Broken Nation - Professor Emerita Joan Beaumont

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