Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Boreham on Australia and Britain

While the Australian poet, Henry Lawson, had called on the “sons of the south [to] make a choice between ... the old dead tree and the young tree green”,[1] Boreham offered an alternative twist on the metaphor when he likened Australia’s relationship to England “as a new shoot on an old tree”.[2]

Boreham’s view of Australia was typical of many people who “looked to the old land as the land of their birth and to the dominions as the land of their adoption”.[3] Manning Clark has stated that the conscription debate of the First World War revealed that there were two Australias, those with “their slogan—loyalty to King and Empire [with] ... their culture—British culture in Australia” and those who believed “Australia would achieve nothing so long as her aim was to be an ‘outlandish suburb of England or Europe’”.[4] While the two referenda on conscription severely divided Australia, its decision not to follow the lead of Britain, New Zealand and Canada in embracing conscription demonstrated an independence of thought and a resoluteness that were significant signs of its growing maturity as a nation.

While encouraging Australia to mature as a nation, Boreham never lost his “loyalty to King and Empire”. He invariably compared Australian life with the British standard, bemoaning Australia’s indifference towards antiquity and its weakness “on the domestic side ... [where] the authority and influence of the home is scarcely what they used to be”.[5] In various ways he depicted Australia “in its infancy”[6] with the “sturdy privileges enjoyed by young nations permitted to erect their distinctive civilisation on the sturdy foundations laid by people whose annals run back into antiquity”.[7]

Boreham believed that it was the suffering and the service of the First World War that forged in Australia a sense of its indebtedness to Britain as “mother and daughter, with all the oceans of the world rolling between them finding their hearts beating in perfect union”.[8] In this same Anzac Day editorial, Boreham adopted the religious imagery of baptism to recognize the way the war had aided Australia’s emergence as a nation:

"About Anzac Day, as it is celebrated in Australia, there is something startlingly unique. It is the commemoration, not of the great military victory, or of the final struggle of a long and memorable campaign, but of the birth of a young nation and of its baptism of blood. Anzac marks the solemn self-recognition of the Australian people. For the first time since the pioneers blazed the first trails across the continent, Australia knew herself for what she was. The world has never known anything remotely resembling Anzac Day. It is a festival of proud, pathetic memories, and, by those memories, all life is touched to finer issues. It is because of this that, as the years come and go, Anzac Day becomes more deeply rooted in the reverence and affection of the Australian people."[9]

Boreham had reflected upon news from the Australian Imperial Force in 1915 that had been shaped by commentators and politicians into the Gallipoli legend “in which Australians were still loyal to the Empire but mature enough to be full partners in it”.[10] Historian Ken Inglis said that not only had Australians proved, along with those from other colonies, that they were capable of taking their place on the international battlefield but they demonstrated some unique features such as the way the Australian army was “composed entirely of volunteers, men who could be celebrated for having freely offered their lives in the service of their country”.[11] Recognizing the crucial timing of Gallipoli, historian Paul Kelly says, “Australia was a constitutional entity with a spiritual void at its core. It longed for a test of national character. That came at Gallipoli …”[12] Journalist Les Carlyon said that Australians saw the Anzac Landing as “a piece of nation-building” and their courage and tenacity at Gallipoli “gave Australia a sense of the worth of its people”.[13]

Even though Australia depended on Britain financially[14] and for its defence, following the First World War there was a significant “change of outlook” involving a tempering of Australia’s loyalty to Britain and the move toward Australian self-determination.[15] Historians interpreting the unravelling of British influence in Australian life have identified important milestones in this process which included the Boer War,[16] federation,[17] Gallipoli,[18] the fall of Singapore[19] and Britain’s steady drift towards a relationship with Europe and membership in the European Economic Community in the early 1960s.[20] Despite this almost imperceptible process in the decline of the Anglo-Australian relationship and the demise of Imperial ideals, Boreham remained steadfast in calling for Australia to draw upon its British foundations. At the same time he encouraged in different ways the emergence of a unique Australian style.

Geoff Pound

[1] Henry Lawson, ‘A song of the republic’, A camp-fire yarn: Henry Lawson complete works 1855-1900 compiled & edited Leonard Cronin (Sydney: Lansdowne, 1984), 39.
[2] Boreham, Mercury, 8 May 1926.
[3] Boreham, Mercury, 23 August 1941.
[4] Clark, A history of Australia vol. 6, 41.
[5] Boreham, Mercury, 7 May 1938.
[6] Boreham, Mercury, 11 March 1933.
[7] Boreham, Mercury, 10 May 1941.
[8] Boreham, Mercury, 21 April 1956.
[9] Boreham, Mercury, 21 April 1956.
[10] Ken S Inglis, Sacred places: War memorials in the Australian landscape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1998), 83.
[11] Inglis, Sacred places: War memorials in the Australian landscape, 461.
[12] Paul Kelly, The end of certainty: The story of the 1980s (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1992), 11.
[13] Les Carlyon, Gallipoli (Sydney: Macmillan, 2001), 532-533.
[14] By 1919, Australia had come to rely less on Britain for its imports with thirty-four percent of total imports coming from Britain compared with sixty-two percent in 1901. Souter, Lion and kangaroo: The initiation of Australia, 362.
[15]Meredith Atkinson, ‘The Australian outlook’, Australia economic and political studies, ed. Meredith Atkinson (Melbourne: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1920), 1-56.
[16] Michael Davie records that “nearly 600 Australians died on South African soil, helping Britain in a doubtful cause.” In Michael Davie, Anglo-Australian attitudes (London: Secker & Warburg, 2000), 36.
[17] Paul Kelly has noted that the emergence of an Australian identity following federation was focussed upon and fostered by the formulation of new laws and institutions and distinct nationalistic ideas such as White Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and imperial benevolence. In Kelly, The end of certainty, 1-2.
[18] Davie notes that the ‘sourer ingredients’ of the Gallipoli legend included Churchill’s self-indulgent strategy that was doomed to failure, Britain’s use of ‘expendable colonials’ to undertake a mission its own commanders wished to avoid and the high casualty rates among the ANZAC troops which was partly due to the incompetence of British officers. Davie, Anglo-Australian attitudes, 38.
[19]David Day writes about the ‘great betrayal’ when Britain failed to give Australia adequate protection, leaving it at the mercy of Japan and reliant on US defence. David Day, The great betrayal: Britain, Australia & the onset of the Pacific War 1939-1942 (North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1988), 351-353.
[20] Stuart Ward argues that Britain’s search for accommodation with the European community in the 1950s and 1960s fatally undermined the persisting assumptions about organic Anglo-Australian unity. Stuart J Ward, Australia and the British embrace: The demise of the Imperial ideal (Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001), 10-12.