Waugh, Maxwell N.: Soldier boys

Waugh, Maxwell N.

Soldier Boys: the Militarisation of Australian and New Zealand Schools for World War I, Melbourne Books, Melbourne, 2014

A form of compulsory cadet training was the norm in Australasian schools from 1910, unlike any other part of the British Empire at that time.

A large proportion of the over half a million Anzacs who served in the Great War did so willingly, because they had been trained for war in the schools of both countries. They soon found themselves serving as cannon fodder in the fields of Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Many of these former cadets were survivors who wrestled with their personal demons for the rest of their lives. This research shows how our schools were used by the respective governments to help prepare a readymade army of well-trained, disciplined and patriotic young lads, glad to risk their lives in the terrifying, bloody and mindless conflict that was World War I. (blurb)

The book was briefly reviewed in Fairfax and earlier in a Melbourne local paper but received a thorough analysis (nearly 3000 words) on the World Socialist Web Site from Margaret Rees and Linda Levin. Rees and Levin see the pre-World War I scheme as a precedent for modern indoctrination of children into warlike attitudes.

Soldier Boys is a valuable book [Rees and Levin say] that punctures the prevailing myths. It demonstrates that, by 1911, Australia had become a veritable military training camp for the British Empire. It corrects the conception, long promoted by government, media and the film industry, that the boys and young men who enlisted to fight, did so spontaneously and voluntarily as raw, untrained recruits.

Political Labour, particularly WM Hughes, was a prime mover behind the scheme and fear of Japan was a motivator. Publications for school children inculcated patriotism. Discipline was imposed but defaulting was common and was met by prosecution and imprisonment of boys. Anti-conscription organisations were strong.

Soldier Boys dispels the myth [the reviewers conclude] that it was the spontaneous rapture for adventure that led so many young Australians to sign up in 1914. It irrefutably demonstrates how Australian and New Zealand governments in the lead up to the war consciously worked to prepare through the schools, a compliant, trained and indoctrinated young population and then assemble the military force pledged by Labor leader Fisher in his notorious election commitment to Britain.

On the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli disaster, today’s powers-that-be are utilising similar methods, centred once again in the school system, to prepare and condition a new generation of Australian youth to sign up for war.

The book seems to have been neglected in the six months since its publication and seems well worth a read.

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