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The Centenary Effect

The centenary of the First World War—usually represented in Australia as the centenary of Anzac—has also affected patterns of research and publication, prompting something of a revival of publication on the Australian home front during the war—and by far the most significant body of work since the 1980s. The radical labour history tradition is best exemplified in Robert Bollard’s In the Shadow of Gallipoli: The Hidden History of Australia in World War I (2014), a text that in its emphasis on strikes, protest and turmoil, recalls the work of Turner. In its insistence on the radicalism and working-class consciousness of so many diggers, it confronts some of the more complacent ideas that have developed around the stereotype of the conservative and patriotic Anzac.46 The values associated with Anzac have generally been understood as transcending class, even as inimical to the dominant values of the labour movement. Anzac was about solidarity between all men irrespective of rank or status; it followed that working-class consciousness must be foreign to its ethos.

Other studies to have brought the study of Anzac into a closer relationship with labour and working-class history include Peter Stanley’s Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force (2010) and Nathan Wise’s Anzac Labour: Work and Workplace Cultures in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War

(2014). Stanley’s award-winning book was not so much a study of a few bad apples in a good barrel as an account of the way a predominantly working-class army displayed something like the full range of behaviours that one would have expected, considering its pre-war roots and wartime experience. Alongside the respectable, there were the rough; in the AIF— as in any industrial suburb of an Australian city. There were teetotallers and boozers, honest men and thieves, rapists and murderers, as well as men who embodied in their lives an ideal of chivalry given new life by the war.47 Wise’s work has conceptualised service in the army as a form of work, and explored the ways in which the cultures and practices of labour in pre-war Australia were made manifest in the history of the AIF.48

These kinds of studies bring the history of the home front and the trenches (and, in Stanley’s case, the estaminets [a small cafe or bar] and brothels) into a more intimate relationship. This is also the major achievement of Joan Beaumont’s acclaimed Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (2013). Beaumont’s book is the first attempt to bring together the battles, the home front, the politics, the economics and the diplomacy of the First World War within a single volume. The result is something more than a mere sum of its parts. By presenting the conscription controversies of 1916 and 1917 against a background of the Somme and Passchendaele, and the complex effects of the losses in these campaigns on the AIF, the politicians and the Australian community, we see their emotional intensity in a new light. She frames her account as an effort to restore the home front to its rightful place “as an essential part of the national experience of war.”49

No one would have thought to write these words in the 1970s or 1980s, for at this time the centrality of the home front was taken for granted. But after several decades in which historical consciousness of the Australian experience of the war has been largely pared back to the activities of fighting men, with a few nurses thrown in for a supporting role, Beaumont’s assertion of the need to respect the complexity of the home front’s history has a radical edge. For instance, she explains “the erasure of the 1917 strike from modern memory” as the result of the ascendancy of “neoliberal economics”; at a time when union membership has declined to a very low proportion of workers, “class warfare and millenarian visions of the collapse of capitalism seem to be tales from a past that is indeed a ‘foreign country.’”50Broken Nation, as its title suggests, resists the assumption associated with the modern Anzac cult that the war was a unifying nation-making experience. Rather, it incorporates as well as extends the insight of earlier social and labour history that it was also profoundly divisive, while never approaching the kind of disintegration that characterised revolutionary Europe at war’s end.

Beaumont tells a national story but Broken Nation is also notable for its global perspective. She began her career as a historian of the Second World War in Europe; in her account of the First World War, Australian contributions are located within the wider strategic and diplomatic history of the war, including the debates from which Australian political and military leaders were firmly excluded. Transnational perspectives have become increasingly common in recent histories. They are present in the contributions of Australian scholars to the monumental three-volume Cambridge History of the First World War (2014), edited by Jay Winter, where in the third volume, on “Civil Society,” Bruce Scates and Rebecca Wheatley write on “war memorials,” and Joy Damousi on “mourning practices.” In these chapters, Australian experience figures as part of a war whose history is told within a global frame of reference.51 But when the collection had its Melbourne launch, Ted Baillieu, the former premier of Victoria who was given the honour, complained that Australian military leader John Monash’s significant role in the war appeared to have been omitted. Here the expectations of national (or nationalist) history clashed with the new directions reshaping academic approaches to understanding the war. More generally, critical social history risks public criticism when it challenges the centrality of the Anzac warrior, now elevated by some Australian elites into a de facto sainthood that seeks to place him beyond the reach of secular historical enquiry. Much non-academic and popular military history continues to cater to the public desire for stories of war heroism that reinforce enduring national stereotypes.

All the same, the revival of home front history is a fact of the First World War centenary. The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, edited by the late Jeffrey Grey and published by Oxford University Press, includes a volume on The War at Home (2015) written by Peter Yule, John Connor and Peter Stanley. Covering the economy, politics and society, it eschews the term ‘home front’ itself, its authors pointing out that it was a German coinage of the First World War, specifically of 1918, and that it was used in wartime Australia only in reference to that country. And while assuming Ernest Scott’s official history as its starting point, The War at Home seeks to move beyond Scott in dealing with a wider social and cultural history of the war that he neglected. It also, from time to time, incorporates comparative perspectives, such as a comparison of conscription in Australia with Canada and New Zealand.52

 
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