First World War Centenary: A Time Line

by Dr John Weste, Director, South Australian Parliament Research Library


The problems and promises of peace dominated the immediate post-war years. The international scene was marked by the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in January, which six months later (and five years to the day since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allies. The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye between the Allies and Austria was signed in September (the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary was not signed until 1920). All three treaties contained the Covenant of the League of Nations and, as a result, were not ratified by the United States. Moreover, neither did the Treaties guarantee domestic stability amongst the former Central Powers. In Germany, for example, the perception of an unduly harsh and humiliating treaty, combined with the myth of the ‘Stab in the Back’ delivered to the proud and undefeated German armed forces by a weak civilian government, later gave a degree of honour and legitimacy in the following years to a range of ultra-nationalist and paramilitary forces of which Hitler and the Nazi Party were but one.


The tradition of Remembrance Day was established in the British Empire with the first being acknowledged with a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 11 November 1919. Separately, Peace Day was also held throughout the Empire on 19 July (the United Kingdom ratified the Treaty of Versailles on 21 July).


Remembrance was also important to South Australians. The Cheer-Up Society moved with an impressive speed to have erected the ‘Anzac Arch’ between the then Adelaide Train Station and the Cheer-Up Hut (roughly the area between the current Festival Centre and the River Torrens’ entrance to the Adelaide Train Station). Reputed to be the first such Arch in Australia, it became a set-piece in commemorating and remembering the War as returning troops marched through it upon returning to the capital. The Arch, while a strong marker of a civilian acknowledgement of a soldier’s service, at least on one occasion showed the flow of gratitude could be flipped. Sammy Lunn, the famed Rhyme-Master of the Port Adelaide Football Club, known to all as ‘The Soldiers’ Friend’ for his patriotic fund-raising activities, died at a Semaphore Returned Soldiers and Sailors Function. In 1923, his mile-long funeral cortege made a deliberate point of passing through the Anzac Arch where 2,000 returned servicemen awaited, headed by their band and battalion colours. The attending returned servicemen forwent their day’s pay to attend, as did the State’s public servants (who presented themselves against the Premier’s instructions).


Other markers of remembrance were also mooted in the State: Memorial Drive and the National War Memorial, for example. The references to the title of the ‘National War Memorial’ in the State’s parliament have never been entirely clear. The Treasurer, Archibald Peake, spoke of a memorial to commemorate South Australia’s part in the Great War, which left some confused as to the meaning of ‘National’. Did the Memorial nonetheless include a recognition of the part played by all the states and territories constituting the Federation or did it reflect a lingering frame of mind from prior to 1901 when South Australia itself was the nation?


Sadly, casualties did not end with the armistice, as the ‘Spanish Flu’ spread across the globe to affect all peoples, soldier and civilian alike. Precise global mortality figures do not exist, but the number of dead is held to fall between
20 -40 million. Approximately 12,000 Australians died, which represented slightly over two per cent of the population as it stood in 1919.


Other peace-time problems also presented themselves. Firstly, what to do with the large numbers of demobilised soldiers: how were they to be reintegrated into society and the workforce; and, would the soldiers necessarily meekly accept what was on offer? As rapidly falling volunteer recruitment rates had hinted, loyalty could not be taken as absolute and unconditional. Industry posited that ‘Buying Australian’ would help solve the problem: substituting imports for domestically manufactured goods would provide well-paid and highly skilled employment for Australian workers. The second peace-time problem was how to pay for the past five years. The Commonwealth’s solution was the ‘Peace Loan’. Ostensibly voluntary, the federal government also made clear it needed no referendum to conscript your money: if subscriptions fell short, compulsion would solve the matter and, if so compelled, an additional penalty would be applied as punishment for unpatriotic tardiness. South Australia’s target for the Peace Loan was £2,500,000.


It was not all doom and gloom, however, and there was much to be grateful for and marvel at in the post-war world. Aviation captivated the Australian public and South Australians were directly involved in a number of flying firsts.


Brothers Keith and Ross Smith, born in Adelaide in 1890 and 1892 respectively, enlisted (ultimately) as aviators: Ross in the Australian Flying Corps and Keith the Royal Flying Corps. Keith was posted with a bomber unit stationed in France in early 1918 though he never saw active service. Ross, however, had an active air war and flew in defence of the Suez Canal zone and received numerous decorations. Their post-war fame lay in being the first, along with their two mechanics Wally Shiers and James Bennet, to fly from London to Darwin, a distance of 11,340 miles (18,250 kilometres) in under 30 days (they took slightly under 28 days). Both brothers were knighted and received a quarter-share each of the £10,000 prize money (approximately $729,000 today) from the Australian government. Ross Smith and James Bennet died on a training flight in London preparing to fly around the world in April 1922. Smith was accorded a state funeral attended by thousands in Adelaide the following June. Keith Smith died in Sydney in December 1955. The Vickers Vimy in which they flew their record flight is on display at Adelaide Airport. The Enfield Heritage Museum, near to the Northfield Aerodrome where the brothers landed upon reaching Adelaide, houses a photographic display and a nine-minute video depicting the flight.


Another popular aviator was Minlaton’s Harry Butler, who ended the War as a chief fighting-instructor with the Royal Flying Corps. Butler returned to Australia in 1919 with a Bristol monoplane (popularly known as the ‘Red Devil’) and an Avro 504-K. He converted the latter to a two-seater and charged the thrilled public for joy rides at £5 (equivalent to approximately $370 in 2014) for 15 minutes. In the Red Devil he made the first mail-service flight over water in Australia (Adelaide to Minlaton), partook of aerial stunt-flying to raise patriotic funds (most notably to a crowd of 20,000 at Unley Oval in August) and flew aerial escort to Prime Minister Hughes’ train as it journeyed from Salisbury to Adelaide. Butler crashed near Minlaton in 1922, which ended his flying career, and died unexpectedly in June 1924. He is buried in North Road Cemetery, North Adelaide. The restored Red Devil remains housed at Minlaton.