Review: South Australia on the Eve of War

Book Cover

South Australia on the Eve of War, edited by Melanie Oppenheimer, Margaret Anderson and Mandy Paul, (Mile End, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2017).

South Australia on the Eve of War paints a picture of life in South Australia before the outbreak of World War I. Its ten chapters, each written by a different historian, are easy to read overviews of various aspects of life in South Australia before the outbreak of war. These chapters provide an introduction to topics such as South Australian politics, families, the lives of immigrants, Aboriginal people, rural life and town planning. With the assistance of endnotes for each chapter, the curious reader can delve further into any topic that interests them.

The time between the 1890s and the outbreak of war in August 1914 should receive more attention as it was during this era that people formed the attitudes which they brought with them to the Great War. But history is more than a series of wars with a bit of peace in between. This era is fascinating in itself as it was the era which saw the birth of Australia as a newly unified nation.

The chapter, ‘New women and the modern family’ by Margaret Anderson and Alison Mackinnon is one of the highlights of this book. It looks at the implications for women’s lives of the substantial decline in the birth rate since the 1870s, improvements in infant mortality and material circumstances. Issues of abortion and work outside the home are also examined in an interesting overview of life for South Australian women during the opening years of the twentieth century.

A book like this is not complete without considering Aboriginal lives. There are many Aboriginal peoples throughout Australia, each with their own culture and history. Likewise, each colony/state had a variety of policies which were differently applied throughout time and in various regions of the state. “Although Aboriginal people had the right to vote in both state and federal elections”, writes Mandy Paul, “it was a right constrained by administrative practice”. Mandy Paul’s chapter largely covers the laws targeting Aboriginal people and administrative practices affecting their lives such as the removal of children and the control of Aboriginal land.

The Northern Territory was under the jurisdiction of South Australia until 1911 when the Federal Government assumed responsibility for this region. Understandably Mandy Paul and other authors could not give this region much coverage in their chapters. The Northern Territory and its relationship with South Australia before the War deserves a chapter (or a book) of its own, but readers will have to look elsewhere for this fascinating history.

Statue of Queen Adelaide

Adelaide was named after Queen Adelaide, the German-born wife of King William IV. This statue of her is in Adelaide’s Town Hall.

The lives of English, Indian, German and Irish immigrants are covered by a chapter each. Stephanie James examines how the Irish Catholics were perceived by other South Australians before the war in light of the accusations of disloyalty which emerged in the midst of WWI. Peter Monteath writes about the loyalty of Germans in South Australia to the British crown in the context of a population which was largely English speaking. Most had departed from Europe before the unification of principalities which led to the establishment of Germany as a nation. These chapters encourage the reader to think about the question of loyalty during WWI in different ways.

Margaret Allen focuses on Indian South Australians who challenged the idea of White Australia. Among the varied responses she discusses, she looks at the work of the United Asiatic League which was formed in 1905. Members were of Chinese, Indian and Syrian background. Her discussion left me wanting to know more about this organisation.

Rural life is covered by two chapters which bring to the reader’s attention the Great Eastern Drought, a short but severe drought in 1914-1915. This was an important impetus which led to the enlistment of some soldiers at the outbreak of war. Elspeth Grant examines the fate of English youths who emigrated during 1913 and 1914. The poor boys were unwittingly exposed to the savage realities of the drought almost as soon as they landed in South Australia and over three quarters subsequently enlisted when war broke out. Elspeth Grant taps into rich sources that document the responses of these youths to the harsh reality that they faced.

The urban environment both reflects and shapes the lives of residents. Adelaide, like Melbourne, is well known for the role of town planning in the development of the city. Christine Garnaut covers the development of Adelaide’s built environment from the inception of the city in 1836 to 1914. Along the way she challenges perceptions that Adelaide had an entirely regulated and orderly urban environment.

The reader’s heart may skip a beat on opening South Australia on the Eve of War. In this newly published book are two chapters by deceased historians. This book emerged from a conference held in August 2014 to mark the centenary of the state of WWI. It takes time for authors to write their chapters, editors to review them and for the book to go into print. In this time highly respected South Australian historians, John Bannon (yes, the former premier of the state) and Jill Roe passed away. John Bannon wrote about the political ramifications for South Australia of Federation. Jill Rowe wrote about the Eyre Peninsula. Roe grow up on the Eyre Peninsula and this is the subject of her final book, Our Fathers Cleared the Bush, which I must read. The dedication to John Bannon and Jill Roe describes them as “two giants of Australian history”.

Logo for Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2017

Eight of the ten chapters of South Australia on the Eve of War were written by women and the book was edited by women, so I am counting this as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2017.

This book is not just relevant to South Australians, it demonstrates the varied nature of Australian history and the need to pay attention to the history of each colony/state when thinking of Australian history. It is easy to read and with its discrete chapters and is a good book for the busy reader who needs something that they can pick up and put down. With the first chapter by Melanie Oppenheimer and Margrette Kleinig, South Australia on the Eve of War could be a suitable introductory history to read for those with no background about the history of South Australia, although the thematic treatment of the history instead of a chronological presentation may not suit all such readers.

South Australia on the Eve of War, edited by Melanie Oppenheimer, Margaret Anderson and Mandy Paul is published by Wakefield Press. The publisher supplied a review copy.

Further Reading

2 thoughts on “Review: South Australia on the Eve of War

  1. Great to see this period receive more attention. Perhaps the title undercuts the attempt to give the period its own significance. Having been working through those years for my biography, Australia was developing in such interesting ways before the war reorientated everything. Thanks for the helpful review!


    • I am glad that you found the review helpful Nathan. The book was definitely looking at that pre-war period in light of World War I, hence the examination of issues of loyalty etc. I started my WWI work from a background of research in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century which gives me a different perspective of Australia’s experience of WWI compared to researchers who specialise in that war. I agree with you that Australia during that Federation period was a very interesting place.

      Liked by 1 person

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