RHSV Conference: The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front

[A personal reflection]

A good  conference has a scope broad enough to bring multiple perspectives to the topic, but it is also defined closely enough for the threads and themes that emerge out of individual papers to weave something larger.  The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) conference on Friday 8th August and Saturday 9th August 2014 succeeded on both counts.

Bart Ziino, from Deakin University opened the conference on the Friday evening with the Augustus Wolskel Memorial Lecture, a nuanced and sensitive presentation titled ‘At Home with the War: the Great War in Victorian Private Life’. Using personal letters and diaries between men (and women?) on the front and their loved ones at home, he challenged the perception that there was widespread eagerness to enlist and great excitement at the announcement of the war. Instead, he  highlighted the tension in the coexisting emotions of  persistent anxiety for the wellbeing of loved ones, and the belief in the righteousness of the war.  This tension was felt by both soldiers and their families,  and it manifested itself through the question of how much should be given and who should bear the burden.  Two competing forms of duty emerged: that of responding to the call from the front, but the equally compelling duty to young children and aged parents felt by those men who did not enlist. These emotional responses increased in intensity over the long course of the war as the physical and mental condition of the men on the front deteriorated and as families at home were ravaged by the loss of multiple sons and increasing financial hardship with the loss of breadwinners.  This carefully argued presentation focussed on the emotional toll of war both on the front and at home, as well as the physical toll.

The all-day  Saturday programme was opened by Ted Baillieu (a.k.a ‘Big Ted’), former Liberal Party premier of Victoria.  He spoke well, as one might expect, highlighting that war was declared in the midst of Australia’s   first double-dissolution election campaign, after a period of great political volatility and a succession of both prime ministers and premiers. He pointed out that Prime Minister Billy Hughes left the country twice, with his second absence spanning over twelve months: an absence that would be unthinkable today.  Baillieu then went on to outline some of the plans that are being explored the committee responsible for centenary commemorations in Victoria: encouraging schoolchildren to identify with ancestors who served; marking the houses with plaques where men enlisted.  There’s something so seductive about such plans- who, after all, does NOT want children to have an appreciation of what has gone before? – but I must confess here to my own misgivings.  I am unsettled by the emotional salience of war, so sensitively discussed by Bart Ziino the night before, being used as a hook for children, painted over by a ‘heroic’ gloss.

In looking at The Countryside, Michael McKernan’s presentation ‘Doing it Tough: Life on the Rural Home Front’ commenced with the observation that Charles’ Bean’s emphasis on the bush influence on ‘the ANZAC digger’ was contradicted by the fact that most enlistments came from the cities.  Nearly all historians who followed Bean have challenged this ‘bush’ explanation, but this has acted to divert attention away from  rural communities, both in their contribution to enlistment and in the consequences for rural economies and livelihoods.  McKernan’s recent book Victoria at War 1914-1918  focuses on Victoria not just for  parochial reasons, but because Melbourne at that time was the capital city of Australia and the centre of decision making.  Following the approach he adopted in his book of looking at the wide sweep of Victoria from west to east, he presented a number of vignettes from Victorian country towns- Casterton, Birchip, Geelong and Strathbogie, and the experiences of individual families within those towns.  Picking up on Bart Ziino’s question of the previous evening- “how much to give?”- he  told the stories of the Hurley family and the Neyland family- where the toll was not just of sons and brothers, but the sanity of those at home as well.

The panel presentation on The War and Loyalty highlighted that alongside, and perhaps bolstered by, the military war in Europe, there was a class war as well on the homefront.  John Lack examined the cost of living riot in central Melbourne of September 1917 under the headings of glass (the smashing of windows in city streets), rubber (the targetting of the Dunlop rubber factory at Montague) and flesh and blood (the physicality of the demonstration).  Peter Love focussed on Frank Anstey, the Labor politician who sat first as a state, then federal member for the northern suburbs of Melbourne.  Both in parliament and through newspaper columns Anstey argued forcefully and eloquently against the attack on civil liberties presaged by War Precautions Act, profiteering, and against the conscription of men when money was left untouched.  Love pointed out the high level of debate in Parliament of ideas within political parties that is documented in the Hansard record- something sadly lacking today.  Nick Dyrenfurth examined the ‘Labor Call’ newspaper ( for which Anstey wrote and edited) and the contradictions inherent in anti-war activism generally where denunciations of the war existed alongside declarations of loyalty.

The Patriotic Effort examined the manifestations of patriotism amongst Victorians on the home front.  Peter Burke examined the effect of the war on employer-sponsored sporting activities, most particularly football teams which had long been extolled as a training for the ‘bigger battle’ (and of course, military overtones are still- and gratuitously-  used in footy-speak today, especially at the Anzac Day match) and as a way of cementing workplace loyalty. As the war went on, many football teams were disbanded and the emphasis shifted to rifle clubs instead. In some cases  women’s teams emerged. Workplace picnics were ceased, or the traditional picnic-day games were replaced with others of a more militaristic bent. Jillian Durrance, in a beautifully crafted presentation, looked at brass bands, particularly in rural areas, which of course pre-dated the war.  However, their functions changed as they were called upon to play at farewells at halls and railway stations, at fundraising concerts and picnics, at church services and in recruitment campaigns.  In a poignant endnote, many of these bands went into recess as they lost numbers and struggled financially.  At homecoming, the band was often absent. Finally, Judith Smart  examined the role of the National Council of Women and the effect of its affiliation with the more conservative Australian Womens National League on its response to four key policy areas: peace and free speech; conscription; the treatment of Germans; and economy and thrift.  The contest of ideas in these areas in this umbrella organization with its associated sub-committees was often bitter and became increasingly  hardline as the war progressed.

After lunch the War and Sacrifice panel ranged across three homefront organizations and their response to the war.  Joy Damousi examined the pro-Empire, pro-conscription University Council of the University of Melbourne, and the paradox whereby leading intellectuals of the 19th century liberal tradition found themselves advocating the coercion of conscription.  She focussed particularly on Harry Allen, the dean of medicine, William Harrison Moore professor of Law, Jessie Webb lecturer in History, and the arguments they mounted to publicly support the yes-case.  Alexander Leeper, principal of Trinity College went further, with a campaign for the dismissal of German lecturers and an unsuccessful attempt to have German students’ names removed from the honour boards.  Carole Woods, the curator of the RHSV’s exhibition The Australian Red Cross in the Great War (8 Aug-12 Dec) spoke about Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson, the wife of the Governor General and the founder of the Red Cross in Australia.  Because Melbourne was then the federal capital city of Australia, the Governor-General was based here and Government House was turned over to the headquarters of the Red Cross.  Its focus during the war was on the collection of comforts- most particularly knitted socks- for the men on the front, and after the war attention turned to convalescence and rehabilitation. Rosalie Trioli examined the response of the Victorian Education Department to the war in two ways. First, in its hiring practices as it lured women into teaching service through either fast-tracking their training or allowing married women to return temporarily from forced retirement.   Second, she examined the pages of the Victorian School Paper for school children (which was also distributed to Tasmania, Western Australia, New Zealand and Fiji) and the Education Gazette for teachers.  They were increasingly turned over to the militaristic exploits and expectations of men and boys, with women and girls exhorted to “do all that is possible for you when you cannot go to war”.   Beyond the gendered encouragement to produce “comforts” – i.e. socks- opportunities also opened up for girls to sell badges,  organize concerts and dances, and collect old kerosene tins and glass for recycling. Meanwhile, the printed organs of the Education Department remained studiously silent about those women serving on the front.

The day finished with Ross McMullin, who spoke on Loss and Uncertainty. Drawing heavily on his book ‘Farewell Dear People’ (a podcast of his earlier speech to RHSV is available here) he focussed on the loss of individual men- Tom Elliot, Geoff McCrae, Merryn Higgins, Clunes Mathieson and George Challis- and the anguish suffered by their families.  This was probably the most ‘battle-front’ oriented presentation of the day, but it attended to the losses among loved ones at home as well.  There was another loss as well, as Marilyn Lake has pointed out: the loss of Australia’s own perception of itself as a progressive, young, advanced nation.  McMullin was at pains not to overemphasize the relative cohesion of Australian society prior to the war, and he pointed out that the war years were probably the most divisiveness of our Australia’s post-settlement history.  He noted that although it is true that the war did contribute to nationalism and identity, the trope of “The War Made Us” that is so often being promulgated in the media and through educational publications ignores the fact that the losses- physical, emotional, and in terms of national identity as a progressive nation- were even more significant.

It strikes me, thinking back over the presentations, that two images or themes stand out and were addressed in various ways by each speaker.   The first is socks; the second, more significantly, is conscription.  Thinking ahead to the next five years of commemoration yet to come, I wonder if the two conscription referenda, with such divisive and bitter repercussions right through to the 1960s- will get their share of attention as well.  The RHSV conference was a damned good start.

[Note to speakers: I’ve drawn this summary from my hurried notes and recollections. If I have made any errors, or misrepresented your presentation, please contact me and I’ll make any corrections required.]

7 responses to “RHSV Conference: The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front

  1. Thanks, Janine, that is an excellent summary, and makes me twice as glad I was there! So much to think about.

  2. Pingback: The War That Changed Us | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  3. Thank you for reporting this conference Janine. I wish I had been there. It sounds like a quality conference.

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  5. Pingback: ‘Broken Nation’ by Joan Beaumont | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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