What were we fighting for at Gallipoli, in Palestine and on the Western Front? Part 1 of 5-part series.

Jul 24, 2017

To find out what we were fighting for in the Great War we must get past the usual fig-leaf explanation, which is as remarkably effective as it is short on cover in Australian culture.  

What we were fighting for by John Menadue

In this five part series, Greg Lockhart asks ‘What were we fighting for at Gallipoli, in Palestine and on the Western Front’.

The ANZAC story, or myth, about how the ANZACs fought obscures, deliberately to my mind, the central issue of why Australia fought in WWI.

In the ANZAC day rhetoric, we are told that we fought for freedom and humanity, and our way of life. The Prussian menace occasionally gets a mention. But it is all unconvincing. This vagueness and confusion about language, suggests to me that we really don’t understand or won’t admit what we fought for in WWI.

It is time that we addressed more maturely the issue of why we so often go overseas to fight wars – seldom if ever to defend our homeland. The purveyors of the ANZAC myth, don’t face up to this critical issue of how we so often are committed to fighting in foreign lands.

The valour and bravery of Australian Defence Forces in so many places, including Gallipoli, Palestine, France, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, must be remembered and honoured.

But the issue above all that we avoid and must face is  what we were fighting for with such disastrous consequences for ourselves and others in foreign wars.

Greg Lockhart addresses these issues in the five part series this week.


Part 1 OF 5. Freedom from the ‘Prussian menace’?

To find out what we were fighting for in the Great War we must get past the usual fig-leaf explanation, which is as remarkably effective as it is short on cover in Australian culture.

John Menadue’s 25 April 2017 blog on ‘The ANZAC Myth’ recently returned to mind. It had indicated that the current, well-bank-rolled, centenary commemorations of our ‘disastrous imperial war’ in 1914-18 – what James Brown has called our four-year ‘festival of death’ – was bound to overlook the key issue.

The blog said that our remembrance stresses how our soldiers fought, which is fine, except that the stress is so pronounced it crowds out significant interest in the fundamental issue of what we were fighting for. Our remembrance then keeps us clinging to dark incarnations of the old European rivalries and hatreds.

And what reminded me of that far-reaching observation was re-reading the late Jeffrey Grey’s Series Foreword to his multi-author, state-of-the-art and, reportedly, well-funded ANZAC opus: The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, 5 volumes, Oxford University Press, 2014-16.

Grey was a Professor of military history at the Australian Defence Force Academy. The conscious focus of his prestigious Great War history was on ‘how it was fought’ at tactical, operational and other levels. Both his lack of interest in what we were fighting for and the way it came out in his Foreword reminded me of the blog.

I was struck by how the Foreword’s fourth paragraph recycled a pivotal part of the ANZAC Myth: its dependence on bogey threat construction – or, if you will, a bogey enemy.

Grey’s words lacked historical detachment. Mimicking the political-religious fervour of a fatwah on ‘Imperial’ and ‘Wilhelmine Germany’, they simply re-declared war. They cried that ‘Germany sought to impose its hegemony on Europe and, had it succeeded, Britain and its empire (which included Australia) would have found themselves on the losing side and paid a heavy price for their defeat.’

Leaving aside the large problem that Britain’s empire was not in Europe, note that in Grey’s reckoning ‘(Australia)’ pops up in parenthesis, as though it were an optional inclusion in a Series that purports to be about ‘Australia’. Unsure of Australia’s place in the world, it is as an afterthought that The Centenary History’s Foreword places Australia in the somehow threatened Empire.

The Foreword confides that German behaviour was bad. The ‘treaties the Germans imposed on the Russians and Rumanians and their behaviour in the territories they occupied’ had ‘quickly’ demonstrated the point. Furthermore: ‘The subjugation of Australia to German requirements and benefit would not have required a German army in Collins Street.’

That is not an argument. The Treaties of Brest-Litovsk or Bucharest in 1918 hardly explained our entry into the war in August 1914.

There is also the problem of selective recall. The dark assurance of German barbarism obscures Russian brutality against enemy aliens in the Great War, which Eric Lohr, Nationalising the Russian Empire, 2003, details. Typically steering us clear of the fact that we fought at Gallipoli in support of Russian war aims – which included the conquest of Constantinople – the Foreword adds up to a shaky piece of ANZAC myth-maintenance.

The wartime rhetoric that we were fighting for ‘Freedom and Humanity’ against the ‘Prussian menace’ has been widely believed ever since. All societies need myths. Australians and New Zealanders need their ANZAC Day. But they also need factual history. And our ANZAC historians have, like the ordinary believers, always been short on evidence that confirms their construction of Germany as the threat to Australia or, even, Britain on the eve of war in 1914.

Those authors have tended to be overly dependent on German historian Fritz Fischer’s courageous, but contentious thesis from the early 1960s that long-standing power ambitions of the German elite underpinned Germany’s sole responsibility for the First World War. As for writers who have long-since superseded Fischer’s argument – Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers (2011) is a leading recent example – they are casually ignored or dismissed with pretend-detachment .

At the same time, those ANZAC authors have presented little documentary support from the Australian Archives to show that our defence officials thought much at all about Germany, pre-1914 – which was surely appropriate when, in 1911, Germany had no more than 2,500 soldiers sprinkled across its colonies in Africa and Asia.

Another fact might startle those interested in why we fought: in early August 1914, the Australian government was so driven to fight in a war beside Britain, that naval and military support for such a venture was out of the blocks before Britain was at war with anyone.

Douglas Newton’s exceptional history, Hell-bent (2014), turns off the imperial romance. Vividly detailing events, Hell-bent shows how we transferred the Royal Australian Navy, which had been the pride of the new nation when it was formed in 1911, to British Admiralty control on 30 July. Following the Royal Navy under its reckless First Lord Winston Churchill, our fleet was at war stations five days before the rest of Australia – not to mention the Empire.

Newton’s tragi-comic history goes on to show how the Commonwealth importuned the British Government with the offer of a contingent 20,000 Australians at 8 am London time on 3 August 1914. Notably, the British Cabinet was, at that moment, seriously divided over whether Britain would enter the war at all. It would be another 40 hours before Britain declared war on Germany late on 4 August.

Basically, key ANZAC histories huff and puff, because they need an enemy to retail their myth, but can’t explain why their enemy was Germany – except that, by 5 August 1914, that was an irresistible political and military fact, a given.

It is also true we were fighting for Britain and its empire.

Constitutionally, the Commonwealth of Australia was a dependency or colony of Britain. Australia could not conclude significant treaties, appoint ambassadors or declare peace or war. Once Britain was at war, Australia was. Although, as a self-governing colony, Australia could influence the form of the involvement.

British Empire sentiment in Australia was also strong. Some forty per cent of the early Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was born in Britain.

But what about official threat construction? How, suddenly, with little pre-war interest in Germany, did the Commonwealth Government blindly throw itself into a far-flung imperial war? Why were we ready to be in it before Britain – and, indeed, before Germany – were at war?

The answer, which has been obscured for a century by waffle on the menace of ‘Wilhelmine Germany’, pivots around fear of Asia, particularly Japan. Issues of race and ‘White Australia’, which we don’t talk about much because they press on our unsettling nightmares, were central to what we were fighting for – and mostly, it might be added, still are.

(Part 2 ‘Empire against Asia’ tomorrow)

Greg Lockhart had a military career, in which he served in the Pacific Islands Regiment in Papua New Guinea and the Australian Army Team, Vietnam. After completing a BA (Hons 1) and PhD in History at the University of Sydney, he was a school teacher and, then, for fifteen years, held research posts at ANU and UNSW. He is 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). He has also had a life-long interest in the Great War, as he had two uncles in it, one of whom received a severe gunshot wound to the head that deafened him for the rest of his life.

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6 thoughts on “What were we fighting for at Gallipoli, in Palestine and on the Western Front? Part 1 of 5-part series.

  1. We’ve made heroes of the men of Gallipoli; they were not supermen. We have made much of the spirit that symbolises them. They didn’t develop that spirit at Gallipoli. 

    On the contrary, they carried the ‘Spirit of Australia’ with them to the Anzac Cove because that is who they were and that is who we are.

    History has demonstrated and Henry Lawson and Dorothea Mackellar wrote of how this country, with its vastness, furnace- breathed droughts, bush fires and floods, is character building to say the least. 
    The truth is we are too stubborn for our own good. We know that when we are faced with calamity we need and can rely on each other and we refuse to let any bugger get the best of us.

    So let’s not idolise or mythologise these soldiers. They were from and of this place. They are descendants of migrants from all corners of the earth, pioneering men and women who carved out a nation from a land so harsh and desolate that only the stubborn and brave dared persevere despite the hindrance of flood, drought, war and governmental interference.

    The Anzacs would have thought of themselves as ‘just doing a job that had to be done’. 

    In almost every conflict since, men and women of Australia have gone to war because they felt they were doing the right thing and acting to protect and defend their loved ones and their country. When you talk with them you find that they honour their mates’ dead and alive for being with them in the midst of the most fearful moments of their lives and got each other through to the other side. None of them would consider themselves heroic. 

    Since the first ‘Gallipoli Day’, which later became ‘Anzac Day’ our list of battle honours has grown. 

    That is where my mind goes in the silence we share in remembrance.

    Our service men and women have served us in Belgium, France, and the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean and the battles of Britain and for Europe. 
    They have served in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in Timor, in New Guinea at Kokoda, Milne Bay, Buna, and in Borneo. More recently they have fought in Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. 
    The Australian peace keeping forces have witnessed the Rwanda genocide in Africa. They watched the break-up of Yugoslavia in Europe, where they saw the bloody slaughter of Muslim civilians. 
    In East Timor they saw, first hand, the devastation and massacres in a tiny nation to whom we owed so much, and failed so miserably. 

    These service men and women share common experiences that they universally, pray their children will never know. 
    The horror, the terror, the hurt and the pain, their guilt over the relief that they felt when they survived where their mates did not, these stay with them for as long as they live. 

    This is the issue I wish to address today.

    The trench warfare of World War I introduced the terms ‘Bomb Happy’ or ‘Shell Shock’ to our language. The authorities, of course, condemned those who could not endure the fighting; as “lacking moral fibre” many men were executed on all sides of the conflict, for what we now understand is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    It seems to me, our politicians are all too willing to send us off to fight other people’s wars in the naive hope that they can gain great and powerful friends and protectors. 

    They cloak themselves in the glory of battle honours hard won but they are most unwilling to accept their long-term responsibility for the returned crippled, disfigured, blind and insane. 

    The Australian Constitution vests ‘Command in Chief’ of the Commonwealth’s Military Forces in the Governor- General who exercises this power on advice of the Prime Minister. Decisions about war and the deployment of Australian forces, have therefore, ultimately become matters solely for the Prime Minister of the day.

    The powers of the Prime Minister should be set out in writing instead of being so loose that he/she can apparently do anything they like. Originally (in England) a prime minister was only ‘first among equals’ and his role was restricted to chairing Cabinet meetings in the absence of the King. Successive PMs have grabbed more and more executive power so that now they have puffed themselves up into some kind of presidential head of government.
    The constitution explicitly states that executive power is vested in the Queen and exercised through the Governor-General with advice from the Queen’s MINISTERS OF STATE. There is no mention of a Prime Minister.

    During the First World War, Australia’s fifth Prime Minister Andrew Fisher pledged to fight to the “last man and the last shilling” (he did not count himself or his in that of course). 

    Bob Menzies, on September 3rd 1939 said, “Britain has declared war on Germany and, therefore, Australia is at war”. He did this without consulting his Cabinet, who to its credit did not necessarily agree that after the First World War, Australia needed to blindly follow Britain. 

    John Curtin recalled Australian troops from the European theatre to defend Australia in the Pacific, much against the wishes of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who argued that Australia was expendable and the priority of the entire British Empire should be to defend Britain and the Empire.

    Due to the Tampering of Menzies and Churchill our 6th, 7th & 8Th divisions were POW’s of Nazi Germany And Japan.

    Prior to Pearl Harbor Menzies was in the process of selling Papua New Guinea while the Dutch would do the same to West Papua to the USA to be gifted to the Japanese to bribe them to stay out of Hitler’s War.

    Later, in 1950 and concerned that the UK had decided to send troops to Korea and that an announcement was imminent. The Country Party leader and Deputy PM, Arthur Fadden was determined to get in first and make an immediate announcement that Australia would be committing ground troops (Menzies was sailing to New York from London). The decision was made without consulting Menzies (or the rest of the Cabinet) and broadcast on ABC radio an hour before the British announcement. 

    Once Menzies was informed, he brazenly told the US Congress that he expected British and New Zealand troops soon to be joining Australians and Americans in fighting the communists in Korea. 

    Prime Minister John Howard, told cabinet we were off to war, no ‘ifs ’or ‘buts’. The question of who decides for Australia apparently is, by default, left in the hands of one man.

    It is a foul, foul obscenity that cynical, manipulative men like Hawke, Howard and Abbott can still today send our young into harm’s way, to address the failures of leadership, policy, diplomacy and the incredible incompetence of the same old men. 

    Our John Howard’s imposed sedition laws still forbid me from saying what I think.
    International law is moving closer and closer to the point where national leaders like Tony Blair are coming under forensic scrutiny and it would certainly be prudent to put our house in order now.

    The Question has to be asked is. What if in the future, decisions to go to a war are found to be illegal and service men and women, who are in need of compensation or legal protection, are put beyond the protection of the law by an action of one person?
    For example, what if we find that a future government or the High Court decides that there are no grounds to continuing to pay compensation to war widows or veterans because the actions of previous Prime Ministers were not constitutional?

    It is up to us, the people of Australia, to insist that the parliament (both houses sitting jointly, not just the executive) decides if or when we go to war and recognises it has the duty to provide ongoing psychological and health support for veterans, their wives and families. 

    Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the one thing that applies to all the campaigns Australians have been involved in over the last one hundred years. Unfortunately, it not only harms those directly affected, it harms those they love and reverberates through the generations and the community in general, like ripples on a pond.

    My personal experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder began as a 10 year old, when my dad came home from the war in 1946. The trauma remains with me to this day.

    My father, every night, in his troubled mind, relived his actions as a Sapper during the siege of Tobruk, and as a survivor of the El Alamein defeat of the Afrika Corps.

    He would cry and scream in his sleep. Awake he had violent, drunken rages fuelled by morphine and grog that resulted in abuse and brutality being heaped on my mother, my sisters and myself. 

    From age eleven to fourteen I attempted to safeguard my family against this man who towered over me. A man who, in his distressed, delusional state, believed I was a Nazi soldier that he needed to strike down. 

    He would attack my mother, I often knocked him unconscious with blows to his head using beer bottles, half house bricks and lumps of wood. Finally in 1950, my mum fled with my sisters from Sydney to Melbourne to avoid the possibility of me killing my own father.

    Eight years later, I actually joined the Army, to learn from my own experience how and why my dad ended up the way he did. He died before I could tell him I was beginning to understand what war had done to him and why we had become a dysfunctional family. I never laid eyes on him or talked to him after we fled to Melbourne. I never was able to offer him love I understand, sons often feel for their fathers.

    I tell you this story, to illustrate that these are the experiences that large numbers of ex-service men and women and their wives, husbands and loved ones have all suffered and continue to suffer today. 

    Day by day all members of these families’ experience sleep disturbance including nightmares, emotional detachment, ‘flashbacks’, mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, alcohol and other drug abuse. It is not a mystery to me that, in this harsh society; that suicide is often the only escape for so many.

    Please, reflect on the enormous price, physical and mental, that veterans and their families have paid and continue to pay, one way or another, directly or indirectly, down through the generations to defend this country so that we, here and now, can live in peace. 

    Lest we forget.

    John Ward

  2. Henry Reynolds in his book ‘ Unecessary Wars ‘ documents Australian colonial enthusiasm for participation in overseas wars from the mid 19th century, such that by 1914, a tradition of service to the British Empire was well established.

    However the stridency of the propaganda posters against Germany in both England and Australia from 1915, urging young men to enlist for overseas service of the British monarchy belies the fact that many of King George V ‘s relatives in Britain had recent Germany ancestry. Such was the growing antipathy towards Germany during the war years that by 1917, George V decided to change the family name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to a more acceptable British surname of Windsor.


  3. What has changed since 1914? Essentially nothing. Leaving aside 1939-45 which was real enough, the pattern explained resumed after 1949 driven by ‘the downward thrust of communism’ ; and more recently in response to al-Qaeda and similar and the ensuing mis-match of issues from Afghanistan ,through Iraq to Syria. The point is that the nature of the enemy had to be hypothesised vacuously regardless of its existence or reality. The key fact is that we have engaged in all of the above because of alliances (my ally right or wrong). And we do this because we fear of being left alone sooner or later in an unfriendly workd. Perhaps the world may be unfriendly as much because of our own actions (and the reactions they engender).
    Where we are now in these terms is illlustrated by the fact that the government has not been able to give a clear, credible explanation of why we are engaged in these Middle East conflicts in the first place, their rationale and objective. For the same reason neither govrrnments, Coalition or Labor, have allowed a proper Parliamentary debate on these engagements or prepared to put their policies to any meaningful, transparent test. We sit as a country like a baby koala on the back of its mum which means that where mum goes so do we. That is hardly a sustainable policy as we observe the pending disintegration of the (our) Western order of things and the underlying political chaos in the very Un-United States and elsewhere.
    We have cause to be concerned and to separate myth from reality in pursuing the national interest.
    If we have to fight let it be for a justifiable (and unavoidable) cause – and for that only.

    1. On Anzac Parade was recently dedicated a new memorial to the Boer War. While While Australia was gaining its nationhood in 1901, our soldiers fought with British troops to deny the same to the Boers of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Basically this was a colonial war for control of mineral and other resources. The Boers with their knowledge of their land were winning this war until the British started a scorched earth policy which involved interning Boer woman and children in concentration camps where they died in their thousands from disease and mal treatment. This broke the resistance of the Boer fighters. We were complicit in this war crime and no amount of Anzacary (focus on the glorious courage of our troops) will excuse us from now asking why were we were there.

  4. I acknowledge the scholarship but, for me, Mannix got it over in rather fewer words: ‘a dirty trade war’.

  5. “We really don’t understand or won’t admit what we fought for in WWI.”
    Never were so many murdered, so needlessly, for the ambitions and profit of so few.

    A secret cabal of British imperialists whose entire political existence for a decade and a half was dedicated to the fashioning of a European war in aid of destroying the British Empire’s newly emerging commercial, industrial and military competitor, Germany.

    1. Title: Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War
    Authors: Gerry Docherty and Jim MacGregor
    2. War is a racket by Major General Smedley Butler
    “WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” – Smedley Butler

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