War and Private Sentiment in Australia

Two main tensions dominated the effort to prosecute the war in Australia between 1914 and 1918. The first was a constant negotiation over what could and should be sacrificed to fight the war, and who was bearing the greater burdens. Not only was the debate over conscription absorbed in that question, but its failure in Australia left the calculation of what could be committed to the war largely in the hands of individuals and their families. The second major tension in Australia’s history of commitment was even more personal, as it revolved around sustaining the emotional resources to cope with and continue supporting the war. Just as this modulating struggle fed the bitterness of social discord at home, it also provides an insight into the increasing tenuousness of the capacity to continue.

In tracking those two themes across the war, we see quickly that the Australian response to war in 1914 was not characterised simply by enthusiasm that gave way to disillusion. Instead we find unsettled and changeable attitudes that eventually yielded to a more solid commitment to the principles and assertions of righteousness flowing from the German invasion of Belgium and France, and its attendant atrocity stories. This was hardly a uniform process, but one based on an effort to comprehend the nature and scale of the war, as well as its moral dimensions. Initial responses ranged from exhilaration and enthusiasm, to strained anticipation and tension. At university in Adelaide, Raphael Cilento recorded his and his peers’ enthusiastic response: “The medical students enthusiastically sang the ‘National Anthem’ in the middle of a practical chem. lecture. Excitement prevails.”28 In Melbourne, however, thirty-three-year-old Gerty Hall thought it right to stand up to Germany, but the prospect of war was awful, as “one does not know what it will end in.” Passing through Melbourne the emotions were palpable: “the excitement was tremendous. I have never seen so many worried anxious looking faces in my life.”29

Equivocation began to give way to greater commitment with the allied reverses of late August, and more fully with the publication of atrocity stories emerging from Belgium soon after. The atrocity stories solidified commitment to defeating a bestial and uncivilised German enemy. In November 1914 Mr J. Rew of Ballarat, Victoria submitted plans to the Defence Department for a new type of explosive and also for poison gas. He was determined to “bid good bye to the Wretch who is Cutting off Childrens [sic] arms and Committing other atrocities.”30 Even among those dedicated to advocating peace, the reported atrocities challenged their principles. In Sydney, peace activist Reverend Absalom Deans admitted that: [1]

A powerful belief in the allies’ righteousness was popular, and it would endure.

One index of changing conceptions of the war in 1914 was speculation on its duration. From September an increasing acceptance that this would be an extended affair was based not only on a reading of military events, but on a growing understanding of the nature of the war, and a determination that it must be won at all costs. Melbourne industrialist Fred Michaelis’ attitude now was that:

until the Germans are starved out or the Russians force their way towards Berlin I am afraid we cannot look for peace, as without doubt the Allies will endeavour to crush the Kaiser and his crowd for all time, and they, knowing this, will assuredly fight to the last.32

Part of Michaelis’ realisation was surely based on what he himself was now thinking, in terms of a resolve to destroy absolutely the Kaiser’s regime itself. Such a conception of the war gathered momentum and moral weight with the news of enormous allied losses at the front. By November, Margaret Stanley—wife of Victorian governor Arthur Stanley—thought that the war’s “cruelty and relentlessness is beginning to be realized... The feeling everywhere is that, cost what it may, and at whatever private and personal sacrifice, we have got to win.” (Fig. 10.1).33

Assessments of the necessity and capacity to sacrifice varied according to one’s understanding of the war, its principles and demands. The entry of Australians into major fighting at Gallipoli widened the lens on the war, and deepened Australians’ immediate connections to it. At the same time, other factors affirmed again the moral dimensions of the war. At Ypres the Germans introduced poison gas to the battlefield, while the sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May 1915 ranked with the atrocities in Belgium in provoking hatred of the Germans. The news, Frank Tate observed in Melbourne, had “aroused a very bitter feeling here,” in which “One hears the mildest of men uttering the most bloodthirsty threats.”34 One effect of that deepening entwine- ment with the war was a shift in the personal dynamic between the demands of the state at war, and one’s obligations to home. The most obvious result was a boom in recruiting, but one could also detect that shift in the raising and giving of funds, and widespread involvement— especially of women—in voluntary labour.35 That shift also occasioned

Family and friends farewell soldiers at Port Melbourne, July 1916. (Photographer

Fig. 10.1 Family and friends farewell soldiers at Port Melbourne, July 1916. (Photographer: Josiah Barnes. AWM PB0079.)

increasing recrimination against those who did not enlist or give, just as it increased material tensions between what could be given, especially in working-class communities. These emerging differences between fellow citizens were accentuated by a growing acceptance that there was to be no sudden and dramatic end to the war. As the fighting fronts multiplied, Arthur Fry found it difficult to comprehend the dynamics of an increasingly global war: “altogether the problem seems getting too stupendous for the mind to grapple.”36 And yet Australians were showing ever-greater levels of dedication to a war offering increasingly less sense of how long it might continue. In Sydney, H.A. Twiby observed that: “Without doubt this dreadful War is turning everything upside down but of course it has to be fought to a finish and everything else has to take a second place.”37 The enormous battles of 1916 inducted and integrated civilian populations even more fully into the spiralling demands of total war.

As Chickering and Forster describe it, here the “conceptual limits on war began to break down,” as new strategies and technologies on the battlefields merged with efforts to mobilise civil society to its greatest extent.38 By the time of the fighting on the Somme there were more Australians on active service, receiving more intensive communication, than at any time in the war. That communication was profoundly important in maintaining morale at home just as it sustained those at the front. Yet in taking more than four weeks to travel in either direction, correspondence moderated but never overcame the profound anxieties those at home were enduring. As her two sons fought in France, Jacoba Palstra of Melbourne found that: “The worst is to be thousands of miles away and always thinking in the other part of the globe.”39 Letters were not read or written in a vacuum, or without reference to what was going on at home and abroad. Australians were not uninformed or unable to think critically about the war: they read, wrote, thought and acted with a knowledge of what was occurring at the front, or at the very least its costs as expressed in casualty lists that fluctuated in number and intensity. As the casualties of the Battle of the Somme mounted in September 1916, Frances Anderson told her fiance: “nearly everyone is being hit by these last casualty lists. They say Love is selfish and I begin to believe it when at every fresh grief I hear of, I pray a tiny prayer for my soldier boy.”40

The war was eroding the emotional resources required to endure it. Families without a sense of when the war might end reverted grimly to marking time by reference to significant anniversaries: birthdays, Christmas, and dates of departure. The tension of waiting also expressed itself in growing social antagonism. If the war was about morality and righteousness, then increasingly Australians were turning that lens on each other, to measure fellow citizens’ commitment to the demands of the war. The public fight over conscription, culminating in a plebiscite on the issue in October 1916, was about that morality as much as it was about the precise relationship between citizen and state. But it was also about material realities. Even if the great majority of Australians remained dedicated to winning the war, that commitment still involved intense negotiation within families about what could be given, and deeply felt conflict among individuals as to where one’s duties lay. The anger that might otherwise have been directed at the state for the inadequacies and privations of the war effort was in Australia very often displaced onto fellow citizens.

The battles of 1916 had changed the complexion of the war for those at home: the Somme campaign had brought hope of an end, and delivered nothing approximating victory. In 1917 Australians were much more reticent about articulating such hopes again, though their conviction remained on display in their popular rejection of German peace feelers at the end of 1916. Still, the torment of enduring persistent anxiety had welled up to the surface, and it became worse in 1917. After nearly three years’ separation from her husband, Melbourne woman Ethel Goddard was wondering “when this wretched war will be over... It seems half our life time.”41 The angst of waiting for news—of loved ones, of positive movement at the front—continued to erode resilience among those with family and friends at the front. Appeals to military authorities to return men from the front had begun in 1916, and converged in a steady stream in 1917. Those applications came as much from the deeply patriotic as from those seemingly less committed to the empire’s cause. Ellie Wharton-Kirke—who had been instrumental in organising the “Australia Day” fundraising effort in 1915—was now desperate to have her youngest son relieved from service not simply for his sake, but for her own. For since her four sons had all enlisted, she claimed that “I have borne this awful strain that I feel I can no longer endure.” Her one desire as a “heartbroken mother” was to see her “baby son once before I die.” Wharton-Kirke’s request was denied, though her anguish persisted, and in April 1918 she was publicly articulating the emotions that she shared with “thousands of Australian mothers who have suffered for nearly four years the agony and



Exhaustion had its expression in political terms too: a second conscription campaign, in December 1917, was conducted against a background of fear that those at the front would be overwhelmed due to their lack of relief, as a string of allied failures amplified anxieties. The inability to see any end to the conflict in the wake of a second defeat of the proposal was punctured only by the German successes of March and April 1918. The thought that the allies might actually lose the war produced again stern evaluations of fellow citizens as it also exposed the diminishing reservoirs of personal resilience. With her son still at the war, Sydney woman Louisa Hughes rounded on those who attended seemingly trivial entertainments while the “best and bravest are giving their lives to save this country.” At the same time, however, she expressed the genuine basis of her anger to her son: “We long to have you safe home again you know that is our dearest and only wish now. Nothing else seems to matter very much.”43

Even as the war turned in the allies’ favour in the second half of 1918, the experience of sustaining one’s commitment tormented those with immediate investments in it. in Sydney in September 1918, isabella Parkes insisted to her son that she was “hanging on... with might and main” to the hope “that you will come home to me just my own dear boy.” “I’m doing all I can,” Parkes continued, “to keep the wrinkles away and keep the same for your sake.”44 While most were prepared to accept good news from the front from August onwards, doubts persisted. In Adelaide in October, Elizabeth Parkhouse noted that: “Things seem to be moving over your way just now if one can believe the papers, but still I expect the end is far away.”45 Perhaps Parkhouse was protecting herself from hope. Those who gave in to that hope did so for the same reasons. In rural Cowra, Joyce Byrne expressed the sentiment: “I think the War will soon end by the tone of the papers. What heaven if it does. Every body is so tired of it.”46

  • [1] cannot pretend that with the principles prompting Germany and whichhave brought about this war, that I am in favour of peace with dishonour orwithout righteousness. I hate war yet I would rather have this war than haveturned a deaf ear to Belgium’s Call.31
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