When the Great War ended, Australian soldiers returned to a country changed forever

 abc.net.au  11/10/2018 7:02:30 PM  6

Updated November 11, 2018 11:10:35

"La guerre est finie!"

Picture a small group of incredulous Australian soldiers in the town of Vignacourt, in northern France, on the afternoon of November 10, 1918, listening to this statement.

Excited French civilians, tradesmen and shopkeepers, with the effervescent friendliness that such momentous tidings awakened, kept repeating it: "La guerre est finie!"

The locals seemed to be almost ecstatic with joy, shaking hands all round. Their eyes gleamed, they almost danced as they said it.

"The war is over!"

The Australian soldiers would have been heading south towards the frontline, to hold it over the winter while waiting to start the war again in 1919 — but an Armistice had been agreed.

After the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915, the First Australian Imperial Force had been deployed on the Western front. Over the next three years, they developed a reputation as vital crack troops.

The long war had been extremely costly for Australia.

More than 300,000 men saw active duty and more than 60,000 people died — roughly 1 per cent of the Australian population at the time.

But what kind of Australia were the returning soldiers going back to?

A new national identity

"For good or ill, we are engaged with the Mother Country in fighting for liberty and peace. And above and beyond everything, our armies will fight for British honour."

This editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald in August 1914 at the outbreak of war, was met with enthusiasm by a country that was very conscious of its place in the British Empire.

"At the war's outbreak most of white Australia was either British-born or of very recent British descent and were very keen to do their bit," says Rae Frances, professor of history at the Australian National University.

"This was helped by expectations of a short war, one that would be over by Christmas, that would reassert the dominance of the British Empire."

At the start of the war, so many were volunteering that recruitment officers were turning people away.

But as casualty lists grew, Australian society was struck with a sense of ambivalence about its imperial obligations.

The change in attitude was reflected in the explosive national debate over the issue of conscription.

Facing a shortage of soldiers, then prime minister Billy Hughes decided Australia should introduce mandatory service for young men.

Despite already having the constitutional power to introduce conscription, Hughes decided to hold a plebiscite in 1916, confident that he'd have popular support.

The vote was narrowly lost —not once but twice, when Hughes decided to try again a year later.

Not so quiet on the home front

When the war broke out, Australia was in recession and unemployment continued to grow, peaking at 11 per cent in March 1915.

International trade was disrupted, and inflation drove up prices for food and essential goods.

"The Australian economy, which contracted by 1.4 per cent, actually did worse during the First World War than it did during the decade of the Depression," says historian Robert Bollard.

The strong labour movement, characterised by a high trade union membership, reacted to the decline in living conditions with a strike wave, beginning in 1916 which, in the context of war, carried an immense political charge.

The first group of workers to go on strike were the miners of Broken Hill, who produced 80 per cent of the lead used in armaments in western France.

"There was effectively a continuous strike wave from 1916 right through to 1919 with an incredibly high number of days lost to strikes," Dr Bollard says.

"When they went on strike and effectively threatened the war effort, they won."

Australia after the War

World War I became a defining moment for Australia as a nation, according to Dr Meleah Hampton, a historian at the Australian War Memorial.

"In 1910 people were waiting for a war or some other event where Australia could prove itself on the world stage," she says.

"That was the First World War and Australia was different afterwards."

But along with Australia's newfound national confidence came new anxieties about our status as a white outpost in Asia.

This was demonstrated at the 1919 peace talks at Versailles, where Hughes rejected the racial equality clause in the founding covenant of the League of Nations.

Hughes insisted that the clause, proposed by the Japanese delegates, be excluded so as not to threaten Australia's discriminatory immigration regime.

"After the war I think Australia became more wedded to White Australia even than it had been at the beginning of the century," Professor Frances says.

"And what that meant for the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region was that Japan felt incredibly rebuffed by the Western nations, with implications for Australia during the Second World War."

The war opened political divisions that grew during the decades that followed.

"If you look at Australia during the interwar period, the far left has been strengthened, eventually you see the Communist Party emerging," Dr Bollard says.

"And on the right you have an increasingly authoritarian response manifested later by actual fascist organisations.

"So the social and political effect of the war was to polarise — not to bring Australia together, but in some ways to tear it apart."

Regardless, many soldiers simply came home and got on with their lives.

Many married, resumed their jobs, and had kids.

Dr Hampton believes the actions of those men in the post-war years had as much bearing on what Australia became as a nation as anything they did during the war.

Topics: world-war-1, history, unrest-conflict-and-war, anzac-day, defence-forces, veterans, australia, france

First posted November 11, 2018 06:00:00

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