Armistice Day – Let’s get it right about the First World War

If Armistice Day is to be meaningful in the way that it is commemorated by the media it must be done with due diligence to historical context, to the real meaning of loss and sacrifice within that context, to historical accuracy and, above all, to inclusion, based on a strong evidential base, a critical approach to past and present assumptions and a commitment to accuracy.

There is a place for family stories, for community snapshots, for a focus on a range of memorials, individuals, events within wars and wars in general for a media presentation of Armistice Day.  But if a newspaper decides to be ambitious and detailed in its coverage and presentation, and produces a lavish “keepsake”, or major supplement, as the Launceston Examiner did on the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day 2008, there is an increased responsibility to ensure inclusion, prevent serious omissions and avoid making mistakes through ignorance or laziness in research, because people will use the feature as a reference, an accurate account, irrespective of any faults it may contain.

Equally important, if not more so, is a responsibility of the media to be truly investigative, to reach beyond reportage to some sort of analysis, to reach beyond propaganda, standard mythologies, jingoism, and other distortions. 

Let me explain.  The Examiner supplement gives what it regards as obligatory recognition to Tasmania’s longest-lived First World War veterans.  It is very sad that one of the best known Tasmanian diggers of the First World War, if not now the best known, is Alec Campbell.  Campbell is well known for one reason and for one reason alone – he was one of the two most long-lived Tasmanian veterans of that war, dying in 2002 at age 103.  He is one of seven Tasmanian Campbells with a first-name initial “A”, who fought in the First World War.  Two of them were killed (both on Gallipoli), another three were wounded, and apart from one of them, for whom there is no record of length of service, those who survived all served for longer periods in the AIF than Alec Campbell.  Three of them were in the AIF for more than three years, which means that they fought in the hell-hole of the Western Front, and at least in one case, Gallipoli as well.  On an examination of the evidence of these men’s wartime experiences Alec Campbell is the most fortunate in all respects, and certainly, in terms of his long life, most fortunate of all.

So what should we say about these other “A.” Campbells?  We know them not at all in a public way.  They were not given elaborate and well publicized state funerals.  The history of their lives is not remembered at all, except perhaps by their families, and then only if they had children.  But the two “A.” Campbells who were killed left a permanent legacy of grief, a grief felt and lived daily by their parents for as long as they lived. If they were married and had children their loss as fathers and husbands was irrevocable and incalculable.

I well remember as a young boy in Evandale in the 1950s the women who had photos of their dead husbands and boyfriends on their mantelpieces, photos of young men in uniform who left Tasmania but did not return.  These women had pledged to remain widowed or unmarried, and they kept that pledge, in some cases living their entire adult lives alone. They spent some of their time knitting socks for the Red Cross, a commitment they had started during the First World War, and continued to do some 40 years later.  Their world had been permanently shattered in the trenches of Gallipoli and the Somme, just as had those who died or came home disfigured and altered. 

Let us extend this story a little further.  There were 31 Tasmanian Campbells who went to war in 1914-1918 (if the Tasmanian War Record has got its figures right), of whom eight were killed, six were wounded, and one was highly decorated, receiving a DSO and a Croix de Guerre.  Why is it that the media focuses such attention on the longevity of life of one “A.” Campbell rather than on the brevity of life of the other “A.” Campbells who died at a young age on foreign battlefields, and on the cost of their deaths to those who loved them and knew them and worked with them before they died?
 
This is not a quest for an answer to that question.  It is a request for an analysis of context, for a better and more mature and more humane and more sympathetic and empathetic understanding of the dimensions of the cost of war.  It is a request for a more sophisticated approach to the meaning of Armistice Day, an approach which gives real respect to those who died, and to those whose lives were destroyed or diminished, whether they be the permanently scarred participants or the permanently scarred families.

To do less than that, by providing stories and memorialization without the context of the real human dimension of time and place, is to do a disservice to their memory and to the reality of their lives within families and communities who knew them and mourned them.

Devotion and Division

We would do well to reflect that Tasmania during the First World War has been variously described at a community welded together “due to the universal devotion to a common cause” (Sir John Gellibrand, 1921), and at the other extreme, as a society of bitter divisions and conflicts which fragmented the community during the war years, and for many years afterwards.

The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 was certainly greeted in Tasmania with enthusiastic expressions of loyalty to the British Empire, which overwhelmed any dissenting opinions.  This mirrored the nation at large, where a Federal election campaign in full swing saw Joseph Cook’s Liberals and Andrew Fisher’s Labour Party compete with each other in unqualified support for Britain.

One important manifestation of enthusiasm was the establishment of nearly 40 patriotic funds, most notably the Australian Red Cross, organised mainly by a large pool of unpaid women volunteers, which sent large numbers of clothing and food parcels to troops at the front, and raised the remarkable sum of 310,000 pounds from a population of 200,000 people when the average wage was less than 200 pounds per annum. 

But the dominant mood of patriotic fervour also had its victims, the first of whom were “enemy aliens”.  A concentration camp established at Claremont, but soon moved to Bruny Island, had nearly 50 prisoners by early 1915.  The town of Bismarck, near Hobart, was renamed Collinsvale, and Tasmanians of German descent, who constituted the largest non-British national group in the population, were persecuted throughout the war.  A typical example was the treatment of Gustav Weindorfer, who built the now famous Waldheim Chalet near Cradle Mountain.  He was accused of being a German spy, and of using his chalet as a radio station to contact German ships.  He was expelled from the Ulverstone Club and his dog was poisoned.

The outbreak of war also immediately disrupted the Tasmanian economy, closing German markets, especially for the mining, timber and trapping industries.  But it also gave impetus to new industries in metals and manufacturing, such as the establishment of the Electrolytic Zinc Company in Hobart, allied with state control of hydro-electric development, and the opening of the Waddamana scheme in 1916.  But unemployment doubled in the first six months of war, and was accompanied by steep price inflation while a wage freeze was in place, starting serious divisions between the labour movement and the State Labour government under James Earle.  Industrial discontent climaxed in strikes in northern Tasmania, especially in Burnie and Devonport, in mid -1917, and new “free labour” unionists clashed physically with strikers at Devonport. 

The perception of the working class that they were bearing the main burdens of the war, economically as well as in lives lost, gradually sharpened class consciousness and antagonisms.  For example, the high proportion of army recruits from mining districts in the early months of the war, especially from the west coast, suggests that motives for enlistment were determined as much by the sudden rise in unemployment as by the call to patriotic duty or adventure.

These divisions were strengthened by other developments.  Sectarianism became an important issue dividing the community.  The Hobart Mercury’s view that Irish Catholics were likely to be disloyal was confirmed for many by the 1916 Easter rebellion in Ireland, casting unwarranted suspicion on the Tasmanian Catholic population.  Groups such as the mainly middle-class Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Loyalty League, lead by prominent conservative politicians, were vigilant in the cause of Protestantism, opposing state aid to Catholic schools, turning temperance into a patriotic cause and winning overwhelming support at a referendum in 1916 to change hotel closing hours from 10 pm to 6 pm.

But the main cause of division, and in many ways the issue which sharply exposed and exacerbated the amalgam of other conflicts in the community, was conscription.  After the initial rush of volunteers, which had far exceeded Tasmania’s quota of 1070 men for the newly named Australian Imperial Force (AIF) of 20,000 troops offered by the Australian Government to Britain, recruitment figures gradually declined in Tasmania and Australia at large, apart from the boost provided by news of the Gallipoli landings in 1915 and the massive battle on the Somme in mid-1916. 

Massive Australian casualties, particularly on the stalemated western front from the middle of 1916 onwards, led to much more aggressive and divisive recruitment methods.  Harassment of “shirkers”, such as sending men white feathers, or the practice of economic conscription (used by the Launceston Marine Board, for example) whereby employers decided not to employ eligible recruits, such as single men, became more common as the war progressed. 

Finally, the Federal Government decided to introduce conscription for overseas military service, and the two conscription referenda, held in 1916 and 1917, were marked by bitter and vitriolic campaigns. The antagonisms culminated in violence at Beaconsfield in October 1916, when a bomb disrupted a conscription meeting, injuring two people.  Tasmanians voted against the national trend in supporting both referenda, but the figures clearly show a fragmented community, especially in 1917, when votes cast split 50.1% for ‘yes’ and 49.9% for ‘no’.

Paradoxically, all attempts to boost recruitment in Tasmania had the opposite effect.  Of the 15,485 men who enlisted during the war, 10,435 did so by the end of July 1916, and only 5,040 enlisted in the longer period from August 1916 to November 1918.  Tasmania’s contribution was the lowest proportion of the total population of any state, except Victoria, and consisted of 37.8% of the male population aged between 18 and 44, but was probably closer to 50% if rejections are counted. 

The cost was high.  More than half of the 13,000 Tasmanians who served overseas were casualties, of whom 2,432 lost their lives, and many more returned broken in health, physically and mentally.  One indicator of the long term social cost, and the difficulties soldiers had in adjusting to civilian life, was the history of the soldier settlement scheme, which had placed 1584 war veterans on the land throughout Tasmania by 1923, of whom only 850 remained three years later.

But the war created the Anzac tradition, enshrining the masculine digger image and values associated with mateship as the central symbol of national pride and identity.  It provided a special status for the “returned soldier”, politically endorsed in repatriation benefits, zealously guarded by the emerging RSL, and embodied in the conspicuous monuments and memorial halls in most Tasmanian towns and districts.  The Anzac story has endured and become the main story, and often the only story, of World War 1, promoting the view of a society united in war.  This has obscured other views, including the story of women in the war, both overseas (about 80 Tasmanian nurses served in the theatres of war) and on the home front.  Less enduring has been the memory of the grief, of young lives shattered, of families broken and distraught for years, of the bitter divisions, the sectarianism, the xenophobia, the class antagonisms and the distinctions between soldiers and civilians.

Peter Henning    

 

Peter Henning    

...the Federal Government decided to introduce conscription for overseas military service, and the two conscription referenda, held in 1916 and 1917, were marked by bitter and vitriolic campaigns. The antagonisms culminated in violence at Beaconsfield in October 1916, when a bomb disrupted a conscription meeting, injuring two people.  Tasmanians voted against the national trend in supporting both referenda, but the figures clearly show a fragmented community, especially in 1917, when votes cast split 50.1% for ‘yes’ and 49.9% for ‘no’.

Paradoxically, all attempts to boost recruitment in Tasmania had the opposite effect.  Of the 15,485 men who enlisted during the war, 10,435 did so by the end of July 1916, and only 5,040 enlisted in the longer period from August 1916 to November 1918.  Tasmania’s contribution was the lowest proportion of the total population of any state, except Victoria, and consisted of 37.8% of the male population aged between 18 and 44, but was probably closer to 50% if rejections are counted.