Douglas Newton


Australia was bound to fight in 1914 — end of story. Australia was constitutionally, politically, and emotionally incapable of any other response than absolute loyalty to the British Empire in 1914 — end of story. That is the proposition advanced in many histories of Australia’s Great War. And it is essentially correct, at least in terms of ultimate outcomes. If the British Empire plunged into war in 1914, Australia was indeed bound to fight. No doubt about it.

But should this be the end of the story? Is there really nothing more to investigate in the manner of Australia’s leap into the Great War? What if Australia leapt before the British themselves? What if Australia publicly offered troops to any destination, entirely at Australia’s expense, under the control of the imperial authorities, before the British had decided upon war at all? What if Australia offered to transfer her entire newly christened Royal Australian Navy to the British Admiralty before the British asked for it?

Then, conceding that the decision for war was always going to be London’s, we might ask questions about the interleaving of events in Britain and Australia in the countdown to war. What if the choice for war in London was a very close-run thing, while Australia threw caution to the winds and gave the impression of being eager for action? What if Australia’s offer of troops and ships was made at a moment when the British cabinet of Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith was locked in a dispute between neutralists and interventionists over the need for Britain to intervene at all in a continental war? What if Australia’s politicians, competing with each other in the middle of a federal election campaign, made their openended offers of assistance to Britain for war at a moment when that British cabinet was tottering on the brink of collapse over the issue of intervention? What if Australia — in a spirit of competition with New Zealand and Canada — made these offers at the very moment prime minister Asquith faced four resignations from his cabinet — in real time, on Monday morning 3 August 1914?

Then the issue of the impact of Australia’s offers at the centre of the empire becomes important. What if Australia’s apparent champing at the bit had an effect in London? What if Australia’s politicians, in a spirit of political competition, gave the impression that the nation was desperate to contribute to an imperial war? What if the Australian politicians’ rhetorical boasts of their readiness to throw the last stripling and the last penny into Armageddon were flaunted in the British press? What if they were trumpeted by the British Tory politicians, in a frantic political campaign to steer the Liberal government into war for the sake of Russia and France? We may search deeper into the detail. What if Australia’s eagerness to offer her new navy came at a time when the neutralist British cabinet ministers were furious that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, was ordering naval movements early in the crisis, without cabinet sanction — movements that incited the hard-liners in Russia and France? What if the neutralist faction in Asquith’s cabinet, which had long struggled against the idea of throwing a British expeditionary force (BEF) into war in Europe, were hobbled in their efforts by the dominions’ public offers of expeditionary forces, to go anywhere, for any objective, defensive or offensive?

As we shall see, all the things suggested in these questions did happen on the swift path to the cataclysm of world war in July–August 1914. Therefore, a bland ‘end of story’ — a fatalistic acceptance that no better outcome was ever possible — undersells the drama, the tragedy, and the infinite possibilities for something better in this story. There is a story here — a new story. New perspectives are possible if we interleave the story of Australia’s leap into the Great War and the story of the choice for war in Britain. That is the aim of this book.

Hell-Bent Douglas Newton