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Australia in the Great War


Philip Payton


London: Robert Hale, 2015

Hardcover. 272 p. ISBN 978-0719808753. £20.00


Reviewed by Elizabeth Greenhalgh

University of New South Wales (Australia)


It was journalists and politicians who created and then nurtured the ‘Anzac legend’ that has survived into the twenty-first century, ever since its first articulation in a newspaper despatch. Bronzed and intrepid Australians, careless of stuffy British military discipline, jumped into the sea and ran up the cliffs of the Gallipoli peninsula in modern-day Turkey, thereby giving the newly-created (in 1901) Commonwealth of Australia its baptism of fire—or so the legend goes. Commemoration began very early, in 1916, on the first anniversary. Given the Christian symbolism of the Easter celebrations around the same time, it gave formal recognition to mourners, especially those bereaved who could not visit the grave of their loved ones, even when a grave existed. At the same time, such commemoration constituted a propaganda exercise promoting further recruitment. The returned veterans kept Anzac Day, 25 April, alive after the war, and a Second World War added a further layer of significance. The iconoclastic ‘60s nearly killed it off, as conscription for and opposition to the Vietnam War ridiculed the idea of fighting someone else’s war in order to create (or, at least, to baptise) your own nation. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the commemoration of Anzac Day has gained enormously in popularity, and the ‘pilgrimage’ to Gallipoli has become part of the young wandering Australian’s itinerary. Seeking one’s own family history has given a further powerful boost, as the numbers of researchers in the Australian War Memorial’s archives reveal.

Aided by an easy-to-pronounce acronym, the survival of the name of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps has been ensured by legal protection—so much so that the New Zealanders complain that the NZ at the acronym’s heart has been forgotten or ignored. Indeed, ‘Anzac’ has taken on a life of its own, becoming ‘spirit’ and signifying more generalised qualities such as mateship or courage or perseverance. The Australian prime minister’s message, as he left for the centenary commemorations on the Gallipoli peninsula and then France, emphasised this point. The First World War brought out ‘the very best’ in Australia’s ‘forebears’, he said, and their ‘perseverance, selflessness, courage and compassion came to define us as a nation’. On Gallipoli itself, he described the Anzac soldiers as becoming ‘the founding fathers of modern Australia’. At Villers-Bretonneux (Somme), Australia’s defence minister, representing his country at the huge war memorial there, insisted that the sacrifice of ‘those brave Anzacs’ must never be forgotten, but carried ‘in the hearts and minds of our young people’.

Revisionism and post-revisionism are intermingled nowadays with the ‘memory’ industry. Since all those Australians who served in the Great War are deceased, the ways in which the war is imagined, rather than remembered however rightly or mistakenly, enter the record and alter perceptions. Into this minefield Philip Payton has not hesitated to venture. He is well qualified to do so. After spending part of his childhood in Australia and after service as a naval officer, his academic career has been spent in southwest England, at the University of Exeter, where he became a leading specialist in Cornish emigration history. He has published widely, especially on the Cornish diaspora in Australia, and now holds a visiting professorial fellowship at Flinders University in South Australia.

His book is arranged chronologically, and interleaves the history of the Australian Imperial Force in action, first on Gallipoli and then in France and (very briefly) Palestine, with the home front on the other side of the world. The contemporaneous and more recent debates about both the fighting and the home fronts add another layer to the narrative. After an opening chapter on the reactions to the outbreak of war and the formation of the volunteer Australian Imperial Force, two chapters deal with the Gallipoli campaign in 1915; the next chapter on Australians at home is followed by one on the 1916 campaign, which, for the Anzacs, was the Battle of the Somme. The two following chapters describe the soldiers’ periods of leave or hospitalisation and convalescence in England, where they renewed or sought out family relations—it was simply too far to return home on leave—along with the fierce political debates in Australia that centred around conscription. Casualties were so high among the fighting troops that the volunteer system faltered and many feared that recruitment would not be sufficient to maintain the specifically Australian units in existence. Indeed, the sixth Australian division formed in 1917 did not serve as a division but was broken up to provide reinforcements for the other five. Two referendums were put to the Australian people, both men and women, for the nation was among the first to legislate female suffrage. Both referendums were worded to generate a ‘yes’ vote for conscription, the first in October 1916 and the second a year later. Amid considerable bitterness, both failed. The campaigns had split the nation along religious, regional, political and class lines. Next the military action of 1917 and 1918 is treated briefly in a single chapter. This unbalances the narrative somewhat after the two chapters devoted to 1915. Surely the well-trained, well-equipped and successful Australian Corps that took part in the victorious campaign during the last months of the war deserves a more extended analysis. The final chapter describes the return home and often difficult reinsertion into work and family life, the efforts of what became the Returned and Services League to defend veterans’ rights and to memorialise the war, and the political conflicts exacerbated by the Depression. A brief epilogue [244–248] completes the story through the Second World War up to today’s peace-keeping missions. There is a detailed index, but no bibliography and no photo credits.

Payton pre-empts the question of whether yet another book on Australia and the First World War is needed by claiming that there is indeed ‘a need for a general narrative history of the conflict’ which ‘engages with the many debates and controversies’ surrounding the war [9]. His claim may be overstated. Although he acknowledges the earlier work of many historians, he does not cite the 2013 publication by Joan (not Jean as on pp. 10, 249, 251) Beaumont, which also interleaves fighting front, home front, and memory.(1) Furthermore, Payton’s engagement with the ‘debates and controversies’ is confined more or less to the conscription referendums. He does not discuss the recent, occasionally heated debates between the ‘popularisers’—in the main promoters of the idea of the bronzed Anzacs’ genius for war in the face of British incompetence—and academic historians, accused of being left-wing iconoclasts. Greater engagement with the politics of the memory business might have made Payton rely less on the autobiography written late in life by Albert Facey and published in 1981, A Fortunate Life.(2) The work has become an Australian classic, but Facey’s account of his Gallipoli experience is contradicted by his freely available record of war service. He did not volunteer until January 1915, and so did not land with the first contingent on 25 April, as Payton describes [46]. He was evacuated in August 1915 with ‘heart trouble’, rather than the (claimed) more heroic wounds, and re-embarked to return to Australia in November. Consequently he is unlikely to have known the ‘man with the donkey’, who was killed on 19 May, since he had been taken on strength as part of the third reinforcements only ten days earlier. Rather, Facey has imbibed the myth of Jack Simpson, who had commandeered a Turkish donkey to take wounded men to the casualty clearing stations. Payton dissects the Simpson myth [61–67]—the Tynesider and deserter from the merchant marine, but the adopted Australian hero given a commemorative statue outside the Australian War Memorial in Canberra—but fails to apply the same method to Facey’s memoir.

For non-Australian readers with less interest in the contemporary debates—the book is published in London and so aimed predominantly at this readership?—Payton provides a good general account and fulfils his stated aim. In particular, he makes good use of the regional press to illustrate attitudes on the home front. Despite the fact that the Great War holds the first place in the military historiography of Australia, readers whose only knowledge of Australia in the First World War is Peter Weir’s 1981 film, Gallipoli, may be inspired by Payton’s account to dig deeper. In this regard, two online resources may be mentioned: the Australian War Memorial has digitised not only the volumes of the Australian official history(3) but also the private wartime diary of the author of most of its volumes; the service records of members of the First Australian Imperial Force are accessible online on the Australian Archives website.(4)



(1) Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (Sydney, 2013). This is a much longer work than Payton’s, at 628 pages, and has plenty of maps, which are missing from the latter, except for one showing the Gallipoli peninsula.


(2) Albert Facey, A Fortunate Life (Freemantle, Western Australia, 1981). The work was published just before his death and re-published in Melbourne in 1985. It sold more than 800,000 copies. The vague phrase ‘heart trouble’ was often used to indicate what today would be called shell-shock.


(3) C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, 12 vols (Sydney, 1921–42). Bean was elected by his fellow journalists to accompany the Australian forces overseas as official correspondent. After the war he was the force behind the creation of the Australian War Memorial and the writing of the official history. He has had a great influence on the way in which Australia views its military history and its contribution to the First World War.




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