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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2009

5 - The Great War, 1914–1918


Some of the central myths in Australian history have their genesis in the Great War. In the late 19th century, Australians had bewailed the lack of a martial tradition in their country, convinced that only when a nation and a people had shed its blood and treasure in a great conflict of arms had it truly passed the test of nationhood. This crude mixture of social Darwinism and British racial propaganda was a powerful idea by no means confined to the Australian colonies, but the vision of warrior heroes which it evoked was sadly out of tune with the methods and consequences of modern industrial warfare.

Australia was a very long way from the theatre of war in 1914 and, although Australians followed the gathering crisis in Europe in their newspapers, their attention in July and August was focused more closely upon the constitutional crisis in Ireland, which threatened to spill over into civil war, and on the election for the federal parliament scheduled for 5 September. The election campaign allowed politicians a public forum for declarations of loyal support, and these were readily forthcoming. On 29 July the governments of the dominions had been advised by London that war was imminent, and when New Zealand offered a contingent of troops the next day, matched by the Canadians on 31 July, Australian politicians quickly followed suit.