The Influence of Labour and Social Histories

The influence of labour history, as well as of the new social movements of the 1970s, can be discerned more broadly in studies of the Australian home front at this time. Michael McKernan came to his social history, The Australian People and the Great War (1980), from earlier work on the role of churches during the war.29 Yet McKernan’s book, while attending to the experiences of women, children, Catholics and German-Australians, gave considerable attention to class.30 He provided an account that, in outline, was already an orthodoxy: that a society relatively united in August 1914 tore itself apart as the war exposed and intensified class divisions. Studies by Marilyn Lake on Tasmania, Raymond Evans on Queensland, and Judith Smart on Melbourne emphasised the theme of A Divided Society—the title Lake gave to her book on the subject.31 McKernan’s influence, however, was magnified by the widespread use of his textbook, Australians in Wartime: Commentary and Documents (1980), in high schools.32 I encountered the book in my final year at school in 1986. It is striking that the curriculum focused almost entirely on the home front. A student could successfully complete their studies without having heard of either Lone Pine or Fromelles.

There was another strand of First World War studies developing in Australia in this period, one growing out of the fiftieth anniversary of Gallipoli and the historical research and reflection it generated. Ken Inglis’ influential article on “The Anzac Tradition,” published in the cultural journal Meanjin Quarterly in 1965, is often cited as a cultural and historiographical landmark. Inglis was no stranger to labour history. He had been supervised at Oxford by the guild socialist G.D.H. Cole and was examined by R.H. Tawney; his thesis explored the interaction of the churches and the working classes in Victorian Britain.33 Yet Inglis’ concerns with Australia’s war history were distinct from the preoccupations of labour history. His Meanjin article criticised a historical exhibition for its left-wing mythologising of the war and conscription, while his account of the writings of the popular wartime author, C.J. Dennis, stressed, at least in the character of Ginger Mick, “the shift of identity and allegiance from class to nation”—a very different kind of narrative from that emphasised by the labour historians. His own developing interest in the writings of Charles Bean—“a democrat but not a man of the left”—suggested quite a different set of concerns from those of the labour historians.34

Similarly, the work of historians such as Lloyd Robson and Bill Gammage in the early 1970s, while leaving their readers in no doubt that the members of the AIF were predominantly ordinary Australian working men, did not deploy a class perspective indebted to labour history. Gammage was somewhat indebted to a radical nationalism that had also animated the work of many labour historians. In The Broken Years (1974), he suggested that one of the consequences of the war was to extinguish the tone of optimism that had characterised Australian society before the war.35 Gammage’s reading of the era exercised a significant influence over popular culture and attitudes, especially through his influence on Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli (see Bennett’s chapter).36 The popular success of Albert Facey’s memoir, A Fortunate Life (1981), published by a small Western Australian press in the same year as Weir’s film appeared and itself the subject of a later television mini-series, also suggested growing interest in the experiences of Australia’s fighting men.37 The nature of, and reasons for, the Anzac revival or reinvention are beyond the scope of this chapter, but it is important to note that it occurred during the 1980s and was associated with a wider global ‘memory boom.’ Younger historians such as Alistair Thomson were turning to oral history at this time to record the testimony of Australia’s dwindling number of First World War diggers.38 Thomson was deeply influenced by the new modes of historical writing that had emerged out of the era’s radical and social movement politics. His early interest was specifically in the working-class digger.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >