Our Nation's War

During a special-edition Ideas and Society event at Bendigo Writers Festival, author Joan Beaumont spoke with Ideas and Society Convenor Professor Robert Manne about the centenary of the First World War being celebrated this year, and what WWI meant for Australia. Joan's masterwork, Broken Nation, formed the basis of the discussion.

Watch the discussion

What the speakers said

Professor Robert Manne believes that best single volume account of the impact of the First World War on Australia was Joan Beaumont's Broken Nation, which inspired the development of Our Nations War Ideas and Society event. Professor Manne believes there are still issues in contemporary Australia which are still tied up with what happened in WWI. 

Given the centenary of the outbreak of war coincided more or less with the event, Professor Beaumont's reflection was especially timely. She discussed how Australia's relationship with the British empire led to its obligation to join the war effort.

Professor Beaumont said Australians were thought to be enthusiastic about going to war but there is little evidence to support that. She said there were 20,000 men recruited to serve in five weeks. By the end of 1914, the Australian government had 52,000 men willing to go. In the end, 417,000 would volunteer.

Professor Manne said the common consensus was that the war would be short, but that was not the case. He said the Gallipoli campaign has had the most lasting impact and Professor Beaumont said it was the worst planned campaigns. Professor Manne said the biggest of all questions is why was the Australian reaction to the Gallipoli landing such a critical moment in the history of the country? Professor Beaumont believes the Gallipoli landing affirmed the Australian performance in the war.

The pair discuss how many Australian troops died on the Western Front (about 62,000) and Professor Manne questioned why there was not a mutiny amongst them. Professor Beaumont commented they were a different generation to today's generation.

It is commonly believed the war left Australia with a diminished political culture. Prior to the war, Australia was renowned for its early democratic reforms and being a political and social laboratory. However, Professor Beaumont believes the war left Australia more conservative and there was a bitter division between those who had volunteered and those who had not.

More about our speakers

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor, a Vice-Chancellor's Fellow and Convenor of the Ideas and Society Program at La Trobe University. A leading public intellectual and commentator, he is the author/editor of over 20 books including Left, Right, Left: Political Essays 1977 - 2005; Making Trouble: Essays against the New Australian Complacency and three Quarterly Essays, most recently Bad News.

Joan Beaumont

Professor Joan Beaumont is an internationally recognized historian of Australia in the two world wars, Australian defence and foreign policy, the history of prisoners of war and the memory and heritage of war. Her publications include the critically acclaimed Broken Nation: Australians and the Great War (Allen & Unwin, 2013) shortlisted for the 2014 WA Premier's Prize (non-fiction) and the 2014 NSW Premier's Prize (Australian History).


This event took place at on Saturday August 9 at Bendigo's Capital Theatre during Bendigo Writers Festival.