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Looking back: Australia 100 years ago

The frontispiece to May Gibbs' book, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie
The frontispiece to May Gibbs' book, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, published in 1916

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Posted on January 1 2018

As we enter a new year it is timely to reflect on life in Australia 100 years ago. What was occupying the minds of Australians in 1918 as the Great War entered its fifth and final year?

The country was still dominated by participation in the War, both on the homefront and overseas, with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) serving on the Western Front in France and Belgium, and in the Middle East.

After heavy losses at Bullecourt, Messines and Ypres — 22,000 men in one year — Australians were questioning their country’s involvement in the war. Voluntary enlistment declined and conscription was rejected twice at the ballot box.

The five infantry divisions of the AIF, nearly 110,000 men, were restructured as the Australian Corps and, for the first time came under the command of an Australian, Major General John Monash, who oversaw operations that recaptured Villers-Bretonneux and played an important part in the Allied victory.

On the home front, tensions were running high due to a number of factors.

Conscription
The bitter conscription debate had fractured the country along religious, political and socio-economic lines. Many were concerned the so-called ‘test of nationhood’ was leading to futile loss of life on the frontline and civil unrest at home.

Industrial unrest
A general strike of 100,000 workers throughout the nation, caused by changing workplace conditions and ongoing concern with the Government’s enlistment policy.

Political upheaval
Hughes, expelled from the Labor Party and leading the new Nationalist Party, resigned on 8 January 1918, but was sworn in again in the absence of other candidates.

Many Australians were angry about the cost of living and this sparked activism among women of all classes and politics.

Food riots
Meat and wheat were being prioritised for Britain; and, since the start of the war, the price of groceries had risen by more than 28 per cent, while male wages by only 15.4 per cent. Unemployment was 10.6 per cent.

Protests had peaked on 19 September 1917 when 10,000 people marched on federal Parliament House in Melbourne and smashed property. The organiser, Adela Pankhurst, was jailed in Pentridge for two months and 400 extra constables were employed to keep the peace.

Amid this turbulence, Australians were getting on with daily life, yet feeling increasingly anxious about the greater purpose of their loved ones fighting overseas.

Those seeking comedic relief went to see the country’s first major comedy film, Our Friends, the Hayseeds, and people of all ages enjoyed two patriotic books for children, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (May Gibbs) and The Magic Pudding (Norman Lindsay).

On the sporting field, the interstate Sheffield Shield cricket competition was not contested, but both football codes and the Melbourne Cup continued.

War brought many technological ‘firsts’.

The Trans-Australian Railway was completed, a national project connecting the eastern states with Western Australia. An electric train service began in suburban Melbourne and the first direct telephone call between Australia and England was made by Prime Minister Hughes.

Daily life was transformed by electric trams, cars, newspapers, gramophones and cameras; and on the land improvements came with new ploughs and harvesting implements.

Mechanisation was standardising food production and packaging, enabling women to preserve fruit and vegetables at home, but also creating consumer novelties such as Copha, ice-cream and chocolate boxes.

By the end of 1918, the First World War was finally over and there was a strong sense of national pride in what the Australian troops had accomplished. But, there was also great sadness at the terrible toll and recognition that as a nation we needed to take care of the survivors, the war widows and their children.

References

Ross McMullin. Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation. Melbourne: Scribe, 2012.
Joy Damousi. Living with the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-War Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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