Cover of book: Hell-Bent

Douglas Newton

Despite the deluge of books ushered in by the centenary of the First World War, the focus of many of the titles is remarkably limited. In Australia, where readers could already be forgiven for suffering from Anzac fatigue, we seem preoccupied with the Anzacs’ character and values. Celebrating our soldiers’ performance in the theatre of war matters more than understanding the politics of war. We conscript the Anzacs as nation builders and rush to commemorate their achievements, but we seem little interested in why Australia went to war, the travails of life on the home front, or the traumatic homecoming of so many of those who fought. So blinkered is our understanding of the war that most Australians could recount the fable of Simpson and his donkey before they could identify any of Australia’s major allies in 1914 other than Great Britain. 

Accustomed as we are to historians exploring the causes of the “Great War” (Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace and Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 resting at the top of the pile), Australians, as historian Douglas Newton tellingly remarks, have long assumed that there was little to know about the background to their country’s participation in the war. At face value the story was straightforward. Once Britain had declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Australia, an exceedingly loyal dominion of the British Empire, inevitably followed. Although Newton steps back from arguing that Australia could have avoided war, he insists that Australia’s politicians could have “done better in 1914 than to leap so rapidly and recklessly, without any conditions or limits, into the all-consuming conflict”. 

His finely wrought narrative re-creates the drama and tension of the six weeks prior to the outbreak of war. Through skilful use of diplomatic cables, correspondence and diaries, Newton takes us inside both the British and Australian cabinets in 1914 and shows that there is much more to understand about Australia’s entry into the war. For this reason alone, Hell-Bent comes as a welcome respite from the customary Anzac fodder. 

A retired academic, Newton has spent many years working on late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany and the peace movement in pre-World War I Europe. He has recently launched his own website and attempted to make an impact in the crowded field of trade military history by releasing two books at once. Hell-Bent’s sister volume is The Darkest Days, which examines the contest in Britain between “interventionists” and “neutralists” inside the cabinet of Liberal prime minister H. H. Asquith in early 1914. As Hell-Bent’s aim is to “interleave the story of Australia’s leap into the Great War and the story of the choice for war in Britain”, the two books should ideally be read side by side. 

Newton makes a compelling case that Australia’s unconditional offer to Britain of the Royal Australian Navy and 20,000 troops before the war was declared (together with equally enthusiastic support from Canada and New Zealand) only served to strengthen the hand of “those in London aiming to bulldoze events towards war”.

Hell-Bent powerfully conveys the depth of post-Federation Australia’s longing for blooding in battle, one that pervaded Australia’s political class and the entire community. Convinced that their nation could only truly be born through blood sacrifice in battle, Australians were desperate to prove themselves in the eyes of the Empire. The scaffolding of the Anzac legend was already in place before the first troops left for Gallipoli. 

Newton quotes Australian prime minister Joseph Cook, writing in his diary on Monday, August 3, 1914, the same day he made the extraordinary offer of troops to Britain. Reflecting on the war ahead, Cook was sanguine: “the good to come”, he enthused, “[the] moral tonic. Luxury, frivolity & class selfishness will be less. A memory for our children, bitter & bracing for many.” Cook’s depiction of war as morally and socially purifying and his craving for an honour roll of glorious dead shows how different the world of 1914 was from today. As the Great War began, neither the European powers nor the dominions could foresee the horror and years of suffering that awaited their armed forces.  

In the story of Australia’s embrace of war, Newton sees no cause for pride, only “simple respect, mourning and infinite regret”. He clearly wishes that Australia could have taken a more cool-headed and independent stance: “When war broke out”, he writes, “Australians fought in campaigns planned by others, in places belonging to others, in battles underpinned by diplomatic deals done by others … Australia’s Great War was never its own – not in origin, objectives, diplomacy, or command.” 

Although Newton insists that he does not belong to the “other people’s war” school of history, he comes perilously close to this at times. Another unresolved tension is that he argues on the one hand that Australia’s bloodlust gave succour to the hawks in Westminster, while on the other hand he acknowledges that we neither helped nor hindered the outbreak of war because we were such an insignificant player. And as he freely admits, Australia had little choice but to join the British. We had long felt threatened by German expansion in the Pacific and this, combined with fear of invasion from the north, encouraged us to back Britain in the hope of “future deliverance from Asia”.  

As the centenary of the First World War begins amid a flood of commemoration, all of us who prefer history to myth will want to seek out the publications and documentaries that try to understand the full import of the catastrophe that claimed more than 16 million lives. To that end, Douglas Newton’s searching history of Australia’s headlong rush to war is indispensable.   WW

Scribe, 352pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 2, 2014 as "Douglas Newton, Hell-Bent".

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