Early Studies of the War at Home

The foundational text for the study of the Australian home front during the First World War is volume 11 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, the work of Ernest Scott. Scott, an English migrant who had achieved his appointment as professor ofhistory at the University of Melbourne on the basis of a number of books on exploration history, was at the tail-end of his career by the time the book appeared in 1936.5 He was not the first choice for a home front volume that had not even figured in the original plan for an official history; an earlier effort by a newspaper editor had resulted in an unsatisfactory manuscript.6 Charles Bean, the editor of the series, found dealing with Scott’s sloppiness and partisanship a frustrating experience.7 An earlier commitment to Fabian socialism and feminism—Scott’s first marriage had been to a daughter of Annie Besant—had long since given way to a conservative imperial nationalism and establishment identity. Scott’s book strains to sustain a balanced narrative account of a society that had torn itself apart fewer than twenty years before, and on which many wounds still remained raw; but even after Bean’s intervention, Scott’s lack of sympathy for the dissenters was hard to miss. While deprecating extremes of rhetoric and behaviour on all sides, praising whatever good behaviour he could find in surprising places—such as “the remarkable steadiness” of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), which remained committed to “the method of law against the method of strike”—and attributing industrial behaviour he did not much like to “[w] ar strain,” Scott’s text often seems to teeter on the brink of a more open partisanship.8 He could not forbear from pointing out of the anti-con- scriptionist Melbourne Catholic prelate that “Dr Mannix, and the thousands who soon came to look to him as their mouthpiece and their leader, espoused another loyalty than that which had animated every class and section in Australia in the early months of the war.”9 Yet for all of its limitations—Scott, for instance, managed to deal with the 1917 railway strike, the most significant and most bitter of the era, in little more than a paragraph—the history remains “an essential starting point” for work on the home front.10

Another significant book on the home front to appear between the wars was Leslie Jauncey’s The Story of Conscription in Australia (1935). The Adelaide-born Jauncey was educated in universities in the United States, including Harvard, where he completed a doctorate on the eve of the Great Depression, a study later published as Australia’s Government Bank (1934).11 Jauncey followed up with a substantial, if partisan, account that presented the successful movement against conscription for overseas service as a fight for freedom against tyranny in which “the will of the people prevailed.”12 The former Nationalist politician and future diplomat Frederic Eggleston, with some justice, criticised “the author’s rather distorted view... A picture painted with colors from the Labor palette only is thus a caricature.”13 Nonetheless, the book contains a wealth of detail that is largely unavailable in later accounts of the anti-conscription campaign, which were mainly painted on a much smaller canvas. Herbert Vere Evatt’s 1940 biography of the New South Wales Labor premier and conscrip- tionist, William Holman, also necessarily devoted a section to the war, in which the jurist, historian and politician regretted that the party’s wartime split had permanently deprived it of “two men of genius like Holman and Hughes” who had “proved by their lives that at heart they were radicals.”14

The study of the war by academic historians only really took off in the 1960s as Australia’s universities—and history departments—grew rapidly. A new generation of labour historians sought academic respectability for a field that had sometimes, as in the case of Jauncey’s study, been dismissed for its partisanship. Those who turned their attention to the First World War sought to negotiate the demands of political commitment and scholarly rigour.15 The most significant book on the home front to emerge from this early period was the work of a former Communist, Ian Turner, who had taken up a scholarship at the Australian National University in Canberra as a mature student. Industrial Labour and Politics: The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900-1921 (1965) epitomised the new academic labour history. It had all of the scholarly paraphernalia associated with ‘objective’ academic history, but its author also claimed a special status for the field as one concerned with masses more than elites, and a form of scholarship that was “almost necessarily partisan: not only are the historian’s sympathies engaged, but his work affects present circumstances and is often written with answers to present problems in mind.”16 Turner examined a labour movement— political and industrial—that found itself under unprecedented pressure as a result of the forces unleashed by the war. The development of conflict between the political and industrial wings of the labour movement under wartime economic pressures—rising prices, frozen wages—was one of his main themes but his account featured not only the mainstream movement but smaller socialist groups and the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), on whose ordeals Turner produced a later book.17

Turner presented the labour movement as a site of internal struggle, resistance and renewal. He recognised that there were opportunists and careerists who sought personal gain from their involvement in labour affairs, but that, as a mass movement, it was subject to the restraints imposed by the rank and file. The First World War, with its massive ruptures—culminating in the Labor Party split over conscription for overseas service in 1916— provided a vivid example of this history of contention and change. For Turner, the conscription controversy built on conflicts within the labour movement that had already developed over material issues such as wage rates and the cost of living, and the power struggle between contending labour movement groups and factions that the war had brought to a head.

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