Real and virtual history at the National Library of Australia

Real and virtual history at the National Library of Australia
Billy Hughes, the Great War, and the Keepsakes exhibition
27 November 2014

While researching for the Keepsakes exhibition for the National Library of Australia, I made a discovery that led me to reflect on Australian history.

I was in the Library's Pictures and Manuscripts Reading Room, examining the papers of Prime Minister W.M. 'Billy' Hughes, when I came across a small, barely legible note in pencil (pictured below). I almost moved on straight away, perhaps assuming that something relatively uninteresting looking must be uninteresting. But I happened to recognise Hughes's handwriting, and I realised that my twenty-first-century hand was holding a note he had written to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. An angry Hughes is complaining to Lloyd George that the German representative is remaining seated while addressing French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.

Note from Billy Hughes to David Lloyd George, MS 1538

Note from Australian Prime Minister W.M. Hughes to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George at the Peace Peace Conference, 1919. Papers of W.M. Hughes, MS 1538, Manuscripts Collection.

There is so much history in this shabby little note. What struck me in particular was that it encapsulates the tensions and ill will that existed at the peace conference. The note perhaps helps explain why the conference did not bring about a lasting peace. The Great War not only failed to be the war to end all wars, but also led to the Second World War via the Treaty of Versailles, which was imposed on Germany at the peace conference. I was also struck by how much the note reveals about Hughes himself, his agenda at the conference, and his relationship with Lloyd George and Britain.

Portrait of William Morris Hughes

Portrait of Billy Hughes, ca. 1919, Pictures Collection,

Hughes behaved belligerently at the peace conference. On one occasion he gained notoriety by publicly challenging American President Woodrow Wilson on the subject of proposed League of Nations mandates. Hughes insisted that Australia, not the League of Nations, should control the former German possessions in New Guinea. At the conference, Hughes was driven mainly by this issue, and by questions of 'war guilt' and war reparations.

The Germans' unwillingness to accept the blame for the war angered Hughes who, along with the French, felt that punitive reparations should be imposed on Germany. In this he departed from the subtler approach of Lloyd George and others. Lloyd George had initially liked Hughes, but by the time of the conference had gone off him, dismayed by Hughes's aggressive intolerance towards opinions or positions other than his own.  And yet Hughes's note suggests that he still thought of himself as Lloyd George's confidant.

Two great Welshmen, W.M. Hughes and Lloyd George in Wales, 1916

Hughes and Lloyd George in 1916, Pictures Collection,

Hughes and Lloyd George did, however, agree about German war guilt.  But here again Lloyd George's position was subtler than Hughes's. Lloyd George saw that if there were no German war guilt, then Britain's justifications for entering the war might be questioned. Britain's sacrifice might therefore have been unnecessary, even pointless.

War guilt and war reparations are established subjects for hypothetical or counterfactual historical scenarios, perhaps the most familiar of all historical 'what ifs' involves considering the consequences of a less severe Treaty of Versailles being imposed on Germany. But while the post-war situation has been a focus for counterfactuals, British historian Niall Ferguson believes that the beginning of the Great War, including Britain's commitment to the struggle, has generally been seen as 'predetermined'. Ferguson challenges this view of things in Virtual History.

The signing of the Treaty of Peace at Versailles, June 28th, 1919

Proceedings at the Paris Peace Conference before the signing of the ill-starred Treaty of Versailles, Pictures Collection,

Ferguson points out that no ironclad obligations to Belgium or even France on the part of Britain in fact existed, and that in Britain there was significant cabinet and Foreign Office opposition to war. As well as showing that Britains entry into the war was by no means predetermined, Ferguson argues that this move, when it did happen, turned a continental struggle into a world war.  The point for us, of course, is that it involved the British Empire, including Australia.

But what if Britain, and therefore Australia, had not entered the war?  What would the Keepsakes exhibition consist of in those circumstances?  The concept of keepsakes includes an ontological argument, a claim of 'somethingness'.  But as we think about the objects in the exhibition, we might well ask ourselves: what if Australia had not taken part in the Great War and what if these objects therefore did not exist? Would other things exist in their place and, if so, what would they be? How might Australian history be different? And what about the Australian consciousness, which has been influenced in so many ways by our involvement in the Great War?


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I don't think this is so much a ontological argument as a epistemological argument. As much as the Great War was a loss for all sides it is often paraded (for better or worse) as the "moment" Australia became a nation in other nations eyes. It was in the Great War that the greatest myths of the newer Australian psyche were created, those of the ANZACs and Galliploi. Without the involvement in Great War would Australia have had these defining moments? Their existence is without real question as without them so much of Australian history could not then exist. Ontologically Australia's somethingsness, its definition of itself will now always be tied to these moments, and that is therefor why they are so important to us. The real question I think is how we will choose to keep these myths and how we will build on them and include them in our future.