- First World War (1914-18)
- Women’s organisations
For many Australians, the First World War is the event that defined our nation: larrikin diggers, trench warfare, and the landing at Gallipoli have become part of the Anzac Legend.
But it was also the families at home which made the war effort possible with their resilience in the face of hardship, a stoic acceptance of enormous casualty lists and the belief that their cause was just.
Join Joan Beaumont, internationally recognised historian and author of Broken Nation, as she brings these war years to life.
Joan Beaumont is an internationally recognised historian of Australia in the 2 world wars, Australian defence and foreign policy, the history of prisoners of war and the memory and heritage of war.
Jean McAuslan: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance. My name is Jean McAuslan, and I'm the manager of Exhibitions and Collections here. I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which the Shrine is built and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I'd also like to acknowledge the attendance of any veterans and current servicemen and women who may be here today and welcome you.
It's our tradition at the Shrine before commencing any events such as this, to take a moment to honour the service and sacrifice of all Australian servicemen and women. If you are able, would you please stand?
They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning.
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.
Thank you. This is our last onsite Public Programs for the first half of the year. The next three public programs will take place off site including two regional lectures, one in Wodonga on 20 May, presented by Patrick Lindsay, and one in Warragul on 19 June, presented by Tim Whitford. The Public Programs for the second half of the year will be released shortly, so please sign up to our mailing list if you haven't already done so to ensure that you receive a copy of our What's On publication. As we're about to start today's program, may I remind you that all public lectures held at the Shrine are recorded, and they're available for you to download from the Shrine website and iTunes.
I'm very pleased today to welcome our guest speaker Professor Joan Beaumont. Joan joins us from the Australian National University in Canberra, where she's a Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Her areas of expertise include historical studies, Australian Government and Politics, International Relations and Australian History. Joan is a graduate of the University of Adelaide and the University of London where she gained her PhD. Prior to joining Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, she was Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University between 2010-2011 and Dean of Arts and Education at Deakin University in Victoria, from 1998 to 2008. Joan's an internationally recognised historian of Australia in the two World Wars, Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, the history of Prisoners of War and the memory and heritage of war. It's an honour to have Joan here today to discuss elements of her most recent publication, Broken Nation. Please join me in welcoming Professor Beaumont.
Joan Beaumont: Thank you, Jean. It's a great pleasure and privilege to be back at the Shrine of Remembrance. I used to live in Melbourne but as you’ve sort of heard, I've gone to the dark side...
Well, if you still visit bookstores as I imagine many of you do, rather than buy Kindle online, you'll be aware that the Centenary of World War One is swelling an already voluminous literature on Australian military history. So you might ask, well why did I write my book Broken Nation? Well quite simply because despite all the books that have been published in the past three decades on Australians at War, there was no single comprehensive history of Australia in World War One by which I mean a history which integrates battles, the home front, diplomacy and memory. The vast majority of books that have been published recently have covered battles and military units, which is of course not surprising, since battle is after all the essence of war. And the Anzac legend, which is the most enduring legacy of World War One for Australians, is a story about soldiers and their behaviour in battle.
But I believe that it was time that we acknowledged that World War One was about much more than fighting and killing. It’s sometimes been called the first Total War and it was a conflict in which civilians mattered. In the case of Australia, the civilian experience also was the majority experience. Yes, it's true that a remarkable number of Australian men enlisted and served overseas. Nearly 470,000 volunteered, and 330,000 of those served overseas from a population that in 1911 numbered 4.3 million. But despite this extraordinary statistic, we need to acknowledge that most Australians stayed at home. Many of these were women and children, but even among men in the age bracket of 19 to 60 years, nearly 70% did not enlist. In essence, the story of Australians at War has to be seen as much more than the Australian Imperial Force at War. And this is particularly so since it was the Australian population on the home front—and interestingly, the term ‘home front’ was coined during World War One in recognition of its importance—who underpinned the national war effort. They didn't fight, but they did accept casualties on a scale which would be unthinkable today. Also, they mobilised their labour, gave their money and poured their emotional and physical energies into public debate, fundraising and various other war-related activities. In addition, many Australian workers suffered from rising prices and a reduced standard of living, and most critically of all, most Australians, despite all this continued to support the War, and believed that the causes for which their men were fighting were just.
We often forget that ultimately in World War One some societies lost the will to fight, most notably Russia in 1917 and to some degree Germany in late 1918. So it's important that although Australian society was here profoundly divided on the question of conscription and other aspects of the War, the will to continue the War survived until 1918. So the home front needs to be seen as an essential part of the national experience of War and I like to imagine it is in a kind of dialogue with the battlefront. It's often argued that civilians and soldiers were in completely separate spheres in World War One and in many ways they were. Obviously Australia was very remote from the battlefields and Australians who weren't fighting did not experience occupation, bombing, starvation, or homelessness, which is what some civilian populations of Europe experienced.
Nor could those at home truly comprehend the horrors of battle in modern industrial warfare. I'm afraid my images are somewhat elongated, but I trust you can still see on the left the battlefield of Pozieres and the terrible conditions in the winter on the Somme of 1916–17. Civilians at home were not confronted with the noise of artillery; the terror that they might be obliterated immediately and arbitrarily; the obscene injuries that artillery inflicted on soft flesh; flame-throwers, bayonets and gas. Nor could they experience the misery of life in the Somme winter, which brought with it gangrene and trench-foot for many men.
But if you look closely into the archives of the Australian War Memorial it's clear that Australians at home were not completely and emotionally quarantined from the war. The men of the AIF wrote letters home: letters that were often graphic in their detail about wounds and death. And some men even mentioned the incompetence of the senior commanders that were sending them into battle. And although we know that there was a lot of censorship in World War One, some of these voices of loss and cynicism escaped the pen of the Censor. For example, one young officer Alec Raws, from South Australia, volunteered for the AIF in July 1915 and as he did so he wrote to his father:
I do believe that there are some things worth more than life. I claim no great patriotism, no government other than the most utterly democratic is worth fighting for. But there are principles and there are women, and there are standards of decency that are worth shedding one's blood for surely. Death does not matter.
In July 1916, thirteen months later however, Alec’s brother Goldie, who also volunteered, was killed at Pozieres and Alec wrote home to his family again.
Goldie's death has proved a far greater shock to me than I thought possible. I want to tell you so that it may be on the record, but I honestly believe that Goldie and many other officers were murdered through the incompetence, callousness and personal vanity of those high in authority. I realise the seriousness of what I say but I am so bitter, and the facts are so palpable, that it must be said.
Now this frank letter arrived home after Alec himself had been killed, and what, one wonders, did his family make of it? The contrast between his anger, and the values he espoused at the time he volunteered only thirteen months earlier, is palpable. But many soldiers of course kept silent, but even if they did it was because they were trying to reassure their already anxious families. The enormous casualty lists spoke to what was really happening on the battlefield. The bodies of the wounded too, that is the wounded themselves, started to return to Australia within three months of the Landing at Gallipoli—the first boatload of wounded comes home in July 1915. Now the story of the wounded is a terrible one. Inadequate preparations were made for treating and handling the wounded at Gallipoli. But the men who came home, and you see some of them on the right in 1919, the more seriously injured who probably may not have left that nursing home. The men who came home in July 1915 were severely wounded. One estimate claims that within the British armies as a whole, 80% of the men who were wounded actually were patched up and sent back to the line. So if you came home, you presumably had lost a limb or were suffering some serious head injury or something like that. Some, of course, were suffering from venereal disease but they were hurried away, rather embarrassing. So my point is that that Australian populations were witnessing at least that part of the war and everything that happened in Australian politics and society was influenced by knowledge of what was happening in France, Belgium, and the Middle East.
This interconnection is clearest in the bitter debates that emerged about military conscription in 1916 and 1917. These debates owed their passion, as well as their timing, to the way in which the war was unfolding on the battlefield. To fully understand the story of conscription we need to backtrack a little.
When the war began in August 1914 there had been a very widespread consensus in Australia about the decision to support Britain, and this was even though the Australian Government did not actually make the decision for Australia go to war. This was because Australia in 1914 was what we called a ‘self-governing Dominion, and it was agreed practice within the British Empire at the time that the Dominions did not have their own foreign policies. But the British Government managed the foreign policy on behalf of the whole Empire, so Britain declared war on Germany and thereby brought Australia formally into the war. But what's striking is that Australians not only accepted that decision without any contestation, because they were so strongly emotionally and culturally identified with Britain. Perhaps well over 90 percent of the population at this time probably was either born in Britain or was of Anglo-Celtic extraction. But it was also the fact that Australians believed that their security relied very much on the continuing dominance of the British Royal Navy, in the region and globally. So the decision was not contested, but Australians also went much further in supporting the British declaration of War than constitutionally they probably needed to. There was bipartisan support for the decision to go to war, for Britain’s decision to go to war, and a very small Cabinet convened on the 3rd of August 1914, one day before the War. It only consisted of five men at that time - there was a Federal Election going on - and the other five members of the Cabinet were out campaigning and couldn't get back, say from Western Australia where Forrest was, because of the primitive communications. These five men, at least four of them, I can't find out about the fifth, were born in England, and they made the decision, this Cabinet, to immediately deploy the Royal Australian Navy to work with the Royal Navy. This had been assumed would happen in all pre-War planning, but much more importantly for our history, this Cabinet also decided to raise a force of 20,000 volunteers for an infantry force, and they agreed that Britain could deploy this infantry force as it wished, while Australia remarkably agreed to cover the costs of maintaining the force.
With this decision on 3 August 1914, was the seed of the Australian Imperial Force which ultimately came, as I mentioned earlier, to about 330,000 men: 15 times the original commitment of August 1914. But despite this seeming consensus at the start of the war, there were some who had reservations about the conflict even in August 1914. On the radical Left there was a view that the real war was between Labour and Capital: Labour on your right with the muscular man, and on the left Capital always depicted as an overweight plutocrat, and there you see them struggling for control, supremacy, of the world. As the Trade Union movement saw it, the only people it thought would benefit from slaughter and carnage in warfare would be the businessman and the plutocrats. This wasn't simply an ideological position on their part, because the war rapidly, very quickly, disrupted Australian Trade. We had an economy that was very dependent on international trade and that was immediately disrupted. Soon prices and inflation started to take off in the Australian economy, and the real value of wages began to erode, and this issue about the price of essential commodities became a running sore throughout Australian political life during the war years.
But these murmurings about the war perhaps not being the right thing for Australians to support were really very marginal and muted, so long as there were very few Australian casualties in battle. In the first months of the war, as you no doubt know, men flocked to enlist. The original promise to the British of 20,000 volunteers was met within a matter of weeks, and by the end of 1914 more than 50,000 men had volunteered to serve and recruitment continued at reasonably strong rates in early 1915.
Then came, of course, Gallipoli. I doubt I have to tell this audience the day—but I did have to tell a taxi driver recently what the date of Anzac Day was, which says something interesting about multicultural Australia. Now the news of the landing at Gallipoli reached Australia on 8 May, some days after the landing, and it brought about I would argue a sea change in the way Australians felt about the war. Firstly, as is well known, the landing was reported in such a fulsome manner by journalists such as the British Ellis Ashmead-Barlett and the Australian Charles Bean, that it began the process whereby the valourising narrative which we now call the Anzac Legend was spawned. But secondly, the landing brought a new and more intense level of mobilisation on the home front, because the casualty list, and this was of course the first battle in which Australians were involved, apart from the very small occupation of German New Guinea. These huge casualty lists made it clear that the ad hoc processes whereby men had been allowed to enlist needed to be replaced by far more systematic and coordinated recruitment campaigns. So Victoria and New South Wales, in June and July 1915, moved to have much more systematic recruitment campaigns, and indeed, the total investment in July 1915 was 36,575 men. This is the highest total of any month in World War One. Bear that in mind if you can.
At the same time in July 1915, a Federal Parliamentary War Committee was established with members across all the political parties. There were some people who thought there should be a national government, coalition government in the interests of the War, but that never happened, but there was this Federal Parliamentary War Committee and its primary role, and it had War Councils in the various States, was to coordinate recruitment. But I find it very interesting that the Committee was also assigned the role of integrating government initiatives at State and Federal level to provide employment, medical care and land settlement schemes for returning soldiers, so they start thinking about this in 1915. This is because for the Australian authorities, repatriation benefits and recruitment were seen as the two sides of the one coin. The argument went that the men could not be persuaded to volunteer if they feared, and their families feared, that they would be left destitute if they were killed or injured. Soldiers also wanted to know that they'd come back to employment, so recruitment and repatriation are hand in hand from very early days.
So, there was a great surge in recruitment in response to the Gallipoli campaign, but also, interestingly, it triggered the conscription debate because for the Loyalists, as they were called—the people who were unquestionably in favour of Britain and the War—military conscription was not just a question of getting enough men to replace those who had been killed or wounded at Gallipoli. Increasingly, and I think this is critical to understanding the Conscription debate, Conscription was almost a moral value in its own right because the Loyalists thought that all citizens had a duty to serve in the defence of the nation and the Empire. And the nation and the Empire were seen as one and the same at that time. When I say all citizens, I of course mean men.
Now the Prime Minister at the time of Gallipoli was Andrew Fisher depicted on the left, and on the right a man whose face of course is absolutely central to the story of Australia at war: W M ‘Billy’ Hughes. Fisher had a lot of reservations about Conscription, but Hughes had no problem with this. Hughes had come out of the Trade Union movement and as far as he was concerned compulsion in the form of closed shop was perfectly normal and indeed desirable. So compulsion in military service, he didn't see to be a problem. However, Hughes's problem was that the industrial Labour movement, i.e. the Trade Unions and the ALP caucuses at State and Federal level, were profoundly divided on the issue of Conscription.
So although there was an election in September 1914 which gave Labor at the Federal level a very significant majority in both Houses - the Representatives and the Senate. So logically you could have passed legislation in favour of Conscription, and you had to do this because the Defence Act of 1903 only allowed volunteers to be deployed overseas, so you had to amend the Defence Act. But Hughes’s problem was that if he tried to put legislation through the Parliament he was warned, and he probably knew himself, that he would split his own Labor Party, which he was leading. So although he had a majority he couldn't be sure that he wouldn't actually destroy that majority by an internal division within his own party.
For a while Hughes shied away from Conscription. He became Prime Minister in October 1915. Fisher went off to become High Commissioner in London. But, as soon as he became Prime Minister, Billy Hughes persuaded Parliament to pass something called the ‘War Census Act’, and this was a government survey which required Australian males between the ages of 18 to 60—some advantages of being over 60, aren't there?—required Australian males between 18 and 60 to complete questionnaires detailing their age, their occupation, how much military training they'd had, and the state of their health. The Census interestingly also asked them to fill out, answer questions about their wealth, because the Labour Movement was arguing, well if you're going to conscript men for military purposes you also need to conscript wealth. These are, again, two sides of the argument.
When the War Census was conducted there was a lot of opposition to it because some people suspected some foul play on the part of Hughes, and their suspicions were probably justified. Because the Census included these extraordinary questions:
Are you willing to enlist now? Reply Yes or No. If you reply Yes, you will be given a fortnight's notice before being called up.
Question Three: If you are not willing to enlist now, are you willing to enlist at a later date? Reply Yes or No, and if willing state when.
Question Four. If not willing to enlist, state the reason why, as explicitly as possible.
I mean, one of the things that made the debates in Australia so polarising and so bitter was the fact that the powers of the State were becoming increasingly repressive by means of a piece of emergency legislation that's been passed called the War Precautions Act. And people felt that the War Census, those kinds of questions were far too intrusive and invasive, and indicated that Hughes really was intent on calling people up. At the same time as the War Census Act was launched, Hughes took a decision which we don't hear much about today but which was profoundly significant in alienating his own Labour support. He decided not to hold a planned referendum which would have given the Federal Government power to control the prices of food and other commodities. The Federal Parliament had very limited powers vis-a-vis the State Governments at this time, because it was only of course a little more than a decade after Federation. It had been agreed as part of Labor policy that there would be a referendum to give the Federal Government the power to control prices, because the Left argued that a country that was not prepared to provide a man with three meals a day had, quote, “a dashed impudence in asking him to fight.”
But Hughes and his other Labor Premiers, of which there were two or three, were concerned that the referendum would fail—I mean, you know, the reluctance of Australians to vote Yes in referenda. So Hughes in late 1915 did a deal with the State Governments that they would legislate to control prices and the referendum would not be held. As it turned out this was a rather false promise on the part of State Governments and the Left-Wing press knew it, and for the rest of the war Hughes was considered to have capitulated to the interests of Capitalists. So, you've got these two great debates going on about working class conditions during wartime, and they were explained as ‘is the burden of the War being shared equitably at home?’ And the other great debate is about ‘is the burden of the War being shared equitably on the battlefield?’ They're very closely linked, those two debates.
Now Hughes went off to London in January 1916 and he was away till August 1916. It's impossible to imagine the Prime Minister, nor desirable, to have the Prime Minister being away that long but he had lots of things he wanted to lobby London about: trade, the fear of Japan and so on, which I could talk about later. And it's interesting that most of the time that Hughes was in London the AIF was relatively casualty-free, and this was because after the Australians were withdrawn from Gallipoli, in December 1915, they were progressively deployed to the Western Front but didn't really start to arrive in any numbers until April, May, June of 1916. At first they only did raids which were costly but didn't produce mass casualties.
But then the Battle of the Somme started on 1 July 1916, and Australian casualties along with British casualties of course, and German casualties, began to soar. I'm sure you've all heard of the Battle of Fromelles, where in 24 hours on 19 July the 5th Division lost over 5,000 casualties. Then very shortly after that the 1st and 2nd Divisions are deployed at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm and in 42 days the AIF suffered 23,000 casualties, a figure which would have taken eight months for the Gallipoli campaign to reach. So the casualties start really going up in mid-1916, and this meant that the debate about conscription couldn't be silenced any longer. It had been simmering away for about a year. Hughes comes back to Australia in August 1916 determined to try and introduce conscription, partly because Britain and New Zealand had also introduced conscription earlier in 1916.
You remember I said in July 1915 over 36,000 men volunteered? In August 1916 the figure was down to 6,345. So the gap’s widening between these huge casualties on the Somme and the number volunteering. And the British authorities estimated that Australia needed immediately to replace the losses on the Somme—20,000 men—plus a further 16,500 each month for the next three months. And this was when enlistment was 6,345. Those figures by the British were actually much exaggerated and there was a lot of debate in the conscription campaign about whether they're accurate, and they weren't. Well, what could Hughes do? He had real problems with getting legislation through Parliament, although the Governor General said if it failed in Parliament he would prorogue Parliament and allow an election to be held on the matter. But fearful that he would split his Labor Caucus, Hughes thought about using the War Precautions Act to bring in Conscription by regulation, but that would have required approval of the Executive Council, which was again very similar to his Cabinet and he was advised by the Chief Justice that this might be unconstitutional anyway. So he took the great and fateful decision to put the issue to the Australian public, hoping I think that if he got a Yes vote, a resounding Yes vote, that would force the hand of his reluctant anti-conscriptionist colleagues in the Labor Party.
Well, I don't have time today to tell the full story of conscription but suffice to say that there were debates which were fought out in Parliament, and in the streets and public venues across the nation. They were debates and meetings which had a deep emotional intensity, and an intellectual sophistication which I think we rarely see in Australian political life today. As I mentioned they were fought out, these campaigns, the first one against the backdrop of the Somme, the second in 1917 against the backdrop of Passchendaele or 3rd Ypres, and what explains, I think, their extraordinary emotional intensity is mass grief. People were in many cases deeply bereaved and this anger flowed out into public life, anger on both sides. There was a lot of physical violence in the conscription debates as well. It seemed that the war was never going to end. It seemed to be beyond any politician or military commander’s control, and so people just, you know, the frustration and the anger boiled over.
At the heart of the Conscription debate, of course, was whether more men were needed, but there was also a deep clash of principles about the obligations of citizenship, the equality of sacrifice in times of national crisis, and how power should be exercised by the Australian State. All of this was fueled by a mix of explosive anxieties about the demographic implications if the country were denuded of its fittest and best young men—what would that do to the Australian Race? About whether military conscription would pave the way for industrial conscription, which the Trade Union movement deeply opposed. And whether soldiers or men who went to the Front would be replaced in the workforce by cheap Asian Labour—this of course is the time of White Australia—or, God forbid, women!
Civil libertarians also argued about the morality of the State, that is the Government, compelling individuals to kill, and the heavy-handed use of censorship and repression by the Government. For example Henry Boote, who was the editor of the Australian Worker and I think is one of the great unsung heroes of World War One, wrote in September 1916:
society goes outside its moral jurisdiction when, against his will, it compels a man to fight another.
The debate about conscription was also infused with a noxious sectarianism as Catholics, who constituted about 22% of the Australian population at this time and who were mostly working class and of Irish extraction, were radicalised by their declining standard of living and the ruthless suppression of the Easter Uprising in Dublin by the British Government.
Well as we all know, conscription was narrowly defeated in October 1916, which was I think a testament to the power of grassroots politics, given the enormous resources that Hughes's Government used to suppress dissent, and censor the Press. And the impact of the first conscription referendum on the political landscape was dramatic. This is a wonderful one: ‘The Argument about Prices.’ You’ll see the Plutocrat is raiding the larder, the food larder, while the Australian soldier’s attention is on the battle overseas. Hughes, of course, was immediately demonised. Sorry, I should have explained, Hughes’s party did split over conscription. He walked out with 24 of his colleagues and the rump of the Labor Party stayed, thinking they would become the Government. In fact Hughes, as we can see, they thought was the Rat—there he is about to put his head into the trap of the Australian People at the next election. Hughes formed a coalition with the former opposition the Liberals, and that was called the Nationalist Party. So here you see Hughes is marrying Joseph Cook from the Liberal Party, being the officiating priest is the bloated Capitalism, Labor's looking on very angrily, but more cheerfully looking on is a character called the Tory Press depicted as a cat for some reason.
So those people who thought they could expel Hughes from Government by expelling him from the Labor Party were much mistaken, because having formed the Nationalists with Cook in early 1917, Hughes and Cook then went to the electorate in May 1917, another Federal Election. This was held just after the two battles of Bullecourt, terrible battles, but despite these the new coalition won handsomely on a ‘Win the War’ ticket.
So it's very important to understand that the vote against conscription was not a vote against the war. These two argued, much as Robert Menzies argued about Communism in the 1950s, that Labor was not to be trusted. Labor was disloyal, Labor could not manage Foreign and Defence policy. And the ALP, which in 1914 seemed poised to dominate Australian politics, you know it was on the rise, gaining majority government for the first time, was pushed to the margins of Australian politics at the Federal level, less so at the State level, for two decades at least. And this coalition constitutes a major shift to the Right at the Federal political level.
Having lost the first conscription referendum, Hughes promised he would not have a second, but he was under a lot of pressure from his new conservative cabinet colleagues in 1917, when again casualties started to mount dramatically, particularly in the 3rd Ypres or Passchendaele. Also, the losses just seemed impossible to replace—the losses of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle and Passchendaele. Australians were also fighting in 1917 in Palestine under Allenby, where they were driving from Gaza up to Jerusalem, which was captured in late 1917. And 1917, which we now forget, I find it extraordinary how little attention is paid to 1917 in commemorative practice and popular culture in Australia, but it was the worst year of the War by far. Nearly a third of the deaths occurred in 1917, it's just a terrible war of depression and loss and sadness, and there was no way in which those losses could be replaced by voluntary recruitment.
So, Hughes very reluctantly put the vote to Australian people again. In December 1917 they vote again on conscription and again it was just this dreadfully divisive debate. The conscription debate had been preceded by another episode, which I think you can genuinely say has been forgotten, which was the Great Strike of 1917. Now, if you can read those figures, the Trade Unions had actually held their hand in the first part of the war and not really taken much industrial action, although there are many elements within the Trade Union movement that really believed in direct action or the strike as a means of achieving their goals. But you'll see the figures just soar in 1917, and the main cause of this was the Great Strike which started in New South Wales and then spread right along the eastern seaboard of Australia, where workers just said about their working conditions: enough is enough. Melbourne too exploded in violence. You had women tearing down Collins Street smashing windows, groups of people smashing factories which were employing scab labour and so on. The Australian Government—Hughes and the State governments—responded to the strike very viciously. They called up a great volunteer army of scab labour. Sydney SCG was called Sydney Scab Camping Ground, and the workers were actually badly beaten by the strike. Many of them came back and found that they'd been locked out and that if they were going to get their job back it was only at much lower level than they had before. Now we've forgotten all that working-class solidarity in favour of mateship with the troops, but this was an amazingly powerful piece of industrial action. So the Labour Movement is really bitter about the defeat of the Great Strike, just before the second conscription referendum takes place.
Hughes was pelted with eggs during the conscription campaign. It gave him the chance to introduce Commonwealth Police, which he'd been dying to do. As you probably know, of course, much of the anti-conscription movement was headed by Daniel Mannix, the Archbishop of Melbourne, whose great foe was actually a man we know less about, T E Ruth, who was based at Collins Street Baptist. Ruth would hold huge meetings in Collins Street in the theatre across the road from the church. He and Mannix really would spar about these issues, and Mannix drove Hughes to absolute frustration but in the end the vote was again a No vote, but by a slightly larger margin than in 1916.
And this interplay that I've talked about between the battlefield and the domestic politics continued in 1918, when the German command made their last great effort to win the war in the Spring Offensive, and later offensives in spring and summer of that year. For short time enlistments lifted off again in 1918. This is in part because of an extraordinary campaign. Here’s one of Norman Lindsay's more lurid depictions. He published a book of cartoons and other texts called The Gospel of Frightfulness. This is another one from that period, with the soldier calling other soldiers to come and help. But the enlistments did not take off, slight rise about May 1918 and then it's just down, down, down to the end of the war. And it's fair to say that had the war not ended in 1918, by 1919 the five infantry divisions would have been unsustainable because of the level of recruitment.
While we’re here, this is a group of children knitting for the comfort funds. Here is the extraordinary work of the comfort funds on the Western Front. Birdwood argued, the commander of the AIF, argued that the comfort fund was extremely important, the fact that the soldiers knew people at home were caring for them was very important and this is what I might call the reverse dialogue. You know, the fact that what they hear from the battle, from home, must have influenced the morale of the soldiers. Birdwood, as I said, argued that the comfort fund did support the AIF’s morale. I find this an extraordinary shot—that here you are in the middle of France, in the most ghastly conditions, and you're getting a cup of tea from the comfort fund.
This was the slide I was trying to get to. The top line, if I put my glasses on, the lighter line is casualties. What's really fascinating, I think we think that the soldiers were always in the battlefront, but you'll see that there are great peaks in the casualties and the Australians were actually committed to relatively few battles on the Western Front. They were terrible battles, but relatively few. The darker line is enlistments, and the most important is this, this is fundamentally important. We forget how many men died in 1918, particularly breaking the Hindenburg Line. The gap between them and enlistments is just impossibly wide by this point.
I shall now just make a couple of concluding remarks so that we have time for some questions, and I can in question time speak about soldiers’ attitude to conscription, if you wish. My argument is that by the end of the war, this gap between those who thought the war was still worth fighting—and they were the majority of Australians—and the Trade Union movement had widened. By the middle of 1918, the Trade Union movement and the Labor Party, rather the Labor Party, is demanding that the war be brought to an end by a negotiated peace. They were given a lot of new energy by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and sort of revived Internationalism again. Equally, so that was a real strain on the Australian political fabric and this gap between enlistments and deaths, in casualties, is huge. And you might wonder if the war had continued into 1919 whether the Australian narrative about the war might not have been one of triumphalism, but rather one of retrenchment and decline, or even rebellion. The first mutinies were breaking out in the AIF in September–October 1918, and if the war actually ended in defeat—and it was a fairly close-run thing in 1918—we might ask whether it might even have been an Australian version of the ‘stab in the back’ theory which so infected German political life after the war. Namely that because the votes against conscription had let the soldiers down there was potential for that, had the war ended up in a different way. That of course is counterfactual history.
In conclusion, let me say that I think as I wrote this book I was trying to find, come to some kind of judgment about the war, and as you'll see when or if you read my book, in the end I could find very little positive to say about its impact on Australian society. The conscription referenda left society profoundly divided between those who’d voted Yes and those who’d voted No, between Catholics and Protestants, and of course after the war there was a significant division between those who’d served, those who’d volunteered and those who had not. Those divisions really poisoned political life through the interwar years. The insults, the personal vitriol which had been exchanged—people accusing each other in public for not sending their sons to the war. In small towns this personal vitriol continued to affect Australian society, which in some ways seemed less tolerant, more xenophobic, and more inward looking than it had in 1914.
As I mentioned, the rise of the Labor Party and some of the reforming and energising instincts of that Party had seemed to have been stalled, if not just truncated by the outbreak of War and the impact of the conscription debate on the party. Some historians do lament that, that they think there was a reforming and innovating energy in Australian politics, which the war destroyed. I think as we proceed into the years that will lie ahead of us, and in some ways take cover from what I think is going to be a commemorative tsunami, we should remember that there was in fact a very wide negative impact of the war, even if that negative impact is rather (indistict) in national commemorative practice. Thank you.
Jean McAuslan: I am sure you’ll have some questions for Joan, please?
Audience Member: What was the Australian Government's attitude towards reparation after the war, to the pensions that the widows might or might not have received? I come from England and I know what it was in England and Canada, it was very generous towards their soldiers and their wounded soldiers, and the widows and survivors. What was the Australian attitude please?
Joan Beaumont: Well, that's a very big question which we are beginning really to be able to answer and I say that because the National Archives have just released the medical records of soldiers of World War One and are digitising a proportion of them. So for the first time historians are really going to be able to trace the battles that soldiers had to get their war-related injuries recognised. The Australian Government did recognise its obligations to its soldiers very early in the war, in fact the first Pensions Act is passed in 1914. As I’ve said, there were a number of schemes developed from 1915 on to support returned soldiers. The most famous, of course, is Soldier Settlement though that had many problems, but there were medical schemes and of course, pensions. The real issue was a man being able to demonstrate his entitlement to his pension and medical care in the years after the war. Tragically, the medical records of the AIF while they were in battle in 1914–18, were destroyed in Britain accidentally, and so when men started to claim, you know, that this sore, aching leg relates to an injury I had in 1917, they were often unable to validate it. Many of the men understandably had simply gone home as quickly as they could when they were repatriated, so there were no serious exit medical tests so there were lots of disputes. Alistair Thompson's new version of Anzac Memories, which I commend to you, has a story about his grandfather as an example of a man who just kept battling with Repatriation to get what he thought were his full entitlements. As the years went on and the Great Depression hit Australia of course the Government wanted to limit the number of people who were claiming money because, as I said it’s a big topic, Billy Hughes had tried very hard at the Paris Peace Conference to get Germany to pay Australia's war debt, but he lost. We got very little in reparations, and so the burden of war debt and of supporting the returning veterans was huge on the Federal exchequer. So you've got this tension between a Repatriation Department that had to try and contain costs, and in some cases were quite skeptical about some men’s claims, and the men who claimed that their injuries and particularly their psychological injuries were related to the war.
Audience Member: My grandfather served in the First World War and he was killed at the Battle of Polygon Wood on 26 September 1917, and we visited his grave last year in the Oxford Road Cemetery. He was promoted, not promoted but acting as a Sergeant on a number of occasions, but he still went back to being a Private. He was never actually promoted to the position, and the idea was that sometimes when a soldier had a lot of children, which he had four, the likelihood was that he was going to be killed, which he was, they didn't have to pay the widow that level of pay.
Joan Beaumont: Yes, well as I said, there were lots of disputes about pensions and entitlements in the post-war years, and it sounds as if your family got caught up in them. The 26 September by the way, in the prologue of my book I described the experience of my great-uncle who was a bit of a, sort of counter hero. I think he went to war very reluctantly, and he was injured on 26 September. Let me say Polygon Wood and those battles at that time were actually quite successful. Haig’s great mistake was to push on into November in Passchendaele. It’s those last weeks at Passchendaele we remember, not Menin Road or Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, which actually achieved their objectives.
Audience member: When I heard you saying they were bringing forward the medical records, I was hoping that I'd be able to get his medical records, but you won’t, if they were lost?
Joan Beaumont: No sorry—the post-war medical records exist, all the debates between the men and Repatriation. It's their wartime medical records that you can't get hold of, but I think you can apply if you are a family member to the National Archives for your relative’s personal records.
Audience Member: How did the AIF vote during the two Conscription referenda? What was the level of the sectarian divide within the AIF?
Joan Beaumont: The latter part we really don't know. Sorry, it would be lovely to know. We might find out more when Peter Dennis's study of the AIF comes out, but no. We're working on far less information than we’d have today about attitudes of soldiers. People didn’t do surveys, didn't do public opinion polls. But on your first question, Hughes assumed that the soldiers whom he loved, he was called ‘the Little Digger,’ and he enjoyed enormously going and seeing the men on the Western Front. He assumed that they would vote Yes, and in the first referendum he scheduled the soldiers’ vote before the national vote, assuming that he would get a Yes vote and be able to say ‘see, the soldiers are calling to you,’ as they were in the Lindsay cartoon. But then some alarming messages started coming back that the views of the soldiers were very divided, so Hughes went into overdrive, and he employed Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, who had emerged in a very strange role. He was a journalist in London, an Australian journalist resident in London, and he more or less acted as Hughes’ public relations officer. They’d formed a very strong alliance in 1916 when Hughes was in London. Hughes mobilised Murdoch to start drumming up a Yes vote amongst the soldiers, even though the commander said ‘leave them alone, let them vote as they would.’ In the end the vote was a small margin for Yes. Now the problem was that we don't really know much about it because, instead of announcing the soldiers’ vote Hughes buried their votes in the electorate from which they came. We didn't know that for some time until the Labor Party pressed for it to be revealed. Then Murdoch said interestingly—you know, who knows how Murdoch thought he knew this—Murdoch said that he thought that the men on the Western Front had voted No, and the men who voted Yes he thought were those who were in training on the Salisbury Plain in England and hadn’t yet experienced battle, and the men in Palestine. So that's about all we know about that, unfortunately.
Audience Member: A quick comment on that, I knew a number of the soldiers and I can remember distinctly that they said, ‘I wouldn't want anyone next to me who didn’t want to be here.’
Joan Beaumont: Yes, there were, there are conflicting entries in diaries and letters. I mean, I did look in the War Memorial for them and, yes, you find that view expressed. That is, why should we force somebody to come, and we wouldn't want them to come. And then other soldiers say, ‘well, they're all loafers and get over here.’ I read one soldier who, like the population generally, and this was an argument mounted on both sides, were worried that somehow volunteering, or the ‘Yes’ case argued that the volunteers would be the best men. I mention that in passing—the fittest would go and then we'd be left with a kind of sort of dissolute Australian male population. These were the days of eugenics and Social Darwinism and so on. The Labour Movement on the other hand argued, well, if you sent all of the best men—although by this stage they took men who were shorter than me, but none the less—if you took all of the best men, again you'd be left with a weakened population, and that's when the Asian labourers would come in. So everyone was concerned about the impact of the war on the virility of the Australian race.
Audience Member: I was just wondering when did Australia pay for the debt for the war?
Joan Beaumont: Oh, heavens, somewhere probably towards the late 1930s. It’s still around as an issue in the Great Depression and I've seen a figure for 1936. It must just get bundled up in the Second World War, but Hughes really was deeply distressed that he didn't succeed in getting Germany to pay the bill for the war. But Australia had this difficult position that it hadn't actually been invaded, it had suffered no physical damage unlike Belgium and the north of France, and the prevailing view at the Paris Peace Conference was—well we did get something for pensions but initially the debate was you’d only get reparations for actual physical destruction, not for the cost of caring for your veterans. But we got far less than the Australian government needed and wanted.
Audience Member: The figures you quoted in your book of the war costing in excess of 340 million pounds, and Australia receiving something in excess of five million pounds, and that the cost of reparation treatment was estimated at a further 80 million. What I would respectfully suggest to you, the Depression in Australia really started in 1919, not 1929.
Joan Beaumont: It's a very interesting question. My kind publisher said, ‘well what do you want to write next?,’ and we talked for some time and I said I'd like to write a book about the interwar years because I think in some ways you might call it ‘The Survivors.’ Really, I don't think Australia recovers either psychologically, economically or in some senses physically, although you get the immigration in the 1920’s from Britain, but there were fewer men in that age cohort than there should have been in the 1930’s. So in some ways the shadow of war goes right across the interwar years.
Audience Member: Yes, if anything Australia retreated back to sovereign States, rather than looking at a Commonwealth of Australia.
Joan Beaumont: Well certainly Australians were not particularly keen to break away from the British Empire, which is interesting. I mean we've been brought up with this story that Australia was born on the shores of Gallipoli. Australians really thought they were fighting for the British Empire, they thought that nation and Empire was a seamless cloth, and of course in September 1939, what did Robert Menzies say?: ‘Great Britain is at war and therefore Australia is at war.’ So I think we cannot overestimate the degree to which nationalism was born in World War One.
Jean McAuslan: Thank you, Joan. I have, we have a gift here for you, and I’d just like to thank everybody here for coming. That concludes our program for today. Joan's book Broken Nation is available in our shop to purchase, and I think she might be pleased to sign it for you. Thank you again for your attendance. Great to see so many of you here. We look forward to seeing you again in future programs, and please stay for some refreshments.
Reviewed 21 July 2021