Douglas Newton. What we fought for: from Gallipoli to Fromelles, 1914-1916

Apr 29, 2016

Formal speeches about Australia’s Great War normally follow simple rules. The focus is upon military achievement, and defining national values – service, sacrifice, and mateship. Hardship and horror are added, giving lustre to military achievement. National awakening is emphasised: the diggers were ‘the founding heroes of modern Australia.’[1] Audiences are flattered: the Anzacs were ‘our mighty forebears.’[2]

But the objects of that war – the ‘war aims’ for which so many Australian lives were lost – are seldom mentioned. Ignorance of purposes is assumed. ‘Few of us can recall the detail,’ Tony Abbott told the Gallipoli Dawn Service in 2015, ‘but we have imbibed what matters most: that a generation of young Australians rallied to serve our country, when our country called.’ And fought for what? Generalities suffice. ‘It was for country, Empire, King, and the ideal that people and countries should be free.’ The diggers fought ‘for duty, loyalty, honour and mates: the virtues that outshine any cause.’[3]

But what cause? Many speechmakers simply confuse 1914-18 with 1939-45. They retrospectively democratise Britain’s Great War. Thus, our diggers fought for ‘freedom under the law, representative democracy and the universal decencies of mankind.’[4]

This draws a veil over everything difficult: the expansion of war aims, the Great Powers’ jostling to redivide the colonial world, the private corporate interests masquerading as national interests, and the blundering ‘old diplomacy’ – all the systemic evils that prolonged the slaughter of Australians.

Why did Australians die by the thousands at Gallipoli in 1915? At Fromelles in 1916? It is not enough to point to the wickedness of the German enemy.[5] We must explain the prolongation of the war. We must dig deep into our ‘war aims’.[6]

As a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, but without control of her own foreign policy, Australia was bound by Britain’s diplomatic deals. These included:

The Pact of London, 4 September 1914 (PUBLIC)

Britain, France and Russia became ‘Allies’ and promised not to conclude peace separately. Russia pressed for this. Britain and France truckled to Russia, to keep her loyal. Tsarist Russia – Europe’s most reactionary power – was already eyeing annexations in Eastern Europe, Turkey, and beyond, the so-called ‘Thirteen Points’. Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers dreamt of stifling democratisation in Russia with victory. In signing up, Britain and France accepted the risk that the war would go on – until Russian war aims were achieved.

The Straits Agreements, 8 and 12 March 1915 (SECRET)

After great pressure from Russia, Britain and France agreed to plans for Russian annexations in Turkey. These included control of the Straits (Gallipoli and the Dardanelles), and Constantinople (Istanbul) – Russia’s great prize. As compensation, Britain gained the oil-rich ‘neutral zone’ in Persia (Iran). France won Russian backing ‘for the realization of plans which they [France] may frame with reference to other regions of the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere’, such as Syria. The agreements were secret. Thus, Australians died at Gallipoli so that Russia might rule in Constantinople. Truly, a Gallipoli ceremony should be held every year in London – outside Chesham House, Belgravia, the old Russian embassy.

Cabinet Document ‘The Spoils’, 25 March 1915, CAB 63/3/104-7. (SECRET)

On Gallipoli’s eve, Lewis Harcourt, Britain’s Colonial Secretary, drew up ‘The Spoils’. It outlined a repartition of the colonial world. Britain must ‘dictate any terms’. If Russia gained Constantinople, Britain had a long shopping list: annexations in Mesopotamia ‘from the Persian Gulf to Baghdad’, and a brace of colonial seizures and swaps among the victors, in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Pacific. Britain, her Dominions, and Japan would take all German Pacific colonies – anticipating ‘great trouble’ with Australia. To counter ‘Australian prejudices’, Britain aimed at ‘sweetening the pill’, giving Australia in addition Bougainville and the British Solomons.[7]

The Treaty of London, 26 April 1915 (SECRET)

During March 1915, Italian negotiators in London bargained on the price of Italy joining the war. The landing at Gallipoli closed the deal. It opened up the prospect of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. So, the day after Anzac, the Italian elite signed the Treaty, agreeing to bounce Italy into war. In return, Italy would gain swags of Austro-Hungarian territory, in the north and along the Adriatic. Italy was offered a slice of the Ottoman Empire, a war indemnity, and a £50 million loan. Under Article 15, the Entente agreed to support Italy in ‘not allowing the representatives of the Holy See [the Pope] to undertake any diplomatic steps having for their object the conclusion of peace or the settlement of questions connected with the present war.’ Catholic Anzacs, perhaps 25% of the AIF, had no inkling of this. The treaty was secret.

The Sykes-Picot agreements, January-May 1916. (SECRET)

British and French diplomatic negotiators struck a deal in May 1916. The victors planned to gobble up the great bulk of the Ottoman Empire. Later Britain and France also agreed to Russian and Italian gains. Again, secrecy prevailed. Australians would fight on in the Middle East from 1916 for all these objectives – and 1,400 died – knowing nothing about them.

The Inter-allied Paris Economic Conference, 14-17 June 1916 (the ‘Paris Resolutions’) (PUBLIC)

Britain, France and Russia agreed to form a trade bloc after the war. The ‘Paris Resolutions’ proclaimed a post-war economic boycott of the enemy. German commerce would be shut out. This would hobble the defeated, as the victorious empires became exclusive economic zones. Protectionism would triumph across the British Empire. This public deal strengthened the hands of the German militarists: they argued that Germany’s war was now indispensable. Sadly, Australia’s Prime Minister Hughes loudly promoted the ‘Paris Resolutions’.

For such ‘war aims’, mostly secret, Australian troops endured their 5,533 casualties in one night at Fromelles on 19 July 1916. One hundred years later, the dead deserve better than to be washed into their graves afresh with a cascade of clichés and hyperbole. To honour them truly, we should ask ‘Why?’

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He has taught history at Macquarie University, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, and Western Sydney University. 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). He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled, Ending Armageddon: The Search for a Negotiated Peace during the Great War, to be published by Scribe in 2017

[1] Prime Minister Abbott, ‘Anzac Cove Address’, 25 April 2015,

[2] Prime Minister Abbott, ‘Address to Legacy Clubs of Australia’ 18 Oct. 2013, and ‘Address to the Anzac Day National Ceremony, Canberra’, 25 April 2014,

[3] Prime Minister Abbott, ‘Lone Pine Address, Gallipoli’, 25 April 2015,

[4] Prime Minister Abbott, ‘Remarks at unveiling of the Sir John Monash Centre winning design, Villers-Brettonneux’, 26 April 2015,

[5] As Fritz Fischer has argued, ‘There is no question but that the conflict of military and political interests, of resentment and ideas, which found expression in the July crisis, left no government of any of the European powers quite free of some measure of responsibility – greater or smaller – for the outbreak of war in one respect or another.’ Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War (London, 1967), 87.

[6] For surveys of ‘war aims’ on the Entente side, see David Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London, 2005), David Stevenson, The First World War and International Politics (Oxford, 1988), David Stevenson, French War Aims Against Germany 1914-1919 (Oxford, 1982), Christopher Andrew and A. S. Kanya-Forstner, France Overseas: The Great War and the Climax of French Imperial Expansion (London, 1981), V. H. Rothwell, British War Aims and Peace Diplomacy, 1914-1918 (Oxford, 1971), William A. Renzi, In the Shadow of the Sword: Italy’s Neutrality and Entrance into the Great War (New York, 1987), Jukka Nevakivi, Britain, France and the Arab Middle East, 1914-1920 (London, 1969), Ronald P. Bobroff, Roads to Glory: Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits (London, 2006), Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Harvard, 2013), Wm. Roger Louis, Great Britain and Germany’s Lost Colonies, 1914-1919 (Oxford, 1967).

[7] Lewis Harcourt, ‘The Spoils’, Secret. Cabinet Paper. Printed for the use of the Cabinet, dated 25 March 1915, in CAB 63: War Cabinet and Cabinet Office: Lord Hankey: Papers. ‘Magnum Opus files’, CAB 63/3, 104-107 (The National Archives, London).

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!