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Chapter 1: Australia before the war

Home Front Cover

Australians in World War I: Home Front

This commemorative publication is the fifth and final in the Australians in World War I series. It contains a brief essay on the impact of the First World War on Australian society and more than 100 full-page images. The image on the front cover is from a studio portrait of Mrs Lewis of Toowoomba with one of her six sons who served overseas. All came home again. 


Chapter 1: Australia before the war

One Saturday in 1917 a congregation gathered in a little brick church in the Sydney suburb of Erskineville to dedicate a new stained glass window. As was the way of things three years into the first world war, the window, with its rich reds and purples, wasn’t in honour of a saint or priest, but of two men dear to the congregation: Alan and Gordon Douglas. They were brothers; they were soldiers; and now they were dead, killed in battles that slaughtered thousands without bringing victory much closer. A third Douglas brother, young Ken, was also in uniform and still fighting on – but not for much longer. A month later his parents learned that he too was dead. So they installed a second window in the church, this time honouring a son who had lied about his age (and also his name) to get into uniform. It was dedicated three days before the bleak and anxious Christmas of 1917, as Australians wondered if the war would ever end, and as they looked back on a month of angry debate about whether other young men should be conscripted to fight in it.

The experience of the millions of Australians who lived through the four years of World War I in their homes and workplaces, rather than in the army or navy, probably found its lowest point in the sobering news of aimless battles and in heart-broken mourning for dead relatives and friends. Almost as heart-breaking was the great debate about conscription. But their experience was more than this. There was a frantic support for the war, a surrender of leisure time to help the troops in some way or other, and a nudging of ‘slackers’ and ‘shirkers’ to support them too. There was excitement and a sense of purpose, especially among young women and children, and a thrill that some social constraints could be ignored in a national emergency. There was also unemployment and rising prices, and wartime restrictions on old pleasures like drinking and gambling, or watching horse races and football matches. There was growing resentment among the poor and some trade union members, even a gradual defection from the war effort. There was the military service performed near homes and factories in case the fighting came close, and internment behind barbed wire of Australians considered potential or actual enemies. On the eve of victory in 1918 there were weary calls for a negotiated peace. By the end of the war Australians at home were nearly as exhausted as Australians in the front line. As a newspaper predicted when the war began, every Australian was tested in those years, including those who had never heard a shot fired.1

In the winter of 1914 Australia seemed a peaceful and prosperous place. It was also very different from Australia today. Fewer than five million people shared the vast land’s wealth. Nearly all were descended from English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish colonists, so they spoke a single language and largely agreed on how life should be lived. Most adults married for life and raised large families, and sex before marriage was said to be disgraceful. Many read a newspaper every day, and increasing numbers went to local cinemas to watch the first silent movies and early newsreels – the ancestors of today’s television news programs. Almost everyone went to a Christian church at least twice a year. Beer, tea and tobacco were the standard drugs, all of them legal. Men worked five and a half days a week, many were active members of a trade union, and most supported strikes launched to improve working conditions. Most women did no paid work, to the frustration of a few and the relief of most. Like today, nearly all adults could vote. Half of them supported the trade union based Labor Party, the rising political force that promised great social reforms, perhaps even a slow path to socialism, and a hazy vision of a future with no more inequality. More concrete, and more widespread, was a conviction that migrants from Asia, or even from mainland Europe, were strange, inferior, even dangerous people, who should never be admitted to Australia.

Not that every Australian was alike in 1914 – social fractures of class, ethnicity, region and denomination were deeper than most people suspected. In some ways there was little in common between, on the one hand, a rural grazier with his tree-shaded house and live-in maid, his daughters boarding at expensive schools in the city and his suntanned, smiling sons learning the ropes on the land; and on the other hand an harassed housewife of broad accent and heavily-repaired clothes, her spindly children attending the local Catholic school, and a room or two of her tiny rented terraced house given over to lodgers to help make ends meet. Poor Australians of Irish descent like this woman were outsiders in many ways. Catholics within a Protestant majority, respectful of their priests and of the Pope in Rome, ardent that England should grant the same ‘home rule’ to Ireland that Australia enjoyed, they were sceptical towards the prevailing allegiance to Britain and the British empire.

pp. 5-6

 

Notes: 

1. Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 1914, p. 6.

 
Home Front Cover

Australians in World War I: Home Front

This commemorative publication is the fifth and final in the Australians in World War I series. It contains a brief essay on the impact of the First World War on Australian society and more than 100 full-page images. The image on the front cover is from a studio portrait of Mrs Lewis of Toowoomba with one of her six sons who served overseas. All came home again. 

Australians in World War I: Home Front Education Activities