Chapter 1: Between the Wars
The old Australian Imperial Force lived on in two fields. On the one hand were the returned soldiers’ organisations, which set out to maintain the comradeship established on the now-distant battlefields, to obtain generous treatment for soldiers and to care for their dependants. On the other was the citizen army which, in 1921, was remodelled so that, in framework, it reproduced the AIF as it had been from 1916 onwards. Most of the men of the AIF said good-bye to the army without regret, but there were enough ardent spirits to provide a strong cadre of officers for the re-formed citizen force, some of them because they liked the life of the camp and the mess, and some out of a conviction that the army they trained or its successor would be called upon again.
A similar impulse towards public service, generally inspired by the fellowship of the AIF and a resolve to make a new and better world, led a noticeable number of returned soldiers into politics, and at the elections in 1919 a small group of all ranks was elected to the Federal Parliament. It is doubtful whether many of these would have entered politics had it not been for the incentive which their army experience had produced and the prestige the quality of their service had given them. Unfortunately, nearly every soldier was on the same side of the new House – in Mr Hughes1 Nationalist party2 – and only one in the “rump” Labour party which had fought with success against conscription for overseas service in 1916 and 1917.
It is not the task of the writer of this volume to trace even briefly the political and economic struggles of the Australian people during the period between the wars, but some knowledge of the attitude of parliaments and people towards military problems is necessary to an understanding of the world into which the Second AIF was born. In 1919 the Government was dominated by W. M. Hughes, the wartime Prime Minister, and Mr Pearce3 who for four years had been his Minister for Defence. Among new members of the right-wing parties who showed promise of rising to some eminence were Mr Bruce,4 a business man who had served at Gallipoli and in France as an infantry officer in the British Army – he had been in England when war broke out – and Dr Earle Page,5 a vigorous leader of the rising Country party. These men and the
others of their parties, and particularly the contingent of former members of the AIF now in Parliament, held with tense fervour the belief that Australia must maintain her links with Britain unbroken; and most of them that the Australian defence forces should be maintained at least at sufficient strength to preserve an efficient nucleus, and should be interlocked with those of the Empire as a whole. At the same time, like nearly all Australians of the period, they considered their country to be heavily burdened by expenditure on development and its overseas debts, and that the Australian should not be asked to spend as much upon defence as should the citizen of the United Kingdom.
The Labour party, on the other hand, had been reshaped during the war by two historic struggles which overshadowed any other conflicts the Labour movement had experienced excepting only the great strikes of 1890–94. These were the successful campaigns against conscription for overseas service and the strikes of 1917. The expulsion from the party of those members who supported conscription for foreign service had left in it a hard core of uncompromising Labour leaders in whose eyes the vital struggle of their period was that between employers and workers, and the war just ended merely a conflict between two “capitalist” groups. To some of them a khaki tunic was a symbol of “imperialism.” Were not British soldiers in 1920 being employed against the newly-born socialist republic of Russia, against the nationalists of India and, closer still, against Irish patriots? About one-third of the Labour members were of Irish birth or descended from Irish settlers and, during the war, the hearts of a considerable number had been wrung by the bitter fight in Ireland which culminated in the rising of 1916.
Both groups, however, wished to find a way of preventing war, and many believed that another world war could be avoided. Although fought far from home, the war had caused Australia a loss that some considered irreparable: 59,000 of the pick of her young men, all volunteers. The conviction, born of nineteenth century optimism and philanthropy, that mankind was steadily making progress towards a kinder, happier way of life was shared without question by politicians and writers of both the Right and the Left. Might not a League of Nations preside over a peaceable and increasingly prosperous world in which such losses would not occur? That was not merely desirable, it was argued, but necessary, because another world war would mean the destruction of civilisation. Even to maintain armed Services on the scale of 1914 would be burdensome to the peoples of Europe whose energies were needed to rebuild shattered towns and restock empty storehouses. And it was laid down in Article VIII of the Covenant of the League of Nations:
1. The members of the League recognise that the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety and the enforcement by common action of international obligations.
In 1920–21, the first year after demobilisation, the Hughes Government reduced the navy to a strength of about 4,500, 1,000 more than in 1914, but with twenty more vessels than it possessed in that year. The militia
numbered 100,000 compulsorily enlisted men of the 1899, 1900 and 1901 classes, practically untrained, and was equipped with the weapons which the AIF had brought home. Under the Defence Act these men could be obliged to fight only within Australia. There was a cadre of 3,150 permanent officers and men, which was about 150 more than in 1914. Hughes pointed out that such forces would cost each Australian 12s 4d for the army and 12s 6d for the navy, compared with £2 13s 9d and £1 16s 3d in the United Kingdom.6
In the defence debates which followed these reductions by the Hughes Government some Labour members advocated going farther and entirely abolishing the army and navy; others argued that the Australian did not need to begin his military training until war began; “if the war proved anything,” said Mr D. C. McGrath (Labour) “it proved that young Australians many of whom had not previously known one end of a rifle from another were, after training for a month or two, equal to if not superior to any other troops”7 It was necessary for General Ryrie,8 the Assistant Minister for Defence, who was among the few on his side who believed war to be possible within a generation, solemnly to argue the need for military training and the necessity for maintaining a cadre of skilled officers and men. “Germany”, this veteran soldier said, “is only watching and waiting for the day when she can revenge herself”.9 Some Government members advocated spending the money sought for the three Services on immigration and the unification of the railways, as forms of defence.
The Ministers who brought forward the modest defence plans of 1920 and 1921 were described by some Labour members as “militarists”, and “war mongers”. “We must carefully guard”, said the newly-elected Mr Makin10 (Labour) “against the spreading in the body politic of the malignant cancer of militarism.”11 Mr Frank Brennan12 (Labour) described the Minister for Defence, Mr Pearce, as “the faithful servant of the military caste he represents”13; and Mr A. Blakeley (Labour) denounced Hughes’ Ministry as a “brass hat Government”.14 Equally strongly worded advice that expenditure on defence be reduced came from more conservative quarters. For example, a Royal Commission (Sir Robert Gibson and Messrs George H. Turton and G. G. Haldane) appointed in 1921 to consider and report on Commonwealth public expenditure (the “Federal Economy Commission”) wrote: “Evidence is not lacking that there is a desire in some quarters to maintain the Military spirit and permanently
saddle the country with an expenditure on defence which would be exceedingly onerous.” Sir Robert Gibson was a director of manufacturing companies and later chairman of the Commonwealth Bank Board; Mr Turton was general manager for Australasia of the Royal Insurance Company, and Mr Haldane chief accountant in the Postmaster-General’s Department.
While these debates were in progress at home, Mr Hughes went abroad to the Imperial Conference of June 1921 where he pleaded eloquently for a renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, provided that there was a safeguard “against even the suspicion of hostility or unfriendliness to the United States”, and for a conference with the United States, Japan and France on the limitation of armaments.15 In August the United States issued invitations to the British Empire, Japan, France and Italy to attend a disarmament conference at Washington, where, in December, the representatives of those countries agreed to reduce the number of their battleships and to restrict the size of new vessels. Ultimately the United States and the British Empire would each maintain capital ships aggregating 525,000 tons, Japan 315,000 tons, and France and Italy each 175,000 tons.16 The treaty would remain in force until December 1936. At the same time the United States and the British Empire gave Japan an agreement which meant in effect that Britain would not create new fortifications in Asia east of Singapore, nor the United States in the central Pacific west of the Hawaiian Islands. In return Japan agreed not to fortify the Kuriles in the north, or the islands south of the Japanese mainland.
From an Australian point of view this was epochal. For 130 years the Australian continent, southern lobe of Asia, had been peacefully peopled by Englishmen and a moderate stream of other Europeans. This movement had been conducted behind the shield of British naval supremacy. But at Washington the British nations, exhausted by a global war, granted that they could no longer command the seven seas. The United States succeeded to the command of the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, Japan to the command of the western Pacific. However, in the happy glow of internationalism that followed the war, the treaty was seen as a step towards the widespread disarmament that was to lead to a return to the relative peace of the nineteenth century.
While the Washington Conference was still in session Hughes had promised Parliament that, if the naval reductions were agreed upon, the defence vote would be substantially reduced. Consequently, in the following year, nearly half of the ships of the Australian Navy were put out of commission, and it was decided to reduce the permanent staff of the army to 1,600, to maintain the seven militia divisions (five of infantry and two of cavalry) at a strength of about 31,000 men – only 25 per cent of their war strength – and to reduce training to six days in camp and four days
at the local centres a year. Seventy-two regular officers17 out of a meagre total of some 300 would be retired, and compensated at a cost of £300,000.
In the army the sharp edge of this axe was felt most keenly by two relatively small groups. In the flush of nationalism which had followed federation there had been energetic competition to enter the military college at Duntroon, which was opened in 1911. Careful selection, thorough technical training and moulding of character by picked instructors from Great Britain, followed immediately by active service, had produced an officer corps which, though small, was of fine quality. Before and during the war of 1914–18 each young officer saw a brilliant career ahead of him, if he survived. The reductions of 1922 dashed these hopes. The young Duntroon graduates who had been majors in the AIF were now peace-time captains and lieutenants at the bottom of a list so long and in a corps so small that it was unlikely that there would be any promotion for most of them for ten years at least.18 Until then they would wear the badges of rank and use the titles attained on active service, but would be paid as subalterns and fill appointments far junior to those that many of them had held for the last two or three years in France or Palestine. Even more rigorous had been the reduction in rank of the warrant officers, some of whom had become Lieut-Colonels and commanded battalions in the war. They were debarred from appointment to the officer corps – the Staff Corps it was now named – entry to which was reserved to pre-war regular officers and graduates of Duntroon, and became, at the best, quartermasters, wearing without the corresponding pay and without hope of promotion the rank that they had won in the war. The result was that the community obtained its cadre of permanent officers and NCOs for the new army at bargain prices.19
Such reductions could be logically based only on an assumption either that the possibility of war was remote, or that, if it occurred, Britain could be relied upon to defend Australia. But the British Services too were drastically cut by political leaders who believed that the people demanded it; army expenditure fell from £80,000,000 in 1921–22 to £52,000,000 in 1923–24, naval expenditure from £95,000,000 to £43,000,000, air force from £13,000,000 to £9,000,000. Lieut-General Sir Harry Chauvel,20 the Australian Inspector-General, in his first annual report after the retrenchments – one of a series of wise and penetrating examinations of Australian military problems of which, however, little notice was taken – sought reasons for Australian “complacency”. He decided that it was
based on geographical isolation (which he declared to be a source of danger, not security); on a sublime faith in the power of the British Navy (though Australia had no docks to enable that navy to operate in her waters); on an impression that the Australian youth could be transformed into an efficient soldier in a few weeks (though there were six months of training before the AIF went into action in 1914–15); that the 300,000 men of the AIF were still available (though only 140,000 were discharged fit and one-fifth of that force had been over 31 on enlistment, six to nine years before); that the war of 1914–18 was a “war to end wars”.
The belief that the war of 1914–18 had ended war was rudely shaken, however, in the spring of 1922 when, on 19th September, Mr Hughes announced in the House that the British Cabinet had decided “to resist Turkish aggression and prevent the Allies being driven out of Constantinople”, and had asked whether Australia would send a contingent if necessary. Hughes (although he resented the impetuousness of this appeal) promptly announced that the Australian Cabinet had agreed to comply. The tone of the debate which followed his announcement was both sober and prophetic; hardly an echo was heard of the outbursts against “war mongers” and “the military caste” which had occurred in the defence debates a few months before. Mr Charlton,21 the Leader of the Opposition (Labour), asked for fuller information. “Did Lloyd George appeal to the League of Nations?” he asked. “No, he sent cables to the Dominions asking them to participate in another war. ... The best ... any ... public man of Australia can do is to endeavour to safeguard the world against further war.”
Mr Lazzarini (Labour): “The best thing to do is to be true to Australia.”
Mr Charlton: “Not only true to Australia but also true to the masses of the people throughout the world.”
Mr Considine (Labour): “True to the working classes.”
Mr Charlton: “The working classes embrace practically everyone ... if the Government contemplate sending contingents abroad, I trust that they will first refer the matter to the people. ... The people who had to suffer and bear all the consequences know what war means, and should be consulted before any further step is taken if we are to preserve our present civilisation.”
Dr Page: “We (the Country party) do not believe in war but in peace with honour. If Great Britain thinks it necessary to go to war we believe that Australia, as part of the Great British Empire, should always be ready to come to her assistance.”22
The author of this crisis was Mustapha Kemal, the same who, as a young colonel, had saved the day for the Turks at Anzac in April 1915. Now, a national leader, he had driven the Greeks from Asia Minor and was approaching the Straits at Chanak where only a few British troops (France and Italy having ordered the withdrawal of their contingents) stood between the victorious Turkish army and an invasion of Europe which might light the fires of war again. Lloyd George, greatly influenced
by his lieutenant, Winston Churchill, appealed to the Dominions for that support which France and Italy had withdrawn. In common with Australia, New Zealand had offered help, but the appeal to the Dominions had been made so precipitately as to cause a justified resentment. The crisis passed, but the lesson was clear: within three years a leader had arisen in a defeated nation, had successfully challenged one of the peace treaties, and brought the world to the brink of another large-scale war.
Next year the Government, now a coalition of the Nationalist and Country parties led by Mr Bruce and Dr Earle Page, declared that the bright hopes raised by the Washington Treaty had not been completely fulfilled and that it had sought and obtained an Imperial Conference at which problems of defence would be thrashed out. Before the delegates departed for the conference the Opposition made it clear that it was opposed on both political and strategical grounds to participation in the proposed construction of a naval base at Singapore. Mr Charlton said that he favoured aerial and submarine forces – to be used for purely local defence. Japan, he said, had given assurances that she desired to keep the peace. If Australia took any part in the establishment of a Singapore base, that would be a departure from policy, because Australia had never before agreed to assist Great Britain in defence preparations outside Australia; and she had enough to do to see to her own defence. “The Labour party’s policy ... is opposed”, he said, “to the raising of forces for service outside the Commonwealth, or promise of participation in any future overseas war except by a decision of the people.”23
“If a naval base is established at Singapore”, said Senator Gardiner (Labour), “it must lead to a division of Britain’s naval strength and the chances are that a weak navy will be left to defend the base without a population such as we have in Australia behind it to render any assistance.”24
At the Imperial Conference of 1921 the members had affirmed the necessity for disarmament; at this conference two years later they agreed upon the necessity for defence, and suggested (for the conference could not decide the policies of self-governing States) guiding principles on which it should be based.25 It was agreed that the primary responsibility of each part of the Empire was for its own defence, that adequate provision should be made for safeguarding maritime communications and for naval
bases, that the British Navy should be equal to that of any foreign power (not equal to any two powers, as before 1914). The conference “took note” of the deep interest of Australia and New Zealand in the provision of the proposed naval base at Singapore to enable the navy to operate effectively in the East, the provision of a safe route through the Mediterranean, and the necessity in Great Britain of a home defence air force able to give adequate protection against the strongest air force within striking distance. Thus were established the principles on which Imperial and incidentally Australian defence were to be built – in framework but so securely, as it turned out, that nothing short of war could shake them. The emphasis was emphatically placed on sea and air power.26 The principles set down by the conference, though they were the fruit of seeds of slow growth that had been planted in the previous years, were to become so notably the basis of Australian defence doctrine and controversy that it is desirable to examine them in some detail.
The decision to build Britain’s eastern naval base at Singapore had not passed without criticism in Britain as well as in Australia. Colonel Repington,27 for example, an influential and conservative British military theorist, had opposed the choice of Singapore on the grounds that it lacked an industrialised population, was insecure, lacked food supplies, suffered an enervating climate, and did not defend Australia and New Zealand; and that Sydney possessed all these qualities which Singapore lacked.
The Dominion representatives (he wrote) are usually disposed to fall in with any naval arrangements suggested by the Admiralty, which is a very authoritative body for them. Singapore as a naval panacea has also this particular attraction for Anzac statesmen – namely, that it does not burden their budget, but is a charge on our taxpayers at home. If our sailors tell them that the Grand Fleet at Singapore covers Australia and New Zealand by virtue of some flanking virtue, then the responsibility of the Admiralty is engaged; but if the Dominion representatives take this opinion without using their brains, and there is hereafter found a fallacy in the claim, then the responsibility towards the Dominions rests with their own representatives.28
In the years which followed the Imperial Conference of 1923 Australian staff officers, led by Lieut-Colonel Wynter,29 perhaps the clearest and most profound thinker the Australian Army of his generation had produced, not only unearthed “a fallacy” but examined and re-examined it. Briefly to summarise the conclusions they reached in closely-reasoned lectures and essays30: if war broke out in the Pacific it would be at a time when Britain
was prevented by events in Europe from detaching a sufficient force to the Pacific to defeat a first-class power; that Singapore was vulnerable to attack from the landward side; that the soundest policy for Australia would be to maintain an army capable of defending the vital south-eastern area of Australia against an invader until help arrived; and that Australia should build a fleet base in her own territory as “an alternative means of enabling the British Fleet, even if delayed in the first instance, to ultimately operate in our defence”.
However, as a consequence of the 1923 conference, the Bruce-Page Government decided to buy two 10,000-ton cruisers and two submarines at a cost of some £5,000,000, whereas, over a period of five years, only £1,000,000 would be spent on additional artillery, ammunition and anti-gas equipment for the army. In these five years expenditure on the navy aggregated £20,000,000; on the army, including the munitions factories, only £10,000,000; on the air force £2,400,000. The strength of the permanent military forces remained at approximately 1,750, whereas that of the navy rose, by 1928, to more than 5,000. During this period the strength of the militia varied between 37,000 and 46,000 and it was, in the opinion of Chauvel (in his report for 1927), a nucleus which did not possess the equipment nor receive the training “essential to the effective performance of its functions”. It lacked necessary arms, including tanks and anti-aircraft guns, he pointed out, and there was not a large enough rank and file with which to train leaders to replace those hitherto drawn from the old AIF – a source of supply which had now dried up. In the regular officer corps of 242 officers Chauvel found that “disparity of opportunity and stagnation in promotion, with retention in subordinate positions, cannot lead to the maintenance of the active, virile and efficient staff that the service demands”. The only mobile regular unit was a section of field artillery consisting of fifty-nine men with two guns.
In the long debates on the naval proposals of the Bruce-Page Government the defence policy of the Labour Opposition was defined. Whereas the Government’s policy was to emphasise naval at the expense of military defence, Labour’s proposal was to rely chiefly on air power and the extension of the munitions industry. The Labour policy was clearly expressed, in July 1924, by Mr Forde,31 a recently-elected member from North Queensland, who said: “I believe that the Labour party when it forms a Government ... will develop an air force as a means of defence and probably make it the first arm and will provide submarines and fortifications ... and convertible factories that could be used for the manufacture of small arms and the building of aeroplanes in times of war, and of farming implements in times of peace. ... The factories could also undertake the manufacture of motor bicycles and motor cars.”32
However, the Labour party was to be in office for only two years and a quarter in the period between the wars, and consequently Australia’s
defence policy was closely to follow the principles set down in 1923: these emphasised ultimate reliance on the British Navy to which Australia would contribute an independent squadron as strong as she considered she could afford, and a particular reliance on the base at Singapore,33 from which the British fleet would operate in defence of British Far Eastern and Pacific interests. At the same time a nucleus militia, air force, and munitions industry would be maintained. No precise definition of what constituted a just contribution to British naval strength was reached. In 1925–26 (as Mr Bruce pointed out) each British citizen was paying 51s 1d for defence, each Australian only 27s 2d. But the per capita cost of defence in Canada (which could rely on the protection of the United States) was only 5s 10d, in New Zealand 12s 11d and in South Africa 2s 6d.34 That Australia was paying interest on a heavy overseas debt, that she was paying more than other Dominions for defence and that she urgently needed money for developmental works were facts often quoted by members of all parties as reasons why the defence vote could not be increased nor a contribution made to the cost of Singapore, but no one appears to have sought a formula whereby the cost of the defence of the Empire as a whole could be divided fairly among the members.
Thus the army did not share largely in the comparatively small increases that were made in the defence vote each year from 1924 to 1928. In his annual reports during this period Chauvel continued to direct attention to the declining effectiveness of the militia, and also to the stout-hearted endeavours of the little permanent force and of those militia officers and men who carried on staunchly despite discouragement, and, as Chauvel emphasised, “without expectation of material reward”. This was not an over-statement of the situation. Highly-trained young officers who had been majors and captains in the AIF of ten years before were still serving as adjutants of militia units whose citizen members were assembled for only eight days’ continuous training each year and which were at only 25 per cent of their war strength. However, the system whereby each young lieutenant spent a year with the British Army in the United Kingdom or India, and a number of more-senior officers were always overseas on exchange duty or attending courses at British schools helped to keep the officer corps from stagnation.35 Gains in equipment were microscopic: in 1926 the army obtained its first motor vehicles – five 30-cwt lorries, one for each military district except the Sixth (Tasmania), and eight tractors for the artillery; in 1927 four light tanks arrived. Nor could the army comfort itself with the reflection that, when the need arose, it could commandeer even enough horses, because, as Chauvel pointed out, the breeding of working horses had so declined that Australia was not only losing her export trade in army horses but it was doubtful whether there
were enough suitable animals in the continent to mobilise the seven divisions. To the militia officers these circumstances were equally discouraging, and the fact that they were willing to devote their spare time to so exacting a hobby – and a keen officer had to give all his leisure to it – was evidence of uncommon enthusiasm for soldiering and, in most instances, an impelling desire to perform a public service.
There was in Australia no organised group to press for more effective military defence, nor any journal in which military and naval problems were discussed with authority. In his first report, in 1921, Chauvel had urged the re-establishment of the Commonwealth Military Journal which had been published from 1911 to 1915 and to which officers of permanent and citizen forces had been “cordially invited” to contribute. Nothing came of this suggestion and, with one small exception, no military journal existed in Australia between the wars. To the extent that they thus failed to establish an adequate channel of communication with the people at large, the officer corps, both professional and amateur, must share, with the political leaders and the press, the responsibility for neglect of the army. In the Staff Corps and militia were men who had something to say and knew how to say it, but their writings were to be seen in British journals, chiefly in the Army Quarterly which was read in Australia almost solely by officers of their own Services. Criticism was discouraged by political leaders and their attitude affected the senior officers of the Services, and seeped downwards. As far as the Staff Corps was concerned the truth was that its members’ otherwise outstanding education had included no instruction in what came later to be called “public relations”, and their subsequent careers travelled in a narrow professional groove. The low pay36 helped to prevent them from taking their proper place in social life outside the army and the corps became isolated to an extent that was exceedingly inappropriate in a group which was administering a citizen army. A fully-justified resentment of the parsimonious treatment they had received from Governments developed into mistrust of the political leaders who decided the policy they had to administer, and of the press which alone could educate the public in the principles of defence. In justice it must be said that the mistrust was reciprocated. Antipathy to the professional soldier was probably even more widespread in Australia than in Britain. Upon the Englishman’s (and particularly the Irishman’s) traditional misgivings concerning regular armies had been superimposed, in Australia, recollections of the semi-military police force of the late Victorian period.37 The vehement denunciation of “brass hats” by Labour members of Parliament has often found an echo in the Liberal as well as the Labour press. Peace-time military service conferred little prestige; indeed, an Australian who made the militia a hobby was likely to be
regarded by his acquaintances as a peculiar fellow with an eccentric taste for uniforms and the exercise of petty authority. (This prejudice was the more striking by reason of its contrast with the Australian affection for uniforms, brass bands and ritual in sport – in horse racing, for example,
and particularly in surf life-saving, where an ultra-military devotion to drill was developed.)
Soldiers and soldiering were in particularly bad odour in the late ‘twenties. From 1927 onwards for four or five years, a sudden revival of interest in the war that had ended ten years before produced a series of
angry war novels and memoirs of which Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Graves’ Good-bye to All That and Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa were among the most popular.
The object, conscious or unconscious, of all these books (one contemporary critic wrote) is to simplify and sentimentalise the problem of war and peace until the problem disappears in a silly gesture of complacent moral superiority, and the four years of war are shown idiotically as four years of disastrous, sanguinary and futile battles in which everything was lost and nothing gained, a struggle begun for no purpose and continued for no reason.38
Whether this criticism was right or wrong, these books and the plays and moving pictures that accompanied them undoubtedly did much to mould the attitude of the people generally and particularly of the intelligentsia to war and soldiers, and produced rather widely a conviction that wars are always ineffectual, are brought about by military leaders and by the large engineering industries which profit by making weapons, and that if soldiers and armaments could be abolished wars would cease.
It was, however, not so much a desire for disarmament, and for the peace which was widely believed to be the sequel to disarmament, but another factor that was to produce substantial and sudden reductions in the armies and navies of the world. In October 1929 share prices in New York began to collapse; soon the entire world was suffering an acute trade depression.
It happened that a Labour Ministry took office in Australia in October 1929 for the first time since the conscription crisis of 1917, and the day after the first sudden drop on the New York Stock Exchange. Before the full effects of the distant catastrophe were apparent, the new Ministers who, harking back to an old controversy, had promised the electors that if the Labour party was returned it would abolish compulsory training, ordered (on 1st November 1929) that conscription be suspended, and cancelled all military camps arranged for the current year. At the same
time the new Prime Minister, Mr Scullin,39 instructed the Defence Committee40 to submit an alternative plan for an equally adequate defence. There would, he said, be no discharges of permanent staff. Accordingly the Defence Council submitted a plan, which was eventually adopted, to maintain a voluntary militia41 of 35,000 with 7,000 senior cadets. The militiamen would undergo eight days’ training in camp and eight days’ home training, in the local drill halls, each year. Five infantry battalions and two light horse regiments were abolished by linking pairs of units, and the establishment of most of the remaining battalions was fixed at somewhat less than half the war strength.
In reaction Mr Roland Green42 (Country party) who had lost a leg serving in the infantry made a bitter speech in the House of Representatives recalling that Scullin and other Labour leaders, including Messrs Makin, Holloway43 and Blackburn,44 had attended a Labour conference in Perth in June 1918 when a resolution was passed that if the Imperial authorities did not at once open negotiations for peace the Australian divisions be brought back to Australia, and calling on the organised workers of every country to take similar action. “As a result of that attitude”, said Green, “Labour was out of office in the Commonwealth for thirteen years, largely because of the votes of the soldiers and their friends. During all that time the party nursed its hatred of the soldiers, and now it is seeking revenge.”45
Mr Scullin was a sincere pacifist. When in the Opposition he had complained with fervour that the children were being taught to believe in the glory of war and had spoken at length in defence of his action in advocating peace in 1918. His decision to abolish compulsory training was founded on staunchly-held yet muddled moral principles; but the burden of carrying it out fell upon the same small and over-tried team of officers, both professional and amateur, who had tenaciously been maintaining the spirit and efficiency of the citizen army through nine lean years and now had even leaner ones to look forward to. They “rose to the occasion”, as Chauvel wrote in his final report as Inspector-General,46 and in the first four months of 1930 their recruiting efforts and the response of the young men, though they did not achieve the 35,000 enlistments that had been authorised, produced a new militia of 24,000, with an additional 5,300 in the volunteer senior cadets – a relic of the big, well-organised
cadet force in which all boys of 14 to 17 had formerly been given elementary training.47 The numbers increased gradually in the following year and between 1931 and 1936 the number of militiamen fluctuated between 26,000 and 29,000. This strength, however, was about 2,000 fewer than that of the volunteer forces of the States when they were amalgamated into a Commonwealth force in 1901; the permanent force too stood at about the same figure as it had twenty-nine years before. In 1901, when the population of Australia was 3,824,000, the permanent forces aggregated 1,544, the partly-paid militia and unpaid volunteers 27,400. In June 1930, when the population was 6.500,000, the permanent forces totalled 1,669, the militia 25,785.
The abolition of compulsory training had been based purely on a political doctrine; but within a few months economic necessity produced still more severe reductions in the three Services. Exports declined and revenue fell. Unemployment increased, and the new Government became enmeshed in a bitter controversy about its proposal (which it was forced to abandon) that the principle of preference to returned soldiers in Government employment be replaced by preference to unionists. Defence expenditure was reduced from £6,536,000 in 1928–29 to £3,859,000 in 1930–31.48 Such cuts could not be made without discharging hundreds of officers and men. Five naval vessels were paid off and the establishment of the navy cut by 700 men. The permanent military forces were reduced by discharges from 1,748 to 1,556 between 1929 and 1931, and further discharges were saved only by requiring officers and men to take up to eight weeks’ annual leave without pay-an adversity which, the soldiers declared, the Ministers would not have dared to inflict upon the more
vocal civilian public service. The number of cadets in training at the Royal Military College at Duntroon was diminished from an average of sixty in the late 1920s to barely thirty in 1931, the buildings at Duntroon were closed and the College removed to Victoria Barracks in Sydney.
A number of regular officers resigned; others transferred to the British or Indian Armies.
Added justification for the starvation of the fighting Services appeared to be given by the agreement at the London Naval Conference of 1930 whereby the navies of the principal powers were further reduced and the size of ships in several categories were further limited, and by progress towards a wider disarmament. At the Imperial Conference in 1930 there were no plenary discussions of defence. Mr Ramsay MacDonald who led the United Kingdom delegation had been a pacifist in 1914–18 and was a leader in the international movement towards disarmament. The three Australian ministers who attended (Messrs Scullin, Frank Brennan and Parker Moloney) were among those who had spoken most vigorously against participation in the war of 1914–18 and against Australian defence measures.
However, before the world had emerged from the depression, signs of danger of war appeared in Asia and Europe. Towards the end of 1931 Japan had begun to occupy Manchuria, and, in the following year, after having refused to accept the effort of the international committee to settle the dispute, declared that she would resign from the League. Nevertheless most leaders were content to regard this episode as too remote and the factors too complex to demand extreme action, or even to justify anxiety. But in 1933 events in Europe finally destroyed immediate hope of achieving disarmament and establishing the rule of law among the nations. In January of that year power had been seized in Germany by Hitler’s National-Socialist oligarchy whose program included winning back Germany’s lost territories and smashing any other military power that existed or might exist in Europe. In October Germany withdrew from the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations. Before this critical year was over, the need for repairing the armed Services was being canvassed by politicians and publicists in Australia. Brig-General McNicoll,49 one of a group of soldiers, professional and citizen, who had been elected to the Federal Parliament in 1931,50 when the Labour party was defeated, declared that “a wave of enthusiasm ... has passed over Australia about the need for effective defence”.51 This was perhaps an exaggeration, but nevertheless, there was undoubtedly evidence of some alarm and of an increasing discussion of foreign affairs and their significance to Australia.
However, Mr Makin, still a believer that by reducing armies one could ensure peace, was able in the House of Representatives in November 1933 to quote leaders as diverse as Professor Stephen Roberts, Bishop Thomas of Adelaide, Sir Thomas Henley (a conspicuous leader of patriotic movements) and the Reverend J. W. Burton (a distinguished Methodist) as having deplored “the alarm of the last two months”. “The best way to secure peace is to get rid of some of the ‘brass hats’,” interjected Mr Ward,52 a young Labour member. “The dismissal of the military junta would no doubt assist in that direction,” added Makin.53 In the excitement of debate members may make comments which they do not wish to be taken literally, but that point may not be apparent to those at whom the comments are aimed – in this case the senior soldiers.
The response of the Government of Mr. Lyons,54 who led the United Australia party, successor to the Nationalist party, to the increasingly apparent need to strengthen the fighting Services was cautious. The scars left by the depression had not healed and the Government considered that its first responsibility was to bring about economic recovery. Between 1933 and 1935 the defence vote was increased only gradually until, at the end of that period, it had almost reached the figure of 1928. The question what principles were to guide the expenditure of this slowly increasing vote and the larger sums that seemed likely to follow assumed a greater importance than in the late ‘twenties because the need now seemed more urgent. The difference between the military policies of the two groups in Federal politics had its roots deep in their history and doctrines. A penetrating statement of this variance was made in the House towards the end of the period now under review by Mr. Blackburn, a clear-sighted and sometimes heterodox leader of Labour thought. “On this issue (he said) the difference between the policy of the supporters of the Government and of the members of the Labour party appears to be this: The defence policy of the Government and of its supporters is to be planned and operated in cooperation with Great Britain and other members of the British Commonwealth of Nations; that is to say it is to fit into the mosaic of a general Imperial scheme to be directed by the Imperial authorities, the Australian authorities merely doing their part in effectuating the general scheme. On the other hand the Labour party, and the Labour movement generally, believe that the defence policy of this country should be one which has regard to the possibility of Australia being attacked and should be designed solely for the purpose of warding off an attack. That is to say, the Australian Labour Party’s scheme of defence does not fit into the Imperial or British scheme of defence at all, whereas the Commonwealth Government’s scheme does.”55 He recalled that at the
Perth conference of the Labour party in 1918 a special provision had been included in the party’s platform to provide that action overseas could be taken only with the consent of the Australian people.56
Labour’s policy, in the words of one of its critics, was “to confine the fighting forces to formations whose object is purely local defence against invasion by means of submarines and aircraft; and to military forces upon a national service basis whose liability for service does not extend outside the territory of the Dominion”.57 The policy of the Government party, on the other hand, had been expressed, at least since the Imperial Conference of 1923, in a concentration on naval rather than military defence, and in periodical statements that it adhered first and foremost to the principle of Imperial cooperation.
The Government had in fact, throughout these years, adopted its policy, ready-made and with little amendment, from the Committee of Imperial Defence. A weakness of this body was that, although it included the British ministers likely to be concerned with the framing of war policy, and the Chiefs of Staff of the British fighting Services, and had an extremely competent secretariat led by Sir Maurice Hankey,58 it contained no permanent representatives of the Dominions. Such representatives might be summoned to advise on business that closely affected their governments, and would attend during Imperial conferences; the department of the Australian Chief of the General Staff was entitled “Australian Section, Imperial General Staff”; exchange of senior officers in all Services, and the attendance of Dominions’ officers at the English staff colleges and the Imperial Defence College somewhat strengthened liaison and encouraged discussion of higher policy. But, if Australian and New Zealand officers at those colleges frequently expressed disagreement with British military policy towards the problem of Japan, for example, that fact was not likely to affect the plans of the Committee of Imperial Defence, whose permanent members, secretary, four assistant secretaries (one from each Service and one from India) were servants of the United Kingdom Government. The committee carried out continuously the study of Imperial war problems, but without an influential contribution from the Dominions. It shaped a military policy which carried great weight with Dominion ministers; yet in the eyes of Dominion soldiers the committee could justly be regarded as a somewhat parochial group, since it was possible that none of its members had ever been in a Dominion or in the Far East. At the worst such a method of forming military policy could lead to errors due to ignorance of conditions in remoter theatres; at the best it was a waste of leaders to draw all of them in the central offices of the British Commonwealth from
the forty-six millions of the United Kingdom and none from the twenty-two millions of the overseas Dominions.
In 1925 a gifted young Australian, Major Selby,59 advocated the establishment of a genuinely Imperial General Staff including senior representatives of the Dominions, which, although possessing no executive authority in peace, would, on the outbreak of war, take control of the British Commonwealth forces under the authority of an Imperial War Cabinet.60 The Gallipoli campaign was then only ten years old. It involved, Selby wrote, “an expenditure of life and material out of proportion to the results achieved, and the burden of this loss fell partly upon two Dominions whose Governments were not in a position to influence effectively the course of events.” If such a plan was to be achieved it was likely to come about only at the urging of a Dominion, and particularly of Australia, which was the least secure of the Dominions; it was improbable that the British Government would seek to reduce its authority in strategical matters. On the other hand the sharing of a general staff implied a sharing of responsibility, which the Dominions were unwilling to accept without reservations. At the Imperial Conference of 1937, for example, the Australian delegation, when bringing forward a proposal for the preparation by the Committee of Imperial Defence (with Dominion representatives present) of plans for cooperation between the parts of the Empire, emphasised that there could be no commitment without the approval of the Governments concerned.
Within Australia an outcome of dependence on advice from London and the consequent failure to develop a home-grown defence plan was that successive ministers failed also to work out a policy which, while integrated with the plans of the British Commonwealth as a whole, reconciled the differing viewpoints of the army and the navy. Always the ministers’ aim seemed to be to make a compromise division of the allotted defence fund (invariably too small to be effective) among three competing services.
Both Government and Labour defence theories were strongly criticised. The Government policy was attacked by some Government supporters as well as by the Labour Opposition on the ground that it disregarded that the British Navy did not, and could not (while the naval treaties lasted) spare a sufficient force to command Eastern seas, that Britain lacked military and air power even to defend her own bases in the East, and therefore that Australia should take what measures she could to defend herself. Labour’s policy was denounced because it left out of account that Australia’s fate could and probably would be decided in distant seas or on distant battlefields. Gradually those members of the Labour party who had begun to inform themselves upon defence problems discovered that leaders of Australian military thought were able to go part
of the way with them. In their ten-years-old argument against Admiralty doctrines and particularly against the Singapore thesis the army leaders had adopted a position not far remote from that which the Labour party was reaching. Thus, when Admiral Richmond,61 the senior British naval theorist of his day, attacked, in the British Army Quarterly, a theory of Australian defence that resembled the Labour party’s in some respects, his argument was countered (in the same journal) by Colonel Lavarack,62 then Commandant of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. And when, in 1936, a lecture which had been given to a small group of officers sixteen months before by Colonel Wynter, the Director of Military Training, came into the hand of Mr Curtin,63 leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party, he read it, without betraying its authorship, as a speech in the House, presumably as an expression of the policy of his party.64 When Sir Archdale Parkhill,65 the Minister for Defence, who rose next, had finished speaking, Mr Brennan said: “I think that I can congratulate the Minister for Defence upon the very excellent manner in which he read the speech that had been prepared for him by the bunch of militarist imperialists whose business it is to discharge that function.”
Mr Parkhill: “The honourable member might with more justification, pass that comment upon the speech of his leader.”
Mr Brennan (still not on the right wave-length) “... our association with the British Navy is entirely an evil one. ... I stand today exactly as I stood twenty years ago.”66
It was undeniable that Mr Brennan had not changed his position; but the leaders of his party now stood on other ground.
This incident led to an episode which is recorded here because it and another similar occurrence in the same year added greatly to the resentment felt by the regular officer corps towards the right-wing political leaders. The copy of Wynter’s lecture, which contained substantially the same argument as he had published in an English journal ten years before, had been handed to Curtin by a member of the Government party who, like others of that party, was critical of the Government’s defence policy. Four months later Wynter was transferred to a very junior post. One month after Wynter’s demotion Lieut-Colonel Beavis,67 a highly-qualified equipment officer with long training and experience in England, who had been chosen to advise on and coordinate plans for manufacturing
arms and equipment in Australia was similarly transferred to a relatively junior post after differences of opinion with a senior departmental official?68
Not only was a Labour defence policy taking positive shape, but, from 1935 onwards, discussion of defence was becoming a topic of major interest in the newspapers and reviews. More books and pamphlets on the subject were published between 1935 and 1939 than during the previous thirty-four years of the Commonwealth. It was a statement in an eloquent book on defence by Mr Hughes69 to the effect that economic sanctions meant war which so embarrassed his leader, Mr Lyons, during the debate on the Abyssinian crisis, that Hughes was compelled to resign from the Cabinet; in the back benches, however, Hughes continued to play a part similar to Winston Churchill’s in the House of Commons, warning the nation that war was approaching and it should arm without delay. Expenditure on defence was slightly increased year by year, but the note of apology for only limited achievement in the explanatory speeches, particularly of Parkhill, was an indication of the Government’s awareness that there was a growing public opinion in favour of more rapid progress. In 1935, when explaining the details of a three-year plan of re-equipment Parkhill explained that “the priorities laid down by the Government could not be accelerated to any degree”, contending that the equipment ordered from overseas could not be obtained sooner. It was true that by giving priority to coast defences, the purchase of cruisers and the expansion of operational air squadrons the Government had, to an extent, created bottlenecks, because all these depended on oversea purchases at a time when the demand on British workshops was increasing and deliveries likely to be delayed.
For the army the three-year plan (for the years 1934–35 to 1936–37) included the purchase of motor vehicles on a limited scale, increased stocks of ammunition, and “an instalment of modern technical equipment” a phrase whose modesty was justified, because the £127,743 that was allotted to the army for its development program in the first year and the £1,005,792 for the second was merely a token in view of the fact that the army was and always had been incompletely equipped by 1918 standards. It could not mobilise even a brigade without commandeering civil vehicles, and now had to base its plans on the assumption that it would be engaged, if war came, against armies (such as the German) whose weapons belonged to a new epoch.
The keen discussion of defence in the four years to 1939 was only one aspect of that unprecedented interest within Australia in the affairs of the outside world which in its turn was a response to the alarming march of events in Europe and east Asia. In the west Hitler’s Germany re-introduced
conscription in March 1935, and next year the Italian attack on Ethiopia revealed the impotence of the League of Nations. “We are faced,” Churchill had said in comment upon Germany’s open breach of the Peace Treaty, “not with the prospect of a new war, but with something very like the possibility of a resumption of the war which ended in November 1918,”70 and this and later warnings were echoed increasingly by a minority of political leaders and publicists both of the Right and the Left throughout the British Commonwealth.
In Australia during these four years the foundations of Government (United Australia Party) defence policy remained unshaken. They were still those principles which had been defined at the Imperial Conference of 1923 and were confirmed at a new Imperial Conference in 1937.
The basis of Australian defence policy (said the Australian report on the 1937 conference) was described as participation in Empire naval defence for the protection of sea-borne trade, as a deterrent to invasion and as a general measure of defence against raids, combined with local defence to provide a further deterrent to and a defence against invasion and raids. The great importance from the Australian point of view of the Singapore base was noticed ... the guiding principles of the Imperial Conferences of 1923 and 1926 had been adopted by ... Australia as the basis of its policy ...71
Those Australian soldiers who had urged greater expenditure of men and money on the army had based their argument chiefly on the vulnerability of Singapore, the unlikelihood of a fleet being there at the critical time and the existence of a period, perhaps a long one, during which Australia would have to depend principally on her army. In the course of a comprehensive strategical review that was presented to the Imperial Conference of 1937 the British Chiefs of Staff72 made suggestions which implied that there was another reason why the Dominions should maintain forces ready for immediate action. They pointed out that the earliest phase of a war against Germany or a world war would be the most dangerous to Britain and, therefore, to the Empire as a whole. Consequently help given by the Dominions in the early phase would be more valuable than the same help six months later. “However willing any Member of the British Commonwealth ... may be to throw its weight into the war, her contribution during this earlier phase will be dependent upon the preparatory measures ... taken in time of peace.” In military terms this meant that divisions ready to serve in the main theatre as soon as war broke out would be worth far more than an offer to raise, train and arm divisions to take part in operations after the expected crisis had passed – a platitude, were it not that the Dominions lacked equipped and trained military formations. “We believe,” concluded the Chiefs of Staff, “that the greatest service in the cause of peace which the Members ... can give ... is to demonstrate to the world a determination to rearm and a readiness to defend their vital interests.”
However, the Admiralty presented to the conference an appendix to this general review which contained the words so comforting to Australian eyes that they may well have dulled the effect of the exhortation issued by the three Chiefs of Staff:
A Japanese overseas expedition aimed at Australia, New Zealand or India may consequently be said to be a highly improbable undertaking so long as our position at Singapore is secure, and the Fleets of the British Commonwealth of Nations are maintained at such a strength as to enable a force capable of containing the Japanese Fleet to be dispatched to the Far East, should the occasion arise.
But it will be recalled that critics of reliance on the Singapore base as the hub of Imperial defence in the East maintained that Britain’s position at Singapore was not secure and that an adequate fleet would probably not be available in a crisis; some contended that, in any event, the base was too distant from the possible Japanese line of advance to the south.
The Australian delegates reported to the conference that the main features of her immediate defence plans were the acquisition of a new cruiser and two sloops, rearmament of the coast defences, an increase in the air force to a first-line strength of ninety-six machines and a survey of civil industry to discover to what extent it could supplement the output of the Government munitions factories.73 After the conference Australian military preparations continued in the same direction and at much the same pace as before. Nevertheless the army leaders now pressed for accelerated expenditure on the equipment of the field army, even if it meant rearming the coast defences more slowly, arguing that coast defences might be taken in the rear if the field army was not converted into an effective force.
Criticism of the established defence policy was now being offered not only by Labour leaders who brought forward their traditional arguments, but by an increasing volume of more or less technical writing about the probable nature of the coming war in the Pacific. In Britain there was again a group of naval theorists who dissented from the doctrine that the maintenance of the Singapore base was an adequate protection of British interests in the Far East, arguing that an adequate fleet would not be there at the critical time. At the same time, in some carefully reasoned studies of the likely course of a war between Japan and the United States, the conclusion was reached that, in the opening phase, the United States would lose the Philippines and Guam, and her subsequent offensive against Japan would take the form of a gradual advance across the Pacific from the east capturing and consolidating island bases as she moved forward.74
The acceptance of such opinions by Australians entailed preparing a more substantial local defence than one which would ensure them merely against raids and providing a far larger contribution to the Imperial navy (whose total strength, limited by treaty, Australia had hitherto been unable to increase).
As the threat of war became more apparent so the Labour party, under Curtin’s leadership, based its defence policy, at the technical level, more and more definitely on the doctrines of those military and naval critics who contended that Australia first and foremost must prepare defence against invasion during a critical period when she might be isolated from Britain and the United States. Such a policy was easy to fit in with Labour’s traditional opposition to conscription, to the dispatch of volunteer forces overseas, and with Labour’s desire to increase the scope of Australian secondary industry. Labour speakers continued to place emphasis on aircraft, torpedo craft, and the manufacture of munitions to equip a citizen army limited to service in Australia. The Government leaders stood firm by the decisions of 1923 – a “fair contribution” to an “essentially naval” scheme of Imperial defence.
Whilst (Parkhill had said in 1936) the old Colonial idea of Empire defence as one of complacent trust in the Royal Navy, and nothing more, has been replaced by a conception of the defence of the common interests of a family of sovereign nations, the backbone of the defence of the British Commonwealth is still essentially naval, and will remain so as long as oceans link the shores of its members. ... It is accordingly the policy of the Government to maintain the Royal Australian Navy at a strength which is a fair contribution to Empire Naval Defence.75
The Government’s conception of what constituted a fair contribution in 1935–36, the year of the Ethiopian campaign and of civil war in Spain, may be gauged by the fact that the estimated expenditure on defence was then £7,583,822, which was the largest in any year since the war. In the next year, however, the year of the renewed war in China and the capture of Austria, the figure rose to £8,829,655. In 1938 (when taxation was increased for the first time since 1932) the Treasurer, Mr Casey,76 was able to say:
With reference to defence I can assure you that there has been no stinting of money here in Australia. Three years ago we were spending five or six million pounds a year; two years ago we were spending eight million pounds; and this year we are spending eleven and a half million pounds. ... Defence is the only department of the Commonwealth Government that, from the financial point of view, has been able to “write its own ticket.” Any money defence wants it can get, and I can assure you that this situation will remain.77
How had the army in particular fared after 1935 when, for the first time since the depression, its annual income was raised to approximately the sum that it had received in the ‘twenties? At the beginning of this period of recuperation a relatively young officer, Colonel Lavarack, was promoted over the heads of a number of his colleagues and made Chief of the General Staff. The army whose rebuilding he had to control consisted of 1,800 “permanent” officers and other ranks, compared with 3,000 in 1914, and 27,000 militiamen compared with 42,000 in 1914. Its equipment had been supplemented hardly at all since the AIF had brought it home from France and Palestine; and it was the equipment only of the seven divisions, but not equipment for the many supporting units that are needed for an army based on seven divisions – such units had been provided in the war of 1914–18 by the British Army. It lacked also mortars and anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns; it lacked tanks, armoured cars, and a variety of engineer and signal gear; it had inadequate reserves of ammunition. In recommending how the moderately-increased army vote be spent Lavarack’s policy did not differ materially from that laid down fifteen years before by the Senior Officers’ Conference of 1920; broadly it was: training of commanders and staff first, equipment next, and, lastly, the training (or semi-training, for that is all it could be) of more militiamen. The allotment of priorities was assisted by a plan under which three degrees of mobilisation were contemplated. The first was designed to meet war with a distant enemy and would entail only the manning of coast defences and the calling-up of a few militia units. The second was to meet a situation in which raids were possible but full-dress invasion improbable, and would require the assembly of a field army of two divisions and seven independent brigades of cavalry and infantry. The third – full mobilisation – would bring into the field the five infantry and two cavalry divisions, 200,000 men in all not allowing for reinforcements. To produce such a force would demand an exacting national effort; on the purely military level it would be necessary, for example, for each brigade of three nucleus battalions not only to bring itself to full strength but to produce a fourth battalion. (The army at that time was still planning on a basis of four-battalion brigades.) The leaders were thus faced with the problem of making plans for a full mobilisation which would entail, to pursue our example, expanding each so-called brigade of perhaps 900 partly-trained, poorly-equipped militia, without transport, into a full brigade of some 3,600 equipped and mobile infantrymen.
The adoption of these three degrees of mobilisation served incidentally to give the staff an ascending series of objectives. The first priority was still given to the rearmament of the out-dated coast defences of Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane on the east coast, and Fremantle on the west.
The aims of the army (said a newspaper article based on interviews with Lavarack and some of his staff) are to concentrate first on acquiring the best new equipment, so that the Australian soldier will be armed at least as well as any attacker; at the same time to prepare for the rapid mechanisation of a large army by constant experimenting in the improvisation of military from commercial
vehicles; to maintain and improve the efficiency of the nucleus of permanent staff officers and instructors on the one hand, and of militia leaders and specialists on the other; to place along the coast near the great industrial centres coastal batteries against which no naval force would venture.78
Plans for full mobilisation were based on the assumption that the enemy (Japan) would attack at a time when Australia was isolated from British or American naval aid and would seek a quick decision. The enemy, using carrier-borne aircraft, would, it was assumed, first attempt to destroy the defending air force and to impose a blockade. He would then occupy an advanced naval and air base somewhere outside the relatively well-defended Newcastle-Sydney-Port Kembla area. When his main force was ready he could move overland from this advanced base, whence his force would receive the protection of land-based aircraft, or he could make a new landing farther south.79 The Australian mobilisation plans provided for the concentration of the greater part of the army in the vital Newcastle-Port Kembla area; the army could not be strong everywhere.
It was seen that the accomplishment of even such a modest plan of military defence would take years to achieve despite the larger funds that the Government was then allotting. The sum of £1,811,000 was spent on the army in 1935–36, £2,232,000 in 1936–37, £2,182,000 in 1937–38; but one battery of 9.2-inch coast defence guns with its essential equipment cost £300,000, a battery of anti-aircraft guns with its gear and ammunition cost £150,000. In fact, until the crises of 1938, the army, which had been placed on short rations in 1930, received only enough nourishment to enable it to restore a little of the weight it had lost since the depression and to repair some of the deficiencies it had suffered since 1918. Nor can it be doubted that the army leaders, in whom the years of parsimony had produced a distrust of politicians, were resolved to spend such funds as they received on something that the politician could not take away from them if the crisis seemed to have passed and the army’s income could be cut again. Thus there was this additional reason for giving priority to guns and concrete rather than men and training: that if the vote was again reduced, the guns and concrete would remain. In the early years of rearmament at any rate, while some leaders on the liberal side in Parliament favoured a return to compulsory training, the army staff was happy enough about the retention of voluntary service while it spent its limited funds chiefly on that equipment without which a larger army would be of small value.
In the first two months of 1938, however, events in Europe and China began to move too rapidly to permit such leisurely rearmament. “What we are seeking to do is to get a general appeasement throughout Europe which will give us peace,” said Chamberlain on 21st February.80 In the
Commons on the following day, Churchill, whose followers were increasing in number, said:
This last week has been a good week for dictators – one of the best they have ever had. The German dictator has laid his hand upon a small but historic country, and the Italian dictator has carried his vendetta to a victorious conclusion against Mr Eden. Austria has been laid in thrall, and we do not know whether Czechoslovakia will not suffer a similar attack.81
Evidence of the alarm that was felt by the Australian Government was provided a month later when Mr Lyons announced that it was proposed in the next three years to spend £43,000,000 on the fighting Services and munitions. This was more than twice what had been spent in the previous three years. The army would receive £11,500,000, the air force £12,500,000 and the navy £15,000,000. Since 1920 the navy had year by year received more money than the army; now, for the first time, the air force too was promised a larger appropriation than the army’s. Lyons announced too that an Inspector-General of the Army would be appointed, adding that “no authoritative report had been made on the army since the Senior Officers’ Conference of AIF war leaders in 1920”82 – a poor compliment to the wise and frank reports which Sir Harry Chauvel had presented as Inspector-General between 1920 and 1930. Compared with the sum it had been receiving hitherto the army’s new income, though the least of the three Services’, was astronomical; yet in December 1938, after the Munich crisis, Mr Street,83 the newly-appointed Minister for Defence, announced that the total of £43,000,000 for defence would be increased by an additional £.19,504,000 to be spent during the three years which would end in 1941.
Excitement ran high in November and December of 1938. As a result of a recruiting campaign directed by Major-General Sir Thomas Blamey,84 and in which the indefatigable Mr Hughes took a leading part, the militia was increased in numbers from 35,000 in September to 43,000 at the end of the year and 70,000, which was the objective, in March-22,000 more than the conscripted militia of 1929. This was a memorable achievement, unparalleled in any country which maintained a voluntary militia.85 A night march of militiamen, now dressed in neater uniforms, through the streets of Sydney was watched by a crowd which the newspapers estimated at 100,000. A reserve of veterans of the AIF and the British Army was established to reinforce militia units and form garrison battalions when war broke out. It was a strange turn of events that Mr Scullin’s abolition of conscription had made necessary those very military parades and ornate uniforms that he detested.
The promise of funds, the successful recruiting campaign and later, the taking of a national register (which was vehemently resisted by trade union organisations as being a step towards military and industrial conscription) sufficed to give citizens the impression that something was being done. It was too late, however, to achieve before war broke out what was far more important than these parades and promises, namely adequate equipment. Machines and weapons which the Australian Army, like the air force, had ordered four years before had not been delivered from British factories, which were fully employed in a last-minute effort to equip the British Army.
Major-General Squires86 had been selected for the newly-revived post of Inspector-General and had taken up his appointment in June 1938. The Cabinet’s decision to seek an officer of the British service as Inspector-General emphasised the extent to which a spirit of dependence on the parent country had survived; a British soldier (or admiral or air vice-marshal) was considered likely to possess virtues an Australian could not acquire. Squires was a competent senior staff officer, but there were several in the Australian Army who possessed equally high attainments and equal experience of war, even if one left out of account a number of generals – some of them younger than Squires – who might have been recalled from retirement to undertake the task. Squires had no experience of the Dominions or the special problems of Dominion armies; Australia had taken pains to create an expert corps of officers whose initial training was considerably longer than that given at the British military colleges, and whose post-graduate education was gained in part at British and Indian schools and staff colleges and on exchange duty in England and India. It was unfortunate that, when an “authoritative report” on the army was sought, the Government made an appointment which could be read as implying a lack of confidence in its own officer corps. When war broke out Squires was appointed Chief of the General Staff; a few months later the Government chose a British officer to be Chief of the Air Staff; the First Naval Member was already an officer of the British Service. Consequently in the early months of 1940 the Government’s three senior advisers in the Services were officers with limited experience of Australian problems or the Australian people.
As Squires’ staff officer – an important post because the newcomer would inevitably be greatly dependent on his advice – was chosen Lieut-Colonel Rowell,87 a highly-qualified soldier twelve years Squires’ junior who was considered one of the ablest of the early Duntroon graduates and had spent more than five of the previous thirteen years at British schools or with the British Army. Squires presented to the Government a report on the development of the army, and in March 1939 this report
was presented to Parliament, although in an expurgated form. It confirmed the wisdom of the policy of giving priority to equipment and to measures intended to defend vital areas against attack, and made two radical proposals. The first was that the existing district bases (each coinciding more or less with one or other of the States) and the infantry and cavalry divisions be regrouped into four “commands” – Northern (Queensland), Eastern (New South Wales), Southern (Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia), and Western, with an independent garrison at Darwin – each of which would be responsible for the training and, in war, for the operations of the formations in its area.88 Under this system, which required an amendment of the Defence Act and was not brought into operation
until October 1939, Army Headquarters would deal with these commands only, whereas hitherto it had controlled separately the various divisions and brigade groups of the militia and the six military districts. His second important proposal was that a regular force of two brigades with a peacetime establishment of 7,500 be formed.89 These, he pointed out, would be immediately available at all times, and “would also furnish a new and much-needed source of supply of permanent instructors for the militia, and afford the officers of the Staff Corps more opportunities for gaining experience in the command of troops than they can have at present”.90 The fact that the Ministry at first “approved in principle” this proposal for the creation of a miniature regular army, a measure which would again demand a radical amendment of the Defence Act, was a sign of the times.91
The fate of this proposed nucleus of a regular army was significant both of the continuing hesitancy of the Ministers to commit the country to heavy expenditure on the fighting Services and of how foreign was the idea of a regular army even to a Government which, certainly for a time, had been convinced that it was on the eve of war. In March the Government announced that a first quota of the new regular force would consist of two infantry battalions and one field artillery unit and would be authorised in the coming year (1939–40) and that this quota would total 1,571 men. The formation of further units, it was announced, would be a subject for later decision by the Government “which would doubtless be guided by the international situation”.92 In August, however, Mr Menzies,93 who had become Prime Minister in April, announced that the Government had decided not to raise even this force, which, he pointed out, would have cost £1,875,000 in the first year. The money would be spent instead on intensified training of the militia. Mr Menzies said:
It (the Government) feels that, while the national efforts are being properly directed towards putting Australia into a position to defend itself, regard must always be had to the inevitable future period of readjustments when the dangers of war have passed or are sensibly reduced. It is plainly much more practicable to effect, at some future time, a modification in citizen military training than to bring about a similar modification of measures which possess a permanent character.94
Thereupon the Military Board was instructed to prepare an alternative plan and, on 23rd August, the Government announced that it had been
decided to enlist a special force of 14,000 militiamen who would agree to spend thirty-two days’ annual training in camps in place of the normal twelve; that all militiamen would in future undergo sixteen not twelve days’ training in camp each year; and all officers and NCOs would in addition do sixteen days’ “home” training annually at the drill halls instead of twelve. The cost would be £1,470,000 in the first year, or £405,000 less than that of the proposed regular force. That day the pact between Germany and Russia was signed and the German armies were standing along the Polish frontier.
What had been achieved by twenty years of militia training? There were in 1914 and again in 1939 three kinds of armies. The long service volunteer regular armies of Great Britain and the United States were able to attain an unequalled degree of unit efficiency, though this was offset by the higher commanders’ lack of experience in handling large formations. Next in order of efficiency came the large conscript armies of which, in Europe, the German had for generations been the model. With an expert general staff and, in each formation, a strong cadre of professional officers and NCOs, and a rank and file trained for periods ranging up to two or three years, these immense armies were able to move and fight at short notice. In a third category fell the militia armies maintained by nations influenced by a desire for economy or a belief, real or imaginary, in their relative security. Some of these nations – the Swiss for example – managed to create relatively effective militias by insisting on a period of initial training long enough to bring the recruits to a moderate standard of individual efficiency. But in the Australian militia (the British Territorial Army and the United States National Guard fell into much the same category – though probably less efficient in 1939 than the Australian force) the recruit lacked this basic training and had to acquire his skill as best he could during evening or one-day parades and brief periods in camp.95
In Australia, in spite of the brevity of the annual training given to the enthusiastic volunteer militiamen, they were made to undertake complicated and arduous exercises. It was decided that to spend one camp after another vainly trying to reach a good standard of individual training was likely to destroy the keenness of young recruits and was of small value to the leaders. For example, a coast defence exercise carried out in October 1938 north of Newcastle, NSW, first by the 1st Brigade and later by the 8th, entailed weeks of careful preliminary staff work and a fairly high degree of endurance and skill on the part of the units. The artillery fired over the heads of the infantry with accuracy and an air force squadron (No. 3) cooperated.
However, so far as the aim of the Australian system had been to produce an army ready to advance against an enemy or even to offer effective opposition to an invader at short notice it had failed. At no time, either under the compulsory or the voluntary system, had the militia been sufficiently well trained to meet on equal terms an army of the European type based on two or three years of conscript service, and experience was to prove that perhaps six months of additional training with full equipment would be needed to reach such a standard. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the system had not achieved valuable results, and that the devoted effort of the officers and men who had given years of spare-time service had been wasted. The militia had not and could not make efficient private soldiers, but it did produce both a nucleus of officers who were capable of successfully commanding platoons, companies and battalions in action, and a body of useful NCOs. These men were fortunate to have been trained by highly-qualified professional and citizen soldiers who had seen hard regimental service in the war of 1914–18 and were able to hand down to them the traditions of the outstanding force in which they had been schooled (to that extent the militia owed its effectiveness more to the old AIF than to its own system). And it should not be imagined that, because units were trained for only a week or two a year, the militia officers received no more experience than that. They generally gave much additional time to week-end and evening classes, to tactical exercises without troops and to reading; and the keenest among them attained a thorough knowledge of military fundamentals. A large proportion (but not always large enough, particularly in some city infantry units) were men of good education, and leaders in their professions. Genuine enthusiasm for soldiering was demanded of them, and there were few who did not suffer disadvantages in their civilian work because of their military service. Indeed, an important factor in the small attendances of other ranks at camps was the frequent inability of men to obtain leave from unpatriotic employers (and they were in a majority) except on prejudicial terms such as curtailment of annual vacations and delay in promotion; and an efficient officer had to give to military work much time that he could otherwise have spent profitably on his civilian business.
There remains the larger question: What had the Australian Government done between the wars to increase its ability to carry out its military responsibilities? In that period Australia had become a fully-independent nation, an enhancement of status in which she took some pride. She had greatly enlarged her colonial territory and had established her own diplomatic department. Her population had increased by nearly two millions and her industrial equipment had been vastly elaborated. There had been a corresponding increase in her responsibilities as a member of the British Commonwealth; and the military leaders of the senior member of the Commonwealth had declared that in a major war the
immediate help of trained, equipped forces from the Dominions would be needed. Yet in 1939 the now-adult nation possessed an army little different in essentials from that of the young Australia of 1914. It was fundamentally a defensive force intended if war broke out to go to its stations or man the coastal forts and await the arrival of an invader. History had proved and was to prove again the futility of such a military policy. The measures that had been taken in the few years of “re-armament” were insignificant in the face of the threat offered by two aggressive Powers, one of which desired to master Europe, the other East Asia.