Sergeant Monty Bloom and the March of the Cane Beetles

Guest blogger: Ann Turner – Australian Sugar Industry Museum volunteer.

Monty (Henry Montague) Bloom loved to be involved with the military, to entertain and to never let embellishment of the truth get in the way of a good story or a higher purpose.  These characteristics however resulted in some controversy in his role as a recruiting sergeant in World War One.

1916 Monty Bloom in Cairns Town and Shire as Recruiting Sergeant 

In early 1916, Monty Bloom was appointed as a Recruiting Sergeant by the Queensland Recruiting Committee. [1]  From Brisbane he travelled to Cairns to assist the Cairns Town and Shire Councils and their Recruiting Committees to raise enlistments to meet their recruitment targets.[2]  Sergeant Bloom and the Cairns Recruiting Committee proposed a ‘Cane Beetles’ recruitment march from south of Babinda at Mooliba to Cairns, similar to recruiting marches held elsewhere in rural Australia.[3]  Yet it stirred little interest. [4] The war was bogging down on the Western Front in Europe with ‘war-weariness creeping into the national soul.’[5] Monty Bloom had a difficult job enlisting men as he travelled through the rural areas of the Shire.

Yet Bloom was facing his own local war. The Queensland Recruiting Committee was contacted following complaints that Sergeant Bloom was calling himself Sergeant Major and claimed to have served at the Dardanelles. Furthermore it was alleged that he had incorrectly advised that payments from the Local Patriotic Fund would be made for children whose parents were recruited.  The Queensland Recruiting Committee responded that Sergeant Bloom had ‘absolutely no right to call himself Sergeant Major and so far as the opinion goes, he never was at the front.’  As soon as the March of the Cane Beetles was over, Bloom was to be sent home to Brisbane.[6]

Meanwhile, the March of the Cane Beetles had begun.  Sgt Bloom led four recruits from Mooliba on April 20th.  Parades, ceremonies, flag-waving, speeches and social occasions met the March as it passed through the Shire’s towns.  The March reached its destination on Gallipoli Day, April 25th.[7]  After the commemoration service in Cairns, the Cane Beetles were entertained for dinner at the Crown Hotel.  During the evening, Mr McMahon of the Babinda Recruiting Committee referred to the ‘great success of the march, and the good work of the Recruiting Sergeant in connection therewith’. Sgt Bloom, in responding, said that the March finished up at Cairns with twenty-eight recruits. [8]

Yet after medical examination, only 9 were fit for service, 2 temporarily unfit, 14 unfit and four failed to report for the examination. Not more than one in three was fit for service.[9]  The March did not succeed in attracting the numbers of men required to fill the quota. From January to April, Cairns Shire enlisted 62 from a quota of 82. [10]  This figure is low compared with the overall Queensland statistics for April 1916, where three quarters of recruits were deemed fit.[11]  As historian John McQuilton has argued for rural Shires in Victoria, the low rate of fitness may have been evidence that the pool of volunteers in the area had been exhausted.[12] Cairns Shire may also have exhausted its potential volunteers.

When Sgt Bloom was farewelled at Cairns at the end of May to return to Brisbane, some newspaper articles expressed regret about his leaving. Sgt Bloom clearly had his supporters and was well-liked.

Enlistment in the AIF in 1917 Service no. 18861

Back in Brisbane, Monty Bloom enlisted in the AIF in January 1917.   He lied about his age, as he was older than 45, the maximum age of recruitment. He left Australia in October for England before being sent to France as a sapper in February 1918.  There he joined the 17th/3rd Australian Light Railway Operating Company. Two weeks later he accidentally injured both wrists and was sent back to England on 26 March.  He was admitted to the Horton Coventry Hospital, Epsom.  After a Court of Inquiry he was discharged because of his injured wrists in June 2018.[13]

After World War One – Theft, President of the Jewish ExServicemen’s Association and Monty Bloom’s Concert Party entertaining World War Two troops.

Many soldiers struggled on their return to Australia. Monty ended up in court. One Saturday in 1921 he walked home with a suitcase from the Lost Property Office at the Railways where he worked in Brisbane. He was charged with theft of the suitcase of clothes valued at over £3 belonging to the Commissioner of Railways.  Monty pleaded guilty. He said he had served for about two years at the front, and had been incapacitated by serious damage to both wrists. He had been drinking heavily on Friday night and had a few more drinks on Saturday morning. He was in a very muddled condition and did not realise what he was doing. Monty was fined £10 to pay in two months, in default two months’ imprisonment.[14]

In the years that followed Monty Bloom contributed to the community by becoming the first President of the Jewish Ex-Servicemen’s Association and being involved with the organisation of Anzac Day.[15]  Monty Bloom’s Concert Party gave vaudeville concerts to prisoners and those less fortunate.  During World War Two, the Party’s 363rd concert was to soldiers in the large pavilion at Fraser’s Paddock in Brisbane. The programme included an orchestra of piano, saxophone, trumpet, violin, and drums; songs, dances, impersonations, a sword dance, conjuring, comedy patter, Irish jig, bird and animal imitations, and a bass solo with chorus, Monty Bloom and company, assisted by Albion Scottish Pipe Band.[16] On turning 85, the Truth newspaper described Monty Bloom as well-known for spreading ‘a little laughter and lightness in places where there’s ill-health and unhappiness’. [17] In 1958 Montague Bloom was honoured with a Member of the Order of the British Empire (civil) for his service to charities.[18]

References

[1]            ‘Recruiting operations – Queensland Recruiting Committee’, Brisbane Courier, 19 January 1916, p.3

[2]          Jobson, K.H. ‘First AIF enlistment patterns and reasons for their variation’, Australian Defence Force Journal, No. 132 Sep/Oct 1998, p. 62

[3]          Broughton, Alan. ‘The ‘cane beetles’ march – April 1916’, Bulletin 622, Cairns, May 2014, p.1

[4]          Ibid.

[5]          Cahill, ‘The battle’, pp. 50-51

[6]           ‘Recruiting Committee. Adjourned meeting’Cairns Post, 16 May 1916, p.8

[7]          Inglis, K.S. ‘ANZAC and the Australian military tradition’, Current Affairs Bulletin, vol. 64, no. 11, 1988, p.7

[8]           ‘Cane Beetles’ Dinner’, The Northern Herald (Cairns, Qld. : 1913 – 1939), 28 April 1916, p.5

[9]          Ibid.

[10]         Broughton, K.H. ‘Cane beetles’, p.2

[11]         Recruiting figures’, Week, Brisbane, 5 May 1916, p.14        

[12]         McQuilton, J. ‘Doing the ‘back block boys some good’ – the exemption court hearings in North-East Victoria, 1916’,  Australian Historical Studies, 31:115, 2000, p.248

[13]          BLOOM H M. Service Record B2455. Series 1914-1920, National Archives of Australia.

[14]         ‘Railway thefts’, Daily Mail, Brisbane, 15 February 1921, p.2

[15]          ‘Jewish returned men’. Brisbane Courier, 24 April 1933, p.10

[16]          ‘Monty Bloom’s Entertainers for Fraser’s Paddock’, Telegraph, Brisbane, 21 February 1921, p.9

[17]          ‘Blooming well- 85’, Truth, Brisbane, December 27 1953, p.16

[18]         Monty Bloom, Monument Australia website.