For almost a century, our histories have explained that Australia followed Britain to war in 1914 on the basis of a political consensus. Charles Bean set the tone in the first volume of his opus The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 (1921-42): ‘If Great Britain were at war,’ he wrote, ‘then automatically by the law of nations Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were also at war.’ He added that ‘the attitude of Australia was from the first perfectly definite and united’.
Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation is built on the same idea. Beaumont refers to the expectation that if Britain declared war ‘Australia and the other dominions would follow’. She says, wrongly, that ‘the Cook government accepted the British decision without question’ and uses the term ‘consensus’ to describe the political foundations on which the troops went to war. This misconception is characteristic of the imperial romance that still influences the writing of Australia’s Great War history.
Broken Nation is a major work of synthesis. Beaumont explains in her Preface that she wanted ‘to provide what is still lacking in the literature: a comprehensive history of Australians at war in the period 1914-19 that integrates battles, the home front, diplomacy and memory’. The aim is to depict the ‘national experience of war.’ Before discussing the strengths of this innovation, however, it is necessary to note a problem with Beaumont’s understanding of the ‘nation’, which she inherits from the literature.
Consider the scope and relevance of the following example of realpolitik, about which Broken Nation and most other histories of Australia’s involvement in the Great War are silent. On 11 January 1912, Labor Defence Minister Senator George Pearce said in the Broken Hill Town Hall:
To the Australian statesman of the day is entrusted the paramount duty of building up an independent nation, impervious to foreign attacks and determined to preserve the purity of the race.
Another report of the speech expanded on Pearce’s perception of the race threat:
I recently came through the east of Asia, and I found that within ten days sail of Australia is a cockpit which is a seething mass of discontent.
Within ‘six days sail’, Pearce observed,
Japan is an arsenal from one end to the other. Men are being trained everywhere, forts are being erected and warships being built. Why?
The answer was implied in another rhetorical question: would ‘Australians be prepared to submit to arbitration with an Asiatic power the question of a white Australia? (No! No!)’
Pearce’s speech outlined what Andrew Fisher’s Labor government was doing about the Asiatic menace:
spending £4,000,000 per annum on defence … they had established a harness factory and a clothing factory … A military college had been established … The naval college had been established …
But while the Minister declared those material developments, he was unable to disclose the government’s wider policy design. He was unable to tell his audience that, six months before he spoke, he had submitted in London to a radical change in Australian defence planning.
The exceptional work of John Mordike in Army for a Nation (1992) and ‘We should do this thing quietly’ (2001) permits us to summarise this clotted colonial history. As Mordike shows, Australian officials post-federation were firmly committed to defending the ‘nation’, by which they meant the continent, against threats they perceived from the north. The Defence Act 1903 permitted volunteers to embark on imperial campaigns, but the Act had taken a clear national position by denying the government authority to send troops outside the country. In 1907, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who was strongly opposed to expeditions, had called for a ‘National Guard’ and an ‘Australian Navy’.
After long-term imperial manipulations had sought to engineer a change in Australian defence planning, a turning point came during the London Imperial Conference of 1911. Just before the Conference, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey confided in Fisher and Pearce that Britain was expecting a war with Germany by 1915. The implication was that, if Australia wanted the protection of the Royal Navy against Japan in the Pacific, they should contribute to imperial defence. Gripped by anxiety that, if Germany defeated Britain in the prospective war, Australia would be exposed to a Japanese invasion, Pearce gave the British what they wanted. In June 1911, he secretly committed Australia to the construction of an expeditionary force that, contrary to the spirit of the Defence Act, could be sent anywhere to support Britain in imperial campaigns, in return for the protection of the Royal Navy in the Pacific. He was then unable – as in his Broken Hill speech – to disclose that imperial strategy, because the Labor leadership feared the electoral backlash, especially on its own side of politics.
The scale of the deception, which is still not well known, must be emphasised: Pearce spoke in Broken Hill of defending the ‘nation’, while he created an ‘imperial’ army. Far from being a political abstraction, that contradiction was electorally significant and concretely military. Mordike shows how the organisational structure of an army designed for the defence of Australia would have been radically different from the one actually developed for imperial expeditions. There was also the staggering fiscal fact that 31 percent of the small federal budget would be allocated to defence by mid-1913.
Why is Broken Nation silent about all this? Why has it overlooked Pearce’s popular obsession with the threat to the racial purity of White Australia? And why has it suppressed Mordike’s findings about that major imperial deception with the heavy-handed historical fiction that ‘all of Australian defence planning in the decades preceding World War I had been positioned in the framework of imperial defence’?
The answer begins with the imperial deception. Bean, who knew Pearce well, transposed Pearce’s political rhetoric about the ‘nation’ into Australian historical literature via the Official History. Bean felt that Australians drew inspiration from the AIF’s fighting prowess at the Gallipoli landing: ‘on 25 April 1915, the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born’. The landing undoubtedly had an impact in Australia. But the consciousness of nation was already alive in the discourse of federation when, in 1897, Edmund Barton said of the Australian sense of place: ‘for the first time in history, we have a continent for a nation and a nation for a continent’. The fear of an Asian invasion reinforced and refocused that sense of ‘nation’, particularly in Deakin’s defence policies. In any case, how could an ‘imperial’ force have had such resounding ‘national’ significance? Did Bean mean that Australia was an imperial nation? He did not acknowledge the tension or even, arguably, the contradiction in his terms.
Nor have other historians. L. L. Robson’s landmark study of The First AIF (1982) says emphatically that ‘the AIF apotheosized Australian nationality’. I have written elsewhere of the politically hidebound handling of Mordike’s work by military historians in the 1990s. Broken Nation, which is politically and culturally bound by the literature, ignores Mordike’s evidence and quotes, without critical comment, Bean’s words on the birth of the Australian nation at Gallipoli.
The reason for the suppressions in Broken Nation is that the work is based on a cultural disposition to reject evidence that, no matter how cogent, would upset the myth that Australians went to war in 1914 on the basis of a political consensus. This includes evidence of the drive for ‘racial purity’, which would soon lead to a discussion of the anxieties that enabled the political manipulations on which the imperial deception was based.
This argument is bolstered by Douglas Newton’s Hell-Bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War, which offers a new account of Australia’s entry into the war. Newton’s narrative is one of political conflict, not ‘consensus’. His story of unresolved outpost anxieties is told in 22 brisk chapters that interleave critical events in London and Melbourne between 24 July and 6 August 1914, and show for the first time how Australia urged its way into the Great War.
Newton is an Australian with a background in the political and diplomatic history of Britain and Europe. He has cultivated a ‘top-down’ interpretation of history, as distinct from the ‘bottom-up’ view nurtured in the Australian approach to the social history of war and remembrance, which influences Broken Nation. ‘Top-down’ makes primary archival research indispensible, and Newton has worked in both British and Australian archives. The access this has given him to political reality has determined the stamp of his lively book.
Hell-Bent draws on the newly opened papers of British Colonial Secretary Lewis Harcourt at Oxford. Harcourt was a leading member of the radical non-interventionist faction in the British Cabinet and his papers shed new light on the long-forgotten Cabinet crisis of 2-3 August 1914. Newton’s myth-busting point is that Australians did not answer Britain’s call. The timing was wrong, undermining any notion of ‘consensus’. The Australian offer of the fully funded expeditionary force of 20 000 troops arrived in London on 3 August, the morning of the crisis, at almost the same time as the fourth senior minister in the Cabinet’s radical faction tended his resignation to Prime Minister Asquith. The ‘deep, pathetic significance’ of the timing is the subject of Hell-Bent.
Newton’s second chapter returns to the political tensions in White Australia. The Japanese victory over the Russian fleet in the Straits of Tsushima in May 1905 had established the regional context for a ‘national’ defence policy. Yet the racial anxieties inflecting that policy also facilitated the self-interested imperial political manipulation. One of the few to build on Mordike’s work, Newton assumes that the sense of a Japanese threat produced competing national and imperial positions in Australian defence policy – that is, the perception of a regional threat led to a struggle, in which the Labor leadership had by 1911 caved in to the ‘dogma of the essential unity of imperial and national defence’.
Hell-Bent might have refined the point that the Australian perception of a threat from the north, which underpinned that dogma, involved the irrational projection of white settler anxieties that Asians would do to them what they had done to the Aborigines. The book does, however, illustrate that projection in the rants of Labor Attorney General William Morris Hughes. In 1911, Hughes declared that Australia was a vast continent, which white settlers ‘took and held by the bayonet and rum bottle’. Australia, with a population of only five million, was ‘the natural prey of the teeming, sweating millions of the East’. It was only ‘fear of the mighty British Navy that keeps them penned up in their overcrowded native lands.’
No evidence has ever been presented that a Japanese government intended an invasion of Australia before 1914 – or ever for that matter, even in 1942. The Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance of 1902, which was renewed in 1905 and 1911, was the centrepiece of Britain’s Pacific policy in 1902-1918 and beyond. Newton thus dismisses the unwarranted pre-1914 perception of the threat of a Japanese invasion, on which the imperial romance is still fixated. Japan, he says, proved to be a ‘reliable ally’ of Britain, and therefore of Australia, in 1914-18. White Australia was ‘pledged to Britain, for fear of Asia and in the hope of future deliverance from Asia’. Fully impregnated with a ‘pro-imperial ethic’ by 1912 – when Pearce spoke in Broken Hill – the Commonwealth had developed a ‘clutch of plans for colonial conquest’ of French, German, Portuguese and Dutch possessions to the north. It was a ‘practical certainty’ that ‘whatever the case, wherever the fighting’, Australia would be part of a British war.
Detailed accounts of the derogation of democracy implicit in the timing of the offer are also part of its ‘deep, pathetic’ significance. A point that access to Harcourt’s papers has helped Newton to clarify is the important role the King’s man in Australia, Governor-General Ronald Munro-Ferguson, played in overriding the deep political divisions in the country and readying Australia for war.
Soon after his arrival in May 1914, Munro-Ferguson wrote privately to Harcourt about (in Newton’s words) ‘vehement quarrels dividing Australian politicians’. The scandal over the Governor-General’s ‘homelessness’ in Sydney suggested one deep division between Labor and conservative imperialists. In 1912, the New South Wales Labor government had terminated the Federal Government’s lease of the old Government House, with its magnificent harbour views. With tensions still simmering over the vice-regal ‘eviction’ in 1914, Munro-Ferguson had to sleep at ‘Yaralla’, the Concord West mansion of the immensely rich socialite and Liberal Party supporter Eadith Walker. A more serious issue was ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland: it was ‘poisonous’. There were demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and imputations of ‘Catholic Irish’ disloyalty to the Empire. A startled Munro-Ferguson wrote home to Harcourt that the ‘Catholic Irish’ were ‘nearly a fourth of the population’ and that ‘resolutions favourable to Home Rule may come up at any time in the Parliament’.
A federal election campaign was in progress when the war broke out, and Newton shows how these conflicts turned the campaign into a ‘Khaki election’ that helped to stimulate war fever. The Governor-General was, of course, above partisan politics; he didn’t touch them. But his apparent political non-engagement left him free to carry a big stick when it came to the imperial side of politics in an area that had deeply involved his predecessor Lord Denman: Australian military preparedness.
When the warning telegram arrived on 29 July informing the Governor-General of the ‘precautionary’ stage of war plans, both Munro-Ferguson and Defence Minister Millen happened to be in Sydney. As the good news was passed on – initially in a garbled form because there was some trouble decoding the telegram – Munro-Ferguson was able to extract a private promise from Millen that the Australian fleet would be handed over ‘at once’ to Admiralty control. Without a meeting of Cabinet, the Royal Australian Navy was thus brought into line with the Royal Navy and was at war stations on 30 July – while the war in Europe was still confined to the Balkans.
With the election campaign still in progress, the Governor-General continued to gee up available Ministers. On 30 July, he had sent a telegram to Prime Minister Cook:
Would it not be well, in view of the latest news from Europe, that ministers should meet in order that [the] Imperial government may know what support to expect from Australia.
Thus urged, Cook presided over a rump Cabinet meeting in Melbourne on 3 August– the election campaign meant only three other ministers could get there – that put together the offer of military support. Due in considerable measure to the way the Governor-General had lorded it over the colony and exceeded the limits of constitutional propriety, the offer reached London in the midst of the Asquith Cabinet crisis, 40 hours before the British declaration of war. The premature offer was also seven hours before Asquith’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, rose in the House of Commons to outline, for the first time, the British government’s position on the European crisis.
Newton devotes a chapter to Grey’s speech, which historians widely agree was evasive. Grey spoke of Britain’s ‘debt of honour and obligation’ to France and Belgium, but said virtually nothing of Russia, whose mobilisations had played a major role in generating the European crisis, which at that moment was still confined to the east. Newton has been influenced here by British diplomatic historian Keith Wilson, who argues convincingly in his essay collection Directions of Travel (2014), that Grey had long believed the key to Britain’s greatness was the Empire. Given the pressure Russia had been placing on British interests in Persia, India and, one could add, northern China, Grey felt it was necessary to support Russia in Europe, so that Russia would not unsettle the British Empire in the east. We may well feel with Newton that the Great War for ‘liberty and humanity’ was nothing of the kind; that Asquith and Grey, who were the most powerful ‘hawks’ in the Cabinet, committed the Empire to the Great War for the oppressive Tsarist autocracy in Russia.
Newton explains that the Australians who stormed the beaches at Gallipoli had no more inkling than their government ‘that the campaign was to be undertaken, above all, for Russia’. The object of the campaign, which was launched against British naval and military advice, was politically driven for a host of reasons, including the mission ‘to capture the city [Constantinople] and the Straits on behalf of Russia, in order to keep her loyalty in the war and away from Central Asia’. Perhaps the most amazing derogation of democracy inherent in the timing of the offer was the recklessness of the Australian government in sending troops to a war it knew nothing about.
Broken Nation, which draws mainly on secondary literature, is a work of synthesis in which the ‘home front is imagined as being in a dialogue with the battle front’, where 60 000 were killed and 153 000 were wounded, from an army of 330 000 and an Australian population of fewer than five million. That dialogue is developed in six long chapters, one for each year between 1914 and 1919. The chapters are arranged around plausible, impressionistic accounts of battle – let’s call them battle-scapes – that usually merge into other sections on remembrance. Broken Nation explains how the men of the AIF endured the most horrendous physical and mental assaults in the ‘grisly hierarchy of suffering’, while Australian political and social systems were also left traumatised and maimed. Especially in the middle chapters, the rancour and hysteria of the conscription campaigns are convincingly set against the greatest battles of attrition at the Somme and Ypres.
Chapter three, ‘1916: War of a Different Kind’, for example, has at its centre the battle of the Somme and the dramatic increase in the Australian casualty rate. At Gallipoli in 1915, the AIF suffered 26 111 casualties in eight months, including 8141 deaths. In the seven weeks after 19 July 1916 at the Somme, where the AIF fought its battles at Fromelles, Pozières and Moquet Farm, Australia suffered 23 000 casualties, of which some 6000 were killed or died of wounds, and thousands more were driven mad by artillery fire. Beaumont quotes Bean on the Windmill site at Pozières, which ‘marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth’. The section on remembrance explains how a handful of soil was retrieved from Pozières in 1993 to be scattered on the coffin of the Unknown Soldier, who was interred in the Australian War Memorial on the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.
Meanwhile, the families of the Somme casualties not only struggled to cope with the personal impact of their losses, but with ‘the gnawing doubt about their value’. This was especially so when ‘the Somme brought to a head the debate in Australia as to whether voluntary recruitment was sufficient to replace it’.
It became clear in September 1916 that Labor Prime Minister William Hughes was determined to proceed with a referendum on conscription, in the face of strong opposition from within his own party. Beaumont observes that ‘with this began a public debate that has never been rivalled in Australian political history for its bitterness, divisiveness and violence’. Indeed, the issues went far beyond the question of conscription to
an irreconcilable conflict of views about core values: the nature of citizenship and national security; equality of sacrifice in times of national crisis; and the legitimate exercise of power within Australian democracy.
Hughes was expelled from the Australian Labor Party (ALP) on 14 November, but retained the prime ministership after creating the National Labor Party and forming a ‘National Coalition’ with Cook’s Liberals. He was shocked when the ‘no’ vote won on 28 November by the narrow margin of 72 456 votes. In a section called ‘Censorship, surveillance and repression’, Beaumont examines how Hughes led the country towards ‘despotism’. Draconian repression of particular groups for partisan political purposes – unionists, socialist members of the International Workers of the World (IWW), Australians of German origin, Irish Catholics and, allegedly, Sinn Fein – was a common occurrence.
We need to keep in mind, however, the major point that is suppressed in Beaumont’s story: the conflict was already latent by 1911-14, when the Labor leadership’s expeditionary commitment was concealed. Additionally, her voice of liberal reason on civil rights does not contradict the imperial discourse. It echoes Bean, who strongly upheld the ‘amiable’ institution of British fair play in the conduct of Empire. Far from the rigidity and calculation of German organisation, he emphasised, the British Empire ‘was of the essence of liberalism: it avoided all imposed control and placed its trust in the good sense and feeling inherent in men left free’.
In Beaumont’s fourth chapter, ‘1917: The worst year’, the pattern of 1916 repeats with greater intensity. In the eight weeks of fighting at Ypres between mid-September and mid-November, the AIF suffered around 38 000 casualties – 15 000 more than in the fighting around the Somme in July and August 1916, and 12 000 more than in the eight months at Gallipoli. The dreadful casualties once again raised the issue of conscription. Monthly voluntary enlistments never rose above 2800 in the last quarter of 1917, when it was officially claimed 7000 were needed to keep the five AIF divisions in the field. As it happened, Hughes had manipulated the recruiting figures to suit his own argument for conscription. There were, in fact, sufficient volunteers in the training system to keep the five divisions functioning, although if the war had continued beyond 1918 it would have been necessary to cannibalise one of them.
As always, Hughes’ extreme behaviour remains something of a mystery. Beaumont is, for instance, no more successful than earlier authors at pinpointing the precise reasons for his routine repression of dissent or for holding the 1917 referendum, which he again lost by a small but increased margin of 166 588 votes. Yet her emphasis on the bitterness and violence of the 1917 campaign, which includes sections on the influence of Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Mannix and the conflict between Hughes and the Queensland Labor Premier T. J. Ryan, is often compelling.
Other aspects of Beaumont’s work are also helpful. Her sketches of the ‘wider war’ expand our sense of its scope and complexity. These sketches explain Germany’s position, the Eastern and Italian fronts, as well as battles in the Middle East: Romani, Beersheba and Gaza. The work of the Patriotic Funds and the Red Cross spanned both fronts, but we are also reminded of how the horrors of battle were shared by the society to such an extent that they have induced historical amnesia. The battles of 1917 – Bullecourt, Messines, Polygon Wood, Menin Road and perhaps even Passchendaele – were so horrific they have tended to elude popular cultural representation. Their ghastly formlessness has sunk like grey smudges into the swamp of mud and body parts that was such a part of the wider war of attrition.
For all its depictions of battlefield horror and the political-social conflict of 1915-18, Broken Nation remains committed to the romance of the national-imperial consensus of 1914. Beaumont’s explanation of Hughes’ conservative election victory in May 1917 on a win-the-war ticket stresses the
values and emotions that had led [Australians] to support the war in 1914 – a sense of shared destiny with the British Empire and a belief in the superiority of its ‘civilisation’.
So much for the mud and body parts. Beaumont’s hymn of Empire unity and civilisation also contradicts the political conflict she seems to be saying broke the nation.
At the same time, there are strong grounds for thinking that the mud and body parts in Beaumont’s work help to mask those contradictions. Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years (1974) played a key role in initiating the ‘bottom up’ social history of war. Gammage was the first to study systematically the diaries and letters of Great War soldiers in order to depict ‘the horrors of war’. At the same time, he greatly admired Bean and left the imperial version of Australia’s entry into the war unchallenged. He stressed that his book was ‘not a military history’. It was, he has said, an ‘emotional history’, making one wonder if such a literary category is possible. Perhaps he meant that the pervasive horror and sadness in his story was bound to arouse emotion.
One difference between Gammage and Beaumont is that The Broken Years is about the AIF in the war, while Broken Nation is about all Australians. Another difference is that, in order to produce her desired synthesis, Beaumont branches into military history. Yet there is still a sense in which Beaumont’s work is closer to Gammage’s emotive horror narrative than it is to a dispassionate engagement with the concerns of military history – civil-military relations, strategy, arms, logistics, organisation and the nature of combat. Beaumont’s war writing produces a plausible narrative rather than analysis; it traverses a vast field of international politics, strategic policy and technical considerations before it positions the AIF in battle.
But when the action starts the texture of Beaumont’s writing changes. It often shifts from secondary sources to first hand accounts of the fighting, such as those Gammage used to illustrate ‘the horrors of war’. One wonders about the point of doing this in a military account, as the extracts can take us so deeply into battle that the narrative loses military and even human perspective. One extract describes the position the morning after the Fifth Division suffered 5533 casualties at Fromelles in 24 hours in July 1916:
The sight of our trenches that next morning is burnt into my brain … If you gathered the stock of a thousand butcher-shops, cut it into small pieces and strewn it about, it would give you a faint conception of the shambles of those trenches …
Many other references to battle, especially in relation to Gallipoli and the Somme, are equally non-specific. They could apply to battles anywhere. They feature ‘lumps of clay’, ‘bowels slit and torn’, ‘torn arms and legs’, ‘rotting dead’, ‘pulp’, and brains spilt out of skulls and ‘trodden soon into the mud’.
Sometimes Beaumont’s battle-scapes are less grisly, even when the battles were more terrible. This is the case in 1917, when we move lightly through the ‘mud and mire’. Nor is there much horror in the sunny miniatures of the Middle East where, for instance, the ‘spectacular victory’ at Beersheba in April 1917 is said to have brought some ‘joy’ to Australians wearied by the casualties in Flanders.
Graphic horror can help explain some aspects of military history. But the gory details in Broken Nation are sufficiently pronounced for issues of meaning to arise. Military historians seldom reduce battle to such detail. As John Keegan suggests in The Face of Battle (1976), rather than help to understand how battle works, an inventory of body parts and pieces makes it ‘indecipherable’. It would be easy to show that the horror in Keegan’s work is constrained by his overriding interest in the processes of battle, and is all the more powerful for it. The same could be said for Bean’s battle writing. Beaumont’s engagement with the processes of battle is, by contrast, perfunctory.
It would also be easy to show that an emotive focus on the horrors of war has been a prominent feature of recent Australian histories, including such acclaimed works as Les Carlyon’s The Great War (2007), K. S. Inglis’ Sacred Places (2002) and Bruce Scates’ Return to Gallipoli (2009). In the last decade, war trauma has become a field of study in Australian social history, as typified in Marina Larsson’s Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War (2009). Why horror should have such a grip on major Australian histories of war and remembrance could be the subject of a separate essay. Perhaps, in a literature that leaves politics out of history and so rarely challenges Australia’s involvement in the Great War, this issue is related to some emotional confusion stemming from a desire to oppose or deny acceptance of the inevitable horrors. Perhaps we are dealing with surrogate sentiment for some other catastrophic moment in Australian colonial history.
Whatever the cultural context for that confusion, the point about Beaumont’s narrative is that it is one in which the horror tends, in some significant measure, to float free of the actuality of the battles being described and take on a rhetorical purpose of its own. Significantly, her sections on remembrance almost invariably follow battle-scapes and lead straight into considerations of the rituals of Anzac. In ‘Remembering Fromelles’, for example, she argues that the honouring of the dead in that battle assures young volunteers that their deaths will also be honoured if they ‘die in defence of the nation’ in Afghanistan or Iraq. But without asking what she means by ‘defence of the nation’, in 1914 or now, Beaumont’s explanation of why young people volunteer to fight is implausible to say the least.
War inspires deep ambivalence. In Fallen Soldiers (1990), George L. Mosse quotes from an English memoir of the Spanish Civil War: ‘we were half in love with the horrors we cried out against.’ Referring to Jean Renoir’s film The Grand Illusion (1937), which was the most sophisticated French war film of the inter-war years, Mosse concludes that
even when any desire to glorify war was absent, it seemed impossible to avoid projecting ideals like camaraderie, courage, or sacrifice, which by their very nature endowed war with noble qualities.
This is even more true with a rhetoric of horror in a narrative that extends the imperial romance of Australia’s Great War into the here and now. In any case, young people who choose to fight are far more likely to want to test themselves against the Anzac narrative than to require assurance about praiseworthy protocols for their funerals.
The ennobling horror also masks important aspects of Australian national history, creating absences that often background or give rise in Broken Nation to errors, omissions and general confusion. One error, which attributes to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher ‘a lead in national defence’ in 1909, should not be allowed to pass. Beaumont says Fisher initiated compulsory military service and was an architect of the Australian navy. She has clearly confused Fisher for Deakin in 1907. More surprisingly, she mistakes the birthplace of her hero, Bean. He was not born in England, but in Bathurst, New South Wales.
Loose editing may have contributed to such errors. But incoherence is bound to surface in a war history, wherein it is possible to demonstrate large gaps in its understanding of strategic or political reality. Beaumont’s attempt to establish a strategic framework for the ‘sacrifice’ hardly coheres. ‘As many Australians saw it’, she says in Chapter One, the strategic arguments for supporting Britain (so that the Royal Navy would protect Australia from Japan) were ‘compelling’. But the urgency with which Newton shows Australia jumped the gun in August 1914 reminds us that not many Australians were thinking strategically at all. Nor does Beaumont explain the views of those few military, naval and other officials who did systematically consider Australia’s position. In all the meat-grinding battlefield horror of the fighting between Australian and German forces, she misses the fact that official strategic assessments between 1912-1916 and beyond dwelt on Japan and rarely mentioned Germany. On the same page that she claims Australians were compelled by the arguments for supporting Britain, Beaumont also refers to the British decision in 1902 – a result of ‘strategic overreach’ – that the best way to guarantee their interests in the Pacific was to conclude the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. How compelling could it have been to imagine the Royal Navy’s protection of Australia against the Japanese fleet, to which the Royal Navy had farmed out Pacific security?
Such complete confusion of strategic reality must go with a strong desire for Royal Navy protection (retrospective on the part of the author) that occludes regional realities. References to the Japanese in Broken Nation are occasional, usually fleeting and cool. There is little comprehension that unwarranted anxieties about a Japanese rather than a German invasion drove Australian defence policy between 1905 and 1918. Nor is there any acknowledgement that racial anxiety shaped that conflicted policy. Strategic confusion is inevitable in a work that does not grasp that the very existence of the AIF contradicts the notion of consensus in 1914.
In many ways, the surrounding political confusion stems from a large hole, which the recent Labour History publication, Labour and the Great War: The Australian Working Class and the Making of Anzac (2014), reveals in the fabric of Broken Nation. The Labour History editors, Frank Bongiorno, Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates, explain something that should be obvious in a national narrative, but is muted in Beaumont’s imperial romance:
Working class men comprised the bulk of the … AIF, trade unionists were numerous and the labour movement was active in shaping the cultural memory of Australia’s wartime experience …
Over 80 percent of the Australian Army came from the working class.
All the Labour History essays offer valuable explorations of labour’s links with the AIF, the war and conscription. For instance, Nathan Wise shows that working-class notions of work and manliness influenced behaviour in the AIF. Essays by Marc Cryle and Nick Dyrenfurth, which deal in different ways with ‘Anzac and the Left’, address the complexity and political ambivalence of labour’s relationship with Anzac. The essays by Val Noone on working-class influences in the radicalisation of Archbishop Mannix and by Phillip Deery and Frank Bongiorno on ALP attitudes to loyalty and peace enhance our sense of how the labour movement maintained, or at least did not denounce, the values of Anzac, but still opposed conscription, imperial identification and even war.
Some of the essays alert us to how the romance of political consensus in 1914 has the effect of severing major continuities between the politically contested pre- and post-1914 realities. Note the sub-title of Charles Fahey and John Lack’s essay ‘The Great Strike of 1917 in Victoria: Looking Fore and Aft and from Below’. Beaumont locates the strike’s ‘beginnings’ in Sydney and its development in wartime Victoria, but gives little sense that the event had a history. Fahey and Lack would agree that wartime conditions brought on the strike. But they also show that, in Victoria, its causes were grounded in industrial changes going back to 1900.
In a similar vein, Robin Archer’s ‘Stopping War and Stopping Conscription: Australian Labour’s Response to World War I in Comparative Perspective’ rests on a realisation of the continuity of the labour movement’s ‘precocious strength’ in national history. He argues that the ALP, only one vote short of power in 1914, had too much to lose in opposing the surge in recruiting and speaking out against the war. Later, with a supercharged parliamentary majority in 1916, the party had the capacity to support its convictions during the conscription referendum. Modifications to the argument can make it fit the situation in 1917.
The thrust of these essays highlights the political bias of Broken Nation – a bias that stems from the old Munro Ferguson-type imperial suspicion of Labor’s part in national politics and that tends to produce a remote, ideologically based rendition of it. Yet there are blind spots in the Labour History volume, one of which may be mentioned, as it seems to be a product of the imperial deception. Archer’s already persuasive case could have been strengthened, and the arguments of a number of other essays in the volume enhanced, if they had integrated the findings of Mordike’s work on the national-imperial tensions in pre-war defence policy. In fact, none of the essays realise the anti-expeditionary provisions of the Defence Act 1903 or their powerful on-going effects. Neither in 1910-13, nor even when support for the war was at its height in 1914-15, did either of Fisher’s Labor governments dare to change the Defence Act in order to build an imperial force and execute their expeditionary strategies; the Labor leadership still feared the electoral backlash.
The point brings us back to Broken Nation’s handling of the key issues of volunteerism and conscription. One important effect of not changing the Defence Act was to give primacy to volunteerism in the Anzac tradition. Without volunteers, the AIF could not have sailed overseas. When high casualty rates and dwindling voluntary enlistments brought on the conscription referenda, the long hidden, continuing power of the labour movement was revealed.
This makes the final note in Broken Nation difficult to understand. The last two sentences state that, just as in 1914,
the appeal of nationalism and the readiness on the part of the Australian population to risk the lives of those who choose to fight in the defence of core national values continue to be uncontested. So too does the belief that these values may at times have to be defended far from Australian shores, and that war – for all its human cost – is a legitimate way of doing this.
An initial scan might suggest that, despite the reference to national values, Beaumont is recycling the same old imperial arguments for far-flung expeditions that the Defence Act 1903 sought to counter. She is doing that, of course, but closer study of the sentences tells us more. The ‘Australian population’ cannot be risking the lives of ‘those who choose to fight’ far from home; those who choose to fight risk their own lives. So what might be the ‘core national values’, which volunteers, rather than the Australian population, will go far to fight for? The answer is, primarily, none. So what does she have in mind? The answer is the confusion of a single, core Anzac value – volunteerism – for national values.
Beaumont’s emphasis on the ‘singular’ volunteer tradition of Anzac is deeply felt. Just as her book ends with a reference to those ‘who choose to fight’, it begins with the following dedication: ‘for my father, a child of World War 1, who, as a man, believed that no one should be forced to kill’. By this she presumably means no one should be forced to join the military, where, in the course of duty, they might be obliged to kill someone. Despite the confused wording at the beginning and the end of the book, I think this sets out the moral imperative of Beaumont’s commitment to freedom and civil rights. Along with many others, she sees the Anzac tradition as a shining example of sacrifice for freedom and liberty. In fact, in the light – or shadow – of that proud tradition, she emphasises that ‘most Australians stayed home’: that ‘nearly seventy percent’ of eligible men aged eighteen to 60 did not volunteer in 1914-18.
Some proportion of that 70 percent would no doubt have had legitimate reasons for not volunteering – work in key industries, for example – and could still have authentically supported volunteerism. But together with the failure of the conscription referenda and the fact that recruiting had virtually dried up by 1918, that 70 percent is still enough to point to the central problem of her romance: she does not realise the extent to which those factors undermine the foundations she assumes for the voluntary imperial expeditions and, thus, her entire work: her national-imperial consensus. The potent anti-expeditionary stance of the labour movement pre-1914 goes missing, as does the stealthy scheming involved in creating the expeditionary force. This makes it far more likely that the stay-at-home rate and other factors indicate a substantial political non-engagement rather than consensus in the months after August 1914. Only a relatively small number of volunteers marched off to war; the substantial number who did not were not politically engaged because they had no need to be – until the conscription referenda of 1916 and 1917. Volunteerism was too narrowly based to be the fully-fledged national value Beaumont thinks it is.
In political terms, the war did not break the ‘nation’; it exacerbated pre-existing divisions in the society. In defence policy, which would become central to the concerns of both the state and society by the wartime conscription referenda, the Empire had overridden the ‘nation’ by 1911 when the Labor leadership supported the imperial deception. As a part of that deception, the state papered over the political divisions, real and potential, which the national-imperial tensions had created in the electorate, with silences and dissimulations. One effect of that papering-over is the political and cultural predisposition that skews Broken Nation.
Newton’s work indicates the regional starting point for a national narrative of Australia’s involvement in the war. The Labour History volume indicates the real political conflict and the complexities such a narrative will need to encompass. The strength of Broken Nation is that it offers the first extended narrative of the interconnections between the battle and home fronts. As a synthesis of the literature, it gives us more to think about than itself. In fact, the prized position Broken Nation currently occupies in the Australian social history of war makes it a litmus test of the emotional basis for the centenary commemorations of Anzac, for the missing links in Broken Nation are also missing from the current commemorative recycling of Australia’s Great War history. These are the links between ‘racial purity’, ‘defence’ and ‘national independence’, understood as the secure separation of Australia from ‘Asia’ in a unified Empire – the links that drove the Australian government’s secret defence preparations on the eve of the war.
By setting up Anzac volunteerism as the shining liberal virtue and writing her story around that imperial asset, Beaumont assumes a voice of reason. Her genuine opposition to the deplorable civil rights record of William Morris Hughes is consistent with Bean’s early imperial romance of British liberalism. But her consensus view depends on suppressing the story of the tensions and deceptions in Australian defence history and the underlying anxieties about race. Masked by her liberal voice and the rhetoric of horror, those suppressions define Broken Nation and its unwitting efforts to write the nation out of history. To a considerable extent, this is also the story of the social history literature she has synthesised.
Frank Bongiorno, Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates (editors), Labour and the Great War: the Australian working class and the making of Anzac: Labour History: A Journal of Social and Labour History, no. 106 (May 2014).
Greg Lockhart, ‘Race fear, dangerous denial,’ Griffith Review 32: Wicked Problems, Dilemmas (2011).
‘Senator Pearce on Defence,’ Barrier Miner (12 January 1912) 5.
Western Argus (16 January 1912) 16.
Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War
by Joan Beaumont
Allen & Unwin
Published October, 2013
Hell-Bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War
by Douglas Newton
Published August, 2014