Beazley on Gallipoli

I was just getting vaguely reconciled to the idea of Beazley as Labor leader when he came out with the following claim in a speech at the Lowy Institute (PDF):

We cannot understand the decisions of 1914, and we cannot understand Gallipoli, if we do not understand that Australia had compelling direct and distinctly Australian reasons for being there, he argued. Australia recognised that Britain would become increasingly less able and willing to guarantee Australia’s future security. So it was in Australian interests to become an active participant in imperial security, to ensure British power was not eclipsed.

This is wrong in just about every way a historical claim can be wrong

First, it’s not true that the Australian government of the day weighed up whether or not to join the war in any serious fashion, or considered terms for entry that would be advantageous to Australia. Fisher’s statement that we would defend the Mother Country “to the last man and the last shilling” may have been rhetorical bombast, but it accurately captured the lack of calculation in Australia’s commitment. Even in 1939, Menzies could assert that Britain’s declaration of war on Germany meant that Australia was also at war[1].

It’s true that having lost so many lives in the War, the Hughes government sought and gained for Australia the status of independent parties in the post war negotiations, and used this for such noble and farsighted ends as blocking a Japanese push to have a racial equality clause included in the covenant of the League of Nations. But this was not an initial objective of participation.

Second, to describe the supposed strategic calculation as ‘prescient’ is bizarre. Our efforts to keep Britain enmeshed in Asia led straight to the disaster of Singapore and the horrors of the Burma railway. We gained nothing from our reliance on the Empire while diverting large numbers of our own troops away from the defence of Australia.

Third, if all this were true, and even if an alliance with Britain was beneficial to Australia, the alleged strategy amounts to a war crime. It’s one thing to suggest that Australia naively committed large numbers of troops to a defensive war aimed at liberating “gallant little Belgium”. The Australian leaders responsible were morally culpable for their failure to stop the bloodbath of the Great War, but not in the same way as those (most obviously the German High Command, but there were many others) who deliberately pursued war as a route to geopolitical advantage. But on Beazley’s account, Australia was just as guilty as the initial aggressors. On this account we made war on Turkey, a country with which we had no quarrel and no concern. This was done, not as part of a British war in which, considered as Australians, we had no part, but in a deliberate attempt to tilt the postwar international balance of power in our favour. The only comforting thing about this claim is that it is untrue.

fn1. Canada asserted its independent right to make decisions on war commitments during the Chanak crisis of 1922 (in a historical irony, this was also in the Dardanelles, a fact exploited by Lloyd George in calling for Dominion troops). Australia was also unhappy about the call, but temporised until the crisis passed.

46 thoughts on “Beazley on Gallipoli

  1. Paul N., Thanks for the above reference. Very useful.

    It is a clear exposition of the obscure and gradual process of transition of Australian sovereignty.

    Of particular interest is the following:

    “Independence for the Commonwealth Parliament was largely achieved through the Imperial Statute of Westminster 1931; however, it was only adopted formally in Australia in 1942, backdated to 3 September 1939, via the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942.”

    Reference has already been made in this discussion to the reluctance of Australian conservatives to adopt the Statute of Westminster during the 1930s.

    I’m interested in Curtin’s decision to make eventual adoption of the Statute of Westminster retrospective to the date of the British declaration of war on Germany. Could this have been provoked by the persisting fear that Britain might have been defeated by Germany, thus rendering Australia’s persisting bellicosity with Germany an illegal act by a rogue state were Australia’s standing as an independent power not legitimised?

    This would tend to support the thesis that the Curtin Government shared concerns about Australia’s status as a sovereign entity along lines already discussed in earlier posts.

  2. JQ,

    I’ve obviously come late to this thread, so apologies up front. On your three points:

    1) To say that the Australian government committed itself automatically to the British Empire cause is not the same as saying there was no calculation. There was no real division between Imperial defence and Australian defence – a threat to the Empire was perceived as a threat to Australia, which saw itself as an integral part of the empire, not a country possessed of independent foreign policy. Australian contributions to the Maori Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and – most importantly – the Boer War provided significant precedents for Australians fighting in the cause of the Empire, if not “Australia”. You’re making an assumption about Australian foreign policy decision making that is, IMO, incorrect.

    2) The disaster of Singapore and horrors of Burma were caused by Japanese imperialism, not Australian solicitation of Imperial defence. Australia was complacent about the threat from Japan, and Britain over-stretched, but those losses were inflicted by the Japanese, not self-inflicted.

    3) You’re being facetious in your reference to “Little Belgium” and loose in your definition of war crimes. The slaughter of the Great War was fought over mastery of continental Europe, and you’re quite frankly loopy if you believe that Australia was in any way responsible for either the outbreak of war or its prolongation. Leaving aside the superficialities of the Balkan context, the proximate cause of the war was German Imperialism, and for that Australia was not responsible. You say “we” had no interest in attacking Turkey, but you’re speaking for people who had a radically different identity to yours. Turkey had joined the Central Powers in an opportunistic attack on Russia’s interests and the CRITICAL Suez canal, the key lifeline between Britain and its empire in Asia. From an imperial perspective, Turkey WAS a threat to “us”. Turkey was correspondingly attacked and the Dardanelles consequently became a legitimate strategic target, regardless of the bungled Gallipolli campaign.

    I think your biggest mistake in this thread is your unspoken assumption that “we” Australians should have distinguished our strategic objectives from “you” British, whereas these identities and objectives were much closer than you assume.

  3. “the proximate cause of the war was German Imperialism”

    Without wishing to absolve the Kaiser and the Junkers aristocracy of their due share of guilt, I think it makes more sense to regard WW1 as the consequence of the breakdown of 19th century “balance of power” diplomacy under the strains produced by the growth tendencies of capitalism at a particular phase in its development, and the correspondence between national capitalist and nation-state interests. This was aggravated by the dying lashings-out of the decadent absolutisms of Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Germany in the face of internal democratic and modernising pressures.

    If any particular country is to be singled out for special blame, I would nominate the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary for its belligerence towards Serbia, which thereby set in train a cascade effect whereby Russia felt obliged to respond to Austria-Hungary belligerence, Germany felt obliged to respond to Russia’s response, the UK and France felt obliged to respond to Germany’s response, and the US eventually felt obliged to make sure that France and the UK wouldn’t default on their debts. As I’ve previously said the end result was a disaster so absolute that it’s difficult to see how the democracies (mainly the UK, France, US and the British Dominions) could have done worse by simply staying out of what would then have become a central and eastern European war rather than a world war.

  4. There are at least two reasons for singling out the Germans as especially blameworthy for the Great War.

    1. In its Central European phase the Germans were uniquely reckless. The Imperial German Government guaranteed support for the Austro-Hungarian Government regardless of how outrageous its demands were in its ultimatum to the Serbian Government. The Austro-Hungarian Government simply cashed in this blank cheque signed by their great and powerful friend by issuing absolutely outrageous demands, all of which but ONE were acceded to by the Serbians. (The Austrians were refused a triumphant march through Belgrade.)

    2. In its Western European phase the Germans were uniquely aggressive. They pre-emptively invaded neutral Belgium. The British had already warned the Germans not to do it, reminding them of Britain’s publicly acknowledged treaty with Belgium defending its neutrality. But the Germans invaded anyway, declaring disbelief that Britain would endanger world peace for a “scrap of paper”. This made it impossible for the British to avoid war and maintain any shread of dignity.

  5. Paul,

    I agree with you on the (im)balance of power, but as I said previously, the Balkans were a sideshow compared to the main game, namely Germany’s ambition to assume the leadership position occupied by Great Britain. Under a more skilful politician, e.g. Bismarck, this might have been achieved without a global war, but his successors effectively blundered into WWI by under-estimating Britain’s historic resistance to any power dominating continental Europe.

    BTW, Russia wasn’t just responding to “Austria-Hungary for its belligerence towards Serbia”. The Russians (or rather, the Romanovs) had their own imperial agenda in the Balkans which they’d been following for most of the 19th Century, much to the chagrin of their rivals in the West (the Hapsburgs) and the East (the Ottomans). Each of the great powers in that region felt they had something to gain from war. Unfortunately, Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany (i.e. the Hohenzollerns) desired another victory over France and the despatch of its other main rival in (continental) Europe, Russia. This brought it into direct conflict with its most powerful rival, Britain. It was a gross strategic miscalculation.

    It’s easy in retrospect to say the war was a disaster with tragic consequences, but then Harry Hindsight is a bit of a smartarse.

  6. “I think your biggest mistake in this thread is your unspoken assumption that “weâ€? Australians should have distinguished our strategic objectives from “youâ€? British, whereas these identities and objectives were much closer than you assume.”

    Fyodor, you’re missing my point completely. Beazley is claiming that we did in fact distinguish our strategic objectives from those of Britain. I said that
    (1) We didn’t (You clearly agree)
    (2) If we had, the appropriate response would have been to keep out of the war (interested in your view)

  7. Apologies for missing your point – I wasn’t able to open the PDF, so I’m working off your comments, not Beazley’s.

    On the appropriate response, I think participating in the war was the “correct” choice. I say this because Australia was entirely dependent upon Imperial protection [plus ca change] for its defence, economically enmeshed in the Imperial market and umbilically tied to the “Motherland” in terms of culture. Not participating would have jeopardised all those relationships, and was probably unthinkable at that time. I’d also add, again, that nobody anticipated the bloodbath that would ensue, i.e. the “cost” side of the cost-benefit calculation was vastly under-estimated.

    By construction I’m essentially avoiding your question, because I don’t think an Australian government of that era would have had the courage (in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense) to pursue a ruthlessly independent foreign policy. I’m not even sure we can now.

  8. “nobody anticipated the bloodbath that would ensue”

    But there were those who saw the issues clearly enough at the time to oppose the war and (where relevant) their country’s participation in it, e.g. Bertrand Russell, Jean Jaures, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Pope Benedict XV, Woodrow Wilson, John Curtin, to name a few.

  9. Yes, Paul, there are always people who oppose wars. My point is that the ensuing slaughter was not predicted, so that it’s not helpful to say that we would have done things differently if we had been in charge, because we know what they did not.

  10. Fyodor, to be fair, the tenor of comments here is about what we SHOULD have done not what we WOULD have done had we been there.

    It is not futile to make this point. The majority probably still believe we fought in a just and necessary war. Especially in the current climate of shallow glorification of the Australian contingent that stepped ashore at Gallipoli.

  11. “Fyodor, to be fair, the tenor of comments here is about what we SHOULD have done not what we WOULD have done had we been there.”

    Fair enough, WBB, but retrospective hypotheticals are pointless if you don’t acknowledge the limitations faced by contemporary decision makers.

  12. Have any of you supposed experts – pointing at those critical of Beazley – turned your email applications towards his office and made your opinions known to him?

  13. Never mind arguments about what *should* have been done, Fyodor, Paul was simply denying that the bloodbath was not foreseen. It most certainly was, and not only by opponents of the war. It was the British foreign minister who remarked in August 1914 that “the lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in my lifetime”. Kitchener advised the PM in September 1914 that “the war will go on for at least four years and shall require us to build and maintain a great army”.

    True, the masses were fobbed off with the “home for Christmas” line, but that’s the usual contemptuous way those in power treat the rest of us if we let them.

  14. DD,

    Paul provided neither of those quotes and, for that matter, neither of them foretold the miseries of trench warfare, prior to the commencement of war. In September, 1914, the French and British fought the (first) Battle of the Marne which, while it dented the German advance through Northern France, began the effective stalemate that was to last for four years. The obvious conclusion at that time was that Britain’s (relatively tiny) professional army would need massive recruitment to even come close to matching the German army.

  15. One would have had to completely miss the US Civil War not to understand what trench warfare wouldd mean particularly as weaponary improved ssince that bloodbath.

  16. “The last war, during the years of 1915, 1916, 1917 was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise lied.”

    – Hemingway

  17. Homer,

    The US Civil War was a bloody, miserable business war, but you’re obviously not aware that the Prussians had altogether different results from the wars they fought at the same time, using the same technology:

    Denmark (1864): Prussian army swiftly annihilates the Danish army
    Austria (1866): Prussian army swiftly annihilates the Austro-Hungarian army (it’s often referred to as the “Seven Weeks War”)
    France (1870): Prussian army swiftly annihilates the French army

    So, no, it was not that obvious that another European war would collapse into a prolonged stalemate.

  18. The two significant wars most recently preceding 1914 were the Boer and the Russo-Japanese, in that they provided useful lessons. The lessons were mistakes to avoid and some kinds of tactics against machine guns and barbed wire.

    Result: proper attention to logistics, trench warfare and a proper territorial army capable of being ramped up rather than the mistakes of the Boer War, and both sides using the tactics used at Port Arthur. But that was a combination not previously encountered, and led to deadlock.

    I will post more on Gallipoli proper (and perhaps Zeebrugge) later, if I get around to it.

  19. Fyodor, I was referring to the trench warfare on a smallscale that happened during civil war.

  20. Beazley’s attempt to argue that the AIF was operating in the national interest is based on a mis-premise. There was no AUS national interest in WW1, or rather there was a British Imperial nation of which AUS was an integral part.
    The key point about AUS’s participation in WW1 is captured by the name of the AUS military organisation: Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). Most of AUS considered itself a dominion of the British Empire. Indeed AUS’s were over keen members of said organisation on account of the felt need to prove themselves worthy citizens to erase the stain of a convict heritage. Therefore the idea that AUS would not have served in the war is preposterous, like imagining Yorkshiremen not serving.

    if all this were true…the alleged strategy amounts to a war crime…on Beazley’s account, Australia was just as guilty as the initial aggressors. On this account we made war on Turkey, a country with which we had no quarrel and no concern. This was done…in a deliberate attempt to tilt the postwar international balance of power in our favour. The only comforting thing about this claim is that it is untrue.

    Pr Q’s construction of Beazley is wrong, I think. Beazley was not suggesting that AUS had a real interest in the Mesopotamian post-war balance of power. Beazley’s comment about the eclipse of British power was an allusion to the threat of Asian powers. The Great Game for control of Mesopotamian oil only became a consideration after the withdrawal from Gallipoli.
    The AIF’s participation in the Gallipoli campaign had the same aim as the BEF’s [sic?] participation in the same campaign: to “knock the props out” of the Central Powers, clear a Black Sea supply route to Russia and open a new front on the soft underbelly southern flank of Europe.

    Churchill’s idea was simple. Creating another front would force the Germans to split their army still further as they would need to support the badly rated Turkish army. When the Germans went to assist the Turks, that would leave their lines weakened in the west or east and lead to greater mobility there as the Allies would have a weakened army to fight against.
    The Turks had joined the Central Powers in November 1914 and they were seen by Churchill as being the weak underbelly of those who fought against the Allies.

    This was a bad strategic conception, not a “war crime”. It is fair and reasonable to fight a key ally of an enemy in prosecution of a just war.

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