GREG LOCKHART. What were we fighting for at Gallipoli, in Palestine and on the Western Front? (Part 4 of 5)

Jul 27, 2017

Part 4. A race strategy to save ‘White Australia’ 

Political manipulation of the society’s racially inflected anxieties was a major factor in the imperial ascendency over national defence policy in the Commonwealth in 1911. The secret implementation of a race strategy then determined our entry into the Great War. This information was not available to Australians until 1992. 

Always an ‘ideal’ of racial purity, ‘White Australia’ never existed. With our wars of colonial occupation in the background – on the very large numbers of Aboriginals killed, see Professor Lyndall Ryan’s  an online map of massacres – the race strategy stemmed from the anxious, unanchored perception of the coming ‘Coloured Conquest’ of ‘White Australia’.

Between 1905 and 1909 that strategy was configured around the idea of a garrison state to defend the continent, a ‘nation-in-arms’. By 1911, the free-floating perception had, for various reasons, mostly political manipulation, amplified the sense of menace to such an extent that our leaders had lost confidence in the power of what was known in high-brow circles as ‘racial defence’ at the national level.

From then, the race strategy was configured hopefully to ensure reciprocal, white, British, Royal Navy protection against the ‘Coloured Conquest’ by Japan. Acceptance of the need for such an imperial configuration of the strategy was finally embodied in a secret Australian Government undertaking made at the London Imperial Conference in 1911 to institutionalise expeditionary policies that assumed the protection of ‘White Australia.’

Amazingly, that political undertaking, which ALP Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and Defence Minister Senator George Pearce made at the 1911 Conference, and which Bean’s Official History did not mention, remained secret until 1992 when John Mordike’s book Army for a Nation, 1884-1914 came out.

Between times, a combination of the secrecy and the location of our Great War battles in Turkey, Palestine and France had caused us to forget that Japan had anything at all to do with what we’d been fighting for – and against. After the Second World War, that historical amnesia began to undergo a slight thaw. A few historians, David Sissons in the 1950s and L.E. Fitzharding and Neville Meaney in the 1970s had reminded a handful of readers that the country Australia feared most in 1914 was Japan.

Then, finally, in 1992, Mordike lifted the veil on the long hidden 1911 undertaking, in which Fisher and Pearce agreed to fit Australian military developments into British imperial requirements.

Again, his work only came to the attention of a handful of readers. Some of those were also writers. Even worse, they were practitioners of the ANZAC canon, who found his history disturbing. They sought to bury his book and that is partly why few have heard of it today.

Mordike’s milieu was nothing less that the ‘tension’ or ‘bureaucratic struggle’ between imperial and national defence policies in the Australian government before 1914 – a work of historical realism that contrasts with the current ANZAC romance of ‘a dual policy of collusion in imperial defence and self-reliance in local defence’, which we find today in the prestigious Centenary History (mentioned in Part 1).

Mordike showed how long-term manipulation of Australian anxieties about Japan by imperial-minded officials in Britain and Australia had, with the secret expeditionary undertaking, culminated in the ascendency of imperial over national Australian defence policy in London in 1911. Back home, the furtive development of the expeditionary-cum-imperial force in 1912-14 meant that our national interests had been quietly run down.

From an Australian perspective, the secret nature of the expeditionary undertaking represented the integration of Fisher’s racial and political fears.

His political fear was that, if he was seen to be raising an expeditionary force for overseas imperial service, rather than the national army that everyone thought was being raised for the defence of Australia – against Japan – there would be an electoral backlash at home against his Labor government.

The additional point is that in 1911 there was no evidence of hostile Japanese intentions to Australia. To the contrary, 1911 was in the middle of the Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance of 1902-1922, which meant that Japan was an ally of Australia.

But it didn’t look that way to Fisher. The deception was a function of the fact that politically induced race fear had so inflected his phobia about Japan that it had seriously distorted his sense of strategic reality.

The differences between an imperial expeditionary force and a national force were major. The expeditionary army was light-weight. It was designed to be sent abroad on ships and, with no high-command or logistics units, slotted into British formations. A national army would have been heavy-weight – with high-command, heavy weapons and logistics. The many fiscal, organisational, and operational differences between the two kinds of army only emphasises the scale of the political-military deception that the Commonwealth put over the people.

Add the some 60,000 Australians killed and 150,000 wounded out of a total of 330,000 who went to the war, add the 18,000 New Zealanders killed and 59, 000 wounded out of a total of 110,000 who went to the war, add the tens of thousands of others from both countries who had their lives shattered in the war – for instance, the father of a friend of mine was, at age 19, stitched up the side by a German machine-gun in France and came home where he took 18 years to die – and add the 80 odd years between the time of the secret decision and Mordike’s discovery of it and you’ll have some idea of why he, a Vietnam Veteran, wrote another book.

This was: ‘We should do this thing quietly’: Japan and the great deception in Australia defence history, 1911-14, published by the RAAF Aerospace Studies Centre in 2002.

Again, Mordike had made a tremendous find. This time in General Sir Ian Hamilton’s private papers now kept at King’s College, London. This was a confidential letter written by Hamilton when he visited Australia as the London War Office Inspector General of Imperial Forces, dated 14 April 1914. The letter was addressed to British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith.

Referring to Australia, Hamilton informed Asquith that ‘the whole vital force of the country, i.e. the rank and file of its people, are standing firm together against any such proposition [as that of forming an expeditionary force for service in support of the empire overseas].’ As mentioned, most people imagined that the government was building a national army to defend the continent.

Hamilton continued: ‘Play the tune of an Australian army for Australia, and they dance to any extent. Not otherwise. Australia – not empire – is then the string we must harp on. That is to say; we must encourage them to do what they will do willingly and lavishly, namely, pay up for the safeguarding of White Australia from the cursed Jap. Then, when the time comes and when we are fighting for our lives in India or elsewhere, I for one am confident that the whole military force of Australia will be freely at our disposal.’

It would be; that was the race strategy.

British imperial officials shrewdly had us shadow boxing against a phantom threat. And it was all our boxing. Built into our colonial insecurities, the government’s irrational, racially inflected threat perceptions permitted those officials to divert our national life, treasure and interests wholesale into imperial ones.

Most historians, including Mordike, agree that, in some form, Australia was always going to be in the war. Yet as Charles Bean affirmed in the Official History, the Commonwealth did have the power to determine the form (see Part 1). We might simply have impounded enemy shipping, sent wheat to Britain or a Field Hospital to the front. Volunteers might have been permitted to join British units, or fewer divisions sent to the front. Like the United States, we might not have sent troops until 1917.

Whatever the case, without the secret decision in 1911 and the stealthy expeditionary preparations in 1912-14 our history would have been different. The AIF wouldn’t have been ready for Gallipoli – it was ill-prepared as it was. Then, if the government’s management of war had been less hell-bent, it would not necessarily have presided over the highest rate of battle casualties of any of the armies on the allied side.

Unlike the French or British armies, the light-weight AIF and NZEF were ‘all teeth and no tail’ – overwhelmingly combat and front line support troops. In relation to the total numbers who fought in those ANZAC armies, the standard figures given above show that their battle casualties were in the staggering order of 65 percent.

Is it any wonder that the enduring fixation of ANZAC writing and remembrance on how Australians fought in the Great War tends to close-down discussion of what we were and still are still fighting for?

(Part 5 ‘Narrative overview and conclusion’ tomorrow)

Greg Lockhart had military and academic careers. He is a Vietnam Veteran and has written on the Vietnam War. He has, since childhood, had an interest in the Great war and, since 1992, another in John Mordike’s poised nationalism. 

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