Australia's leap into World War I

PM Billy Hughes at pro-war rally, 1916.
Friday, March 27, 2015

Hell-Bent: Australia’s Leap Into The Great War
Douglas Newton
Scribe, 2014
344 pages, $32.99 (pb)

Behind all the froth, then and now, about the noble cause of World War I — defence of freedom against German aggression — lay a far less exalted reality, writes retired University of Western Sydney historian Douglas Newton.

The war’s “grand plan” for Britain, candidly called “The Spoils” by the British Colonial Secretary, was to divvy the world up among the victors.

Territorial claims by Britain and its allies — France, Italy and Tsarist Russia — were pegged out in the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific. The British Dominions ― Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa ― were instructed to seek to conquer German colonies in these regions as, in the words of a secret British cable, an “Imperial service”.

Australia was tasked with claiming New Guinea, the Marshall Islands and Nauru in what Newton aptly calls a “war of brigandage”.

So devoted was the Australian government's loyalty to London's war aims that it committed its entire Navy and about 20,000 expeditionary soldiers 40 hours before the British cabinet declared war on Germany.

Australia’s decision strengthened the hand of the warmongers in the British Liberal government, which was sharply split between “Liberal Imperialists” and neutralists.

Newton documents the eagerness with which Australian politicians made a “rapid and reckless leap, without any conditions or limits” into the looming conflict that claimed 18 million lives. The entire Australian political establishment backed the war.

Both the Liberal government and Labor opposition were enthusiastic, competing in a national election in what Newton calls a “love-of-empire” auction. Labor leader Andrew Fisher, who became prime minister in September 1914, pledged to back Britain “to our last man and our last shilling”.

For the Liberals, meanwhile, Newton notes a Liberal Senator who commented that “the European situation affords Liberals in Australia excellent material for a good war-cry during the current campaign”. The Liberals attacked Labor fancifully as “traitorous, a friend of Germany and a nest of Irishmen disloyal to Empire”.

Labor's political values were, in reality, in alignment with the needs of the “rich men, corporate lawyers, mining tycoons, bankers and reactionary publicists” who, says Newton, formed the ultra-patriotic Australian National Defence League of Billy Hughes, who replaced Fisher as Labor PM in 1915.

Despite the stance of the political establishment, when the war broke out, there was “no sign that Australians were being eaten up with anxiety that they might miss the war”, Newton says.

The opposition to the war was left to the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, socialists, and anti-militarist radicals, feminists and Christians.

Newton himself argues that Australia could not have escaped the Great War, “nor should Australia have stood aside from it”. Despite this, Newton’s book provides some useful context.

Explaining the old axiom that war is politics by other means, Newton notes that the Australian military “fought for the empire, and all it stood for ― class distinction, reservoirs of cheap labour … captured markets and resources”.

Newton also, thankfully, skips the school of Australian war history that glories in the celebratory clamour of the centenary of the “Great War”. Most valuably, he argues that we should “think critically about the nation’s descent into war ― in the past, in the present, and in the future”.

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