Thursday, 23 January 2014

Federation to World War Two - Australian History reviewed

Australian History since 1900.

If it is true that we are doomed to repeat the history we do not understand then our own history should be particularly compelling. Australian history however has always suffered from an image problem. The most common complaint is that it is boring: nothing happened. This view reflects a very narrow idea of what constitutes an event. While Australia has been mercifully spared the horrors which make the history of Russia, Europe and China so terribly fascinating there is still plenty to work with: a unique set of political and economic arrangements resulting from  Federation and only now being finally replaced by something else; participation in two world wars and numerous other regional conflicts; a depression and a massive immigration program. While we have avoided disaster it was sometimes a close run thing. And the intellectual struggle to own this history and bend it to contemporary purposes continues unabated.

In particular, the history of the near past can be extremely tendentious. History is often conscripted to prove that a particular party line is correct.  In Paul Kelly’s  The End of Certainty the story of the 1980s history is made to show the inevitability of the economic rationalist world view. Kelly is certainly on to something: the particular set of constitutional, legal and economic arrangements which were put in place in the first decade after Federation and which Kelly  describes as the ‘Australian Settlement’ were definitely unraveling in the 1980s and Kelly provides a detailed account of the political dimension to this process. Kelly however has a very large axe to grind – the benefits of free market economics and globalisation -  and as the result is that a book which could have been a very important analysis of  a critical phase in Australian history often descends into partisanship. His proposition that the protectionist policies of the early twentieth century were an economic failure from their inception would come as a surprise to the Australians who enjoyed post war prosperity.

But the concept of an Australian Settlement hammered out in the wake of Federation is a productive one. As a creation story, Federation has its problems. No redcoats firing on patriotic citizens; no tumbrels creaking off to the guillotine; no scheming Otto von Bismark or red shirted Garibaldi. Just a bunch of lawyers in waistcoats, sporting beards that would not be out of place in an outlaw biker gang, negotiating free trade and protection. The interest in the story however lies in the unique set of arrangements which the new nation devised.
Gavan Souter in Lion and Kangaroo succeeds in breathing life into names which are often seen but little remembered such as the Victorian Deakin – cultured, widely read but indecisive – the Queenslander Griffiths  - upper class and an amateur translator of Dante -  and the New South Welshman, Barton – a classics scholar who enjoyed a long lunch. He surveys what he sees as the key formative influences of the new nation and they are a revealing selection: parliament, the high court, the relationship with Britain and two of the bloodiest battles of the great War in which Australians participated, Gallipoli and Pozieres. Souter understands that institutions and events are ultimately people and he has an eye for the telling detail.

In his  Acts of Parliament Souter provides a comprehensive narrative history of Federal politics until the 1980s. The politics of the first decade of federation is fascinating because it explains the content of the Australian settlement. Protectionists, led by Barton allied with the young Labor party to keep the Free Traders (Paul Kelly’s spiritual ancestors) out of power and to enshrine white Australia in the first substantive legislation passed by the Federal Parliament. Legislation providing for a national industrial arbitration system followed soon after.

The achievement of the first decade of Federation was to stabilise the class conflict which had seen Australia on the verge of civil war during the industrial disputes of the 1890s when Queensland pastoralists, under the banner of ‘Freedom of Contract’ (sound familiar?) made a determined attempt to destroy the rural union movement. The bitterness of this struggle which was a tactical defeat but strategic victory for the unions explains much about the following century of industrial relations and political history in Australia. Defeated by scab labour and special constables the unionists decided to get even  not angry. The result was the Australian Labor party. Ross McMullins  Light on the Hill  is a detailed account of the ALP from its origins to the Hawke government. Its treatment of the early history of the party is illuminating in that it highlights how central  to the Australian settlement were the concerns of organised labour, be it in restricting non white immigration or legislating for compulsory arbitration. Labor could be so influential, though rarely in power, because of the division of the conservatives between the New South Wales based free traders and the Victorian protectionists.

The new nation enjoyed a high standard of living, democratic government and its citizens were among the longest lived in the world. But something was missing. World War One however was to provide the missing element. Blood. Some 69,000 Australians died in WWI and the overall casualty rate was over 50% of men enlisted. One can understand the need to find something redemptive in this shambles.

The recent growth in attendance at Anzac day commemorations is an interesting phenomenon which undoubtedly reflects the time devoted to it in schools as well as widely felt need to participate in unifying ritual. For those who want to get beyond the mythology, Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli  is a well written conventional narrative history which places the campaign in its strategic context and provides considerable information about Turkish as well as Allied motivation and objectives. Patsie Adam-Smith’s Anzacs is a history of the first AIF with fascinating insights into matters such as the comparative rates of venereal disease in the allied armies. The Australians led the way in this area as well as on the battlefield. Somme Mud by EFP Lynch is the memoirs of an Australian infantry man, written in 1921 but only recently rediscovered and published for the first time. This appears to be the genuine article – the forward is by the respected military historian Bill Gammage – and is that rare thing: a detailed first hand account by an intelligent and thoughtful observor who somehow forced himself to confront and record the appalling reality he experienced.

The starting point for reading on the first AIF and in many ways the originator of the Anzac ‘legend’ is CEW Bean’s Official History of the Australia in the war of 1914-1918. At twelve volumes and in amazing detail – often actions are recounted at the platoon level with individuals being named -  this is not for the faint hearted. Bean was not jingoistic and was careful to discount exaggerated claims as to Australian martial prowess but he is also assiduous in finding admiring commentary from both allied and enemy observers. The overall effect is somewhat adulatory. A somewhat less uplifting impression is conveyed by The Broken Years a selection of Australian soldier’s letters home, edited by Bill Gammage, many of which depict the brutalising effect of incessant slaughter on the correspondents. Particularly by 1918 the Australians hated the enemy and exalted in their destruction. It was this hatred which seems to have driven the Australians to perform so well in the critical battles of 1918.

Many of those battles were directed by an Australian – John Monash. Almost forgotten now, Monash was the Allies most successful general on the Western front. Roland Perry has written an excellent biography, Monash: the Outsider who Won a War which makes intelligible his tactical brilliance. John Laffin’s The Battle of Hamel focuses on the first major set piece conducted by Monash which prefigured his later successes and set the pattern for the defeat of the German’s on the Western front.


After the war to end all wars there was a brief period of economic recovery but the twenties in Australia were not prosperous. Falling commodity prices and industrial unrest characterised the political environment. Just when the Scullin Labor government had finally achieved office after a landslide victory the New York stock exchange crashed and the chairman of the Commonwealth Bank Board, in line with the economic orthodoxy of the day demanded massive expenditure cuts. Australia did not pull out of the resulting downward spiral until World War Two.  Jack Lang by Bede Nairn is a biography of the ‘Bigfella’ and is of particular interest for its treatment of how the conventional economic wisdom of the day guaranteed an exacerbation of the economic crisis. Lang, a real estate agent from what was then western Sydney, knew little and cared less about economics and his attempt to run a populist line against they who paid the piper was short lived.

On any view the thirties were a dark time. Fascism in Europe, Stalinism in Russia, militarism in Japan and economic collapse everywhere. Racism went without saying. Something had to give and when it did we had the greatest conflagration in world history. For Australia, two fronts had particular significance: North Africa and New Guinea. North Africa is particularly remembered for the role of the 9th division in the successful defence of  Tobruk, and in inflicting the first major defeat on German land forces of the war at Alamaine. Somewhat unfairly, the role of other Australian units in the earlier successful campaign against the Italians in North Africa and the Vichy French in Syria are less well remembered.

The first siege of Tobruk took place at the nadir of Allied fortunes in WWII, in mid 1941. Its successful defence prevented the Germans from securing a forward supply base and was instrumental in keeping them from conquering Egypt, the Suez Canal and accessing Middle Eastern oil.

Tobruk’s defenders were largely Australians of the 9th division with British artillery and some Indian units. The commander of the 9th division, Morshead initiated a policy of active defence with nightly patrols contesting no mans land. My grandfather, transferred into the 2/15 battalion during the siege had told me about these patrols, which were certainly the highlight of his war, and I was amazed to find that the original operational reports of them are available on line through the Australian War Museum web site by reference to the battalion involved. For those with access to first hand accounts, it is fascinating to find certain details – the Gurkha penchant for removing ears; the role of a Salvation Army padre in providing hot food -  confirmed in the voluminous primary and secondary sources available. Let Enemies Beware- the History of the 2/15 Battalion  by R Austin is based on operational diaries and memoirs of participants. Tobruk and El Alamaine by Barto Maughan is a detailed and scholarly military history of these campaigns while Alamaine – the Australian Story by  Mark Johnston and Peter Stanley focuses on the 9th division’s role in the Alamaine campaign.

Detailed military history is not to every ones’ taste and it would be fair to say that what these works gain in credibility they lose in readability. In this regard the north African campaign is not as well served as some of the WWI campaigns or New Guinea.

And not all interest is healthy. Since most Australians have at least heard of Tobruk there is a fighting chance of getting something published about it. The Last Man Standing by Peter Dorman focuses on the war of one Herb Ashby. Unfortunately the book is not transparent about its own methods but appears to be an example of what is sometimes called ’faction’; an unholy blending of the genres of popular history and historical fiction. This hybrid genre is characterised by extensive speculation about what its protagonist must have been thinking at any given time and reconstructed conversations which no one could possibly remember. The forward suggests Mr Ashby was extensively interviewed but absent any scholarly apparatus it is impossible to know and what you are left with is moderately entertaining historical fiction.

Peter Fitzsimmons Tobruk is in a similar vein but is at least up front about the method adopted. Fitzsimmons is described on the fly leaf as Australia’s most ‘beloved popular historian’. This must have come as a surprise to him as in the introductions to both Tobruk and Kokoda he has the decency to make clear that he feels free to make up some of what he writes (while not changing any known facts). A ’novel like feel’ is how he puts it.

This reviewer would prefer the genres to not blend. The problem is that the moment you start making things up – what a person was thinking on seeing something – or the details of a conversation – you are guessing and potentially misleading people. Veteran soldiers may not be appalled by death; they may indeed be rather callous about it. Or they may be much more scared than they admit to. Absent first hand accounts (which of course have their own problems to do with self justification and hindsight) the question about what is in a past figure’s mind is best left to historical fiction.

The other iconic campaign of the war for Australians is Kokoda.  Again its fascination lies in the fact that it was a predominantly Australian operation. The Japanese in fact never had a chance of taking Port Moresby; had no intention of invading Australia; and were criminally neglected by a high command that had started to believe their own propaganda about ‘Japanese spirit’ (‘yamato damashii’). But the campaign, particularly in its early stages,  showed Australian troops performing both very well against the odds –in the case of the 39th battalion and, in the case of the 53rd battalion, very poorly.

Paul Ham’s Kokoda  is highly readable, covers the campaign from both Japanese and Australian perspectives and avoids mythologising. Peter Brune’s Those Ragged Bloody Heroes  focuses on the divergent experiences  of the 39th  and 53rd malicia battalions. The contrast is revealing of the importance of leadership, training and equipment and is a timely reminder that not all Australians are born soldiers.

Brune’s  The Spell Broken is about the little known Milne Bay campaign in 1942 which was in fact the first significant defeat of the Japanese army in WWII. Also undeservedly forgotten are the post Kokoda campaigns to clear the Japanese from central New Guinea. John Coate’s  Bravery above Blunder is a detailed military history of the Huon Peninsular campaign in 1943 and describes one of the largest scale operations ever undertaken by Australian troops independently.

Peter Thompson’s The Battle for Singapore is a balanced account of the greatest disaster to ever befall British or Australian arms. Hellfire by Cameron Forbes is a thoughtful treatment of the Malaya campaign and the subsequent experiences of captivity of Australian POWs. Unusually, Forbes makes an attempt to understand the how the Japanese military code of bushido could be perverted so as to permit the Japanese army to commit war crimes with such sickening  albeit spasmodic frequency.

Flack by Michael Veitch deals with Australian participation in the air war. In contradistinction to the ‘factionalised’ accounts referred to above this is good popular history. Veitch lets his informants speak for themselves and resists the temptation to embroider. Voices of War – Stories from the Australians at War Film Archive, edited by Michael Caufield is a selection of oral histories drawn from both Australian men and women who participated in of conflicts
From WWI until the present. First person accounts are both fascinating and problematic. But they form a valuable reality check for more document based histories.

The end of World War II brings us well into the era of living memory and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a clear perspective as to what matters and what is ephemeral.  It is worth reflecting on the fact that the world that  Australians fought to defend in North Africa and New Guinea in the 1940s has almost entirely disappeared. White Australia went in the late sixties; high tariffs in the seventies and eighties; the last bastion to fall was probably the industrial relations system despatched by the most recent amendments to the Workplace Relations Act. All of this territory is highly contested as even a casual perusal of John Hirst’s Sense and Nonsense in Australian History  would suggest. Recent history blends into journalistic editorial and a definitive history of the post war period in Australia remains to be written. When it is it will certainly be worth a look.

No comments:

Post a Comment