Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Catholics Need Not Apply? A Case for Anti-Catholic Bias in the Selection of AIF Officers

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Catholics Need Not Apply? A Case for Anti-Catholic Bias in the Selection of AIF Officers

Article excerpt

In August 1914 Australia found itself drawn into the world conflict that would become known as the Great War. (1) At the time that Australia pledged itself to the support of the Empire in the war, for legal reasons the standing Australian Army--a tiny regular army of staff, technical and coast defence specialists known as the Permanent Military Forces (PMF) and a large part-time force of conscripts known as the Citizen Forces (CF)--could not be ordered to serve outside Australia. (2) To address this issue, the government authorised the raising of a special, all-volunteer force, members of which enlisted for service anywhere in the world for the duration of the war and up to four months after the end of the conflict if needed. This force was named the Australian Imperial Force, or AIF. (3)

During the war 412,953 men and women enlisted into the AIF and 331,781 departed Australia for active service. (4) Of the numbers who embarked, 63,705 were Catholic; this was the second largest religious group to serve in the AIF and expressed as a comparative percentage represented a number slightly higher than the percentage of Catholics in the national population.

With this in mind, it should be presumed that Catholics would represent an equal or at least close percentage of the officers of the AIF; however, as this paper will demonstrate, this was not so.

One of the ingrained beliefs connected with the 'history' of the AIF is the supposed 'fact' that the AIF was an egalitarian, democratised force, drawn from a 'classless' society where Jack was as good as his master. In particular, this view propounds as fact the belief that AIF officers were drawn from the same recruiting base as the enlisted man and were fully representative of the whole of Australian society--the extension of this was that AIF officers were supposedly inherently both better than their British counterparts and closer to their men.

Various well-known commentators have made this claim. For instance, Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps from January 1918, wrote after the war:

   There was ... no officer caste, no social distinction in the whole
   force. In not a few instances, men of humble origin and belonging
   to the artisan class rose, during the war, from privates to the
   command of Battalions. The efficiency of the force suffered in no
   way in consequence. On the contrary, the whole Australian Army
   became automatically graded into leaders and followers according to
   the individual merits of every man, and there grew a wonderful
   understanding between them. (5)

As recently as Anzac Day 2011 the President of a large RS&L sub-branch, eulogising the supposed democratic nature of the AIF and its officer corps, is quoted as saying that during World War One British officers 'could still buy a commission', the inherent drawbacks of this system being apparently so self-evident that the speaker didn't bother to expand on it. (6) The sheer historical ignorance of this statement boggles the mind, given that commission by purchase in the British Army had been abolished in 1871 as part of the Cardwell Reforms.

The myth of the egalitarian Australian officer is based on the notion that the officers of the AIF were drawn without bias or discrimination from a largely classless society, whereas the British officer was drawn from the restricted pool of a privileged upper class. On this, Charles Bean, the 'Bard of the AIF', wrote that:

   ... it mattered not whether a man was a labourer or barrister,
   tradesman or clerk, mechanic or farmer, engine-driver or policeman,
   baker or stockbroker ... (7)

An examination of Australian society at the time and of AIF enlistment records reveals that claims such as these could not be further from the truth.

Australia in 1914 was definitely not classless, it was a society divided sharply between a small elite of 'haves' at the top and a mass of 'have nots' at the bottom, buffered by a largish middle class. …

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