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How the Great War shaped the foundations of Australia’s future

The Gallipoli campaign is frequently celebrated as the ‘birth’ of Australia as a nation, but were we already well on our way? AWM

The Gallipoli centenary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. Over the next fortnight, The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the enduring legacies of 20th-century wars.

CORRECTED ON APRIL 22, 2015: See the editor’s note at the end of the article.

It seems poignantly appropriate that the web address, which features the logo, “Gallipoli: The Making of a Nation”, is owned by Michael Erdeljac of the Splitters Creek Historical Group. Splitters Creek is now a suburb on the western edge of Albury, better known for its active Landcare group, and as the home to the endangered squirrel glider.

In the competitive market for Great War memorabilia, Erdeljac deserves to be congratulated. He has owned the URL for 14 years, well before commemoration became a national preoccupation. He is motivated by his own conviction that “we must remember”.

Ben Quilty’s oil painting of Troy Park, after Afghanistan 2012. Image courtesy of Ben Quilty and Jan Murphy Galley, published in the latest Griffith Review, Author provided

The history recalled on the site is serviceable; the list of names of those killed at the Gallipoli landing, Lone Pine and Nek battles heartbreaking; the opportunity to “own a piece of history” well-priced: A$1200 for a framed print of a photo from the front. The photo was donated by the late daughter of Corporal Herbert Bensch, one of the many Australians of German heritage who fought for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in the Great War.

It was in a camera belonging to his mate, who was one of the nearly 9,000 Australian soldiers, 3,000 New Zealanders, 35,000 Brits, 27,000 French and 86,000 Turks who died on the peninsula a century ago. Years after returning, Bensch processed the photo and it became a family heirloom.

It is poignant because it was settlements like Splitters Creek in the Riverina that were home to many of the almost 60,000 Australians who died during that war. As has been graphically captured on the screen, and is now easily accessible in the digital records of those who fought, many of the young men who volunteered to travel across hemispheres were country lads woefully ill-prepared for the slaughter they would face.

Not all, like Bensch, traced their forebears back to England. For many of those who fought it was a chance to be involved in a great adventure, albeit often with tragic consequences.

Did the Great War really create Australia?

The notion that this blooding and the other epic battles of the Great War made the nation has become a truism. But it is one that needs to be examined.

Australia was already a (teenage) nation in 1914. It was a nation crafted from the time, eager to assert its independence (in most things) from the motherland, infected by a racism made (almost) scientific by Darwinism, egalitarian, protectionist, and, in important democratic domains, marked by a progressive spirit.

In many ways, Australia was a world leader – forging both a civic and an ethnic idea of nation.

In Europe, by contrast, at the beginning of the war, as David Reynolds details, there were only three republics – France, Switzerland and Portugal – but five major empires: the Ottoman and British, and those headed by the Romanovs, Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns. Five years later, all but one of these empires had imploded. There were 13 new republics and nine nations that had not even existed before the war.

In Europe, the 16 million lives lost and 20 million injured literally created nations. The carnage emboldened a democratic, nationalist and in some places revolutionary, spirit. It led to major political changes in Great Britain, the beginning of the end of the old aristocracy, and eventually the devolution of Ireland. In Australia, by contrast, it slowed and divided the progressive movement, tingeing the country with grief.

Although the trauma and loss was profound in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, there were no battles on home soil in either the motherland or the dominions. In Britain, the outcomes were less concrete. They were more tied, as Reynolds argues, to:

… abstract ideals such as civilised values and even the eradication of war.

In Australia, as John Hirst has written:

Gallipoli freed Australia from the self-doubt about whether it had the mettle to be a proper nation.

So, in Australia, the experience of war became shorthand for nationhood. In New Zealand, it marked the beginning of a long journey to even fuller independence.

It is an ancient notion that equates battle and blood with independence and freedom; that there is life in death. The very idea that war “was the truest test of nationhood and that Australia’s official status would not be ratified psychologically until her men had been blooded in war” is, as historian Carolyn Holbrook persuasively argues, evidence of:

… muscular nationalism [that] was given legitimacy by Social Darwinism.

The Great War did not make Australia – that had been relatively cerebral activity, notwithstanding the conflict of settlement, which reached its conclusion on January 1, 1901, when the colonies federated into a nation. The nation began as penal colonies, prosecuted battles of settlement, welcomed people from many lands and crafted a constitution. But like many adolescents it was conflicted, as Holbrook argues:

… the very nation that it sought to distinguish itself from was the nation whose approval it craved.

The Great War was not even the first foreign war that Australians fought in alongside Britain – that was in South Africa. But as the legend of Breaker Morant has captured, there were important differences in attitude between Australia and Britain that came to the fore in foreign battles.

An anti-conscription leaflet from the 1916-17 referenda era. AWM

Many historians have argued that the lingering feeling of illegitimacy, of having a chip on the shoulder that needed to be avenged, helped fuel the idea that participation in the Great War was a coming of age. This was proof, as Hirst noted, that Australia really had the “mettle to be a nation”.

Eagerness to participate was not universally shared. This is illustrated most powerfully in the failure of two referenda to introduce conscription. This was another important mark of an independent nation, of a place where people had the right to make their own decisions rather than being the property of the state. So those of Irish heritage expressed anti-British sentiment, those of German descent were regarded suspiciously, and Indigenous Australians joined the fight. It was complicated.

Afterwards, the tragedy of loss and grief was palpable. Australia’s progressive spirit was divided and lost momentum.

And then, in little more than a generation, another war began which layered trauma on catastrophe, left the air full of human smoke, changed global geopolitics and renamed the Great War, World War One.

In an enduring sense, it was the Second World War that really changed the world. It consolidated the American Century, defined in part by conflict with the Soviet Republic and its empire; triggered the end of colonialism and its multi-faceted implications; created space for the assertion of international law; and provided the framework for the remarkable transformations of the past seven decades.

How Australia changed

Undoubtedly, the wars of the 20th century shaped – arguably even made – modern Australia. But this was not because of an ancient blood sacrifice in distant lands or even the closer strategic battles that followed. It was a product of the responses, realignments and decisions that followed.

Every country has its most symbolic year from each of the world wars, and can trace the consequences of the bloodletting that accompanied the global realignment of the last century.

In Australia this can be measured in many ways, but three major legacies stand out: increasing independence from Britain, deeper engagement with the rest of the world and more multiculturalism at home. It was in the aftermath of these wars that Australia found its voice in international forums – at Versailles and in the formation of both the League of Nations and United Nations.

The Second World War was a formative experience for future PM Gough Whitlam. AWM

After excluding the Chinese, deporting German residents and treating the first Australians as subhuman a century ago, Australia slowly let down the gangplank and after the Second World War began again to welcome large numbers of people from all around the world. While the legal separation from Britain took much longer to achieve – and is still a work in progress – the reaction to the knighting of Prince Philip on Australia Day, 2015, suggests this is a project nearing completion.

At a more prosaic level, one of the greatest media empires the world has ever known can trace its antecedents to the wartime reporting (and political dealmaking) of Sir Keith Murdoch. And it was the wartime experiences of Gough Whitlam that shaped his political agenda that was implemented three decades later, and still upholds the foundations of contemporary Australia.

Not just an intellectual exercise

It is striking that 2015 is the centenary of the Gallipoli offensive, the 70th anniversary of end of the Second World War in the Pacific, and the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. This is a good time to reflect not only on the actions of those wars, but on their consequences and their enduring legacies.

The battles are important, but the lessons to be learnt in their aftermath need to be interrogated to explain how we got where we are.

This is essentially an intellectual exercise. Australians generally shy away from such activity, preferring celebration, commemoration and consumption. This year is replete with travel agents offering guided journeys to far-away battle sites (because, apart from Darwin, none of these modern wars occurred on mainland Australian soil), books, films, television series, exhibitions and coins.

The ballot for places to attend the Gallipoli commemoration was massively oversubscribed. The Perth Mint’s 99.9% gold Baptism of Fire $5050 coin sold out quickly, but there are still plenty of the 99.9% silver Making of a Nation coins for just $99 and others from the Anzac series. The first episode of Channel Nine’s Gallipoli miniseries attracted more than one million viewers before sinking into ratings netherland.

And the Splitters Creek Historical Group still has copies of Corporal Herbert Bensch’s colleague’s battlefront photo, and the list of many of those who died at Gallipoli 100 years ago.

Corrections: This article previously stated that nearly 39,000 Australian soldiers died on the peninsula a century ago. The correct figure is nearly 9,000, as the Griffith Review article originally stated. That error was inadvertently introduced by The Conversation during the editing process. There was also a reference to “important democratic domains (compulsory voting)”. Although Australia had universal franchise (excluding Indigenous people in some states) before the first world war, compulsory voting was only introduced federally in 1924, an error made by the author. Thank you to our readers – especially Ned Johnson and Alfred Venison – for pointing out those errors, and we apologise for not seeing and responding to them sooner.

You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition on the enduring legacies of war here.

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