As a member of the Empire Australia was automatically called upon to fight for British interests when war was declared in August 1914. As was the case in the Boer War, nationalist feelings in the beginning outweighed radical scepticism, and by October more than 20,000 volunteers had enlisted and were sent to training camps in Egypt. Later the troops fought at Gallipoli where they suffered severe casualties in an unsuccessful attempt to capture Turkish and German strongholds and thereby ease the pressure on the Russians. But the troops from ‘down under’, the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) had made their entry on the international scene, and enthusiastic anglophiles saw Gallipoli as the birth of Australian nationhood. At the other end of the political spectrum many “Australians were abandoning their hopes of creating a society free of the evils of the Old World.” (11)
If Australians were undecided as to the nationalist importance of Gallipoli, then 1916 caused a landslide in public opinion. The ANZACs were transferred to the Western Front and more than 70,000 lost their lives in the trenches at the Somme, Ypres and Bullecourt. These were staggering figures, and a great proportion of the population felt that Australia might be committed to a wrong cause. However, the mother country clamoured for more troops, and campaigns for voluntary enlistment were intensified (see Appendix 12). But the required number of 16,000 troops a month could not be met, and the only solution lay in conscription to make up for the deficit. A referendum was held later in the year, but a majority of Australians were against sacrificing more lives in Europe, and the Conscription Act was turned down. This coincided with the Easter Rising in Ireland, and it is quite characteristic of the course of Australian history that it was Catholics (of Irish descent) that helped turn the scales against conscription. At a meeting in Melbourne, Archbishop Dr. Mannix harangued against Protestant conscriptionists and declared that “conscription was a hateful thing and always brought evil in its train ... He was the Irish patriot nursing a grudge against those guilty of that ancient wrong against the Irish people ... Three days later (he) launched an appeal for the relief of the victims of the Easter Rising in Ireland.” (12) A second referendum was held in 1917, but with the same negative result, and the Australian voters had made it clear that they did not necessarily feel that their destiny lay with England.
If, at the beginning of a war that cost 226,000 casualties, Australians had proudly seen their infant nation emerge from the battlefields at Gallipoli, then at the end of the war the general opinion was that foreign policy and future military operations should be carried out with less respect to Westminster, and more to their own needs and national interests. In this way WW I becomes a temporary culmination of the ongoing process of severing the ties with the mother country, of establishing a more genuine and autonomous Terra Firma.
World War II and Vietnam
Australia’s war effort from 1940 to 45 to a large extent reflects this sense of independence. Throughout the war ANZACs were engaged in Europe, but when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Australia felt that it had become an isolated white nation in the Pacific region whose interests were threatened by Asian neighbours, and its efforts were redirected to the Pacific war theatre.
When Singapore fell in 1942 more than 15,000 Australians were taken prisoner, and Australia was now on the brink of a Japanese invasion (13).Britain was heavily occupied with other theatres of war, so Australia’s hopes lay in joining forces with the United States. During WW II the wind of Australian interests and loyalties veered from the west round to the east, and in 1951 “Australia, New Zealand and the United States signed the ANZUS security pact under which they agreed to act together if any of them was attacked. In effect (the) ANZAC treaty had been set aside. Many Australians heaved a sigh of relief. ANZUS was to dominate Australian foreign and defence policy
or more than 40 years, but it was a contract for which Australians were to pay a Faustian price.” (14) The “Faustian price” referred to in the quotation is Australia’s involvement in Korea, and later in Vietnam which turned out to be a traumatic and ‘bad’ experience for most participating countries(15).
Obviously, old sentiments and cultural ties are not done away with through the fighting of wars and the signing of treaties, but there is no doubt that many Australians to-day feel that the Republic of Australia could well be a reality in the near future. The year 2001 (the Centenary for Federation) has of course been suggested as an auspicious time to divest Australia of the last tatters of colonial garb.
As we have seen, Australia suffered severe casualties during WW I – 226,000 out of 300,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded (that is a casualty rate of 68.5 percent! (16)). These figures indicate that Australia stood as one of the real losers, and in many local communities the male population was drastically low. In the inter war period the deficit was partly made up through continued immigration, mostly from Great Britain, as successive governments agreed on a “White Australia” immigration policy. During the Second World War it became alarmingly clear that Australia’s position in the Pacific was vulnerable to Japanese aggression, and as the ANZACs sustained heavy losses in the Pacific war, it was decided to encourage wide scale immigration to boost a stagnating population. The labour government abided by the “White Australia” policy, but it was ruled that for every one immigrant from Great Britain another one
from any country should be allowed in, provided he/she was white. In this way Australia launched one of the biggest immigration schemes in the 20th century. By 1965 more than 2 million people had arrived in Australia, and in the same period the population rose from 7.5 million to 11 million (17).
One of the greatest contingents came from Eastern Europe where the devastations of the war had resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees, or “displaced persons”. From 1942 to 1952 around 170,000 “reffos” or “DPs” were shipped to Australia (18). This is approximately the same number as the sum total of convict transportation (see p. 6), and, like the convicts, the “displaced persons” were faced with immense insecurity and shattering apprehensions about their future. Mostly they had no or very rudimentary knowledge of English, and though their odds in many ways were different from those of early ‘settlers’, they had to fight equally hard to establish their own Terra Firma. Officially they had been invited by the Australian Government, but sometimes they met with suspicion that bordered on discrimination, and during the post war period, when they were joined by new waves of immigrants from central and southern Europe, the Australian language was enriched with quite a few ‘names’ for the New Australians: Balts, wogs, dagoes, Ities, Ikeys etc. (19). Gaining a secure foothold on the foreign continent was often a difficult and slow process. To some immigrants the language barrier was a major obstacle, and they would often have to approach the authorities through their Australian educated children. Most of the immigrants were absorbed in the cities, and in a way history repeats itself in creating an enlarged version of the situation of a hundred years before, when the gold rush attracted people from all over the world (see p. 15). In the post war years many Australian cities passed the one million mark, and city dwellers clearly outnumbered the rural population.