A hundred years ago today, on opposite sides of the world, two political statements set the table for the birth of Australia as we know it today. In London, Colonial Secretary Harcourt announced that the Dominions of the British Empire – that’s to say the essentially self-governing ‘white’ colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa – would be consulted about any peace signed at the War’s end. On the same day Australian Prime Minister Fisher declared that his government would send every available fighting man to support the mother country in her hour of need.
In April 1915, the Empire needed Australians and New Zealanders in the eastern Mediterranean, and both statements were made in the context of ANZAC commitment to the upcoming battle against Ottoman defences on the Gallipoli peninsular. The grim course of that campaign would transform the self-image, international status and economic fortunes of Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, and consign to history the uncomplicated parent/child relationship expressed in the announcements of 14 April. I’ll talk about New Zealand another time, but for now here’s a brief glimpse of the forgotten Australia that marched to Gallipoli that spring.
When war broke out in Europe, Australia was in trouble. Its separate states had been formally inaugurated as a self-governing federation in 1901, but they remained a quarrelsome bunch burdened by a stagnant economy and competing to attract a dwindling flow of immigrants from Britain. Apart from an estimated 200,000 (largely ignored) native Australians living in the interior, a sparse European population of about five million (virtually all of British descent) was concentrated on the coasts.
The outbreak of war in Europe, coming immediately after election of the new Labour-led federal government, sparked the first major display of national unity in Australia’s history, as the conflict was greeted with a wave of public enthusiasm comparable with that in Britain.
Relatively humble loyalty to Britain and almost universal public approval of the War were still in full effect after eight months of fighting, not least because the conflict was bringing a steady improvement in economic conditions. Though Australian industry was not sufficiently developed to enable a wartime boom on the scale of, for instance, the USA or Japan, pressure from Europe to produce manufactured goods, and weapons in particular, was laying the groundwork for rapid post-war industrialisation. Meanwhile exports of meat and metals to Europe were mushrooming, helped along by a healthy budget, excellent port facilities and good railways, and the collapse of exports from Europe was opening doors to important trading contacts with the USA and Japan.
Economic growth would be maintained, and Australia’s share of world trade would rise by 25 percent during the War, but unadulterated national enthusiasm for the imperial fight would disappear forever in the ghastly trenches of Gallipoli.
It wasn’t that the perceived British blunders and slights at Gallipoli, along with the huge and undeniable cost in lives, made Australians unwilling to fight. Though resistant to conscription, Australians poured into British theatres throughout the War, often serving with particular distinction, and the country’s relatively tiny population eventually contributed about 322,000 men to wartime service. These suffered more than 280,000 casualties (including 60,000 dead), the highest rate of attrition experienced by any wartime national army. The difference after the horrors and scandals that accompanied Australia’s terrible introduction to modern warfare was that Australians no longer fought as obedient, uncritical servants of Empire. They learned to fight as Australians, rather than as British ex-patriots or state residents, and to fight for Australia, if necessary in defiance of imperial edicts.
This wasn’t true at once, or true of all Australians. After Fisher’s resignation later in 1915 (another by-product of the Gallipoli campaign), the government of William Hughes, first as Labour leader and later at the head of a Liberal coalition, pursued a firmly pro-British policy throughout the War – but it was never able to introduce conscription in the face of political opposition, and earned widespread mistrust amid consistent popular and press disapproval of British war management.
A hundred years on, Australia still recognises the British monarch as head of state, and is still nominally ruled by a governor-general, but in practice nobody has told Australians what to do since Gallipoli.