Australians' hidden opposition to WWI revealed

The 12 members of the Industrial Workers of the World jailed on trumped-up charges in response to the IWW's effective campaignin
Monday, August 5, 2013

In The Shadow of Gallipoli: The Hidden History of Australia in World War 1
By Robert Bollard
New South Publishing, 2013
223 pages (PB), $32.99

Every year, around ANZAC day on April 25, hordes of Australian tourists and backpackers descend on the shore of Gallipoli in Turkey to commemorate the first battle in which Australians took part in World War I in 1915.

ANZAC day has experienced a resurgence in popularity over recent years. Governments have helped by promoting nationalistic myths about how the unsuccessful campaign was “where Australia was born”.

The ANZAC myth has enabled the ruling class to obscure the divisions that existed in Australian society during World War I.

Robert Bollard, author of a PhD thesis on the great strike of 1917 that convulsed New South Wales and other parts of Australia, uncovers the dissent and discontent about the war in his new book In The Shadow of Gallipoli.

During these years, Australia was convulsed by a war-time strike wave and experienced two bitterly fought campaigns around conscription. Along with the cost of living and sectarian tensions, this helped to fuel opposition to the war to the point where by 1918, it was as unpopular as the Vietnam War by the early 1970s.

After the outbreak of war in 1914, 20,000 men enlisted in the first month. Labor leader Andrew Fisher pledged in his successful election campaign that Australia would support the Empire to “The last man and the last shilling”.

However, Bollard challenges the idea that Australians greeted the outbreak of war with unbound enthusiasm, but rather a more complex reaction involving pessimism or resignation.

Of the 20,000 men who enlisted, 13,603 were soldiers who had experience in pre-war militias. It took a further three weeks to get the extra 6397 men. For many working class men who enlisted, the economic crisis that hit Australia that year, and the promise of a paid overseas trip, were a strong motivating factor for enlistment.

In 1914, the biggest socialist group in Australia was the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP), which had 2000 members. It included as members future prime minister John Curtin and future Victorian premier Frank Cain.

When war broke out, the VSP, in spite of individual anti-war actions by members such as Cain and Curtin, was unable to mount an effective campaign against the war. The group was shocked by the betrayal of European socialist parties who, in spite of pledges to stage a general strike to oppose the war, ending up supporting their respective capitalist governments.

The left-wing group that most effectively campaigned against the war was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or the Wobblies). Promoting a form of ‘revolutionary unionism”, the Wobblies had first formed in the United States in 1905 and set up its first Australian branch in 1911.

On August 8, 1914, in Sydney’s Domain, it held an anti-war rally. At a follow-up rally a week later, they sold 800 copies of their paper Direct Action.

The Wobblies opposed the war in clear class terms, with the Direct Action front page proclaiming: “WAR! What for? For the workers and their dependents: death, starvation, poverty and untold misery; for the capitalist class: gold stained with 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 are impossible.”

As news of the disasters of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 filtered home, anti-war agitation became much more effective —especially among working class people who were hit hard by an increase in the cost of living.

The 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland against British rule — and the brutal British repression that followed — also alienated many Irish Catholics in Australia. Opposition to the British Empire found a voice in people such as Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix in the 1916-17 anti-conscription campaigns.

Also in 1916, Broken Hill coalminers were successful in winning a 44-hour week. This strike would be the prelude to the successful 1919-20 strike in the New South Wales town.

Due to the Wobblies effective leadership in the anti-conscription campaign of 1916, the federal and state governments did all they could to destroy the group. In late 1916, just before the first referendum, the New South Wales government framed 12 leaders of the IWW on fabricated charges of sedition and plotting to burn down Sydney. The 12 were sentenced to between five and 15 years jail.

After the defeat of the first referendum, Labor split over the issue of conscription. Labor Prime Minister William Hughes led a split from the party to form a conservative Nationalist party-led government in early 1917.

One of the first things the new government did was introduce the Unlawful Associations Act to ban the IWW. By the time the IWW 12 were released in 1920 due to a public campaign, the group was largely destroyed.

In the 1916 referendum, the Australian population narrowly vote “No” to conscription after a bitterly fought campaign between pro- and anti-conscription forces. In Broken Hill, the anti-conscriptionists formed the Labour Volunteer Army led by Percy Brookfield, who was soon to be elected as the member for Broken Hill in the NSW parliament.

In Melbourne, it was people such as Curtin, Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst who led the campaign in groups such as the VSP and the Women’s Peace Army.

In August 1917, what began as a walkout of railway workers in the Eveleigh and Randwick railway workshops in Sydney in protest against the introduction of a card system, spread throughout New South Wales and eventually every state in Australia.

By late September 1917, the NSW and federal governments were able to defeat the strike. In its aftermath, Hughes tried to push again for conscription. But in a referendum in December, conscription was rejected with a larger majority than the first time.

By 1918, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, disillusionment with the war was widespread. This was reflected in the anti-war resolution passed by the 1918 federal Labor conference.

After the war, the strike wave that began in 1916 continued into 1919 and 1920, with victories for the miners of Broken Hill, the Fremantle lumpers and maritime workers around the country. In many instances, returned soldiers were sympathetic to the strikers and actively supported them. Some joined the newly formed Communist Party of Australia after 1920.

Bollard argues convincingly that the so-called Great War revealed the class and religious divisions that existed in Australian society. During this time, opposition to the war grew and was expressed in the defeat of conscription, the growth of the IWW, and the strike wave that began during the war.

In the Shadow of Gallipoli reveals a crucial part of Australia’s relationship to World War I obscured by the official ruling mythology of “the ANZACs”.