A hundred years ago, when Great Britain declared war on Imperial Germany, it was assumed that Australia, though no longer a collection of English colonies – for a decade it had been a federated nation-state in its own right – was thereby also at war with Germany and her allies.
In 1914 Britain was responsible for the foreign policy of the Empire. When Asquith declared war on Germany in 1914, he did so also on behalf of the colonial governments. Australia’s role was to determine the extent of its military contribution to the Imperial forces. In an election speech at Colac only a few days earlier, Andrew Fisher, then leader of the opposition, had declared:
‘should the worst happen, after everything has been done that honour will permit, Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling’.
Despite Australia’s political status as an independent nation Australians as people on the whole clearly still regarded England as the Mother Country.
Before the Nationality and Citizenship Act was passed in 1948 the citizens of this country had no legal status as Australians and were regarded as British subjects. It was not until 1984 that Australians lost the last of their rights as British subjects. That same year the Federal Government introduced an Australian citizenship requirement for appointment to the Australian Public Service, in place of the former British subject requirement. I recall when I joined the Australian Public Service (before 1984), I was asked to declare that I was a British subject and I was a bit flummoxed. My Australian great grandfathers would not have been so confused and, when Britain declared war in 1914, they too joined in.
All four of my great grandfathers fought in the first world war. Two on the German side. Both of my husband Greg’s grandfathers fought also. All survived the war. Only one of them was a professional soldier.
I do not like wars. Why, then, am I interested in my family’s military history? Modern armies keep good records, so documentary traces of my forebear’s lives are plentiful and accessible.
Without a doubt the war had a great impact on the men and women who served and their families. There is also a fascination in understanding a world-wide event from the perspective of one’s own family.
- Curtis, Jonathon. “‘To the Last Man’-Australia’s Entry to War in 1914.” Parliamentary Library. Parliament of Australia, 31 July 2014. Web. 05 Aug. 2014. <http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1415/AustToWar1914>.
- Dutton, David. “Research Guides.” Citizenship in Australia. National Archives of Australia, 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 4 Aug. 2014. <http://guides.naa.gov.au/citizenship/chapter1/citizenship-australia.aspx>.
- Minns, Bob. “Ch 6 Towards the End of an Era (1972-1987).” A History in Three Acts. Canberra: Australian Public Service Commission, 2003. Archived Publications. Australian Public Service Commission, 24 June 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2014. <http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/archive/publications-archive/history-in-3-acts/end-of-an-era>.
Related blog posts concerning the war service of my great grandfathers and Greg’s grandfathers: