On November 11, 1918, the guns of the Western Front fell silent. Europe was a lunarscape shambles of utter carnage. A sinister web of barbed wire and trenches spidered across Europe. The bloodiest war in human history to that point had ended.
World War I was the first conflict to be fought from a modern industrial base. It involved weaponry of unprecedented lethality, including machine guns, heavy artillery, poison gas, tanks, new aircraft, capital warships, and submarines.
The human cost was staggering. Estimates vary, but the conflict generated some 37 million military and civilian casualties. Proportionally, for Australia, the price was dire. Out of a population of about 5 million, 416,000 men enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Of those, 60,000 were killed in action. To this day many thousands of AIF soldiers have no known grave.
They have disappeared from the face of the Earth as if they had never existed. A further 156,000 were wounded and maimed, some hideously. Of the survivors, many never really returned from the trenches. They were mentally broken by what they had witnessed, done and endured. Their ordeal has haunted generations of families.
The causes of the Great War (as it is also known) have been widely analysed. The immediate spark was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian radical at Sarajevo. As a result, Austria- Hungary declared war on Serbia. There were other factors, too. An arms race between Great Britain and Germany, inter-imperial rivalry for colonial territory, toxic nationalism, and interlocking mutual defence pacts all played a role in the spiral to catastrophe. Further, German imperialism's horizon was global. It intended world domination.
As late as August 1917, The West Australian reported Herr Albert Bellin, a German shipping magnate - one of the world's largest - emphasising Germany not only needed to recover its lost colonies but it had to expand its colonial conquests in Africa and the Pacific. In short, German militarism's triumph in Europe would have had serious economic and strategic consequences for Australia as the British Empire was expropriated.
WA found a place in German war plans, too. As early as 1906 Vice Admiral Alfred Breusing, chief of the Cruiser Squadron on the Australia Station, drew up plans to disrupt British trade. In one war scenario he cited Fremantle, Cape Leeuwin and Vlaming Head at Exmouth as part of his strategy.
As historian Professor Jurgen Tampke notes in Ruthless Warfare, based on German archives: "(There is) no doubt how seriously in the end German military planning involved Australia." As it turned out, when war came, German plans in the region collapsed with the entry of the powerful Japanese Imperial Navy as an ally of Britain. But those who assert our involvement in World War I was merely to serve our colonial masters are wrong. Australia had substantive national interests in the matter.
Professor Tampke observes: "The war was of direct relevance to the Australians and those who argue that 1914-18 held no threat to the continent are ill-informed. Those who believe that the repercussions of a German victory would have been confined to Europe are under an illusion."
In other words, our 60,000 dead did not die to no good end. In their tragic fate, they bequeathed to us an enduring liberal-democratic heritage.Lest we forget.
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