Book Review: South Australia on the Eve of War, edited by M Oppenheimer, et al

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This collection of essays provides a wonderful insight into what South Australia was like just before WWI. The work arises from a symposium organised by History SA, in conjunction with Flinders University, held in August 2014 to mark the centenary of the beginning of the war.

I especially enjoyed the chapter by Margaret Anderson and Alison Mackinnon which discusses how life for women was changing, while much still remained the same. The number of children women gave birth to had been shrinking since the turn of the century. It was no longer seen as culturally appropriate to have families of 6 or 8 children. This was the case across all classes of women, not just the middle class. Resorting to back street abortionists to control family size was one of the sad continuities of women’s lives, particularly for the poorer classes.

Improved sanitation, the decline in child mortality, better material circumstances, which could mean access to gas, electricity and labour-saving appliances, all contributed to women having increased time and opportunity for pursuits outside the home. The authors argue that by 1922, almost half the relatively few women who were able to pursue higher education at Adelaide University remained single.

The state’s involvement in WWI is covered in a chapter by the late Dr John Bannon ‘Adjustment to Statehood: South Australia from the Boer War to the Great War’. The independent colony of SA had sent volunteers to the Boer War with much public support shown for the first contingent which sailed in November 1899 to a war which Britain felt would soon be won. Bannon notes that the relief of Mafeking in 1900 was the high point of local enthusiasm for the Boer War.

But things had changed somewhat by the time of the 1907 Imperial Conference on the future of imperial relations with a united South Africa. South Australia was now a state within the federation of Australia not an independent colony and state leaders were not pleased at being overlooked as what we would now call ‘Foreign Affairs’ was handled by the Commonwealth government. In spite of this South Australians were keen to show their loyalty to Britain when the Great War began as ‘1914 was still a time of optimism based on the years of prosperity…and the belief that the war would be over quickly and victoriously, leaving South Australia relatively untouched’ (pages 37-38).

Each chapter presents a brief but informative look at an aspect of South Australia and its people before WWI. Areas covered, as well as those above, include the situation of Indigenous people, Eyre Peninsula and German South Australia, and town planning in Adelaide. Such a broad range of topics, each well-written with meticulous research, provides the history buff and the casual reader with a detailed and fascinating picture of our state on the eve of the Great War.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  8

Released by: Wakefield Press
Release Date: March 2017
RRP: $29.95

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Insightful

Each chapter presents a brief but informative look at an aspect of South Australia and its people before WWI, each well-written with meticulous research. It provides the history buff and the casual reader with a detailed and fascinating picture of our state on the eve of the Great War.

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