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Australia’S Engagement In World Wars

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In September of 1914 Britain officially declared war against Germany, confirming its role in the involvement of World War I. As a result, Australia was brought into the war as a loyalist to the British empire. This event was extremely significant for Australia as they were a small, recently federated nation and therefore saw this as an opportunity to establish their military identity on a global scale. Dennett, Howitt and Wong (2013, 277) suggest that going in, Australia had a perception of war as ‘exciting’ and heroic’ due its lack of combative experience. Young men from across the nation lined up by the thousands to enlist as volunteer soldiers and represent their country. The event was to be a defining moment in Australian national history, and it surely was.

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The battle at Gallipoli was regarded as a failure from the moment the Australian troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula with their New Zealander counterparts on April 25th 1915. In his journal “Remembering Gallipoli: Anzac, the Great War and Australian Memory Politics” Matt McDonald (2017) explains how under British command the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops were mistakenly lead to the wrong location, which offered minimal protection from enemy forces. The troops were exposed to open fire by the Turkish military and suffered upwards of 600 casualties on the first day alone. After eight months the Australian troops were withdrawn from Gallipoli having sustained one of the highest casualty rates of any participating nation. Although from a military standpoint the Gallipoli campaign was something of a disaster, it was viewed in a very different light by the Australian public. Australian troops were celebrated and praised for their incredible strength and courage in the face of adversity, a concept now known as the Anzac Legend. This heightened perception of Australia’s engagement in World War I was largely the product of two distinct factors: (1) the desire to reinvent Australia’s image and (2) the narrative produced by wartime journalism. The history of Australia prior to World War I is often associated with a great deal of shame. McDonald touches on this past, noting “the brutal realities of colonization (including genocide of Indigenous populations) as well as White Australia’s history as a penal settlement” as a few examples. Australia is also well known and closely linked to its European heritage, deriving from British colonization. One reason Australians may have been so quick to embrace and highlight the events of World War I as such a prominent part of their history is to redefine their national identity. They wanted the world to remember them as the strong, unified and self-sufficient nation that presented itself at the battle of Gallipoli. The media during this time played a large part in this portrayal. In his article entitled “Those Miserable Tommies’: Anti-British Sentiment in the Australian Imperial Force, 1915-1918”, Author Dale James Blair explains the influence of journalism in the creation and maintenance of the Anzac Legend during World War I. Reporters and war correspondents like Charles Bean and Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett wrote about the events of the Anzac campaign and the troops involved. Australian and New Zealander troops were described as tough and skilled, and far superior in comparison to their British Counterparts. This is extremely significant when examining the history of Australian–British relations as this marks the first time Australia began to doubt its heavy reliance on Britain. Australian troops came out of Gallipoli looking better in comparison to British troops and they began to realize they may be able to hold their own on the military stage without Britain’s help.

The beginning of World War II brought with it the beginning of more tension between the British and Australian militaries. Immediately following World War I Britain was sitting in a fairly good spot in terms of global position. It had colonies under the British Empire in various locations around the world and was able to keep control of these colonies due to the lack of major national threat until around the 1920’s. In 1921 Britain adopted a plan called the “Singapore Strategy”, whose main goal was to protect the Far East from Japanese threat. In his article “Churchill and Imperial Defence 1926–1940: Putting Singapore in Perspective” Brian Farrell explains that this plan was devised as more of a precautionary measure because Japan was no longer allied with the British going into World War II, however the British saw more severe threats in nations like Germany who were closer in location. This underestimation of the Japanese threat, in addition to a need to decrease public spending lead British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill to “reduce the size of the Royal Navy (RN) to a level too small to allow it to maintain powerful fleets both at home and in Asia”. This was arguably the number one mistake made by the British regarding Singapore.

In 1939 Britain again declared war against Germany, entering itself into World War II. Australia followed, but with showed much less excitement than they did following Britain into World War I. Farrell (2011) asserts that Australia recognized the immense threat of Japan and they were fearful that if Japan were to attack they would not be able to defend themselves with a significant portion of their troops battling in Europe. Britain continued to assure Australia that they were not under any immediate danger. By the middle of 1940 German forces were at their peak and Britain came to the conclusion that they would not be able to protect all of their territories. In February of 1942 Singapore fell into Japanese control. Christopher Bell explains this event in “The ‘Singapore Strategy’ and the Deterrence of Japan: Winston Churchill, the Admiralty and the Dispatch of Force Z” saying, “The fall of Singapore, marks the beginning of the end of Britain’s imperial power in the Far East”. He argues that Britain not only lost its supreme maritime legacy, but also the trust of Australia. This event marks the second instance where Australia began to doubt their ability to rely on Britain. Britain had assured Australia for so long that the Japanese would not invade Singapore and when they did all of Britain’s attention was focused on protection against the Germans at home.

With the harsh realization the Britain would not always be able to protect Australia’s interest came the understanding that Australia would need to find a new, superior protector to secure its national safety. In 1951 the ANZUS treaty was signed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States which established that if any of the three nations were under attack the other two would come to its aid. Although this agreement is now longer recognized between the United States and New Zealand, it is still very prevalent for the United States and Australia. One reason is treaty may have worked out so well for Australia and the US is because they share many of the same goals in terms of their military and security strategies. Lockhart (1999) describes how both nations have prioritized their development of local and regional security though a global variety of alliances, as well as their plans of attacks and counter-attacks in response to threat. Both nations benefit from each other’s distinct global connections and shared intelligence, technology, strategies and military training regimes. The collaborative link between the United States and Australia is “one of the most formidable, impressive cooperative relationships in the world” according to the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher and it does not appear to be changing any time soon.

11 February 2020

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