Thursday, 2 January 2014

War comes to Australia

Some years ago when I was researching the life of a left-wing woman teacher, who was also a social and peace activist, I was deeply impressed by historian Eric Hobsbawm's book The Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century: 1914-1991 (published in 1994 by Joseph). Here he argued that the twentieth century really began with the First World War and ended with the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Now that we have entered 2014 and are approaching the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, it is timely to consider in what ways a national consciousness emerged with the coming of the war. 

For one thing, Australians had fought as separate colonial forces (that is, as Victorians, South Australians, New South Welshmen and so on) for most of the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. It was there that the rising star badge first appeared, but it was not until the 1914-1918 war that the iconic image of the Aussie 'Digger' emerged, in his Digger's slouch hat (featuring the rising star badge) and with a growing reputation as a 'larrikin' soldier, brave in the line of fire but with little respect for the rigid discipline of army life or for the perceived pomposity of British officers.

And, of course, the almost sacrosanct notion of 'mateship' emerged from the debacle at Gallipoli to become part of the world's image of Australians for the century to follow. A mate is more that just a friend. He is someone who shares your experiences with you; someone you can rely on no matter what. The idea had been there in Henry Lawson's short stories and poetry and probably originated in convict days, but it was during the First World War that the term really found its place in the Australian consciousness. 

Perhaps it could be argued, too, that the war was a leveller, with men from all sections of society fighting side by side, equally at risk of death, dependent on one another during a period of great stress unlike anything they had ever experienced before. The first step, then, in the breakdown of class divisions?

And how much of our language has been influenced by WW1 Diggers' slang? 'G'day digger', we hear and don't think all that much about where the term came from. C.J. Dennis's 'Digger Smith', which featured in some of my earlier blogs, reminds us of the important role the little 'digger' played in our emerging nationhood.

Click here to read 'Digger Smith' online.

It's only recently that I've  started to think about this whole issue of how World War One influenced the emergence of Australian nationhood. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the comments I have made here.  Perhaps you have other ideas on the way WW1 helped to shape our nation. 

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