Sydney University and the war to end all wars

Students here a hundred years ago could, if they wanted, do a 3-year course on Military Science, taking such subjects as Military History, the Science of Strategy and Possible Wars in the Future. With hindsight, some of the exam questions have a sadly ironic edge. In a paper sat in December 1907, for example, a question on the conflict between Russia and Turkey in 1877 asked: "How could the Turks have made a better resistance against invasion?" Whatever the correct answer, the Turks must have worked it out for themselves by April 1915. The course, first given in 1907, was abandoned when so many found themselves caught up in the real thing.

The Great War began in August 1914 amid a wave of patriotic fervour and a rush to join up. "Over by Christmas", many thought, The euphoria didn't last long. As casualties mounted and the flow of volunteers not unreasonably slowed to a trickle, the Government sought to introduce overseas conscription. A deeply divided Nation, however, voted "no" at a referendum in October 1916 and did so again at a second referendum in December 1917.

Recruitment poster from the Australian War memorial, Canberra

Recruitment poster from the Australian War memorial, Canberra

Cartoon from The Kia Ora Coo-ee on March 1918

Cartoon from The Kia Ora Coo-ee on March 1918

By 1918, some 1,700 students and staff of Sydney University had enlisted for service; and in September that year, a further batch of volunteers assembled in front of the Main Building (photo below), went into camp in the University grounds and, after several weeks' training, moved to the Liverpool Camp to make final preparations for embarkation. They were the lucky ones. The Armistice was signed on November 11, less than a week before this group was due to leave for overseas.

Volunteers assembled in front of the Main Building

Volunteers assembled in front of the Main Building

Of the 330,000 Australians who fought in "the war to end all wars", 60,000 didn't come back. All who served are commemorated by the war memorials erected in suburbs and country towns across Australia. Sydney University's War Memorial Carillon is one of them, installed in the Clock Tower and inaugurated in 1928. The photo below shows the largest of the bells arriving at the University, the 4-ton AIF Bell.

Largest of the bells arriving at the University, the 4-ton AIR Bell

Largest of the bells arriving at the University, the 4-ton AIR Bell

As it turned out, the Great War resolved nothing. In 1939 it was on again. World War II. More like World War Part 2. This time there was no euphoria, no fanfare of trumpets. War swept through much of Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, with Australians serving in many campaigns, but it would be two years before Australia itself came under threat.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese forces swept south with a speed that stunned everyone. By March 1942, Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore had fallen and fighting had reached New Guinea. Darwin had been heavily bombed and, in May, midget submarines made it into Sydney Harbour. A week later, one of the parent subs surfaced briefly and sent shells whistling over Bondi in the direction of the Rose Bay Flying Boat Base. The weeks that followed would have been a good time to buy property in the Eastern Suburbs.

Before Pearl Harbor, Sydneysiders had been slow to respond to Government calls to make what preparations they could to defend the homefront. Now there was a rush to build air-raid shelters. Mostly this just meant digging trenches and covering them with sheets of corrugated iron, but it could be hard work. At the time, the ground here was dry and hard after some unusually hot summers and several years of below average rainfall. Much of the State was drought-affected and people were as concerned about water restrictions as they were about petrol rationing.

Sydney Teacher

Sydney Teacher's College students taking a breather from building an air-raid shelter on Oval No. 2

To the Yanks
They saved us from the Japs.
Perhaps.
But at the moment the place is too yankful.
For us to be sufficiently thankful.

In the photo below, the year is 1944 and American military police, who were camped for a while in the grounds of the University, carry the Stars and Stripes at a Citation Day Mass Presentation on Oval No. 1.

American military police, 1944

American military police, 1944

Sources

  • Reference Archivist Julia Mant provided the photos from the University Archives.
  • G.L. Fischer, The University of Sydney 1850-1975, University of Sydney (1975).
  • The Kia Ora Coo-ee]], March to December 1918, facsimile edn., Angus and Robertson (1981).
  • B. McKinlay, [[Australia 1942, End of Innocence, William Collins (1985).
  • P. Spearritt, Sydney's Century, University of NSW Press (2000).