Listen: Douglas Newton in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
How did Australia decide to join what started as a far way European conflict? And why did they declare war on Germany 40 hours before Britain?
The din of politics
Historian, Douglas Newton, argues in his book Hell Bent that the Australian decision was made in the din of politics. The nation was in the throes of a federal election campaign.
He said on Open House that the offer of an expeditionary force on Monday 3 August 1914 far exceeded the measures agreed between Australia and Britain as necessary. The bitter truth – that Australia’s rushed offer of an expeditionary force added to the momentum of reactionaries pressing for war in London – is scarcely recognised in Australia.
Costs not weighed
Moreover, the offer was a dangerous precedent. Australia’s politicians forfeited the chance to weigh objectives against costs, in life and treasure.
Australia jumped the gun
Hell-Bent offers a critical history of Australia’s role during the international crisis of July-August 1914. Carefully examined is the decision of the Cabinet of Australian Liberal Prime Minister, Joseph Cook, to cable London on Monday 3 August 1914, , offering an expeditionary force of 20,000 men, to anywhere, for any objective, in any formation London desired, under British command, and with Australia picking up the entire cost.
That Australia would fight on Britain’s side in a great war was certain. But Australia’s leap into war, through her offer of 3 August, was impetuous, and scarcely a democratic decision. A handful of men pushed ahead of events.
British cabinet divided on decision
Meanwhile in London, at the height of the crisis, the British Cabinet of Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was bitterly divided on the question of British intervention in any European war. On one side stood Liberal Imperialists, keen to act loyally with Britain’s diplomatic partners, Russia and France.
Tipping the balance
On the other stood Radicals, anxious that Britain should pursue a credible neutral diplomacy and preserve the neutrality of Britain and the Empire if it came to war on the Continent. The decision hung in the balance. At a critical hour, Australia’s politicians gave the impression of being eager to fight – champing at the bit to contribute to any war.
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