PETER STANLEY. PM Hughes said ‘I bid you go fight for White Australia in France’- WW1 as the war for White Australia

Peter Stanley reviews Peter Cochrane’s Best We Forget: The War for White Australia, 1914-18

Australians’ racial anxiety towards Asia in general and  Japan in particular in the decade before 1914 made Australians’ political leaders prepared to underwrite an imperial war in the hope of securing British support for the security of White Australia.

The Great War centenary has seen a goodly trickle – though not the flood we anticipated – of books about Australia’s part in the Great War. We have seen important books on the operational side of the war (Meleah Hampton on the Australians on the Somme, say, or Lucas Jordan on ‘stealth-raiding’) and on the experience of war (Greg Raffin exposing the 1st Battalion protest to scrutiny or Joan Beaumont and her co-authors in Serving Our Country revealing the war experience of Indigenous communities).

Yet, no one (not even Beaumont in her prize-winning 2013 Broken Nation) has fully answered the biggest question of all: why did Australia become involved in such a ruinous conflict, seemingly without a second thought? The conventional answers to that question have been ‘because as a part of the British Empire Australia had no choice, and anyway went willingly’ or ‘no one could have known what the war would bring’. Both of those responses are true, but only up to a point.

Peter Cochrane is an independent scholar who has published widely on aspects of Australian history, including penetrating books on Simpson and his donkey and New South Wales colonial politics, and a couple of historical novels. Now, his Best We Forget is, quite simply, the most important book on Australia and the Great War to appear in the course of the war’s centenary.

Australians’ racial anxieties and antipathies in the late colonial and early federal period are, of course, well known and documented, as are their effects in making a White Australia one of the earliest and most durable creations of a national parliament, and in sending successive Australian governments off in the ‘search for security in the Pacific’, as one of the most substantial scholarly studies of the period was entitled. So what is new about Peter Cochrane’s book?

Cochrane shows that key members of successive Australian governments decided in the decade before 1914 that, when war came (as all expected it would), Australia would go ‘into this conflict for our own national safety’, as Billy Hughes said in 1919. That ‘national security’ was not conceived with a remote and notional German threat in mind, but with a conviction that a ‘race war’ would begin in the Pacific and that Japan would become an enemy.

Cochrane’s work endorses and elaborates the research of John Mordike, who in two books, An Army for a Nation (1992) and We Should Do This Thing Quietly (2002), showed how Australian politicians were willingly co-opted at imperial conferences before 1914 to commit troops to the Empire. These decisions remained unknown for some 80 years. Mordike’s argument, warily regarded or even rejected by more cautious historians, is complemented by Cochrane’s book. And we need to acknowledge the strength of Douglas Newton’s 2014 book, Hell-Bent, on the Australian decision to accept (and indeed anticipate) the Empire’s war in 1914, a work which likewise confirms and corroborates much of Cochrane’s argument.

Cochrane avers that his title Best We Forget is ironic. It is certainly ironic that, in over a century of writing about the Great War in all the dimensions in which we have, we – Australians – should have missed the essential facts as Peter Cochrane has found them. His argument is, in essence, that Australians’ racial anxiety toward Asia in general and Japan in particular in the decade before 1914 made Australia’s political leaders prepared to underwrite an imperial war in the hope of securing British support for the security of a White Australia.

Cochrane supports his contention beyond question. Future historians of the Great War, while avoiding the easy characterisation of Australia as a prematurely ‘independent’ nation, can no longer find refuge or solace in its standing as a part of the British Empire. Australia’s membership of the Empire is part of the story, but not, as Cochrane shows, the whole explanation. ‘Popular memory’ of the war in Australia, he writes, has hitherto known ‘little or nothing of the racial dimension’ of the thinking and decisions underpinning the Australian decision to so enthusiastically commit to support the Empire. That now has to change. The next popular history of Australia’s Great War must acknowledge this fact.

One of the most important changes that Cochrane’s book has precipitated is that he shows that Charles Bean’s Official History, while perhaps not fostering outright lies, certainly presented a misleading view of events before and during 1914. It did this not least by failing to explain the importance of Australian apprehensions of Japan, despite Bean himself sharing those fears, as is clear from his published writing before the war. Did Bean really not know of the thinking that led to the decision to embrace the war so fully, or was he dissembling?

Cochrane has made the original and profound connection between Australian racial fears and its participation in the Great War. This is something that – amazingly – no-one else has done, despite the abundant literature on all of the historiographical strands from which Cochrane spins his yarn.

Cochrane’s is a most original and illuminating argument. It is perhaps more complex than it needs to be to provide a popularly accessible survey of the subject – Cochrane’s aim – but the detail strengthens his case. He takes the reader through late colonial Australia’s generalised racial antipathy, its eventual focus on the spectre of a resurgent Japan, and the anxieties of Australians conscious of their vulnerability and frustrated that Britain, their supposed protector, seemed unwilling or unable to fulfil that role.

Cochrane’s focus is ultimately to explore the question of why all this was so. His answer is to argue that the creation and dispatch of an expeditionary force (one that suffered the death of one in five of its members and the wounding of half the rest) was based not only – or not so much – upon simple imperial loyalty, but upon the quite deliberate trading of the lives of Australian citizen soldiers for an assurance that Britain would thereby undertake to protect a nervous, vulnerable White Australia, anxious over potential Japanese aggression.

Come the outbreak of the expected Great War the chief villain emerges, in the figure of William Morris Hughes, the self-proclaimed ‘Little Digger’, whose portrait adorns the book’s cover. Cochrane argues that Hughes changed his mind to seek conscription in order to demonstrate Australia’s bona fides. In this he was aided by Defence Minister George Pearce, who had been implicated in promises made at imperial conferences and who was now responsible for creating and maintaining an Australian Imperial Force.

Thus, Australia’s seemingly pointless sacrifices on the Somme and at Passchendaele were, Cochrane shows, made in order to guarantee a White Australia. The sixty thousand Australian dead Hughes famously claimed to speak for at Versailles were the premium Australia paid for what Hughes hoped would be an imperial guarantee, one that in the event was not honoured as Hughes and Pearce had hoped.

Cochrane’s case, if overly detailed, is clear and convincing. We can no longer continue to simply argue that ‘Australasian Britons’ simply responded to the appeal of Empire. They did – that was what made Hughes’s and Pearce’s task all the easier – but, in their motivations and – the word is unavoidable – machinations, the decisions of successive Australian governments, Labor and Liberal, committed their nation to a tragedy in order (in their view) to forestall the greater threat of an aggressive, imperialist Japan.

These governments were, of course, twenty-odd years previous, and the Australian crisis of 1942 when it came had to an extent been exacerbated by Hughes’s rhetoric and actions at Versailles. Arguably, Australia did eventually fight a ‘race war’ in the Pacific, but the losses suffered in the Great War did little or nothing to forestall it.

To end, a disclaimer: I read parts of this salutary book in manuscript, am thanked by the author in his acknowledgments and contributed a puff to its publisher (as did half-a-dozen other historians). Despite having tipped my hand, as it were, I do not consider that I am disqualified from offering a review of it. (Nor do we. HH)

* Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra is one of Australia’s leading historians of the Great War. As well, in 2008 he published Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia, 1942, in which he explained the long roots of Australian apprehension of Japan, and in 2017 The Crying Years, a history of Australia’s Great War that could have benefitted from Best We Forget.



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7 Responses to PETER STANLEY. PM Hughes said ‘I bid you go fight for White Australia in France’- WW1 as the war for White Australia

  1. Avatar Ben Morris says:

    Corrected Copy;
    I must preface my remarks that I am a retired Army Officer, a Duntroon graduate and a senior class mate of John Mordike and John Cambridge. I was interviewed by Greg Lockhart when he was researching his book The Minefield. In 2008 to 2014 I researched the Vietnam war at the University of Wollongong.

    The cavalier attitude that Charles Bean adopted in writing our earlier military history has provided the template for many of the writings in Australian military histories. Stanley suggests that Bean adopted a presentation of a misleading view of events before and during 1914 which Stanley states that while perhaps not presenting outright lies, Bean certainly presented a misrepresentation of events. Where does misrepresentation and misreporting of events and other material translate into outright lies?

    My research on the Vietnam it seems to suggest that the Official Histories continue using if not a template then a style which Bean used for writing Australian military history.

    In On the Offensive (McNeill and Ekins, 2003, 264) claims that Private Noel Pettitt lost both legs in a mine explosion. Those who loaded Pettitt onto an American Dustoff helicopter following a RAAF helicopter refusal to take Pettitt to hospital are sure that both legs were attached to his body despite the extensive wounds to his right leg (Heath 2004, Horne 2004, Forshey 2007, Gordon 2007, King 2007, Newell 2007 and Grabowski 2009). A check of Pettitt’s personal records reveals that the Operational Casualty Study Report dated 1456hrs 27/11/67 signed by 2146748 Capt. Jack Blomley and the US Army Mortuary Form DD Form 921 dated 1 Dec 67 support the eyewitnesses that both Pettitt’s legs were attached. It seems as though Pettitt’s legs were lost between the US Mortuary Unit and the Official History. This has caused unnecessary pain to the men who were his platoon mates and carried him to the dustoff.

    The Official History (McNeill and Ekins, 2003, 336) uses an apocryphal story designed to dramatize and entertain rather than to construct a history which reflects actual events. Greg Lockhart in The Minefield( 2007 74-5) refutes this Official History version of events. Second Lieutenant John Fraser’s story reflects the most problematic fables from Vietnam in that a soldier who, upon hearing the click of a mine arming to explode, keeps his foot on the mine until the area is cleared of personnel and steps can be taken to rescue his comrades. Efforts are made to extract the soldier by holding the mine down. Whilst ending varies, it generally involves the soldier suffering some injury but rarely being killed. The Official History joins (Rintoul 1987 118, Portelli 1997 167, Terry c1984 21-2) in proclaiming this myth. The official history’s footnotes refer to Pat Burgess’ and other newspaper reports rather than the technical manuals (Burgess “Johnny won’t be coming home”. Sydney: Sydney Morning Herald 1968,
    Unknown 1968————-“Digger gave life for his mates”, Sydney: Sunday Telegraph.
    ———————————-“Mine Kills Officer, Vietnam Casualties”, Brisbane: Courier Mail.
    ———————————-“Officer Jumped On Mine To Save Platoon”. Canberra: Canberra Times). Mine warfare manuals describe the correct sequence of this mine’s operation. It has a time delay and then an explosion which no amount of foot pressure can repel or cause to delay (Lockhart 2007 74-5). Unfortunately, official historians have accepted newspaper reports rather than checking with eyewitnesses, Army training manuals, or mine warfare technical experts. Burgess for his misreporting was banned from the 3 RAR unit lines.

    In Nation at War, the author Peter Edwards fails to mention Fraser’s statement reference national servicemen and service in Vietnam (Cth of Australia, Parliamentary debates: House of Representatives: official Hansard, No. 19, 13 May 1966: 1891). This statement received wide dissemination in popular press including ‘Query on foreign service deleted’, Sydney Morning Herald (14 May 1966): p. 7; ‘Reference to overseas service dropped’, Canberra Times (14 May 1966): p. 3. However, Edwards ignores the message that Fraser had for Tom Uren, the Army and more particular the national servicemen. Further, Sue Langford in her Appendix 1 to Nation at War mentions the 27 September 1971 statement by Minister Andrew Peacock that national service could refuse to go to war in Vietnam (1997 363). The significant part of Peacock’s statement is the inference that, until September 1971, national servicemen could be forced to deploy involuntarily. Both historians fail to mention that as far as both Ministers were concerned there were no exemptions.

    If anyone wishes to read about journalists’ confusion about war facts, figures and sources the media coverage of Doctor Jim Cairns’ allegations in the Melbourne Age on 2nd August 1976 that Australian soldiers had shoot 27 unarmed farm workers provide a good case study.

    The number of bodies starts with 27, drops to 17 in 8 RAR ambush to unknown quantity in the RAAF story to five in the 2 RAR story. The Army fails to match Cairns’ numbers. Even dates presents a confused picture, Courier Mail article nominates the one date, Sydney Morning Herald has a different date. The media seems to be disinterested in these discrepancies. Over a period of a week, truth is a casualty in the battle between Defence, the veteran community and the media. The digitalised copies of Australian Task Commander’s Diary and the 2 RAR Commander’s Diary and Burstall’s two books provided a well sign posted path to follow on this story. Minister Killen decides not to have an inquiry after examining the files. It seems that the Government of the day did not want any inquiry into Cairns’ story. Was there another reason that the matter was not laid to rest at the time? The question for historians is why is this so? Further, why do the official histories continue serve up history which does not reflect the material available in the official records.

    Mordike’s and Cochrane’s work suggest that there is a problem with the sources that have been used in constructing our official histories and this problem affects the Vietnam War histories.

  2. Avatar Gavin Newbound says:

    What is lost in much of WW1 history in Australia was the fact the Japanese were allies. This included the role the Japanese battlecruiser Ibuki played in the escort of the first ANZAC convoy to the Middle East. While the faster but more lightly gunned HMAS Sydney was despatched from the convoy to take on the German light cruiser Emden off the Cocos Islands, the Ibuki continued to escort and protect the convoy.

  3. Avatar Gregory Pemberton says:

    I appreciate even more today the emphasis placed by some of the academic historians at Duntroon on the importance of primary sources when I studied there. This ingrained a habit of a lifetime–a sound and necessary habit. ‘Read the footnotes, before the book’, I was urged by one of the excellent scholars there, the late Gerry Walsh. (He, along with L. C. F. Turner and Roger Thompson, were by far the best of that group.)

    John Mordike’s two major works are replete with primary source material, in many cases never before published. The recent work by Peter Cochrane, hailed by Peter Stanley as if it is an original scholarly work, is almost entirely secondary source-based, with just a few public source references, such as newspapers and parliamentary debates, now easily accessible through the Internet. I do not recall seeing any original archival sources.

    There are a number of footnotes which do cite formerly classified governmental records, initially in the citation format employed by those who actually have examined the original source. If you read further into the footnote, however, you will see that this document is being cited from another published work, in many cases, from Mordike’s. In this case, the standard scholarly method should be simply to cite the author, in this case Mordike, the title and the page number.

    Apart from the fact that the real scholarship is by those who work from primary sources, those that only use secondary sources, cannot be sure they have either quoted the original source correctly or have used it correctly in context with regards other related, original records.

  4. Avatar John Cambridge says:

    I must preface my remarks that I am not a historian or writer. I am a retired Army Officer,a Duntroon graduate and a class mate of Dr John Mordike. I have taken a strong interest over the years in the development of Australia’s foreign policy and its preoccupation with the ANZAS Treaty and I our alignment with the US.I find the underlying logic of our over-reliance on the US in our foreign and defence policy to be flawed and somewhat foolhardy. Similarly, I have feared since my days as a staff cadet at Duntroon that we were taught and “bound” to a British view of the first World War and the need for our young nation to be involved. Even in today’s tech savvy world with amazing access to official records which are being digitised I find it difficult to accept the strange and almost childish behaviour of some of our academics taking such entrenched positions on key issues surrounding the history of Australia’s entry into the Great War and their attempts to discredit fine 21st Century historians such as John Mordike, Gregg Lockhart and this latest work by Peter Cochrane! Surely it is reasonable as new and more information comes available and is researched that previous accounts of events or “histories” are revised, updated. History is evolutionary and more interesting as we obtain and distil new information, facts and views? I know John Mordike well. He is a close and valued friend and I respect his intellect. He is fastidious,accurate,precise and honest. He is not prone to making assertions or guesses. His primary work-his first history “An Army For a Nation” is pioneering work not just because it reveals some unpalatable truths and puts a very different perspective on our, Australia’s involvement in WW1 but dares to question some of the previous so called “history” written no doubt from recollections and information available at the time! These 19th Century historians are only “human beings” and no doubt prepared and wrote based on the best information available then. Mordike has significantly added to the “richness of truth” surrounding Australia’s First World War History. He is a pioneer and to be credited and admired for his incredibly well researched work: not ignored or castigated as being a dissident. Peter Cochrane’s work like Mordike’s enriches history, adding to our national knowledge bank and fostering healthy debate;surely this is fundamental to being a great historian?

  5. When attending Anzac Day commemorations at Gallipoli , I noted that the people I took to be Australian were disproportionately “white”: a sign of failure as a unifying national day of remembrance.

  6. Avatar John Mordike says:

    So Peter Stanley writes that ‘Cochrane has made the original and profound connection between Australian racial fears and its participation in the Great War. This is something that – amazingly – no-one else has done, despite the abundant literature on all of the historiographical strands from which Cochrane spins his yarn.’

    That comment is wrong. Stanley himself draws attention to my published work spanning nearly thirty years. He mentions ‘We Should do this quietly’ published in 2002, but the full title of the work was ‘We should do this thing quietly: Japan and the great deception in Australian defence policy 1911-1914’. Furthermore, let me reproduce part of the synopsis of this work, which was printed on its cover:

    ‘The monograph exposes how British imperialists exploited Australia’s perception of Japan as the prime threat to its security with the object of ensuring that Australia made timely military preparations, not for its own national defence, but for an imperial war in Europe. Australia’s political leaders also exploited the fear of Japan as a cover for their preparations, deliberately misleading the Australian people. This monograph provides new insights into Australia’s entry to World War I.’

    I would also refer readers to Greg Lockhart’s essay ‘Race fear, dangerous denial: Japan and the great deception in Australian history’, Griffith Review 32 – Wicked Problems, Exquisites Dilemmas, Autumn 2011. As the title suggests, Lockhart also deals with the profoundly important effect that Australia’s race perceptions had for our involvement in World War I.

    I have read Cochrane’s book. It is my understanding that my original research is a significant element in the foundation of his claim about Japan and Australia’s involvement in World War I. This is a result of my detailed analysis of the extensive records of Britain’s Colonial Defence Committee, and the Committee of Imperial Defence, the powerhouses of British strategic defence policy. Cochrane acknowledges my work. I also appreciate that Cochrane’s book might have at last brought this vital issue to the attention of more Australians. But for readers with an interest in the development of Australia’s defence history in the years leading up to the war, especially professional Army officers, I would refer them to my work which spells out the way in which the tension between national and imperial imperatives interacted to affect the Australian command structure and the Army’s development. My awareness of these issues is informed by my early career as an Australian Army officer.

    Stanley also mentions that my work has been ‘warily regarded or even rejected by more cautious historians’. That might be the case, but it is also true that some historians based in certain institutions in Canberra have actively traduced and undermined my work for what I claim are ‘political’ reasons. From their perspective, Australia’s myth about its entry to World War I has to be preserved at all costs. Why upset Australia’s Great War dreaming with the facts revealed by my research? Who knows where it might lead? Indeed, one outcome might be the development of a more independent, national defence strategy, which is precisely what many of Australia’s politicians were trying to establish in the period 1901-1914.

    Apart from my comments above, I thank Peter Stanley for mentioning my work. Stanley is also correct when he acknowledges the important contribution made by Douglas Newton.

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