When Great Britain marched into the First World War in August 1914, Australians responded with wild enthusiasm and waved the flags of Empire. While the war was fought far away, the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, the long misery of the Western Front and the bitter debate about conscription reverberated throughout Australian society for decades.
Sixty thousand Australians died in the First World War, and the vast distance from battlefields in Europe and the Middle East meant their bodies could not be shipped home. Communal forms of commemoration, centred on Anzac Day, offered some comfort to families. The memorial movement of the 1920s and 1930s resulted in a huge injection of public art into the Australian landscape, as memorials erected in country towns and capital cities marked the nation’s grief.
Barely a generation later, in the early spring of 1939, Australia was at war again. Public response to the outbreak of the Second World War was muted, with little of the imperialist flag-waving of 1914. Initial recruitment into the Second AIF, whose title signalled continuity with the famed ANZAC force, was initially slow. In the first two years of the war, the fighting in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe was again far from the home front.
This all changed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. As Prime Minister John Curtin recalled the AIF from Europe, the Japanese swiftly advanced through South-East Asia. On 15 February 1942, the ‘impregnable’ British fortress at Singapore fell, and 15,000 Australians were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Days later, Darwin was bombed, with around 250 casualties, and the invasion of Australia seemed imminent.
The Pacific war transformed Australia. Air-raid precautions were quickly implemented, with sandbags piled up around public buildings to minimise damage, neighbourhood bomb shelters erected and trenches dug in public parks. Dimmed night lighting was enforced to protect cities and industrial hubs from aerial attack, and was often invoked in artistic and literary works as a potent symbol of war’s secrecy and disruption.
The experiences of Australians during the Second World War were socially and geographically diverse. As the base for the Allied offensive into the Pacific, Australia’s remote north was particularly vulnerable, and during 1942 and 1943 suffered almost 100 Japanese raids. The fighting directly affected Indigenous Australians. James Eseli was one of many Torres Strait Islander children evacuated from his home to Thursday Island during the Second World War, an event recalled in his traditional Aeroplane headdress works, 2001.
In wartime, the federal government assumed unprecedented control of finance, manufacturing, work, travel and all aspects of daily life. ‘Enemy aliens’ were interned, and censorship and surveillance were rife. By 1942, austerity measures were widespread. There was a coupon system for clothing; rationing of tea, sugar, butter and meat; and shortages of luxuries such as chocolate and alcohol. Rationing imposed some measure of ‘equality of sacrifice’ across the Australian population, and meant queues for goods were commonplace even after the war ended.
With industry and the agricultural sector directed to war production, the need for labour became pressing. Throughout the war, Australian women were mobilised into factories, offices and the Australian Women’s Land Army, and by 1944 comprised a quarter of the national workforce. Herbert Badham’s The night bus, c. 1943, highlights women’s increased mobility as shift workers travelling around the clock. The ‘munitions girl’ epitomised the ideal of feminine patriotism, and government authorities drew upon commercial artists for recruitment posters. Women also joined the auxiliary branches of the military, thereby releasing men for combat duties.
The Second World War hastened in social, vocational and economic freedoms for Australian women, and was a period of shifting expectations about gender roles and of generational transition. The ‘friendly invasion’ by the one million US troops who passed through Australia between 1941 and 1945 also encouraged Australians to examine their national identity. The American impact on Australian culture was both fleeting and profound. The US–Australian alliance forged during the Second World War redefined Australia’s postwar trade, foreign policy and regional security. The Americans also introduced hamburgers and hot dogs, jazz and the jitterbug.
US military headquarters were firstly in Melbourne, but soon moved to Brisbane to be closer to the fighting in the Pacific. With thousands of GIs based in Australian cities and towns, facilities were strained. Many Australian families ‘adopted’ a GI, and some Australian women and US servicemen formed close friendships. But it was inevitable that cross-national tensions broke out, and there were increasing concerns about morality, as recorded in Arthur Boyd’s pen and ink drawings of soldiers and prostitutes. The execution of US Private Eddie Leonski for the serial murder of three Melbourne women in mid 1942 contributed to the moral alarm. This incident was recalled in Albert Tucker’s Memory of Leonski, 1943, a painting imbued with symbols of sexuality and war.
War in Europe ended in May 1945, and in the Pacific on 15 August. Australians were jubilant, dancing in victory rings of celebration, but mourned the thousands of men and women who had died in the conflict. The first half of the twentieth century had been dominated by two world wars, and the nation – and its artists – now looked to peacetime and the rebuilding of Australian society.
Kate Darian-Smith is Executive Dean and Pro Vice-Chancellor, College of Arts, Law and Education, University of Tasmania