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A History of Commitment

How to see and understand the contemporary expressions of civilian agency—and to gauge their intensity over time—is a different matter from recognising its importance. To this end John Horne proposed a history of mobilisation in all its forms as the most effective way of exposing civilian agency in the conduct of the First World War. Unless we see the processes of mobilising and remobilising for war more clearly in individuals, Horne observed, it is difficult to explain why the war persisted so long.12 This demanded an assessment of how war became part of shared belief and value systems, how people came to see their institutions and culture as imminently threatened, and how the complete destruction of the enemy could emerge as a legitimate war aim. In a striking passage, Horne explained how civilian comprehension of war facilitated and fuelled the willing tendency towards total war:

the essence of the First World War... lay in a totalizing logic, or potential, of which contemporaries were acutely aware and which appeared profoundly new. This dizzying escalation occurred in different spheres. It was manifest in the trauma and casualties of trench warfare, in the sinister spiral of military technology and forms of warfare that overturned established norms of military conduct. It was apparent in the compelling but unanticipated need to reorganize the economy for war. It was equally clear, however, in the readiness to represent the war in absolute terms, as a crusade against a total (and often dehumanised) enemy in which great emphasis was placed on morale, opinion and what amounted to the ideological capacity of each nation to sustain the war effort.13

Horne was describing what others would call culture de guerre (culture of war): the systems of representation through which people made sense of the war and took their part in it. This approach opened up the languages of war to critical study, both as they were articulated at official and unofficial levels, and as they were appropriated and circulated in popular and private settings. Governments, churches, civic organisations, the producers of popular culture—all became critical to understanding the persistence of civilian commitment to war, as did the sites at which their messages were negotiated, consumed and reproduced. Thus, there is no denial here that the agencies of the state were critical to this kind of mobilisation; the relationship between what Horne terms “self-mobilization” and government efforts to sustain popular commitment to war shifted and changed at different times and in different places throughout the war. In this equation, however, civilian consent for war remained vital to its continued legitimacy.

One of the key outcomes of recognising the need to understand civilian consent has thus been an emphasis on how people experienced war materially, and how they felt about it emotionally. The key to understanding wartime mobilisation as an historical phenomenon lies, then, in examining people’s lived experiences. It means entering into their communal, domestic, and emotional lives, so as to expose individuals’ and communities’ efforts to develop and share conceptions of the war that sustained their commitment. What this means in practice is that historians have come to regard, as Martha Hanna puts it, “affect and emotion as fundamental components of war.”14 Jay Winter and Antoine Prost have also both observed that historians were shifting away from studies ofsocial conflict towards investigations of the roots of consent, and indeed away from “the history of institutions to the history of sentiments.”15 This is not an easy task. Recognising the totalising effects of the war obliges us to ask how the war reordered all facets of life, including private life. As Maureen Healy has keenly noted: “Total war... became a war in which no action or deed was too small or insignificant to be considered a matter of state.”16 The history of the war thus becomes a history of that process of reordering in the lives of those at home as much as those at the front. Roger Chickering puts it well: “War itself provided... an analytical centre of its own comprehensive history. Total war left nothing, absolutely nothing untouched.”17

Australian historians have not been immune to the implications of this shift. Australian studies in the field of wartime grief and commemoration especially have reflected a keen sensitivity to how Australians made sense of the war and coped with its burdens. Ken Inglis has led powerful analyses of the Anzac tradition, while Joy Damousi and others have carefully exposed subjective experiences of bereavement and their politics.18 Marina Larsson’s work on family caregiving in relation to the war-wounded has moved private experience further to the centre of understanding the war and its impacts.19 These studies have begun to show greater consistency than difference between Australian experiences and their counterparts in other belligerent nations. Yet few Australian historians have tested the problem of civilian consent to war. John McQuilton’s supremely detailed study of rural Australia has shown how the emotional intensity of the war’s demands rose and fell within those communities, always in a relationship with social, economic and familial priorities.20 The nature of division is more finely rendered here than elsewhere, though how the will to continue the war survived the traumas of the conscription campaign and the personal recriminations that ensued remains elusive. Thus, Joan Beaumont, in her magisterial Broken Nation (2013), took as her main question how and why Australians sustained the extraordinary levels of casualties that they did.21 This orients her work towards the processes of mobilisation and the conflicts that ensued, and, in particular, towards recapturing the potency of loyalty and common interest that Australians felt as part of the British Empire.22 Yet while Beaumont notes fairly that “every dimension of Australian life in 1914-18 was affected by the knowledge of what was happening in Gallipoli, France, Belgium and the Middle East,” this claim has been difficult to elaborate in the depth that allows us to understand how civilians confronted war in their daily lives.23

I am advocating here the value of a study of private sentiment and feeling that relies for the most part on an examination of the letters and diaries of Australians who experienced the war at home. The value of this methodology is in the way these kinds of sources service the history of feeling and emotion, which has become so critical to understanding how people endured and prosecuted the war. Such sources might not offer unmediated access to some authentic sensibility about the issues at hand. Rather, they reveal the ways in which civilians made sense of the war and expressed their relationships to it. Those relationships were intimate: in their studies of French soldiers’ writing, Martyn Lyons and Martha Hanna have both emphasised the process of mutual support conducted between the fronts, in which “intimacy—though sometimes strained by absence and anxiety—remained alive.”24 The potent connections between the home front and the battlefront are critical to understanding total war as the domain of citizens as much as soldiers, as Michael Roper has shown.25 Yet a consideration of civilians’ own accounts of home front life also remains pressing. Part of the problem is that civilians’ letters have not survived in anything like the numbers of soldiers’ letters available to us. They are not entirely absent, however, and Christa Hammerle reminds us that questions remain to be answered about civilians and their efforts to endure the demands of war:

How did these men and women act under the auspices of a public opinion permeated and distorted by war propaganda? How did they cope in their letters with the antagonistic tension between their own private needs and the expectations of their nation at war?26

Such questions demand a concerted effort at interrogating civilian experience through their own works. As with military personnel who used their letters and diaries to give order to their experiences, to contain them and negotiate their meaning with those from whom they were separated, so we can begin to uncover how individuals existed in wartime society, and how they negotiated private and public imperatives through their own writing.27

A history of civilian experiences through personal documents promises, indeed, the kind of history of mobilisation that John Horne has proposed, in which we might seek both the bases and limits of personal commitment to war, and the constantly shifting relationship between individuals and the state in its own efforts to manage and sustain that commitment. From the focus on private experience afforded by such sources we might track more accurately the course of total war in Australia, shaped not only around events at the distant front, but around the ebb and flow of personal determination and capacity to continue. Thus, we might especially develop a more intricate understanding of how those people who maintained their commitment nevertheless faced the corrosive power of the war’s enormous scale of death and wounding, as well as the poisoning of social relations in their own communities, a process in which they themselves took part.

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