Scribe, 2014, 344 pages, $32.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Behind all the froth, then and now, about the noble cause of the first world war (defence of freedom by Britain and its allies against German aggression) lay a far less exalted reality, writes Douglas Newton, retired University of Western Sydney historian. The war’s “grand plan” for Britain, called, candidly enough, ‘The Spoils’, by the British Colonial Secretary, was to divvy the world up amongst the victors.
Territorial claims by Britain and its allies (France, Italy and Tsarist Russia) were pegged out in the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific, with the British Dominions (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa) instructed to begin the conquest of the German colonies in these regions as, in the words of a secret British cable, an ‘Imperial service’ on behalf of London. Australia was given carriage of New Guinea, the Marshall Islands and Nauru in what Newton aptly calls a “war of brigandage”.
Australia’s war role was tied to London’s war aims through the bonds of Empire loyalty. So devoted was the Australian Government, in fact, that its commitment of its entire Navy and some 20,000 expeditionary troops was made forty hours ahead of the British Cabinet decision to declare war on Germany. Australia’s generous, early gift strengthened the hand of the warmongers in the British Liberal government which was sharply split between ‘Liberal Imperialists’ and neutralists.
Newton documents the eagerness with which Australian politicians made a “rapid and reckless leap, without any conditions or limits” into the looming conflagration that was to claim 18 million lives. Although Australia’s decision was made by just four Cabinet members of Joseph Cook’s federal Liberal government, the entire Australian political establishment was war-minded.
The British Governor-General to Australia happily noted that both the Cook Liberals and Andrew Fisher’s Labor Opposition were ‘full of zeal’ for war. Engaged in a national election campaign at the time, they competed in what Newton calls a “love-of-empire” auction. Labor boasted its support for conscription and its defence spending when in government from 1910-13, with Fisher now pledging to help and defend Britain “to our last man and our last shilling”. ‘In times of emergency’, he declared, the Labor Opposition would ‘stand behind the government in all measures ... to assist the Mother Country’.
Labor’s unity pledge on war was partly driven by a concern for “political safety” in response to the Liberals’ electoral opportunism, summed up by a Liberal Senate candidate who noted that ‘the European situation affords Liberals in Australia excellent material for a good war-cry during the current campaign’ allowing them, writes Newton, to attack Labor in a “khaki election” as “traitorous, a friend of Germany and a nest of Irishmen disloyal to Empire”, no matter how fanciful this description was. As symbolised by Labor’s most hawkish figurehead, Billy Hughes, the party’s fundamental political values were in alignment with the needs of the “rich men, corporate lawyers, mining tycoons, bankers and reactionary publicists” who, says Newton, formed Hughes’ ultra-patriotic Australian National Defence League.
Labor’s decision to back the war dealt the official ALP Opposition, and its affiliated trade unions, out of influence at a time when there was “no sign that Australians were being eaten up with anxiety that they might miss the war”. The real opposition, says Newton, was left to the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, socialists, and anti-militarist radicals, feminists and Christians. An internationalist, working class, anti-war party would have responded differently to the war but the Australian Labor Party politicians were no Bolsheviks.
Neither is Newton, who argues that the Great War was not escapable for Australia, “nor should Australia have stood aside from it”. This may be true but only for a country under capitalist management accepting its role as a regional branch obedient to the Head Office of the imperialist British Empire brand.
Nevertheless, Newton’s book, despite adding copiously to the already-mountainous documentary heights of high diplomatic manoeuvring, has useful context. Sounding almost like Lenin explaining the old axiom that war is politics by other means, Newton notes that the Australian military “fought for the empire, and all it stood for – class distinction, reservoirs of cheap labour … captured markets and resources …”.
Newton also, thankfully, plays truant from that school of Australian war history which glories in the current celebratory clamour of the centenary of the ‘Great War’ whilst, most valuably, arguing that we should “think critically about the nation’s descent into war – in the past, in the present, and in the future”. Such radical reflection, it is abundantly clear, will come, not from the descendants of the political, military and media elites which took us to calamity in 1914, but from the heirs of the war’s dissenters.