Douglas Newton. Australia’s Leap into the Great War.

Nov 6, 2015

One of the great clichés of Australia’s entry into the Great War is that Australia stepped up to ‘answer the call’ of the Mother Country. Much of the press coverage of the centenary of Anzac repeats this claim and adds a nationalist frosting: our entry into the Great War was a moment of national awakening. The facts fly in the face of this. Australia did not ‘answer the call’ in August 1914 – Australia jumped the gun. It was not a stand-tall moment of national awakening but of willing imperial subservience.

At the heart of the story of Australia’s response to the international crisis of July-August 1914 was the decision of the Cabinet of Australian Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook to cable London in the early evening of Monday 3 August, offering an expeditionary force to Britain and the transfer of the Royal Australian Navy to the British Admiralty – almost forty hours in real time before Britain’s declaration of war (deep in the evening of Tuesday 4 August). Of course, Australia had no power to choose neutrality in 1914. That Australia would fight on Britain’s side in a great war was certain. But Australia’s plunge into war through her government’s offer of an expeditionary force on Monday 3 August was excessive, reckless, and scarcely a democratic decision. A handful of decision-makers in Melbourne pushed ahead of events and chose to immerse Australia utterly in the looming war.

Events in Britain are crucial to the story. In London, during the last days of peace, the British Cabinet of Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith was evenly divided on the question of British intervention in any European war. On one side stood the faction of Liberal Imperialists, keen to act loyally with Britain’s Entente partners, Russia and France, in order to safeguard the British Empire from those two Powers as much as Germany. On the other side stood a faction of Radicals, anxious to preserve Britain’s neutrality, and pleading that she should focus upon mediating the dispute and restraining Russia in particular. The decision hung in the balance. Then, over the last weekend of peace, New Zealand, Canada and then Australia cabled the offers of expeditionary forces, to anywhere, for any objective. The Dominions appeared to be eager for war – champing at the bit. This boosted the campaign on the right of British politics for instant intervention in any war. It was one factor helping to push Britain over the edge.

Australia’s decision was made in the din of politics. The nation was in the throes of a bitter federal election campaign. At rallies on Friday 31 July, both the Liberal leader Cook and the Labor opposition leader Andrew Fisher promised Britain unlimited assistance (Fisher’s ‘last man and last shilling’). Over the weekend that followed, Liberal politicians, seeking political advantage, alleged that Labor was lukewarm on the Empire and a Fisher government would neglect Australia’s defence. Spooked, the Labor leaders pledged to support all Cook’s measures to secure Australia in this crisis. Seeking political safety in the middle of the election, they sidelined the ALP as a voice for caution at this critical hour. On Sunday, Cook’s ministers ordered the ‘precautionary stage’ of mobilisation, prompted by Britain’s ‘warning telegram’ seeking mere preliminary steps. Then, on Monday 3 August, Cook’s government sought 20,000 points on the political scoreboard, to eclipse Fisher’s vague ‘last man and last shilling’: a public offer of an expeditionary force of 20,0000 men, in any composition, to any destination, under British command, with Australia picking up the entire bill. This far exceeded the measures agreed between Australia and Britain as necessary upon the receipt of a ‘warning telegram’.

Australia’s offer is praised in nationalist histories as democratic audacity in action. In fact, it was imitative, reckless and driven by the politicians’ pursuit of political advantage. The bitter truth – that Australia’s rushed offer of an expeditionary force added to the momentum of reactionaries pressing for war in London – is scarcely recognised. Moreover, the offer was a dangerous precedent for Australia. Her politicians forfeited the chance to weigh carefully war aims against costs, in life and treasure. Australia was taken for granted, and scarcely gained any role in the high diplomacy of Britain’s war.

Was this a moment of national awakening for Australia? Just ten days into the war The Times of London drew the obvious lesson from Australia’s impetuosity. In an editorial it explained that the Dominion force that had been offered ‘is instantly under the orders of those who direct the movements of our Armies. They will go, without question and with eager alacrity, wherever they are sent. They will do what they are told to do. Theirs is not to reason why.’[1] A stand-tall moment? For Australia? We were hell-bent – and we got there.

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He has taught history at Macquarie University, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, and the University of Western Sydney. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including most recently, ‘The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). This article is based on a longer article which appeared in The La Trobe Journal. See link below.

[1] ‘Brothers in Arms’, editorial, The Times, 13 Aug. 1914.

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