‘The War at Home’ by John Connor, Peter Stanley and Peter Yule


2015, 240 p& notes

It might seem a bit strange, but I’m starting off this review at the very last chapter of this book, where Peter Stanley talks about a book that could well be seen as a forerunner of this present volume. That earlier book was Ernest Scott’s Australia During the War, published in 1936 as part of the twelve-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, edited by Charles Bean. Having a volume devoted to the war at home as part of this huge undertaking was a bit of an afterthought, but Charles Bean was happy to accommodate it because it meant that he didn’t have to worry about all that political stuff happening back ‘at home’ in the volumes that he was writing. Historian Ernest Scott was brought in to write it after the first draft penned by the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald was felt to be lacking.  Although exhaustive, apparently it’s a very politics-based approach, penned as it was some five or so years before G.M. Trevelyan’s English Social History (1942) had suggested that a social history could be written ‘with the politics left out’.

So why am I talking about a book written 81 years ago? Like that earlier volume, The War at Home is written as part of a five-part series: in this case, the ‘Centenary History of Australia and the Great War’ by Oxford University Press.  The other four volumes all sound rather militaristic (Vol 1 Australia and the War in the Air; Vol 2 The War with the Ottoman Empire; Vol 3 The War with Germany; and Vol 5 The Australian Imperial Force) and they hold little appeal for me. But I’m preparing for a presentation in December on the conscription referendums from a very local (i.e. Heidelberg) perspective, and I’ve been enjoying the work that has been done in Melbourne this year related to Conscription (i.e. the Serenading Adela choir, and the Anti-Conscription conference I attended in May). I feared that this book might be full of Anzackery, but my fears were groundless. In fact one of the authors, historian Peter Stanley, admitted  -perhaps a little regretfully? – that his own work had contributed to the conventional interpretation of Australia’s Great War as a major and formative experience for both individuals and the nation.  The authors have deliberately chosen to talk of ‘the war at home’ rather than ‘the homefront’, which they explain was a term used at the time to talk about Germany, not Australia.

The book is divided into three parts, each denoted by a single word (Economy: Politics: Society) and written by a different historian. Within each of these themes, the chapters are arranged roughly chronologically. Part I, ‘Economics’ was written by Peter Yule and opens with ‘The Australian Economy in 1914’ and closes with ‘The Australian Economy in 1919′. I didn’t really expect to enjoy this section as much as I did, given my aversion to numbers, but I found it fascinating. He took some time to describe Billy Hughes’ actions  in trade negotiations- something that I hadn’t considered previously.  Nor had I wondered why all those bags of wheat were stacked up, being eaten by mice? (Answer: it was because Britain had ordered up all Australia’s wheat crop when it seemed that the Canadian crop would fail- and when it didn’t, they just left the wheat here rotting), or thought about why the Zinc industry became prominent in Tasmania in 1916? ( Answer: it was because a replacement needed to be found for the German supplies). This topic could be dry, but I liked the way that he interwove human stories into his analysis: the wealthy mining industrialists based in Collins House; the town of Warrnambool cheering the opening of the woollen mill; Leonard Dyer eking out an existence on a soldier settler farm in the Mallee.

Part II ‘Politics’ was written by John Connor, a historian whose work I’m not familiar with, I must admit. Although it is the most relevant section to my own Conscription Campaign project, it didn’t sparkle for me in the way that the other two parts did. This section followed the chronology of the war fairly closely, from the perspective of the different parties, exploring the personalities and political machinations that ran through WWI domestic politics. He spends considerable time on the conscription referendums, and the narrative is clear and insightful.

Part III ‘Society’ by Peter Stanley was organized thematically, with each chapter heading starting with a gerund (see…learning another language has been useful after all- who knew that there was such a thing as a gerund!)  e.g. ‘Cheering: Outbreak, Shots and Loyalty’, or ‘Understanding: Faith, Propaganda and Culture’. There is a chronological progression here too, moving from Cheering to Mobilizing to Enduring to Remembering etc. and within each theme there is a chronological progression as well. Although it doesn’t identify itself as such, this section is very much a history of the emotions of a community whose men are so far away fighting and I very much liked it.  I was surprised that by the end of this section, Stanley seemed to be distancing himself from the Capital Letter War approach that he, among many other military historians, had championed:

Even if the war is not interpreted as a great national epic, as Charles Bean’s official history portrayed it, it is seen as a great human drama, or as a great national and human tragedy. There is much to commend these views, and abundant evidence of how the war actually was a profound, tragic and deeply significant event  in both the life of individuals caught up in it and in the story of the nation, for which it represented a major – even a formative- experience. This is the conventional interpretation of Australia’s Great War (and I have myself contributed to creating it).

But there is another way of thinking of the experience of the Great War, without denying the power, the significance or the poignancy of the conventional interpretation. For many people, possibly even an actual majority, the war was neither a great personal tragedy nor an experience that shaped life for decades to come. For many- those who did not enlist, those who did not become involved, those whose immediate family did not enlist or did not return wounded, those whom the war passed by those who actively opposed it- the war was not central to their lives or their collective history. These people have been largely overlooked in the war’s historiography, which remains seriously skewed towards the drama of conflict; partly because the records of organized violence are better arranged and preserved. (p.228)

I very much enjoyed this book- far, far more than I expected I would. The chapters were short, mostly 8-9 pages in length, and the book was well illustrated. I’m sorry that in a field dominated by male historians, a female historian could not have joined the triumvirate. Although women are mentioned, especially in the third section, they tend to still tend to form an amorphous other, with a special section devoted to them in Section III under the chapter ‘Supporting’.  The book has footnotes but they are not obtrusive, and there’s an informative bibliographic chapter at the end which points out the most significant literature.  It seems to meet that sweet spot where it is engaging for the general reader, but with sufficient grunt and referenced support for the academic reader as well.

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library (yes, I’ve finally activated my alumni account there!)

My rating: 9/10


2 responses to “‘The War at Home’ by John Connor, Peter Stanley and Peter Yule

  1. I am a bit fed up with Anzackery and have steadfastly avoided books about it for the centenary, but this one sounds interesting. Thanks for a thoughtful review:)

  2. ‘Nevertheless, the best way of putting Anzac in its place and seeing off Anzackery is by promoting the non-khaki side of our national story. A century after Gallipoli, surely it is time to pay more attention to the winding and fascinating tracks – environmental, social, political, cultural, scientific, and so on – down which Australians have travelled to where we are now.’ (Stephens & Broinowski, The Honest History Book, pp. 291-92) Or, to put it simply, bullshit will flow to fill the space available unless we push back against it. The ‘literature’ of Anzackery deserves more than usually close attention – and rude reviews, as appropriate – but also we need to plug all the other non-khaki work that is out there.

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