The “demonstration” held, in honour of France, at Exhibition Hall in Brisbane (on the corner of Gregory Terrace and Bowen Bridge Road) on the evening of July14, 1917, was the culmination of a day of celebrations paying tribute to France’s “magnificent” sacrifice in resisting “the heel of the Prussian tyrant” on behalf of the Allies during World War I. Newspapers reported that the French flag was “flying everywhere”, that collectors were stationed at “every convenient site” and that there were numerous stalls where “saleable goods were disposed of”. During the day a procession passed along the city’s streets, naval and military sports events were held on the river and the evening concert drew a large and enthusiastic audience.
The sentiment which gave rise to Brisbane’s Bastille Day events is unequivocally expressed in the early pages of this elegant souvenir booklet: “We can never repay Gallant and Chivalrous France” it declares “for what she has done for the British Empire and Civilization. By stopping the Barbarian hordes in 1914 she gave us breathing space, but in her action she laid herself open to Devastation, Pillage and Barbarism unexampled in the History of the World.”
The more practical purpose underpinning Australia’s outpouring of solidarity and goodwill was the recognition that France in bearing “the greatest brunt of the German onslaught” had endured enormous losses over three unrelenting years of battle and that its people, particularly its thousands of war widows and orphans, were in urgent need of assistance. Queensland, in support of the allied effort, was morally bound to show its gratitude by “giving liberally and with a generous heart”.
The concert attracted vice regal patronage and was performed under the auspices of the Franco-Queensland League of Help. The League had, only one month previously, been instituted for the purpose of “relieving the awful suffering of the war victims in France, the women and children refugees, the widows and the orphans.” Recognising that it was beyond the capacity of the French Red Cross to address the overwhelming devastation and suffering in France, similar organisations had formed in Britain and in other states of the Commonwealth.
The generosity and enthusiasm which attended the concert’s offering of thanks from “the community to the French people for their magnificent struggle in the supremacy of civilization” was quite remarkable when considered in the context of the vast assortment of appeals mounted by benevolent leagues, societies, patriotic funds and charities in support of Australia’s allies and its soldiers. The competing demands of other patriotic and deserving causes notwithstanding, substantial donations to the France’s Day appeal were received from a wide variety of sources – from the Wattle Day League, the Patriotic Funds administered by the state’s public service, the Catholic Church (influenced by Archbishop Duhig’s public declaration of support), from mayors and shire councillors across regional Queensland and even from pupils in Queensland state schools.
It was a spirit honoured by concert performers on the evening of July 14th. Members of the Brisbane Musical Union, the Sampson Orchestra and the Brisbane Musician’s Union all performed without any charge. The evening’s entertainment opened in the vestibule of Exhibition Hall with selections by the No.1 District Military Band and a recital on the grand organ. The formal programme followed upon a procession of the vice-regal party.
On the platform were Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, Governor of Queensland, Queensland Premier, T.J. Ryan, Opposition leader James Tolmie, the Consular Agent for France and the mayors and mayoresses of Brisbane and South Brisbane. Acknowledged audience members included government and opposition members, church leaders, consular agents of allied and neutral countries, “representatives of the arts, music and science and the industrial and commercial life of Queensland” and “citizens of the city of Brisbane”. The opening speech was delivered by T.J. Ryan in his capacity as Premier and President of the Franco-Queensland League of Help.
To judge by the evidence of this souvenir programme, the France’s Day evening event offered a magnificent tribute to France. Part II of the formal entertainment commenced on a vibrant note with an English rendering of the Marsellaise, arranged by George Sampson and performed by the Brisbane Musical Union, orchestra and grand organ, joined by the audience as the French flag was unfurled by the Governor.
Other musical highlights included two beautiful choral pieces (Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “O Gladsome Light” and Gounod’s “Soldiers’ Chorus” from Faust), Berlioz’s “Easter Hymn” from Faust, Sullivan’s “In Memoriam ” overture, performed by the Sampson Orchestra and grand organ and dedicated to “France’s brave sons who have fallen for their country” – and a march, Gounod’s “La Cortege”, again performed by the Sampson Orchestra.
The music was interspersed with speeches (among them “For France” delivered by Mr A.A. Giraud on behalf of the French Red Cross and “What France has done for Civilization” spoken by opposition leader James Tolmie), a recitation of the poem “To France” whose verses were penned expressly “for the celebration of France’s Day” – and a resolution moved by the Mayor of Brisbane which encapsulated the spirit of France’s Day in 1917:
“that we, the citizens of Brisbane, assembled in the Exhibition Hall, desire upon this, the National Festival of our glorious Ally, to record our deep sense of the immeasurable sacrifice made by the French people in withstanding the greatest menace to liberty that ever threatened civilization”.
Libby Fielding – State Library of Queensland