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.
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.
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.
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.
… 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.
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.
Warning: This story contains images of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who are deceased.
The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who served with Australian forces in the first world war is estimated to be in the range of 1,000-1,200. But the precise figure will never be known, because a number of those who served changed their names and birthplaces when they enrolled to get around racist enlistment practices.
Despite fighting and dying for Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders still weren’t considered citizens upon their return from the war. Many of these veterans were also denied repatriation benefits, and excluded from returned services clubs.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have long sought to gain recognition for the service and sacrifices of their men and women. Some do this by telling stories in their families and local communities about the military careers of their forebears.
These stories often take the form of oral histories. Oral history projects by groups of Aboriginal people have proven valuable for redressing the unrecognised service and racist treatment of their ancestors who served in the Australian Light Horse during the Sinai-Palestine Campaign of 1916-18.
Although most Australians know little or nothing about the Battle of Beersheba, the Australian government funded its centennial commemoration at Beersheba (now in southern Israel) in October 2017.
One hundred Australian and a few New Zealand military history reenactors attended the joint service as part of a commercial tour, during which they rode in period military outfits along the route of their ancestors.
A group of Aboriginal men and women, who were descended from some of the estimated 100 Aboriginal members of the Australian Light Horse, also participated in the tour. Several had ancestors who were in the “Queensland Black Watch”, a predominantly Aboriginal reinforcement unit.
The group’s participation was enabled by a transnational network of organisations, but the key driver was Rona Tranby Trust, which funds projects to record and preserve Aboriginal oral histories. In 2017, it a group of Aboriginal men and women to complete 11 histories of their ancestors who fought and died in the Sinai-Palestine Campaign.
Like the other reenactors, Aboriginal participants were honouring their ancestors’ courage and sacrifice. But they also wanted to document the neglected stories of their service, and the racial discrimination their forebears experienced.
Here we share, with permission, some of the stories that came from the trip, and from the family history projects the group members continue to work on.
Gunditjmara man and retired Army Sergeant Ricky Morris was officially invited to lay a wreath on behalf of all Indigenous veterans at the service in Beersheba. Morris is the 19th of an astonishing 21 men and women Anzacs in his family. He served in a progeny of the Light Horse unit of his grandfather, Frederick Amos Lovett.
At a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were neither citizens nor counted in the census, Frederick and his four brothers left the Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission, 300 km west of Melbourne, to sign up.
But their service counted for nothing. Gunditjmara people were subjected to a “second dispossession” when they were forced off Lake Condah under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The scheme granted land to returning soldiers, but like almost all Aboriginal applicants, the brothers were denied soldier settlement blocks.
Morris is a member of the Victorian Indigenous Veterans Association Remembrance Committee and gives talks at schools about Aboriginal culture and his family. He interviewed two elderly aunts for his family history project, which he described as:
…a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of those who fought and died for Australia, and the diversity of Australians who put their hands up to answer the call.
Mischa Fisher and her daughter, Elsie Amamoo, undertook the tour to obtain information for a website about Mischa’s grandfather, Frank Fisher.
Frank was born into the Wangan and Jagalingou community in the goldmining town of Clermont, 1,000 km north of Brisbane. He was one of 47 men from Barambah Aboriginal Settlement who enlisted in the first world war. While Frank was away, his wife Esme was prevented from accessing his salary. After Frank was discharged, he was again placed under the control of the superintendent at Barambah.
Mischa and Elsie have interviewed Frank’s descendants, and accessed archival footage from the Ration Shed Museum – an Aboriginal heritage, educational and cultural centre. Elsie only recently learned that Frank, who is also the great-grandfather of Olympic 400m champion Cathy Freeman, was a member of the “Black Watch”.
While training for a reenactment of the Light Horse charge at Beersheba, she tearfully told a reporter what the project meant to her:
To me, it feels like I have got a missing piece of the puzzle of who I am […] That’s what it basically means to me: just being able to have that ability to close the gap in terms of my identity and knowing who I am and where I fit in the Australian history, but also within my family as well.
Michelle and Peta Flynn
Sisters Michelle and Peta Flynn are descendants of “Black Kitty”, a Cannemegal/Warmuli girl, who, in 1814, was among the first group of Aboriginal children placed in the Parramatta Native Institution at the age of five.
The sisters have been researching their family history for over 20 years. Their ancestors include the three Stafford brothers, who were in the Light Horse.
At Beersheba, Peta explained her motivation for writing a book about her great uncle, Charles Stafford:
My daughter, niece and nephews will be able to take [the book] into their schools and communities and actually be proud of who we are and where we come from – and ensure our family’s history will not be lost to future generations.
The experiences of Ricky Morris, Mischa Fisher, Elsie Amamoo, and Michelle and Peta Flynn show how exploring family histories can generate feelings of solidarity, honour and closure.
Although group members were on a reenactment tour, their emotions were typical of the inward pilgrimages often experienced by genealogical tourists. Past and present family connections were heightened by being there; feelings of sadness, solidarity and pride arose.
At the same time, these stories show the benefits of combining academic, public and vernacular accounts to study silences and absences in the histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The official commemoration at Beersheba will only ever be studied by a handful of specialist scholars, but the family histories of this group will have enduring value for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians alike.
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.
We have just concluded four years of commemoration of the centenary of the first world war and, although the guns fell silent in November 1918, by Christmas many Australians were still separated from their loved ones.
For Australians serving overseas in WWI, celebrations such as Christmas were particularly difficult, a reminder that the war had laid waste to their routines and taken them away from their families.
We can see from historical documents that every effort was made to reproduce the form and content of a traditional Christmas meal, whether that be on board a ship, in the mess or even in the trenches
On active service
Maintaining the traditions of Christmas could be logistically difficult. It was often simply a slightly larger amount of food than the normal rations, with additional treats, such as the half pound of Christmas pudding that Major-General John Monash procured for every man in his Third Division in 1917. Alcohol was a welcome addition.
Christmas hampers and billies sent from home provided particular joy to those lucky enough to receive them.
Some, however, experienced Christmas dinners like that of Private John Chugg of 1st Light Horse Field Ambulance, who complained “it was a miserable Xmas” in Egypt in 1914: “boiled beef unpeeled potatoes and tea without milk… [and] no mail or anything to cheer us”.
Sapper Alfred Galbraith described Christmas day in Ismailia Camp, Egypt, in December 1915 in a letter to his family. Each man chipped in to purchase a turkey and
chickens more like humming birds, soft drinks and a few biscuits. The chickens were dealt out 1 between 5 men and some of them would not feed one let alone 5 men, the one we got we tossed up to see who would get it & I won but I half it with my pal & then the two of us went & bought some […] biscuits & some tin fruit.
Alf is depicted in a photo of the dinner, sitting awkwardly on canvas at the end of a row of soldiers, mess tins in front of each and an occasional bottle, likely of beer. Alf’s Christmas letter concludes nostalgically “Dear Australia the land of my Birth which we will all be glad to see again … it will be a glorious day if I live to see it out … ” It was to be his last Christmas.
A special meal could have the effect of making the war recede, if briefly, for the soldiers who partook of it. This is the impression gleaned from the menu for the 1917 Christmas dinner at the “A” Mess of the 3rd Australian Divisional Headquarters in France, led by Monash.
The hand-drawn menu features bucolic sketches of rural French life, and a list of dishes in a mix of French and English, signalling the prestige of the officers’ dinner.
The 10 courses included hors d’oeuvres (olives and “Tomato au Lobster”), potage _(“_Crème de Giblet”), poisson, entrée (chicken), viands (pork and ham), legumes, sweets (three choices) and a cheese tart, ending with wine and coffee.
The “B” Mess dinner at the Headquarters was almost as sumptuous, but with fewer courses. Its more simple menu included a humorous script, poetry and parodies. When the food concluded a toast was made to “Absent Ones”, drunk “while softly murmuring the words ‘Not lost but gone to CORPS’”. Notably, the term “Lest We Forget” was used to remind diners of good etiquette!
Christmas in transit
The voyage to active overseas service was a mixture of excitement, trepidation and monotony. Food service broke the boredom of long days at sea. On board the SS Suffolk on Christmas day 1915 diners were treated to a multi-course dinner, opening with olives, mock turtle soup and salmon cutlets in anchovy sauce. The next course featured iced asparagus, beef fillets with mushrooms and prawns in aspic, before the food became even more serious, with four types of meat, baked and boiled potatoes, and beans.
Four deserts followed, including plum pudding with both hard and brandy sauces. Like many special occasion menus of the war, diners signed their names on the back.
Aprés la guerre
The desire to be “home by Christmas” had been widely expressed from the very first year of the Great War, yet when the armistice finally came in 1918, Australians on active service still had a long journey ahead of them and faced another Christmas away from home.
In 1918, the 2nd Australian pioneers officers’ Christmas dinner took place “somewhere in France”, featuring a menu entirely in French save for the words “plum pudding” and “God Save the King”. Two half pages of the menu were dedicated to “Autographs”.
The souvenir menu card from the 13th Australian Field Ambulance 2nd anniversary dinner, held on Christmas Day 1918 in the Palace of Justice, Dinant-Sur-Meuse, Belgium likewise has a page for autographs. The festive menu features an extensive list of desserts.
Christmas dinner in 1919 saw Australians who had served in Europe returning home on the SS Königin Luise, a German ship allocated to Britain as part of war reparations. A menu saved by Sergeant Tom Robinson Lydster bears no references to the war.
A wreath of holly frames an eclectic menu including “Fillet of Sole au Vin Blanc, Asperges au Beurre Fondu” but also “Lamb cutlets, Tomato sauce, Roast Sirlion of Beef”. The Christmas element is provided by “Plum Pudding, Brandy Sauce, Mince Pies”. More than a year after the end of the war, some surviving Australians were yet to celebrate Christmas on home soil.
Christmas traditions for Australian soldiers, nurses and medics helped maintain cultural normalcy during overseas service. Yet Christmas on active service could be a time of significant stress, a reminder of loved ones far away and of fallen friends. Unfortunately, for those who returned to Australia, forever changed by their experiences, Christmas was not always what they remembered or had imagined.
On November 11 1918, aboard Marshall Ferdinand Foch’strain 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.
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.
This is the first in a series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
In October 1918, a young man was temporarily blinded on the Western Front and evacuated to hospital. For four long years, he had served in the German Army alongside 11 million men.
Whether his blindness came from a gas attack or a sudden bout of nerves is still being debated. But it is clear that, like hundreds of millions of people at the time, his wartime experience shaped the rest of his life.
This was during the first world war – the foundational event of the violent 20th century – and that young man was Adolf Hitler.
Sparked in the Balkans as a result of European nationalism and imperialrivalries, the first world war raged from July 1914 to November 1918. It pitted the 48 million soldiers of the Allies – led by the French, British and Russian empires – against the 26 million soldiers of the Central Powers – led by the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, who lost the war.
Over four long years, the world collapsed in what was then the largest industrial war ever fought. The conflict left over 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians dead.
Over 20 million men were wounded – both physically and mentally – rendering them unable to resume civilian life. What’s more, the war facilitated the spreading of the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people in 1918-19.
And for what?
The Allies’ “victory” in 1918 did not result in a safer and better world, and the first world war failed to become the “war to end all wars”.
Conflict raged on in the Middle East and colonial outposts right through the 1920s. For many, war did not stop with the Armistice of November 11, 1918.
In fact, given the scale of devastation across Europe, it is not clear who won what.
“Winners” and “losers” alike lost population, resources and infrastructure. Yes, there were marginal gains here and there for some, but most countries came out of the bloodshed crippled financially. Some were politically crippled, too.
Perhaps one clear winner did emerge from the conflict, however: the United States.
To a lesser extent, Japan, too, benefited from the conflict. Fighting on the same side as the Allies fuelled the country’s militarisation and imperial ambitions in Asia.
Another outcome of the war was the disintegration of the centuries-old Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, alongside the more recently-formed German empire, forever transforming the world’s political landscape.
The first world war also prompted the Russian Revolution, which further altered the course of the 20th century.
The “winners” were not immune from turbulence, either. France and Britain were confronted to various challenges in the colonies that had supported them throughout the conflict, in Africa or in India for instance. Local populations demanded more autonomy and at times even rebelled against their colonial masters.
The new world that emerged from this global conflict was one filled with hope, but riven by unrest, revolutions and ethnic conflicts.
A series of peace treaties, the most memorable one being the Treaty of Versailles of June 1919, endeavoured to secure and build a global peace, laying the basis for new international institutions such as the League of Nations. Its role was to prevent future wars through conflict resolution and diplomacy. But the treaty also required the demilitarisation of Germany, demanded that Germany acknowledge its responsibility for causing the war, and inflicted severe war reparations on the country.
The end of the fighting also brought more challenges. Tens of millions of soldiers were demobilised and returned home, prompting issues related to public health, unemployment and domestic violence. Hitler, for example, returned to Munich with no family, no career prospects and no place to stay. He would resent the Treaty of Versailles his whole life, and claim that Germany was not defeated on the battlefield, but stabbed in the back by internal enemies – the Jews, the left and the republicans.
But let it not be said that the first world war caused the second, nor that it made Hitler who he subsequently became. In the late 1920s, Germany was doing pretty well under the Weimar Republic – so well that this period was dubbed “the Golden Age”. Pacifism was a strong bipartisan force in 1930s France, Britain and Belgium. Another future was entirely possible.
Yet, in the inter-wars years, the repercussions of the first world war remained omnipresent.
Old empires had left a vacuum for new states like Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to form, and the borders of those new states were soon contested.
Even the 1929 financial crash was partly related to the first world war. This was because states accumulated debt to finance the conflict, and their debt increased even more as they continued borrowing to pay war reparations after the war had ended. This contributed to global inflation and financial insecurity, two factors of the 1929 crash. The first world war – or rather, its consequences – seemed endless.
And it is those consequences which undeniably created some of the conditions which set the second global conflict ablaze. Not least through armament, such as tanks, military aviation, submarines, chemical weapons – all of which became weapons of choice during the first world war and played a crucial role in the second.
But the second world war had its own intrinsic causes not directly related to the first world war. These included the development of new totalitarian ideologies, mass media, anti-Semitism, and the failures of the League of Nations as well as liberal democracies to oppose dangerous regimes.
Interestingly, some historical actors and historians believe that the two world wars cannot be separated, and form, in fact, a Thirty Years’ War.
Certainly, the repercussions of the first world war are still being felt today. Intergenerational grief and family history spurs hundreds of thousands of people to engage in digital commemorations or commemorative tourism at former battlefields.
The land, too, remains deeply affected. In Belgium and France, for instance, war-time explosive devices continue to kill people, and will still be found for hundreds of years to come.
In some places, the soil is so contaminated by chemical agents from the first world war that nothing has grown there since.
Finally, much of the geopolitical struggles of modern times date back to the first world war. The Middle East is a case in point. Decisions taken during and after the war laid the basis for ongoing conflicts due to contested boundaries and spheres of influences in the region.
The end of the war was not the victory the Allies claimed it was. But politicians and military leaders had to justify the dead and the enormous sacrifices they had demanded from their people. Thinking back, the most chilling part of the vain bloodbath is that the citizens of the belligerent nations did support the war and its sacrifices for years, some until the breaking point of revolt.
The first world war was a turning point in history as it irremediably altered political, economic, social and cultural life around the globe. First world war studies remain one of the most active fields of historical research today precisely because of the relevance of the conflict throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Understanding the first world war is thus an exercise in comprehending the depth of human commitment to destruction, violence and resilience at a scale never experienced before 1914. But it also reminds us of the fragility of peace, and of our duty as citizens to remain vigilant of nationalism.