Queensland and the declaration of war in 1914

This blog post is part of a series of essays commissioned by Queensland State Archives and written by historian Professor Kay Saunders.

In late May 1893 the Australian press enthusiastically covered the local tour of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent of the Hapsburg Empire.[1] His official visit to King George V in October 1913 was also widely reported in Australia.[2] The announcement of his assassination in Sarajevo on 26 June 1914 was noted with regret.[3] No one could predict that this act by a Serbian nationalist would spark a global war of unimaginable dimensions that would see over 60,000 Australian men killed and more than 130,000 wounded or incapacitated.

Proclamation of a state of war between His Majesty and the Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, 27 August 1914. QSA Digital Image ID 24336
Proclamation of a state of war between His Majesty and the Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, 27 August 1914. QSA Digital Image ID 24336

On 29 July, Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson received a cable from the Imperial government stating that Australia should “adopt precautionary phase” for war with the “names of powers will be communicated later if necessary”.[4] The steps to take in the eventuality of hostilities had been laid down in 1907 through Imperial Defence arrangements.

Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and proceeded to invade neutral Belgium. On 3 August, the Governor-General proclaimed “the danger of war” and called upon the enlistment of the military Citizen Forces.[5] The federal Cabinet discussed the crisis that day.[6] The following morning, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies asked if vessels of the Australian Navy were available for the Admiralty, along with an expeditionary force of 20,000 men. The federal Cabinet assented. Later that day, Britain declared war on Germany.[7] This declaration of the act of war remained a royal prerogative. None of the Dominions were consulted.

The Dominions were not represented in crucial decision making until the establishment of the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917. Until 1942, Australia had no independent foreign affairs’ policies.[8] Moreover, the Australian Constitution – formulated in 1901 – was silent on the matter of the declaration of war and did not denote who was responsible for deploying troops overseas. Section 51(vi) was concerned with defence powers, elaborated in the Defence Act of 1903. Under Section 61, the Governor-General exercised executive power as representative of the monarch. As Mr Justice Isaacs confirmed in the High Court in 1916 “the creation of a state of war and the establishment of peace necessarily reside in the Sovereign himself as the Head of the Empire”.[9] In keeping with this office, several proclamations were issued by the Governor-General on 5 August 1914 relating to shipping and the declaration of war by the King.[10] In the next few days, several more proclamations were issued relating to trading with the enemy and enemy shipping.[11]

When the cable was sent from London at 12.30 am on 5 August, it stated that “War has broken out with Germany. Send all State Governors”.[12] Prime Minister Joseph Cook telegrammed Queensland’s Premier, Digby Denham, that day. Later that afternoon, the Lieutenant-Governor of Queensland also conveyed this news to the Premier. This process whereby information was conveyed by both the King’s representatives and the Prime Minister reflects the lack of clarity on who was responsible – the declaration of war was an unprecedented act for the new Commonwealth and its wider powers of defence and national security had yet to be tested. Even when it was clear by implicit understanding that the Australian Constitution was an arrangement between the monarch, the six sovereign states and the Commonwealth, there was no clear line of demarcation of powers.

The Commonwealth and States needed to cooperate to manage the war effort. On 6 August 1914, the Australian Agent-General in London sent a coded telegram to the Federal government: “Home Government will tonight accept offer of Australian contingent … Shall endeavour to arrange for steamer carrying troops to also bring meat”. The supply of meat was a state matter while the mobilisation of the armed forces was a Commonwealth issue. Here they were entwined seamlessly.

Though the matter appeared to reside within the powers of the Governor-General, the Queensland government – led by Liberal Digby Denham – took the extraordinary measure of issuing its own proclamations in its role as a sovereign state. Furthermore, the QueenslandConstitution Act of 1867 properly did not refer to declarations of war – being concerned with the consolidation of laws relating to the new colony.[13] Moreover, the Admiralty Court in Queensland was not vested in the Supreme Court but was exercised by a single judge of the Court acting as the British Vice-Admiralty Court.[14]

On 20 August 1914, Queensland took a remarkable step. Sir Arthur Morgan – Lieutenant-Governor, the President of the Legislative Council and Vice-Admiral of the State of Queensland – issued an independent proclamation that war had broken out between His Majesty and the German Emperor and that all enemy shipping could be confiscated under the Prize Act of 1894.[15] This Imperial legislation, amended in 1908 and effective in all British jurisdictions, was concerned with the property of declared enemies that could be rightfully claimed as war prize.All members of the Cabinet initialled the order. The Governor-General was informed three days later. On 19 August, the Governor-General issued a proclamation under the Imperial Prize Courts Act regarding the outbreak of war with Austria and Hungary.[16]

On 27 August, a further proclamation stated that a state of war existed between the King and the Emperor of Austria and Hungary. Approved by Cabinet, the order to prepare the proclamation was sent to the Lieutenant-Governor, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and to the judge in the Admiralty Court.[17] On 4 November, the Governor, Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, issued a proclamation stating that war had been declared between the King and the King of Bulgaria.[18] Further on 11 November – acting in the capacity of Lieutenant-Governor of Queensland – Morgan declared that war had broken out between King George and the Sultan of Turkey.

These were extraordinary measures wherein Queensland saw itself as a sovereign state with powers not nullified by the existence of the new Commonwealth of Australia. This hitherto undiscovered revelation casts new light on Queensland’s sense of autonomy and sovereignty in a time of great uncertainty.[19]

Professor Kay Saunders
August 2014


About Queensland State Archives

For more information about Queensland State Archives visit www.archives.qld.gov.au.

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