Camel corps soldiers in training at Menangle Park, New South Wales, 1916.
During the scores of commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War we remember the men, young and old, who served and died in the war. We also remember the wounded, in mind and body, crippled from their service. We remember, too, the voluntary spirit of those women whose war efforts supported these men.
We will hear, as we have done for years past, how the nation, which had been federated for only 14 years, was "born" at Gallipoli. But how much of the divisions at home during that war will be acknowledged? It's a story familiar to historians of the period, but one that is largely absent from our public remembrances. Our amnesia risks perpetuating the glorification of war.
That glorification underpinned the kneejerk jingoism that sent men to their deaths. In towns across Australia men were pressured into enlisting by patriotism, yes, but also by local newspapers, recruitment drives, white feathers and bluster. The repercussions of these pressures had devastating effects on families and towns.
A World War I recruitment poster.
The unanimity of August and September 1914 vanished in the years that followed.
The war engendered a hard, intolerant, attitude where volunteers were lauded and "slackers" and "shirkers" denounced, regardless of their circumstance. As recruitment numbers declined, these pressures intensified and for many in country towns it became intolerable. One country paper insisted that "nothing short of conscription will shunt many of our burly young manhood into the firing line. Some of their cowardly skins would be all the better for a little Turkish bronzing."
Despite the official age of enlistment being 21, younger men, who could enlist with parental permission, quickly became the target of recruitment agencies. These groups often joined with police in strong arming teachers and businesses to help identify those between 18 and 21 – men who did not yet have the vote but who would be cannon fodder for the war. The newspaper in Orange, in central west NSW, made much fun of the young man who, when asked by police why he had not enlisted, answered simply that he was "frightened".
In that same town, Sir Neville Howse, the venerated VC recipient from the Boer War, sent a cable from Gallipoli calling on people to "ostracise every healthy young man who does not volunteer immediately". In the days that followed, dozens were sent white feathers, signals of their perceived cowardice. These experiences were not unique to Orange.
After Prime Minister Hughes announced a vote on the question of conscription, relationships in many towns across Australia turned toxic. The boycotting of businesses supporting either side, and the rowdy public debates before the conscription plebiscite, amply demonstrate the divisions. So does the result (1,160,033 against, 1,087,557 for). Hughes' setback split the Federal Government, led to the formation of a new political party, and foreshadowed a second plebiscite at the end of 1917. Conscription was again rejected.
By 1918, with war-weariness entrenched, some were prepared to step beyond the bounds of the anti-conscription struggle and actively call for peace. One such brave soul was the Congregational Minister, Thomas Roseby. His services on "Peace and War" in his parish church attracted pacifists and loyalists alike: on one occasion he was attacked, mid-sermon, by a group of returned soldiers. Three months shy of war's end, Roseby was silenced by the draconian War Precautions Act, which made it an offence to do or say anything "likely to prejudice recruiting".
In late November, Sir Neville Howse, who three years earlier stated that "every able young man who does not enlist should be sterilised", returned to Australia and now called for the "unpleasantness and friction" of the war years to end. By forgetting our shared divisive past, and by not celebrating the dissenting voices in our history, we have fulfilled his wish.
The Great War was a tragedy of immense proportions. Of the millions of deaths worldwide, over 60,000 families in Australia were left without a son, father or brother. David Noonan's research (The Age, 28 April 2014) tells us that "four out of five" soldiers who survived the war were "damaged or disabled in some way".
We, then and now, falsely connect the blood sacrifice of the war with the coagulation of states into a nation. If Australia "became a nation" at Gallipoli it was a very divided one at home. The glory of war sent men to their deaths. Opposition to conscription saved many others from the same fate.
Maybe it is now time to recognise that, in the long run, it was the dissenting voices that were right about the tragic folly we call the Great War, and that to repeat the jingoistic bluster of the time is to dishonour the sacrifices of those young men, and of the many citizens who resisted the pressure to enlist.
Julie Kimber teaches politics and history at Swinburne University and is the co-editor of the Journal of Australian Studies.