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Yeo, Sir William (1896–1972)

by Stephen Garton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir William Yeo (1896-1972), farmer and State president of the Returned Servicemen's League, was born on 1 May 1896 at Alectown, near Condobolin, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Arthur Plane Yeo, schoolteacher, and his wife Louisa Mary, née Curry. Educated at Peak Hill Public School, then employed as a wheat-buyer, Bill enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 7 March 1915 and was posted to the 18th Battalion. He served at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium, and, suffering from shell-shock, was evacuated to England for three months in 1916. Rejoining his unit in November, he became battalion bandsman in 1917, and returned to Australia in March 1919. After his discharge from the A.I.F. on 26 July, Yeo purchased a farming and grazing property at Peak Hill, which he ran for many years. On 6 March 1925 he married Eileen Theresa Golding, a schoolteacher, at the registry office, Hurstville, Sydney.

The cause of returned soldiers became Yeo's passion. In 1919 he joined the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia (later R.S.S. and Airmen's I.L.A., then Returned Servicemen's League of Australia). Honorary secretary of the Peak Hill sub-branch, in 1928 he became a delegate to the league's annual State Congress and Soldier Settlers' Conference, a position he held for forty-four years. In 1936 he became State councillor for the Western Districts division. Despite his active involvement Yeo was regarded as the dark horse of the ten candidates when he was elected State president of the R.S.L. in 1949. He was to remain president for twenty turbulent years. From 1949 he also served on the national executive. Increasingly his duties kept him in Sydney, where he resided at Elizabeth Bay and later at Maroubra.

When first elected Yeo pledged to heal the divisions within the league. The immediate postwar years were consumed with the alleged menace of communism in the ranks. Some members feared that they were becoming targets of a 'witch-hunt' because they supported the labour movement. Yeo declared that he would uphold the league policy on 'keeping communists out', but would do so in 'a sane and reasonable manner'. For him, it was essential to return to the roots of the R.S.L. as a servicemen's welfare organization committed to a non-party and non-sectarian position. He was immediately condemned by some as a communist sympathiser and forced to send a circular to all members repudiating the charge.

At a practical level Yeo supported the R.S.L. Youth Movement and, as deputy chairman, gave much time to the War Veterans' Home. Other commitments included the Lord Mayor's flood and bushfire relief appeal. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1954 and knighted in 1964. Although he insisted that the R.S.L. existed to obtain better entitlements for returned men and women, he lost few opportunities to involve the league in a broad range of political issues. Declaring himself a staunch nationalist, he was an outspoken defender of the White Australia policy, a stern critic of Japan, a fierce anti-communist and a strong campaigner for a greater war effort in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam.

By the late 1960s, however, Yeo's outspokenness was creating internal tensions. In 1968 he carried a motion at the R.S.L. National Congress to expel members guilty of conduct 'subversive' to the league. This caused alarm among federal colleagues who feared that members of the Australian Labor Party who opposed the Vietnam War would be expelled. Yeo advocated harsh police measures, such as fire hoses, against moratorium protesters. A few months later he condemned members of the British Commonwealth as a 'polyglot lot of wogs, bogs, logs and dogs'. The national press roundly condemned him as a 'sabre-rattling war monger', out of touch with contemporary Australian society. He still commanded support within the league, but leading members, notably the national president Sir Arthur Lee, sought to distance themselves and the league from Yeo's more extreme pronouncements.

Increasingly Yeo was seen as an embarrassing anachronism, the last remaining veteran of 'the Great War' on the R.S.L. executive and the butt of media jibes. His presidency was under threat. In 1969 he was defeated by F. S. Maher, former prisoner-of-war and suburban schoolteacher, a result greeted with loud cheers from some delegates.

A dark-haired, nuggety, bespectacled man, Yeo remained on the executive for a further year in the newly created position of past-president. He died on 9 December 1972 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife survived him; they had no children. He was remembered, somewhat ambiguously, as a man who 'did what he solemnly believed to be in the interest of every ex-serviceman and woman'.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19, 20, 25 May 1949, 29, 31 Oct, 2, 3 Nov 1968, 6 Aug 1969, 2 June 1970, 11 Dec 1972
  • Sunday Herald (Sydney), 24 July 1949
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 10 Dec 1972
  • Australian, 11 Dec 1972
  • honours, A463, item 1962/2967 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Stephen Garton, 'Yeo, Sir William (1896–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yeo-sir-william-12086/text21685, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 2 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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