GREG LOCKHART. What were we fighting for at Gallipoli, in Palestine and on the Western Front? (Part 2 of 5)

Jul 25, 2017

Part 2. Empire against Asia

The ‘imperial’ nature of Australia’s involvement in the Great War was distinctively Australian and, it should be said, a sign of the doubt white settler society had about its survival as a remote outpost of the British Empire in Austral-Asia. 

Who put the ‘I’ in the AIF? Major-General William Throsby Bridges, its first commander, did in August 1914. According to one historian, Bridges had been a ‘strong’ advocate of naming our expeditionary army the ‘Australian Imperial Force’. But if the success of his advocacy was never in doubt, it ended with neither him nor his imperial orientation as the British born son of a Royal Navy Officer.

The name AIF was distinctively Australian. Neither the ‘New Zealand Expeditionary Force’ (NZEF) nor ‘Canadian Expeditionary Force’ (CEF) nor, for that matter, British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sported such a conspicuous ‘Imperial’ tilt.

Those other armies imagined themselves fighting for ‘empire’ too. In 1914, New Zealand and Canadian newspapers were full of ‘loyalty to empire’. So much so, that the absence of the ‘I’ in their names strongly suggests that, whereas they took their British imperial status for granted, the Australians felt the somewhat anxious need to assert it.

Historically, the wretched isolation and semi-starvation of the earliest settlers and convicts has provided Allan Gyngell with the title for his 2017 book on our foreign policy: Fear of Abandonment – by Britain. No doubt, convict settlement also influenced strains of both opposition and submission to empire that were unknown in those other countries.

The further fact that 25 per cent of the Australian population in 1914 was Irish Catholic also seems to have been relevant. Other Britons in Australia appear to have been more nervous about Irish opposition to their pro-empire position than was the case in New Zealand and Canada. Conversely, those aspects of our history would suggest early sources of Australian national identity.

But let us dwell on our geography in Austral-Asia, because even though it has a fundamental influence on our identity and interests, our historians are uncomfortable with it if they consider it at all.

A great geographical difference between the countries that coughed up the AIF, NZEF and CEF was clearly Australia’s proximity to Asia. And the Reverend Dr John Dunmore Lang of the Scottish Church already showed this when, in 1850, he delivered two Sydney lectures on ‘Australian National Independence’. Even then, conservatives came out with Asian bogies to promote ‘empire’ protection at the expense of the ‘nation’.

Lang’s second lecture mentioned his ‘surprise’ at having to defend his position on our ‘sovereignty’ ‘against gentlemen who are still apprehensive of the possible consequences that might result to this country from the want of naval and military protection to this country, in the event of our becoming free and independent.’

Even then, some were using fear of an ‘invasion from China or from the Burman Empire, or from Japan’ to promote ‘empire’ loyalty, which clearly inhibited support for the independent ‘nation’. And that was before the gold rushes, when the arrival of considerable numbers of Chinese, aroused much anxiety.

Arguably, the demographic and economic concerns aroused in white settler society by Chinese immigrants were plausible. But the society’s expanding nightmare of an ‘Asian invasion’ from the mid-1850s also paralleled the white destruction of Aboriginal society and was a projection of it.

Regardless of what Asians thought – and no evidence has ever been presented that any Asian government intended what white settlers imagined they did – mainly a genocidal invasion –white Australians feared that Asians would do to them what they had done to the Aboriginals.

Between the 1880s and 1914, many Australian and British imperial-minded officials – Henry Parks, George Reid, William Morris Hughes and British Generals James Bevan Edwards, Edward Hutton, Lord Kitchener and Ian Hamilton – exploited routinely that unwarranted projection to encourage the States to form a dependent federation behind a shield of British naval and military defence of ‘White Australia’. The British could then draw Australian contingents into imperial defence.

The Chinese and, increasingly with Japan’s victories over China in the war of 1894-95 and Russia in 1904-05, the Japanese bogey strongly inflected our political-cultural construction of threats to the continent.

Journalist and future author-editor of The Official History of Australia’s Involvement in the War of 1914-18 (12 volumes, 1921-42) Charles Bean explained in the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 July 1907 that ‘Australia was fighting the coloured nations of the East today in the same cause in which Themistocles fought with Xerxes, Pompey with Mithradates, Richard the Lion Heart with the Saracens or Charles Martel with the Moors.’ Then, looking back to 1914 from the 1921 volume of his Official History, Bean exclaimed that, ‘only in one point was the Australian people palpably united – in a determination to keep its country a white man’s land’.

That is a punchy line. Yet that is all he says on the palpable point. His History buries the issue in ominous rumblings on the menace of German ‘Kulture’ – note the hard ‘K’ – and ‘military philosophy’ to the world and, so, points straight down the road to the same flimsy threat scenario as we so typically find in Jeffrey Grey’s prestigious Centenary History today (see Part 1).

In Bean’s Official History, ‘A tremendous struggle was clearly involving the earth.’ He avowed that Australia’s war was a ‘crusade’ against the ‘new creed’ that was ‘utterly repugnant to the humanity of Christian civilisation’ and ‘worthy only of barbarians’. And, in that context, he felt Australians were ‘perfectly definite and united’ in the belief that ‘if Britain goes to her Armageddon,’ in the struggle with Germany, ‘we will go with her.’

Bean’s narrative raises a question: was Australia ‘perfectly definite and united’ ‘only in one point’, or was it in two? Was it ‘a determination to keep its country white’ and or a belief that if Britain went down in a war with Germany, we went down too?

It could not have been one point: Germans were white. Yet Bean’s two positions can be integrated. This is by recalling that British and Australian officials had long played on our anxieties about Asia to make us feel dependent on the British empire for protection.

Bean’s Official History obscures that point by breaking up his argument and masking the issue of what we were fighting for. He couldn’t say that Australian leaders had felt the need to support Britain and its empire against Germany, so that, in return, Britain and the empire would protect Australia when the ‘Asian’, particularly ‘Japanese invasion’ inevitably materialised.

Why couldn’t he say this? Why did he black-cloud with dark rumblings about the Germans that fundamental point in our ANZAC narrative to this day?

Because, with our best troops fighting on the other side of the world, no Japanese invasion of Australia had materialised in 1914-18. With 60,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders killed in the war with Germany and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others shattered by it when he published the first volume of his Official History in 1921, Bean had to bed his work down in the suffering of the society.

Or, the government would have fallen – at least.

He had to obscure the reality that the official promotion of imperial interests to protect the ‘ideal’ of a non-existent ‘White Australia’ against a non-existent Asian enemy in combat against Germany overrode heavily the national interests – as the victory of the ‘No’ vote in the two conscription referendums so strongly indicated.

In that free-floating history, he needed to deny that the government was fighting for Empire against Asia to protect ‘White Australia’.

Anyway, we now know who, along with Bridges, the convicts and the ‘I’rish, put the ‘I’ in the AIF. Although they had no idea they were doing it, Asians, particularly the Japanese did. As well as riding-high on ‘empire sentiment’, the AIF was floated in racial nightmares.

(Part 3, ‘Empire over Nation’ tomorrow).

Greg Lockhart had military and academic careers. He is a Vietnam Veteran, has written on the Vietnam War and has, since childhood, had an interest in the Great War.

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