Militarism before 1914

The pre-World War One reforms were really seen as at the forefront and a model of legislation, offering these benefits Australia-wide. By 1907, Alfred Deakin believed Australia should make an independent contribution to its own defence. This debate emerged in the early part of the formation of the nation. His suggestion was that a coastal naval unit was needed, first of all; and second, that there needed to be a citizen militia. This emerged directly out of the rise of Japan and its expansionist power in the Pacific area and the unexpected Russian defeat in 1905 in the Japanese-Russian War. This created enormous alarm, fear and anxiety at the time, leading to the creation of the Australian Navy based on the concept that Australia should shoulder the responsibilities of nationhood. From this point onwards, nationhood increasingly begins to be tied to militarism, not unproblematic, but these are certainly the first beginnings of that connection. From 1911, males between 12 (boy conscripts) and 25 year-olds were liable to compulsory military training. There was opposition to these measures and there had been an existing tradition to oppose war up to that point, the most glaring example being the opposition to the Boer War. Often the Boer War is represented as an event that was unanimously supported by Australians in support of the British Empire; however, there was dissent and opposition to it, which often doesn’t get discussed.


Interestingly, compulsory military training before 1914 did not receive community-wide support and Deakin himself was quite reluctant to introduce the concept as there was quite substantial opposition to it. But the next government, the Labour government under Billy Hughes, was very keen on it and Labour leaders from 1912 onwards supported it. By 1914, a system of military training was intended to create an army of citizen soldiers and a system of naval defence. Both of these developments were in place by August 1914, despite the fact that there was discussion and quite a bit of opposition to it. This is interesting to reflect upon, because we all know what then happened after 1914 and how the momentum for conscription bills started to accelerate and grow.


We need to remind ourselves of the fact that the British Imperial Defence was the sole prerogative of the British themselves and that Australia could not have independent diplomatic relations with other powers nor, in fact, have an independent foreign policy. In a way, Australia was taking its own initiative and setting steps in this direction; the British ‘welcomed’ it but Australia certainly didn’t ‘have to’.  With this, nothing could have prepared the nation for the events of August 1914; what this exhibition have tried to do highlight is some of the social advances in the country before 1914 and how its notion of itself as a nation had been forming around social progress and radical social reforms; the latter, unfortunately, were very soon overshadowed by the darkness of war.