Broken Nation

Linking the history of the Great War to the home front

Broken Nation

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War

by Joan Beaumont

Allen & Unwin, $55 hb, 656 pp, 9781741751383

If you read only one book about Australia’s experience of World War I, as the deluge of commemorative publications marking the outbreak of the war becomes a veritable tsunami, make it Broken Nation, an account that joins the history of the war to the home front, and that details the barbarism of the battlefields as well as the desolation, despair, and bitter divisions that devastated the communities left behind.

As the war claimed more and more lives, enlistments steadily declined. It is not an uplifting read, but Beaumont’s comprehensive and relentless narrative is a fine achievement, and it will surely become the definitive account of its subject. Bringing together military history and the extensive historiography on divisions on the home front, within a conceptual frame that highlights the process of memory-making, Beaumont provides a path-breaking and sobering work.

As its title signifies, Broken Nation underlines the destructive impact of the war on Australia, thus challenging the official view that the war was a creative experience, ‘giving birth to the nation’ and the celebrated ‘Anzac spirit’. Beaumont’s clear-eyed account of the obscene carnage produced by industrialised warfare – and the seeming indifference on the part of military commanders and political leaders to young men’s lives as they were mown down, again and again, by enemy machine guns – draws on the often eloquent diaries and letters of the men (and women) who served. ‘God help us all,’ wrote ‘Pompey’ Elliott amid the slaughter at Fromelles – ‘it is cruel indeed’. At Pozières, boys became, in the words of another witness, ‘horrible, putrid masses of flesh’. At Polygon Wood, one survivor recalled, ‘there were on all sides the groans and the wailing of mangled men’. Across battle sites, wounds became infected, amputations were rife, gas destroyed lungs, faces were smashed beyond recognition, and soldiers cried like children. Men exhorted to prove their manhood on the battlefield felt ‘utterly crushed and unmanned’.

Considerng the war from the perspective of the men themselves was an approach popularised by Bill Gammage in his influential book The Broken Years (1974), which placed the individual soldier’s experience at the centre of the story, an approach also made vivid in Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli (1981). But, as Beaumont notes, sympathy for the Anzacs can deflect anger from those who sent them to war and kept them there. It can also obscure the larger politics of the war, including Britain’s use of colonial forces to prevent Germany from becoming the dominant power in Europe and to achieve its aim of dismembering the Ottoman Empire – ‘with consequences that still haunt the Middle East’ – which is surely an understatement.

Beaumont reminds readers that, at Gallipoli, the Turks fought not as a nation – then non-existent – but as defenders of the multinational and largely Muslim Ottoman Empire. When Ottoman forces launched a counter-attack on the Allied forces on 19 May 1915, their infantry could be heard moving forward ‘chanting a rhythmic “Allah! Allah!”’. And just as the British Empire deployed colonial forces at Gallipoli – including Australians, New Zealanders, and Indians – so the French used Algerian soldiers. ‘World War I was … a European war,’ Beaumont reminds readers in the first chapter, but ‘one that, thanks to imperial global stretch, sucked into its maw millions of people around the world’. Later, in Chapter Four (‘1917: The Worst Year’), contemplating the costly war of attrition on the Western Front, she again reminds us of the value of colonial forces to the British Empire. With ‘global imperial resources, Britain had the capacity to outlast Germany’.

‘Australian governments were never consulted about the decision to go to war, the formulation of war aims, or changes in military strategy’

They were resources that the British government could deploy as they wished. Beaumont reminds us several times that as a result of Australia’s lack of political independence, Australian governments were never consulted about the decision to go to war, the formulation of war aims, or changes in military strategy. ‘As ever,’ she writes in Chapter Seven, when reporting discussions about the leadership of the Allied effort in France, ‘the British government did not consult Australia’. The Australians were colonial forces under imperial command and were deployed, as it happened, in some of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front, with some of the highest casualty rates.

Beaumont’s title echoes Gammage’s, but there is a significant change of emphasis. It was not just the lives and morale of soldiers that were broken by the war, but the élan of the nation itself. World War I broke the nation’s spirit. The new Commonwealth of Australia, which had already achieved a global reputation for advanced legislation, lost its boldness, independent-mindedness, and capacity to lead the world in democratic reform, succumbing instead to the forces of conservatism, imperialism, insularity, and xenophobia. In World War I the Australian nation, despondent and debilitated, lost its way.

Embarkation of HMAT Ajana from Melbourne, 8 July, 1916  (photograph by Josiah Barnes, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial [AWM PB0084])Embarkation of HMAT Ajana from Melbourne, 8 July, 1916 (photograph by Josiah Barnes, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial [AWM PB0084])

Rather than a new sense of national independence arising from the trauma of war, a new breed of imperial ‘loyalist’ appeared on the scene, demanding the repression of dissent, the imprisonment of opponents and deportation of agitators (including Adela Pankhurst) and aliens, Bolsheviks, and Catholics, all in the name of ‘loyalty to the British empire’. ‘The Australian patriot,’ one Protestant church leader insisted, ‘is a British patriot.’ Following his trip to Britain, where he was famously lionised, and the defeat of his proposal to introduce conscription, former Labor prime minister, British-born W.M. Hughes assumed the leadership of the new Nationalist party and became the most vociferous of Empire men. (Beaumont makes much of Hughes’s Welsh identity, which he certainly liked to project, but he was English-born, in Pimlico, London.) ‘We are loyal to the Empire first and foremost,’ Hughes told an Australian election crowd in 1917, ‘because we are of the British race.’ For its part the Victorian branch of the Labor Party denounced him as an ‘Imperial sycophant’. If he accepted an invitation to join the Imperial War Cabinet, claimed the Labor Party, Hughes would forfeit Australia’s power of self-government and that would be ‘disastrous for Australian ideals’. What were Australian ideals? In 1902 H.B. Higgins had written an essay on ‘Australian Ideals’, in which he predicted that Australia would have to choose between militarism and social equality. Clearly, Australian ideals were being contested and redefined by the war itself.

‘In World War I the Australian nation, despondent and debilitated, lost its way’

The Labor Party, which had formed the first national Labor government in the world before the war, was shattered by division, disempowerment, and recrimination. Its members were accused of disloyalty and treason, as were a wide range of other vulnerable groups, including the feminist pacifists who liked to sing, ‘I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier’. German Australians, some of whom had lived in Australia for decades, or had even been born in the country, were reviled as ‘enemy aliens’. At the end of the war, 6150 people of German and Austrian descent were deported in an act of persecution for which Sir William Deane, as governor-general, issued an apology in 1999.

Six long chapters of Broken Nation cover a year each from ‘1914: Going to War’ until ‘1919: Peace and Memory’, with the middle chapters giving substantial attention to the battles against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, including the work of the Light Horse in Palestine; trench warfare on the Western Front in Europe; and the conscription and election campaigns in Australia, characterised as another kind of warfare, fought along class, sectarian, and gender lines. Beaumont’s military metaphors emphasise the parallels. Debates over the desirability of conscription for overseas service ‘re-inforced existing battlelines’. Unfortunately for Hughes, in 1917, political warfare at home and the forthcoming federal election prevented him from attending to military strategy at the Imperial War Conference in London.

In a prologue to Broken Nation called ‘Joe Russell’s War’, Beaumont tells us of her own relationship to those who fought in World War I. Joe Russell, her great-uncle, enlisted in 1917, after his girlfriend sent him a white feather. She dedicates the book to her father, ‘a child in World War I, who, as a man, believed that no one should be forced to kill’. It seems to have become de rigueur in recent years for Australians to preface any commentary on the war or the Anzac tradition with a statement of their family’s own military service (‘my grandfather served at Kokoda, my great-grandfather was at Fromelles’), which is itself a resuscitation of one of the divisive legacies of World War I, the divide between the privileged status of those who served and the less honourable ‘stay-at-homes’ or ‘shirkers’. Now, with new online access to military records, made possible through massive government funding, military history has spawned a new and flourishing form of family history. And family history has in turn become the new face of military history.

At the same time, as a result of what Beaumont calls ‘today’s memory politics’, war experience has been promoted as Australia’s definitive historical experience. Intertwined with the historical narrative, Broken Nation provides a series of reflections on the ways in which particular battles – including Gallipoli, Fromelles, Pozières, Amiens, Passchendaele, Beersheba – have been commemorated in monuments at the battlefields and at the Australian War Memorial, and in other cultural forms such as painting and film. After John Howard’s election as prime minister in 1996, there was a flurry of new memorial building. And for the first time, veterans and their families could make fully funded pilgrimages to battle sites across Europe, the Middle East, New Guinea, and South-East Asia. Shaping historical memory has become an increasingly expensive business as the costs of war continue down the ages.

In discussing the great strike of 1917, which began in the New South Wales railway workshops in an effort to defend working conditions and attracted support from other unions and working people across Australia, Beaumont notes that this event, unlike the battles of war, has largely been erased from modern Australian memory. She attributes this to changing political values: with neo-liberalism triumphant there is no interest in recollecting the collective struggles of workers. But in whose interest, one must ask, is the excessively funded commemoration of Australia’s foreign wars? Discussing the argument over what constituted ‘the finest single feat’ of World War I, an accolade for which there would seem to be many contenders, Beaumont notes, in passing, that ‘[collective] memory and historical accuracy are not one and the same’. This observation might be applied more broadly to the understanding of historical memory and narratives of war. The myth of Anzac was promulgated to enable Australians to live with the otherwise unbearable carnage of World War I. Broken Nation helps explain its provenance and continuing power.

Published in February 2014 no. 358
Marilyn Lake

Marilyn Lake

Marilyn Lake is Professor in History and ARC Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her first book, based on her MA thesis, was A Divided Society: Tasmania during World War I (1975). It was followed by The Limits of Hope: Soldier Settlement in Victoria 1915–38 (1987). Her current research focuses on the international history of Australian democracy.
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