Category Archives: First World War
Historians have long been engaged in a fractious, sometimes spiteful, debate about the legacies of the first world war. This is especially so because the politics of the war continue to resonate in our own discussions of national identity and purpose.
We debate the extent to which the Anzac tradition reflects our understanding of what makes a good Australian, and how important our cultural affinities are with Britain. Did the war curtail a progressive spirit, and entrench political conservatism, or did it encourage a new confidence in ourselves?
These evaluations were already present the moment the war ended in November 1918. Australians had endured a terrible trauma. Sixty thousand of them were dead from a population of not quite 5 million. Another 150,000 returned sick or wounded, physically and mentally.
Those at home were quick to draw attention to their own sufferings, too. They had known the war not only in its military dimensions, but as an ordeal of waiting and worrying, of constantly fearing the worst. The Victorian parliamentarian John Percy Jones simply declared the war
has kept me in a condition of mental agony. I am hardly able to realise even yet that the fearful times through which we have been passing are now over.
What, then, should we make of that sacrifice? Some called the nation to unity around the experience of the war, and in doing so elevated the Anzacs to the peak of Australian virtue.
In the federal parliament, Senator Edward Millen declared:
this war, amongst other things, has made Australia a nation in a sense that it was not before. It has given us a new conception of national life.
A divided nation
But it was also clear the war had driven apart Australians in the demands it made on the people. Calls to unity faltered, as intense debates over recruiting for the army crystallised in two failed attempts to endorse compulsory military service by plebiscite.
The conscription campaigns divided Australians bitterly. Those who voted against the principle found their loyalty to nation and empire questioned. Those in favour faced accusations they betrayed Australia’s future by sending its young men to die.
Australians voted against conscription in October 1916 and again in December 1917, but the effect was still to polarise Australian politics and society. The Labor Party split over the issue. Prime Minister Billy Hughes walked out and formed government with his erstwhile opponents.
The party’s now unequivocal anti-conscription sentiments found it tarred with the brush of disloyalty and ensured a conservative ascendancy in federal politics until 1929.
Even in private life, those political divisions were deep and abiding. One woman wrote to her soldier husband at the front that she had broken off friendships over the issue:
they don’t come here now since conscription I told them what I thought of them.
Returned soldiers as ‘most deserving’
It is small wonder that those on the political left – many historians included – should feel uncomfortable about the effects of the first world war on Australian society and culture.
The tendency of the war had been to draw Australia more closely into the British Empire’s embrace. The German threat provoked deep expressions of cultural unity with Britain from Australians, and further encouraged them to see their future security in terms of even closer defence and economic ties with the empire.
The Anzac tradition itself embodied those difficult politics, as it promoted the Empire-loyal “digger” as the embodiment of the Australian national character.
In Anzac’s rhetoric, Australian soldiers had proved themselves the exemplars of a series of desirable qualities such as courage, initiative, and loyalty to mates. But they had not so much achieved independence for Australia as raised Australia to equality within a British brotherhood.
For those on the political left, the veneration of the digger displaced all other potential contributions to the making of Australian nationhood, including the contributions of women, pacifists and political radicals.
It reorganised hierarchies of citizenship, so returned soldiers assumed the position of the most deserving, whether in terms of government largesse or in cultural terms as the embodiment of national character.
But conservative historians have naturally been much more comfortable with that interpretation of the war’s effects than their counterparts.
It speaks to a sense that Australians held close to their British descent and traditions, while also recognising the economic and security value of continued close ties. And it gave Australians a figure whose characteristics were not only to be admired, but emulated in civic life and subsequent conflicts.
A century on from the national trauma of 1914-18, the politics of that event remain present. The kind of Australia we prefer to see depends on whether we regret or embrace the effects of the first world war on Australian politics and culture.
As we gather again on the anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars”, we might observe that the conclusion of the war only started the long and continuing effort to come to terms with its meaning.
Before Anzac biscuits found the sticky sweet form we bake and eat today, Anzac soldiers ate durable but bland “Anzac tiles”, a new name for an ancient ration.
Anzac tiles are also known as army biscuits, ship’s biscuits, or hard tack. A variety of homemade sweet biscuits sent to soldiers during the first world war may have been referred to as “Anzac biscuits” to distinguish them from “Anzac tiles” on the battlefield.
Rations and care package treats alike can be found in museum collections, often classified as “heraldry” alongside medals and uniforms. They sometimes served novel purposes: Sergeant Cecil Robert Christmas wrote a Christmas card from Gallipoli on a hard tack biscuit in 1915.
The back of the biscuit reads “M[erry] Christ[mas] [Illegible] / Prosperous New Y[ear] / from Old friends / Anzac / Gallipoli 1915 / [P]te C.R. Christmas MM / 3903 / [illegible] / AIF AAMC”. More than a Christmas card, biscuits like these gave family at home a taste of foods soldiers carried and ate in battle. Archives around the world hold dozens of similar edible letters home.
Biscuit as stationery
This Anzac tile was made in Melbourne. In pencil, an anonymous soldier has documented his location directly on the biscuit’s surface: “Engineers Camp, Seymour. April 2nd to 25th 1917.”
In her history of the Anzac biscuit, culinary historian Allison Reynolds observes that “soldiers creatively made use of hardtack biscuits as a way of solving the shortage of stationery”.
Army biscuits also became art materials on the battlefield. This Boer War era “Christmas hardtack biscuit”, artist unknown, serves as an elaborate picture frame.
Incorporating embroidery that uses the biscuit’s perforations as a guide, it also includes bullets, which form a metallic border for the photograph mounted on the biscuit.
A tin sealed with sadness
During WWI, any care package biscuit that was sweetly superior to an Anzac tile might have been called “Anzac biscuit”. Eventually, the name “Anzac biscuit” was given to a specific recipe containing golden syrup, desiccated coconut, oats, but never eggs.
Anzac biscuits held in our archives evoke everyday experiences of baking and eating. In one case, the biscuits also tell a story of loss. Lance Corporal Terry Hendle was killed in action just hours after his mother’s homemade biscuits arrived in Vietnam. The tin was returned to his mother, Adelaide, who kept it sealed and passed it down to his sister, Desley.
Australian War Memorial curator Dianne Rutherford explains that the museum will never open the sealed tin, because “this tin became a family Memorial to Terry and is significant for that reason. After Terry’s death, Adelaide and Desley never baked Anzac biscuits again”.
Today, biscuit manufacturers must apply for Department of Veterans’ Affairs permission to use the word “Anzac”, which will only be granted if “the product generally conforms to the traditional recipe and shape”. Variations on the name are also not permitted – in a recent example, ice cream chain Gelato Messina was asked to change the name of a gelato from “Anzac Bikkie” to “Anzac Biscuit”.
The Anzac tile, on the other hand, rarely rates a mention in our commemorations of Anzacs at war – although school children and food critics alike undertake taste tests today in an effort to understand the culinary “trials” of the Anzac experience.
Scholar Sian Supski argues that Anzac biscuits have become a “culinary memorial”. What if the biscuits you bake this Anzac day ended up in a museum? What stories do your biscuits tell?
Lindsay will be launching a three year project about biscuits called “Tasting History” during the Everyday Militarisms Symposium at the University of Sydney on April 26.
She is recruiting participants for upcoming biscuit tasting workshops. Sign up here.
The first world war was significant to the formation of Australian national identity and defining national characteristics, such as making do and mateship. This is well acknowledged.
But it was also a technical war, which spurred advances in knowledge and expertise. Combined with the status of professionals in the public service, it profoundly reshaped Australia. It also led to the development of universities as places for training and professional qualification, as well as important research.
Before the war, concern about efficient use of public money and a desire to protect the public led governments to pass legislation to control professional practice. This ensured only qualified doctors could provide medical treatment, only qualified teachers taught in schools, and so on.
The recently released book The First World War, the Universities and the Professions in Australia, 1914–1939, edited by the authors, outlines how the war sped up these developments and widened the range of workers, such as physiotherapists, who saw themselves as part of a professional group.
New knowledge created in war
During the war, surgeons and dentists developed new techniques, such as traction splints and blood transfusions. The use of saline fluid to treat shock dramatically improved the survival rate of the wounded. Advances in plastic surgery – led by New Zealand-born but London-based Harold Gillies and assisted by Australian surgeons – helped those with devastating facial injuries. Psychiatrists contended with the new condition of shell shock.
Engineers gained experience in logistics and the management of people. John Monash received a Doctor of Engineering in 1920 for his wartime developments in the coordinated offensive.
… treatment of large numbers of wounded and the stimulus of war necessities presented the opportunity for close observations and investigations on a large scale, such as were not readily possible in civil life.
The “regular contacts with officers of other medical services” allowed developments to be exchanged.
Professional contributions to the war
Professionals were also important to the war effort at home. Linguists provided translating and censorship services, lawyers drafted international treaties, while scientists and engineers developed processes for the mass manufacture of munitions and tested materials for use in military equipment.
Often these initiatives combined expertise from different professions. Medical, engineering and science professors at the University of Melbourne developed a gas mask, manufactured in large quantities but not deployed.
Back in Australia, the Commonwealth government established the first federally funded research body – the Advisory Council of Science and Industry (later CSIRO) in 1916. Its first task was to tackle agricultural production issues, such as the spread of prickly pear. Australia’s farm production was essential to the war effort.
University research expanded after the war, as government and industry worked with the universities.
The greatest need was for doctors and nurses. Medical students who had broken their studies to enlist were brought back from the front to complete their training before returning. University medical schools shortened courses to rush more graduate doctors to the front. Women medical graduates, such as Vera Scantlebury-Brown, also served in Europe, although they could not join the medical corps.
The Great War’s broader influences
More broadly the experience of travelling to European theatres of war exposed professionals to international ideas. Architect soldiers, in particular, brought the influences of European and Middle-Eastern sites to Australian buildings.
A notable example is the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons building. This was designed in a Greek revival style by returned soldiers Leighton Irwin and Roy Kenneth Stevenson. It opened in 1935 to house the college, which accredited Australian surgeons and sought to raise the standard of surgery and hospitals, efforts also spurred by the Great War.
Repatriation efforts cemented the position of professionals in the public sphere. Doctors determined eligibility for invalid benefits and managed treatment.
Returned soldiers received training, both in technical skills and also professional degrees. Many took the opportunity of studying in overseas institutions, including British and European universities, schools of the Architectural Association, London, or the Royal College of Surgery.
Australia’s universities remitted tuition fees for returned soldiers. This allowed individuals such as Albert Coates to go to university and become a noted surgeon. Coates would later gain renown for his work with prisoners of war in the second world war.
How did the war change professions?
After the war, new communication technologies created careers in radio broadcasting and advertising.
In response to the cascade of new knowledge, and to keep up with professional developments, university courses became increasingly specialised, at the expense of the generalist. The gaps created by specialisation allowed new groups to seek professional status, often competing with other professionals.
For instance, the number of war wounded, combined with poliomyelitis (polio) epidemics, created unprecedented demand for masseurs. Universities had offered individual subjects in massage at the turn of the century. Now masseurs pressed for full degree status, clashing with doctors who controlled medical practice.
By the time of the second world war, masseurs had become physiotherapists, with professional status.
Nurses had learnt new skills during the first world war and achieved greater social recognition. To build on this, the Australian Nursing Federation (now known as the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation) – established in 1924 – lobbied for university qualifications. It sought to overcome the prevailing conception nursing was marked by “service and sacrifice”, ideals encouraged by the reliance on volunteer nurses during the war.
All Australian states had nursing registers by 1928, admitting only qualified nurses. Although nurses could attend subjects in some universities before the second world war, a full university course waited until the latter part of the 20th century.
A new national sentiment, fostered by the war, was evident in all of these developments. Professionals no longer fought battles only within local and state areas. Now they argued in general terms, confident their expertise supported national priorities.
Professionals lobbied through national associations, such as the Institution of Engineers (established in 1919), the Australian Veterinary Association (established in 1926), and the Law Council of Australia (established in 1933). These groups sought to raise the standing of their members and defend their interests, on this new basis.
The histories of professional groups and higher education have often focused on the period after the second world war, and the expansion of the sector. However, this overlooks the role of the first world war in transforming Australia into a nation that valued expertise, knowledge and professional standing.
James Waghorne, Academic Historian, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne and Kate Darian-Smith, Executive Dean and Pro Vice-Chancellor, College of Arts, Law and Education, University of Tasmania
Some political catastrophes come without warning. Others are long foretold, but governments still walk open-eyed into disaster. As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looms, most analysts agree that there will be severe economic and political consequences for the UK and the EU. And yet a no-deal Brexit still remains an option on the table.
The July crisis in 1914 that lead up to World War I, which I’ve analysed in a recent paper, provides a timely case study of how politicians chose a catastrophic path. World leaders knew that that a European war would most likely bring economic dislocation, social upheaval, and political revolution – not to mention mass death – but they went ahead anyway. Far from thinking that the war would be short – “over by Christmas” as the cliché goes – leaders across Europe shared the view expressed by the British chancellor, David Lloyd George that war would be “armageddon”.
So why did European leaders not swerve away from catastrophe in 1914? A toxic mix of wishful thinking, brinksmanship, finger-pointing, and fatalism – features currently increasingly evident in the Brexit dénouement – conspired to make the risk of catastrophic war appear a legitimate, even rational, option.
First, a small number of leaders, mainly generals, believed that war would cleanse society of its materialist and cosmopolitan values. The more terrible the consequences, the more effective the war would be in achieving national renewal. War, they argued, would bolster the values of self-sacrifice and cement social cohesion. Instead, material shortage led to military defeat and social disintegration in Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Second, some politicians believed that the prospect of catastrophe could be used to lever their opponents into concession. Kurt Riezler, adviser to the German chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, had coined the term Risikopolitik, or risk policy. He predicted that, faced with the possibility of a European war, the great powers with less at stake would back down in any given crisis. But this logic broke down if both sides considered their vital interests in danger and if both sides faced similarly catastrophic consequences from war. This led to absurdities in the July crisis, such as the comment from Germany’s Kaiser William II that: “If we should bleed to death, at least England should lose India.”
Third, politicians framed the crisis as a choice between two catastrophes. If they backed down, they feared the permanent loss of status, allies, and, ultimately, security. For Austro-Hungarian leaders, compromise rendered them vulnerable to further Serbian provocations and the slow disintegration of the Habsburg empire. War became the lesser of two evils, a highly risky strategy that might, but probably would not, avert certain ruin. As states began to mobilise, military and political leaders feared that whichever side moved first could gain a significant military advantage. Waiting too long risked the dual catastrophe of being at war and suffering an initial defeat. This logic was particularly important in the spiral of mobilisation on the eastern front, between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany.
Fourth, as war became increasingly likely, leaders began to deny their own ability to resolve the conflict. Politicians began to allocate blame for the coming conflict on their opponents. Lloyd George, who went on to become prime minister in 1916, later famously claimed that Europe had “slithered” into war. The denial of agency encouraged the sense of fatalism that facilitated the outbreak of war. If leaders perceived war as inevitable, this inevitability made it psychologically easier to accept the appalling consequences.
Fifth, individual decisions, such as allies assuring their unfailing loyalty to their partners, were often intended to avoid war by forcing the other side to back down. Yet, instead of making concessions, states doubled down on their demands and stood full-square by their allies, without urging compromise. The outcome was the rapid escalation of the crisis into war.
Seasoned diplomats at the helm
Most of the key diplomats in July 1914 had recently resolved major international crises, notably during the Moroccan Crisis in 1911 and the remaking of the Balkans during regional wars in 1912 and 1913. They had the diplomatic skills to avoid disaster.
Yet, by framing the July crisis in terms of an existential test – of status, territorial integrity, and the value of alliances – leaders in all the great powers trapped themselves in a spiral of escalating tensions and decisions. This meant they began to rationalise war as a possible option from early July.
Although the consequences of a no-deal Brexit will be much less terrible, there are similarities in certain patterns of thinking and political behaviour, from the few who embrace disaster to the systemic pressures which prevent compromise. Avoiding disaster in 1914 would have required framing the stakes of the July crisis in less zero-sum ways and refusing to rationalise a general European war as an acceptable policy option. It required leaders with enough courage to compromise, even to accept defeat, and for states to offer rivals the prospect of long-term security and future gains in exchange for accepting short-term setbacks.
One hundred years ago – on November 11 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – millions of men laid down their guns.
This was Armistice Day, the end of the first world war.
Armistice Day – later known as Remembrance Day – has since been commemorated every year.
Ending the war
On November 11 1918, aboard Marshall Ferdinand Foch’s train carriage, a few plenipotentiaries of Germany and the main Allied nations signed a short document that ordered a ceasefire, effective from 11am. In doing so, they put an end to the global carnage that had started in August 1914 and had killed more than 10 million combatants and 6 million civilians.
Notably, though this document stopped combat, it did not formally end the war. Indeed, Germany had sought an armistice in order to negotiate a formal peace treaty. This peace was secured eight months later, on June 28 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference.
The Armistice also didn’t resolve localised conflicts resulting from the war. These raged on in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East through to the early 1920s.
But for most nations involved in the first world war, the armistice of November 11 was the day the fighting finally stopped, which is why it has become a major commemorative event across the globe.
The first Armistice Day
On the first Armistice Day, November 11 1918, crowds cheered on the streets of Allied countries such as Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US, France and Belgium. People rejoiced at the ending of a period of total mobilisation that had affected every aspect of their lives, inflicting unprecedented hardship on soldiers and civilians alike.
But for those who had lost the war, the news of the armistice came as a shock. While some were relieved the conflict had ended, the sudden collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires provided a breeding ground for revolutionary movements and further internal conflicts. For them, Armistice Day was a moment of anguish and bitterness.
The second Armistice Day (1919)
After its first iteration, Armistice Day became a more formal and sombre commemoration, and was often held at war memorials. People were encouraged to remember the dead with respect and solemnity.
A dedicated time for silence became part of the ceremony and has been central to Remembrance Day commemorations ever since. In Britain, King George V requested a two-minute silence, which was observed from 1919 onward across the Commonwealth. In France, the minute de silence was instituted in 1922.
Silence meant time for contemplation, reflection, introspection and, above all, respect. In multifaith empires where atheism was progressing, the gesture could conveniently replace a prayer.
Remembrance Day was deemed a civic duty for many, and the veterans would often take a lead role in its commemoration.
From then on, Armistice Day increasingly became known as Remembrance Day. The focus was no longer on the armistice and the end of the war: it became a day to remember, grieve and honour those who had died.
The notion of sacrifice became central to Remembrance Day, as those still alive tried to give meaning to, and cope with, the deaths of their loved ones. The language of memory honoured the deceased, acknowledging that they had not sacrificed themselves in vain but for institutions and values such as country, king, God, freedom and so on. However, as time passed, this language came to be increasingly contested.
Remembrance Day: the inter-wars and the second world war
Remembrance Day was also used to protest against war in general. Some mourners and veterans refused to attend official commemorations. In doing so, they showcased their anger at the state-sanctioned carnage that the first world war had been. In France and Belgium in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, large pacifist movements used Remembrance Day and some war memorials to stress the futility of war and nationalism.
Such Remembrance Day protests were of openly political nature, and historical contexts altered the meaning of these demonstrations. Across Nazi-occupied Europe, clandestine Remembrance Day ceremonies were used as a sign of protest against German occupation during the second world war, and to remind them they had been defeated in the previous war.
Remembrance Day now
Today, the commemoration of the November 11 armistice is marked in many countries across the globe (mostly those on the “winning” side of the war) under various names: Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Poppy Day, 11 Novembre, National Independence Day or Veterans Day. For some, the day is a public holiday.
Every state celebrating Remembrance Day grants different meanings to its commemoration. Speeches in France deplore the loss of lives and insist on the value of peace during official ceremonies. In Poland, however, the day marks the rebirth of the nation and a time to celebrate.
In the US, the commemoration is centred on the veterans of all wars, while in Australia few people attend Remembrance Day. The crowds prefer attending Anzac Day on April 25 – a more patriotic service and a public holiday.
As the first world war fades further away in time, one way to keep remembering those who died in this conflict has been to progressively include the commemoration of the dead of more recent conflicts in Remembrance Day ceremonies, as is the case in the US, the UK and France. The commemoration therefore remains relevant to a larger population but also prevents the multiplication of special days for official state commemorations.
Today, as in the past, protests continue to be a component of Remembrance Day. Recently, a man was fined £50 in the UK for burning a poppy on Remembrance Day to protest against current deployment of British forces. The commemoration has also been mobilised by different far-right movements across Europe to advance their agendas.
A centenary of remembrance
A hundred years after the event, Remembrance Day and first world war memorials still provide a time and place to remember those who fought and fell in the conflict. For the most senior citizens among us, this is their parents’ generation; a past they still live with.
On November 11 2018, to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, you may choose to attend a Remembrance Day service. You may choose not to, or not even notice that it is Remembrance Day.
During the minute of silence, you may reflect on the meaning of war and its long-lasting impacts, its futility or its glory, think about a family member, or the weather. This degree of versatility partly explains the endurance of Remembrance Day. An official and public event, but also a personal gesture that everyone can embed with their own meaning.
As we commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, it is appropriate that we pay tribute to the thousands of largely forgotten people who formed a significant social and political coalition at the time of the first world war: those who fought against conscription, and against the war, including a significant number of conscientious objectors.
Military registration and training for all Australian men aged 18 to 60 was compulsory from 1911. But there was no provision in Australian law that required men to enlist for active service overseas. Signing up for such service was voluntary, and with the promise of a short war, there was no difficulty for recruitment officers finding their men.
However, as news of the horrendous losses at Gallipoli from April to December 1915 and the slaughter on the Western Front from mid-1916 filtered back to Australia, enthusiasm for overseas duties began to wane.
Australia was not meeting its recruitment target. Only about a third of eligible men were volunteering.
Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes determined that the only way to increase enlistment numbers was to impose conscription. He decided to hold a plebiscite (sometimes referred to as the “conscription referendum”) to carry out what he saw as his obligation to the Empire, and to do so with the consent of the Australian people.
But there were many vociferous voices from the trade union movement, the Labor Party and an active women’s coalition campaigning for a “no” vote. Religious adherents, too, found themselves well represented in the “no” campaign, with many Catholics, Quakers, Christadelphians, Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the forefront of the pacifist movement.
Archbishop Daniel Mannix was a leader in the Catholic Church in Melbourne. He took a strong stand against conscription, adding that the war was “just an ordinary trade war” driven by trade jealousy. Conscription, he maintained, would simply reinforce “class versus class” social injustices.
Remember, too, that the British had, in April 1916, put down with force the Easter Rising in Ireland. Almost 2,000 Irish were sent to internment camps. Most of the leaders of the Rising were executed in May 1916. Mannix was Irish-born.
Margaret Thorp, a Quaker, was another strong voice in opposition to the war, and critical of the support for the war by the mainstream churches. A member of the Anti-Military Service League, she later joined others to inaugurate a branch of the Women’s Peace Army in Australia and, later, a branch of the Sisterhood of International Peace that supported the international No-Conscription Fellowship.
On October 28, 1916, Prime Minister Hughes put the conscription ballot to the vote. It was defeated by a margin of 3%.
The following year, Britain sought a sixth Australian division for active service. Australia had to provide 7,000 men per month to meet this request. But voluntary recruitment continued to lag behind requirements. On December 20, 1917, Hughes put a second conscription ballot to the people. It, too, was defeated, this time by a larger margin (7%). The war continued to the Armistice with volunteers only.
By the end of the war, over 215,000 Australians had been killed, wounded or gassed. Only one out of every three Australian men who were sent abroad arrived home physically unscathed.
During the 20th century, Australian law developed a variety of positions on conscientious objection. Such status today relies on an applicant meeting the requirements of the Defence Act 1903 as amended in 1939. Conscientious objectors need not have deeply held religious beliefs. But they must be able to ground their objection in moral beliefs, and be able to articulate them.
People who were not able to be officially recognised as conscientious objectors in Australia during the first world war were prosecuted when they failed to register. While historical records are impossible to collate accurately on this subject, some 27,749 prosecutions had been launched across the country by June 30, 1915. Stories of the tragic social consequences for these men, and for conscientious objectors, are legion. Objectors particularly were often maligned as cowards and self-seekers. But the historical records illustrate that theirs was not an easy path. They did not lack courage. In many respects, the choices made by conscientious objectors required a greater determination and certainty of belief than was needed by the men who enlisted voluntarily.
There is a permanent memorial for conscientious objectors in Tavistock Square, London, and one is planned for Edinburgh, Scotland. There is a tribute at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City for the pacifists Joseph and Michael Hofer, who died in Leavenworth Prison in 1918 while incarcerated for refusing military service.
It is regrettable that Australia has no public memorial to our forebears who campaigned against compulsory military service, and the war itself, for reasons of conscience and faith. As we commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, there is no better time to remedy that oversight.
War is often seen as a death knell for the arts, but during the first world war the Australian government mobilised some of the country’s most renowned expatriate artists to paint the conflict. Hired essentially as eyewitnesses to war, these men were stationed at the front and tasked with creating art on the battlefield.
The idea of using art to interpret and commemorate the war was first raised by Will Dyson, an Australian expatriate cartoonist working in Britain, who went to the Western Front as Australia’s first official war artist in late 1916. Dyson drew candid studies of Australian soldiers. In images such as Coming Out on the Somme (1916) he deftly captures the glazed detachment and vacant stares of the men who had just returned from, as he described it, “gazing on strange and terrible lands”.
Perhaps sensitive to the public at home, most Australian official artists avoided sketching the graphic violence of the war. But there were some exceptions. Will Longstaff’s sketchbook, for instance, contains an image of a dismembered leg, bone protruding from a mess of flesh and cloth. His composition shows the severed limb in the centre of the sketch with a grassy field of poppies in the background, an arrangement at odds with the human evidence of the impact of war.
By 11 November 1918, the Australian art collection consisted of an eclectic array of images of the battlefield. But it represented a very narrow view of the Australian war experience. Most official artists had been sent to France and Belgium. The eyewitness role of artists – a position they did not challenge – meant they painted only what they observed at the front. As a result, the collection was dominated by paintings of the soldiers and battlefields in Europe. Other theatres of war, such as the Middle East where only George Lambert had been stationed, were represented by much fewer images.
The focus on the Western Front meant the army was privileged over other services, such as the Navy and Flying Corps. The absence of the Navy was particularly criticised by members of the Australian press at the time, who complained that while Britain and Canada had employed their best artists to paint naval pictures, the Australian Government had done nothing.
The Canadian and British art schemes also made concerted efforts to include the home front in their collections. And they employed women artists, albeit to paint women’s wartime labour, such as workers in factories. Additionally, the Canadian art scheme hired painters from a range of Allied countries, embracing diverse styles and interpretations of the conflict.
The Australian collection was more nationalistic in tone, employing only Australian artists. While some of the nation’s most eminent artists of the day painted for it, lesser known artists, many of whom had served in the Australian Imperial Force, were also commissioned.
Often images that less skilfully portrayed the war were included because of their eyewitness value, such as works by Ellis Silas, who had served as a signaller on Gallipoli in 1915.
The Australian collection also stood alone in its neglect of the war experience at home and of women artists. Missing from the collection were images of the preparations for conflict, the training camps, the embarkation of troops, women’s wartime efforts and experience, (including their roles as nurses and volunteers in the warzone and as paid or unofficial workers at home), and of the bitter political disputes that divided Australia during the war.
These lacunae in the collection were addressed to some extent in the decades after the war. But even then, the focus remained largely on a battlefield narrative – more narrowly defining “war experience” than either the British or Canadian art.
George Lambert’s iconic painting of the Australians climbing the cliffs on Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April 1915 is a fascinating example of post-war mythologising. Despite travelling to the peninsula in early 1919 to study the battlefields and create as accurate a representation as possible, he took some artistic liberties with this canvas.
Veterans complained that the soldiers should be depicted in the peaked cap of the early uniform they had actually worn in 1915. But Lambert painted all the men wearing the slouch hat, which had become synonymous with the Australian soldier, consolidating the painting’s distinctly Australian character.
Other images also show an emerging national mythology. Dyson’s cartoons and sketches, many of which were a powerful indictment of the conduct of the war, represent ideas about an Australian type.
He portrayed the humour associated with the larrikin soldier in images such as Small Talk (1920). Depicting two soldiers in conversation in a bomb crater, he captures their droll joking: “No Brig., I says send me back to the boys – the transport’s no good to me I never joined the war to be a mule’s batman!”
Arthur Streeton painted the battlefields where Australian soldiers fought. He saw in soldiering life a deeper and more meaningful example of the development of a particularly Australian masculinity: “It[̓s] extremely novel and exciting over here and it’s the only way in which to form any idea of Australian manhood.”
Many official artists drew on the devastated landscape of the battlefield as an allegory for the destruction wrought by war. Taming the Australian bush, a trope popular with Australian audiences before the war, became survival on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East.
George Lambert was the only official artist stationed in the Middle East during the war. He interpreted this theatre in terms of his experience painting the Australian landscape. The light and colours of Australia permeated much of his wartime work, framing the experience of the soldiers and their environment in familiar imagery that made the conflict appear more immediate for audiences at home.
Australia did not employ any women as official painters during the war, but female artists created numerous images of their wartime experience, and their images show what the collection might have gained had they been commissioned. Australian born artist Iso Rae’s painting of the military camps in France was later acquired for the collection.
Australia’s first world war art collection has been revised and reshaped across the last century and now represents a broader experience of the conflict from a more diverse range of artists. But the works created during and immediately after the war fed into a national mythology that privileged a narrative of the Australian soldier on the battlefield, coming at the expense of a more nuanced story of Australia in the war.
The Australian war art collection is held at The Australian War Memorial.