Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Australia's Great War: Ian McGibbon Reviews the Recently Completed Centenary History of Australia's Effort in the First World War

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Australia's Great War: Ian McGibbon Reviews the Recently Completed Centenary History of Australia's Effort in the First World War

Article excerpt

On both sides of the Tasman the centenary of the Great War of 1914-18 has been a time for commemoration, reflection and revision. Many have attended events to mark particular battles or campaigns, embarked on pilgrimages to the sites of action, often to pay homage to a fallen relative, or familiarised themselves with long ago events in distant lands. Taking their cue from populist histories, their leaders have highlighted the importance of the struggle in the birth of their respective nations. At all levels of society, the centenary has sparked renewed interest in the experience of ordinary Australians and New Zealanders in their brutal encounter with industrialised warfare.

Like New Zealand, Australia made a tremendous contribution, relatively, to the British Empires war effort. It too raised two expeditionary forces in 1914, one to capture German territory near at hand, the other to join the fight in the main theatre. Australia's first campaign was on its doorstep, in New Guinea. New Zealand's capture of Samoa was similar, except that the Germans in New Guinea resisted and there were several clashes. The main Australian force, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), was similar to New Zealand's but much larger, as befitted a state five times larger in population. It headed for Europe in October in a joint convoy with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Both would fight at Gallipoli before heading to the Western Front. Elements of both would be left in Egypt, and would take part in the campaign to drive the Ottoman Empire's forces out of the Sinai and Palestine. Australian airman and seamen were to be found throughout the world in imperial units. In all, about 343,000 Australians took part in the war, and nearly 60,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. Those at home worried about loved ones, adjusted to restrictions on their freedom of movement (in the case of nationals of enemy states) or interaction, reacted to political upheavals and tried to get on with their lives. A more mature Australia emerged from its impressive national effort, but 'that development came at a heavy human and social cost'.

Modern-day perceptions of the conflict differ markedly. For some, Australia's involvement derived inevitably from an assessment, by both government and the majority of the people, of the importance to Australia's national interest of ensuring an imperial victory. Australia's security, both economic and physical, was bound up in the outcome of the war. Australia's fate depended on that of the British Empire. Others take the view (held by a minority at the time) that Australia was, as Robert Stevenson writes, 'an unwitting victim of a war from which Australia could have and should have stood clear'. From this perspective Australian lives were sacrificed to imperial ends well removed from Australia's interests or needs. There is also another strand of Australian historiography--'a third, populist block', Stevenson suggests, that 'is satisfied to recount tales of Australian derring-do in various forms of "diggerography" and in which 'a good story matters more than the dry facts of why and how'.

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This latter approach, designed more for bolstering book sales than for academic enquiry, draws some of its inspiration from the official history produced in the two decades after the Armistice, the twelve-volume The History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. The great achievement of Charles Bean, who had been a war correspondent with the AIF, this groundbreaking history provided Australians with an account of their effort that played to a nationalist agenda, emphasising the distinctiveness of the Australian digger, imbued with the ethos of the bush, and the 'Anzac legend'. In focusing on the achievements of the ordinary soldier, and presenting him as a natural soldier, Bean provided history from the bottom up, 'a new democratic history', in direct contrast to the top-down official histories produced elsewhere. …

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