‘Total war’ in Australia: Civilian Mobilisation and Commitment, 1914-18

Bart Ziino

Did Australians fight a ‘total war’ between 1914 and 1918? The question is not much asked or interrogated by Australian historians. This is perhaps because the term itself has been open to debate over its meaning and reality, or perhaps because Australians were so far away from the main battlefields. It may also be because it has not been regarded as central to explaining the key dynamics of the war in Australia: deep social and political division, especially over recruiting and conscription. This chapter contends, however, that tracing the processes of making total war—especially the mobilisation of human and emotional resources—exposes the ways in which Australians at individual, familial and community levels were deeply enmeshed in sustaining a war that demanded the absolute destruction of one’s enemies. No less than their counterparts in Europe, Australians exhibited a willingness to escalate the conflict even as they feared its outcomes and questioned their capacity to cope with its demands. The fragmentation of consensus and its challenge to the will to continue is part of a much broader history of mobilisation and civilian commitment to war, which has been occupying European and North American scholars for some time. An Australian example, especially with its dependency on voluntary recruitment for the duration of the war, thus has something to offer an international literature concerned with how and

B. Ziino (*)

Deakin University, Geelong, VIC, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

K. Ariotti, J.E. Bennett (eds.), Australians and the First World War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-51520-5_10

why civilians persisted in fighting this terrible war to its ultimate conclusion.

The first part of this chapter is concerned with locating Australian histories of the First World War in broader historiographical developments in the field. It argues that while Australian historians have been conscious of the importance of civilian will in prosecuting the war, they have been distracted from investigating its nature and expression by a more determined focus on the divisions occasioned by the war. In this they have preferred to see the coercive powers of the state as the main agent in sustaining Australian involvement in the war.1 Thus, the Australian literature on the First World War has largely struggled—with a couple of notable exceptions—to explain the effort to prosecute the war, despite the social and political costs that it has so clearly demonstrated. In its latter part, this chapter suggests how a focus on private sentiment can begin to produce a history of commitment to war, never absolute but always modulating, antagonised by events at home and abroad, and eroded by doubts about individuals’ own capacities to continue. Such a history not only promises greater understanding of Australia’s First World War, but the prospect of showing how the experiences of Australians twenty thousand kilometres from the main theatres of the conflict were never peripheral, but part of the very same processes that sustained the war at its heart.

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