Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

'In Military Parlance I Suppose We Were Mutineers': Industrial Relations in the Australian Imperial Force during World War I

Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

'In Military Parlance I Suppose We Were Mutineers': Industrial Relations in the Australian Imperial Force during World War I

Article excerpt

Mutiny in the Workplace

On 8 August 1918, the five Australian divisions that made up the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), working together as a single cohesive unit for the first time in World War I, participated in an offensive that broke the back of the German forces on the Western Front. This is popularly described as the 'black day' of the German army and is often seen as the 'beginning of the end' that, within a few short months, would lead to the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, thus marking the end of hostilities with Germany. (1) Five days before this 'black day' of the German army, John Bruce, serving in the 7th Field Artillery Brigade of the Australian Imperial Force, penned the following entry in his diary: 'Same old dope. Dodging work. Pritchard + I were kicking around the cookhouse all day. Peeling spuds etc'. (2) Bruce's entry stands in stark contrast to the typical historical narrative of this period; it reflects sentiments frequently expressed by Australian soldiers at the time but rarely reported within the historical literature. This paper seeks, in part, to rectify the relative scarcity of investigations into such sentiments, firstly, by exploring working-class men's attitudes towards workplace resistance and industrial relations within the AIF during World War I, and secondly, by placing these sentiments within these men's broader approaches towards military service as a job of work. (3) In doing so, this paper will also explore patterns of protest and resistance against work and against the military authorities and present a model for new avenues of inquiry for labour history into the oft-ignored world of the military. (4)

Understanding these reactions to work and the military is made difficult because of the way 'resistance' and 'protest' in the military were treated at the time, and, partially as a result of this, because of the way these themes have been treated since. (5) During World War I, soldiers were expected to be dutiful and subservient and any diversion away from this meant that an individual was failing in his duty. Similarly, within much of the historical literature 'heroes' were praised for their dedication to mates, their courage under fire, and their service to their people at home. Pride was placed upon soldiers who served nobly, who gave their lives for the King and Country, and who followed their school mates into battle to pursue the middleclass private schoolboy ambition to 'Play up] Play up] And play the game!' (6) One of Australia's most well known war 'heroes', John Simpson Kirkpatrick, is remembered most for his selfless dedication to others, and much less for his other indiscretions (such as deserting from the merchant navy). (7) Within this popular style of writing, refusals to work, or refusals to follow the orders of a domineering officer, have been portrayed as 'indiscipline', 'insubordination', or at its most extreme, 'mutiny'. (8) In the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 Ernest Scott described the 'Battle of Sydney', examined in detail below, as a 'mutiny'. (9) Scott focused upon the 'disorder' of the event, including looting and heavy drinking, without providing substantial detail surrounding the cause or intent of the event. (10) At no point, for example, does Scott refer to this as a strike or a form of industrial action. Those who dodged work, who complained about the military, or who were disrespectful to officers were portrayed as a shame to their King and Country, and unworthy of the uniform they wore.

For these reasons, much of the disciplinary problems of the AIF have been ignored or covered up. Rowan Cahill argued that, 'To minimise the number of actual mutinies, it seems the preferred Australian option has been, where possible, to treat alleged mutinous behaviour as something less legally controversial, thereby attracting less attention and scrutiny, and avoiding political fallout'. (11) Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill also argued that 'Australian defence authorities have successfully swept mutinies under the carpet'. …

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