The Anzacs' involvement at Gallipoli and the subsequent large casualty lists were a shock to the Australians at home. The Secretary and Organiser of the Cheer-up Society, Mrs Alexandra Seager, with three sons enlisted, conceived the idea of a day to commemorate the fallen heroes of the war. In those days symbolism was important, so the violet, a symbol of modesty, sweetness and faithfulness, was chosen to signify the sorrow of the community.
The first Violet Day was held on 2 July 1915. Violets were sent from as far away as Melbourne and the western district of Victoria. Tiny bouquets of violets with purple ribbons printed with the words "In Memory" were sold in the streets of Adelaide. Funds raised on the day were to establish a permanent club for the returned soldiers. The Cheer-up Society was then housed in the Boys Brigade Hall in Bentham Street. During the day the inmates of the Destitute Asylum were each presented with a memorial ribbon provided by the President of the Cheer-up Society, Mr W J (later Sir William) Sowden.
Adelaide paused to honour the dead of Gallipoli. A ceremony was held at the Soldiers Memorial statue - now known as the Boer War Memorial — on the corner of North Terrace and King William Street. The statue was draped in violets and ferns, while the platform was decorated in purple and white. Seated on the platform were the dignitaries of the day, including the Governor, the State Military Commandant, the Premier, politicians, members of the Cheer-up Society and relatives of the wounded and fallen.
The Police Band played suitable anthems. The Governor, Sir Henry Galway, addressed the gathering promising "their memory will never fade ... Today we not only honour the dead, but our hearts go out with the deepest respect and sympathy to those who are mourning the loss of their nearest and dearest. The British Empire will never be able to repay the debt owed to the women for their calm self-sacrifice in this great struggle. They have given everything uncomplainingly. We are as proud of our women as of our men ... The memory of our honoured dead will remain with us for all time."
A sour note was introduced by the State Military Commandant, Colonel Sandford, who complained that a memorial service should not be held until the end of the war. He overlooked the need of the women who could only support their men in small ways. However another speaker declared the real object of Violet Day was to give the people of Adelaide the opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of the men at the Front. The official ceremony concluded with buglers playing the "Last Post".
Women and children sold memorial buttons. One design was a white cross on a violet coloured background; another had a spray of violets. Some violet day buttons and a violet flower are pictured at the right by courtesy of their owner who wishes to remain anonymous.
Violet Day was repeated in the following years. Newspaper reports in 1917 stressed the significance of the violet as "the symbol of perpetual remembrance for those gallant dead who have given their lives for their country". Again a ceremony was held at the War Memorial with the Naval and Military Bands in attendance. The gathering was advised that to grieve long and hopelessly was futile and wrong. Tears should not mar the day but thoughts of a brightness of glory should prevail.
A slim volume of poems "Violet Verses" was also sold. Alexandra Seager contributed a poem, dedicating it to her son George who was killed at Gallipoli. It begins:—
Today we wear the clinging violet
In memory of the brave,
While ever thoughts of fond but proud regret,
Come surging wave on wave.
At the Cheer-up Hut laurel wreaths were placed on memorial panels, and a group portrait of the 9th Battalion was unveiled. The Burra Ladies Brass Band marched through the streets, a procession of cars wended their way to the suburbs and the day closed with a six-penny concert in the Cheer-up Hut.
In 1918 the day "to honour our beloved dead" was held on the shortest day of the year — a day "longest in loving memories". It was noted that the official ceremony took place under a sky of greys and blues — more symbolism of the grief of bereavement. New recruits from the training camp at Mitcham led the hymns. Officials spoke of this time of solemn rejoicing when they remembered those "whose graves lie scattered from the shores of the Dardanelles to the plains of Palestine and the sodden fields of France and Flanders". The soldiers were entertained with lunch at the Cheer-up Hut. A book of poems written by the late Lieutenant H G Garland, a former journalist, was sold as well as the Violet Day buttons. Across the state, country towns joined the fund raising efforts. A single bunch of violets in Burra was sold for £384. Statewide, over £4000 was raised in 1918. By now the celebration of Violet Day had spread to New South Wales and Queensland.
After the war Violet Day continued to commemorate those who fought in the war and died either on the battlefield or from injuries of war. In 1928 the day had moved to August, to the Sunday nearest the date that war had been declared. Churches held special services.
Over 100 people attended the main ceremony in the Adelaide Town Hall in 1937 when the absence of the originator, Mrs Seager, through illness was noted. This year £13 was raised for the upkeep of the Soldiers Cemetery at West Terrace where 924 soldiers had been buried. The violets which had decorated the platform were later placed on these graves. Newspaper reports continued to remind readers they were charged with a sacred and heavy duty to honour those who fought abroad but also those who waited at home.
With another war threatening, a sombre note was recorded in 1938. "Almost every nation seems to have entered upon a reckless armaments race. Fear stalks abroad." The Town Hall service, which followed an organ recital, included anthems sung by the Adelaide Harmony Choir.
After World War II, Mrs Seager's inspiration was expanded to commemorate the Australian dead of both world wars. Four hundred gathered for the 50th anniversary of Violet Day in 1965.
The newspaper reports, which at first had been spread wordily over two prominent columns, became just brief two or three paragraph items at the bottom of the page in the late 1930s. In 1969 a single paragraph merely reported that a memorial service had been held. The Chairman of the Violet Day committee, Sir William Sowden, had warned in 1928 that there was a "danger that reserve in speech and action may fade into indifference and a dislike of ceremony into neglect."
The 56th and final observance of Violet Day was held on 2 August 1970 with a girls' choir and an organ recital. The following year the committee decided not to hold any more services. This was a time when a number of welfare and memorial groups were amalgamating. Changing customs and fading memories appear to have caused the end of Violet Day.
Frederick J Mills, Cheer Up: A Story of War Work (1920)
Pavils J G, Anzac Culture: A South Australian case study of Australian identity and commemoration of war dead (2004)
RSL (SA) Annual Report, 1970, p 15
Various reports in the SA Register and Advertiser newspapers
First published 2006