GREG LOCKHART. An old imperial reflex

Rawdon Dalrymple’s 4 August blog ‘A personal link to World War One’ presents us with an automatic defence of the old imperial order.  

The first sign of this is a pushy first paragraph. Therein, those of us with an interest in the Great War are told that we ‘should’ be grateful for Joan Beaumont’s ‘magisterial’ history Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (2013).

I am one who is grateful for Beaumont’s book. But I do not automatically think that I ‘should’ be. I rather wonder why a ‘personal link’ begins with an unexpected reference to a formidable history? There is the further incongruity that such a link proceeds for another two paragraphs with historical commentary, commentary that, we can also say, rests with greater confidence on the authority of Broken Nation than it might have.

My 2015 review essay ‘Imperial Romance’ http://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/broken-nation-hell-bent-great-war/, which includes a critique of Beaumont’s book, indicates why.

That critique showed my gratitude for the book by saying it was a ‘major work of synthesis’ of our Great War literature since 1914. By pulling that literature together, her work helped me see the problematic nature of its main pivot.

Following the standard view, she had assumed the reality of the political ‘consensus’ between ‘imperial’ and ‘national’ priorities that is usually thought to have underpinned Australia’s entry into the war. She recycled the old idea that, with the landing of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at Gallipoli ‘on 25 April 1915, the Australian conscious of nation was born’.

Beaumont didn’t realise it, but there is no way an ‘imperial force’ could have inspired the ‘nation’. That is a contradiction in terms and our culture’s perception of it as a political ‘consensus’ means that most of our war histories promote an imperial romance.

It is in that context that I think the Dalrymple blog defers to Beaumont’s book. Yet he doesn’t just follow her down the garden path. With an agenda of his own, his blog seems to pursue wittingly and indulgently an interest in the romance.

One hint of this is the blog’s intricate approach to its version of the political ‘consensus’. While we had ‘a significant navy and other elements’, the commentary says, it was ‘the army’ or, a bit differently, ‘the Australian army’ that, in 1914-18, ‘left the deepest impression on our national awareness and our national pride’.

‘The army’, to which Dalrymple’s blog refers at ‘Gallipoli’ and on the ‘Western Front’ was the one in which his own father served in the terrible winter of 1917: the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The blogger was thus aware that the force he had designated vaguely and in shifting terms as the ‘the army’ and ‘the Australian army’ was an ‘Imperial Force’.

He also seems to have been aware that, given the inherent contradiction in terms, an ‘imperial’ army could not have inspired the ‘nation’. It is, nonetheless, instructive to note that his awareness of that contradiction is related to his unawareness of the political-military reality in which it was set. His blog did not realise that there were two Australian armies at the time.

One was the AIF. This was the army manned solely by volunteers, because the Defence Act (1903) had denied the government authority to send conscripts overseas. The other army, which only registers vaguely in Beaumont’s book and has no presence in Dalrymple’s blog, was the ‘national army’, the conscripted militia of the ‘Commonwealth Forces’ whose role was the defence of Australia.

So then, had the blogger known of the ‘national’ army, it is hard to see how he could have asserted what was effectively his ‘imperial’ infusion of ‘national’ awareness and pride.

Conversely, the non-naming of the ‘Imperial Force’ in his complicated approach to and vague shifting designations of ‘the army’ is indeed consistent with an awareness that he was indulging the contradiction in terms. If the contradiction was not disguised and denied, it would unsettle his version of the imperial romance.

It is reasonable to think that his 4 August blog is trying to smoke-screen – from himself as much as anyone – the conflicted assertion of the imperial-national ‘consensus’, to which my own recent Five-Part Series of 24-28 July on this blog happened to draw attention.

The Series asked: ‘what we were fighting for at Gallipoli, in Palestine and on the Western Front?’. Its answer assumed the imperial romance rather than the reality of the imperial-national political ‘consensus’.

In Beaumont’s version of the romance, the harmony breaks under the stress of war, leaving her ‘broken nation’. Underpinning my Series is the clear historical reality that the AIF absorbed the vast bulk of the country’s best fighting men and resources. Rather than having a ‘broken-nation’, it was a case of the imperial war seriously diminishing the national army and interests. My argument is that the empire overrode the nation.

An automatic operation in the imperial smoke-screening of that imperial ascendency is, then, the best explanation for the blog’s appearance at all, as it clouds the blue.

The immediate insistence on the authority of Beaumont’s Broken-Nation in the first sentence falls into place. So does the incongruous early commentary, wherein the ‘navy and other elements’ compete rather pointlessly with ‘the (unnamed) army’ to provide impossible infusions of national awareness and pride.

How about the relatively lengthy ‘personal link’, to which we come in paragraph four? Would its eleven paragraphs support the above analysis of the first three? They would.

As in the opening insistence on Beaumont’s work, the long ‘personal link’ stems from an assumption of personal authority. Dalrymple tells us that, with all the men who returned from the Great War long-gone, he must now, at almost age 87, be one of the last few surviving children of those who went to the war.

Such a close personal link is precious. Among the Dalrymple family anecdotes that moved me most was the one about how, when his father heard bugles play the Last Post on the radio each ANZAC Day, he would stare out the window. The blog is believable when it says that his parents discouraged conversation about the war and concludes by saying: ‘They were good people and they had served their country well’.

All the same, why end the blog with those words?

My own family’s links to the war through an uncle and a great uncle who went to it, or Beaumont’s family links to it – she reveals them early in Broken Nation – or the existing family links of the myriad of other Australians to it are perhaps a little more remote than Dalrymple’s ‘personal’ ones. But were not those other links to the war through good people who also served their country well? And did not our parents who weren’t in the Great War do that too?

I never met those uncles of mine. We did not speak about them much, as I grew up. But they somehow had a presence in the family. By late primary school, I was reading about the Great War. And that, I think, is about the best family or personal links to that terrible event can do: connect us in collective contemplation of what had gone so catastrophically wrong. How could our good people have descended into such a disgusting swamp of mud and body parts?

With that staring out the window and the death of a maternal uncle in Palestine, Dalrymple’s personal reflections take us to the dark side. But it would be one thing to draw on the horror that still haunts us to provoke thought about what our peoples did so badly in 1914-18 and about what we might do better. It would be another thing to venerate that horror in the special pleading of a ‘personal link’ to history.

Rawdon Dalrymple’s ‘personal link to World War One’ connects through a good family history and a distinguished career. At the same time, it is a common mistake to impose personal interests and perspectives on the past. Something World War One teaches us is that history is not sacred.

Greg Lockhart had military and academic careers. He is a Vietnam Veteran, author of two histories, Nation in Arms: the origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam (1989) and The Minefield: an Australian tragedy in Vietnam (2007). Since childhood he has also had an interest in the Great War.

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