‘Our life goes on the same’: the Great War at home

11 November 2015

PDF version [997KB]

Professor Peter Stanley

This paper is the text of a Parliamentary Library lecture delivered by Professor Stanley on 11 November 2015.

Peter Stanley, FAHA, is one of Australia's most active military social historians. He is the author of 30 books, mainly in the field of Australian military history (such as Tarakan: an Australian Tragedy and Quinn's Post), medical history (For Fear of Pain: British Surgery 1790–1850), British India (White Mutiny: British Military Culture in India 1825–75), and British military history (Commando to Colditz). His book, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Murder, Mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force, jointly won the Prime Minister's Prize for Australian history in 2011.

 

Executive summary

A century on, Australia seems to be fascinated with the Great War: the deeds of a generation of Anzacs are the stuff of popular television series and newspaper supplements. But does the khaki-coloured chronicle that forms the staple of the popular media actually reflect what most Australians experienced during the war? Was it true, as Frederick Eggleston wrote in 1915, that ‘our life goes on the same’? Delivered on Armistice Day, this paper discusses the war’s impacts on Australians at home and considers how and the extent to which the war impinged on their lives.

 

Contents

Introduction—the nation most committed to commemorating
For many, the war could be a noise far away
Those who didn’t enlist
The role of Australian civilian women
Indigenous Australians
Children
German-Australians
War Precautions Act
Conclusion

 

Introduction—the nation most committed to commemorating

We’re now just over a year into the centenary of the Great War. Exactly a hundred years ago the British cabinet was contemplating the abandonment of the costly and failing Gallipoli campaign, and a new Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, was planning how the dominion could contribute even more energetically to the imperial war effort. Billy Hughes was to dominate Australia’s part in the war and its effects. The story I’m going to tell mostly comes out of a book that was launched just yesterday—Volume 4 of the Oxford Centenary History of Australia in the Great War, edited by my friend and colleague Professor Jeff Grey, also of UNSW Canberra. I’ve written the chapters devoted to ‘Society’. Along with Peter Yule and John Connor, who wrote the chapters on ‘Economy’ and ‘Politics’ respectively, we have looked at the way the war affected Australians at home. (Not, I stress, ‘on the home front’. It’s an easy, infectious phrase and has become very common, though ‘home front’ was not used in Australia until mid-1918, and when it was it was used to refer to conditions in Germany. It’s quite anachronistic being applied to Australia during the war.)

Figure 1 - Australia Post catalogue (image: Peter Stanley) 

Figure 1 - Australia Post catalogue (image: Peter Stanley)

Australia has proved to be the nation in the world most committed to commemorating the centenary of the Great War; massively more than any other nation, spending more on the continuing anniversaries than all of the rest of the world combined. Australia is spending over $650m on commemorating the centenary. By comparison, Britain is spending the equivalent of $110m, France $90m, Canada $31m, and Germany a mere $6m. Tellingly, Australia is spending twenty times what Canada is spending, though it was about Australia’s size in the war. These figures have been assembled by the group Honest History, of which I have the honour to be president. Honest History is devoted to striving to maintain balance and perspective in Australian history—we act as Don Chipp-style Democrats in Australian history. Our motto is ‘not only but also’—not only war but other aspects of Australian history; not only tales of the Anzacs but a balanced understanding of the effects of war on all Australians, something which is sadly lacking in the popular manifestations of the war history.

For what it’s worth, my view on this is that the minority of the Australian public which already feels an association with the Great War (mainly by having an Anzac in the family) is doing something to remember the centenary, while the majority with no strong connection is essentially left out, apathetic, bemused; perhaps alienated. The exclusivist rhetoric that ‘every Australian family has a memory of the war’ or that Anzac is ‘our story’—both messages propagated by the Australian War Memorial—is patently not true, and is leaving a lot of Australians out. Australia’s migrant communities have little connection to Anzac, but even among ‘Anglo’ Australians only a minority—I think rather fewer than one-in-five—feel a strong connection. This committed and articulate minority, abetted by a media sector seduced by nationalism and the appeal of Anzac and an active and self-interested official sector, has however, successfully attracted the largest single investment in heritage Australia has ever seen.

There are many indications that the official program of ‘A century of service’ has missed its mark. It was observed that ‘Gallipoli fatigue’ set in even before 25 April, with the failure of costly and high-profile television productions to reach their target audiences. For example, the Channel 9 series Gallipoli was ‘burned’—that is rushed out in episodes, bolted together late at night just to clear the schedule—while the official service at Lone Pine in August attracted only 750 participants; many fewer than the 5,000 expected. While attendances at dawn services were large (but still something under about 5% of the population), it is possible that that might indicate that people feel that they have done their bit to remember Anzac. Certainly we have not seen remembering the Great War become a strong part of official, media or community programs apart from in April: there is little sense that Australians are ‘remembering’ the Great War as it happened as the centenary continues.

We saw an outpouring of attention around April this year focused on Gallipoli, and can look forward to a similar effusion next year around the anniversaries of Fromelles and Pozieres, in July. Note that this massive expenditure is overwhelmingly devoted to remembering the Australian Imperial Force’s service on the battlefield, and of course its cost in lives lost. And just to be absolutely clear, let me remind you that I spent 27 years of my career serving the Australian War Memorial: I am no rat-bag leftie. But I strenuously assert that we can respect the sacrifice of those who have died and suffered in war and still maintain a critical sensibility: in a pluralist democracy there is no contradiction in exercising that freedom. Indeed, part of the story I’ll tell today offers a dreadful warning of what happens when that freedom is betrayed.

While television networks or newspapers have enthusiastically promoted the memory of the Anzacs, their attention has overwhelmingly been directed toward the achievements and sacrifice of young men in uniform on the battlefield. Very little attention has been paid to the way the war affected civilians. (One exception was the ABC documentary series The War that Changed Us, which devoted equal attention to civilians and to men in uniform—though even that proportion represented a disproportionate attention on soldiers. A disclaimer: in that series I spoke for Archie Barwick, who served from Anzac to the Armistice; but I never agreed that the title was suitable—I thought it should be ‘the war that changed them’: the Australians of 1915 are not the same as us in 2015.)

One of my intentions today is to seek to restore the balance, and to look at some of the ways the war impinged upon civilians at home and to reflect on the effects of our virtual neglect of them in marking the centenary.

Today, I’m going to use some of the episodes I touched on in the volume to reflect on how Australian civilians experienced the war and were affected by it—or not. I’m going to look at those who did not go to war; at women, Aborigines, children, at those who protested against the war and at those who became victims of it, despite living in Australia the entire time. I apologise for the quality of some of my images, but I’m presently working on the forthcoming National Library Book of Australia in the Great War, and I’ve taken the pictures from the working images I’ve taken as a reference.

For many, the war could be a noise far away

The first point to make is that while ‘the War’ affected virtually all Australians in one way or another—if only through, say, price increases—we need to set aside or see through the rhetoric of asserting that it touched them all in the same ways. The war could be ignored, for a time. During 1915’s most dramatic months the Melbourne lawyer Frederic Eggleston wrote how ‘our life goes on the same ... we try to make the war as small a part of ourselves as we possibly can’. While anxiety pervaded the families of those serving overseas, its effects were episodic. For many civilians, the war could be a noise far away, to be grasped only in words or images, and then heavily censored. It was not only possible for civilians to avoid the war’s imposts, but perhaps a third of civilians managed to reduce its impact by the choices they made. You can see why Harry Lauder’s 1918 song was popular.

Figure 2 - Song cover, National Library of Australia collection (image: Peter Stanley) 

Figure 2 - Song cover, National Library of Australia collection (image: Peter Stanley)

For example, it is a truism of the sort of ‘Ocker’ history we see so often on television that ‘all the boys went’. It is often asserted that Australia provided more volunteers for the war than any other combatant nation. (This sits alongside a nationalist pride that has developed over the past forty-odd years that Australia twice rejected conscription. The two ideas cannot both be right.) Based on the repeated fact that one-in-five of those who embarked did not return, Australians have constructed a myth that Australia suffered proportionately greater losses. In fact, the reverse is the case: relative to its population, Australia mobilised a smaller percentage of its population and lost a smaller proportion than New Zealand, Britain or France. The war cost 1.22 per cent of its overall population killed: New Zealand lost 1.51, Britain 1.6 and France 3.4. Hence a cartoon from 1917. ‘Any luck?’, a soldier asks the recruiting sergeant. ‘Three’, he replies. ‘What, recruits?’ ‘No, cheers’.

Figure 3 - Commemorative plaque, NLA collection (image Peter Stanley) 

Figure 3 - Commemorative plaque, NLA collection (image Peter Stanley)

(Still, as the plaque in Figure 4, presented to Henry and Mary Higgins to remember their son Mervyn, who was killed at Magdhaba just before Christmas 1916, reminds us, every one of those deaths affected loved ones, and beyond them friends, workmates and the communities from which they hailed. I’m not going to spend time today looking at how the symbols came to be such an oppressive presence the streets—the study of the effects of death and the rituals of wartime mourning have recently dominated the literature of the Great War (including in books by me) and it’s the unavoidable backdrop to any discussion of wartime Australia. Today, though, I’m going to focus on other dimensions of the experience of war.)

Those who didn’t enlist

Mervyn Higgins was one of 417,000 volunteers accepted for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) (and I’ve never worked out why if the AIF was so short of men, 100,000 never left Australia). Another 80-odd thousand were rejected, mainly for medical reasons; because the volunteers of 1915 were essentially the children of the depression generation of the 1890s. Some 320,000 actually served overseas (the often used figure of 330-odd thousand is actually due to either author-after-author misreading the table in Charles Bean’s official history, or of authors copying each other’s figures without bothering to check. But my point is that enlistments represented only about 38 per cent of those ‘eligible’, something Hughes and his recruiting officers desperately struggled against. The largest single number of eligible men were those who chose not to enlist. These were men who week-after-week read in newspapers and magazines cartoons and jokes about ‘shameless’ ‘slackers’ and ‘cowards’.

Who were these men? We don’t know: there were no lists of those who did not volunteer, still less record of why they chose not to. The best we can do is to acknowledge the fact.

One example suggests that thousands of men were making other choices. The National Library holds the diaries of Pat Ryan, a shearer from Geelong in his early 20s, who in 1917 shifted to south-west Queensland, where he worked all year. He made daily entries in his diary, mostly how many ewes or wethers he had shorn. He refers to the war only once: noting that he was going into town on 20 December to vote—the day of the conscription referendum of course. I don’t pass any judgment on Pat Ryan. He did what most eligible men did about the war, which was to do nothing. In Australian history we have hundreds of books about those who enlisted, fought, and often died: but so far not a single book about men like Pat.

My guess is that about a third of Australians were absolutely committed to prosecuting the war. The great majority of volunteers came from those families, and the great majority of deaths fell among them. Another third were less vitally affected. They acquiesced in the cause; became the ‘swinging voters’ in the conscription referenda and while prepared to comply, became increasingly disillusioned with the imposts the war was making on them. A final third, mainly ALP voters, but including many Irish-Australians later in the war and the large minority of the organised anti-war movement, remained bitterly opposed to the empire’s war, to conscription and to Billy Hughes. This is not the way the history books have fallen. They have they not done justice to the civilians who supported soldiers, Hughes and the war, and have presented a partial view of those whom Hughes and his ‘Win-the-War’ party regarded as ‘disloyalists’.

Figure 4 - Pat Ryan, NLA collection (image: Peter Stanley)

Figure 4 - Pat Ryan, NLA collection (image: Peter Stanley)

The role of Australian civilian women

War is often seen as largely the preserve of men, and indeed, the great majority of books about Australia’s Great War deal with the AIF. There is a very impressive body of books about its 2,000 nurses, each of which claims that they have been neglected: in fact they are arguably better documented than their male counterparts.

The women who have been neglected are the vast majority; civilian women. Women’s opinions and votes became a bitterly contested battleground through the war. Their votes seem to have been decisive in rejecting conscription, though I don’t think anyone’s done much work on that recently.

Figure 5 - Knitting song sheet cover, NLA collection (image: Peter Stanley)

Figure 5 - Knitting song sheet cover, NLA collection (image: Peter Stanley)

Women bore the brunt of the hardships the war imposed—the anxiety of having a husband, son or brother serving overseas, the burden of caring for men wounded or otherwise maimed in mind or body, often for years; the impost of price rises and above all the blow of grief. The Great War did not become for them (as it became in Britain) a vehicle for social change. A few more women found work in shops or offices as men went to war, but it brought no substantial emancipation. Perhaps the greatest change the war brought for middle-class ‘patriotic’ women was they became the mainstay of the voluntary war effort, running or contributing to thousands of war charities, like this flag-seller. Women found this commitment much more satisfying than the round of card parties, shopping and teas to which they had been condemned in peacetime. The voluntary war effort became virtually a new economic sector, vastly augmenting the civilian charities that now competed with war causes.

This was often derided at the time, and since, as merely ‘knitting’, easily ridiculed. A great deal of knitting was done, it is true, but the provision of ‘comforts’ by civilians made up a short-fall in the army’s care of its men. For example, no one will ever know how many toes, feet or fingers were saved from frostbite or trench foot by the socks knitted and sent by volunteers. Mrs. Mary Barr-Smith’s sock-knitting club in Adelaide (one of two in the state) alone despatched 128,000 pairs from South Australia alone.

Likewise, providing services to soldiers through the many ‘Anzac buffets’ or ‘cheer-up huts’ in Australia consumed prodigious amounts of time and energy. Historians Rae Francis and Bruce Scates describe the Cheer-up Hut in Adelaide as ‘a haunting blend of memorial, recreation room and madhouse’. Investigating the Cheer-up, we find mothers of men killed on Gallipoli working twelve or more hours a day, desperately trying to prove by their devotion that their son’s sacrifice was not in vain. The Cheer-up hut, with its banal sing-songs, endless cups of tea and buns, and forced jollity, was indeed a sign of the stresses to which patriotic commitment exerted onto these women.

Despite the size of Australia’s official history and the amount of attention the war has attracted from historians, and despite Melanie Oppenheimer’s magnificent recent history of the Red Cross, we still lack a complete history of this voluntary war effort, what it produced and what it cost.

Indigenous Australians

One of the hidden groups of Australians in the existing histories of Australia’s Great War are Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who were formally prohibited from serving under the Defence Act. We now know that Aborigines were not, as the old Bulletin joke put it, ‘Too plurry dark for the light horse’. For forty years (starting with a list drawn up by Chris Clark when he was still a young army officer in the 1970s) we have been enlarging the number of Indigenous men who served in the AIF. Even before the big ARC-funded project on Indigenous service publishes its findings, we know through the work of researchers such as Philippa Scarlett that at least a thousand Indigenous men served overseas.

Figure 6 – Transcontinental railway, NLA digital collection

Figure 6 – Transcontinental railway, NLA digital collection

About 100,000 or so Aborigines lived on the fringes of white society (no one knows exactly how many: they remained uncounted in the census for another fifty years). They were believed to be ‘dying out’. The war hastened the impact of white on black. For example, the war years saw the construction and opening of the Trans-Continental railway, which as it moved from Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie respectively brought previously remote peoples into contact. Soon reports of grog shops and casual prostitution came from all along the line. In the south-east, we now know that Aboriginal missions and communities also supported patriotic causes. Why this should be so puzzled contemporaries as it might puzzle us.

The war coincided with new regimes of Aboriginal ‘protection’ in several states, resulting in Aboriginal families being evicted from missions, even while some of their young men enlisted from them (for example, about 26 men, almost certainly all Indigenous, volunteered from the Lake Tyers mission in Gippsland). Indigenous enlistments were publicised as a reproach to ‘slackers’—shaming those who allowed black men to fight for a white Australia. Their presence may have shifted attitudes a little. In rural South Australia a mail coach driver who admitted he would not allow ‘half castes’ on his vehicle, allowed black soldiers to sit on the driver’s box with him—‘A man who fights for his country, be he black or white,’ he said, ‘is fit to sit with kings’. The Great War marked one small step on the long road to equality.

Children

Children are generally left out of accounts of the Great War—the last time they were accorded a chapter in a general history of the war was in Michael McKernan’s The Australian People and the Great War, re-published recently as Australians at Home. That is, before my 2011 book Digger Smith and Australia’s Great War. Children in the war’s first year were often seen dressed up to raise money for patriotic funds: later this came to be seen as being in poor taste, if not as gross manipulation.

For many children the war was a colourful sidelight. If they did not have elder brothers or fathers overseas it could impinge upon them relatively little personally. Because the great majority of soldiers were single, the war made only about 10,000 children fatherless, though many more lost their fathers for several years during the war years, and some of course returned ill-equipped to resume their parental responsibilities. War could seem a noise far away. Even if school assemblies, for example, halted to remember teachers who had enlisted that would have happened only once or twice over the war’s course.

Figure 7 - Sydney Mail, NLA collection (image: Peter Stanley)

Figure 7 - Sydney Mail, NLA collection (image: Peter Stanley)

Here’s a school in a surveyors’ camp—were these children barefoot from choice or necessity? Such were the conditions of child mortality, even in a relatively healthy, prosperous and well-fed society like Australia’s, as many as 40,000 infants died of childhood illnesses in the course of the war—about the AIF’s death toll in battle on the Western Front. One of the positive outcomes of the war was the growth in ideas of child welfare. In 1915 in Sydney a School for Mothers and a babies hospital opened, and in South Australia a Mothers’ Club and the first municipal playgrounds. This seems to have been a reaction to the prodigious deaths at war. A plan for the welfare of fatherless children included a plea, ‘My father died on the battlefield ... don’t chain me to ignorance and to poverty’.

Figure 8 - School at a surveyors' camp, NLA collection (image: Peter Stanley)

Figure 8 - School at a surveyors' camp, NLA collection (image: Peter Stanley)

Children were an economic resource—most left school between twelve and fourteen—and they became a highly exploitable resource to the voluntary war effort. Disciplined and biddable, they were put to fund-raising and knitting in school hours and conscripted to join pro- or anti-conscription rallies depending on their teachers’ preferences. In 1917 public school boys were used as willing strike-breakers on the docks and in the mines of NSW. School-based war charities raised thousands of pounds; but also impeded children’s education.

The novelist Hal Porter was a child during the war and his memories were rich and telling; as was his insight. Reflecting almost exactly fifty years after on how the war affected his infant school, he felt that exposure to words like ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Anzac’ fed a sense of national identity that in time ‘burst’ so that his generation was ‘inevitably showered with the pollen from those explosions of Australian nationalism’. This suggests how the Great War had long-term consequences even for the nation’s youngest.

The battles at home

Because Australian published histories of the Great War focus so heavily on the battlefront, historians and readers sometimes seem to be fighting the war over again. The brave diggers are cheered; those who protested against the war or even who opposed conscription remain in the shadows: it is as if by talking about those who opposed the war we are somehow letting the brave diggers down, even a century on. And yet at the very same time those who write about the diggers’ war decry their deaths. Those who defeated conscription must have saved the lives of thousands of Australians who might have been conscripted: why are anti-conscriptionists not heroes in our time? Our attitudes toward the war remain entwined with the politics of loyalty and disloyalty.

The broad Australian narrative of the war is overwhelmingly dominated by the litany of battles—so 1917 is Somme Winter, first and second Bullecourt, Messines and third Ypres. Very few Australians have much of an idea of what happened at home that year. One consequence of that focus is that the turmoil that dominated the year at home is virtually unknown. The Bullecourt battles coincided with the election that saw Billy Hughes confirmed as a Win-the-War nationalist, while Third Ypres coincided with the ‘Great Strike’ of 1917 and its aftermath with the extraordinary bitter second conscription referendum, which Hughes lost, with somewhat more ‘no’ votes than in 1916.

By 1917 the catch-phrase ‘Are we down-hearted?’ (to which the automatic response was ‘No!’) had started to wear thin. People started to speak about ‘war weariness’, and the war’s final two years saw increasing civil strife.

Figure 9 - women protestors in Melbourne, Sydney Mail (image: Peter Stanley) 

Figure 9 - women protestors in Melbourne, Sydney Mail (image: Peter Stanley)

This conflict divided families and communities (and of course the Labor party, driving it further to the left and curtailing its chances of office federally for more than a decade), something that the focus on the costs of the fighting obscures.

And the khaki filter over war history also obscures our awareness of the scale of the protests that erupted against the war, the hardships it imposed and against the way the Hughes government turned compliance into the central test of citizenship. In Melbourne alone in October 1916, 80,000 anti-conscription protesters marched through the city; a year later women charged the steps of the federal Parliament House (then located in Melbourne) demanding relief from wartime price increases (Figure 10). In March 1918, 60,000 Irish-Australians honoured Daniel Mannix (Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne), who removed his biretta for the martyrs of Dublin in 1916 but not for the King’s flag. We get a sense of the scale of the opposition the war aroused, not just over conscription, but ultimately about whether Australia ought to have been involved.

German-Australians

The community in Australian which suffered the greatest loss as a result of the war was arguably the 30,000-odd German-born Australians, with up to 150,000 of German descent.

Figure 10 - German internment camp (Author's collection)

Figure 10 - German internment camp (Author's collection)

In 1914 German communities, especially in Queensland, Victoria and of course South Australia were accepted and even admired as prosperous, industrious and dutiful settlers. The outbreak of war changed that perception virtually overnight.

It became permissible and indeed virtuous to lampoon and discriminate against ‘Germans’, as they were called regardless of their place of birth. Military intelligence files document the degree of hostility they faced. One example might suggest the virulence of ‘English’ Australia’s reactions. Gustav Weindorfer, a farmer married to an Australian woman living near Devonport, Tasmania, attracted his neighbours’ suspicion. They reported that he had taken wireless equipment to his chalet near Cradle Mountain: it turned out to be a clothes line and a stove. He was barred from the Ulverstone club and his dog poisoned. He retreated to the mountains to avoid trouble for the duration.

But it was not always possible to avoid suspicion or its consequences. Brisbane entrepreneur Carl Zoeller had migrated as a child: he had never held German nationality. He was the first person prosecuted under the new Trading with the Enemy laws and was also the subject of ludicrous rumours. His twelve year old son’s kite was denounced as a radio aerial, and he was said to have been nominated as Treasurer when the Germans occupied Queensland. His shops were sacked by a drunken mob and he was interned in February 1915 because he was ‘believed to be’ disloyal. Zoeller spent the rest of the war interned. In 1919 he saw his Australian-born wife and children once before he was ‘de-naturalised’ and deported to a Germany he could not remember. Though reunited with his family in 1922, he killed himself in 1926.

About 7,000 Germans and other enemy aliens were interned, including about 60 Australian citizens, some of whose treatment was even more unjust than Carl Zoeller’s. They were held in camps in all states, later consolidated to a big camp at Holsworthy, near Liverpool, NSW, where conditions were demonstrably worse than internment camps in Germany, and where men went mad from boredom and fought with each other and with criminal gangs ignored by the authorities. The Minister for Defence, George Pearce, held absolute power over these victims of the Great War.

For the German-Australian community as a whole, the war represented a long trauma in which they realised the fragility of their relationship with the wider Australian community and the virtual disappearance of any legal protection. The reason for this vulnerability was the War Precautions Act.

War Precautions Act

In October 1914 the new Attorney-General Billy Hughes had passed the War Precautions Act. This legislation, and its accompanying regulations, controlled what Australians could and could not do to facilitate the war effort. It covered all aspects of citizens’ relationships with the state. Amended as the war continued, it demonstrated the government’s virtually absolute power over the people, regulating censorship, public assembly, recruiting, the internment of aliens and the suppression of anti-war and later anti-government sentiment: anything in fact that affected the prosecution of the war. When later in the war a public servant asked Solicitor-General Robert Garran whether something would be illegal under the act Garran cut him off with a curt ‘Yes’—as T.H. White would put it in The Once and Future King: ‘everything not forbidden is compulsory’.

The War Precautions Act came to dominate the country and public life. It suppressed opposition and made newspapers vacuous purveyors of propaganda. Because of censorship we must regard newspapers as unreliable and incomplete sources. 

Australians were and are still proud of their independent attitude toward government, their casual disdain for convention and tradition. Their relationship with government before the Great War had truly been marginal. Except that government enterprises ran factories, transport and even abattoirs and pubs in some states, many had a distinctly anarchic relationship to government. Except for the post office, the Commonwealth government especially impinged very little on the lives of ordinary people. The Great War changed that. In a very short time the agents of the state began to intrude.

Hughes built up a large bureaucracy of state surveillance, creating in the states arms of Military Intelligence a kind of antipodean Stasi, a body that collaborated with mainly compliant state police forces to investigate who it liked, building up vast card indexes over the course of the war. Military intelligence officers operated practically without hindrance. Let me give you one example.

In 1918 neighbours of Albert Smith, of Yarram in Gippsland, dobbed him in to Military Intelligence. Officers visited from Melbourne, finding nothing of any substance but on their say so he was banned from his home and forced (under the War Precautions Act) to shift to Bendigo, separated from his wife. Not even the intervention of the QC Sir John Quick, one of the framers of the Australian Constitution, could protect him. Military Intelligence officers told Pearce that Albert was a risk, and if Pearce showed any leniency it would be seen as a victory for ‘disloyalty’.

The trauma of the conscription referenda—whose defeat ‘patriotic’ people felt as a deep humiliation and a betrayal of empire—brought dissension to every family, community and workplace. Here are two pieces of propaganda, pro- and anti-conscription:

Figures 11 & 12 - Images from the conscription debate: in the pro-conscription cartoon ‘Australia’ is killing the ‘mad dog of ‘disloyalty’; while the ‘No’ cartoon exposes the consequences of conscription. NLA collection (images: Peter Stanley) Figures 11 & 12 - Images from the conscription debate: in the pro-conscription cartoon ‘Australia’ is killing the ‘mad dog of ‘disloyalty’; while the ‘No’ cartoon exposes the consequences of conscription. NLA collection (images: Peter Stanley) 

Figures 11 & 12 - Images from the conscription debate: in the pro-conscription cartoon ‘Australia’ is killing the ‘mad dog of ‘disloyalty’; while the ‘No’ cartoon exposes the consequences of conscription. NLA collection (images: Peter Stanley)

This is what Australia had become by 1918: effectively and virtually a police state, one facing serious protest from those opposed to war, and especially to Hughes’s authoritarian rule. I looked into the application of the War Precautions Act for my books Digger Smith and Australia’s Great War and the Oxford History. I read the files in the National Archives and was shocked by how swiftly and easily the political and legal protections we take for granted evaporated in the face of the easy assumption that the ‘disloyal’ deserved no protection. Australia went from being one of the most free nations to a state whose citizens came under extensive surveillance and harassment, where informing could be seen as civic duty and where legitimate industrial action or actions based on conscience were portrayed and prosecuted as the darkest treachery.

In this place [Parliament House] above all we value our vigorous pluralist democracy. But the example of a century ago suggests that in a crisis the safeguards we take for granted as inalienable may not be as robust as we assume.

In 1917 a young aspiring novelist, Katherine Susanna Prichard wrote a pamphlet beginning ‘People of Australia, think for yourselves!’ This was in fact the last thing that her government wanted her or anyone else to do. The Hughes government, increasingly desperate to find recruits and maintain a failing commitment to the war, imposed ever more stringent censorship, conducted ever more intrusive surveillance and disseminated increasingly shrill propaganda to try to sustain the war effort.

(Prichard illuminates the complexities of the war’s impact on civilians. She would soon marry a Gallipoli VC hero, Hugo Throssell. With the Russian revolution, both would become convinced socialists but Hugo would kill himself in 1933, destroyed by being unable to live up to the expectations people had of him. In many ways the story of Hugo and Susannah exemplifies the complexities and tragedies of Australia’s Great War).

Conclusion

I took as my title Frederick Eggleston’s observation from 1915 ‘our life goes on the same’. It should be apparent by now that I used it ironically. While many people tried to not allow the war to impinge upon them, inevitably it did, whether they sought it out or not.

It affected Australian life in ways we have long known—in the immense grief it inflicted on the relative minority who bore the full brunt of the war’s sacrifice, and in the heightened sense of national identity which is often held to be a compensation. But it also tore apart families, communities and a major political party, it turned a law-abiding community of German-Australians into pariahs, it made a mockery of Australia’s devotion to the rule of law and arguably wounded the independence of its people. It’s right that today, in this place, we should remember it all.

This paper has been provided by a presenter in the Parliamentary Library’s Seminar and Lecture Series. The views expressed do not reflect an official position of the Parliamentary Library.

The copyright remains with the original author and permission may be required to reuse the material.

Top