The damage inflicted on the Australian home front by the Great War
3 Nov 2018|

The scale of Australian military losses in World War I is well known. From a population of fewer than 5 million, more than 62,000 men and women died, and over 150,000 were wounded. Less widely known, however, is the profound damage that the war inflicted on the Australian home front.

The original decision to commit Australia to war in August 1914 had widespread public support, even though London had declared war on Germany on behalf of Australia (and the rest of the British Empire). By the end of 1914, over 50,000 Australians had enlisted. All these men were volunteers, since the Defence Act precluded using conscription for overseas military service, as opposed to home defence.

We know little about why these men rushed to enlist, but it seems they were motivated by a mix of idealism and pragmatism: imperial loyalty, duty, peer pressure, a sense of adventure and the prospect of well-paid employment. The voices of dissent, such as they were in 1914, came mainly from the labour press and the minuscule peace movement. As the left saw it, the real war was between labour and capital, and the only people who would benefit from the slaughter and carnage of war were the plutocrats and profiteers.

This wide consensus started to fray as the war dislocated the Australian economy. Markets for key exports, such as wool, were immediately lost, and there was soon a chronic shortage of shipping to carry Australian commodities, even to Great Britain. Moreover, like many other belligerents, the Australian government chose to fund the war effort not through taxation, but by increasing the note issue and raising war loans, at home and in London.

As inflationary pressures grew, wages failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living, making the price of food a running sore in Australian politics by the end of 1915. Primary industries were to some degree protected by generous commodity deals that Labor prime minister W.M. (Billy) Hughes managed to strike with the British government in 1916; but the impact of the war on the Australian economy was generally negative. Australia carried into the 1920s a significant burden of war debt.

From mid-1915, the question of conscription polarised Australians. After the first battle casualties in Gallipoli were announced, state governments mobilised to launch major recruitment campaigns to increase enlistments. In July 1915, some 36,575 men volunteered, the highest total, it would eventuate, for any month of the war.

The federal government, meanwhile, began to introduce a range of benefits for returned soldiers: pensions, medical care, land settlement schemes and preferential employment. Veterans clearly needed support as they returned to civilian life, but ‘repatriation’, as it became known, was intended initially to motivate men to volunteer. How else might they be persuaded to risk injury and the loss of a family’s bread winner?

Government support was supplemented by the private sector, as a plethora of patriotic funds and medical facilities sprang up across Australia. This was a massive industry in its own right; it was possible only because of the voluntary work of women, who were consigned to the traditional gendered role of ‘waiting and weeping’ at home. Except for nursing, there was no place for women in Australia’s defence forces.

In contrast to British women, who were employed in the massive munitions industry that developed during the war, Australian women generally did not replace men in factories, transport and public administration, although some did shift from domestic employment to office work, banking and insurance.

For all the efforts of governments and loyalists, the voluntary system of recruitment failed to replace the huge losses that the Australian Imperial Force experienced when it was transferred to the Western Front in early 1916. Britain introduced conscription in early 1916, as did New Zealand, in a modified form, in mid-1916.

Hughes concluded that Australia must follow suit. However, his options were limited. Although the ALP had a majority in both houses of parliament, many in the extra-parliamentary labour movement were implacably opposed to conscription. Perhaps Hughes might have resorted to using the emergency powers of the War Precautions Act, passed in October 1914, but there were doubts about the feasibility and legality of this approach. So, Hughes decided to seek a mandate from the Australian people, by means of a plebiscite. He was the only politician of any country in the war to attempt this.

The debates about conscription in September and October 1916 were the most bitter and divisive in Australian political history. Against a backdrop of the haemorrhaging of the Battle of the Somme, Australians erupted in an anger that was infused with mass grief. The core issue in dispute was whether conscription was needed militarily to replace losses in battle.

But underpinning the debate was a profound clash of principles: about the obligations of citizenship; the morality of the state’s compelling individuals to kill; the equality of sacrifice in times of national crisis; and the exercise of executive power by the federal government. Added to this was an explosive mix of anxieties: about the demographic implications of denuding the country of its fittest and best men; about military compulsion paving the way for industrial conscription; and about soldiers being replaced in the workforce by women or cheap Asian labour.

Passions were also fuelled by a noxious sectarianism as Catholics, who constituted around 22% of the Australian population, and who were often working-class and of Irish extraction, were radicalised by declining standards of living and the ruthless suppression by the British of the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin.

In the event, Australians voted against conscription by a narrow margin in late October 1916. Conscription was rejected a second time in December 1917, when advocates and opponents of compulsion rehearsed the arguments of 1916 in an even more hysterical environment after appalling losses in the battles of Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres).

Conscription was thus precluded as a policy option for the rest of war, and by late 1918 the five Australian divisions were significantly understrength. The political landscape meanwhile was transformed, as the ALP split at both federal and state levels during the 1916 debate. Hughes, losing his power base, managed to form a coalition with his Liberal opponents, the Nationalists, and would lead this hybrid party to the polls in May 1917. Significantly, he won a handsome majority on a ‘Win the War’ ticket, demonstrating that the vote against conscription had not been a vote against the war. However, Australian politics at the federal level had made a significant shift to the right, a trend that would be accentuated after the war with the emergence of the Country (now National) Party from agricultural and pastoral lobby groups that had been given a new sense of political agency by wartime economic developments.

This political turmoil was mirrored in industrial chaos. The trade unions, which had a pre-war membership of over 500,000, voluntarily limited their industrial action in 1915 and 1916, but by 1917 their patience was exhausted. A relatively minor dispute in the New South Wales Tramways Workshops in Sydney triggered strikes in sympathy along the eastern seaboard. Ultimately, the workers were defeated by lockouts and another form of loyalist mobilisation, the employment of volunteer ‘scab’ labour. But the ‘Great Strike’ left a legacy of deep bitterness that would explode in mass industrial action immediately after the war.

The political landscape was made even more toxic by the xenophobia and paranoia that the war encouraged. Between 1914 and 1918, nearly 7,000 ‘enemy aliens’—that is, Australians of enemy birth or extraction—were herded into internment camps. At the war’s end, many were deported. Loyalists, however, continued to be obsessed with ‘enemies within’. While the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World had been crushed in 1916–17, there were now the communists, the Irish nationalists, and the energised trade unions to be feared.

Much of the surveillance apparatus that the Hughes government had established during the war was retained in the 1920s, while loyalist elements of Australian society raised secret armies to support the civil authorities in times of supposed social disorder.