Monday, January 08, 2007

Australian Individuals Fighting (and Dying) on Foreign Soil

Photo: "Melbourne Boys Safe from Franco’s Killers.” – Melbourne Age 2 February 1939

Although the circumstances of the death appear unclear, the sad news that an Australian had been killed in the fighting in Somalia made me curious about the broader question of Australians joining overseas conflicts as individual volunteers. How common has it been? How did we respond?

I have not done much checking - that has to wait until I have time for fuller story - but my impression is that it has in fact been quite common dating back at least to the New Zealand Waikoto wars of the early 1860s.
Much of this participation such as the Waikato wars or individual Australian volunteers serving with various non-Australian Imperial forces during the first or second world wars has taken place within recognised official frameworks. However, there has also been a steady stream of volunteer participation for individual national or religious reasons, in support of causes, for adventure or as professional mercenaries.

As one example, during the Spanish Civil War at least 66 Australians served on the Republican side, 10 of them women. A significant number were killed. At least one Australian served with the Franco forces. Amirah Inglis wrote of the Republican volunteers:

"We know little enough about the (Australian) volunteers we can identify but one characteristic is striking: 10 of the 66 were women - proportionally more than one would find in a conventional army. Otherwise they were not unusual. More than a third were born outside Australia, a little higher than the adult population where 70 per cent were native born, and most of that third had started life in the United Kingdom...Of 52 volunteers whose occupations we know, 36 were attached to fighting groups and 16 nursed, organised, investigated or propagandised. Before they left, 27 of the 36 fighters were manual workers - seamen, shearers, a shearer's cook, a boiler maker, sugar workers and general labourers; three were Communist Party functionaries; two were unemployed; one was a writer; four were farmers; one a school teacher; and one was a poster artist. The 16 non-fighters (including 10 women) had been nurses and white collar workers: six nurses, one advertising copywriter, two students, one office worker; two had been pedlars...Of the 27 whose politics are known, 22 were communists; two described themselves as anarchists, several were liberal democrats and three were Labor supporters"
The Spanish Civil War was a major conflict, making it easier to trace individual Australian involvement.

When we drop below this level, it becomes much harder to identify involvement unless the individual is killed or comes to notice, as with David Hicks, through intelligence activities. But we do know that individual Australians have become involved in a significant number of conflicts both as combatants and in supply roles.

Official and community attitudes towards these involvements appears to have varied enormously depending upon public opinion at the time and the nature and prominence of the involvement. Further, those attitudes can and do shift with time. We only have to take the Spanish Civil War as an example, where some Australians fearing communism initially supported Franco, while others were on the Republican side.

In all, an interesting if obscure issue.


Lexcen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lexcen said...

Hemingway's "For Whom the Bells Toll" is a good starting point to examine the psychology of those who go off to fight for a cause they believe in. Previous comment deleted as I quoted the wrong book.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Lexcen. It's a very long time since I read this book!