Much discussion of why Australia was in World War I falls into historiographical and conceptual traps. Not least of these is where our subsequent knowledge, now, of the war's eventual tragic human costs distorts or obscures the grand-strategic logic of why the Australian government and people made the strategic decisions they did at the war's beginning in 1914. And indeed throughout the decades beforehand leading up to and after Federation in 1901, and when they persevered after 1915 even when the subsequent costs of the war in human terms became so severe. Finally, we always need to distinguish between the professed, perceived or actual reasons for individuals enlisting in the 1st AIF and the underlying reasoning why the Australian government in particular, and the Australian people collectively in general, understood why defeating Imperial Germany in World War I was not a "foreign war" somehow divorced from Australia's long-term strategic interests.
Much Australian thinking about why we fought in World War I has been both burnished and obscured by a complex combination of family and community memories, history lessons at school of varying quality and objectivity, lifelong experiences of annual remembrance activities such as Anzac Day, and complacent folk mythologies such as Australians being ‘natural super-soldiers’.
Even before we factor in any underlying ideological leanings that we might use to try and make sense of the world (however consciously or unconsciously).
Opinions also understandably tend to be greatly but often irrelevantly influenced by our knowledge, now, of what the war ended up costing us as a nation in human terms. Knowledge not available to the Australians of 1914.
Many a discussion about World War I has therefore inevitably risked someone claiming that it was intrinsically a ‘foreign’, 'unnecessary' or just ‘senseless’ war. Or that Australia had a realistic choice to avoid participating.
Where we resort to history’s perceived lessons about the war we need to avoid several commonplace historiographical and contextual traps.
The first and most pervading one is the ‘condescension of posterity’.
This arises because we live in their future and largely know or think we know what subsequently happened and why.
In particular, this often leads to the flawed assumption that we are somehow naturally smarter than the Australians of 1914 were, and could and would have done things differently.
Second is ‘presentism’, where we project current attitudes or beliefs back into the past to either explain or criticise their decisions, when such influences were absent or of much lesser import or effect.
Third is the ‘parochialism of the present’. We often assume that events occurring now must be important historically because they are happening to us. Or conversely, that the significance or nature of past events and influences can be ignored or downplayed because it doesn’t.
All these historiographical traps can lead to misunderstanding the British Empire’s fundamental strategic importance in 1914—to Australia—as a fully integrated part of a global, mutually-supportive, economic and collective-defence system.
In its grand-strategic context, the Australia of the early 20th and early 21st Centuries has some enduring geographic, demographic and economic underpinnings.
Moreover, our grand-strategic goal in 1914 and now (and probably much longer) is perhaps still best summarised as maximising our sovereign freedom of action as a nation-state over the long run.
Uniquely, Australia was an island-continent in 1914 and will remain one until the next ice age uncovers the land bridge to Eurasia again. Then and now the national and wider strategic value of that geographic status is enhanced by Australia being the only continent wholly the territory of one country.
Then and now, while rich in many offshore and onshore natural resources, the vast majority of our landmass is arid or worse—thereby placing limits on population spread, and ultimately size, not applicable to other populated continents. Technology could not cancel out those geographic and demographic constraints in 1914 and largely will not for the imaginable future.
In 1914 Australia’s whole way of life, including a standard-of-living per-capita among the highest in the world, was largely sustained by foreign trade. 100 per cent of this trade by volume necessarily travelled in ships and 99.7 per cent still does today.
In 1914 we traded freely and efficiently because the sea-lanes we used were secure strategically and there was a commensurate international system that worked in commercial, legal and strategic terms.
All these factors still apply today.
Most Australians by 1914 therefore had some understanding that their high degree of political development, economic strength and strategic security was largely sustained by the global maritime supremacy won by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Australia’s explosive, continent-wide development throughout the 19th Century had consequently been largely untroubled by the strategic competition that had bedevilled Britain’s activities in North America over previous centuries.
The strategic path to August 1914
Such strategic understandings had led to national defence being a prime motivation for the 1901 federation of the six self-governing Australian colonies within the British Empire.
From 1913 the new Royal Australian Navy fleet unit was a regional but cleverly integrated component of the Empire’s strategic strength.
At that juncture of our constitutional, political and cultural development, the Australians of 1914 naturally saw no substantial distinction between being Australian and being part of the Empire.
To attribute, as some do, our strategic decision-making in August 1914 to merely ethnic kinship, popular naïveté, British dictate or empire jingoism is to misrepresent what happened through flawed historiography and uninformed understandings of enduring geo-strategic realities. Similar traps occur when perceived reasons for individuals enlisting in the 1st AIF are confused with strategic decision-making nationally.
While a range of political and cultural factors contributed, the Australians of 1901, 1914 and later also shrewdly understood that it was not in Australia’s direct or even indirect national interests for Germany—as an authoritarian, emergent and strategically dissatisfied great power—to end the British Empire's global maritime supremacy.
Or to otherwise seriously disrupt the stability or perhaps survival of the wider rules-based international system in which Australia thrived.
Indeed the far-reaching decision in 1907 by the newly federated Australia to create the RAN—and in particular its main-force structure specifically based on a modern battlecruiser task force—bears out the balanced independence and sophistication of Australian strategic decision-making throughout that period.
Even excluding the Japanese navy (then a British ally), the German East Asia squadron subsequently fled the Pacific and Indian Oceans in 1915 because its six cruisers were completely outgunned by the RAN (with one sunk off the Cocos Islands).
Moreover, after early 1915 Australian troopship convoys to the Middle East and Europe, and Australian trade generally, could be largely unescorted because of the Empire’s continuing global maritime supremacy.
This in turn depended on Germany remaining economically blockaded by sea and the German High Seas Fleet (the main instrument of Germany's global threat strategically) being bottled up in the North and Baltic Seas.
Hence HMAS Australia and its modern supporting ships subsequently joining the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow until the war ended.
And why we also sent ground forces to New Guinea in 1914, the Middle East from 1915 and the Western Front from 1916, to help stop Germany winning World War I.