Class conflict in the shadow of World War I

June 27, 2014
Industrial Workers of the World poster campaigning against conscription.

In the Shadow of Gallipoli
By Robert Bollard
NewSouth, Sydney 2013

On April 25, 1915, Australian troops landed at Gallipoli on Turkey’s coast. They were part of a British imperial force aiming to capture Constantinople (now called Istanbul) and the land alongside the narrow waterway linking the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.

It was hoped this would enable British ships to enter the Black Sea and bring supplies to allied Russia.

The plan failed. After hanging onto a narrow strip of land for eight months, the Australians (along with the rest of the invading force) withdrew after suffering heavy casualties.

With the approach of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, the Australian government is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on commemorating this event.

The aim is to promote Australian nationalism. It seems unlikely that the government-supplied “educational” material will give a serious analysis of the reasons for the war.

Nor is it likely to say much about the deep divisions in Australian society over the war and conscription, or the big union struggles that occurred during the war.

Robert Bollard’s In The Shadows of Gallipolli provides a lot of information unlikely to appear in official publications. He tells the real story of what happened in Australia during World War I.

Misconceptions about the war are widespread. When asked what the war was about, most people are unable to explain its causes.

Some say Australian soldiers died to “defend our freedom”. But in reality, the war was a struggle among imperialist powers over the division of the world. As part of the British empire, Australians fought to defend and expand that empire.

Britain, along with France and Russia, wanted to carve up the Ottoman empire. The landing at Gallipoli was one episode in this struggle.

Another phrase often used is that “Australia became a nation” at Gallipoli. This implies that a country cannot be a “real” nation unless it has fought in a big war.

It is often assumed that the whole Australian nation was united behind the war effort. Bollard’s book punctures this myth. He shows that many Australians opposed the war from the start, and anti-war sentiment grew as the war went on.

It is also often assumed that young men were eager to join the army, because of patriotic fervour and a desire for adventure. No doubt both factors played a role, particularly in the early stages.

But a more pragmatic reason for joining the army was unemployment, which reached 9.3% in early 1915. Bollard says: “Australia was already entering an economic recession in 1914, and this was deepened by the disruption of international trade caused by the war”.

Groups opposing the war right from the start included the Victorian Socialist Party and the Women’s Political Association.

The war's most energetic and defiant opponent was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which organised an anti-war demonstration in the Sydney Domain as early as August 8, 1914, only four days after the war started.

The IWW's newspaper Direct Action had banner headlines and cartoons opposing the war. The IWW grew rapidly.

Initially, active opposition to the war was confined to a small minority. But as casualties soared, with newspapers filled with the names of the dead, opposition grew.

As voluntary recruitment slowed down, the government tried to introduce conscription. This aroused strong opposition, leading to violent clashes between supporters and opponents.

Along with opposition to the war and conscription, there was a rise in union struggles around pay and conditions. Food prices rose 33.57% between July 1914 and May 1915.

But the first big strike during the war, that of the Broken Hill miners, was mainly about working hours.

The conditions of the underground miners were horrendous. Lung disease caused by mineral dust was widespread. The miners wished to reduce the time spent exposed to these conditions.

On September 26, 1915, against the recommendation of their union officials, underground miners took unilateral action, refusing to work the afternoon shift. The mining companies eventually responded by sacking them in January 1916.

By this time, union officials had overcome their initial caution and supported the campaign. Workers around Australia backed the miners, who eventually won a 44-hour week.

The miners’ victory inspired strike action by many other workers in different industries.

Meanwhile, the brutal suppression of the 1916 Easter uprising against British rule in Ireland aroused hostility to the British empire among the many Australians of Irish Catholic background. This added to the spread of anti-war and anti-conscription sentiment.

On August 30, 1916, Labor Party Prime Minister Billy Hughes announced a referendum on conscription.

Some early anti-conscription meetings were disrupted by hostile crowds. But as support for the war and conscription declined, it was increasingly pro-conscription speakers who were shouted down, and sometimes pelted with eggs or rotten vegetables.

The referendum rejected conscription, with 52% voting against.

The issue divided the Australian Labor Party. Hughes announced the referendum as a Labor prime minister. But by the time the referendum was held, he had been expelled from the ALP. Hughes remained prime minister with the support of the Liberals, and joined with them to form the “Win the War Party”.

Hughes won the federal election in May 1917. Later that year he made another attempt to introduce conscription.

By the time of the second referendum, the IWW had been crushed. Some IWW members had been arrested under the War Precautions Act for activities “prejudicial to recruiting” (such as anti-war cartoons in Direct Action).

But there was also a series of trials of IWW members on other charges, such as forgery, murder and an alleged conspiracy to burn down large parts of Sydney.

Bollard said: “It is difficult to untangle how much these allegations had any grounding in reality, and how much arose from the fabrications of policemen and the operations of agents provocateurs.

“What is clear, however, is that the cases served as a devastating combination knock-out blow for the IWW, providing the government a pretext for the banning of the organisation.”

But the anti-war spirit was not confined to the IWW. Discontent with the war and economic hardship were widespread. This was reflected in a strike wave that began in New South Wales in August 1917, and spread across the country.

The strike began in the railway workshops of Eveleigh and Randwick in Sydney, in protest at the introduction of a time-and-motion system aimed at pressuring workers to work faster. It spread to other sections of the railways, then to mine workers, waterside workers and seafarers, and then to other industries and other states.

Bollard says the strike, “revealed the depths of underlying anger and bitterness that the war had generated”.

The strike started on the initiative of rank-and-file workers. Most union officials were not enthusiastic about the strike.

Eventually, the Defence Committee set up by the Sydney Trades and Labour Council to run the strike called it off on terms that amounted to a capitulation. Many workers felt this was a sellout, and some continued striking for several weeks.

With the crushing of the IWW and the defeat of the strike wave, Hughes felt confident enough to initiate a new conscription referendum. Held in December 1917, however, the second referendum was defeated by a bigger margin than the first.

Meanwhile, a revolutionary upsurge was starting in Europe, fed by anger at the war. In February 1917, the Russian tsar was overthrown.

The provisional government that took over tried to continue the war, but was itself overthrown in October. The new Bolshevik government made peace with Germany and called on workers globally to rebel against their rulers.

In November 1918, a mutiny in the German navy grew into a revolution that forced the abdication of the kaiser. World War I ended in a revolutionary upsurge across much of Europe.

Australian soldiers were affected by this ferment. Bollard says there was “a mutiny aboard HMAS Australia in Fremantle Harbour … in June 1919. This, combined with the discovery of a circular aboard returning troopships calling on soldiers not to fire on members of their own class, led to concern that returning soldiers would bring the Bolshevik virus home with them.”

Australian soldiers returned to a “deeply divided nation”. The returned soldiers were themselves politically divided, with some moving left and others to the right.

There was a new wave of strikes. Bollard, says: “1919 saw the largest number of workdays lost to strikes of any year in Australian history”.

Returned soldiers played a major role in many strikes. In Fremantle in May 1919, for example, ex-soldiers, some armed, played a key role in a mass picket of the waterfront to prevent a ship being unloaded by scab labour.

Facing police armed with bayonets, the picketers called for support from soldiers on a ship arriving in the harbour. The police withdrew and the union was victorious.

But there were other cases where returned soldiers were involved in attacks on striking workers, socialists and ethnic minorities.

Some strikes won ― Broken Hill miners won a 35-hour week and a pay rise ― but others were defeated. The strike wave ended when recession hit in 1920.

Class peace seemed to have returned. But class hostility remained below the surface, breaking out in the lockouts of 1928 and the unemployed struggles of the 1930s.

Most Australians are unaware of this history. Bollard’s book is a tremendous contribution to dispelling this ignorance.

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