Conscription by stealth

Signor Giovanni Ferrando was a former consul for the Kingdom of Italy, a successful businessman, and twenty-two years an Australian resident. He volunteered for service in the early days of the war, only to be classed as medically unfit. Medical Boards noted with concern a weak heart and a nervous condition and at the time of the call-up, Ferrando was recovering from a serious operation.

But that did not satisfy either the Italian Consul Signor Eles or the Australian Minister for Defence Senator George Pearce. Eles was a professional rival of Giovanni Ferrando’s and he was determined to make an example of this well-connected ‘shirker’. Ferrando was told to leave Broadmeadows Military Hospital for service in Italy. He refused to do so. Senator Pearce exercised executive powers under the War Precautions Act and ordered his immediate deportation.  

The case made headlines in Australia. Ferrando appealed to the High Court against the deportation order, protested at the curtailment of his liberty, and claimed military authorities boasted of ‘rounding up’ all his countryman. Ferrando was 41 at the time of his arrest – over the age limit for deportation under a treaty signed by the British and Italian governments. Even so, the High Court upheld the government’s decision. Ferrando was sent under escort to a transport ship leaving for Europe.     

The deportation of Giovanni Ferrando is a stark illustration of how the political climate in Australia drifted to extremes in the final years of the war. The conscription referenda, the great strike of 1917, and the draconian exercise of government powers under the War Precautions Act created an atmosphere of crisis and fostered bitter divisions. In this particular case it served no real purpose. On arrival in Italy, Giovanni Ferrando was again deemed unfit for service, decorated by the King for his services to Italy, and duly returned to Australia. At the end of the war, Ferrando sued both Senator Pearce and the (then) Italian Consul for damages. Deportation had damaged his reputation, ruined his health, and caused considerable financial loss. But an even greater price was paid by those Italians deported to fight ‘the white war’ in the frozen heights of the mountains. A good many of those men never returned to their families. Seven hundred thousand Italian soldiers died during the Great War, over ten times the AIF’s losses.