News & Current Affairs
06 November 2014
by Bruce Haigh
Australia and WWI: proportion or propaganda
In Albany last weekend, the Australian Prime Minister delivered what no doubt will be the first of many testimonies over the next five years to Australian involvement in WWI. He spoke of Australian sacrifice, but not of the horror of war. And he did not place this sacrifice within the global context that marked this unnecessary war.
The substance of the address was as superficial and shallow as the man delivering it. With a limited knowledge of Australian history Abbott was prepared to trot out the hoary old chestnuts that Australian sacrifice at Gallipoli and on the Western Front shaped the future of the nation. This has become the central theme of the Anzac myth. It is conveyed as a positive, as nation building.
Would Abbott be prepared to claim that British sacrifice in WWI brought in a new golden age in the United Kingdom? Or rather would he be prepared to acknowledge that many British historians speak of the death of a generation? Would he concede that the bitterness of German sacrifice and defeat ushered in the rise of the Nazi Party?
WWI hastened the onset of the Russian Revolution, an event that Abbott has not publicly lauded. And WWI led directly to WWII. Is Abbott going to celebrate this disastrous development?
Young Australian men, their heads full of British, Australian and Empire propaganda rushed to the colours, much as young men are swallowing Islamic State propaganda and mistakenly rushing to the black flag. That is the fatal mix for young people – propaganda, emotion, a quest for adventure, dissatisfaction with current circumstances and off they go to meet the demands of cynical power brokers, who rarely fight.
Right wing historians like to demonstrate the extent of the sacrifice Australia made to WWI. They cite the number of volunteers, 416,809, in comparison to the number of white males 2,470,000, out of a population of 4,870,000 at the 1911 Commonwealth Census. Aboriginal people were deemed non persons in 1911 and were not eligible to enlist although some did.
Of those Australians who enlisted 331,946 served overseas and 61,720 were killed or died of wounds and disease. Of the total number who went overseas 181,221 were injured. The ratio of 3:I of wounded to deaths also applied to some other combatant nations, although a ratio of 2:1 was more common.
However to put the Australian sacrifice in perspective, 8,600,000 combatants, stretcher bearers and medical staff were killed from 1914-1918 of whom 774,402 were British, 1,385,000 French, 2,050,466 German, 1,200,000 Austrian and Hungarian, 1,700,000 Russian, 460,000 Italian, 463,241 Romanian and Serbian, 115,660 American, 300,000 Turkish, 38,172 Belgian, 101,224 Bulgarian, 7,222 Portuguese and 203,621 from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
In the first three months of the war France lost 300,000 killed and 600,000 wounded, by 1918 there were 630,000 war widows in France. Martin Gilbert in his book the, 'First World War', says on average 20,000 soldiers were killed every four days throughout the war.
Not all statistics are quoted by right wing Australian historians. Of the Australians who went overseas 150 in every 1,000 contracted venereal disease. The French averaged 83 cases per 1,000 and the Germans 110. The Australian rate was amongst the highest. Perhaps Abbott can weave that into one of his speeches.
The First World War was an unequal contest between men and machines which the German artist Otto Dix graphically portrayed. Nothing similar was produced by Australian war artists who produced sanitised and romantic images of the 'Boys Own' type, consciously or sub-consciously designed to keep the public onside should it be necessary to fight another war.
The official historian CEW Bean was a primary promoter of the Anzac and nation building myth. Bean was a man on a mission. He all but airbrushed the horror, anarchy and futility of the war from his history and extolled the virtues of Australian mateship as part of the myth.
Mateship was not unique to the Australian army. The German, British and French armies all had strong traditions of mateship fostered and exploited by the military hierarchy as a morale boosting and motivational tool to achieve difficult outcomes.
Bean, as part of his mission, swept post traumatic stress under the carpet, yet most of the troops who returned from overseas service suffered from it. Bean knew but it did not fit the stereotype of the Digger he had created. In this he was aided by the Repatriation Department who sought to limit the number and type of war service claims.
Bill Gammage in his book, 'The broken Years', says that in 1939 there were 49,157 WWI veterans still in hospital.
No nation was ever built as a result of war. Nations are built as a result of individual endeavour combining into collective enterprise overseen and guided by good governance of a type we have not seen in Australia for some time.
WWI gives the lie to Christianity as a civilising influence. For those at the front forced to endure days of high explosive shell fire - to the point that they cried with terror, went temporarily or permanently mad, defecated and urinated involuntarily and then crawled out of trenches to face machine gun fire of between 500-700 rounds per minute - it could be said that they were in Dante's Inferno. Christianity failed to prevent the Armageddon of WWI and some might argue that it contributed to its onset.
The story of war, particularly the First World War should be told as it was and not as part of a propaganda exercise to get the Australian public to accept, yet again, the deployment of Australian forces to war on the sole discretion and authority of a Prime Minister who does not have the courage to send Australians overseas to fight Ebola in case they return with the disease and threaten his comfort zone.