When men started arriving home from Egypt and Gallipoli in 1915, Australia wasn't prepared for what came off the ships.
Men badly wounded, many suffering permanent incapacity with lost limbs, hearing loss, blindness, war neurosis, shell shock and depression, alcoholism, and much more.
Very quickly the social welfare system broke down under the pressure.
Those able to work couldn't find jobs, women had replaced many of those who chose to enlist and employers found they did a good job and were paid less.
Benevolent Societies, the Red Cross and many church organisations stepped into the breach to aid the veterans and while their work was very much appreciated by the veterans, these organisations were soon 'swamped' and more was needed.
The Government tried to avoid their responsibility
The government had not foreseen this situation and no money had been allocated in war-time budgets for the care and rehabilitation of these injured veterans, in fact the Government of the time was prepared to 'sweep the matter under the carpet' because all spare funds were needed to support the troops overseas.
Something was needed to firstly, bring the Government to account, and secondly, to ensure these men and some nurses too, were taken care of.
Small groups of veterans saw how their mates were being treated and were not satisfied in just caring for them and trying to find jobs, they wanted to put enough pressure on Government to accept the responsibility and fund care, ongoing rehabilitation and pensions in cases where men were permanently incapacitated.
Some of these groups joined together to form Returned Soldier's Associations (RSA).
The beginning of the RSL
On May 10, 1916 an informal meeting of representatives from the RSA's from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia agreed to convene a formal meeting in the National capital (then Melbourne) to create an Australia-wide body to represent returned servicemen.
The first official meeting of these groups was in Melbourne on June 6, 1915, it lasted four days and what was then the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League of Australia (RS&SILA) came into being.
A constitution was agreed and confirmed at the first Federal Congress which took place in Brisbane on September 11-16, 1916.
The NSW RSA refused to affiliate with the RS&SILA at the Federal Congress, but revised its attitude and joined in May 1917.
Tasmania was not at the Melbourne meeting but attended the Federal Congress in Brisbane and affiliated.
West Australia joined in August 1918 to make the League a truly national body, recognised by the Federal Government as the official representative of returned servicemen.
In 1927, the Australian Capital Territory formed a branch and was admitted.
In 1940, the name of the League changed to the Returned Sailors' Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA), and a subsequent change of name took effect in 1965, as the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL).
Two more name changes occurred, in 1983 to Returned Services League of Australia Limited (RSL) and in 1990 to Returned & Services League of Australia Limited (RSL).
This last name change was significant as it now allowed those who had served in the military but were not veterans to join the organisation.
Role and Objects of the League
The RSL's mission is to ensure programs are in place for the well-being, care, compensation and commemoration of serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their dependents; and promote Government and community awareness of the need for a secure, stable and progressive Australia.
While this is not the original mission statement, little has changed in the role and objects of the RSL in those 100 years since inception.
The RSL is still recognised by Government as the official representative of veterans and ex-servicemen and women in Australia and both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader attended the Centenary Dinner in Melbourne recently.
As a member of an RSL Sub-branch (a sub-branch is a part of the state branch), and at the moment, president of the Warwick RSL Sub-branch, my role is basically the welfare of veterans and ex-servicemen and women, the provision of advocacy for those people and the conduct of commemoration services.
The Sub-branch is also responsible for conducting veteran's or ex-servicemen's rites at funerals (if requested by family) by obtaining information on the deceased for presentation at the funeral service, by handing out red poppies to ensure the deceased is properly commemorated, for provision of an Australian flag to cover the coffin and for providing an honour guard if requested.
Sub-branches should not be confused with the commercial entities, generally called RSL Clubs.
John Skinner served in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 6 grandchildren.
John Skinner's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/john-skinner.html