In Sydney’s Chinatown, at a trestle table remainder bookstall, I found an illustrated hardcover titled ‘Digger Smith & Australia’s Great War’. It is a general history of WWI which uses the quirky device of relating the era only through contemporaries named Smith (or Schmidt). So broad is the cast of characters – soldiers, senior officers, politicians, clergy, mothers, pilots, veterans, lobbyists, nurses – that the book does succeed in showcasing the sheer complexity of the whole venture, in a relevant sense.
Not being able to put the book down, I am struck by how starkly it contrasts with a current climate of jingoism which draws heavily – if not centrally, when convenient – on the legends of the Gallipoli campaign. We are subject to this flag-draped, quasi-religious cult of sentimentality which generally steers well clear of any actual war history as such. In a vague, infantile opposition to this cult there also exists an equally simplistic, pithy school of so-called realists, themselves wont to dismiss the complexities of the Australian WWI experience. Both camps demonstrate lazy thinking, if not outright oafishness in the case of the former.
Of course, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than this. Author Peter Stanley is a military historian and is finely tuned to that aspect of the histories here, providing exact locations of battles and skirmishes. He is not always so good with more abstract concepts; regarding Australians on furlough in Britain, he writes “Australians saw Britain (‘England’) as ‘home’”. A sweeping statement, erroneous (by his own following accounts) but worth addressing as it relates to concepts of imperial involvement in the first place. A state of ‘British’ identity as an all-encompassing explanation is a wrongheaded assumption beloved by many within the dismissive, non-jingoistic camp. But the jingoists, if they actually examined a statement like that, would find it heretical, given the nature of their version of the war which seems to include the Australians as an expeditionary sporting association representing the country on some competitive national level. Listen to any politician speak on the matter and they always put it that way. Given the size of the force, and the history of the country, there could only be a spectrum of ‘national’ concepts amongst the men of the A.I.F. A man who had emigrated from Britain as a child may understandably have had a different mindset from a man of old colonial, even Georgian, Australian-born lineage. No doubt there were gradations of ‘dual identity’, and a median band of such identity amongst the sons and grandsons of migrants, and of more established Australians and migrants alike. But to simply state that the Edwardian Australian automatically attributed a sense of home to a distant country (and this all after the 19th Century Nativist/nationalist/republican movements) is to miss the whole ‘point’ of empire in the first place. Three generations after World War One, imperial vestiges were still remnant in Australia. It is easy to forget how innocuous they were, especially in this climate of deadly earnest, pseudo-political ‘identity’ fixation. The first time that I drank in a bar (on my last day of school, in a bowling club) it was under a portrait of the queen. The framed portrait dangling there was a formality, perhaps a vague anachronism, but it wasn’t seriously regarded as being ‘foreign’ or offensive. It is hard to convey this subtlety now, after the thousands of kilometres of editorials printed on the subject; likewise after the buffoonery of the conservative Prime Minister Howard and his pointless fetish for presenting himself as some sort of ‘neo-royalist’, whatever that sideshow was all supposed to mean. But back to WWI; the identity of nation AND imperial member did of course prevail, though this by no means translated as a simple, uniform formula. ‘Digger Smith’ prompted me to revisit the overtly populist verse of C.J. Dennis. Here is the response of the titular Ginger Mick, in his Melbourne larrikin delivery, to the outbreak of the war:
“’E sez to me, “Wot’s orl this flamin’ war?
The papers torks uv nothin’ else but scraps.
An wot’s ole England got snake-‘eaded for?
An ‘ wot’s the strength uv callin’ out our chaps?”
‘E sez to me, “Struth! Don’t she rule the sea?
Wot does she want wiv us?” ‘e sez to me.”
Hardly the reaction of a flag-blinded acolyte of empire, Ginger Mick’s curt response to the war follows an introduction in which he’s been brawling with a drunken toff rival in a Melbourne Chinatown restaurant. Mick is the archetypal urban hooligan but the enshrined popularity of the text is significant. He goes on to become another archetype: the Australian soldier of WWI.
One of my own two veteran great-grandfathers was himself the son of Scottish migrants, but the loyalist call-to-arms was apparently not so strong that he didn’t enlist until 1916, after Gallipoli when, as Stanley clearly illustrates, the pressure to enlist was often insurmountable, (the Gallipoli campaign is afforded 10 pages in a 333 page book, which perhaps demonstrates just how Gallipoli-crazed contemporary Australian dialogue has become). Nonetheless, the concept of ‘old country’ could not have held for every man among the legions of Irish-Australians in uniform (despite a typical and general inclusion of the Irish diaspora among the British and allied forces), nor for those of miscellaneous lineage (American, Scandinavian) and certainly not for the German Australians who enlisted in the ranks, or tried to. Indeed, Stanley’s thorough interest Australia’s SCHMIDTS sets the book apart; the narratives of WWI often don’t take the German-Australian experience into full account. Had there never been a war, with its accompanying chorus of witch-hunting imperial jingoists – often self-interested cowards who used the convenient German ‘threat’ to ruin countrymen who happened to have German ancestry – there would today be a great many more Australian towns, streets and people with German names. Brief accounts from my grandfather of partial German lineage, are recalled by me as echoes as the crazy stigma and the national amnesia which followed.
Moving on from the quagmire of ‘identity’, Stanley writes in detail of a home front which never comes to mind in our own era of awful purple speeches and bleary, plastic-flag jingoism. We are so bludgeoned with the retrospective rhetoric of “sacrifice” that we’re in danger of losing sight of what that actually meant to real people. Imagine a society where a trip to the local shops resulted in miserable tension between the women of families with men away at war, and the women of families with men at home. Imagine letters from the recruiting board, demanding to know why you were not in the trenches yourself, and then having to justify yourself by informing the authorities that your brothers were at war, or that you had six children to support, by way of an apology. Image the blunt courage and obvious moral intelligence of one Mr Smyth , a thirty seven year old railway carriage builder, who upon receiving just such a letter of demand, answered with “ I am a little surprised at the form of the letter as I am not aware that Conscription of any kind has been passed yet “. Stanley affirms the seething resentment resulting from the unsuccessful propositions for Conscription. Even before that particular turmoil, friends fell out forever over the issue of enlisting in the first place. Letters provide details of neighbours, old chums, cousins and brothers disowned by men at war, all previous goodwill soured and ruined by the expectations of military service. So much for the endless speeches we must all endure on “the values of mateship. . . etc. etc.”
Then there are facts regarding the unique military culture of the A.I.F. Australians had the highest proportion of deserters of any force in the war, and apparently by a long lead at that. Australians did not murder their miscreants or neurotics with firing squads, as every other army did as a matter of course, nor did they allow the British the chance to do so. And after 1916 especially, the Australian forces rewarded competence with field commissions going to men who would never, ever be considered as suitable officers in other armies, simply on account of their civilian status.
If contemporary Australia were to revise and expand its often one-eyed take on its own Great War history, it might find some unexpected avenues and take a real interest in the bigger picture.