DURING THE CENTENARY commemorations of the Great War, it will no doubt be frequently asserted that the conflict ‘made’ Australia (in a positive sense) after the nation was ‘born’ at Gallipoli. Such claims are dubious.
It’s true that what Australia’s soldiers did and how they did it established a tradition of courage and endurance, effectiveness and resourcefulness, which was widely admired at the time and still is today. In addition, at the start of the war many Australians were looking forward to their nation distinguishing itself in an international context, and saw this conflict as the perfect opportunity.
Among the soldiers imbued with this sentiment was Alan Henderson, a talented twenty-year-old lieutenant who earnestly assured his parents, as his troopship headed towards the Gallipoli coast on 24 April 1915, that the landing was ‘going to be Australia’s chance and she makes a tradition out of this that she will always look back on… The importance of this alone seems stupendous to Australia while the effect of success on the war itself will be even greater.’ Indeed, a more national perspective did seem to develop during the war years. Citizens who had regarded themselves mainly as Queenslanders or Tasmanians became more likely to see themselves as Australians, the soldiers in particular.
With such considerations in play, the conclusion that the war ‘made’ Australia may be understandable. But the combined effect of these factors is substantially outweighed by the catastrophic AIF casualties. More than sixty thousand dead, all the severely wounded, the loss of so many talented prospects in so many spheres – such losses surely invalidate any notion that the war was beneficial for Australia. The experience of Alan Henderson’s family was typical. He died of wounds at the landing, his even more talented brother was killed within a fortnight, and their mother, a purposeful and widely esteemed social-welfare activist, had a nervous breakdown.
IN VIEW OF those ghastly casualty statistics, it’s not surprising that evaluations of the consequences of the conflict have tended to focus on the numbing numbers, on the collective impact of all those losses. This is appropriately democratic and consistent with our egalitarian traditions. That there must have been exceptionally talented individuals among them has been implicitly accepted, but not analysed until the publication of my book, Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation (Scribe, 2012). It contains biographies of ten Australians of outstanding potential from diverse backgrounds and specialties. They include an internationally acclaimed medical researcher; a talented engineer who distinguished himself with Mawson in Antarctica; a visionary vigneron and community leader; a Western Australian Rhodes scholar; a rising Labor star from Sydney; a brilliant Tasmanian footballer; a popular farmer who became the inspiration for the celebrated film Gallipoli; and a budding architect from Melbourne’s best-known creative dynasty, who combined an endearing personality with his family’s flair for writing and drawing.
Besides such appalling individual losses, the war inflicted grievous damage on Australia’s cohesion. This effect was all the more damaging because of Australia’s impressive social development before 1914. The young nation was progressive, forward-looking and advanced. Many Australians welcomed the advent of welfare measures and innovations in public policy that confirmed their nation’s emergence as a relatively cohesive society based on egalitarianism and democratic principles, such as the secret ballot. The first national labour government in the world came to office in Australia in 1904, and six years later Australians elected the world’s first labour government with majorities in both parliamentary chambers and the ability to introduce substantial change. Glorious Days: Australia 1913, an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia two years ago, superbly depicted the sense of national confidence and optimism in that pre-war period.
The degree of social harmony should not be overstated – some reforms were vigorously opposed in bitter disputes. However, it was widely and understandably accepted that Australia was leading the world in progressive, forward-looking initiatives. Some European analysts crossed the globe to inspect what they regarded as the advanced social laboratory taking shape in Australia.
However, the war generated political, industrial and cultural upheaval in Australia. The nation became more bitterly divided than at any other time and the relatively cohesive social progress of the pre-war years was ruptured. Afterwards, Australia was no longer an innovative social laboratory that attracted admiring overseas visitors.
Admittedly, the focus of many Australians, both during the war years and afterwards, was primarily on their own individual circumstances – simply getting by on a day-to-day basis with the added burden of anxiety about loved ones in the trenches, an anxiety that could last for years unless it was superseded by crushing grief. This focus on the micro was understandably more relevant to many of them than whatever they absorbed about macro developments such as plummeting national cohesion. Other Australians, however, were appalled by the way the psyche of the nation was harmed during the war years as the bitterness and violence of the recruitment and conscription campaigns kept increasing, sectarianism kept intensifying, and Prime Minister Billy Hughes kept exacerbating the sense of turbulent crisis with his recklessly inflammatory style of leadership. It was hardly surprising that the conscription referenda were so fiercely contested and engendered fervent animosity. By late 1916, when the first conscription referendum was held, it was already evident that to be compulsorily sent to the Western Front was equivalent to a potential death sentence. This was clearer still by the end of 1917, when Hughes resorted desperately to a second referendum. That year had been especially grim and bleak, both at home and overseas. The war itself seemed endless, a raging juggernaut of destruction, grief and misery. New names of faraway places struck dread into Australian families – Bullecourt, Messines, Ypres, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde. Furthermore, the labour movement’s pent-up frustration with uncongenial industrial, political and social developments during the war culminated in a massive strike in 1917, which reinforced Australia’s home-front divisiveness.
The disharmony and discontent was not just about conscription, though this was a crucial ingredient. Australians could – and many did – adhere to a position broadly in favour of their nation being involved in the war without going along with conscription: this was the biggest war there had ever been, and it was better for Australia to be on the winning side than the opposite, so it would be appropriate for us to contribute to the winning of it if we could. By the end of 1917, though, a contrasting view was gaining adherents: this ghastly conflict, careering along like an avalanche, was so damaging for Australia and Australians that participation in it could no longer be justified. There was, therefore, a growing hostility not just to the kind or level of involvement – that is, opposition to conscription – but a fundamental hostility to Australia’s involvement at all. For many pro-war ‘loyalists’ anxious about loved ones in the trenches, such a view was, of course, utterly repugnant and tantamount to treason. The upshot was that Australia’s home-front divisiveness was further exacerbated.
THE CLAIM THAT the nation was ‘born’ at Gallipoli has had other consequences. The Australians’ contribution at the Western Front has been under-recognised – both the casualties and the achievements. Not only were the losses in France and Belgium much greater than at Gallipoli, what the AIF accomplished was much more significant as well, particularly in the final year of the conflict. In fact, what the Australian soldiers did in those climactic months prompts the conclusion that Australians were influencing the destiny of the world in 1918 more than they had ever done before, and more than Australians have done since. This encompasses not only the dramatic weeks of desperate defence in March and April, but also the contrasting phase of relentless offensive in the second half of the year that was instrumental in Germany’s defeat.
On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched an immense offensive that drove the British back forty miles. There was widespread concern that after years of ghastly hardships and casualties, Britain and its allies might lose the war. Australian units were rushed to the rescue and played a significant role in plugging various gaps in the vulnerable British defences.
Their resolve, resourcefulness and spirited morale amid demoralised disarray were admirable. For many of them, it felt satisfying to be at last doing what many of them had enlisted to do – stop the Germans from rampaging across Europe – instead of making the kind of costly and mostly ill-conceived attacks they had been repeatedly called on to carry out since 1915.
Distressed French civilians, having left homes vulnerable to the advancing Germans, paused when the Australians arrived with their nonchalant reassurance: Fini retreat madame, beaucoup Australiens ici. Many of these civilians, confident the AIF would be able to stop the Germans, joined in the rapturous cries of Vive l’Australie! and actually turned back to reoccupy their homes. Will Dyson, an Australian artist on the scene, depicted these stirring developments in a drawing he called Welcome Back to the Somme. Australia’s most famous fighting general, Pompey Elliott – a veteran of the landing at Gallipoli, the cauldron of Lone Pine and the calamity of Fromelles – declared in April 1918 that he ‘was never so proud of being an Australian’.
Six days later, with the sense of crisis unabated, the Germans attacked and captured the tactically important town of Villers-Bretonneux, east of Amiens. Anxiety about the situation energised strategists at the highest levels. Eventually, after hours of frustration and delay, Pompey Elliott’s brigade was authorised to counter-attack Villers-Bretonneux in association with another Australian brigade. This complex manoeuvre in the dark with minimal artillery assistance proved outstandingly successful – the most brilliant exploit of the war, some said – and ended the German threat to Amiens. Although the Germans had begun to overextend themselves in the onslaught, the Australians’ resistance had been pivotal.
In the transformation that eventuated three months later, the Australians advanced seven miles in seven hours and captured 7,925 prisoners and 173 guns. Afterwards, General Ludendorff concluded that only one side could now win the war, and it wasn’t his. And this Australian triumph was achieved despite the inability of a neighbouring British corps to capture the village of Chipilly. This had implications for ensuing operations, as German gunners positioned there could continue to disrupt the Australians, who were intent on maintaining their attacking momentum. Astonishingly, an AIF patrol of two sergeants and four privates managed to do what the British corps could not: these intrepid half-dozen Australians (with British infantry following up behind) drove the Germans out of Chipilly.
The influx of American formations at the Western Front has often been seen as decisive. When they were in engagements alongside Australians, though, their reliance on the AIF was pronounced. For example, on 29 September 1918 Pompey Elliott was appalled to learn that casualties were accumulating in his brigade because the Americans had not secured their objective. He also found that the lieutenants he had provided to inform the Americans about front-line know-how had not done so, because an American general had retained them at his headquarters to tell him how to run the battle. Elliott sorted things out with typical verve, and his brigade succeeded in attaining most of the Americans’ objectives as well as its own, but the Americans’ reliance on the AIF in 1918 could hardly be more unlike the relationship between the two nations a century later.
Pompey Elliott returned home to a hero’s welcome and was soon elected to parliament. Immensely popular among returned soldiers and their families, he was a household name throughout the 1920s, prominent in politics, the law and the history of the war. However, he became a tragic symbol of the enduring legacy of the conflict. What we now call post-traumatic stress, combined with the profoundly disturbing effects of the Great Depression and also his grievance about being overlooked for promotion to divisional command, so undermined his equilibrium that in 1931 he committed suicide.