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Alec Campbell, the last Anzac, a unionist

When Alec Campbell, The Last Anzac, died on May 17 at the age of 103, he was the subject of obituaries around the world, honouring his brief World War 1 military career.
Alec Campbell, centre front, in the Australian Railways Union Tasmanian Branch Executive photograph,
Alec Campbell, centre front, in the Australian Railways Union Tasmanian Branch Executive photograph,

And the trade union movement made sure he was also honoured for his life-long commitment to workers, and to peace.

The ACTU coordinated memorial gatherings to coincide with Alec's state funderal on May 24. RTBU members, workers on building sites, in shopping centres and in government departments paid tribute to the life of a true radical. After an initial rebuff, Australia Post allowed a union request for one minute's silence to honour Alec Campbell at 11 am. Rex Neil represented the RTBU at the State Funeral in Hobart.

Alec was at Gallipoli for about six weeks. He arrived too late for the worst of the disastrous campaign, and he missed out on the legendary night-time evacuation. He said he never killed even one of the enemy. He mostly did the dangerous job of ferrying drinking water from the beach to the front line troops.

Alec was 16 years old at the time, and looked it. The Launceston born boy claimed he was 18 to enlist. The hungry war machine gobbled him up. Later he said he was lured by the adventure and travel promised by the war, but recalled that the object of his brief time at Gallipoli was to simply survive.

Severe illness cut short his military career. Prior to being repatriated to Australia in 1916 he spent time recuperating in Egypt. Here he enjoyed the sites, and was twice charged - for being drunk, and for being Absent Without Leave.
Alec arrived home aged 17, changed by the reality of war. In later years he considered his safe return was one of the best things that happened to him.

Thereafter Alec rarely talked about the war and his military experiences. When a book titled The Last Anzacs was published in 1996, Alec wan't mentioned. He had become the invisible Anzac.

But someone dobbed him, and between 1996 and 2002 as the ranks of Anzac survivors thinned and his own health failed, he was targetted. Powerful nationalist and martial forces iconised him as The Last Anzac. But as Alec once pointed out, there was nothing really extraordinary in being the last; simply, he had been one of the youngest at Gallipoli.

So who was Alec Campbell?


Well, he had a crowded life. In South Australia, New South Wales, and Tasmania he was variously a jackaroo, carpenter, railway carriage builder, mature age university student, public servant, research officer, historian; he married twice, and fathered nine children. Alec was also an amateur boat builder, self-taught navigator, and a Sydney-to-Hobart yachtsman during the early years of the race. He also enjoyed hunting, and somewhere along the line did some boxing.

Politically and industrially Alec was a socialist, a trade unionist, and an anti-fascist. During the Spanish Civil War he considered going to Spain to join in the fight against General Franco's fascists.
One of his daughters described him as an "enthusiastic" unionist "who put everything into it". During the 1930s he was an active unionist in railway workshops in Hobart and Launceston. Later he was active in the Workers Educational Association. The conservative press regarded him as 'a Red'. In the 1941 Launceston local council elections he campaigned with union support for slum clearance, low rental public housing, and measures against pollution and monopolies.

Alec was also an activist with the Amalgamated Carpenters and Joiners (now part of the CFMEU); became President of the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Railways Union (1939-1941), and of Launceston Trades Hall Council (1939-42). In those tough industrial times, he was known to be quick-tempered; sometimes his fists did the talking.

Over the years, people Alec worked with included the extraordinary peace activist Lady Jessie Street, and fellow ARU identity Bill Morrow, who was an anti-conscriptionist, life-long peace activist, and an ALP Senator (1947-1953).

In 1999 Alec voted for an Australian republic, believing it was time Australia stood on its own two feet.

Alec thought war was futile, and devoted much of his life to the cause of peace. He reasoned that as political solutions always followed wars, people should cut to the chase and get on with the political solutions without the slaughter.

Vale Alec Campbell (1899-2002).
Lest We Forget.

Source: From Rowan Cahill in Workers On-Line

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