Before the war

Those who experienced the trauma, endurance and grief of the Great War (1914-18) on European, African and Middle Eastern warfronts and on the Australian home front itself, were apt to gaze back on the pre-war years with deep feelings of longing and nostalgia. They wrote in general terms of the late-Edwardian period as ‘a corridor of peace, sunlit and pastoral’ – a long, golden afternoon, soon to be irreparably shattered by the unexpected thunder of war, ending a time of innocence that would never return.

Corner of George and Elizabeth Streets, Brisbane, c 1912
Corner of George and Elizabeth Streets, Brisbane, c 1912

Professional historians, examining the wider manifestations of pre-war Western society, however, have usually adopted a much more critical and jaundiced view of these times. The accomplished US historian, Barbara Tuchman, for instance, writes in The Proud Tower. A Portrait of the World before the War (1890-1914):

The period was not a Golden Age … except to a thin veneer of the privileged class … Our misconception lies in assuming that doubt and fear, ferment, protest, violence and hate were not present. We have been misled by the people of the time themselves who, in looking back across the gulf of the War, see that earlier half of their lives misted over by a lovely sunset haze of peace and security … [Yet] a phenomenon of such extended malignancy as the Great War does not come out of a Golden Age (pp. xiii-xiv).

The British-American cultural historian, George Dangerfield, in his famous study, The Strange Death of Liberal England, undertook a forensic debunking of the golden tranquility thesis. He showed that pre-war British society was riven with intense and destructive conflicts, for it was a ferociously unequal society, seemingly poised on the brink of some kind of catastrophe, perhaps even a civil war. Its army in Ireland was threatening mutiny as Ulstermen and Irish Nationalists armed themselves; its aristocratic House of Lords was testing constitutional precedent by rejecting the Liberal government’s budget; its militant women, the Suffragettes, were becoming increasingly wild in their campaign for the vote by employing acts of sabotage, bombings and incendiarism; and the organised workforce was moving through a series of violent industrial disputes towards the potentially catastrophic showdown of a General Strike by all mining, railway and transport unionists. Only war’s outbreak dampened the intensity of the Irish, women’s and workers’ revolts and restored for a time a sense of common national purpose.

How does Australia, and particularly Queensland, compare with the dramatic British situation? To begin with, we find – as in Britain – local contemporary expressions of nostalgia for a time of lost peace and unanimity. C J Dennis’s vernacular poem, Before the War is an evocative example of this. Bemoaning the ongoing travails of the war period, ‘old Mar Flood’ remembers feelingly how:

“Old ways … seem to ‘ave changed their style.
The pleasures that we ‘ad don’t seem worthwhile –
Them simple joys that passed an hour away –
An’ troubles that we used to so revile,
‘Ow small they look,” she sez, “‘Ow small today.”

But was Queensland society, just prior to the war, such an Arcadian place? Or like British society, did it also have its crises, troubles and divisions?

The state of Queensland was large in area – two-thirds the size of Europe – but small in population, having only some 666,000 inhabitants – around one-twelfth the size of London – when war broke out. Nevertheless, it experienced upheavals that, proportional to its size, were equivalent to the range of British difficulties.

Unlike Great Britain, Queensland was not faced with the militant separationist problems that Ireland posed. Its own separationist movements to dismember the huge Queensland colony at its north and centre had been stilled in 1901 by the Federation compact. Yet the Irish issue still had its local resonances, as the Irish composed the state’s largest ethnic minority. In late 1900, for instance, there had been savage sectarian riots in inner Brisbane between thousands of Irish Catholics and English and Scottish Protestants in which many were injured and an enormous police presence was required to restore order. Enmities continued to rankle over the Irish insistence of toasting ‘The Pope and the King’ in that order at official functions. And it flared strongly during the successful referendum campaign in 1910 to introduce the Protestant Bible into state schools. Such tensions would explode again in Queensland following the Dublin Rebellion of 1916 and the violent arguments that erupted over military conscription in 1916 and 1917.

Queensland’s Upper House – the Legislative Council – was an unelected body, much like the recalcitrant British House of Lords. Of its 55 life members in 1914, only “three or four”, according to Governor William Musgrave, had Labor party leanings. This House of privilege tended to obstruct any progressive measures, such as Shops and Factories legislation, designed to improve workplace conditions, wages and hours of labour. The first plank of Labor’s platform was a blunt “Abolition of the Legislative Council” – an intention that was ultimately accomplished in 1921 following bitter protracted struggles between the reactionary Council and the Labor governments of T J Ryan and E G Theodore, leaving Queensland with the only unicameral parliament in Australia.

Queensland women had received the federal vote in 1902 and the state vote in 1905 without the need for a Suffragettes’ terror campaign. Female suffragists had tried eight times to win voting rights before Queensland became the second last state to extend them the franchise. Nevertheless, it was still ahead of most of the rest of the world. The British Suffragette crusade did, however, have a peculiar reverberation in pre-war Queensland. During 1913-14, leftist spokespersons – socialists, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and sundry civil libertarians – waged a lively, protracted and colourful agitation in central Brisbane to gain the right of Sunday street-speaking for secular bodies – a right freely awarded to the Salvation Army and other Christian evangelists. The activists adopted dramatic publicity methods used by the Suffragettes – for instance, chaining themselves to public buildings and, when imprisoned, going on hunger strike – attracting at the height of the agitation crowds of thousands of highly entertained onlookers. Indeed, such assemblies were similar in size to the Brisbane crowd that greeted the outbreak of war on the evening of 5 August 1914.

Lastly, whereas the British ‘workers’ revolt’ was merely trending towards a General Strike before war intervened, Queensland in 1912 had already experienced this phenomenon. The Brisbane General Strike was a savage affair that drew in all 42 local unions, waging this battle over the right of tramway-men to unionise. Participants called it the first ‘simultaneous’ General Strike in the world. It was preceded the previous year by a massive sugar strike that convulsed townships all along the Queensland coastline. The pre-war era, therefore, was not a placid, trouble-free time and its range of alarms was rather similar to those back home in the ‘Mother Country’. The sugar strike, in the Governor’s words, was accompanied by “a great deal of lawlessness” as strikers assaulted ‘scab’ labourers and police and made incendiary attacks on cane fields. During the Brisbane General Strike, two or three workers were killed and scores injured by special constables and mounted troopers wielding batons and sabres. Strikers fought back by forcing the closure of business premises and conducting sabotage attacks on tramlines using rocks, fog signals, firearms, dynamite and gelignite. The protagonists spoke with all the heady language of a warfront, little guessing that, in the not-too-distant future, a real global war would irrevocably change everything.

Professor Raymond Evans
August 2014

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