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The Australian National University

This Month in History


August 2014 marks the beginning of the Centenary of the First World War. Involving  72 nations and their colonies in military theatres in Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Dardanelles, East and West Africa, the South West Pacific, and on oceans across the globe, the war cost 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians their lives, and more than 20 million others were left wounded and often incapacitated. Quite apart from its enormous human losses, the Great War (as it was commonly called in Britain and its Dominions in the 1920s and 1930s) had profound social and geo-political effects that moulded the rest of the twentieth century. It blighted families, bankrupted nations, collapsed empires, precipitated the Russian Revolution, gave rise to Italian Fascism and German Nazism, and ushered in the ‘American century’. No wonder it was thought of as the “war to end all wars” until another, still greater, conflagration engulfed the world twenty years later.

Australian recruitment poster, First World War:

Australia, only thirteen years after Federation, contributed heavily in blood and treasure to the Great War. From a total population of 5 million, more than 400,000 Australian troops – 39% of the total male population between 18 and 44 – enlisted for service. Of these, 60,000 were killed and 167,000 more were wounded. This toll was much higher, in absolute and relative terms, than Australia suffered in World War II, which left 40,000 Australian dead from a total population of 7 million.[i] The Australian government spent £380 million (in 1914 values, or $A41 billion in today’s values) on the war, and our per-capita income dropped by more than 16% between 1914 and 1920.[ii]    

Given the extent of our losses during the conflict, it is not surprising that Australia will be a major participant in the Centenary of the Great War that will preoccupy many historians, museums, veterans’ associations and governments across the world over the next four years.[iii] The Australian Government alone has committed $A140 million to its centenary programme, which it has called “100 Years of ANZAC,” and to a long list of events, commemorations, and monument-building and renovation over the next four years. You can see the full schedule of Australia’s commemorative programme at  Australian spending on the Centenary is much more than the combined British and French governments’ total of £53 million ($A96 million), and dwarfs the German government’s appropriation of less than £4 million ($A7.2 million).

Why are we spending so much, and what can we expect for all this money and effort? On one level, our heavy losses during the Great War, which blighted the wartime generation and crimped the growth and prospects of the next, is reason enough to remember. Compared to many of our allies and enemies, Australia’s battlefield losses were disproportionately heavy and were only slowly recovered, and the very distance of the war from our territory heightened the fact and sense of our sacrifice. All these factors made the Great War a personal, local, and national trauma, and a hundred years later a sense of admiration and bewilderment still underpins our collective recognition of the generation who fought and died in it.

These factors may explain the desire to remember the Great War, but do they account for the enormous cost and scale of its centenary? After a hundred years, and with the last of the Great War veterans now dead, remembering the war has become a public ritual as the state has taken over from families the cost and responsibility of remembering the dead. In addition, memories of the Great War have long been incorporated into the narratives and myths of national formation and identity in Australia and many others of the Great War’s combatant states. Led by the work of historians Joy Damousi, Marilyn Lake, Mark McKenna, and Henry Reynolds in What’s Wrong with ANZAC?[iv], and lately by Frank Bongiorno from the School of History in Ben Wellings and Shanti Sumartojo’s-recently published collection of essays on the commemoration of the Great War in Europe, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, many Australian historians have questioned our ANZAC cult and pointed to the ways in which it has distorted our national narrative. “To question whether every Anzac was a paragon of courage, virtue and fair play is potentially to dishonour a cherished family member,” Bongiorno concluded, “as well as the embodiment of national identity.”[v] If Australia really did ‘come of age’ at Gallipoli, then our national foundation narrative was born well after our act of collective will that was Federation, in the absence of women, and without the explicit exclusion of our indigenous people. According to Mark McKenna, “[Australians’] emotional investment in ANZAC Day is a turning away from the history of invasion, conquest and settlement on their own soil, a kind of substitute mourning for their inability to mourn the dispossession of Aboriginal people.”[vi]

Beneath our questioning and scepticism over the ways in which wartime “experience” gets confected into commemoration and manipulated to the ends of our politicians, we should not forget the U.S. Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s dictum that “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” In analysing the uses to which the memory of war is put, we should always remember its raw material – the human suffering and unspeakable loss – that made that later use possible. As the prize-winning work of Pat Jalland, an Emeritus Professor in our School, reminds us so powerfully, the personal, family and societal trauma of death during the Great War was and remains of profound importance to our modern experience of grief, loss and mourning.[vii]  That story was and is at once global, imperial, transnational, national and, not least, intensely personal -- and it is that combination which makes remembering the Great War so important.

World War I poster, First World War: National Women’s History Museum,

Douglas Craig is Head of School and a political historian of the twentieth-century United States. His most recent book, Progressives at War: William G. McAdoo and Newton D. Baker, 1863-1941, is a dual biography of two prominent US politicians who served as cabinet members during the United States’ Great War.


[ii] Ian W. McLean, Why Australia Prospered: The Shifting Sources of Economic Growth (Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 148.

[iii] See Ben Wellings and Shanti Sumartojo (eds), Nation, Memory and Great War Commemoration (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014) and “Commemorating the First World War: In Foreign Fields,” The Economist, August 2 2014.

[iv] Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi, What’s Wrong with ANZAC? (Sydney: New South Books, 2010).

[v] Frank Bongiorno, “Anzac and the Politics of Inclusion,” in Ben Wellings and Shanti Sumartojo (eds), Nation, Memory and Great War Commemoration (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014). pp. 81-97: 96.

[vi] Mark McKenna, “Keeping in Step: The Anzac ‘Resurgence’ and ‘Military Heritage’ in Australia and New Zealand,” in Ben Wellings and Shanti Sumartojo (eds), Nation, Memory and Great War Commemoration, pp. 151-67: 166.

[vii] Pat Jalland, Death in War and Peace: A History of Loss and Grief in England, 1914-1970 (Oxford University Press, 2010).\



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