Cyanide gang

Word watch

November 2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, as Australian National Dictionary editor Dr Amanda Laugesen, BA (Hons) ’97, PhD ’01 explains.

As we move beyond the centenary, the attention of historians and others will increasingly be on re-examining and looking afresh at the impact and aftermath of the war on Australian society, politics and culture.

The process of repatriation and return had a profound impact on Australian society and culture, including its language. Returned soldiers often found themselves not only having to come to terms with the psychological and physical effects of war, but also having to negotiate the bureaucracy of the Department of Repatriation and various programs and efforts to integrate them back into society.

The magazine Smith’s Weekly, published from 1919 and aimed at an ex-soldier readership, became a mouthpiece for the interests of returned servicemen. Historians have argued the magazine helped to shape policy, in part by heavily criticising politicians and the repatriation bureaucracy. One of the most effective terms it coined was cyanide gang, applied to the Repatriation Commission that oversaw decisions on pensions and entitlements.

Clem Lloyd and Jacqui Rees in their book The Last Shilling: A History of Repatriation in Australia, attribute the coining of the term to W. Bede Dalley, a former barrister who wrote for Smith’s. They write: ‘He created a demonology peculiar to Smith’s around the arresting image of cyanide poison, applying it particularly to official ruthlessness in rejecting pensions and other benefits.’  

In 1921, Smith’s was actively accusing the cyanide gang (sometimes referred to as the cyaniders) of denying ex-soldiers their entitlements:

The Hun has deprived Hardy of one arm. The Cyanide gang is going to try and deprive him of the other. (12 March 1921)

In 1922, owner of Smith’s Weekly, Sir James Joynton Smith, commented under the heading 'Why I Publish “Smith’s Weekly”', that it had become necessary for the magazine to define its attitude towards Prime Minister Billy Hughes:

So, at least, thinks one correspondent, who writes to know why “Smith’s” has changed regarding W. M. Hughes? “Smith’s Weekly” has not changed. Mr. Hughes has. … One of the callous scandals of the administration of the Hughes Government was the introduction of the notorious Cyanide Gang, whose purpose was to extract pension rights from maimed soldiers. (10 June 1922)

The term was in popular use in the magazine through the 1920s and occasionally appeared in other newspapers through those years, but it largely disappeared from use after that decade.

Cyanide gang gave rise to the verb cyanide, also largely limited in use to Smith’s Weekly, but nevertheless showing the popularity of the term with the writers of the magazine:

The general public remembers that it was “Smith's Weekly’s” campaign against “cyaniding” that won the case for the dead soldiers’ mothers.
(5 March 1921)

Smith’s Weekly played an important role in Australian culture between the world wars, in particular in relation to the politics around the returned soldier and his place in Australian society. It contributed to the language of return and repatriation with this short-lived but colourful term.