No event in Australia’s history is as relentlessly mythologised as World War One and the “ANZAC legend”. It is the holiest of holies for modern Australian nationalism. But official war commemorations ignore the atmosphere of racist hysteria, authoritarianism and right wing paranoia that pervaded the upper classes at the time.
The war polarised Australian society to a degree not seen since. Two plebiscites on conscription proposed by Billy Hughes’ federal Labor government were defeated. As enlistment rates declined, the ruling class searched for scapegoats to explain the “disloyalty”.
In what is now a well-worn tradition, they settled upon shadowy foreigners, seeing in every strike and call for peace the workings of the “enemy”, whether syndicalists, unionists, socialists, pacifists or Irish republicans. These people, the mouthpieces of the rich screamed, had betrayed our boys in the trenches, stabbed them in the back by refusing to enlist and defeating conscription.
As the government called in increasingly shrill tones for soldiers to fight in Europe, at home it implemented military censorship against anti-war and anti-conscription publications and rifled through the mail of thousands of dissidents. Anyone who “prejudiced recruitment” could be imprisoned for six months – and many were. Seven thousand Germans and their descendants were rounded up into concentration camps; many were deported. By the war’s end, Australia could accurately be described as a police state.
Germans and Irish were not the only “aliens” who worried the security forces. There was also a small but increasingly vocal minority of Russians, largely refugees who had fled the tsar’s persecution. They were concentrated in Queensland, about 800 residing in Brisbane. For Russian émigrés, as well as Australia’s substantial workers movement, the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was a beacon of hope. The monarchy’s thousand-year reign had ended, and Russia withdrew from the war. Socialists and unionists absorbed every bit of news from Russia and hoped to emulate the Bolsheviks’ example, even if exactly what that meant was little understood.
For the ruling class in Australia, a new term of abuse was born: “Bolshevism”. Said to be synonymous with terrorism, the destruction of religion and the prostitution of women, it swiftly became the new ruling class bogey. As the war ended, the government banned displays of the red flag: the symbol of the international working class whose blood ran the same colour regardless of nationality, and adopted by the new Russian workers’ state. Red flags were torn down by soldiers at union halls across the country and those displaying it were accused in newspapers as “devil worshippers”.
While the workers’ movement emerged victorious from the conscription battles and the Bolsheviks inspired general sympathy, shadowy forces of reaction were organising. In 1918, powerful capitalists and conservative politicians – such as Herbert Brookes, acting prime minister Arthur Watt and Queensland police commissioner Frederic Urquhart – met to discuss establishing a paramilitary organisation of “loyal” citizens to help the state root out subversion. While this “Australian Protective League” never got past the planning stage, other attempts to bring reactionaries together did.
The “King and Empire Alliance”, formed in Queensland in early 1919, claimed 60,000 members across the state. Led by Sandford Jackson, president of the Queensland Club, an exclusive ruling class hangout, this new organisation united various returned soldiers’ leagues, the Orange Order, the Protestant League and other right wing groups. Soon, the security services learned that they were acquiring arms, with the intention of “going beyond peaceful means” to quell the threat of Bolshevism if necessary. Military intelligence dismissed such reports, concerned only with “disloyal associations”.
Between 1918 and 1919, returned soldiers made good on their threats of violence against the left multiple times. At Hughenden, a small town in north central Queensland, military intelligence organised returned soldiers to bash unionists raising support for a strike of women hotel workers. Right wing soldiers attempted to tear down the red flag that flew above Trades Hall.
Despite the authoritarian, racist and increasing violent atmosphere, the union movement and left were confident. 1919 kicked off with a 1,500-strong march against the red flag ban and restrictions on civil liberties. Shortly after, Queensland Labor released a manifesto condemning the revolutionary left, calling for radicals to be driven from the unions. This knocked the wind out of the budding civil liberties campaign. Only 400 people attended the next demonstration, in March 1919, and half were Russians.
The march had received a permit on the basis that no red flags be carried. This was defied. Half a dozen police tried to stop the crowd. But the demonstrators, singing “Solidarity forever”, marched to the Domain – the current location of Queensland University of Technology’s Gardens Point campus. A succession of speakers lambasted the continuation of wartime powers and spoke of the significance of the red flag.
That night, 2,000 soldiers attacked the weekly speak-out of the revolutionary left. The wooden speakers’ platform was thrown into the Brisbane River. A Russian leader was stabbed. Elated, the soldiers marched across Victoria Bridge towards the Russian Association’s headquarters in Merivale Street, South Brisbane (opposite what is today the Convention Centre). They were driven off only after Russian defenders of the building fired warning shots over their heads. The soldiers regrouped and passed a resolution that they would return tomorrow to determine “who owns Australia – Australians or the Bolsheviks”.
The capitalist press dripped with outrage and blood lust the following morning. Headlines depicted the red flag march as a “Bolshevik takeover” in which police were assaulted, soldiers were fired on by Russians and the ideals of Australia were trampled. The papers advertised that a rally was to be held that night to drive the Bolsheviks out of Brisbane.
Meeting on the northern side of Victoria Bridge, like the night before, between 7,000 and 8,000 demonstrators milled around, filled with anticipation. Someone swung a large Australian flag and the mob headed across the bridge with violent purpose, marching and singing “Australia will be there”. Many carried firearms. The thronging mass again targeted the Russian Association. Crossing the river, soldiers yelled “Hang them!”, “Burn their meeting place down!” and “Down with the Bolsheviks!” Nearing the Russian hall, to their surprise, 50 police, lined in two rows with bayonets fixed on their rifles, blocked their path.
It is puzzling why the police mobilised. Perhaps they were queasy about rampaging soldiers setting Brisbane on fire. Maybe, as intercepted police letters suggest, they were protecting property owned by a Labor minister who leased the building to the Russians.
Whatever the reason, the huge mass angrily demanded passage. Bricks, bottles and other projectiles were thrown from the crowd as the police remained firm. The sheer numbers of people forced the front ranks into the police. Without warning, ten mounted police charged into the rear of the soldiers with batons flailing. Horses trampled over the surprised crowd, which scattered in panic. But the mob was out for blood. The police attack turned what was already a riotous crowd into a pitched battle.
A horse and its rider were knocked to ground by a stone thrower. Sub-inspector McNeil had his peaked cap cleaved in half by a blow from a metal bar and was knocked unconscious, narrowly avoiding death. Sergeant Ferguson suffered a fractured skull from a railway spike, while police magistrate Archdall and commissioner Urquhart both suffered bayonet wounds from their own men during the frenzied melee.
The battle lasted about two hours, until police allowed a small delegation of soldiers past their lines to inspect the Russian Association, which was totally devastated by the soldiers’ hail of projectiles and home-made bombs. Satisfied that the building was in ruins and no Russians were inside, the rioters withdrew.
Casualties from the riot were grossly under-reported. The capitalist press was eager to justify the violence, and few wounded soldiers presented to hospital. Nineteen police were wounded, many by bullets. Police accounts testify that at least 100 rioters were stabbed by bayonets. One police horse was shot nine times and had to be put down. It is astounding nobody was killed.
Over the next few days, huge far right rallies took place in Brisbane, primarily led by the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League – later the RSL – a component of the King and Empire Alliance. The demonstration was chaired by Brisbane RSL president Harold Taylor – a graduate of Brisbane Boys College, employee of the censor’s office and later Liberal Party MP for the upper class seat of Hamilton. He called for the “microbe” of Bolshevism to be eliminated before it could spread.
Retail multimillionaire Thomas Beirne, founder of the University of Queensland Law School, told the demonstrations, “Bolsheviks should be bayoneted on the spot”. The mayor of Brisbane, alongside the leader of the Queensland opposition, both “mainstream” conservative politicians, addressed the demonstrations and endorsed their calls for immediate deportation of all “Bolsheviks”, foreign or otherwise.
The Russians described this time as the “days of the pogrom”. Hundreds of Russians were sacked, including by the Labor state government. Eager to placate the far right’s demands, the military shut down the Russian club rooms using defence powers and rounded up key community leaders for deportation.
The police, despite their bruising battle with the soldiers, charged only two people for the riot. The real hammer blows landed on the left, 16 of whom fronted court charged with flying the red flag. All were found guilty and imprisoned for six months in Boggo Road Gaol.
Despite achieving their demands, the far right continued to mobilise in Brisbane. In April 1919, they organised a paramilitary force of 2,000 soldiers called the Army to Fight Bolshevism. They announced that if any red flags were displayed at the annual May Day march, there would be blood.
While the union movement did not risk an open challenge, the far right orientation of the RSL led to left wing soldiers forming the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Labor League on May Day. During the march, they distributed a founding pamphlet, which read:
“Until the capitalist system disappears Australia cannot be the happy land, the great and free country, to which we should have liked to have been able to welcome back every man who served abroad. The workers are the returned soldiers true comrades and best friends, and, if all unite in a common purpose, the day may not be far distant when we can all be prouder of Australia than we are today.”
This split weakened the far right’s authority over the returned soldiers. While the King and Empire Alliance survived into the 1920s, ruling class fears of revolution abated as capitalism stabilised. Similar secret armies and fascist militias re-emerged in the crisis and polarisation of the Great Depression.
Australia’s ruling class want to bury this legacy of the “Great War”. Instead of togetherness, “respectable” members of society drove soldiers into an orgy of persecuting the left and the small Russian community, in the same way they had driven soldiers to war. This is the real legacy of Australia’s involvement in World War One.