A Reflection on Fifty Years of Independent Australian First World War Scholarship

In early August 2014 many European nations commemorated the beginning of the Great War, the supposed war to end all wars, which claimed the lives of millions and whose consequences paved the way for a second, even more deadly conflict barely twenty years later. In Australia, some of these overseas events made the news, while at home, Albany (WA) held a ceremony for the centenary of the first Anzac departure from the commonwealth’s shores. However, on the whole, it has been all quiet on the commemorative front. And so it remained until April, when Australia’s commemorations began in earnest. On Anzac Day, thousands gathered around memorials or on beaches to commemorate the sacrifice of the first Australians to land at Gallipoli as well as to celebrate the birth of a nation. Many historians were watching, analysing, and perhaps even participating in the unfolding rituals.

Taken at face value, academic interest in Australia’s First World War involvement and its enduring repercussions is unsurprising. After all, the Anzac legend has come to occupy an increasingly central position in contemporary popular and political discourse about Australian history. Nonetheless, this interest is a fairly recent phenomenon. During the interwar period, Australians wishing to learn more about their country’s role in World War I beyond their own lived experience could really only turn to C.E.W Bean’s Official History, a twelve-volume behemoth, published between 1921 and 1942. After World War II, nothing changed for another two decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, academic circles still snubbed Australian war history as a topic worthy of study. Around the same time, the pageantry and ritual of 25 April was suddenly struggling to attract widespread popular attention and, for a moment, Anzac appeared destined to become an obscure reference in Australia’s past, forgotten by scholar and public alike. However, from the mid-1960s onwards, a combination of circumstances, including the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, the opening of sealed archives, the Vietnam War and ensuing debates concerning conscription, saw World War I become a relevant, even pressing issue in Australian society again.

Leading the initial charge of academic interest was Ken Inglis, who was soon followed by many others, such as Lloyd Robson and Bill Gammage. Their pioneering work went beyond analysing the conflict’s purely military aspects and considered the social and cultural implications of Australia’s Great War involvement. These initial studies, which cover issues such as the Anzac tradition’s roots, the ‘civil’ religious aspects of commemoration and the social history of the first Australian Imperial Force, have remained hugely influential. This influence is reflected in the central themes and debates that make up Australian Great War historiography today, which include: the Gallipoli campaign; Bean’s role in the propagation of the Anzac legend; the validity of the Anzac legend’s claims; conscription; bereavement and mourning; memorialisation and commemoration; and the dominant position of Anzac in contemporary Australian history. Nevertheless, as broad as this list appears, there are also significant gaps in Australian First World War studies. For example, the predominance of Gallipoli in the public’s understanding of the war is reflected in the historiography, and there are few detailed analyses of other major campaigns in which the Anzacs fought. Australian war art and literature has also received relatively little attention, especially when considering the amount of scholarship available on British, French and German works. Recent publications suggest that historians are beginning to explore these areas and others, but so far the surface has only been scratched.

For those who find the First World War fascinating, confronting, intriguing, or perhaps a combination of these sentiments, it is an exciting if somewhat overwhelming time to undertake research in this domain. Approximately half a century ago, Ken Inglis looked back at Australia’s Great War history and, apart from Bean’s government sponsored magnum opus, he found very little. Five decades later and we can now turn to an increasingly rich historiography to inform and challenge our approaches to the study of an event popularly conceived as having given birth to the Australian nation. For the greater public, 2015 may be the centenary of the Anzac Landings, but for historians it also marks fifty years of independent Australian First World War scholarship.

– Matt Haultain-Gall (PhD Candidate, University of New South Wales)

[Note: A version of this blog post first appeared as the guest editorial in History in the Making 4, no. 1, 2015]

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