Anniversary.
The Legion and Sub-Branches will celebrate our achievements and the legacy of the thousands of Legionaires that have been a part of our community over the generations.
The Legion's former Sub-Branches now exist as entities under the RSL NSW Constitution. Most elected to become RSL Chapters attached to nearby RSL sub-Branches.
The Legion Chapters will continue to host public commemoration ceremonies for ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day into the future in coordination with their local Legion Clubs.
Any member of the Legion can nominate as a State Councillor in accordance with our Articles of Association.
The final State Councillors of the NSW Branch of the Legion (2019-2022) were:
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