CoverStory

The menace of Japan and the onset of the Great War

There is much more to the story of Australia simply following the Mother Country into battle

By Neville Meaney

This week marks the centenary of the ANZAC landings in Gallipoli, and it would appear that Australia is determined not to forget the great human cost it paid in not just that conflict but the broader global struggle of the Great War. 

Yet while much is being done to commemorate the bravery and sufferings of the soldiers and the grief and anxiety of their families, very little has been said about how Australia’s leaders from the outset perceived the First World War and its inherent dangers for Australia’s future, especially in the Pacific. It is as though, following Britain’s declaration of war, the loyal dominion gave its whole-hearted support to the Mother Country, handing over its navy to Great Britain's Admiralty, raising troops for the Australian Imperial Forces, and willingly leaving the determination of high policy to the wise men of Whitehall.

Yet there is more, indeed much more, to the story. Australian Prime Minister Joseph Cook, on the eve of Britain’s ultimatum to Germany, confided to his diary some troubled thoughts about what the future might hold for Australia and the British Empire: "War means a new map. New relations — new history."

In particular the Australians feared that this new map might well have serious implications for their position in the Pacific. They carried with them into the Great War grave concerns about Japan and its ambitions. Ever since Japan’s decisive victory over Russia in 1905 the Commonwealth had taken alarm at the Asian nation’s ensuing command of the Western Pacific, and this sense of alarm was intensified by Britain’s simultaneous withdrawal of its capital ships from the region to meet the German challenge in the North Sea. Though Britain assured the Australians that they had nothing to fear, that they could rely on the Anglo–Japanese alliance, they took no comfort from these fine words.

Shortly before becoming Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin set out the meaning of Japan’s triumph and Britain’s retreat for Australia. Instead of there being two fleets in the Pacific balancing one another there would be only one, that of Japan, and it would continue to build its fleet so as to dominate the Western Pacific. As Allan McLean, a minister in Deakin predecessor George Reid's government, put it, "the stupendous struggle in the East must awaken the people of Australia to the fact that we have been living in a fool’s paradise … Japan has astonished the world … We now find one of the great naval and military powers within a very short distance of our shores." As a result, Australians had good reason to fear not only an Asian migration but also a Japanese invasion.

Within a few short years this strategic assessment was embraced by the political leaders of all parties, and the sense of threat, often depicted in racial colours, spread through the populace. To meet this crisis Australia introduced compulsory military training, acquired a naval force, built strategic railways, and established arms factories. Deakin also turned to the United States and persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to allow his Great White Fleet to visit Sydney and Melbourne on its world tour, hoping thereby to send a warning message to the Japanese. Just before leaving office for the last time he even proposed to the British that the United States should be invited to extend its Monroe Doctrine to the Pacific and have it backed by the British Empire, Holland, France, and China.

The British showed little sympathy for Australia’s anxieties. In their view, Australia occupied the least vulnerable part of the Empire and had no reason to fear the Japanese. It could depend on the Anglo–Japanese alliance and had no reason to expand its defence forces. The Australian policymakers, however, were not convinced and defied the Empire’s great offices of state — the War Office, the Admiralty, the Foreign Office, and the Committee of Imperial Defence.

There was only a brief period in 1909–10 when it seemed that the Admiralty might make concessions to the Australians and help create an Imperial Pacific fleet. Concerned that the Americans might be gaining influence in Australia, that Britain was losing its Pax Britannica position in the Pacific, and that the dominions were determined to persevere with their small separate flotillas, John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, convened a defence conference which he hoped would solve these problems.

To the surprise of the Australians, the Admiralty proposed that Great Britain, with its dominions and the Indian and Malayan dependencies, would create a Pacific fleet. It would comprise four squadrons made up of an East Indies, a China, an Australian, and a Canadian unit. Each squadron was to be made up of most advanced Dreadnought battle cruiser, three light cruisers, six destroyers, and three submarines, all of the latest design. The Australians and Canadians would pay for their squadrons, New Zealand would pay for the China station Dreadnought, and Britain would cover the cost of the rest of the China station squadron and the East Indies squadron. The dominion squadrons were to be based in their respective countries and could only be merged in a full Pacific fleet with their consent.

For the Australians, it appeared that Britain had at last accepted their arguments about the fragility of the Empire’s position in the Pacific and they hastened to place orders for the ships and to provide the funding. Even if the promised fleet could not hope to defeat Japan they hoped that at the least it would be sufficiently strong to act as a deterrent.

Associated with this appeal for defence co-operation the Australian government desired to have a say in the making of Imperial policy. The Australians were loyal "Britishers" and had no wish to separate from the Empire but they wanted an Empire that would respect the interests of the far-flung dominions and provide protection against their enemies. In a speech directed at Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, who was preparing to leave for the 1911 Imperial Conference in London, Deakin urged the Australian representatives:

To impress upon their colleagues at the conference that Australia, in spite of herself, is being forced into a foreign policy of her own because foreign interests and risks surround us on every side

[….]

Let Ministers impress upon the Foreign Office in London that there are Pacific problems in which the Australian interest is inexpressible, which … should be perpetually and consistently considered, particularly by the Naval and Military authorities, and those charged with foreign affairs of the Empire … The creation of this Conference was a great stride … But it is not sufficient that this should remain a mere advisory Conference. Its powers require to grow with the needs and the emergencies of the Empire

[…]

[U]nited action is only to be obtained when, instead of a conference separated by breaks of four years, continuity and character are given to its policy by providing a means of keeping up the work, following up its suggestions and giving effect to its resolutions … By that means and that means alone can we clothe this Conference with the powers that rightly belong to it, making it a thoroughly imperial body, representative of our race in every part of the world, without trenching on the local government of the Dominions or on the sphere of the British government.

Arriving in London the dominion leaders were invited to a special session of the Committee of Imperial Defence at which the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, set out a comprehensive overview of the dangers facing the Empire. At the outset he stressed that:

...the creation of separate Fleets has made it essential the Foreign Policy of the Empire should be a common policy. If it is to be a common policy it is obviously one on which the Dominions must be taken into consultation, which they must know, which they must understand, and which they must approve.

After describing Germany’s "Napoleonic" policy in Europe and its threat to British naval supremacy he explained that for reasons of strategic planning and world stability it was necessary to secure a ten year extension of the Anglo–Japanese alliance. He assured the Australians that in the negotiations the Japanese had not brought up the White Australia policy "in connection with the alliance at all," and that Japan could be relied upon to honour its commitments. Fisher was greatly relieved by Grey’s remarks and in giving his approval he recognised that it was better that Japan should be formally tied to the Empire since even if the treaty could not be trusted it might act as a restraint on the Japanese. At the end of the Conference Fisher was elated and he publicly declared that:

A community of interests of the highest immediate importance and vast possibilities has been created. I will go back equipped with knowledge that will qualify the federation I represent for co-operation with the mother country of a more effective kind than has ever been possible before. By the revelation of the British policy Australia has been admitted into the innermost confidence of the Imperial Government.

It seemed that Deakin’s grand vision was to be fulfilled.

Within a brief time, however, Australian hopes both for the creation of an Imperial Pacific Fleet and the dominions' participation in Imperial policy-making were dashed. Less than a year after the Imperial conference, the British were confronted by a new challenge from the Germans, who were laying down three new battleships. This raised a great problem for Winston Churchill, the first lord of the Admiralty, who in order to maintain Britain’s sixty per cent margin of safety over the German High Fleet decided that he would have to abandon every commitment that was not central to the survival of the British Isles. And to this end, without a word to the Australians, he kept the British and New Zealand Dreadnoughts, which had been promised for the Pacific Fleet, in the North Sea and secretly suggested to the Canadians that they should forget about a squadron for the Pacific and instead contribute £7,000,000 for battle cruisers that would be stationed in the Mediterranean.

When the Australians learned from the press of Churchill’s arbitrary change of policy, they resented his devious behaviour and were concerned about what it might mean for their own security. Defence Minister George Pearce wrote to Australia’s naval representative in London complaining about the British high-handed treatment of the dominions:

We had the Imperial naval conference in 1909 which drew up a scheme for the co-operation of the Imperial government and Dominions in matters of defence. The proposals were not rejected at the 1911 Conference, although they were extant: yet what has happened? Australia is the one of the parties to the 1909 Conference that has carried out its share of the Scheme then arrived at. None of the other governments have stated that they will not carry out their share: they have ignored it, and in my mind this action or want of action on the part of these governments is the greatest blow yet dealt to Imperial co-operation.

Prompted by Churchill’s actions, the naval and military authorities began to look more closely at the prospect of a Japanese attack. Both the general staff and the naval board sensed that in the case of a European war Australia might be left to fend for itself, and so their senior officials made a joint trip to Darwin and other parts of the northern coastline to determine the best strategy to meet a Japanese invasion. They all agreed that Japan was the only "power in the east which possesses a strong enough fleet to hold the sea command of the South Pacific." They thought that the most likely time for a Japan strike would be when Britain was at war and even conceded that, as long as the British navy was held down by the Germans in the North Sea, the Japanese would be free to launch an assault.

Colonel James Gordon Legge, while Australian representative on the Imperial Staff in London, spent his time there in working out the logistics of how the Japanese might move against Australia. He concluded that "there was not much doubt that they could easily send 3 divisions to Australia in less than 1 month from the day on which they commenced to mobilise." From his view, the three divisions would be enough "to do the job."

Just six months before the outbreak of the Great War, Churchill, in introducing the Admiralty’s estimates, added insult to injury. The First Lord denied that the British government had agreed to send Dreadnought-led squadrons to the China and East Indies stations to match that of Australia and so help form the nucleus of an Imperial Pacific Fleet. He claimed that since Britain had a treaty with Japan based on mutual interests, it could be relied upon to protect British interests in the western Pacific and that therefore there was no good reason why any new battle cruisers, including the Australia, should remain in the Pacific.

The new Prime Minister Joseph Cook and his Minister of Defence, Edward Davis Millen, led the angry response. With Cabinet’s approval Millen published a memorandum which was a scarifying denunciation of Churchill’s arguments and behaviour. He took the Admiralty to task for the unilateral overturning of the 1909 naval agreement.

What Churchill was offering the dominions instead of a "definite inter-imperial co-operation policy for Pacific development, was an unco-ordinated, ephemeral scheme possessing neither permanence nor clear purpose … Ineffective isolated units were to be substituted for a 'Joint Imperial Fleet in the Pacific'." He rejected Churchill’s optimistic view of the Anglo–Japanese alliance. The alliance had been present when the original agreement had been drawn up and approved. What, he wanted to know, had changed. He could not openly question the good faith of the Japanese but he did allow himself the comment that "the pages of history are strewn with the wreckage of fruitless alliances."

Cook, in a lengthy despatch to London, set out the Australians’ alternative view of both the 1909 conference and the Empire itself. For him the aim of that conference had been one of "laying down and consistently developing a basis for Naval Defence, at once Imperial and local." Its "primary objective" had been the "permanent protection of British interests in the Pacific." He asserted that "the immunity of the Commonwealth should not be left to depend on the continuance of such a delicate security as an alliance." It should be the aim of all parts of the Empire:

...to adopt and consistently develop a scheme of Naval Defence, which as far as possible meets the special, as well as the common danger, and which does not admit of the adequacy of a Dominion’s defence being, from time to time, affected by the changing requirements of Imperial interests elsewhere.

Finally he reprimanded the British for breaking an agreement and called for the summoning of a new defence conference. After some frosty exchanges with the Admiralty the Colonial Office gained Churchill’s consent and the British government reluctantly acceded to the Australians’ wishes. But before any steps could be taken to organise the meeting, the British entered the European war and immediately informed the dominions that the imperial gathering would have to be postponed.


Australian leaders carried all this strategic thinking and diplomatic experience with them into the Great War. While the government and people expressed fervent support for the British cause, they also had misgivings about Japan and the role it might play in the global conflict.

For historians there is considerable difficulty in showing the depth of Australia’s concern about Japan. Even in the decade preceding the European war, the politicians and the press, out of deference to Britain’s ally, had often cloaked their suspicions of Japan in euphemisms. With the onset of the global conflict this issue became even more sensitive as official censorship was added to self-censorship. After Britain’s declaration of war the newspapers began to speculate about whether or not Japan would enter the war and, if so, what role it might play. Most editorials, while admitting that these question were being widely discussed in the country, urged discretion.

While a majority came to a rather forced conclusion that Japan’s loyalty to Britain could be relied on, others, such as The Age, were more outspoken. Once Japan had entered the war the Melbourne daily declared that "in view of the intervention of Japan in Chinese waters, the duty of the Australian Commonwealth to plant the British flag on Germany’s Pacific Colonies has acquired a new and sharp significance … To the captors belongs the prize. Australia should be first well and good but we cannot afford to take chances in a matter so closely affecting our national interests and the future of the Commonwealth."

What The Age was saying resonated totally with the thinking of the Australian government and its officials. Though Cook was engaged in a federal election, he and Millen did what they could to advance their claim to Germany’s Pacific empire. Prompted by the British, who wanted to destroy the German squadron’s wireless stations and networks as well as to prevent the Japanese from occupying the islands, the Australians quickly fitted out an expedition. Even before the Japanese had officially entered the war, the taskforce was ready to depart but the Admiralty was unable to provide an escort until more than two weeks later.

The Australians were alarmed at the delay and sought assurances from the British that Japan would not expand into the Pacific. On the eve of the Australians’ departure the Chief of the General Staff warned the commander that "Japan is desirous of immediately seizing all German possessions in the Pacific" and instructed him to post troops on all the islands, both north and south of the equator as soon as possible. However, fate intervened. No sooner had the Australians taken possession of German New Guinea than they learnt that their convoy had to leave them and join in the hunt for the German Pacific squadron. As a result the Australians had to abandon their immediate plans and wait until the Admiralty could spare ships for an escort. Japan was thus left free to land marines on Germany’s North Pacific archipelagos. 

Fisher, having won the September election, found himself confronted by this difficulty over Japan and the future of Germany’s North Pacific islands — that is, the Pelew, Marianas, Caroline, and Marshall groups. He and his external affairs and defence department officials believed from what the British had told them that once they were able to find ships to transport their men, Japan would hand over these territories to the Australians. Growing impatient with the Admiralty’s dilatoriness, Fisher on 26 October approved his local naval advisors’ proposal to convert merchant ships for the purpose and to raise an expeditionary force which would "relieve the Japanese now occupying Yap and other North Pacific islands." 

When, however, the Australian government three weeks later informed the British that the expedition was about to depart and requested London to inform the Japanese of its intent and so prepare them for the changeover it created a crisis in Whitehall. By this time, the Japanese had grown in confidence; they had routed the German forces on the Shantung (Shandong) peninsula and in the China Sea and assisted the Admiralty in hunting down the German squadron and conveying Australian and New Zealand troops to Egypt. Moreover, they had had six weeks to consolidate their position in the North Pacific. The Japanese knew their value and, pressed by nationalist feelings, their government made it clear to Britain that they were not prepared to hand over the islands to the Australians and expected to be able to annex them when the time for peacemaking arrived. For the British the situation had all the "materials for a tragic row." They were left with only one option. They had to explain the situation to the Australians and ask them not to send their expedition. 

The Australians were shocked by this news. Fisher recognised that Japan had brought its frontier to meet Australia’s at the equator and he set his mind to do what could be done to prepare to meet a possible attack from the "Near East." Thus, in his first budget in December, he showed that alongside funding for the AIF he would, despite the expense, continue with Australia’s pre-war defence policy and maintain compulsory military training, the building of naval bases, the laying down of strategic railways, and the development of arms factories. Likewise, he looked to New Zealand for co-operation and, during a tour of the north and south islands, he stressed the need for the two dominions to work together on Pacific defence. 

Most important of all, he wanted the British government to hold the imperial defence conference on Pacific security which had been promised in July and then cancelled after the outbreak of the War. During his stay in New Zealand he publicly asserted that it was "this time above all others" which was "suitable and desirable" for such a meeting. 

Since "things" were "now so red hot" he was sure that "the right conclusions would be arrived at readily." But the British would not agree. They knew that, as the head of the Colonial Office put it, Japan was "the one power that they [the Australians] distrust" and that "their conscription and Fleet would never have materialised but for the Japanese spectre." A conference might well stir up anti-Japanese feeling and thus make Britain’s ally less willing to provide aid for the hard pressed Admiralty. What the British wanted was to smooth over the issue and they urged the governor-general to use his good offices privately to induce the Australia leaders to reconcile themselves to what was inevitable, namely Japan’s annexation of the North Pacific islands at the end of the war. 

But the governor-general had no success. He had to report back to London that both Fisher and Cook and the government’s officials saw in Japan’s southward advance a grave danger to Australia, and that the national security community was intent on keeping alive for the peace table their legal claim to be the rightful occupiers of the North Pacific islands. Fisher was more practical than some of his advisers and seemed to have recognised that nothing could be done to evict the Japanese from the islands and as time passed he became ever more anxious about Australia’s future. In a public address, he warned that wars were inescapable and that at the end of the present conflict, allies might well divide and turn on one another. 

Reading reports from Japan and in the local press about Japan’s attitude to the allies and its ambitions in East Asia, in particular its demand that China should become a protectorate, he became nervous and "jumpy." In June he wrote to the premier of Queensland that Australia was facing "circumstances that have no parallel in our history." His only hope was that Britain would summon an imperial conference. He was not satisfied with the Colonial Office’s earlier rejection of his proposal for such a meeting.

When Cook in Parliament suggested that there should be such a conference at the end of the war to deal with Australia’s peculiar problems which were "already making their appearance on the horizon," Fisher responded that such a conference was needed immediately to settle the outstanding issues with the Mother Country, issues which Australia shared with New Zealand. That dominion’s prime minister, having learned of the Colonial Office’s refusal to meet Fisher’s wishes, sent a stern rebuke to the British government. He informed them that New Zealand:

...could not act apart from Australia in the eventual discussion of the issues involved, and should always ask His Majesty’s Government to use every effort to prevent the advance of the frontier of Japan in the Pacific…

Neither Australia nor New Zealand will ever be convinced that in the future our peril is not from Japan. 

And he warned that "if the British were to take the contrary view they must be prepared for our bitter resentment." Even as the "hot war" raged in Europe, the Australian and New Zealander leaders were joined together in facing the problem of security in the Pacific. Their anxiety in this first year of the European war was not primarily focused on Gallipoli and the Western Front but, as it had been from the time of the Russo–Japanese war, on the menace of Japan. By August 1915, the first stage in Australia’s "cold war" was over. Fisher, overtaxed by all the complex wartime issues, not least of which was Japan and its ambitions, resigned as prime minister and took up the post of high commissioner in London.