Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The rush to war, 1914: Canada and Australia

There seems to be some buzz in Australian historical circles over Douglas Newton's Hell Bent: Australia's Leap into the Great War.

I don't know if Newton is being read by Canada's military and political historians. (I have not read it myself.) The mystery Newton explores -- why the political leaders of the "white dominions" were so much more eager than their British counterparts to rush into war in August 1914 -- has to my mind never been sufficiently seen in Canadian historiography as a question worth exploring.  Here's a summary of Newton:
London’s choice for war was a very close-run thing. At the height of the diplomatic crisis leading to war, it looked very much like Britain would choose neutrality. Only very late in the evening of Tuesday 4 August did a small clique in the British cabinet finally engineer a declaration of war against Germany.
Meanwhile, Australia’s political leaders, deep in the throes of a federal election campaign, competed with each other in a love-of-empire auction. They leapt ahead of events in London. At the height of the diplomatic crisis, they offered to transfer the brand-new Royal Australian Navy to the British Admiralty. Most importantly, on Monday 3 August, an inner group of the Australian cabinet, egged on by the governor-general, offered an expeditionary force of 20,000 men, to serve anywhere, for any objective, under British command, and with the whole cost to be borne by Australia — some forty hours before the British cabinet made up its mind.
Australia’s leaders thereby lost the chance to set limits, to weigh objectives, or to insist upon consultation.
I rather diffidently raised similar questions in a comment in the Canadian Historical Review's 2014 feature on the First World War, but I'm hardly a specialist in the matter.  And that piece did not provoke much response among those who are.

The subsequent issue of conscription is not raised in Newton, evidently, but Australia, like Canada, soon encountered enlistment problems, as the local-born in both countries soon proved less committed to the crusade than the British emigrant populations.  Much scope for comparative study, one would think.
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