Remembrance Day in 2015 coincided with the publication of Volume IV of the Oxford Centenary History of Australia in the Great War series, The War at Home. Hear the authors, John Connor, Peter Yule and Peter Stanley, in conversation about the far-reaching effects of World War I on Australian life, including Australian politics, economic life and society.
Presented by the Canberra Great War Study Group in association with the National Library of Australia.
Audio transcript for The War at Home
Speakers: Jeffrey Grey (JG), Peter Yule (PY), John Connor (JC), Peter Stanley (PS), Audience (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
JG: Our three speakers cover a very wide range of academic experiences and that was very necessary to put together this particular volume. I could think of no single historian currently working in Australia today who could cover the fields of the war economy, the politics of Australia at war and the societal and social impact issues within a single set of covers. And so I called upon a team of three to bring about that outcome. Whether, and to what extent, they’ve succeeded will be for you to decide once you’ve bought and read the book. Without further ado then our three speakers in order are Peter Ewell from the University of Melbourne who will speak on the economy, John Connor—in a very jetlagged state having gotten off a flight from Canada this morning—from UNSW Canberra and Peter Stanley, who probably needs no introduction but will get one anyway and who also hails from UNSW Canberra. I won’t pop up here again until that formal part of the remarks has finished so let me welcome to begin proceedings Peter Yule.
PY: Yeah well thank you, Geoff, thank you everyone for coming along. But firstly I’d like to warn you all against asking any questions. About three years ago ... it might be four years ago ... I attended a similar function to this at ANU where Peter Stanley was the speaker and I made the dreadful mistake of asking a question and somehow through a process that I really still don’t understand this was seen as clear proof that I’d volunteered to write the section on the Australian economy for this book. And although I was quite sure I hadn’t volunteered and I had no interest in ... well I had an interest in doing it ‘cause it’s a topic that I found fascinating but I certainly didn’t have the time to possibly do it, but I found myself doing it. So don’t ask any questions or God knows what you might end up volunteering for.
In the first half of 1915 the British Army launched a series of offensives on the western front after trench warfare had you know started towards the end of 1914. All of these offensives failed dismally with massive loss of life. The generals and the press blamed a shortage of shells for the disasters, arguing that with more ammunition the artillery could have blasted their way through the German lines. And this sparked one of the most amazing episodes of the war. It was a popular movement throughout the British Empire to manufacture shells for the British artillery. If you want to read the full story my colleague, John, has written an excellent article on it but just briefly the story meant that in Australia there were dozens of little establishments set up to make shells. The most extreme one I think was the Charters Towers Technical College which offered to make 50 shells if the government provided the steel. But you know that was just an extreme example, most of the others were little more than cottage industries and the total shell production was tiny and a high proportion of the shells that were made were rejected. After massive effort and expense only about 15,000 shells of acceptable quality were made in Australia, and to put this in perspective the British Army fired over 1.5 million shells in the seven days before the Somme offensive in July 1916. We produced enough shells to supply this barrage for about an hour and a half. And by August 1916 the whole effort was wound up, the factories either closed or reverted to civilian production.
Now this little episode is an extreme but revealing illustration of the performance of the Australian economy in the First World War. Over the years there’s really been remarkably little research on the impact of the First World War on Australian society. Ernest Scott’s book published in the 1930s is still, you know, until the present volume of course, it’s still by far the best if not the only reference for many aspects of it. And much of the research that’s been carried out has been on conscripti ... on the conscription referenda and the strikes of 1917, much of it from a very left wing slant and much of it done in the 1970s in response to the Vietnam War. Remarkably little work’s ever been done on the Australian economy in the First World War and this is rather surprising because there are some fascinating questions about what happened and why. Perhaps the most interesting big question is why did the Australian economy boom in the Second World War with zero unemployment and rapid economic growth but in the First World War there was high unemployment and the economy shrank? Australia finished the First World War with massive war debts that actually have still not been paid off. We owe the British Government ... it depends how much they’re going to charge for interest but it’s certainly several billion dollars still for our First World War debt. We haven’t made a payment since I think the mid-1930s. But the net debt after the Second World War was very low and was paid off very quickly.
So why was the impact of the two world wars so different? There’s really been very, very little research on that topic. I think because we’re closer in time to the Second World War and some people here might recall it but certainly you know the parents of everyone here were perhaps more familiar with the story of the economy in that war, Australian factories were making sophisticated weapons such as aircraft and tanks as well as machine tools, pharmaceuticals and scientific equipment, women entered the workforce in very large numbers, wages were high and so was taxation, there were very strong government controls over the whole economy and the economy was growing rapidly and entered the war poised for a period of lengthy and rapid economic growth. And I think people tend to assume that the First World War was the same but no, it wasn’t, it was very, very different. There was high unemployment, there were very few munitions factories and they made only simple weapons, female employment rose only slightly, wages fell during the war in real terms and taxation rose only slightly. Government controls over the economy were weak and ineffectual, the economy shrank during the war and didn’t really recover until the Second World War.
So from the economic point of view the First World War was a catastrophe for Australia, in fact it ranks behind only the Depression to the 1890s and the 1930s as an economic disaster. Over the war years the Australian economy contracted by well over 10% in real terms and just to put that in context in Australia’s last big recession in the early 1990s which was our fir ... worst recession since the 1930s, GDP fell by 1.7% and you know for those who were around at the time particularly in Victoria that felt you know disastrously bad and yet in the First World War the economy shrank by far more than that. So given the contraction in GDP unemployment in the First World War was actually not as bad as you’d expect but of course it was hidden to a large extent by the enlistment of so many men in the army. Accurate unemployment figures aren’t really available, they were just taken from the figures given by trade unions. But it probably peaked at about 15% early in 1915 and remained over 10% for the rest of the war. And high unemployment combined with wartime inflation led to a fall in real wages during the war and after adjusting for inflation real incomes fell by about 16%. In contrast in the Second World War I think they rose by about 40%. And I think the fall in real wages was the simple explanation for the massive wave of strikes that swept the country in 1916 and 1917.
And then we came out of the war with a massive war debt. The Australian Government chose to finance the First World War primarily through borrowing rather than taxation. The Commonwealth debt rose from next to nothing in 1914 to £325m in 1919, which was roughly equivalent to Australia’s GDP in 1913. Interest payments on the debt in 1919 were more than total Government expenditure had been in 1913. And throughout the interwar years, if you have a look at the Government’s expenditure the costs of financing the debt, the interest on the debt and the costs of looking after ex-servicemen totally dominated the federal budget throughout the interwar years leaving very little for anything else.
So why was the First World War such an economic disaster while the Second World War gave the economy an enormous boost? Well I’d like to answer that now but given you know we’re on very tight timing with the three of us speaking and also of course the good people at Oxford University Press would like me to say the answer’s in the book I won’t go into answering it ... the question now. But I will give a hint, a fair bit of it has to do with wheat and I only mention that because I really wanted to mention the title of the best book that I came across while doing research for this by a chap called D C Winterbottom and his way with titles is far better than ours, I mean The War at Home you know it’s okay, it says what it’s about but D. C. Winterbottom called his book Weevils in Wheat and the Storage of Grain in Bags. I think that’s a brilliant ... Weevils in Wheat and the Storage of Grain in Bags. It’s very hard to buy a copy, I did try to buy a copy but if you want to read it it is in this library and I strongly recommend it and it will start to give you a clue as to why the Australian economy did so badly in the First World War. But I’ll leave it at that. Thank you very much.
JC: Good evening. I think it’s evening. It’s ... having just arrived from Canada I’ve been flying from Kingston in Ontario to here and in some ways I still feel like I am on the plane. But what I’d like to talk to the next little while is talk about three things which come out of the politics of the war. The first thing is is that in Australia we end up with splits in the political parties on both sides of politics and most people if they know about the First World War will be aware of the fact that the Labor Party splits during the war but we often forget the fact that this is also in the time when the Liberal Party splits, with the Country Party being formed out of that side of politics. And I think this is a good way of sort of linking to what Peter has been talking about as well as talking about as well as talking about a very good article about the attempt to construct munitions in Australia during the First World War ... Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History if you’re interested in looking at it ... but it’s the fact that the war has an economic effect on Australia which the Second World War doesn’t have. It puts the country under strain and that strain becomes the catalyst for change in politics.
And we can see that on the Labor side, I think we can see that the Labor Party splits in 1916 because of the tension between a moderate part of the party and a more radical part of the party and as Stuart Macintyre says this is ... who ... in his history of the Labor Party ... it’s almost a generational thing, that the people who are the leaders of the party are the older, more moderate people, the people who are leading the split are a younger generation and their views of what the Labor Party should and shouldn't be doing is different to that older generation. And this really comes out of the war and George Pearce is the Defence Minister in that Labor Party government which splits, he talks about how it’s the nature of war ... events like war, that they have effects and he talks about you know Australia being a little boat, being stop ... being sort of tossed in a stormy sea and this is why the ... you end up with this split in the Labor Party.
The other party of course which I say which has a split which we forget about is the Liberal Party and we’ve got to remember that the Liberal Party comes into the First World War ... not enough has really been written about that Liberal Party which existed in 1914 ... this isn’t the Liberal Party of Menzies, it’s a very different sort of party ... is that that party had a leader, a strong leader in Alfred Deakin. Deakin has to resign just ... in the early ... just before the beginning of the war and he then gets replaced. When he gets replaced there’s no natural leader and you end up with various people being leaders who are contesting and so you have Joseph Cook who becomes the Prime Minister, you have John Forrest from Western Australia who thinks that he should be the leader and in the 1914 election, that election which happens just after the beginning of the war, you end up with a guy, William Watt, who’s the Premier of Victoria who can see there’s a Labor va ... that ... who sees there’s a vacuum in the federal party and thinks he can move from state politics to federal politics and get that position. Ironically he doesn’t ... having got into federal politics and actually being the Acting Prime Minister in 1918 while Billy Hughes and Joseph Cook are off you know dealing with the war conf ... peace conferences and stuff, he actually hates the thing of being Prime Minister and actually says can you come home ‘cause I’m sick of Prime Minister and want you to come back and take over again? So be careful what you wish for is a thing to say there.
But like I said the Country Party emerges out of the war and one of the things which happens is because the fact of the effect of war on agriculture, shipping is ... becomes very rare to coming to Australia because it’s more practical ... if the British are wanting to export wheat for example it’s better off if they get that wheat from Canada than come from Australia, that ship going to Western Australia and back to Britain, that ship if you put it on the Canadian route could do three trips in the time it’d take to do one trip to Australia ... you end up ... so there’s that economic trouble they have. There’s also increased government control. Because of inflation and things that ... the federal government puts price controls in order to stop the prices of quantities like meat ex ... you know expanding you know going up so much that people can’t afford to buy it. And in June of 1918 you actually had this massive protest in front of the Parliament House in Melbourne which is where the Federal Parliament met where they have like ... the newspaper reports don’t tell you how many there are but there’s enough to fill the main hall of the Victorian Parliament House ... and all these farm ... they’re all farmers who are protesting and they’ve all got a little badge of a piece of wheat ... sorry, piece of wool I should say ... on their lapel as a way of showing and they’re protesting about government controls on meat prices, saying that they should have the ... that that’s unfair, they should have the right to get ... to charge the price they want.
And of course that in 1918 ... you end up with sort of a bit of a recognition that you’re going to get a ... sort of a split is happening and during 1918, 1919 you end up with Country Party people going into elections and because it’s first past the post voting, you end up with ... if you have a Labor and a Liberal and a Country Party person the voting on the right is split and that means that the Country person ends up often winning and this is the reason we end up with preferential voting in Australia is because of the fact that the ... it’s a way of preventing the split in that conservative vote. But of course as we ... you might know that in the 1919 election and the 1922 election, the elections just after the war, the Country Party really grows in numbers and in 1922 they’re powerful enough that they manage to get rid of Billy Hughes as Prime Minister who’s been Prime Minister since 1915 so that Billy Hughes has not gotten ... Billy Hughes’ political career as Prime Minister is not stopped by the Labor Party, it’s actually stopped by the con ... on the left, it’s actually stopped by the Country Party on the right.
Now to other things I want to talk about although ... are I want to look at the way Mannix comes into the picture of politics in the war and then I’ll also sort of go from that looking at the you know how the issue of conscription in Australia and make a perhaps provocative statement to say that it actually would have been a good thing if Australia had conscription in the first world war. I think Mannix who of course was the Assistant Bishop, an Irish-born Catholic priest comes to Australia, he’s the Assistant Bishop of Melbourne and then he becomes the Archbishop of Melbourne. I think you’ve got to understand him in ... it’s ... to understand him you’ve got to understand the way he looked at himself, that this is the old Catholic Church which ... in which ... before the Second Vatican Council in which a ... the ... a bishop was a prince of the Church and viewed themselves in a sense of as being sort of in a way the head of the congregation in a way which we don’t understand church leaders perhaps doing today. And of course the thing is as though that what happens if you construct yourself as being the leader of his people and then the people are actually going in a direction that you may not be expecting them to and I think that coming out of say the things of 1917, that 1917 conscription referendum which happens at the end of 1917 is ... as by this stage that Mannix is the Archbishop ... is that he can see that the working class had been radicalised and not ev ... and that you know a large proportion of the Catholic population are working class and I can see in what he’s saying, you can almost see a shift that the people are out here and he is their leader so he has to follow them in order to lead them.
And if you ... and it’s a very ... it’s a very interesting thing, I don’t think he’s ... he’s being forced to make ... talk about the issue of conscription in terms of a class struggle and stuff like this and this is a sort of an academic Catholic prelate, it doesn’t ... sort of someone who probably wouldn’t have sort of given much interest to the class struggle yet he’s forced into this position because he can only be the leader of the co ... of the people, of his congregation if he can s ... if he moves to where they are. And this is exactly the same thing which happens in Ireland in 1918 when there’s a conscription debate there and you have the same thing where the much larger Catholic hierarchy there c ... realises that the population are against cons ... the idea of possibility of conscription which is coming in and they’re forced to move over and become the leader of it because they’re afraid the other alternative which is the political party, Sinn Fein, might be the leader of them and so they believe that they have to ... they put themselves into that position so they move in directions they may not have expected to.
Now that’s a good time to sort of just then sort of look at conscription and what I argue in the book ... so I’m actually telling you something in the book so you don’t necessarily have to buy it but just say I'm trying ... maybe trying to save you money compared to the others but there are plenty of other things which I’m not going to mention which are in the book ... is that ... how I put it is that if Australia had have introduced conscription in 1916 or 1917 and particularly the 1917 one is probably the one to look at, it actually would have been a ver ... a good thing because it would have been a more efficient way of dealing with the fact of who are the best people to go to war and who not. We often ... what we have to remember is that in 1916 when that first conscription was basically saying well it’s basically going to conscript everyone ... by 1917 the conscription model which was put up for the vote then is actually one which is more precise and what he’s saying is there will be a quota of people ... men who should be enlisting every month. If people volunteer to that amount then it ... those people ... then there’s no need to have any conscripts, you’ll only have conscripts to the extent you have to fill up that quota. And it’s a system ... they didn’t ... I don’t know if they actually mentioned the ... because they might have been a bit ashamed to say it but it was actually a system which New Zealand had introduced in 1916.
And it was a system which was a very efficient … well it was a half efficient system in New Zealand, what they did there was that they said they weren’t going to create a massive army, they just wanted to get enough replacements to keep the army they had and that’s what they do. The other part though is that you had local committees who would decide in their district how you’d come up with a quota and this is where the system fell down. If it had have been efficient it would have been able to look at ... rationally at the people in the community and saying these people are farmers and maybe they … there’s a need for some of these people to stay for the importance of production, maybe these people are people more in a position to go. What happened was you ended up with people in those committees who were saying the war needs as many people and they just would send everyone to the d ... and this ends up being to the detriment of the New Zealand economy. And we know what the New Zealand economy’s generally like so if this is to detriment you know that’s a real problem. I hope the New Zealand Ambassador isn’t here tonight.
The s ... when the ... so the 1917 conscription, it actually ... this is what people are voting for ... is actually a system like that, it would not have made the Australian Army larger, it just would have had it as a way of just replacing these people. The interesting thing of course is that no one really talks about the fact that in the Second World War the Labor Party introduces conscription, that it’s Curtin who introdu ... ah well for overseas service, I should say, that there is in the sense of when Curtin having said that the war is now expanding beyond the Australian territories of Papua New Guinea, for which there was conscription because that’s part of Australia, that because trips could be going further, say into the ... into what’s now Indonesia, that that area’s expanded and that happens under Curtin.
And that system of conscription is more along the idea of that model which New Zealand sort of had in theory and could have had in practice and what could have happened ... and what could have happened ... and I think could have happened in Australia in the first war, what happens is that you have the Chifley who is the Treasurer and what he’s saying is how do we balance the needs of the war effort to the needs of the economy? And finds as there are more and more American troops coming into the southwest Pacific there actually is less need for Australian soldiers and from 1943 he starts taking people such as farmers and other skilled people out of the army, putting them back into production, saying that’s the best way you can do with the war effort. And that will ... and that was ... and it shows you the way in which a perhaps ... one of the things we’ve been trying in this book is to look at some things about the War in a new way and hopefully that’s something that you will all find when you go to the bookshop and purchase a book after this talk today. Thank you very much.
PS: Thanks John. Good evening, everybody, and thanks for coming along. It’s been a great pleasure being ... working with these three gentlemen here and I hope to show you some of the fruits of it. This book’s called The War at Home, why isn’t it called The Home Front and it’s beca ... it’s not called The Home Front because the term ‘home front’ wasn’t used in Australia during the Great War. I discovered that from the National Library’s wonderful device of Trove. The phrase first appeared in Australian newspapers in May 1918 and it was used exclusively to refer to Germany so Australia didn’t have a home front. The book’s organi ... my section of the book’s organised in 10 chapters each of which is headed by a verb. First ‘Cheering’, looking at the outbreak of war, the war that everyone expected. This war didn’t come as a surprise, the exact time might have been a surprise but they knew it was coming. The National Library has this photograph of the very first shot fired by the British Empire in the course of the Great War. The battery at Fort Nepean fired on the Pfalz on the 5th of August and it’s recorded by a man who was there on the spot. ‘Loyalty’, that postcard which demonstrates Australia’s commitment to the empire, loyalty’s a watch word right through the war for Australians.
‘Accepting’, people accepted the war would cause casualties and of course in the middle of 1915 as this Norman Lindsay cartoon suggests those casualties came to return to Australia and who were they given to? Not to the government but in fact they were the responsibility of families to the greatest extent. Marina Larsson’s done a wonderful book called Shattered Anzacs which documents the extent to which families were responsible for the rehabilitation of wounded men. And then the other thing that dominates the war for Australia is the War Precautions Act which made practically anything that wasn’t compulsory illegal, it was the most draconian and extensive legislation Australia’s ever seen in wartime and if I had time I’d talk to you about some of the imposts that this Act made. I’m talking at the Parliamentary Library on Wednesday lunchtime about the War Precautions Act and the effects it had. Internment was a big deal for German Australians, about a 130,000 German Australians, a very small number of whom were interned but it scarred the German Australian community. That’s a program from the National Library’s collection for the Deutsches Theater at Liverpool and there was a whole community in the internment camps, principally Holdsworthy but the German Australian community never really recovered from the allegations of disloyalty that were directed towards it during the Great War.
But ‘Mobilising’ then, Australia was of course mobilised in the course of the war. First of all in a military sense and that’s a wonderful Norman Lindsay cartoon, I’ll read it out to you if you can’t see it. The recruiting sergeant ... the man asked the recruiting sergeant, ‘Any luck, Sergeant?’ ‘The usual three,’ he replies. ‘What, recruits?’ ‘No, cheers.’ The voluntary system in Australia failed by the start of 1916 and there was this pressure directed at eligible for the rest of the war. The other big mobilisation in Australia was the voluntary war effort and you can see one of the examples of it there, this time directed towards Belgian refugees but there were literally thousands of patriotic causes through the war and Australians supported this huge sector of the economy in a very big way.
Finally just to mention the word censorship, censorship of letters as in this case but also censorship of publications, that everything published in Australia virtually with the exception of the most remote local newspapers was censored by military officers which means in a sense that you can’t trust anything you read in the papers for Australia and the Great War and you have to find your way through that minefield. ‘Supporting’, and women supported the Great War in an enormous way. There’s a volunteer just before the 1917 conscription referendum pitching a badge, a flag on a man’s lapel. The patriotic middle class women were the absolute mainstay of the voluntary war effort and many ... and indeed they were the mainstay also of the protests against the war. Children were manipulated by both sides, both the ... in the conscription referenda pro and anti, used children as highly manipulable symbols. In schools children were virtually conscripted to knit and create things for the war effort. They’re victims in all sorts of ways. Finally another Norman Lindsay cartoon, this one headed ‘Shameless’, published in March 1918, and you can see the ... Norman Lindsay’s contempt for the man who will not go and I'm very interested in the man who stayed at home because in fact there the majority of Australian eligibles did not go to the war.
‘Jeering’, those who opposed the war and the song I Didn’t Raise my Boy to be a Soldier became the anthem of the pacifist movement and in fact was banned under the War Precautions Act. Sport became one of the litmus tests of loyalty so that patriotic sports which was supported by middle class patriots tended to dry up or continue under the badge of patriotic carnivals whereas working class sports continued but they were condemned for their disloyalty ... the word loyalty again ... for continuing to play sport when men were risking their lives on the western front. But all through the war ordinary life goes on and this cartoon by Mins in The Bulletin is to me wonderful. I’ll read it out to you again, the young woman on the left comes into a dress shop and says ‘Have you got a black costume that’ll suit me?’ And the dressmaker says ‘Well yes, we can make you one, why?’ ‘Well you see we only heard this morning that me brother was killed and I want to go to the dance tonight.’ And that sounds shocking, doesn’t it? Because we’re all attuned to being deeply respectful about the dead but here in the middle of 1918 you find jokes being made about dead brothers and I think it’s a sign that life goes on and that the extraordinary becomes normal in wartime.
‘Understanding’, faith, the ... that sermon published in ... or delivered in Hay in early 1915. Before any Australians are killed in the war the Reverend Lindon Webb muses, struggles with the religious significance of war and this is a sign I think that the war tested the faith of many Australians and actually damaged organised religion in this country because the ... basically the Protestant churches at least endorsed the war and when the war turned into this terrible costly struggle the churches were left embarrassed and exposed. Propaganda, propaganda delivered right through the war and as you can see the brutal imputations about the Germans ... some of which were true for Belgium ... but they kept through ... right through the war to the point where propaganda per ... tried to persuade people that they had to support this war because the Germans were going to invade Australia. And finally culture and the war created its own culture like this short stories by Harley Matthews but Australian culture went on. One of the shortfalls of Ernest Scott’s history was that he recognised that he didn’t do justice to Australian culture and guess what? Neither have I. I feel a great sympathy for Ernest Scott.
‘Enduring’, the idea of sacrifice. There’s the medallion presented to Henry and Maryanne Higgins, the judge, the Harvested Judgement judge whose son, Mervyn, was killed at Maghaba in 1916, a symbol of the enormous impact that the war made on Australians. Aborigines. Nobody seems to have looked at Aborigines during the Great War except that now we know about a thousand Aborigines joined the AIF. These are women from Lake Tyers Mission in Victoria where about 26 men went to join the war and one ... a Sydney clergyman musing on this phenomenon during the war said what have we done for them that they should fight for us? It’s a question which is at the heart of this. And the war als ... sorry, the volume also looks at relations between men and women. There’s a drawing by Ruby Lind, the Australian artist married to Will Dyson who died in the flu epidemic in London in 1918 ... 1919 representing the relations between men and women, both conventional relations and sexual eccentrics like William Chidley who died in Sydney in 1916.
Well the war obviously brought suffering, death and grief. That picture is ... to me is an enormously powerful one, it was pain ... it was drawn by Hilda Rix Nicholas, the Australian artist who married her husband ... what was his name, Harold? In October 1916 and he was killed on the western front the very next month and later ... a few months later she did this depiction of what desolation looked like. The war also introduced picking up that theme of the impact of the war on Australians’ religious feelings and John mentioned Mannix. The war deepened sectarianism in Australia which already existed but it really plunged Australia into a cavern of sectarianism that affected Australian life for decades to come. It almost doesn’t exist anymore but it was a real factor in the war and after. And again John mentioned the protests in Melbourne led into his case by Adele Pankhurst ... she’s the tall lady in the middle there ... enormous protests again in this case led by women protesting against the effects of the war economically which John and Peter have both spoken of.
‘Returning’, the end of the war, the armistice which coincides with the flu epidemic. Diggers, the Digger Gazette there representing the fact that 150,000 ... well two hundred and something thousand Australian troops came back from the war and formed their own community with their own ideas, their own beliefs, their own attitudes, their own legislation to govern the way they were to receive preference, an enormous change in Australian social and political life. And the idea of reconstruction, that poster to buy peace bonds where people are looking forward to the benefits of peace at the end of this terrible war.
And finally ‘Remembering’, the phenomenon of Anzac which is now such an inescapable part of the way we think of the Great War and after ‘cause it was invented during the First World War and that war grappled with the consequences for this society of losing that many men in the midst of that much discord. As John’s mentioned the conscription referenda which tore the country apart. In the middle there is Ernest Scott who is the progenitor of the project in a sense in that the very first thing I did was to read Ernest Scott’s volume and I now have an enormous respect for Ernest Scott. I mean I think in lots of ways he was a dull man but he did ... he tackled this enormous responsibility in ways that I don’t feel equal to.
And finally the war’s effects. There’s a souvenir from the Melbourne suburb of Canterbury ... I think it’s Melbourne ... yes, Canterbury in which the community remembers those that it’s lost during the Great War. It’s again from the National Library’s collection as most of the things that I’ve shown you tonight are.
So I’ve just given you a gallop through some images that look at the wonderfully rich tapestry of experience of Australia and the Great War, tragic and poignant, passionate. I feel very privileged to have worked on this volume along with Jeff, John and Peter and I do hope you enjoy it and get something from it. Thank you.
JG: Thank you to all three speakers. We’re going to have mics there for them so that you can hear them and there’s roaming mics here on the margins. Would you wait until you get a mic when I point to you and identify you for a question, please, so that the rest of us can have the benefit of hearing what you’re actually got to say. I think you’ll find that beautiful though this room is you need a pretty powerful pair of lungs to be heard from one end of the room to the other. So the floor is open for questions. If you keep them brief to maximise the opportunity around the room, please. Down here.
A: Thanks very much. Given that federation was only 13 ... 13 and a half years young, what was its influence on Australia’s ability to withstand the economic downturn or did it exacerbate some of the economic downturn, some of the recession?
PY: Is this on? Can you hear me?
PY: Yeah? Good. Look, that’s a very interesting question and I take it that that means you’re volunteering to help me with my new project. Thank you very much, I’ll ... we’ll speak later on about what particular bits you’d like to do. But yeah, look, I mean federation from an economic point of view was ... is a fascinating topic and a really big one that’s never really been properly explored. I mean to a large extent federation came about because of the depression of the 1890s that ... in Victoria in particular where the depression was probably at its worst you know it was looking for bigger markets and looking for recovery from the depression of the 1890s. Had a big part to do with it. In terms of the war it was probably nothing but positive. There were a few problems with the states in the early attempts at price controls in 1914, 1915 but you know once Billy Hughes sort of got the ... his hands on the lever ... and one of the extraordinary things about the war is the way that Billy Hughes from the moment he come in as Attorney-General ... and he was Attorney-General until yeah 1915 ... he was running everything, he ... there’s a problem in the mining industry, who looks after it? It’s the Attorney-General. There’s a problem with the wheat industry, who deals with it? It’s the Attorney-General. You know it was just extraordinary, the way that Billy Hughes sort of ran everything and in that sense it became very centralised but I think federation probably lessened the economic problems of the war. I mean it’s fascinating to think what would have ... the Australian response would have been if it hadn’t been for federation and that’s obviously a much bigger thing you know given that it had been so long before. I guess each individual state would have got its own war effort happening, each individual colony as they would have been. But that’s a big question.
JG: Down here, please.
A: Peter, you mentioned taxation during the war and that it was relatively low in Australia. Just wondering if you could say a little more about that and in particular about income ta ... introduction of federal income tax. It had interesting aspects in that it was sharply progressive, every pound earnt ... saw an increase in the tax rates, a ... much more sharply progressive than what we have now. Do you have any background on that and why it was introduced and whether the ... Joseph Cook perhaps would have introduced it had the Liberal Party remained in government?
PY: Look, I think it’s almost certain there would have been a federal income tax whether you know whoever was there. I think the critical issue is that the war was financed primarily through ... initially through printing money and then through borrowing, that although the income tax was introduced ... in the long-term historical perspective that was an important thing, to have ... the Commonwealth income tax came in. In terms of actually financing the war taxation played a relatively insignificant role you know we ... far more of it came from borrowing than from taxation whereas in the Second World War you know taxation was far higher. And you know that was really important. In terms of the background to the introduction of income tax, no, it’s not something that I looked at very closely and it sounds like you’ve looked at it more closely than I have and I’d be interested to know more about it.
JG: Down here, please.
A: I’ll try and avoid Peter Yule with my question. Peter Stanley perhaps or it might even tie into John Connor’s area. Peter, you mentioned disloyalty. Was there much of that? I’m thinking of you know the Easter rebellion and I remember the sort of television series and the ... ultimately the book before it, Dead Men Running, D’Arcy Niland suggesting there was but was there really?
PS: Yeah, it’s Koroit ... yeah, sorry, it’s a private joke, I’ll explain that in a second. Look, there are two aspects to your question, one is was there actual disloyalty? And the second is more important, of allegations of disloyalty. It got to the point where anyone who expressed any questioning of the war would be exposed to the charge of disloyalty and it became the litmus test so that the ... the people who were in favour of the war, the people who supported recruiting, the people who wanted conscription saw disloyalty everywhere in ... so for example in the great strikes of 1917 which came out of economic distress and frustration were immediately stigmatised as expressions of disloyalty and it ... I think the key word that underlines the schisms in Australian society ... not just between Protestants and Catholics and Irish and Australians and Germans and others ... there’s a whole series of chasms that open up and they all revolve around this allegation of disloyalty regardless of whether it’s real or not. And Koroit, which I’ve mentioned, yeah well I’ll introduce your thing. When I was starting my work Peter said you’ve got to look at Koroit which he’d written about and he’ll explain why.
PY: Look excuse me grabbing it but it’s something that I’ve looked at quite closely. My wife’s family is from the western district of Victoria and I’ve done quite a few local histories ‘round there and one thing that I found fascinating was Koroit, which is a very strongly Irish town, still is, just to the west of Warrnambool. Its population is ... even today is 75% you know identifiably Irish-Catholic surnames and it was even higher in the First World War. Most towns in the western district, those of you who know, Mortlake, massive avenue of honour of all the soldiers who’d volunteered and died. Koroit’s war memorial has 26 names on it and 24 of those are Protestant names. There were hardly any Protestants in the town and they all went off to the war. There were two Catholics volunteered in Warrnambool ... in Koroit and nearby little village of Crossley, the voting in the conscripti ... one person volunteered from Crossley which is very ... a very large community then and in the conscription referendum it was you know 400 votes to zero. And it was called in the local newspapers ... the Crossley Koroit area was called you know the ‘Kaiser’s Own Country’ and particularly after the Easter Uprising there was a total rejection of the war, I mean if you want to say they were disloyal, yes, they were, to the British empire, they had ... their loyalty was to Ireland and you know they expressed that you know any recruiting train that came through was pelted with rocks and you know they actually tried to lynch the local member of parliament when he came to speak in favour of conscription. It was very, very strong and yeah so it’s a ... it was a fascinating little vignette because generally Catholics enlisted at the same rate as anyone else but they didn’t around Koroit.
JG: Okay, I’ve got one there then one here then one up the back.
A: Hello, it was mentioned that unemployment was very high during the war and I was wondering how significant that might have been as a reason for enlisting.
JC: Yes, that’s very significant especially at the start of the war and we didn’t write our chapters together but we read each other’s chapters and I began to understand the economic disruption that the outbreak of war caused, for example the western Tasmanian minerals industry ... Zeehan? Basically exported to Germany. Well virtually overnight those miners were all unemployed and amazingly they end up in the 40th Battalion or the ... no, they end up in the 12th Battalion a few weeks later so unemployment had a huge effect ... oh and even more, in WA the great drought of 1914 or the drought that was on in 1915 meant that a lot of men enlisted because their jobs had disappeared because it hadn’t rained for two years. So there is a great relationship between enlistment and economic disruption. The problem is we really don’t know because nowhere on that attestation form do they ask the man ‘and why are you enlisting?’ You know the assumption might be it’s patriotism, it’s loyalty to the empire, it’s adventure but it could well be, and we really don’t know, how many of them enlisted simply because there was no economic alternative for them. Do you want to say anything else on the economic point there?
PY: Yeah look you know I’d just agree with that, that there’s a definite correlation, which I don’t think has yet been fully explored but between the areas of highest unemployment and the areas of high enlistment. The West Australian timber towns which were greatly affected by the drought, the New South Wales coal towns because the coal industry was ... had a big downturn during the war and you know I think that ... and the mining towns in Tasmania and South Australia in particular so yeah, there’s a definite correlation there but it’s very hard to get to the motivation for certain.
PS: And to add to that one of the reasons why they’re so enthusiastic for say making munitions in 1915 is because of the fact that it’s a way of getting some sort of economic revival happening in Australia because of what’s happened due to the beginning of the war.
JG: There’s one down here, please.
A: I wanted to ask the question about what I call Australia’s academic garrison, in other words what the university staffs did in support of the war effort both as propagandists, explaining why we were at war with Imperial Germany and so on and what they contributed scientifically.
PS: Thanks, John. You know the answer to that question already but nobody else does so I’ll say. The ... I think you’re absolutely right to say academic garrison. In the Boer war academics had been among the ... in the forefront of opposition to the imperialist war in South Africa. In the Great War Australian academics almost overwhelmingly immediately declared for the empire and they became as you say propagandists voicing the justification for the war that Australians were looking for. With certain exceptions, there was a lecturer in economics in Tasmania who had the temerity in September or October 1914 to suggest that not all atrocities committed in Belgium had been committed by the Germans and that there was probably bad on both sides and he was virtually run out of the state so that sort of atmosphere of extreme orthodoxy gained hold very quickly. The other aspect of your question is how academics contributed to the war effort and there again they laid ... they contributed their talents as they could so for example the Melbourne University respirator, which I don’t think entered service on the western front, but it meant that ... it demonstrated that Australian academics were attempting to give their skills, their talents, their expertise to this cause that they believed in passionately and it’s overwhelmingly so that that patriotic middle class heartland of support for the war was very strongly supported by academics who virtually abandoned any pretence of objectivity but endorsed the war effort completely and stayed that way for the rest of the war. Yeah.
PY: I’ll just add one thing to show what academics did but one of the things you find in George Pearce’s papers as Defence Minister is a report by a chemistry professor at Melbourne University after the use ... the Germans’ use of gas, poison gas on the western front and he’s used the press reports to try and give an analysis of what chemicals might have been used and that sort of thing. And so that you know Pearce had obvious ... you know the Defence Department had obviously said they wanted to find out about this and the University responded with you know trying to do a val ... you know an informed guess of what might have happened using the press reports.
PS: One aspect of their patriotism was to run out of their universities anyone with any connection, imagined or actual to Germany so professors of music were persecuted and harassed. It’s a very ugly part of Australia’s history. I was many times shocked by the fact that the sort of democratic and legal safeguards that we take for granted fell away and were completely ignored within weeks of the outbreak of war and it made me realise just how fragile the democracy that we take for granted is.
JG: Lady up the back there with a question? Yeah? No? Okay. Down here, yes, thank you, I’ve been ... not favouring this side out of any bias because I wasn’t seeing many hands here.
A: What were some of the reasons why the majority of eligibles didn’t enlist?
PS: I wish I knew, nobody asked them, they’re the great unknown in the Great War. The figures are very rubbery but at least a majority of eligible men didn’t enlist and although there were ... for example there were massive ... there were surveys of men, the responses for which have only survived in Victoria so for Victoria for 1916 there is a sample if you like of many of men explaining why they didn’t want to go ... business responsibilities, family responsibilities, the concern that they ... they would enlist if Australia was invaded but they wouldn’t go overseas to fight. There’s a whole ... Bart Zeno’s done a terrific article on this where he’s analysed the responses but there is almost no evidence of who these men were or what their motivations for not enlisting or not offering themselves for service. There are ... there’s a whole series of papers in National Archives of rejected volunteers’ applications so men who offered to go and were rejected for various reasons, mostly medical. But the man who would not go is a ... is unknown and of course at the end of the war, with the end of the war service as an Anzac became the highest expression of civic duty in Australia so those who hadn’t volunteered were now shamed into silence and they didn’t form any associations, there are no lists of who they are and I can’t think of any way of getting to their motivations. Don’t know.
JC: ... I just say that the enlistment rates in Australia, you can compare them to say other parts of the British Empire, that you have sort of enlistment at the beginning of the war but then it increases ... it actually isn’t ... the big lot of enlistment isn’t actually in 1914, it’s actually in 1915 and partially it’s a response to some events which happen in that stage, which is things like the sinking of the Lusitania and the German use of poison gas, the use of zeppelins to bomb Britain, these sorts of things which happen which intensify in Australia, sort of the Anzac landings in 1915 as well and then you have a peak there and then from there it just keeps going down and it just continues going down for the rest of the war so in Britain for example the decline is so much that in the beginning of 1916 they introduce conscription but if you look ... and that’s only in Britain, not in Ireland and ... but if you look at say enlistment rates in Australia, in Canada, New Zealand and Ireland you can just see that same sort of trajectory you know starts off high, gets a peak in 1915 and then goes down and continues to go down for the rest of the war if there’s no conscription introduced.
JG: We’ve got time for one more if there is one. Down here. Okay, okay. Sorry, mate, you missed out.
A: The Australian army had a very high tempo of combat operations in 1918. Would it have been possible for Australia to sustain that tempo of operations through into 1919 if the armistice hadn’t occurred?
PS: One of the other books I’m working on for the National Library is a book called What If History of Australia. Nobody knows what would have happened in 1919. But Michael McKernan’s doing a chapter for that in which he’s looking at the ... what would have happened if conscription had been introduced. And we can do a bit of a ‘what if’ on this scenario ourselves. When you think of what happened to the AIF in the summer and autumn of 1918 where you started to see disbandment, mutinies and some combat refusal I wouldn’t be confident that in 1919 if the Australian army hadn’t been reinforced as it ... the Australian corps hadn’t been reinforced as it wasn’t being reinforced whether we wouldn’t have seen at the end of the war you know combat refusal, units refusing to go back to the line. I think the AIF is very lucky that the war finished when it did and for the AIF the war finished in October because that was the end of its commitment. So it’s a ... I think it’s a very sobering episode in Australian military history but other people here could answer too.
JC: I’d just add you’ve got to remember due to the fact that there is no conscription in Australia but most Australians who enlist in the first world war do so by the end of 1915 so that means that any of those soldiers who were there in 1918 probab ... the big probability is that they’ve been in sort of through the battles of ’16 and ’17 so that I think you’re quite right, that the ability of those people to continue that sort of ... continue fighting the way they had been in those other years, I think it’s something you’ve got to wonder about.
JG: Ladies and gentlemen, as I said at the outset the authors will be upstairs shortly signing books and I’m sure they’ll be happy to continue the conversation with any of you who wish to continue to ply them with questions as they’re autographing your copy. I’ve been asked to make a couple of quick parish announcements tied to the estaminet and then I’ll move to thank our speakers. The first is to note that the Canberra International Film Festival is showing a new New Zealand animated film, 25 April, twice on the 11th of November and I believe there’ll be flyers for that as you go out the door if you’re interested with the details. The other is that at the National Archives on Wednesday, the 11th of November at 10am Michael McKernan whose name has been dropped assiduously on a number of occasions this afternoon will be speaking on the effect of the war in Australian society. It’s a free lecture but you are asked to book online.
One of the things as series editor that’s both a task and a pleasure is to read each volume in manuscript before I agree to its consignment to Oxford and the beginning of the production publication process. One of the things that struck me in reading the manuscript that has been the focus of discussion this afternoon has been echoed by a number of the speakers. There is so damn much about the war in Australia that we simply do not know. Far, far more in fact I suggest than about the details and the exploits of the AIF in various theatres abroad and there’s certainly a lot there that we still have questions about and that we still need to get to the bottom of but the comment that all speakers have made on a couple of occasions both in the answers to your questions and in their main remarks, that yes, well it’d be really nice to know that but really does speak to what an enormously open field of research and enquiry Australia in the first world war as opposed to perhaps Australians in the first world war still remains. If this was an audience of potential PhD students I’d be signing you up before I let you out because there’s certainly any number of really, really interesting and major topics there waiting for some eager student of any age to throw themselves at.
I want to thank our three speakers for their precis remarks on what is I can say and it’s the Christine Keeler defence, I would say this, wouldn't I? What is a truly fascinating book and which again as I think all three authors have hinted at if not outright stated only really outlines the dimensions of the subject and is able to cut down at various points in particular aspects but pointing the way to more work which I wouldn’t be surprised if any or all of them themselves end up pursuing in subsequent work. So let me on your behalf thank them for their remarks and let me also thank you very much for coming out on a late Monday afternoon to provide an audience and to engage with them with your questions and discussion so thank you very much.
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