Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 39

Dayton McCarthy, The once and future army: a history of the Citizen Military Forces, 1947-74, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2003, xiv + 303 pp., illustrations, tables, bibliography, index, hard cover, rrp A$55.00

Reviewed by: CRAIG WILCOX, Darwin

The long partnership of Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey at the Australian Defence Force Academy has made the conventional wisdom of Australian military history sounder and broader. Their impact has been a Johnsonian one (of the Samuel variety, that is), scorning misconceptions and platitudes and hammering out orthodoxies for others to build on or challenge. Their focus has not been the social history that has captured the minds of most of their contemporaries, but rather strategy, policy, organisation and battle. Their books include Grey’s Military history of Australia and two volumes of the official history of Australia’s part in the Southeast Asian conflicts from 1948 to 1975. They shaped the influential Oxford companion to Australian military history and helped shape the massive Australian centenary history of defence. Then there are the army history conferences whose subjects and speakers they have helped select and whose papers they have edited and seen published, and the myriad honours, masters and doctoral theses they have inspired and supervised. Dayton McCarthy’s The once and future army has emerged from one of those theses. It is the first scholarly history of Australia’s part-time Citizen Military Forces (CMF) from post-Hiroshima formation to post-Vietnam transformation into an army reserve.

The CMF was raised (McCarthy would argue resurrected) in 1948. It claimed the lineage of the defunct militia and the battle honours of the disbanded AIF, Australia’s temporary army of the two world wars. As had been the case with the militia, and the volunteer force before it, the CMF was raised to be the army with which Australians would fight their next war. The expectation was, as ever, mistaken. A new regular army, raised alongside the CMF, immediately became the sword arm of postwar Australian foreign policy. Not only did it have the ethos, size and skill needed to make the token contributions to alliances containing Asian communism that the policy called for; despatching a few barracks-dwelling regulars to a distant conflict was far less controversial than mobilising teachers, carpenters, engineers and solicitors who wore uniform only on the weekends. So the CMF busied itself with training. But part-time soldiers cannot hope to train as effectively as full-time ones. And in an age of full employment and exciting, affordable leisure, the CMF struggled to find and keep recruits.

The national service scheme of the 1950s was in part the Menzies government’s answer to the problem. It pumped the CMF’s strength up to eighty thousand men, though many were unmartial ones like Private Barry Humphries of the Melbourne University Rifles. Nor could national servicemen be sent overseas to fight, further tying the CMF to Australian soil. McCarthy condemns the Menzies government as “chief perpetrators in overwhelming the CMF” with recruits. Still, as he agrees, the 1950s were not all bad for citizen soldiers. The CMF could field two divisions, in theory at any rate. And, just as importantly, soldiers and soldiering a decade after the Second World War still held some appeal. Most Australians supported national service, as McCarthy notes. Wives and mothers may have looked favourably on CMF membership by their husbands and sons. Certainly a parade down the main street could attract a crowd, and khaki could hold allure. “Even though I wore the drab, ill-fitting uniform of a private”, Barry Humphries wrote later about an official trip to Melbourne, “office girls seemed to give me a little squeeze with their eyes”.

But Australians would not pay for two armies, and there was little doubt about which one would win the competition for their favour—while CMF members were catching trams to the drill sheds, it was the regulars who were off fighting Asian communists. Regular generals led the military forces, and they spoke for them to government ministers. They wanted pliant reservists behind them, not proud rivals beside them. National service was wound down and then abandoned. Then the CMF was reduced further and restructured in the “pentropic” reorganisation of the early 1960s which, McCarthy complains, was a “catastrophe” for the CMF, “the greatest single calamity” in its history. CMF officers would have agreed. Some attributed their fate to malice by the regulars.

The Menzies government introduced a second national service scheme later in the sixties. But this scheme sent its harvest to the regulars for two years, and some of the crop went on to Vietnam. Conscripts, not the CMF, were now the second line of Australia’s military system. Many CMF soldiers, McCarthy believes, were bursting to go to Vietnam too. Some did, but a proposal to send a whole battalion of CMF volunteers went nowhere. The CMF seemed to have no reason to exist, to be hardly more important militarily than cadet units and rifle clubs. And any fervour for Vietnam would have put it at odds with the anti-military mood of a new generation, from whom it would need to draw recruits in the future. That mood eased slowly, but the CMF was doomed anyway. During the 1970s and 80s it evolved into what the regular generals wanted—an army reserve of part-time regulars with no trace of the ancient citizen soldier characteristics of loyalty to local community, faith in the barely-trained but free-thinking civilian in uniform, proud resistance to full military discipline, and mixed feelings about fighting foreign wars.

Written largely from official records, The once and future army outlines the political and strategic environments which worked against the CMF, summarises the government policies that whittled down its importance, and chronicles the resulting decline. Being an army reserve officer, McCarthy feels for his commissioned predecessors in the CMF, and he presents their views in words gleaned from interviews and correspondence with them. His best chapter analyses the backgrounds and mindset of these men.

The once and future army is a welcome product of the Dennis-Grey school. But the orthodoxy McCarthy has hammered out will be challenged more than built on. The summaries of official documents and snippets from CMF officers are not the same as thoughtful interpretation from a wide range of sources. There are no glances at comparable civil and military institutions of the period, from Australia’s Postmaster-General’s Department to Britain’s Territorial Army, to gauge the CMF’s efficiency, public reputation, and decline. And The once and future army applies the Dennis-Grey school’s lack of interest in social history to a subject which needs just the opposite. What CMF members actually did when they wore uniform is largely passed over, as is the social environment—community attitudes, support or lack of it from families and employers, the rise of anti-militarism—that shaped the army as surely as did its political and strategic environments. You will not find Private Barry Humphries and his little squeezes in this book.