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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