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]

Remembering Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam’s death reminds us of a period in Australian politics which continues to divide. From the social reforms his government introduced to the events that led to the dismissal, the Whitlam period is controversial. One theme that has run through much of the media coverage and commentary is that modern Australian politics is less passionate, increasingly driven by focus groups and polls, and intellectually shallow.254481-gough-whitlam

When I was born, Whitlam had been out of power for 10 years. When I was old enough to begin to understand Australian politics, Howard was in power. Politics felt petty, and it seemed like governments were trying to make themselves smaller. From the perspective of a high school student, public debate about economics and trade seemed to be missing the point. Where was the vision about social justice, about the shape of our society, about addressing historical disadvantage and deprivation?

In contrast, Whitlam seemed to represent a period where politics were about big questions and important social problems. What remained of that time were powerful speeches, large personalities and controversial decisions. It was hard to imagine any politician introducing any one reform on the scale of those that Whitlam achieved, let alone all of them.

The tributes captured the feeling that perhaps today’s politics are just a shadow of what they once were. Philip Ruddock said ‘I’m not sure there are many Gough Whitlams in the Parliament today.’ His point was – perhaps ironically – underscored by a hint of insult on a day when most were united in mourning. That is not to say that politicians didn’t insult each other in the 1970s – but we would rather remember it as a time when they didn’t.

Of course, part of the legend was the way it ended. My parents spoke of the dismissal as an outrage, as the theft of a long-awaited chance to govern and to change. There was a family friend who (gasp) thought that Fraser had done the right thing, that Whitlam was too radical, too dangerous.

In some ways the dismissal overshadowed the achievements of the Whitlam government. In Year 12 I wrote a ‘major work’ for one of my history subjects. The topic was the Whitlam dismissal, specifically “the reasons for the timing of Sir John Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam Government”. The underlying implication was that the decision was flawed, that it was a desparate attempt to steal power and undo the progressive reforms of the Whitlam government.

The decision itself was a complex one. When I was 18 I concluded that happened because Kerr honestly, but incorrectly, believed that the Governor-General’s reserve powers extended that far, that the Governor-General’s standing was under threat from a government that did not respect the Governor-General’s position, and that time was running out if the election was to be held before Christmas. Underlying all those beliefs is one that would not hold water in contemporary Australian political or constitutional theory: that the Governor-General’s role extended to resolving political stalemate.

The essay, of course, missed the point. A narrow, almost legalistic analysis, it failed to acknowledge the political significance of the event. To many on the Left it was proof that the Right was a sore loser, that the establishment would stand in the way of inevitable social reform. To many on the Right, it was proof that the conservatives were the only adults in the room, and the only ones who could be trusted to govern responsibly and deliver economic stability. The sweeping social reforms that Whitlam introduced are, of course, part of his legacy. The crash-through-or-crash approach and his eventual crash are also part of that legacy: they shaped the way that the Left and Right saw each other, and created a sense of a political golden age to which our contemporary leaders – by their own admission – fail to meet.

– Matthew Varley