Class conflict in the shadow of Gallipoli: What government propaganda won’t tell you

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Review by Chris Slee

In the Shadow of Gallipoli
By Robert Bollard
NewSouth, Sydney 2013

June 3, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On April 25, 1915, Australian troops landed at Gallipoli on Turkey’s coast. They were part of a British imperial force aiming to capture Constantinople (now called Istanbul) and the land alongside the narrow waterway linking the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It was hoped that this would enable British ships to enter the Black Sea and bring supplies to Russia, which was an ally of Britain in World War I.

The plan failed. After hanging onto a narrow strip of land for eight months, the Australians (along with the rest of the invading force) withdrew after suffering heavy casualties.

With the approach of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, the Australian government is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on commemorating this event.

The aim of this spending is to promote Australian nationalism. It therefore seems unlikely that the “educational” material to be supplied by the government will give a serious analysis of the reasons for the war. Nor is it likely to say much about the deep divisions in Australian society over the war and conscription, or about the big union struggles that occurred during the war.

Robert Bollard’s book provides a lot of information that is unlikely to appear in official publications. He tells the real story of what happened in Australia during World War I.

Misconceptions about the war are widespread. When asked what the war was about, most people are unable to explain its causes. Some say that the Australian soldiers died to “defend our freedom”.

Imperialist war

In reality, the war was a struggle among the imperialist powers over the division of the world. Australia was part of the British empire, and Australian troops fought to defend and expand that empire.

One aspect of the war was that Britain, along with France and Russia, wanted to carve up the Turkish empire. The landing at Gallipoli was one episode in this struggle.

Another phrase often used is that “Australia became a nation” at Gallipoli. This implies that a country can not be a “real” nation unless it has fought in a big war.

It is often assumed that the whole Australian nation was united behind the war effort. Bollard’s book punctures this myth. He shows that some Australians opposed the war right from the start, and anti-war sentiment grew as the war went on.

It is also often assumed that young men were eager to join the army, because of patriotic fervour and a desire for adventure. No doubt both of these factors played a role, particularly in the early stages.

But a more prosaic reason for joining the army was unemployment. Bollard tells us that: “Australia was already entering an economic recession in 1914, and this was deepened by the disruption of international trade caused by the war”.[1] Unemployment reached 9.3% in early 1915.

Some groups opposed the war right from the start, including the Victorian Socialist Party and the Women’s Political Association. The most energetic and defiant opponents of the war were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which organised an anti-war demonstration in the Sydney Domain as early as August 8, 1914, four days after the start of the war. Its newspaper Direct Action had banner headlines and cartoons opposing the war. The IWW grew rapidly.

Initially, active opposition to the war was confined to a small minority of the population. But as casualties soared and the newspapers were full of the names of the dead, opposition grew.

As voluntary recruitment slowed down, the government tried to introduce conscription. This aroused strong opposition, leading to violent clashes between supporters and opponents.

Along with opposition to the war and conscription, there was a rise in union struggles around pay and conditions.

Inflation provided a strong motivation for pay demands. Food prices rose 33.57% between July 1914 and May 1915.[2]

Broken Hill strike

But the first big strike during the war, that of the Broken Hill miners, was mainly about working hours, rather than pay. The conditions of the underground miners were horrendous. Lung disease caused by mineral dust was widespread. The miners wished to reduce the time during which they were exposed to these conditions.

On September 26, 1915, against the recommendation of their union officials, the underground miners took unilateral action, refusing to work the afternoon shift. The mining companies eventually responded by sacking them on January 8, 1916.

By this time the union officials had overcome their initial caution, and were in support of the campaign. The miners won solidarity from workers around Australia, and were eventually victorious, winning the 44-hour week.

The miners’ victory inspired strike action by numerous other groups of workers in many different industries.

Meanwhile the brutal suppression of the 1916 Easter uprising in Ireland had aroused hostility to the British empire among Australians of Irish Catholic background. This added to the spread of anti-war and anti-conscription sentiment.

Anti-conscription movement

On August 30, 1916, Labor Party Prime Minister Billy Hughes announced a referendum on conscription, to be held on October 28, 1916.

Supporters and opponents of conscription held public meetings. Some of the early anti-conscription meetings were disrupted by hostile crowds. But as support for the war and conscription declined, it was increasingly the pro-conscription meetings that were disrupted. Pro-conscription speakers were often shouted down, and sometimes pelted with eggs or rotten vegetables.

The result of the referendum was that conscription was rejected, with 52% voting against.

The conscription issue divided the Australian Labor Party (ALP). At the time he announced the referendum, Hughes was the leader of a Labor government. But by the time the referendum was held, Hughes had been expelled from the ALP. He remained prime minister with the support of the Liberals, and joined with them to form the “Win the War Party”.

Hughes won the federal election in May1917. Later that year he made another attempt to introduce conscription.

By the time of the second referendum the IWW had been crushed. Some IWW members had been arrested under the War Precautions Act for activities “prejudicial to recruiting” (e.g. cartoons in Direct Action). But there were also a series of trials of IWW members on other charges, such as forgery, murder and an alleged conspiracy to burn down large parts of Sydney. Bollard comments:

It is difficult to untangle how much these allegations had any grounding in reality, and how much arose from the fabrications of policemen and the operations of agents provocateurs. What is clear, however, is that the cases served as a devastating combination knock-out blow for the IWW, providing the government a pretext for the banning of the organisation.[3]

Strike wave

But the spirit of militancy was not confined to the IWW. Discontent with the war and economic hardship were widespread in the Australian working class. This was reflected in a strike wave that began in New South Wales in August 1917, and spread to workers in other states.[4]

The strike began in the railway workshops of Eveleigh and Randwick in Sydney, in protest at the introduction of a time-and-motion system aimed at pressuring workers to work faster. It spread to other sections of the railways, then to mine workers, waterside workers and seafarers, and then to other industries and other states.

Bollard comments that the strike,

…spread rapidly, ostensibly on a principle of opposition to scab labour. In reality, however, the explosion of solidarity with the railway workers revealed the depths of underlying anger and bitterness that the war had generated.[5]

The strike had started on the initiative of rank and file railway workers, and spread to other industries on the initiative of rank and file workers in those industries. Most union officials were not enthusiastic about the strike. Eventually, the Defence Committee set up by the Sydney Trades and Labour Council to run the strike called it off on terms that amounted to a capitulation. Many workers felt this was a sellout, and some continued to strike for several more weeks.

With the crushing of the IWW and the defeat of the strike wave, Hughes felt confident enough to initiate a new conscription referendum, which was held in December 1917. However the second referendum was defeated by a bigger margin than the first.


Meanwhile in Europe a revolutionary upsurge was beginning, fed by anger at the governments that had led their peoples to war. In February 1917 the Russian tsar was overthrown. The provisional government which then took over tried to continue the war, but was itself overthrown in November 1917. The new Bolshevik government made peace with Germany, but also called on workers around the world to rebel against their rulers.

In November 1918 a mutiny in the German navy spread and developed into a revolution that forced the abdication of the kaiser. World War I ended in a revolutionary upsurge across much of Europe.

Australian soldiers were also affected by this ferment. There was

a mutiny aboard HMAS Australia in Fremantle Harbour … in June 1919. This, combined with the discovery of a circular aboard returning troopships calling on soldiers not to fire on members of their own class, led to concern that returning soldiers would bring the Bolshevik virus home with them.[6]

Australian soldiers returned to a “deeply divided nation”.[7] The returned soldiers were themselves politically divided, with some moving to the left and others to the right.

There was a new wave of strikes. According to Bollard, “1919 saw the largest number of workdays lost to strikes of any year in Australian history”.[8]

Returned soldiers played a major role in many of these strikes. In Fremantle, for example, ex-soldiers, some of them armed, played a significant role in a mass picket of the waterfront to prevent a ship being unloaded by scab labour in May 1919. Facing police armed with bayonets, the picketers called for support from soldiers on a troopship arriving in the harbour. The police withdrew and the union was victorious.[9]

But there were other cases where returned soldiers were involved in attacks on striking workers, socialists and ethnic minorities.

Some strikes were victorious. Broken Hill miners won a 35-hour week and a pay rise. Others were defeated. The strike wave ended when recession hit in 1920.

Class peace seemed to have returned. But the class hostility remained below the surface, and broke out again in the lockouts of 1928 and the unemployed struggles of the 1930s.

Most Australians are unaware of this history. Robert Bollard’s book is a tremendous contribution to dispelling this ignorance.

References and notes

1. Bollard, p. 28.

2. Bollard, p. 44.

3. Bollard, p. 102.

4. The strike wave is usually referred to as “the New South Wales general strike”, although, as Bollard notes, “it wasn’t quite general, nor was it confined to New South Wales”. Bollard, p. 15.

5. Bollard, p. 113

6. Bollard, p. 161

7. Bollard, p. 161

8. Bollard, p. 17

9. See Bollard, pp. 165-6.