In this Guest Blog, Dr James McConnel from Northumbria University talks about the emigrant ‘Geordies’ .
Much has recently been written about the ‘myths’ associated with the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign of 1915–16 in relation to their importance for Australian and New Zealand perceptions of the war and, in particular, the conflict’s role in shaping national identity. But one myth that persists in is that of the ethnic homogeneity of the armies involved. After all, the ‘Turks’ were an assemblage of Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Germans, and Turkish soldiers, the ‘French’ forces included North Africans and Senegalese troops, while the ‘British’ included English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish units. And yet, the same heterogeneity was also true of the Anzacs.
That non-Australian accents are conspicuously absent among the Australian characters in Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli (and the growing number of film and TV representations of the campaign) is indicative of this particular myth. In fairness, there has been some scholarly recognition of the presence of Irish and other European immigrants in the Australian Imperial Force, but the presence in the Australian army of significant numbers of British and more specifically English-born men has received much less attention. As the scholar Kent Fedorowich has noted, this is not unique to Australia, as ‘historians have ignored … the experience of thousands of British-born migrants who … enlisted in their respective dominion forces and served overseas’ during the First World War. Nonetheless, in the case of Australia, it arguably reflects the role of Gallipoli in the post-war construction of Anzac heroism.
Indicative of this de-anglicising phenomenon are the fortunes of one of the most famous Anzacs of all: John (Jack) Simpson Kirkpatrick. As a result of his exploits at Gallipoli ferrying wounded comrades to safety on a donkey, Kirkpatrick posthumously became the embodiment of Australian ‘mateship’ and ‘larikinism’. That this ‘true Anzac’ was originally from North Shields in the North-East of England and had only been in Australia a matter of years before he enlisted was not always apparent in the ways that he was remembered there. Instead, he was assimilated into a post-war construction of heroic Australian masculinity. And yet, for all his notoriety, Kirkpatrick was far from unique, as there would have been plenty of Australian (and New Zealand) soldiers with British, and particularly English, accents among his comrades at Gallipoli, as well as among the Australian and New Zealand units who later served with such distinction in France.
Australia (unlike Canada) did not distinguish between England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales when recording the origins of its British recruits during the war. As a result, it is difficult to be precise about the English component in the AIF. Analysis of Australian attestation papers for the period up to June 1915 by Robson suggests that the British-born made up ‘nearly one in four of all recruits’. Approximately 27 per cent of the first AIF contingent (totalling 20,626) were British born, with estimates varying between 18 and 22.5 for the war as a whole. By comparison, Winegard claims that of the 8,417 men of the first contingent of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, 25.6 percent had been born in the UK, while figures for later in the war (1916–18) indicate that English-born enlistees accounted for 14 percent of recruits. Among these thousands of men and women were a sizeable number who – like Kirkpatrick – hailed from the North-East of England.
Preliminary analysis of the data generated by the ‘Dominion Geordies’ project (supported by the AHRC-funded Living Legacies First World War Engagement Centre based at Queen’s University Belfast) suggests that a little over 7,000 men and women from the old counties of Durham and Northumberland served with the land forces of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada between 1914 and 1918. Of these, about 40 percent served with the Australian and New Zealand armies during the First World War (the bulk serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force). Having established this, the project’s next phase is to understand this phenomenon within the context of the much larger story of ‘Geordie’ migration that long pre-dated 1914, since these men and women were members of what has recently been termed the ‘English Diaspora’. Often seen as ‘invisible migrants’, English emigrants were part of a significant outflow that was facilitated by faster steam boats, railways, and telecommunications: in 1913 alone 389,394 people left Britain, a large number of them being English people who travelled to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As such, the ‘Dominion Geordies’ project seeks to locate wartime service in relation to the pre-war migration experiences of emigrant North-Easterners and – crucially – their later post-war journeying.
By using the term ‘Geordie’, we are aware that the name is often used to describe the people of Newcastle and Tyneside, but it has been used by scholars to describe the people of the wider North-East region and it was used more broadly in the early twentieth century in the British and empire press to include Durham and Northumberland. In seeking to find volunteers across the world who will help the project to research the lives of these soldiers, we’re using the term because it’s internationally recognisable.
The project is partnering with the path breaking HLF-funded Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project (NWW1), a community initiative that is researching the war dead of the modern borough of North Tyneside and building on the success of an earlier HLF-funded project on Tynemouth. This type of community-university collaboration is at the heart of the Living Legacies First World War Engagement Centre’s mission. NWW1’s experience in mobilising community volunteers, and its expertise in designing and developing databases, has proved vital during the early stages of the Dominion Geordies project. The project launched its global appeal for ‘citizen historians’ in January 2016 and has already secured much favourable coverage from the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian media. This, in turn, has led to offers of help from dozens of volunteers from all three former Dominions, who will use the online resources created by the project to help them undertake research. This research will eventually populate the freely-accessible database and provide material for a short documentary film and a number of scholarly articles looking at the service of emigrant ‘Geordies’ in the context of migratory patterns before and after the First World War.