Australia now has a comprehensive history of World War I. In one book, historian, Joan Beaumont gives an overview of the battles, the home front, diplomacy and memory of Australians at war. Written for the general reader, Broken Nation is a reference that family historians, students and anyone who is interested in war history would find a useful addition to their bookshelves.
A war is about the violence of battles. Beaumont recognises the “centrality of fighting”. She also recognises the centrality of chronology in a war. This history is told sequentially, each year of the war is allocated one long chapter which covers the battles and the experience of Australians at home. Helpful maps accompanying explanations of all the major battles that involved the Australians. After each significant battle for the Australians Beaumont asks why the battle is the focus of today’s fascination or why it has been largely forgotten.
While Beaumont focuses on the Australian experience of World War I, the reader will find her balanced approach refreshing. Beaumont periodically acquaints the reader with the overall picture of World War I, thus the reader will learn about the Germans, Russians, Austrians and other nationalities who fought in another significant theatre of World War I – the Eastern Front. Beaumont includes this, as well as the fighting between the Italians and Austrians to the south, in order to explain the overall picture that the Allied generals took into account when planning action involving the Australians. This provides the context the reader needs to better understand the tactical decisions of the Generals.
Beaumont seeks to introduce balance into the depiction of Australian soldiers at war. She points out that the Allied effort at Gallipoli did not just consist of Australians, New Zealanders and British officers. “[T]hroughout it was multinational” she says. However, she does not focus on the multi-racial nature of World War I.
This too is a balanced history with regards to the assessments of Australian performance during the war. About Gallipoli, Beaumont observes, “[t]he reality was that Australian officers were as willing as their British superiors to tolerate heavy Australian casualties”. Beaumont reports on the failures of Monash as well as his successes. Overall her account is sympathetic to the Australian troops but she does not excuse the riotous behaviour of the Australian soldiers in Cairo, stating that this was “simply ugly” and points to racist attitudes that fuelled this behaviour.
Beaumont firmly puts ‘mateship’ into perspective:
Yet whatever the power of mateship, it was not… ‘a particular Australian virtue’. All armies, no matter what their societal origins and values, rely on small-group cohesion and the desire not to let down the group as the motivation for men to overcome their fears in battle. This may take different names – comradeship, buddy systems, brotherhood or mateship…
Overall Beaumont’s writing style is clear and thorough but unremarkable.Perhaps this is what is needed when telling a history that is so often distorted and manipulated through the veil of emotive words. The author’s passion for this history peeks through occasionally, such as when discussing General Haig’s plans to have troops landing by sea in order to attack the Germans in 1917. Beaumont shudders. “What was he thinking?”
“Like all armies in a democratic age, the men of the AIF looked to the home front for affirmation of their efforts” says Beaumont. She explains the importance to the morale of the troops from the crafting of ‘comforts’ such as socks, mittens, food etc. A telling example of the support of Australians at home for their soldiers abroad is the financial support they gave for the funding of the war. People put their money where their hearts lie, and the over-subscription of the government’s war loans by Australians is telling.
Yet Beaumont does not tell a rosy tale of unity in Australia with regards to the war effort. She depicts a society horribly divided over the two conscription referendums held during the war and the ‘Great Strike’. Beaumont says that the conscription debate, “has never been rivalled in Australian political history for its bitterness, divisiveness and violence”. In the context of the Battle of the Somme, Beaumont remarks that the first referendum in 1916 “was infused with the passion and hysteria of mass grief”.
The conduct of Australia’s prime minister for much of the war, William (Billy) Hughes, does not look good to modern eyes. He also had plenty of critics at the time. Beaumont depicts him as a confrontational, publicity-hungry man who was not able to adapt his conduct to the needs of international diplomacy. He was concerned to maintain the White Australia policy and acquire the German colony of New Guinea as a buffer of protection for Australia. Hughes had been part of important changes in the treatment of the ‘dominions’ of Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia by Britain and participated in the enormous conference that led to the Treaty of Versailles. However, by 1919 the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George was sick of Hughes and President Wilson of the United States unsuccessfully sought to deny Hughes a visa should the Prime Minister have decided to return to Australia via the United States.
After each major battle Beaumont reflects on how the soldiers’ remembered it and how it is remembered now. She notes that aside from Gallipoli, “[s]oldiers chose to be remembered for their victories, not defeats”, whereas today we often remember battles in terms of soldiers as victims. In an interesting observation Beaumont explains that the topography of a battle could determine whether it was remembered. “Like Gallipoli, Mont St Quentin lent itself to celebration because of its timing, its topography and the contours of its battle. Planting flags on summits is a powerful trope…” Victories won on mud flats did not lend themselves to such powerful visual imagery.
In any work that seeks to give a comprehensive overview of such a significant episode of world history it is possible to find imperfections, the occasional error and missing topics which a particular reader may regard as important, examples being the error about the birthplace of war historian, Charles Bean, and the early history of Anzac Day. This book is not perfect but Beaumont has largely achieved a monumental task. The value of work such as Broken Nation is that it should give impetus to critics to go forth and write their own books and contribute to our knowledge of the War. Broken Nation is a launching pad for the new historical research about World War I which will be published during the centenary. It consolidates what has already been established and gives readers some of the grounding they need in order to assess the deluge of World War I history that will come their way in the next four years.
Beaumont concludes by reflecting on the consequence of World War One for Australian society living in its aftermath. “… [T]he image of Australia as an inward-looking society, focused on grief and the rancour of the war years, is impossible to dispel”, says Beaumont. Yet, “[f]or all its negative legacy, World War I provided a foundational narrative of Australian nationalism in the form of the Anzac ‘legend’… [which] many Australians have seen as positive.”
World War I continued in Australian homes and communities long after the silence on the battle grounds.
But we haven’t remembered that.
Broken Nation wins literary awards
Beaumont demonstrates that authors of any gender write acclaimed histories of the battle-front:
- Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2014: History Prize
- Queensland Literary Awards 2014: University of Southern Queensland History Book Award
- NSW Premier’s History Awards 2014: Australian History Prize
On the topic of the gender of war historians, read this insightful post by war historian, Jessica Meyer.
From Stumbling Through the Past:
- The Emergence of Anzac Day
- Fresh Observations of War and Military
- Kitty’s War by Janet Butler
- The Diaries of a WWI Soldier
- New WWI Website from State Library NSW
- Our Schools and the War: The Victorian Education Dept and WWI
There have been many reviews of Broken Nation. Here are a few:
- Peter Stanley, ‘War Scholar Paints Big Picture‘, Sydney Morning Herald, 30/11/2013.
- Peter Yule, ‘Book Review: Broken Nation – Australians in the Great War‘, The Conversation, 11/11/2013.
This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2014.