Professor Joan Beaumont is an historian at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU. Her new book is Broken Nation: Australians and the Great War.
As a child I heard the story of my great-uncle Joe Russell many times.
Family mythology would have it that he volunteered rather late in World War I. He was single and thirty-one years of age — very much an 'eligible' — but it was only in December 1916, after he had been handed a white feather, for cowardice, by his girlfriend that he finally went to war.
Joining the Australian forces at Polygon Wood, Ypres, in September 1917 he was wounded almost immediately. His leg was then amputated and he returned to Australia in early 1918. In Adelaide he lived with his sisters, including my grandmother who had been widowed by the 'Spanish influenza' that killed perhaps 50 million people around the world in 1918-19, almost ten times the number who died in the war.
Joe would regularly have nightmares, reliving the suffocating moments when he was smothered by the dirt of France as stretcher-bearers carried him out from the battle front. He would struggle in his sleep to get out of bed, without his wooden leg, and fall to his bedroom floor. Edna, my mother and the only child in the household, would rush to help him.
Joe Russell's contribution to World War I was reluctant, short, ineffectual, yet brave. Being only one of millions who served in this terrible conflict, he has been forgotten by everybody but his family.
What we remember, as individuals and groups, is always partial.
For Australians, as a nation, the memory of war is dominated by Gallipoli. But there is much more to Australia's experience of war in 1914-18 than this. Perhaps 86% of Australians killed were on the Western Front.
We also forget that most Australians did not serve at all. Nearly 70% of men aged 18 to 60 did not. The Australian home front is therefore a core element in the Australian story of World War I. Although they were physically remote from battle, Australians at home were also profoundly affected by the war. They lost sons, brothers and husbands on a scale that would be intolerable today. They mobilized vast resources, financially and in labour, to support the war effort. In the case of the working classes in particular, they accepted lower standards of living.
Most critical to war effort, most Australians supported the war, believing that the cause for which their men were fighting was just. Some domestic populations of World War I ultimately lost the will to fight — Russia in 1917 and, to some degree, Germany in late 1918. But although wearied and weakened by 1918, the Australian will to continue the war survived.
It was on the home front too that much of the intangible damage of World War I occurred. Of course it was the men of the AIF — the more than 60,000 dead and 153,000 wounded — who carried the physical scars of the war. But by 1916 Australia was in many ways a 'broken nation'.
The bitter disputes over conscription, cost of living increases and the obligations of citizenship left Australia divided along fault lines that lasted at least a generation: the volunteer against the 'shirker'; the conscriptionist against the anti-conscriptionist; and, while sectarianism was not created by the war, the Catholic against the Protestant. The insults, calumny and accusations that each had traded with the other in the hysteria of the war years poisoned public life for many years. The fact that the Australian Labor Party split under the pressures of war also ushered in a long period of dominance of federal politics by the conservative parties. In much of the recent commemoration of war, this negative legacy of the war has been elided.
Of course, battles are the essence of war. Yet even here, Australians remember only part of the story.
When the five divisions of the First Australian Imperial Force came to choose the locations for their memorials in 1919-20, they chose Pozières (1st Division), Mont St Quentin (2nd Division), Sailly-le-Sec (3rd Division), Bellinglese (4th Division) and Polygon Wood (5th Division). These do not map easily onto today's commemorative practices and priorities. Fromelles, notably, is absent. And who knows where to find Bellinglese?
The men who fought World War I, it seems, chose to be remembered not for their defeats but for their victories. Gallipoli perhaps was the exception, although even this was remembered as a 'triumph' in the sense that it was the dramatic storming of the cliffs by the initial landing forces on 25 April 1915 and their survival against the odds that sparked the Anzac legend. Today, however, war remembrance is dominated by catastrophe and trauma. In many accounts of the war, combatants have become almost non-consenting victims, and mutineers and rebels have become heroes.
Yet if we owe anything to the generation that fought and died in World War I — and Remembrance Day ceremonies generally suggest that we do — it is to try to remember the war as they saw it. In particular we must recognise, if not condone, the values for which Australians were prepared to fight. In popular culture World War I is often seen as the epitome of futility: a war in which the losses were never matched by the gains; in which lives were wasted by incompetent and profligate military commanders; and in which military victory failed to bring any lasting peace to Europe.
There is good reason for this, but Australians did have clear war aims in World War I. They went to war to maintain British global imperial power, to protect the racially-exclusive White Australia Policy, to guarantee Australian security in the Pacific, to defend democracy against German tyranny and aggression, and to protect of the rights of small nations such as Belgium. Some of these values we understand, but some we struggle with.
Were these war aims worth more than 60,000 lives? For Australians of a century ago, these values were enough to sustain them through four terrible years of war.
Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.