‘Australians at Home: World War I’ by Michael McKernan

mckernan

2014 (original 1980), 224 p.

No, I haven’t come over all ANZAC-y now that the Gallipoli commemorations are over.  I’ve taken over a column in the newsletter of my local Heidelberg Historical Society, which looks at Heidelberg 100 years ago, using the local newspaper. Of course, a hundred years ago in 1916, the newspaper was full of homefront war news and I found myself wondering how typical it was- hence reading this book.

This book was originally published in 1980 under the title The Australian People and the Great War.  In the preface to this new 2014 edition, McKernan, who was a doctoral researcher at the Australian War Memorial when he wrote the original book (rather than its Deputy Director as he was later to become), explains how he was distracted from his official research on Australian churches in the Great War by the newspapers and School Papers in the AWM’s collection.   It seems odd, given the deluge of ANZACery in the last few years, that he was writing in a scarcely-furrowed field. He writes that at least one publisher at the time had shown some interest in the war by publishing Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs in 1978 but that

Few others were at all interested and I was thought, by academic colleagues, to be a bit strange for working on a war topic. How times have changed! (p. v)

That’s for sure!  But given thirty-six years and the tsunami of publication that has taken place since then, this book stacks up pretty well. McKernan can see its shortcomings:

Many things are missing from this book, but such was the state of my historical understanding then. And the state of the profession, I might add. Today, most obviously, I would seek to include the story of Indigenous Australians on the homefront, as I have done for more recent books. I should also have written about Australian nurses in my chapter on Australian soldiers.  I might also have looked more closely at unemployment and the downturn in the economy that the war caused.  I apologize to those who look to find these important themes, but such were my limitations then. (p. VI)

As he goes on to say, there have been many books since devoted to what he dealt with in a chapter in this book. I think of Janet Butler’s Kitty’s War on nurses (my review here); Rosalie Triolo on Our Schools and the War; Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief on war graves; Marina Larssen’s Shattered Anzacs (my review here) on injured returned soldiers, as a start.  But as a book “for the broad Australian community” this is a very good broad-brush treatment, well bolstered by identified sources.  McKernan doesn’t need to apologize too much.

In his opening chapter, ‘The War in Australia’ he points out that the war had an immediate effect on the local economy through a rapid increase in prices and a sudden increase in unemployment, with many men placed on reduced hours. He emphasizes the different experience of middle-class and working-class families at home during the war, and announces his intention to concentrate on ‘ordinary people’, drawing on School Papers, parish records, Red Cross reports of local charitable activity, letters, and local papers as a way of tapping into this class-based diversity of experience.

Chapter 3 ‘Seedplots of Empire Loyalty: The Schools at War’ noted the gendered responses expected of children: that the girls would knit and the boys would play manly sports.  Victorian schools, under the influence of Frank Tate, were particularly active in fundraising.  The practice of saluting the flag daily began in late 1917 in Victoria.  Honour boards, particularly in private schools, were a form of pressure to enlist, and he notes that the Greater Public Schools were especially strong on conscription.

In Chapter 4 he examines the role of Australian women in war, and in particular the class basis of Red Cross activity. This is something that I’m noting locally in the Heidelberg district, where the very middle-class Ivanhoe Red Cross quickly outstripped the more working and lower middle-class Heidelberg and Fairfield. Because it was voluntary, unpaid work did not affect women’s status as it did in the United Kingdom, and it ebbed away quickly without trace when the war came to an end, thus confirming rather than challenging the place of women in society.

‘Muddied Oafs’ and ‘Flannel Fools’, Chapter 5, looks at sport and war. Many sports competitions halted for the duration, although class perceptions come in here too. There was strong criticism of working class ‘slackers’ who continued to play rugby and football, but the continuation of  horse-racing, a middle-class sport, was justified on the grounds that it improved the breed of the horse (and thus assisted the war effort). However, despite the heavy use of sporting analogy in promoting enlistment, sport was not a fixation amongst working-class people, and playing footy on the weekend was not the cause of the indifference to enlistment that the middle-class complained of.

Chapter 6 seemed a little out of place in this book which has the home front as its emphasis. ‘From Hero to Criminal: the AIF in Britain 1915-19’ looks at the behaviour of Australian troops in England during the war.  England was culturally familiar as ‘home’ through a steady diet of childhood literature, and the first Anzac Day march was held in April 1916 in London (not Australia)- the only march to honour a specific body of troops held like this during the war (and a cause of some resentment among the British troops who were at Gallipoli too). The march was only just one factor in the increasing wariness between British and Australian soldiers. There were misdemeanors committed in garrison towns by Australian soldiers. Those soldiers in turn were disgusted by the class distinctions and poverty they saw in Britain and the sight of women working.

The seventh chapter ‘Manufacturing the War: ‘Enemy Subjects’ in Australia’ examines the enlargement of the term ‘enemy subject’ to encompass any Australian natural-born subject whose father or grandfather was a subject of a country at war with the King. Many people had wildly exaggerated perceptions of the direct German threat to Australia. This chapter deals particularly with anti-German feeling, and here perhaps we do see the datedness of the book because it could easily have been extended to include peace activists and unionists who also came to be seen as enemy subjects.

Chapter 8 ‘The Other Australia? War in the Country’ questions the idea that country and urban Australia had separate interests. He points out that country regions felt that they had contributed to the manliness of Australian soldiers, but this is not borne out in the figures.  There was slightly higher enlistment from rural areas, but as he points out, in a face-to-face society like a country town, the pressure to enlist would be stronger. In many ways, war unified country and town, with the realization that despite all the bluster, city workers were not ‘soft’.  The referendum on conscription coincided with the first sittings of the exemption courts which highlighted how few men could claim exemption from enlistment and the severity of conscription, which may have contributed to the defeat of the referendum.

‘The Grey Years’ looks at the initial euphoria at the end of the war, but the creeping sadness of the influenza epidemic and the return of so many wounded and damaged soldiers. The celebration of the armistice on 8th November on the basis of a rumour was premature, and they had to celebrate all over again a few days later. A public holiday was called, but there was confusion over whether it was to be on Tuesday or Wednesday, so in effect, there was little work between Friday 8th November and Thursday 14 November. Three faultlines were to break open in society: i) the returned men  ii) the so called ‘patriotic classes’ and iii) the rest.  ANZAC day had a fitful start. In 1921 the Federal Government declared 25 April a public holiday, but state governments did not follow their lead. In 1925 the Victorian government made ANZAC Day a public holiday, but insisted that all shops, hotels, racecourses and theatres be closed lest it be degraded by secular pleasures. The other states joined in by 1928 and the first dawn service was held that year.

I enjoyed this book. It is generously endowed with many black-and-white pictures that take up often 1/2 the page, and I liked the vignettes of individuals and their families that are woven through the text.  It is narrated in a gentle, accessible tone, but well-supported in the footnotes.  It thoroughly stands up to republication more than thirty years after it first appeared.

 

 

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12 responses to “‘Australians at Home: World War I’ by Michael McKernan

  1. Thanks for this useful review. Whenever I research the lives of soldiers before the War I am reminded of the importance of children’s literature before the War in preparing boys to become the men who enthusiastically enlisted at the outbreak of the War.

    I was a bit surprised about the statement that the first Anzac Day march was held in London, not Australia. I have a photo of soldiers marching on Anzac Day in Brisbane in 1916 on my blog post about the first Anzac Day. Anzac Day marches were held in 1916 in Sydney and various websites mention Anzac Day marches in other Australian cities too. Perhaps the London march was before 25th April 1916?

    • Maybe. I’ve returned the book, so I can’t check it unfortunately. McKernan seemed to make quite a bit of the fact that it was in London.

      • There has been a lot of research done on Anzac Day since this first book was published. There was a significant Anzac Day march in London in 1916, but McKernan was writing before Trove (B.T. ?) so was probably not aware of the Australian Anzac Day marches that were held at the same time.

      • BT – very good! Trove’s changed things so much that we need such a shorthand.

  2. You may also be interested in a more recent book Michael McKernan wrote “Victoria at War” https://yprl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/660678027_victoria_at_war

    His more recent book : When this thing happened” focuses more on an individual family story

    https://yprl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/720186027_when_this_thing_happened

    • Yes- I had borrowed the Victoria book but had to return it before I started it. I’m just doing the ‘Hundred Years’ column for the next newsletter and am inspired to reborrow it.

  3. I had just borrowed the new edition ‘Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend’ by Alistair Thomson after reading Marina’s ‘Shattered Anzacs’. Has made me consider the collection of Anzac Day badges, medallions and other war ephemera my grandmother and great-grandmother were given in quite a different light.

  4. Thanks for the review – I’ll be reading this book for background when I come to the war (a way to go – I’m in 1905!). It says much of the climate in 1917 that the schoolchildren had to begin saluting the flag. Nice detail.

    • I recommend Joan Beaumont’s book, Broken Nation as a great, comprehensive introduction to WWI both for frontline action and life back in Australia. Rosalie Triolo’s book gives great insight to life for school children during the War, even though it focuses on Victoria you can then get some ideas of what to explore in different states. I think it would be best to read something written more recently as there has been a huge amount of scholarship concerning every aspect of Australia’s experience of the War since McKernan wrote this book in the 1980s.

      • residentjudge

        Yes- Joan’s book was excellent. I thought that McKernan’s stacked up well as an overview, but so many people have filled out what he mentions in passing.

  5. Pingback: ‘Victoria at War 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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