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Australia and WWI: proportion or propaganda

By Bruce Haigh - posted Wednesday, 5 November 2014

In Albany over the weekend, the Australian Prime Minister delivered what no doubt will be the first of many testimonies over the next five years to Australian involvement in WWI. He spoke of Australian sacrifice, but not of the horror of war. And he did not place this sacrifice within the global context that marked this unnecessary war.

The substance of the address was as superficial and shallow as the man delivering it. With a limited knowledge of Australian history Abbott was prepared to trot out the hoary old chestnuts that Australian sacrifice at Gallipoli and on the Western Front shaped the future of the nation. This has become the central theme of the Anzac myth. It is conveyed as a positive, as nation building.

Would Abbott be prepared to claim that British sacrifice in WWI brought in a new golden age in the United Kingdom? Or rather would he be prepared to acknowledge that many British historians speak of the death of a generation? Would he concede that the bitterness of German sacrifice and defeat ushered in the rise of the Nazi Party?


WWI hastened the onset of the Russian Revolution, an event that Abbott has not publicly lauded. And WWI led directly to WWII. Is Abbott going to celebrate this disastrous development?

Young Australian men, their heads full of British, Australian and Empire propaganda rushed to the colours, much as young men are swallowing Islamic State propaganda and mistakenly rushing to the black flag. That is the fatal mix for young people – propaganda, emotion, a quest for adventure, dissatisfaction with current circumstances and off they go to meet the demands of cynical power brokers, who rarely fight.

Right wing historians like to demonstrate the extent of the sacrifice Australia made to WWI. They cite the number of volunteers, 416,809, in comparison to the number of white males 2,470,000, out of a population of 4,870,000 at the 1911 Commonwealth Census. Aboriginal people were deemed non persons in 1911 and were not eligible to enlist although some did.

Of those Australians who enlisted 331,946 served overseas and 61,720 were killed or died of wounds and disease. Of the total number who went overseas 181,221 were injured. The ratio of 3:I of wounded to deaths also applied to some other combatant nations, although a ratio of 2:1 was more common.

However to put the Australian sacrifice in perspective, 8,600,000 combatants, stretcher bearers and medical staff were killed from 1914-1918 of whom 774,402 were British, 1,385,000 French, 2,050,466 German, 1,200,000 Austrian and Hungarian, 1,700,000 Russian, 460,000 Italian, 463,241 Romanian and Serbian, 115,660 American, 300,000 Turkish, 38,172 Belgian, 101,224 Bulgarian, 7,222 Portuguese and 203,621 from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

In the first three months of the war France lost 300,000 killed and 600,000 wounded, by 1918 there were 630,000 war widows in France. Martin Gilbert in his book the, 'First World War', says on average 20,000 soldiers were killed every four days throughout the war.


Not all statistics are quoted by right wing Australian historians. Of the Australians who went overseas 150 in every 1,000 contracted venereal disease. The French averaged 83 cases per 1,000 and the Germans 110. The Australian rate was amongst the highest. Perhaps Abbott can weave that into one of his speeches.

The First World War was an unequal contest between men and machines which the German artist Otto Dix graphically portrayed. Nothing similar was produced by Australian war artists who produced sanitised and romantic images of the 'Boys Own' type, consciously or sub-consciously designed to keep the public onside should it be necessary to fight another war.

The official historian CEW Bean was a primary promoter of the Anzac and nation building myth. Bean was a man on a mission. He all but airbrushed the horror, anarchy and futility of the war from his history and extolled the virtues of Australian mateship as part of the myth.

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Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and historian, who has written a book on WWI called, “Australia’s Armageddon, The AIF on the Western Front, 1916-1918”. He is looking for a publisher who is not in thrall to Anzacery and Abbott’s celebratory jingoism.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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