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Australia’s WW1 Humanitarian Legacy: The Social Gospel and the Armenian Relief Effort

Friday, 24 April 2015  | Vicken Babkenian and Armen Gakavian

Australians have established a great reputation in the world as gallant soldiers and splendid sportsmen. It is possible for them to achieve the still greater honour of being among the foremost of the nations in the world to help rescue from death and misery, an oppressed and down-trodden race, who are suffering solely, because of their fidelity to their Christian faith.
(Dr Alexander Leeper, Master of Trinity College [University of Melbourne], in 'Armenian Relief Fund', Australian Christian World, 11 Nov. 1927, p.12).


Australia’s First World War experience was not just defined by the legendary military heroism of our diggers. It was also shaped by the unprecedented humanitarian response of millions of Australians to the Armenian Genocide. This response was in part motivated by the Christian humanitarianism of the social gospel movement, and makes for an inspiring story only now being rediscovered after an 80-year silence. 

Australia’s humanitarian response to the Armenian Genocide 

While the Anzacs were landing at Gallipoli in April 1915, the Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire - Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians – were suffering widespread persecution. Between 1915 and 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children died. The lucky ones – mostly the men – were executed. The remaining women, children and elderly were subjected to torture, starvation, medical experiments, gas chambers and death marches from across what is modern-day Turkey into the Syrian Desert. The first nation to accept Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD was now the first victim of genocide in the 20th century. 

In the Ottoman war theatre, the Anzacs witnessed the Armenian tragedy. Some even helped rescue survivors of the death marches. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur J. Mills of NSW was among a contingent on the Palestine front who helped rescue several thousand Armenian refugees in early 1918. In a touching display of humanity amid the horrors of war, Mills carried a 4-year-old Armenian ‘girl sleeping in his arms, on his camel’ to safety.[1] Victorian Colonel Stanley G. Savige defended a column of some 80,000 Armenian and Assyrian refugees fleeing the invading Ottoman Army in Mesopotamia during the summer of 1918.[2] 

Back home, every major newspaper in Australia covered the Genocide with regularity, sparking a large-scale humanitarian response. The Agepublished more than 40 articles on the events in 1915 alone, with headlines such as ‘Armenians Butchered’, ‘Million Armenians Massacred’ and ‘More Armenians Massacred—girls sold in open market’. News of the slaughter led to the formation of a relief movement in Victoria in 1915 that eventually spread throughout Australia. The movement brought together Christian and other community leaders, with much grassroots support coming from nonconformist and mainstream churches and missionary societies (e.g. The Victorian movement was superseded in 1916 by the Victorian Friends of Armenia, established by three prominent church leaders. With the Lord Mayor of Melbourne’s support, the VFA organised an ‘Armenia Sunday’ in 1917, with over £2,000 collected. In Sydney, a group of prominent civic, business and religious leaders attended a meeting organised by the Lord Mayor at the Sydney Town Hall in December 1918, and a NSW fund was established. These and other states’ funds mirrored the establishment of similar funds in the USA, later known as Near East Relief.

Rev. Wirt and the renewal of relief efforts in Australia

After a brief lull in the killings following WW1, the rise of Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist movement in 1919 led to renewed persecution of Turkey’s indigenous Christian population. The relief work continued and, in 1922, Rev. Loyal Wirt, an American Congregational minister and International Commissioner of Near East Relief, visited Australia. 

Wirt’s visit ushered in a new era of philanthropy in Australia. While previous relief efforts had been shaped by the British social gospel of the nonconformist churches, Wirt introduced the ideas and methods of the American social gospel movement. Touring each state, Wirt used fundraising methods pioneered by Near East Relief that have since become common practice. He made both general appeals to the public and direct appeals to target audiences such as philanthropists and church members. People were invited to give financially, donate clothes or sponsor a child’s education (for which sponsors received a report card). Wirt presented heart-wrenching images of Armenian suffering and a documentary film, ‘Alice in Hungerland’, that illustrated the relief effort.[3] In gripping reports and commentaries that ‘seized the heart and were high human drama’, the narrative was one of ‘good versus evil’ and the underdog – ‘innocent martyred Christians’ - fighting the Turkish oppressor.[4]

Due to Wirt’s efforts, the existing Armenian relief funds in each state joined Near East Relief, and new committees were established in other states. In 1923, all funds joined Save the Children, except for NSW, which continued to support the Australasian Orphanage established in Lebanon in the same year. These funds continued until at least 1932, by which time the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars had been raised and 30 shipments of goods had been sent.

Many of the committee members were prominent Christian ministers or lay leaders. Church-related groups and organisations provided the networks that raised money and collected goods. The only exception was NSW, where the fund was mainly driven by activist women such asEdith Mary Glanville, a feminist and the first woman justice of the peace in NSW, and Mary Bryce, press secretary of the National Council of Women of NSW, a member of the Women’s League of NSW and an advocate for Australian Aboriginal rights.

While the main impetus for the relief efforts came from mainstream and nonconformist Protestantism, Catholics were also active. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of South Australia, Dr Robert Spence was on the executive committee of the Australasian Armenian Relief Fund in 1922. The display of interdenominational solidarity prompted his remark: ‘Thank God here is something upon which we can all unite’.[5] This was particularly significant when Catholic-Protestant relations were still defined by Australia’s long-standing Irish-English divide. 

The continuing relief efforts flew in the face of the post-war isolationism of the United States and of the fact that the western governments, including Australia, made their peace with Ataturk’s Turkey, effectively abandoning Armenians and other Christian minorities. It also defied the erosion of the optimism of the social gospel as a result of the War, and the rise of Christian fundamentalism that focused on personal piety and doctrinal purity. The continuing relief efforts can in part be explained by the fact that many of the Near East Relief missionaries could not forget what they’d experienced first hand and so couldn’t abandon the Armenians.

For reflection 

The Australian response to the Armenian Genocide was a quintessential expression of the values of ‘compassion’ and ‘generosity’ that General Peter Cosgrove (former Defence Force Chief, now Governor-General) described as part of our ‘nation’s national character’.[6] But it is also a case of historical forgetfulness. While ‘Armenia’ was a household name during and after WW1, a century of geopolitics effectively erased both the name and Australia’s involvement from our collective memory.

The rediscovery of this inspiring story has the potential of providing an alternative, philanthropic dimension to Australian identity. Our federation’s formative years were shaped not just by the Anzac military catastrophe, but also by an unprecedented humanitarian effort that united Australians of diverse backgrounds. Can Australia find its identity in the humanitarian narrative, alongside the military one? 

This story also has a dual message for the church. Firstly, it played a prominent role in the relief movement, motivated by the social gospel. What, if anything, are the implications of this for the argument that Australia is a ‘secular’ nation? Secondly, a broad range of denominations came together to effectively save a nation from certain annihilation. What opportunities does the church have today to rally together around humanitarian causes?

Finally, a caveat. While churches, mayors and activists rallied to save what remained of the Ottoman Empire’s indigenous Christians, Australia was not yet ready to address its own indigenous issue. Some of those involved in the Armenian relief efforts, such as Mary Bryce, were involved in advocacy for Aboriginal Australians, but on the whole the silence was deafening. What are our blind spots today, as a church and society?


[1] Elyne Mitchell, ‘Arthur James Mills, 1883–1984’, http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100505b.htm, accessed 10 January 2010.

[2] See Lionel C. Dunsterville, The Adventures of Dunsterforce, London, Edward Arnold, 1920.

[3] Wirt’s son was the right hand man of Billy Graham. It could be argued that some of Wirt’s techniques may have influenced the evangelist.

[4] Suzanne E. Moranian, ‘The American Genocide and American missionary relief efforts’, In Jay Winter, ed., America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 210.

[5] ‘A day in Constantinople’, Register, 26 July 1923, p. 6. Well-known churches involved in the relief efforts in 1922 were: St Pauls Cathedral, Melbourne; St Andrews Anglican Cathedral, Sydney; St Stephens, Philip (now Macquarie) St Sydney (St); St James Church, Sydney; Stow Congregational Church, Flinders St, Adelaide (now Pilgrim church); Trinity Church, Western Australia; and Memorial Congregational Church, Hobart.

[6] http://www.smh.com.au/national/peter-cosgroves-australia-day-address-20100119-mj0x.html.


Vicken Babkenian
 is an independent researcher for the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a committee member of Manning Clark House Canberra. He has written numerous peer-reviewed articles on Australia's international humanitarian response to the Armenian genocide. He can be contacted by email here.

Armen Gakavian
 was the founding convenor of the Armenian Genocide Research Unit of the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies, Macquarie University. He has worked as a social science researcher at Macquarie University and with The Salvation Army, Centre for Public Christianity, Christian Research Association and NCLS Research. He can be contacted by email here.

Photos: The Australasian Orphanage, Antellias, Lebanon; Armenian orphans under the care of Australians lining up for lunch.


Helen Joynt
April 27, 2015, 2:13PM
Thank you for this article. A timely reminder of the real atrocities that accompanied and followed the 'Anzac' events.
How can I share this article on Facebook?
Armen Gakavian
July 9, 2016, 12:10PM
Hi Helen, thanks for your interest. You can copy and paste the following to your Facebook page: http://www.ethos.org.au/online-resources/Engage-Mail/australias-ww1-humanitarian-legacy.

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