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The Commonwealth, Identity Forged by War

Anzac legend, Paris Peace Conference, bloodiest battles, German New Guinea, military draft

World War I (1914-1918), much more than federation itself, helped to create a sense of national identity in Australia. Responding to the allied call for troops, Australia sent more than 330,000 volunteers, who took part in some of the bloodiest battles. Suffering a casualty rate higher than that of many other participants, Australia became increasingly conscious of its contribution to the war effort. At Gallipoli an Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac), fighting alongside British and French troops, tried in vain to launch a drive on the Ottoman forces in the Dardanelles. The date of the fateful landing, April 25, 1915, became equated with Australia’s coming of age, and as Anzac Day it has remained the country’s most significant day of public homage. Through the writings of war correspondent and historian C. E. W. Bean, the Anzac legend became the basis for a new sense of national identity, one that united former servicemen and their families across class and geographical boundaries.

In 1915 William M. (“Billy”) Hughes became prime minister and leader of the Labor Party. Representing Australia at councils in London, Hughes personified Australian energies. When he failed to carry the electorate in the first of two attempts to institute the military draft, Hughes remained in power by joining his former conservative opponents and forming the Nationalist Party, much to the annoyance of his Labor colleagues. He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, acquiring German New Guinea as a mandated territory and establishing Australia’s right to enter the League of Nations. The powers designated to the federal government in the constitution proved sufficient to allow a strong central government.

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