If you’re like me, the childhood thrill of opening a present has stayed with you. Even if they are only presents from yourself, like parcels from Amazon. It’s especially good if they’ve taken a while to arrive, so that you’ve half-forgotten you made the order.
Thus PJ Keating (Prime Minister of Australia 1991-6) on the Australian soldiers of the Great War.
Emotional but wrong — If it feels good, say it, rules a lot of the speechifying on this subject.
Number of Australian conscripted in the War: zero.
There was never conscription in Australia during that war.
There were attempts to introduce conscription, notably two national referendums, both soundly defeated. These were crucial events in Australian history, covered in all the school books. They are even more crucial in the particular histories of the labour movement, the Labor Party, and the Catholic Church in Australia, all three of which strands Mr Keating and his party consider themselves deeply knowledgeable because of a special relevance for themselves.
You can rise very high in a party, and in a country, and know next to nothing about either.
Starting soon, and intended to be daily (just about): my new blog feature From the First World War
Over the next five years, if I’m spared, I’ll regularly post facts you mightn’t have known about the Great War. I’ll concentrate on the little-known, the not-as-known-as-it-should be, and add any well-worn yarns that seem too good to leave out. I won’t strain for originality. And afterall, everything is new to somebody.
I did consider calling the series Thank God, the Australians. In the marvellous Geoffrey Serle’s biography of Sir John Monash (“the only general of creative genius that the Great War produced, on either side” — historian AJP Taylor), there is a story of how, in the crisis of 1918, when Monash had brought up his troops and joined the other generals, he was greeted simply with the words “Thank God! The Australians!” For long afterwards it became — and may still be — a Monash family joke, when one of them was late for a gathering, for the firstcomers to say “Thank God! The Australians!”
I want to wander over the whole subject, so, though the Australians were in from the first* day until after the last, Australia will be over-represented only accidentally and inevitably, as a result of my own origins and interests.
* (The first firing by any British Empire forces was fired in Melbourne, of all places, showing a German ship that happened to be in port that we meant business).
Thus, there will a some numerical bias towards Australia in the posting. And — I can just see this coming — there are going to be plenty of posts about Monash. No apologies about that!