First World War


C Section, 7 Field Ambulance, Claremont, 1915 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

Tasmania in the First World War has been variously described as a community welded together 'due to the universal devotion to a common cause' (Sir John Gellibrand), and as a society of bitter divisions and conflicts which fragmented the community during the war years, and for many years afterwards.

The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 was greeted in Tasmania with enthusiastic expressions of loyalty to the British Empire, which overwhelmed any dissenting opinions. One manifestation of enthusiasm was the establishment of nearly forty patriotic funds, notably the Australian Red Cross. But the dominant patriotic fervour had its victims, the first of whom were 'enemy aliens'. A concentration camp established at Claremont, but soon moved to Bruny Island, had nearly fifty prisoners by early 1915. The town of Bismarck was renamed Collinsvale, and many Tasmanians of German descent, the largest non-British national group in the population, were persecuted. A typical example was the treatment of Gustav Weindorfer, who was accused of being a German spy, and of using his chalet at Cradle Mountain as a radio station to contact German ships. He was expelled from the Ulverstone Club and his dog was poisoned.

The outbreak of war disrupted the Tasmanian economy, closing German markets, especially for the mining, timber and trapping industries. It gave impetus to new industries in metals and manufacturing, such as the Electrolytic Zinc Company, and hydro-electric development. But unemployment doubled in the first six months of war, accompanied by inflation, while a wage freeze was in place, starting serious divisions between the labour movement and the Labor government. Industrial discontent climaxed in strikes in northern Tasmania, especially in Burnie and Devonport, in mid-1917, and new 'free labour' unionists clashed physically with strikers at Devonport.

The perception of the working class that they were bearing the main burdens of the war, economically as well as in lives lost, gradually sharpened class consciousness and antagonisms. The high proportion of army recruits from mining districts, especially from the west coast, suggests that motives for enlistment were determined as much by unemployment as by patriotic duty or adventure. These divisions were strengthened by other developments. Sectarianism divided the community. The Mercury's view that Irish Catholics were likely to be disloyal was confirmed for many by the 1916 Easter rebellion in Ireland, casting unwarranted suspicion on the Tasmanian Catholic population. Groups such as the mainly middle-class Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the conservative Loyalty League were vigilant in the cause of Protestantism, turning temperance into a patriotic cause and winning overwhelming support at a referendum to change hotel closing hours from 10 pm to 6 pm.

But the main cause of division was conscription. After the initial rush of volunteers, which had far exceeded Tasmania's quota, recruitment figures declined. Massive Australian casualties led to much more aggressive recruitment methods. Harassment of 'shirkers', such as sending men white feathers, or economic conscription whereby employers did not employ eligible recruits such as single men, became more common. When the federal government tried to introduce conscription, the two referenda, in 1916 and 1917, were marked by bitter and vitriolic campaigns. Paradoxically, all attempts to boost recruitment in Tasmania had the opposite effect. Of the 15,485 men who enlisted during the war, two thirds enlisted in the first two years. Tasmania's contribution, 38 percent of eligible males, was the lowest proportion of any state except Victoria.

The cost was high. More than half the 13,000 who served overseas were casualties, 2432 losing their lives, and many more returning broken in health, physically and mentally. But the war created the Anzac tradition, enshrining the masculine digger image and mateship as the central symbol of national pride and identity. It provided a special status for the 'returned soldier', politically endorsed in repatriation benefits, zealously guarded by the emerging Returned Services League, and embodied in commemorative monuments and memorial halls in most Tasmanian town and districts. The Anzac story has endured and become the main story, often the only story, of the First World War, promoting the view of a society united in war. This has obscured other views, including the story of women in the war, both overseas (about 80 Tasmanian nurses served in the theatres of war) and on the home front. Less enduring has been the memory of the grief, of young lives shattered, of families broken and distraught for years, of the bitter divisions, the sectarianism, the xenophobia, the class antagonisms and the distinctions between soldiers and civilians.


Peace celebrations in Queenstown at the end of the war (AOT, PH30/1/5830)

Further reading: M Lake, A divided society, Melbourne, 1975; L Broinowski (ed), Tasmania's war record 19141918, Hobart, 1921. 

Peter Henning