Queensland at the outbreak of First World War

This blog post is part of a series of essays commissioned by Queensland State Archives and written by historian Brian Rough.

4 August 1914. Britain, Australia and other Commonwealth nations declared that they were at war with Germany following its invasion of Belgium the day before. Queensland’s Premier, Digby Denham, was advised of the outbreak of war by the Australian Prime Minister Joseph Cook on 5 August. War was also declared with the Austro-Hungarian Empire a week later. The long-expected European war had begun.

Secret despatch for quarter ending 30 September 1914, outlining events in the State of Queensland from the Lieutenant-Governor Hon Sir Arthur Morgan to the Secretary of the State for the Colonies
Secret despatch for quarter ending 30 September 1914, outlining events in the State of Queensland from the Lieutenant-Governor Hon Sir Arthur Morgan to the Secretary of the State for the Colonies

Despite this, life in Queensland appeared to continue during the first month of war much as it had previously. The 38th Annual Show, the Brisbane Exhibition, went ahead as planned from 10 August. It was a success, with more exhibits and prize money, perfect weather and record attendance figures. The event showcased the pastoral and agricultural industries on which the state’s economy was based.

The Queensland sugar industry harvested a record crop in 1913, and hopes were held for a similar outcome in 1914. There had also been an increase in tropical fruit production in the state’s north. The dairy industry was also expanding, particularly in the production of exportable butter. Pastoralists farmed over 21 million sheep, only 15% of which were used for local meat consumption. Wool production remained a major industry in 1914 though it was expected the levels set by sales to European countries involved in the pre-war buy up would decrease while the war continued. Wheat production was down however, and the state was not self-sufficient in cereals. Of most concern to the viability of food production was the lack of agricultural labourers in Queensland. The outbreak of war would only increase that labour shortage.

The population of Queensland was approximately 600,000 – the majority of whom lived in regional urban centres. Immigration had been steadily decreasing prior to the war, with only 1168 people entering in the quarter to October 1914. A high percentage of the non-British immigrants were Russians, but rather than being farm labourers as Queensland’s Premier hoped, many were political activists fleeing their home country. The Queensland liberal conservative government was strongly anti-socialist and regarded the Russian immigrants with suspicion.

Denham had been Premier of the government since 1911. In that year the powerful Amalgamated Workers Association had flexed its muscle in the sugar industry, raising the ire of the government. In 1912, the Brisbane Tramway Company’s anti-unionist actions created the grounds for a general strike across many industries. Almost 20,000 Queensland workers withheld their labour, but the anti-union Denham government used its police force and special constables to contain the action in a series of violent confrontations. The general strike collapsed quickly and the Government was not slow in introducing anti-strike legislation.

Parliament was already in session when war was declared in 1914, and it remained in session and active for nearly six months. The Brisbane Industrial Council had urged the Government to prevent exploitive price increases on the outbreak of war, and the Denham government considered legislation almost immediately. It introduced a Bill to set a process for determining the price at which food commodities could be sold. The subsequent Act was not popular with either end of the political spectrum – merchants and unions alike finding fault with its implementation. It was one of many actions that contributed to the unpopularity of the government.

In Queensland, the most immediate physical impact of the war was the early mobilisation of the local militia forces – an action which went largely unnoticed. The Kennedy Regiment in Townsville was sent to Thursday Island where it was garrisoned until the end of August. From there it joined the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force attack on German New Guinea in the following month, the first engagement of Australian troops in the war.

Recruiting for the Australian Imperial Forces, the volunteer force which was to form the bulk of Australia’s military contribution to the war, commenced on the same day the Brisbane Exhibition opened. Queensland was set an initial quota of approximately 2500 men based on its population, which it had met by September 1914.

On the outbreak of war former British servicemen in Australia who had remained on their country’s Reserve list were expected to join the armed services. The Commonwealth devolved the responsibility for ensuring these enlistments happened to the States. The police were tasked with locating the reservists and reminding them of their duty. German or Austrian residents of Queensland who were reservists in their national armies came under immediate suspicion, and instructions were issued for their arrest and detention – again, a role that the police were undertaking within the second week of August. A small number of German passenger and merchant vessels in Queensland ports were not allowed to leave once war was declared. The crews were initially confined to their ships and later interned as prisoners of war.

War also engendered a heightened sense of patriotism across many sections of Queensland society. One manner in which those feelings could be expressed was in making direct contributions towards the welfare of fighting troops, or to the war effort generally. Patriotic fundraising organisations formed rapidly across the state during August 1914, and the general public willingly supported them. For example, the Public Service Association’s members in Queensland organised their own Patriotic Fund to aid the families of public servants who volunteered for active service. Collectively, these organisations had raised almost £100,000 by the end of the month of August.

Queenslanders had a comparatively subdued and detached introduction to war in August 1914. With an internal focus on the burgeoning agricultural economy, and an eye on industrial relations, there was little immediate impact on the community in the first few weeks that followed the declaration of war. Few could have imagined the toll the war would ultimately take politically, economically and emotionally on the social fabric of their state.

About Queensland State Archives

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

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