A shorter version of this review was originally published in 'History Australia' 11 (3), December 2014, 240-242.

My fascination with the Great War, as for other amateur genealogists, begins with the involvement of my relatives. My wife’s paternal grandfather Edward Funston served on the Western Front and suffered trench foot, as well as his brother Hubert Funston who was shot beside him. My wife's maternal great grandfather, Thomas William Austin, also served and survived the war but disappeared. On my father’s side, Fred Petty arrived on the Western Front in December 1917 and was killed by a German shell in March 1918. On Mum’s side, her Uncle Frank Humphreys served and was wounded in both Gallipoli and Germany, and met his future wife nurse Alice Layland while being treated. Mum’s Uncle Ted Humphreys also served. Their lives, and the lives of their families, were all hugely affected.

Australian’s interest in our involvement in the war, and what it meant for our national identity, has been in the spotlight for the last four years as we commemorated the centenary of the start of the war in 2014, the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli in 2015, and in fact four years of centenaries. Many Australian's took advantage of opportunities for “battle tourism”, visit historic sites and memorials in Europe, while the war was remembered with reruns of The Light Horsemen, Gallipoli and Beneath Hill 60 as well as through a host of new books. Broken Nation was one of those books and offers a rare comprehensive account of the involvement and battles of Australian Forces, as well as what the war meant for Australia at home.  

Joan Beaumont is Professor of History at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. She is an internationally recognised historian of the two World Wars, the memory and heritage of war and the experience of Prisoners of War. Her volume is thoroughly researched – drawing on primary documents as well as engaging with other historians from C E W Bean’s official war accounts, other eyewitnesses, and other commentators of the war and its memories and myths.

The narrative includes thorough treatment of the main sites of battles – from the landings at Gallipoli to the battles of attrition on the Western Front at the Somme and Third Ypres, from Pozières to Villers-Bretonneux, and from the capture of German New Guinea to the boldness of Beersheba, as well as providing context through other land and sea battles where Australians had less or no involvement. It includes an authentic portrayal of the stalemate of trench warfare, the terrors of poison gas and difficulties with treating the wounded, the dilemmas of politics and poor planning, and the huge casualty numbers and their trauma and deaths (Australia’s forces included 410,000 volunteers, over 60,000 of whom died).

Notably, Beaumont also analyses how battles have been remembered, the memorials that have been erected and the popularity of pilgrimages. She describes the inspiration and heroism of many Australian military leaders and soldiers alike, and diggers who have been memorialised such as John Simpson and his Field Ambulance donkeys. Moreover, she dispels a number of myths that have grown with the telling, such as that Gallipoli failed simply because the ANZACs landed on the wrong beach, and that British Generals were uninventive with strategy and resigned to attrition. In fact new technology and its innovative use helped break the stranglehold of defensive trench warfare as Allied forces combined artillery preparation, creeping barrage, tactical innovation by infantry (sometimes in small groups of “Peaceful penetration”), tanks, aeroplanes and resupply.

There is also nuanced treatment of the origin and influence of ANZAC mythology and its mateship, which alludes to the need for another book on that theme. Beaumont questions the claim of Australian exceptionalism: Australian diggers are worthy of praise as good soldiers, but others were courageous and innovative too, and Australia was a small part of a much larger British Imperial effort, which in turn was part of a larger multinational undertaking.

Broken Nation is at its most distinctive, however, in describing how Australia was affected by the War. It analyses the recruiting drives, economic and industrial mobilisation of “the home front”, including patriotic volunteerism and sacrifice of the declining standard of living, vitriolic debates over conscription, the split of the Labor party, industrial oppression and the shattering of unionism, use and misuse of censorship and the War Precautions Act, regrettable use of internment camps and mass deportation, the challenges of repatriation, and the onset of the Influenza epidemic so soon after the war. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher had declared Australia’s intent was to “stand beside our own to help and defend her to our last man and shilling” (p.17): it was costly.

The book’s main character is Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who replaced Fisher in October 1915 and served until 1923. Hughes campaigned for Australia’s own army. During and after the war he was vocal, at international summits and in the media when other countries didn’t agree with him, arguing for the need to maintain White Australia, for Australia to retain control of German New Guinea, and to receive substantial reparations from Germany. What he lacked in diplomacy he made up for in sheer determination, even if not getting the results he wanted.

As an Australian theologian and now Army chaplain, I was fascinated to read of the churches’ response to the war. Many ministers celebrated Australia’s response to the call to overthrow Germany’s militarism. One preached for volunteering “as a willing sacrifice … their reasonable service” (from The Australian Baptist, echoing Romans 12:1-2, cited on p.104). Later in the war, some preachers struggled to address the huge losses while still wanting to support the war effort. Then there was the contrast to most church leaders, let alone to Hughes’ leadership, of Archbishop Daniel Mannix’s sympathy to Ireland and the union movement, and his explicit opposition to conscription and even critique of the war as “simply a sordid trade war” (p.313).

Broken Nation maps the tides of battles for Australia’s involvement overseas in the Great War, but also offers page-turning social analysis of the home front and its effect on future history. Beaumont summarises her argument:

No community can wage battles as polarising as the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917 without carrying scars. Post-war Australia remained divided for years into the camps the war had spawned: a broken nation in which the volunteer was pitted against the ‘shirker’; the conscriptionist against the anti-conscriptionist; and, though sectarianism was not created by the warm the Catholic against the Protestant. The insults, calumny and accusations traded in the hysteria of the war years were not forgotten–they echoed down the years (p.549).

Thus, Broken Nation not only maps the tides of battle for Australia’s involvement overseas in the Great War but also offers page-turning social analysis of the home front and its effect on future history.

Note: Professor Joan Beaumont won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award (for Australian History) for Broken Nation.