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100 years on

August 4th, 2014

It’s a century since Australia entered the maelstrom of the Great War, not by deliberate choice but as an automatic consequence of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. I had a piece on this tragedy in the International New York Times last week. Quite a bit of editing between my draft and the final version but I was very pleased with how it came out.

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  1. August 4th, 2014 at 20:16 | #1

    Amazingly, all this came without conscription: Despite a 1916 demand by the British government that the empire impose it, two referendums on the subject were defeated by narrow margins.

    Well, the British government didn’t demand that the whole British Empire impose it. The British government never instituted it in Ireland.

  2. James Wimberley
    August 4th, 2014 at 23:42 | #2

    Curtin did not insist on bringing back the 9th Australian Division from North Africa until late November 1942, after the Torch landings in North Africa had brought much larger numbers of American troops into the theatre. This was 11 months after the New Year’s message in December 1941, after the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, in which he announced the necessary pivot to the USA. It’s an even greater tribute to Curtin’s poise that he was able to get on with the egomaniac but talented MacArthur.

  3. QuentinR
    August 5th, 2014 at 07:55 | #3

    Your pleasure is justified, I think.

  4. peter
    August 5th, 2014 at 08:59 | #4

    Do Australians revere their dead more than our wartime allies? JQ’s comment that the US remembrances of 1WW don’t match our own has it’s parallels in our approach to the dead. We must have spent a small fortune on unearthing and identifying the fallen from Fromelles on the Western Front and were certainly more of a driving force than the UK. Even the tragedy of MH17 has shown up differences in reaction with say the Dutch. Without Australia’s ‘leadership’ would the effort have been there?

  5. Michaelson
    August 5th, 2014 at 09:27 | #5

    peter, while you may be right about Australian attitudes to WWI casualties, I would be cautious in drawing any parallel with the MH17 tragedy. It is true that the Netherlands is not at all dependent on Russia for its energy and has less to lose from any fallout with Russia. However, it is still part of the broader EU group which is condemning, and (ostensibly) imposing sanctions on Russia. The Dutch and/or the EU seemed to form the view that it was not in their collective mutual interest for the Dutch to come down too forcefully on Russia. This left the door wide open for Australia, which helpfully met the criteria of (i) being a developed western country with significant loss of life in the tragedy; and (ii) being almost completely detached from the ongoing tensions with Russia. This is not to downplay the important role Australia played, but we were far and away the best positioned to take the lead, so to speak.

  6. John Quiggin
    August 5th, 2014 at 13:31 | #6


    As I’m sure you’re aware, this is a somewhat misleading summary. The attempt to impose conscription failed in Ireland as it did here, and the two campaigns were quite closely linked (Catholics of Irish descent mostly backed the No case here) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_Crisis_of_1918

  7. August 5th, 2014 at 14:19 | #7

    John Quiggin :
    As I’m sure you’re aware, this is a somewhat misleading summary. The attempt to impose conscription failed in Ireland as it did here, and the two campaigns were quite closely linked (Catholics of Irish descent mostly backed the No case here) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_Crisis_of_1918

    Damn. Trying again.

    There’s all the difference between being acquitted (Australia) and not being prosecuted in the first place for lack of evidence even though suspected (Ireland). In the Australian case the various governments did seek conscription and didn’t get it, but in the Irish case the British government did not seek conscription, even though it wanted it, after taking soundings that led the government to decide against it. That’s an important difference; after all, there was no Irish conscription crisis (though there was other trouble).

    Disclaimer and statement of interest: my mother’s family were Irish politicals, and my great-uncle Leopold even made it into the history books.

  8. James Wimberley
    August 5th, 2014 at 21:14 | #8

    Peter: The Imperial War Graves Commission did a good job in the 20s with the technology of the time in recovering and burying all the dead, and creating memorials for the undiscovered MIAs, as at Thiepval and the Menin Gate. Lutyen’s design of the burial stele – allowing the appropriate religious symbol to be placed in relief,but in a common silhouette – was brilliant, and respectful of Hindu, Sikh and Jewish soldiers. You are probably correct in thinking that by 2002 British enthusiasm for recovering bodies and parts of them from Flanders battlefields for individual burial, rather than letting the names engraved on collective memorials stand duty, was more limited than Australian.

    There’s a fine story, “Evermore”, by Julian Barnes in his collection Cross Channel about a woman who returns year after year to the Flanders cemetery where her brother is buried. In the end, memory and grief fade.

  9. faust
    August 5th, 2014 at 23:00 | #9

    It is a good question to ask whether WW1 was a necessary war given German aggression at the time. If we hypothecate that the Empire did not enter the war and Germany rolled up both Russia and France, how would Australia reacted once Germany assumed colonial custody of all the French colonies in the Asia-Pacific region? This is particularly important given the rapidly growing Imperial Navy at the time and Australia’s movement towards an independent navy given our separation to the UK.

  10. Kel
    August 6th, 2014 at 02:01 | #10

    Talented Mac Arthur? Ham’s book ‘Kokoda’ puts the lie to talented leadership in the rear from MacArthur and Blamey.

  11. Kel
    August 6th, 2014 at 02:02 | #11

    @James Wimberley

    Talented Mac Arthur? Ham’s book ‘Kokoda’ puts the lie to talented leadership in the rear from MacArthur and Blamey

  12. Paul Norton
    August 7th, 2014 at 09:19 | #12

    As it happens I’m currently reading Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. It’s one of the newest books on the topic, and so far is proving very interesting.

  13. Paul Norton
    August 7th, 2014 at 09:32 | #13

    To give some idea of the relative contribution by, and sacrifice of, Australians during World War I, here’s a photo of the WWI memorial in the very small town of Krambach, NSW.

    Krambach’s total population in 2006 was 137. It may well have been larger in 1914, but the numbers of those who served and who were killed must still have been a quite large proportion in a very small town.

  14. Ikonoclast
    August 7th, 2014 at 11:47 | #14

    The Great Wars of Europe which became World Wars include the wars against Revolutionary France, the Napoleonic Wars and the Anglo-American war of 1812-1815. This protracted war period has to be called World War 0 given that WW1 and WW2 are already named.

    Many other wars before and between these wars were related to the struggles for hegemony by the main Continental powers (France, Russia, Habsburg Empire) and the main sea power, Great Britain. Things changed after WW2 due to the coalesence of new empires and the new revealed power of the USA.

    The main empires we now have fighting for world domination are the USA Empire allied with the EU Empire and the Russian Empire allied (at least loosely) with the Chinese Empire.

    These World “Empire Wars” will continue indefinitely until one of two events occurs. Either the collapse of world civilization back into regional barbarism or the extinction of the human species. Open hot wars between the main empires are now avoided due to nuclear deterrence. But various other secret wars and proxy wars continue to be waged.

    Strategic creep (different meaning from mission creep) is now applied to contain and squeeze enemies and to expand empire. USA-Nato are applying strategic creep on Russia by expanding into Poland and Ukraine for example. Russia has strategically “crept” back into Crimea. China is applying strategic creep by absorbing Tibet and now pressuring to own the China Sea and all its resources. Nations are now fighting at the level of rhetoric about sovereign claims over the Arctic and all its resources as the icecap disappears. These are all examples of strategic creep.

    To imagine that this “Game of Empires”, which has already been going on for several thousand years, is not still continuing unabated is a tribute either to boundless hope or boundless naivity.

  15. Ikonoclast
    August 7th, 2014 at 13:26 | #15

    Erratum: I left out Prussia/Germany in the historical analysis above.

  16. Tim Macknay
    August 7th, 2014 at 13:37 | #16

    Strategic creep (different meaning from mission creep) is now applied to contain and squeeze enemies and to expand empire.

    Why invent a neologism? Why not just call it ‘expansion’?

  17. Ikonoclast
    August 7th, 2014 at 14:35 | #17

    @Tim Macknay

    “Expansion” is a bit vague but then the way I used “strategic creep” in my post was vague also. I guess “strategic creep” as a term strong connotations of both military-strategic and geostrategic expansion plus the notion that it may be incrementle, subtle and deceptive. Though I would claim that the only people being deceived are our domestic populations not the political-military complexes (Russia and China) being crept up on.

    If you claim it’s a neologism then maybe I can claim to be the inventor of the term. Let’s see if it gains currency. Plus, half the fun of your day would be gone if you couldn’t quibble about everything I post. 😉

  18. Ikonoclast
    August 7th, 2014 at 14:37 | #18

    Typos, misspellings and missed word(s) in the above post, but the meanings are still clear.

  19. Ikonoclast
    August 7th, 2014 at 14:57 | #19

    Further to the posts above, it looks like I did not invent the use of the term in the sense that I use it.

    Strategic creep: From power projection back to forward presence (USAWC strategy research project) Unknown Binding – January 1, 1999
    by Charles R Alexander (Author)

    This sounds like the way I use it but document is out of print. However, it’s clearly not a common term and is also too close to “strategy creep” when that is used in the sense of mission creep.

    All this talk of creep. Maybe Radiohead should have the last word. Listen to their song “Creep” – the one with Johnny Depp in the video clip.

  20. Tim Macknay
    August 7th, 2014 at 15:30 | #20

    Fair enough. It’s a little disappointing that you don’t get to claim credit for inventing the term. I was going to remark that I don’t generally quibble about everything you post, but it occurred to me that it might start looking a little too much like I was quibbling about everything you post. 😉

    On Radiohead, I remember the song, but I’ve never seen the video clip. I had no idea it had Jonny Depp in it. I imagine he looked exactly like he does now, even though it was 20-odd years ago. He is creepily ageless…

  21. Sheila Newman
    August 9th, 2014 at 17:14 | #21

    Hell-Bent (2014) by Australian author Douglas Newton (Scribe Publications, RRP $32.99) seems an excellent and groundbreaking work which is meticulously researched. Much of what I had previously believed about the First World War is challenged by Newton.

    In August 1914, as the British Cabinet was considering whether or not to participate on the side of France and Belgium against Germany, the Australian government had already decided to go to war. This tipped the balance within the British Cabinet and caused Britain to declare war on Germany.

    On two other occasions, shortly prior to the First World War, the Australian Government made preparations, before being formally asked, to participate in wars that nearly broke out. The first was the Agadir crisis between France Morocco and Germany in 1909. The Second was during the Second Balkan War of 1912-1913.

  22. James Wimberley
    August 9th, 2014 at 20:28 | #22


  23. James Wimberley
    August 9th, 2014 at 20:33 | #23

    I wrote “talented”, not “brilliant.” MacArthur certainly stood higher in his own estiamation than in that of history. Clearly he wasn’t a patch on Nimitz or – fighting over terrain that more closely matched New Guinea – Slim.

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