Why Australia Went to the Great War and why we must ask 'why?'


Military history is often focused on documenting the course of events, rather than analysing political motivation, so UNSW Canberra’s Professor Peter Stanley has organised a symposium aimed at questioning the politics of our past.

Why Australia Went to the Great War, hosted by the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, will bring together five historians to discuss their differing views on Australia’s motivation for entering World War I.

“Most conferences in Australian military history tend to assume that wars start, and to leave the politics out,” Professor Stanley says.

“This one asks why, and directly addresses the politics both in 1914 and after.”

Dr Douglas Newton, who will speak at the symposium, will analyse both British and Australian decision making.

“Australia had no constitutional power to opt for neutrality. Nor was neutrality politically or emotionally possible for a nation in which so many people felt themselves to be transplanted Britons,” Dr Newton says.

“Australia's government, however, did not simply respond to British invitations to send assistance - it leapt ahead of them.”

Dr Greg Lockhart, is also critical of Australia’s level of involvement.

“As a colony of the British Empire, we were always going to be in it once Britain was,” Dr Lockhart says.

“The serious discussion then revolves around the fact that, as a self-governing colony, Australia had the power to determine the form of the involvement.

“Would we have a modest involvement that carefully gathered and deployed the country’s modest resources? Or would we throw ourselves blindly into an imperial undertaking without any serious consideration of the costs? As it happened, we would throw ourselves blindly into the war with no regard for the costs - because of unwarranted colonial insecurities and race fears about Japan.”

Professor Stanley says Australia has a strong tradition of not criticising those who fought in war, which has turned our focus to events, rather than ideas.

He says the symposium could spark heated debate, however, he believes it’s important to question past decisions.

“1914 was the first time Australia went to war as a nation, but not the last,” Professor Stanley says.

“It is important that we understand the patterns in our history and reflect on how significant decisions might be made without realising their implications.”

Dr Newton agrees: “If there is a bond between the future and the past, if there is true respect for the Anzacs, this should prompt us to make the most searching inquiries into how and why we embarked upon expeditionary warfare at such cost. And for what? Because why we fought matters much more, in the end, than how we fought.

“We in common with most nations, reserve to ourselves the right to employ the military as a last resort – and only in self-defence,” Dr Newton says. 

“The sprawling cataclysm of the Great War teaches us that the choice for war, and for ongoing war, is all too often not the last resort, and all too often not for self-defence.”

The symposium will be held at UNSW Canberra on Tuesday, 8 May. Click here for more information.