Dig Deeper - The prelude to catastrophe
How did it come to this?
In the midst of an election campaign, and with large parts of Australia suffering record drought, few Australians who read the newspapers on 29 June 1914 would have paid much attention to the assassination of an obscure foreign prince. Yet within a few weeks they could read with detached fascination about an escalating political crisis that had rapidly descended into war between Austria and Serbia. As Russia began to mobilise in support of Serbia, yet another “Balkans Crisis” was now a “War in Europe” which eager Australians followed through press cables posted outside newsagencies.
By the end of July, as alliances were invoked and Germany geared up for war, a general European conflict looked increasingly likely. The big question was "what would Britain do?" Some argued that its very existence would be threatened if it remained neutral while the rest of Europe succumbed to "Teutonic agression". With the British Empire central to Australian trade and security, Australians rallied to support Britain whatever might happen. A patriotic fervour took hold in the cities:
It needed only a single mouth to give the opening bars of a patriotic song, and thousands of throats took it up, hats and coats were waved, and those who were lucky enough to possess even the smallest Union Jacks were the heroes of the moment, and were raised shoulder high as the crowd surged hither and thither.The Age, 4 August 1914
Australian newspapers were by now running extensive coverage and analysis of Europe's war. Hypothetical armies and alliances were matched up, and commentators speculated on the technology, discipline, and patriotism of the various nations involved and who would prevail.
As keen as Australians were in their support, the powers in London hesitated. Britain had been preoccupied with the prospect of civil war in Ireland, and wanted to be a mediator between the nations involved in this new war. In this, they hoped above all to limit the extent of the conflict. If the worst should happen, though, and all of Europe be embroiled in war, most believed it would be serious but short-lived: "the pace would be too fast … [although] the after-consequences would be much more enduring." For Australia these consequences might include a collapse in its wheat exports; perhaps a serious financial crisis.
Some Australians feared worse still: that Japan might seize the opportunity of a major European war to “work its will” in the Pacific just as Australia was left undefended by the Royal Navy. Such views played into long-running fears and prejudices which were only partly allayed when Japan indicated its intention to support Britain.
By August, the worst seemed inevitable. Churches all around Australia were praying for peace even as volunteers came forward to enlist in their thousands. As Britain delayed a formal announcement, it nonetheless accepted offers of troops from Australia and Canada, and began to mobilise. The Australian fleet was recalled to Sydney, and by 3 August all its forts and outposts were on a war footing. News of Britain’s declaration of war reached Australia three days later.
It had taken less than a month for a remote problem in the Balkans to become “the gravest crisis that has faced the British people since first they became members of a world-wide Empire”. Australia’s support for that Empire was unconditional, even if it had played no role in its deliberations:
All of our resources in Australia are ... for the preservation and the security of the Empire.Prime Minister Joseph Cook, 31 July 1914.
Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend Britain to our last man and our last shilling.Opposition leader Andrew Fisher, 31 July 1914.
The burden of such commitments would fall not on the politicians who spoke them, but on the thousands who were now rapidly assembling to carry them out.
Find out more
Outbreak: Australia supports the Empire (Part of the Anzac voices exhibition)