The Returned Servicemen's Association of Victoria, formed on 7 April 1915 by naval men who had participated in the capture of German New Guinea in September 1914, was the first of the organisations of returned servicemen formed during 1915-16 in most Australian capital cities. Meeting in Melbourne in June 1916, these State bodies formed the Returned Soldiers' and Sailors' Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA), soon familiarly known as the RSL. The structure and governance of the RSL have remained fundamentally unchanged since 1916. Comprising State (and, later, Territory) branches, each with sub-branches, the RSL is governed by federal congresses and annual State conferences. The federal executive was located in Melbourne until new national headquarters were opened in Canberra in 1963, and in the post-1945 period Victoria has had the second largest membership after New South Wales and produced influential presidents at State and federal levels. Branch headquarters, always located in Melbourne, have occupied their own dedicated building, Anzac House, at the top end of Collins Street, since 1938.
In 1940, in order to include the Air Force, the league changed its name to the Returned Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA). Men and women returning from service in World War II were admitted, and membership was subsequently opened to those who served in later conflicts, notably Korea and Vietnam. However, the integration of veterans into RSL sub-branches and clubs was never smooth. Gallipoli veterans remained the most honoured of Australia's volunteer army, the AIF, and there were generational tensions between those who served in different wars. Conscripts from the militia and from national service for, respectively, the Pacific and Vietnam wars did not always find ready acceptance.
Though the emphasis has varied over time, the central RSL objects have remained constant: to honour the memory of fallen comrades, preserve the fraternity among the living, assist the repatriation and rehabilitation of returned servicemen and women, and support the families of ex-service personnel, whatever their league membership status. The league has operated as an openly declared pressure group determined to obtain from governments preference in employment for ex-servicemen, the payment of war gratuities and pensions, and the provision of retraining and employment schemes. Land-settlement schemes, usually known as 'soldier settlement', were important after both world wars. Welfare assumed a larger role as veterans aged and as national economic conditions fluctuated.
A major concern of the Victorian branch immediately after the Great War was to contain and channel the restlessness and protest displayed among returned veterans as early as 1915, but notably at the peace celebrations of 1918 and 1919. This preoccupation with law and order issues, and a close association with 'Billy' Hughes' Nationalist Party, probably contributed to the fall in Victorian membership from around 26% of eligibles in 1921 to just 7% in 1924, when delegates from the unfinancial branch were barred from attending the federal congress. During these years the Victorian and federal executives were often at loggerheads, despite the fact that (Sir) Gilbert Dyett, a Victorian-born Gallipoli veteran, a federal vice-president in 1916, and the league's longest-serving federal president (1919-46), owed his initial win to a determined Victorian campaign. Under the leadership of Ernest Turnbull, Victorian president in 1921-24 and 1926-28, and acting federal president in 1929, membership climbed and other significant gains were made, including preference in employment for ex-servicemen, the advancement of soldier settlement, improved pension benefits, the provision of homes for war widows and widowed mothers, and the official observance of Anzac Day. Another Victorian-born Gallipoli veteran, (Sir) George Holland, stood in for Turnbull as Victorian president in 1929, went on to a long term in his own right in 1929-51 and then became federal president in 1951-60.
Holland's postwar leadership was distinguished by progress with the provision of war service homes, and by the league's strident position on defence and 'White Australia'. Despite proclaiming itself to be a politically nonpartisan pressure group, the RSL had been pronouncedly anti-Bolshevik, a position that translated into anti-socialism and eventually the exclusion of communists from membership. In the 1920s, and again in the Cold War, the league was clearly supportive of conservative (anti-Labor) politics. At the 1949 federal election, the league distributed nationally We asked the Commonwealth Governmentand and now we ask you, a pamphlet written by the Victorian secretary and designed to pressure the Australian Labor Party Government and the Liberal Opposition over war-pension levels. Holland, as Victorian branch president, had already clashed with the Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, over Labor's alleged preference for unionists over ex-servicemen in employment. As federal president from 1951, Holland stormed against 'the communist menace', which suited the Menzies Liberal-Country Party governments, but on issues of immigration from former enemy countries and Japanese rearmament the conservatives found him more accommodating. RSL loyalty to Crown and Empire (later the Commonwealth) means that to this day republican members must keep their views private.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Gallipoli in 1965, the league simplified its title to the Returned Services League of Australia. Victoria had 67 500 members in 430 sub-branches in 1964 (with one-third of the branches, but more than half of the members, in the Melbourne metropolitan area). Holland, the last of the World War I digger presidents, had been succeeded by a World War II veteran in 1960. By the 1980s veterans of that war were ageing and passing on, RSL membership was flagging, and the league's welfare responsibilities for widows were mounting. Yet in 2004 the Victorian branch still boasted some 60 000 members in 315 sub-branches. Behind these seemingly healthy figures for 2004 lay a significant change in the composition of membership.
Eligibility for membership has always been the league's most divisive and bitterly contested issue, and the cause of fiery debates at State and federal conferences. Immediately after the Great War, membership was refused to enlisted men who had not left Australia, and this principle was reaffirmed in 1947, when the Victorian branch secured a poll of subbranches rather than a democratic vote of members. In 1975, however, the league's national congress opened membership, with restricted rights, to those who had served in the Australian, Commonwealth or US armed forces. Victoria embraced this change and within two years had 10 000 service members. Victoria in 1990 offered full membership to all service and serving personnel, whether or not they had served or were serving overseas, and also provided associate memberships to members' relatives.
Civilians may honour veterans' war service, but they find it difficult to comprehend diggers' war experiences and comradeship fully, so that RSL sub-branches and clubs have always been an important refuge and base for veterans. Relations between RSL sub-branches and RSL clubs vary across Australia, but in Victoria all licensed sub-branches are now incorporated, and both the local sub-branch and club are governed by a single committee, observing reciprocal rights with most other clubs. Since the licensing of RSL clubs, the introduction of poker machines and the widespread provision of restaurants, RSL clubs have served wider community functions.
So observers who thought that the RSL, as it entered its eighth decade, would simply fade away with the passing of the old soldiers have been proved mistaken. The mercurial Pacific War veteran Bruce Ruxton became president in 1978. He spent much of his record 23-year presidency headline-grabbing with his vehemently expressed and uncompromising views on what he termed excessive Asian immigration, the divisive policy of multiculturalism and other national issues. To his critics, Ruxton's performance recalled RSL outspokenness during the league's sabre-rattling Cold War period, yet few observers doubted the effectiveness of his high-profile campaign for veterans' benefits. His retirement in 2002 occasioned the third generational shift in Victorian RSL leadership when Major General David McLachlan, a Vietnam veteran, became president.
The RSL Victorian branch, whose motto is 'Serving Still', issues president's reports and financial statements annually, has produced a magazine almost continuously since 1919 (The Bayonet, 1919-21, and Mufti, from 1934) and in 1994 published the comprehensive photographic survey War memorials of Victoria. Key federal and State politicians attend the annual conferences of the branch and remain observant of its policies and thinking.