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.
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.