IT’S just a century this week since Germany invaded neutral Belgium and the guns began firing on what became known as the Western Front. Britain and France soon declared war on imperial Germany, and what was perhaps the greatest disaster in human history lasted until November 11, 1918.
Certainly the death toll, military and civilian alike, of World War II (1939-45) was greater than its predecessor.
But World War I had the unintended consequence of facilitating the creation of totalitarian regimes: communism in the Soviet Union, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; Nazism in Germany, following that nation’s defeat and the emergence of Adolf Hitler.
Some of the worst dictators of the 20th century were beneficiaries of the calamity that was 1914-18; most notably Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Hitler in Germany. The totalitarian model, established between the wars, influenced the communist regimes created some decades later: Mao Zedong in China, the Kim Il-sung initiated hereditary dictatorship in North Korea, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Pol Pot in Cambodia.
When hostilities began in 1914, Australia was in the midst of its first double-dissolution election. As a dominion of Britain, Australia had no alternative but to join Britain in its war against Germany. This occurred during the prime ministership of Joseph Cook, leader of the then Liberal Party, a predecessor of the Liberal Party of Australia that was established three decades later.
Before the war started, Labor leader Andrew Fisher declared that Australia would defend Britain to the last man and the last shilling. The promise was honoured after Fisher led Labor to victory in the September 1914 election.
Yet the position adopted by the social democrats and political conservatives in 1914 was not an example of Australia’s fighting “other people’s wars”.
This leftist mantra developed in the 1960s and 70s. As Joan Beaumont documents in her book Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, in 1914 Australians regarded the hostilities as very much their own war.
Allan Martin reached a similar conclusion in his book Robert Menzies: A Lifeconcerning the Menzies government’s declaration of war against Germany in September 1939.
Neither Beaumont nor Martin can be considered conservative or right-wing polemicists banging a drum in the culture wars.
As historians, they reported about the reality that was Australia in 1914 and 1939, respectively, and recorded support for the war effort when hostilities started on both occasions.
In 1914 and again in 1918 Australians understood and appreciated their connection to Britain. At the outbreak of World War I, Germany had possessions in the Pacific and a victory for the kaiser would have led to dramatic change in the Australian lifestyle. If Nazi Germany had prevailed over democratic Britain in 1940 or 1941 — before the Pacific War started — Australia would not be the successful democracy it is today.
Most Australian families who trace their roots back to the early 20th century were afflicted by what was initially termed the Great War. In an article I wrote for The Australian on April 26, 1985, I commented on my uncle Alan Dargavel, who died in November 1917, aged 21, during the Third Battle of Ypres. As with so many of the fallen, Alan’s death had a devastating effect on his family on the home front.
In 1985 I wrote that 1914-18 was a just war and drew attention to the important role played by the Australian Imperial Force in the Allied victories in France in 1918 that led to the defeat of Germany in the field of battle. This was an unfashionable position at the time.
However, a quarter of a century later, there is widespread support for the view that Australian politicians had no option but to go to war in 1914 and that Australians played a significant role in the major military victories in the main theatre of hostilities on the Western Front.
As former Labor leader Kim Beazley had commented, Australia has never been as influential as it was in 1918 under the leadership of prime minister Billy Hughes. To later generations, Hughes became a figure of fun.
But, having quit Labor, he led the Nationalists to victories in 1917, 1919 and 1922, and was never defeated at an election while prime minister. Clearly Hughes enjoyed considerable support within the electorate.
Hughes’s unfortunate legacy was to fan the flames of anti-Catholic sectarianism during the conscription plebiscites of 1916 and 1917, particularly the latter. Hughes attempted to use the opposition to conscription of Daniel Mannix, the Irish-born Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, as a means of encouraging non-Catholics to vote yes for conscription. The tactic failed but its legacy had a deleterious effect on Australian society for a half century.
Despite his failings, Hughes was correct about the kaiser’s Germany. Also he was right to warn about Japan in the 20s and 30s.
In the lead-up to World War II, both the conservative Robert Menzies and the social democratic John Curtin supported the appeasement of Hitler’s Germany. At the time Hughes virtually stood alone in Australia as an opponent of appeasement.
He was attorney-general when Menzies declared war on Germany in September 1939 after Hitler’s decision to invade Poland following the negotiation of the Nazi-Soviet pact.
The Australian experience during World War II was devastating, both on the field of battle, particularly at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. And also at home where wives, fiancees, siblings and parents suffered terrible grief for those who had fallen or were seriously wounded half a world away.
Yet Australian society held together well. Despite internal tensions, there was little politically motivated violence at this time.
The political loser during the Great War was Labor because of its split over conscription, which saw many Labor parliamentarians, led by Hughes, change sides permanently.
A century after Australians donned the khaki and headed off to war in the northern hemisphere, the action taken by our politicians and military forces stands up well. To slightly alter the words of the contemporary song, Australia was there. And we were right to be there.