Beaumont, Joan. Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War.
Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014. Softcover.
I always feel awkward when I write negative reviews. Often I will wonder if I was unfair, if it was the case that I simply didn’t grasp the central argument, or if I allowed style to get in the way of substance. Some history books are just bad, and they deserve to be marked out as such. This is often the result of poor research on behalf of the author, or a form of written expression that simply mangles the English language while tortuously making a (usually banal) point. Every now and then there will be a work that is demonstrably wrong, whether through wrongheadedness or (thankfully rarely) by design. In every one of these cases, a bad review is justified, and constitutes some sort of public service, warning historians and the reading public in general that they might wish to look for their answers or enjoyment elsewhere.
Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014) fits into none of these categories. The historian — a distinguished professor at Australian National University — has conducted extensive primary and secondary research. Her written expression is perhaps clumsy in places, but it is rare to find any book that maintains a high standard throughout its hundreds of pages, and tens of thousands of words. Many of her conclusions can be challenged, but none could be considered egregiously incorrect, and no one would level the charge of fabrication against an historian who has worked conscientiously and assiduously to present a case that is supported by the evidence she has found. Having said all of this, the book is frustrating, sometimes unsatisfactory, and the end result is hardly the ‘last word’ in Australian studies of the First World War. To that end, I was tempted, when beginning this review, to criticise and castigate Broken Nation. It does not deserve that, but it does stand as a flawed attempt to come to terms with issues that continue to haunt and shape the country.
Beaumont’s aim is to provide her readership with as complete a picture as possible of Australia’s involvement in the First World War. The innovation of the book, and that aspect which has garnered it considerable public and academic acclaim, is its approach to the social and cultural historical circumstances of Australia’s war. It is not intended as a military history and, indeed, the military aspects seem to be intended primarily as framing devices, a convenient narrative upon which Beaumont can build her analysis. As a structure for the work, this is by no means a bad idea, but it must be applied consistently.
Context is King.
Context is important in any historical work. It should go without saying that we cannot understand an historical event without also understanding the circumstances in which that event arose. The First World War is no exception to this. The agency behind the outbreak of the war is a matter for intense debate among academic circles; it is fair to say that the diplomats who penned the so-called ‘War Guilt Clause’ that became part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 are among the very few people who have ever had an unassailable conviction as to who was responsible for the war and why it happened. It should be stressed that Beaumont is not writing a book about why the war happened, but she does feel the need to impart something of the debate to her readers. This is perhaps admirable. But the way it is handled leaves much to be desired. Beaumont presents two of the many traditional streams of thought: one, that the rigid system of secret European alliances caused the outbreak of war and, two, that it was, in fact, the general European arms race (with the Anglo-German naval arms race at its core) that ratcheted up tensions and thus made war inevitable. To be fair, Beaumont rubbishes these as causative factors, as well she should. Arms races and alliances, after all, do not cause wars in and of themselves. But these are the only two myths of the war’s origins that Beaumont chooses to address, and she does not take a position of her own. The reader is therefore left hanging: why did the war start? Again, it is notable that this is not what Broken Nation is about, but if the author is unwilling to engage with the question in a meaningful and comprehensive fashion, then she should not engage with it at all. Otherwise, the reader is given a piecemeal and confusing picture of the event: a portrait, in which the artist has sketched out the details of the background but has, quite unaccountably, forgotten to start drawing the face of the subject. Indeed, so much has been written about this question over the last two years (let alone the last hundred) that one is struck by the absence of meaningful discussion.
Such gaps in context continue into the heart of Beaumont’s work; usually, they can be found in the discussion of military matters. So, for example, the search for the German light cruiser SMS Emden in the Indian Ocean rates perhaps a single paragraph, amounting to the HMAS Sydney being drawn away from convoy escort duty to intercept and ultimately destroy the German warship. But the Emden, while perhaps a footnote in the overall history of the Great War, should not be so in the Australian history of the Great War. For it was the Emden that really concerned Australian authorities at the beginning of the war, especially after it managed to steam into firing range of the fuel storage depots in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and destroy many of the storage tanks there without being seriously challenged by British shore or naval forces in the area. Indeed, there was a significant fear that the ship might be able to do much the same to an Australian facility. The Emden was also the reason why Australian troop transports to Europe took such a circuitous route upon their departure, and it was also why the Sydney, one of the fledgling Royal Australian Navy’s finest warships, had been assigned to convoy duties in the first place. The Emden may not have ‘brought the war home’ to Australians in the way that the Japanese did by attacking Darwin, Broome, and Sydney Harbour in the Second World War, but it was a clear and very early reminder that this was a truly global conflict, and Australia’s geographical isolation from what began as a European war would not necessarily save it from danger.
Nor was the Emden the only threat to Australia in 1914. Again, the challenge came on the waves. Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Cruiser Squadron, which had been based in the German port of Tsingtao in China at the beginning of the war, and from which Emden had been separated to act as a ‘lone wolf’ raider in the Indian Ocean, posed a significant risk to British and Australian sea traffic in the Pacific. This was shown to good effect on 1 November 1914, when Spee brought his five ships — the two heavy cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the three fast cruisers Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig — to engage a Royal Navy task force under Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, consisting of four cruisers. Cradock’s ships, however, were woefully outgunned and outdated compared to the modern and efficient German vessels, and Spee managed to sink the two most powerful of the British ships, HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,600 British sailors (including Cradock); the entire German fleet suffered three men wounded. For many reasons, this battle was of enormous significance. It was the first engagement of the war between German and British ships. It was also the first time the Royal Navy had been defeated in action since the United States Navy had defeated a small British contingent on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812 (the battle itself, curiously, occurring in 1814.) So, for the first time in a century, the Royal Navy was shown to be vulnerable, and Spee’s victory was a decisive one. The reason this was significant to Australia was twofold: one, at the time, Australia relied heavily on the imperial reach of Britain to safeguard its own shores. The Royal Australian Navy in 1914 was a small but relatively formidable force — the battlecruiser HMAS Australia was considered by Spee to be superior to his entire cruiser squadron combined — but many of Australia’s ships had already been earmarked to be sent to Britain to join the Grand Fleet in the European theatre of war. Security in the Pacific and Indian Oceans was to be provided by obsolescent, inferior British ships, such as Cradock’s doomed Good Hope, and these were shown to be not up to the task by the relative ease with which the German Navy destroyed them in November 1914. The second reason why this battle was significant was its geographical location. Cradock met his end off Coronel, Chile. Coronel is still a significant distance from Australian shores — some 6,000 nautical miles as the crow flies — but the fact that it is a Pacific port would have sat uncomfortably with the Australian people, given that the most important Australian cities are found on the east coast, which provides Australia with its natural Pacific border. Indeed, had Spee chosen so to do, he could have arrived off Sydney Harbour with the formidable Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, supported by their light cruisers, in fewer than three weeks. It was for these reasons that the Battle of Coronel became a sensation of its time, and a quick search of Australian newspapers from the period reveals that Coronel was reported extensively by nearly all Australian papers, regardless of their readership or relative importance. Many attempted to turn the material defeat into a moral victory; one short article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 November emphasised the gallantry of the British in the face of “superior odds”, while others (including some less popular regional papers) reported the bravery of the crew of the cruiser Monmouth, which kept firing on the Germans “until the vessel toppled over and sank” (Singleton Argus, 7 November 1914.) Such a battle inevitably inspired the Australian press to whip into a frenzy, especially since it confirmed fears of the ineffectiveness of British defences in the Pacific as well as the (conceptual) proximity of a formidable German naval force. Yet, for something so weighty and important (even if that importance was fleeting; Spee ended up sailing to the Falklands instead, where his fleet was sunk and the admiral himself killed on 8 December), Coronel gains even less attention than Emden. In fact, not one single word is devoted to an event that captured the press’ attention for the better part of the month of November 1914, and began the process of calling into question the type of protection Britain could offer in the case of an existential crisis facing Australia. This question would only intensify over the following years, until it practically dominated matters of Australian national security policy, and for Beaumont to ignore its genesis is startling, to say the least.
The Spectre of Anzac Cove.
Similar shortcomings can be found in many more of Beaumont’s case studies. No Australian history of the war would be complete without some sort of extensive focus on the Gallipoli campaign, even if that history is attempting to move Australian historiography away from glorifying that misbegotten and disastrous campaign that has since become a mythologised and, to some extent, fictionalised origin story of the nation. Broken Nation is no exception to the rule, and the entirety of Beaumont’s second chapter is devoted to the Dardanelles. The author is not to be criticised for this, since Gallipoli is, for better or worse, at the heart of our conception of the Australian Great War, and Beaumont generally deals with the campaign in a thoughtful manner. There are, however, some areas of weakness here. Yet again, Beaumont feels the need to place the military campaign in the context of its origins and planning — again, not a bad idea at all. But much like her attempt to contextualise the outbreak of the war as a whole, the Gallipoli episode suffers from a halfhearted and incomplete approach. Beaumont stresses that the Gallipoli landings were orchestrated in response to a request from the Russians, who had found themselves on the wrong end of invasion when the Ottoman Empire declared war on the Entente powers towards the end of 1914. Gallipoli was to be a “demonstration” of force, designed to make Constantinople reticent about its attack on Russia. By the time the campaign began, though, the Russians had decisively beaten back the Ottomans, and the rationale for the landings (at least, according to Beaumont) was now null and void.
There is an element of truth in this, but the author has failed to capture the terrible miscalculations of the planners of the campaign in all their horrific glory. Certainly, part of the thought behind the landing plans was the idea of relieving pressure on the Russians. But this was not the only influence — nor even the most important. At its heart, the Dardanelles campaign had been conceived as a means by which Britain could become more actively involved in the war. In 1914, the British Expeditionary Force in France was tiny, consisting only of the very small regular British Army (Britain, as an island nation, having no real need for a very large standing army at any given time.) By the end of the year it had essentially been completely destroyed, and its recovery was only to be facilitated by the arrival of non-professional volunteers, dubbed the ‘New Army.’ The infamous declaration of the Kaiser that the BEF was a “contemptible little army” is almost certainly apocryphal, an invention of Allied propagandists, but in actual fact by the end of 1914 the British Army had ceased to exist as a fighting force, and it would not be back to any sort of useful strength until midway through 1915. Even then, it was unclear whether the New Army volunteers would be up to much, and even less certain as to whether a meaningful contribution was even possible on the Western Front, given the thousands of miles of trenches being dug and the formidable defences of barbed wire, machine guns, and artillery now being ranged against each side. Thus, the British found themselves in a somewhat politically unenviable situation: having thrown in their lot with the French, they were now inactive on the front lines, could not reasonably do anything in an offensive capacity until at least mid-1915 (if at all), and therefore could provide no assistance to the French whatsoever. It could be reasonably suggested that ‘brave little Belgium’, the small and weak country to whose defence Britain had rushed in its entry into the war, was now more capable of offering resistance to the Germans than the great power of the British Empire. For obvious reasons, this state of affairs was intolerable and politically untenable, and it was left to British planners to work out how best to fulfil their obligations to the French and the Belgians, first and foremost.
To this end, British planners were faced with a simple solution that caused greater problems. Britain’s army was functionally useless. But the Royal Navy was the most powerful naval force in the entire world. Therefore, the obvious solution to the fact that Britain was contributing relatively little to the war effort was to use the navy. There were two problems here. The first was to work out how the navy could be used, when the front lines of the conflict were often hundreds of miles inland. The second was to work out how to use the navy without imperilling British national security. Britain’s navy was powerful, but it was also Britain’s only trump card. In German anchorages sat battleships and battlecruisers that could match their Royal Navy counterparts in an equal fight; the fear in the British Admiralty was that, if the main strength of the Grand Fleet was whittled down in small contests, in which German technological superiority (or even luck) might win the day, then Britain’s main line of defence would be gone. To this end, the Dreadnought battleships of both sides acted as the early twentieth-century version of the Cold War’s ‘mutually assured destruction’: both sides had powerful weapons that they could not afford to use in case they ended up losing them. It was not for nothing, then, that Winston Churchill would later look back on the Royal Navy’s commander of the Grand Fleet, Admiral John Fisher, and declare that he was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”
Such was the thinking that directed British hands as they worked out what their masterstroke of 1915 would be. Three plans were mooted. One was to use the fleet and a contingent of Royal Marines to attack and occupy Borkum, a small island off Germany’s northwest coast. From here, submarine operations could be launched against German commerce and industry around Emden, Bremerhaven, Hamburg and Cuxhaven. The second was to have the fleet sail up the Continental coast, providing floating artillery support for the remnants of the BEF, as well as the Belgians, who would hug the coastline to outflank the Germans. The third option was to find somewhere else to strike, which might open a new front and thereby distract the Germans or Austro-Hungarians who, though certainly posing a threat to the Allied powers, lacked the industrial, financial or human resources to match the Allies over a protracted war covering a broad front.
The first two plans were shelved almost immediately. Borkum was ambitious but it was quite mad to send the Grand Fleet into shallower waters, protected by minefields, German shore installations and, of course, German warships. Similar problems would be encountered for the second plan, as well as the fact that the BEF was incapable of marching anywhere. There were also French concerns that this operation would simply give the British an easy opportunity to cut their losses, embark their army on their ships, and sail back to England to sit out the war. The third option, however, proved more and more attractive. The Ottoman Empire had since entered the war on Germany’s side, and the power it possessed was a far different proposition to that of Germany. It had been modernising its armed forces for many years prior to the war — the British had, in fact, guided Ottoman naval development — but it still lagged behind the other combatants. Its navy was little more than third-rate; the planners in Whitehall confidently predicted that an operation against the Dardanelles could be a purely Royal Navy affair, accomplished not with the vital Dreadnoughts, but with older ships that were expendable. From the moment this plan was decided upon, preparations began to go badly wrong. Fisher alternated between supporting the plan and opposing it. Naval planners surveying the Dardanelles Straits realised that shore emplacements would cause their warships severe problems, and therefore campaigned for an expeditionary force to be taken, so as to land and destroy shore emplacements to allow the fleets to sail up the Straits. Having decided on this, the navy decided that its ships were perhaps expendable, but not expendable enough to risk on this sort of operation; perhaps they would be more useful as floating artillery for an invasion force. And so, what began as a means of bringing the Royal Navy into the war became a mess of conflicting plans that contradicted one another and could only end in disaster. Such was the rationale behind Gallipoli, and Beaumont is right to consider the operation doomed from the start, since the people behind its inception all had different understandings of what the campaign was and what it was meant to achieve. But there was a rationale behind it, born from political enmity, frustrations at the highest levels, and, indeed, some (admittedly wrongheaded) strategic considerations. Broken Nation reduces it to folly, and perhaps it was, but it was folly of a different kind to that which Beaumont imagines.
Getting it Right.
From this, one may think that Broken Nation is a terrible book. It is not. In fact, it is something of a trailblazer. Nothing like it has been written in recent times — certainly, nothing that casts as critical an eye over the myths of the Great War in both social and military contexts. There are some utterly fascinating elements to this book. For example, Beaumont points out the severe levels of mistrust endemic in the Australian political landscape when the state finds itself allied to the Japanese. Everywhere there are suggestions and innuendo; unease pervades both the military and civil establishment when it is discovered that the Imperial Japanese Navy is to provide warships for protective duty in escorting convoys of Australian Imperial Force soldiers to Europe (or, in most cases, Egypt.) The Australia of 1914 is shown to be a country of curious contrasts. In some ways it is remarkably liberal. But it is also underscored by a deep institutional racism that colours its approach to the war. The state is also nowhere near as robust as its prewar adventurism must have suggested. The crisis of the institutions at home rather unsettlingly mirrors the crises of the armies abroad. Elsewhere, there are some vital home truths that have been obfuscated over decades of Anzac hagiography. For all that Charles Bean hailed the natural fighting spirit and tendencies of the Australian bushman, the Australians who went to war between 1914 and 1918 came not from hardy bushranger and homestead types, but were the products of one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Australians were poorly prepared for war, and their arrival in Egypt for training was not, as many have suggested since, an attempt by pompous and out-of-touch British officers to get the Australians to turn out well on parade grounds and salute obsessively. Instead, they were to be taught the basics of soldiering and, much like their foreign counterparts, these skills only came with drills and practice.
There is no doubt that many Australians fought bravely in the Great War. There is also no doubt that many behaved deplorably. Beaumont’s accounting of the infamous Battle of Wassa, in which Australian soldiers smashed the Cairo prostitution district, becomes a pertinent and well-deserved moral indictment on the men and their defenders, both contemporary and ever since. Australian soldiers showed profound intolerance. They looted. They vandalised. They raped. This is not ‘larrikinism’, as even some historians would have us believe, and Beaumont’s masterful deconstruction of the dominant narrative raises some very awkward questions, namely: if the soldiers who sacked the district had been any other nationality than Australian, would Australian scholars be so willing to laugh off their actions as pranks or ‘letting off steam’? I suspect Beaumont does not believe so, and I share her skepticism.
At home, she suggests something of a similar story. Australia in 1914 had a fairly large emigre German population. The 1911 census listed 33,000 Australian residents born in Germany, and a further 2,700 from the Habsburg Empire. This was not the full picture, though, since many of these Austro-German migrants had children (or grandchildren) who shared their German heritage as part of their ‘imagined community’, but who would not be listed on the census as German-born because they had been born in Australia. In 1911 there were over 74,000 Lutherans in the country, most of whom would have been of German descent; many others (mostly with heritage in southern Germany or along the Rhine) would likely identify as Catholics, though again not all of them would have turned up on the census as Germans since many were born and bred in Australia. The entire country’s population at that point was fewer than five million; Austro-Germans therefore constituted a not insignificant minority. In many places there were concentrated German communities. In the Barossa Valley of South Australia, for instance, many of the towns, villages and vineyards had been settled by Germans, and even the layout of the villages followed traditional German Dorf constructions. But with the outbreak of war came suspicion that many of these people would have (at best) divided loyalties, or (at worst) would act as subversive agents against the country and the Empire. Beaumont paints a bleak picture of ordinary Australians denouncing German-Australians, when days earlier these people would have been friends, business partners, or happy cohabitants of their communities. Germans were singled out for abuse, were forced out of work, were castigated in the press for being ‘bestial’, ‘Satanic’, or driven by ‘blood lust.’ The picture Beaumont paints of these circumstances, in which communities tore themselves apart from within simply because of the nature of one’s birth, should have painful resonance with the situation, and should act as a warning to many of us of what happens when we begin trying to invent an ‘enemy within.’ To this end, it would have been fascinating if Beaumont had extended this aspect of her work.
Joan Beaumont has embarked on an admirable and ambitious project. This much is not in question. Whether she has succeeded in her ambition is another point. There is no doubting her research credentials, and she has picked out fascinating case studies. But I question the focus in some areas of this work, and I suggest that, at times, she loses sight of what she wants the book to do. And yet, for all of this, Broken Nation is a book I would recommend to anyone studying Australian history, or with any interest in it. At times, Beaumont shies away from drawing hard conclusions. Instead, she seems to encourage her readers to draw their own conclusions. While an historian should always use evidence to bolster his or her argument, rather than leaving it hanging (a point Beaumont no doubt makes to her undergraduate students at ANU), there is perhaps enough here to cause a reader to seriously question various aspects of the established Australian Great War narrative. Beaumont does not seek to ‘trash’ Anzac, and she does not seek to turn the Australian state and public into a shrine of amoral ambivalence. What she does do is call into question the concept of Australia as an undeniable force for good and bravery within a world that had rotted from within. She encourages her readers to recognise that Australia was a country in transition, much as the rest of the world was. It faced an unprecedented crisis in all aspects of society. In some areas, it rose admirably to the occasion. In others — Billy Hughes and his shameful postwar conduct in Paris comes to mind — it behaved badly, and it is these lessons that we should take from the Great War. It is for this reason that, for all its weaknesses, and for all its flaws, Broken Nation is a work of significance in Australian historiography.