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Australian Army in the Great War

World War I (1914-1918) had a dramatic impact on families, the economy and politics. Australian casualties were extremely heavy for the small nation and the demand for additional recruits seemed endless. Although all state and national governments were energetic in supporting the war effort, the issue of conscription divided the nation. Divisions occurred along many lines, fracturing public opinion, particularly along religious and industrial lines. Roman Catholic Church leadership played a prominent role in opposition and the union movement, led or influenced by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) which opposed the war generally, undertook a series of severe industrial actions toward the later years of the war. These actions were vigorously opposed and suppressed, even by governments which had been elected as Labor representatives.

The Australian army (AIF) was one of the few forces in France entirely made up of volunteers. With heavy casualties mounting and voluntary enlistments falling short of reinforcement needs, the Federal Labor Government under Prime Minister William Morris ("Billy") Hughes began to campaign vigorously for the introduction of conscription. In 1916 and again in 1917, amidst bitter division, Hughes' government put the issue to the people in referenda. The proposal was defeated both times, narrowly the first, more decisively the second.

As part of the British Empire, Australia joined forces with Britain in World War I. The working of the compulsory training system proved most successful. The number in training in 1914 was Citizen soldiers, 51,000; Senior Cadets, 87,000; Junior Cadets, 50,000; nearly 200,000 in all in actual training. The scheme both before its inception and since its successful inauguration had the support of leading statesmen of all political views as well as the vast majority of the citizens of the Commonwealth.

Australian forces took part in the naval and landing actions that eliminated the German presence in the South Pacific early in the war. Australian troops also participated in the campaigns in the Middle East that ended with Turkey's surrender. The Australian forces rendered valuable aid in the campaigns in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, Macedonia, and the western front. An army of about 300,000 was raised, the majority of whom saw actual service with the British and French forces, and much of the credit for the prompt way in which they adapted themselves to modern warfare is undoubtedly due to the national system of compulsory training in Australia. That the quality of the troops was of the best was evidenced by the frequency with which they were mentioned in dispatches.

On the 3rd of August 1914 the Governor-General on the advice of the Cook-Millen Administration sent the following cable to the Imperial Government : " In the event of war . . . prepared to despatch Expeditionary Force of 20,000 men of any suggested composition to any destination desired by Home Government. Force to be at complete disposal Home Government Cost of despatch and maintenance would be borne by this Government." The 1st Division and 1st Light Horse Brigade left Australia on Sunday, 1st November, 1914. On the 2nd December, 1914, advice was received that the Australian and New Zealand contingents were landing in Egypt. Australia therefore landed 20,000 troops, fully equipped in every respect, in less than four months after the outbreak of war in a war zone, over 7,000 miles from the place of embarkation. Later on additional infantry brigades, light horse brigades, signal troop, brigade train and field ambulance were despatched. The Australian Force then consisted of one division, three infantry brigades and four light horse brigades.

In July, 1915, the Commonwealth Government suggested the constitution of a second Australian division out of three Australian infantry brigades then in Egypt. Thus the 2nd Australian division was constituted.

The formation of the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions from the accumulated personnel in Egypt was carried out in that country. The evacuation of Gallipoli at the end of the year had considerably reduced the demands upon the reinforcements available in Egypt, and, in addition, the large special reinforcements despatched from Australia in October and November 1915, were just then arriving. In March, 1916, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade had been formed into the A.N.Z.A.C. (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) Mounted Division.

The Gallipoli Campaign offered the opportunity for Allied leaders in World War I to break the deadly stalemate on the Western Front and to open up critical lines of communication between the Western Allies and Russia. Poor planning, a lack of guidance, the failure to communicate clearly the concept of operations, along with poor on scene assessment and follow up were key factors that converged to destroy operational synchronization. This is best illustrated by the events on Y Beach and Suvla Bay, both of which were pivotal junction points in the Gallipoli Campaign. The failure of operational synchronization at these key points marked the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign and a lost opportunity to end the war early.

The area held by the Australians on Gallipoli for three months was about two miles long by one mile deep, recorded for all time as "Anzac" (from the first letter in each word of "Australia-New Zealand Army Corps"). In this "few acres of hell" the Anzacs, as they are popularly known, were never free from shell fire. In the front trenches, in support, or back on the beach, the deadly shrapnel was ever searching out its victims. In no other spot in the whole theater of war had men been under fire day and night without being able to retire occasionally for rest and respite outside the zone of immediate hostilities. Weakened from summer epidemics and nerve-racked from the daily ordeal, the Anzacs were still impatient for the big move.

The opportunity came in August, when several divisions of Kitchener's new army made a surprise landing at Suvla Bay, a few miles to the north of the Anzac positions. The Anzacs were to cooperate in a dashing offensive, masterly conceived, to carry the dominating positions of the Peninsula. While the Anzacs were carrying out their part of the contract with unexampled brilliance, the new army at Suvla threw away all chance of success by the unaccountable inertia of the field commanders in failing to advance rapidly inland when the opposition was slight and time precious. It was bungling with far-reaching and terribly serious consequences. Australia did feel bitterly the failure of the Dardanelles operations, when victory, practically assured by superhuman efforts of the troops, was lost by blundering of the British War Office.

As the commitments for reinforcements was so large, and as public opinion demanded that the supreme effort should be made to bring the war to an early termination, the agitation for the immediate adoption of general compulsion was widespread and overwhelming.

Australia entered the war with an enthusiasm of patriotism which obscured for a time any open sign of the fact that there was a section of the population which reflected closely the opinions of the Irish Nationalist party. About a third of the Australian population is of Irish origin; of this third the majority were more Australian than Irish in their national outlook, but a fraction of them have always inclined to give a first place to their Irish sympathies. Some dignitaries of the Roman Catholic hierarchy (which is largely Irish in origin and in education) have done much to encourage this fraction. As the war developed and an opposition to the British cause grew up in Ireland there was an echo of this in Australia. It was never sufficient to stand in the way of a whole-hearted prosecution of the war; nor did Irish Australians as a class refuse to take their share of the war's perils.

But it was sufficient to prevent in 1916 and again in 1917 the passing of a referendum to enforce conscription for service overseas because it was able then to enlist on its side a genuine Australian feeling. The Defence Act 1903 was one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Commonwealth government, and it gave the government the power to conscript for the purposes of home defence. The legislation did not allow soldiers to be conscripted for overseas service. The Commonwealth Government decided to take a referendum of the people to decide whether any shortage in the number of volunteers coming forward should be made good by the compulsory enlistment of single men. The second referendum held in December, 1917, was also decided in the negative.

In all, Australia incurred war expenditure totalling 288,000,000. Australian forces during World War I - all volunteers - totaled 416,809, drawn from a population that did not reach 5 million until 1918. Nearly 330,000 [329,682] served overseas in army, navy, and flying corps units. They incurred 226,000 [317,953] casualties, including 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner and 60,000 killed (58,961 killed).

For Australia, as for many nations, the First World War remains the most costly conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. The Australian civil population bore without murmuring the heart-breaking losses of the Gallipoli expedition and the devastation-smaller as regards loss of life but more cruel in its needless sacrifice of the outbreak of venereal disease following the location of their young troops near the stews of Cairo.

Australia's economy and politics were profoundly affected by the scope of the measures that the government took to support the country's war effort. The pattern of industry and employment changed, in part to provide substitutes for products unobtainable from Britain during the war. Despite the growth of manufacturing and industrial employment, unemployment was high - greater than 6 percent - and the Australian economy was not prosperous during the war years.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:33:27 ZULU