Saturday, January 27, 2007

What It Meant To Be An Australian In 1914

"They Clung To The Principle Of Standing By The Weaker Brother"

C.E.W. Bean's essential history of Australians at war during World War 1, Anzac To Amiens, includes some invaluable insights into Australian society, in the cities and in the bush, in the year before the war broke out.

In amongst all the talk today of what it means to be an Australian, it was with great interest that I found within Bean's book an encapsulating description of Australians and Australian society in the years just before the "War To End All Wars" broke out.

In only a few pages of his book, Bean manages to nail down an Australian identity rarely discussed today, or even widely recognised as an identity Australians once had and happily shared.

In many ways, the Australian society he describes in the first chapter of Anzac To Amiens - as he sets the scene for the inspiring and shocking story that follows - was never to be the same again.

The war, its crippling financial costs and its monumental casualty take shattered the width and breadth of the Australian society, from sparsely populated country villages to the tram-noisy chaos of Sydney, as it tore away (in Bean's words) "husband from wife, son from mother, (and) savings from those who had spent a lifetime in patient thrift."

How near to the optimistic heights dreamed of by those Australians, then only 14 years after Federation, have we soared in the 94 years since?

How close to their utterly essential "basic creed" and ideal of what defined an Australian do we now stand today?

Here are some excerpts from the first chapter :

In 1914, Australians were only 126 years from their first settlement in this continent...we were only 101 years from the first crossing of the Blue Mountains, only 63 (years) from the first gold rush, 58 (years) from the first establishment here of democratic self-government. Some Australian who went to the war had ancestors still alive who could remember some of the first generation of countrymen; many had grandparents or great grandparents who could tell them of the gold rush, the bushrangers, the later explorers and the imported convicts.

Yet, though many of the older men and women had actually lived in them, the colonial days were, by 1914, almost as extinct of those of William the Conqueror.

The people of the six colonies, which had federated only fourteen years before, regarded themselves as being in the forefront of human progress, and indeed, in some not unimportant respects they had reason to do so.

When emigrating from Britain most of their ancestors had half-consciously tried to cast off what they vaguely felt to be elements of inequality and injustice in the inherited social systems of Europe.

They were disrespectful of old methods, eager to try out new ones. They had of late deliberately changed the whole basis of their wage system, in an effort to adjust it to the public conscience in place of the uncontrolled results of supply and demand.

They had made many mistakes, due to vague thinking and inadequate study, but they had achieved something.

They had established at least one very great and successful industry - that of wool production - and had managed to so spread its profits that real wages were then possibly higher in Australia than anywhere else in the world; at all events the life of the ordinary man, woman and child contain probably more healthy recreation than anywhere else.

Public education then compared favourably with that of any people except perhaps those of Scandinavia; in the enjoyment of such modern material benefits as telephones and electric light Australians were ahead of the British though behind the Americans.

Probably nowhere were the less wealthy folk more truly free, or on such terms of genuine social equality with the rich, in dress, habits and intercourse....

It is true that in one respect living conditions in Australia - as in most newly-settled lands, even the United States - differed widely from those in older countries; a vast gap existed between the conditions in country and city. In the cities life was not markedly different from that of any great European or American town; but country life was in many parts still set in almost pioneering environment.

Yet the outback homesteads often contain surprising evidence of culture. It was much more than a superficial sign that the women who drove in to meet the mail train at a distant siding often dressed in the fashion of Paris, London, or New York.

And if in the bars and hostels even of the big cities at racetimes and on holidays there was sometimes evidence of the Wild West, there was little inferiority complex about the people of this particularly free country.

Its universities were in many ways progressive; its governments were launching into social experiments. Its business and political leaders thoroughly believed in its future and, with only 4 1/2 million white people (and perhaps 100,000 Australian blacks) in the continent, they borrowed freely from overseas to launch into industrial and social enterprises.

Many young Australians tended to condemn the English immigrant for his comparative slowness and lack of confidence in dealing with the unknown men and conditions, and were irritated by his certitude as to the superiority of the methods of the "old country".

The Australian ballad writers, Gordon, Lawson, Paterson, Ogilivie and others, were constantly read and quoted. The people were not formally religious, but there was a marked comradeliness in their outlook, and no degree of economic pressure could induce them to abandon it.

The people, newly federated, were at this stage very consciously intent upon building themselves into a great nation.

Without giving the matter much thought, most Australians assumed that the development of their country would be similar to that of the United States.

...with easy optimism, Australian anticipated that within a century or so her 5 million people would be increased to 60 if not 100 million.

The historian, who tries to to discover what motive most powerfully moved the Australian people at that interesting stage, will probably come to the conclusion that tradition - such as is consciously or unconsciously handed down in almost every word or action by parents and teachers to children, by priests and pastors, professional trades and business men to their successors, by witters to readers, even by older children to younger - was immensely strong and enduring.

The tradition was largely British...But with the British standards were mingled those of the pioneers - the backwoodsmen, and the men of the great ruins and the mining fields.

It was to these last that Australians owed their resourcefulness and readiness to grapple with their objectives even against authority, and also their basic creed, in industry as in war, that a man must at all costs stand by his mate.

...they clung to the principle of standing by the weaker brother.

* * * * * * * * *

Almost one in every twelve Australians alive then served in some capacity during World War 1; in Europe, the Middle East or at home.

A force of 417,000 was raised from a total population of just under 5 million people.

Some 331,000 "took the field" during the four years of WWI1.

59,342 were killed or died as a result of wounds suffered during fighting.

Another 152,000 Australians were wounded.

Of all who "took the field" during the war, 64.8% were killed or wounded.

By the start of World War 2, in 1939, more than 2000 men remained hospitalised for physical and mental injuries resulting from the war twenty years previous.

In 1939, some 50,000 veterans of the first world war visited hospitals or AIF-related medical facilities for ongoing treatment and rehabilitation.

* * * * * * * *

C.E.W Bean devoted decades of his life to writing the full story of the Australian Anzacs, and his vast official history, encompassing twelve volumes and millions of words, has proved invaluable to every modern chronicler of the war that consumed many of the very best of two generations of Australians, and left it deeply in debt to Britain and the United States.

Bean was no public servant, back in Australia combing official reports and daily casualty lists to compile an official history that met with official approval. Bean was there, he wandered many battlefields and had the life-shredded experiences of Australians at war during WW1 carved into his soul.

Remarkably, his own photos of the battle at Lone Pine detail the early edition I'm now reading.

Unfortunately, Anzacs To Amiens doesn't appear to be for sale online.

Penguin Australia last reprinted the book in 1993. Though many libraries still hold copies, you would be lucky to dig up a copy in second-hand stores. It is the kind of book that once brought becomes hard to part with.

Surely it is time for another reprinting of Anzacs To Amiens?

There's more to be discussed from this fascinating book on another day.