The fighting Anzacs have metamorphosed from flesh and blood into mythic icons; the war they fought in is distant and the resistance to it within Australia has been forgotten. This book corrects such historical amnesia by looking at what occured on the Australian home front during WWI, showing that the war was a disaster and many Australians knew it. It not only considers the wartime strike wave resulting from the discontent and dissent, such as the Great Strike of 1917, but also the impact of international political events, including the Easter Rising in Ireland and the Russian Revolution. Demonstrating that the first year of peace was tumultuous, as strikes and riots involving returned Anzacs shook Australia throughout 1919, this book uncovers the history that has been obscured by the shadow of Anzac.
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In The Shadow of Gallipoli
The Hidden History of Australia in World War I
By Robert Bollard
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2013 Robert Bollard
All rights reserved.
'To the last man and the last shilling': Patriotism triumphant
What was it that drew to the square in front of the War Ministry the Viennese bootmaker's apprentice, Pospischil, half German, half Czech; or our greengrocer, Frau Maresch; or the cabman Frankl? What sort of an idea? The national idea? But Austria-Hungary was the very negation of any national idea. No, the moving force was something different.
The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many; they are the mainstay of modern society. The alarm of mobilisation breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course – what can seem worse to Pospischil than 'normal' conditions?
It may seem strange to begin an account of Australia during World War I with an exiled Russian revolutionary's recollections of Vienna in August 1914. Yet Leon Trotsky's account is a compelling evocation of how war appeared attractive and exciting to ordinary people in that first flush of patriotic enthusiasm. It is also a reminder of the fact that so many elements of the Anzac legend are echoed in the experience of other nations, even when (as is clearly the case with Austria-Hungary) those experiences have not been enshrined in a national myth for the simple reason that the nation in question no longer exists.
The 'national idea' appears to make more sense as an explanation for the enthusiasm of Australians at the outbreak of war so recently after Federation. It is drummed into Australians at school that Gallipoli was 'where we became a nation', and Anzac Day has always been a more genuinely national holiday than Australia Day. Yet we need to be careful not to confuse how the Anzac legend has subsequently coloured the memory of that war with the way it was understood at the time. The crowds that lined the streets to cheer the volunteers in late 1914 and early 1915, for instance, mostly waved Union Jacks, not the 14-year-old Australian flag. Even the Bulletin, supposedly the voice of a new, self-confident Australian nationalism, greeted the war with verse that concluded:
With Britain's other gallant sons
We're going hand in hand;
Our War-cry 'Good old Britain boys,
Our own dear motherland'.
In one very straightforward way this is hardly surprising. In 1914 Australia was not what we might think of today as a nation. It was a self-governing 'Dominion' of the British Empire, a nation of sorts but not completely independent. Until the ratification of the Statute of Westminster in 1942, Australia had no independent foreign policy, and no embassies or consulates other than the High Commission in London. When the Labor leader, Andrew Fisher, in the midst of an ultimately successful election campaign, greeted the outbreak of war in 1914 with a pledge to support the Empire to 'the last man and the last shilling', he was not declaring war, merely support for Britain's war effort.
The traditional view of the Australian reaction to war is of unbounded, even hysterical enthusiasm. This has been questioned by recent scholarship, however, which has revealed a more complex reaction, one which also involved resignation and even pessimism. The rush to recruit, for instance, has been exaggerated. Much has been made of the fact that the initial target of 20 000 men was met in the first month. However, 13 603 of these were recruited in the first week, a great many of them trained soldiers with past experience in pre-war militias. These militias were, to a large extent, a de facto semi-professional army, and their members joining up was therefore more like the mobilisation of an existing army rather than the recruitment of a new one. Significantly, it took another three weeks to recruit the remaining 6397. The biggest surge in recruitment actually came later, in the immediate aftermath of the Gallipoli landing in 1915, rather than in the first months of the war. Nevertheless, transposing the apparently patriotic enthusiasm from August 1914 to May and June of 1915 doesn't change the fact that there was, at some stage, a rush to enlist.
Part of the problem with attempts to assess the popular mood in late 1914 is the extent to which the press at the time only reflected ruling and middle-class opinion. Despite comprising the majority of the population, the working class was – as it so often is – generally invisible to the press. It only appears in the record of the newspapers of the time in its traditional role, as an object for censure when it behaved badly by going on strike or otherwise indulging in larrikin behaviour. Such 'misbehaviour' had been on the increase in the years before the war. The labour movement had recovered from the defeats of the 1890s, and by 1913 – when the census began compiling statistics on union membership – 31 per cent of Australian workers were in unions. This growth, apart from being reflected in a concomitant growth in electoral support for the ALP, was accompanied by an increase in industrial disputes. In 1913, 622 535 days were lost to industrial action. This would nearly double to 1 090 395 in 1914. However, the increase in strike activity was not significant enough, and the strikes themselves were not usually of sufficient weight and power, to pierce the smug middle-class complacency of the establishment press. Later in the war, despite the almost uniform hostility of major newspapers to what by then they saw as an insurgent labour movement, the voices of workers would be heard, albeit distorted by ridicule: indeed they could no longer be ignored. But this was not the case in 1914, and workers' opinions of the war remain difficult to discern. Willingness to enlist might seem evidence of popular enthusiasm, but this is also complicated by the existence of other likely motives.
Australia was already entering an economic recession in August 1914, and this was deepened by the disruption of international trade caused by the war. Unemployment soared in the first months of the war. In 1913, the official rate of unemployment had been 6.5 per cent. In 1914 it increased to 8.3 per cent, before peaking in early 1915 at 9.3 per cent. It is, of course, impossible to determine how much unemployment was a motive for enlistment. In the aftermath of the war, veterans would be unlikely to admit that they joined for such a reason. However, it is hard to imagine that it wasn't a powerful influence on the rapid recruitment in this period.
It is worth remembering also that the British Empire had only seen one-sided colonial wars since the Crimea in the 1850s. There was as yet little understanding of the nature of modern war, and certainly no awareness of the horrors that awaited recruits on the Western Front. A paid trip to Europe, with the chance of excitement and adventure thrown in, must have had its attractions to young working-class men who would never normally expect such an escape. Normal life in Australia meant, for working-class men, a six-day working week, few excitements, boredom if they were lucky and poverty if they were not. As it happened, the eventual decline in recruitment matches fairly closely the drop in the unemployment rate in late 1915 and early 1916, although this decline also matches closely the news of large numbers of casualties, first from the August battles in Gallipoli and later from the Western Front.
In part, the legend of patriotic fervour at the war's beginning – a legend that is not confined to Australia – has been exaggerated by the historic betrayal of the European left. Social Democrats and Socialists, all members of the Second International which had pledged in congress after congress to resist war with a general strike, elected instead to support their various nations' war efforts. No such great hopes had rested with the ALP, and there was no great shock at its support of the war, but there are parallels in the small Australian far left. One of the largest, and arguably the most dynamic, of the far-left groups in Australia before the war had been the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP). Its growth had been greatly boosted by the leadership of Tom Mann in the first decade of the century. Energetic street propaganda and agitation amongst the unemployed had seen its membership grow to around 2000. It had its own hall in Exhibition Street, and a promising cadre of young members, a number of whom had managed to win official positions within unions, such as John Cain of the Theatrical Employees, John Curtin of the Timberworkers and Frank Hyett, the secretary of the Victorian Railways Union.
The VSP's growth had stalled somewhat, however, in the years immediately prior to the war, torn by internal debates between a new, more moderate leadership led by Robert Ross (Mann had returned to England) and its more militant members. The key point of contention was the VSP's relationship with the ALP: whether it should break with Labor and provide a genuine left-wing alternative, or act instead as a sort of loyal ginger group, advocating more radical policies within the umbrella of the ALP. Some individual members of the party responded energetically to oppose the declaration of war. John Cain was arrested three times for speaking out against the war on the streets of Port Melbourne in August 1914, and John Curtin penned anti-war articles for the Timberworkers' Union journal. But, as a body, the VSP was somewhat at sea, bemused by the failure of European socialists to honour their pre-war pledge to call a general strike. The party resolved to oppose the war, albeit after a short sharp struggle with a pro-war section of its membership. In practice, however, the heroism of the young Cain notwithstanding, it failed to campaign with any of the agitational élan that had characterised the organisation under Mann's leadership. The party's official position was to promote the Hardie-Vaillant resolution which had called for a general strike to end the war – a resolution that had been officially endorsed by the Victorian Trades Hall council in July 1914 – but in practice the VSP's anti-war agitation was largely limited to expressions of pacifist sentiment and calls for arbitration, often made in conjunction with small, but respectable, middle-class pacifist organisations. The fact that the VSP continued to maintain a close relationship with the ALP, and supported a Labor ticket in the 1914 general election – even as Fisher declared his enthusiastic support for the war – further dulled the edge of its anti-war propaganda.
A similar disillusion with European leaders can be seen within the ranks of the Women's Political Association (WPA), the large Victorian feminist organisation led by Vida Goldstein. Having always looked to the leaders of the British suffragette movement for inspiration, Goldstein – a convinced pacifist – was horrified to learn of the support given by the British movement for the war. Led by the Pankhurst family (although Sylvia Pankhurst broke with her mother and sisters over this issue), the British suffragettes had agreed to suspend agitation for the vote in the hope that they would be rewarded with suffrage when the war ended. Australian women already had the vote, which no doubt made such a 'deal with the devil' rather pointless in the Australian context. In any case, Goldstein's principles proved to be solid as ever, and she was supported by able lieutenants in Jenny Baines and the youngest of the Pankhurst sisters, Adela, who had emigrated to Australia. Adela's move had been motivated largely by disaffection with her family and she was, no doubt, happy to add a disagreement over principle to the existing causes of estrangement. The WPA began the war with a flourish of anti-war meetings, but for the first half of 1915 – in a telling indication of the more pressing working-class priorities – Goldstein devoted most of her energy to dealing with the plight of the unemployed caused by the recession. She returned to anti-war campaigning in July 1915, forming a new organisation, the Women's Peace Army, in order to do so.
Some individuals on the left succumbed to the pull of patriotism. In Sydney, the president of the Wharf Labourers' Union, William McCristal, was considered a 'red-ragger' and had stood for state parliament as a candidate for the Social Democratic Party (a small Marxist group) in 1913. That didn't stop him enlisting in the First Light Horse in August 1914, reprising his teenage experience as a trooper in the Boer War. Wounded lightly in the August battles at Gallipoli, he was repatriated after the personal intervention of Defence Minister George Pearce in the belief that he would be 'useful for recruiting'. He served very briefly as a recruiting sergeant before, somehow, managing to obtain a discharge. In August 1916, once more an official of the Wharf Labourers' Union, he campaigned against conscription and a year later he stood trial for sedition. But in August 1914, McCristal rallied not to the Red Flag but to the Red, White and Blue.
In contrast to all of this, one small far-left group responded to the declaration of war with energy and defiance. The Australian chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or 'Wobblies') was, in 1914, a small group of about 200 members, largely confined to Sydney but with small branches in Adelaide, Broken Hill, Fremantle and Port Pirie. The group had, since 1911, been propagating the syndicalist doctrine of 'direct action' and hostility to any form of political (that is electoral) activity, a philosophy it had borrowed from its parent organisation in America. The IWW in the United States had been born in the rough-and-tumble mining camps in the American west. Its doctrines had been shaped by the struggle against employers whose first resort was normally violence. In America, IWW leaders such as 'Big Bill' Haywood often had to carry firearms and, on more than one occasion, use them in the course of their industrial agitation. The Americans' love of militancy was added to a distaste for mainstream politics borrowed from French syndicalism; so too the idea of sabotage as a legitimate industrial tactic –something that would eventually have disastrous consequences for the organisation in Australia.
In the somewhat different environment of the Australian movement, the IWW was forced to alter its modus operandi to some extent. Like its American parent, the organisation considered itself a union rather than a party, hence its membership was restricted to wage workers. But whereas the American organisation was able to concentrate on organising the large pools of unorganised workers which characterised the American industrial working class, the Australian organisation was forced to focus its attention on an audience of workers who were already in unions. At least until 1914, it consequently operated almost as a sect preaching the doctrine of syndicalism and, apart from a brief attempt by the state Labor government to ban the selling of the IWW paper Direct Action in Sydney's Domain in June 1914, the authorities were not overly concerned with their activities. This was all about to change.
Another trait that the Australian Wobblies had inherited from their American parents was a sense of humour, which in a perhaps unusual combination with revolutionary zeal could be very effective. They counted among their number many effective speakers who were to prove to be excellent propagandists and agitators, including Donald Grant; Peter Larkin, the younger brother of the great Irish syndicalist, Jim Larkin; and, most importantly, Tom Barker, a British-born former farm labourer and tram conductor, recently arrived from New Zealand. Barker, who had only just taken over the editorship of Direct Action, greeted the onset of war with a clear opposition that was expressed not in terms of pacifist sentiment but in the language of class war. Accompanied with a giant cartoon depicting, amongst other things, a weeping woman and a table full of gorging capitalists, the front page of Direct Action greeted the declaration of war with a banner headline:
WAR! WHAT FOR? FOR THE
WORKERS AND THEIR DEPENDANTS:
DEATH, STARVATION, POVERTY AND
UNTOLD MISERY; FOR THE CAPITALIST
CLASS: GOLD, STAINED WITH THE
BLOOD OF MILLIONS, RIOTOUS LUXURY,
BANQUETS OF JUBILATION OVER THE
GRAVES OF THEIR DUPES AND SLAVES.
WAR IS HELL! SEND THE
CAPITALISTS TO HELL AND WARS
Excerpted from In The Shadow of Gallipoli by Robert Bollard. Copyright © 2013 Robert Bollard. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 'To the last man and the last shilling': Patriotism triumphant,
2 'If you want the 44-hour week, take it!': The strike wave begins,
3 'Wherever green is worn': Irish discontent,
4 'I will curse the British Empire with my dying breath': The first conscription referendum,
5 'Fifteen years for fifteen words': The empire strikes back,
6 'Solidarity for ever': The Great Strike of 1917,
7 'We'll burn the town down!': The second referendum,
8 'Plunge this city into darkness': The peace turns ugly,