Jim Sheehan and the establishment of ANZAC Day
By Howard Jones
Jim Sheehan holds a place in history not so much as a Lighthorseman but as an eloquent recruiting sergeant, first secretary of the Sydney-based Returned Soldiers Association and a leading figure in establishing Anzac Day as a national day of commemoration.
James Sebastian Sheehan was born in Albury on 1 January 1889 and attended the Grammar School there. In August 1914 he was working for a Rockhampton newspaper as a publisher (responsible for circulation) but also served part-time in the navy.
Sheehan enlisted in Brisbane in the 1st Light Horse Regiment on 28 August 1914, when aged 25. The regiment was part of the 1st Brigade, which in October sailed for England. The brigade was diverted to the Middle East after Turkey entered the war.
The brigade landed on Gallipoli as infantrymen in May 1915. However, after about three months Sheehan suffered shellshock. He was hospitalised in Egypt and invalided home. On 13 October 1915 he arrived in Sydney, where six days later the Returned Soldiers Association of NSW was formed. It is unclear if he was present, but it is known he quickly made for home to see his mother, his father, having died in November 1914.
Sheehan was dismayed to receive no welcome at the Albury railway station except from his sister, despite sending a telegram ahead. On 25 October, he was applauded when he arrived at a Soldiers' Reception Committee meeting in Albury. Four newly-enlisted soldiers were being farewelled by leading citizens. Sheehan stunned and embarrassed the audience by deploring the town's failure to welcome home a soldier like himself who had spent three months in the fighting line. Mayor Cleaver Woods assured him the committee didn't know he was coming home, and it would make sure to organise things better in future.
Aware he was likely to be discharged from the army on medical grounds, Sheehan told medical officers in Sydney that, if he couldn't fight, he wished to join the recruiting force. When discharged on 17 December he was already on the RSA committee. He helped run its Soldiers Club and became part of a team of speakers in Sydney.
By mid-January 1916 Sheehan was being quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald as secretary of the RSA. He became of friend of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, a Sydney MP. By early 1916 he was busy organising the first Anzac Day memorial parade in Sydney. The RSA fully supported recruitment drives and Hughes' conscription campaign.
Several Gallipoli veterans formed an Albury branch of the RSA in 1916. Presumably, as State secretary, Sheehan welcomed this. The Albury men's main object was not so much to support recruiting as to find work for returned men.
As a recruiting sergeant in country NSW, Sheehan travelled widely, including to Forbes and Broken Hill. In September 1916 he wrote to the Albury Banner, appealing for local enlistments:
"Think of Belgium, France, Russia and others that have and are suffering. Just put Dean Street, for instance, before your eyes, and picture a mass of broken brick there instead with great holes in the street resembling clay pits." He was proud Albury had sent so many sons to the war and noted: "Many schoolmates of mine have passed into the beyond."
Meanwhile, the RSA of NSW was admitted to the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia in May 1917, the national organisation having been constituted in June 1916 by other states. However, the Albury branch faded away about this time.
In August 1917, a general strike by 100,000 Australian workers paralysed shipping movements in Sydney. Sheehan was among volunteers who loaded coal to keep the mail boats and trains going.
Sheehan returned to Albury as a recruiting sergeant in August 1918. He worked with a self-appointed advocate for returned men, George Daniel, an auctioneer, and two other Gallipoli veterans to form a branch of the RSSILA, though Sheehan left town soon afterwards. The Albury city branch still exists (in 2018).
What Sheehan did after the war is unclear but failing health prompted a return to Albury by 1930. When Hughes, then Repatriation Minister, was injured in a car crash near Albury in 1936, Sheehan was among the first to visit him in hospital. Overnight he made a wreath for the "Little Digger" to be laid at the Albury War Memorial at dawn on Anzac Day. Hughes himself made a speech at the memorial after the usual parade.
Sheehan, a bachelor, died at his mother's home in Albury in August 1937 after having a heart attack while out walking with his niece. He was 48.
Collage: Jim Sheehan
Sheehan’s recruitment speech in Albury, Border Morning Mail, 26 October 1915; “A Soldier’s Appeal”, Albury Banner, 29 September 1916; Obituary Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 10 August 1937; March of the Veterans, The Proud Story of the City of Albury RSL Sub-branch, Howard C. Jones, 2014.