The beginning of the First World War in WA
In July 1914 the newspapers in Western Australia had been diligently reporting on the building crisis in Europe since the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Headlines such as ‘The British Navy – A Big Demonstration’, ‘Russia Takes a Stand’ and ‘The Seething Balkans’ had kept the WA populace alerted and well informed of developments in Europe. Less prominent headlines about trade conditions and fluctuations on the London stock exchange also reflected concerns about the economic impact of a future war in Europe on the world, national, and in particular, WA economy. By the end of July it was beginning to look very serious, especially when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In The West Australian, a regular contributor with the moniker ‘Vigilans et Audax’ (Vigilant and Bold), declared on 30 July, that “the fate of Europe trembles in the balance”. Furthermore it stated that “the outlook is gloomy and the delicate financial barometer has swung to ‘Stormy’. All the Powers are preparing for the worst.”[i] War was imminent.
Given the impending and menacing tempest, on 1 August 1914 the Premier’s Office opened a file and called it “War”. It was also marked “Confidential”. The officials in the Premier’s Office were expecting a lot of correspondence about very important and sometimes secret matters. In light of this, the first item on the file seems rather innocuous. It is a memo recording the contents of a telegraph cable from the WA Premier to the Prime Minister enquiring if WA should provide products and displays to the 1915 exposition in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.
But in a few short days, as the situation became far more serious, an increasing number of telegrams, memoranda and letters about the impending war arrived, all placed in the ‘War’ file in the order in which they were received. It was not long before this file took on the true purpose for which it was created. On 5 August John Scaddan, the WA Premier, received an urgent telegram from Prime Minister Joseph Cook - "official information has been received that war has broken out with Germany". The same day Sir Harry Barron, the WA Governor, received the coded cable telegraph message from Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, the Governor General in Melbourne. It read “TIPSIFIED GERMANY. GLYPHIC” - which when translated meant - “War has broken out between Great Britain and Germany. (signed) Governor General”.
After war was declared, information about its implications for WA, Australia and the British Empire flooded into the Premier’s office. The file itself conveys the sense of urgency and emergency through the appearance of sometimes duplicated notes, telegrams and memos. It is clear from the file that the State Government was keen to galvanise itself, the public service and the entire WA community; directing the enthusiasm of many, while also addressing the concerns of many others about the war. The security of communication networks and especially the effect this war would have on the economy was of utmost concern. After an initial flurry of activity the work for WA’s government officials would soon become routine. No doubt some were confident they would soon be joining the Australian Expeditionary and Imperial Forces, to serve overseas, with the full hope of success and a hasty return to their home and loved ones.