Fast Facts File: Australia's involvement in World War I

Overview
World War I, sometimes called the 'Great War', lasted four years, from 4 August 1914 until 11 November 1918. Initially it was a war between two sets of alliances: the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and their allies, including the member countries of the British Empire, and the USA, which entered the war in 1917.

The war began soon after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne by a Serbian nationalist. Austria threatened to punish Serbia, an ally of Russia. Russia threatened Austria. Austria, in turn, appealed to Germany. Germany struck first by declaring war on Russia and its ally, France. When Germany invaded Belgium, Britain entered the war on the side of Russia and France. The date was 4 August 1914.

The war was fought on a number of fronts. In Europe, the Western Front was in France and Belgium. The Eastern Front involved Russia and Austria-Hungary. Africa was another front because of colonial possessions on that continent, and after Turkey entered the war on 1 November 1914, the Middle East became another theatre of war. (Maps of the areas are available at http://www.anzacday.org.au/education/maps/WW1/ww1.html)

An estimated ten million lives were lost in the war and the dominance of trench warfare in Europe resulted in dreadful suffering for all troops. From 1917, the Allied Powers (the Triple Entente and its allies) began to overcome the Central Powers, and the battle at Amiens in June 1918 launched the victorious Allied offensive. On 11 November 1918 the Armistice was signed, signaling the defeat of the Central Powers.

On 18 June 1919 the peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, was signed and the League of Nations established. Under the terms of the treaty Germany was compelled to pay reparations for its actions during the war. (For further resources on World War I see: http://worldwar1.com/)

Australian involvement in World War I
Although the theatres of war were very distant from Australia, its membership of the British Empire ensured that there was strong (although not universal) public support for involvement in the war. In 1914, Australia's Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, immediately promised Australian support for Britain 'to the last man and the last shilling'.

The Australian population in 1914 was less than five million. A summary of the numbers of those who served and of the numbers of deaths and other casualties makes it clear that Australia made a major sacrifice for the Allied war effort. Numbers involved:
Enlisted and served overseas: 324,000
Dead: 61,720
Wounded: 155,000 (all services)
Prisoners of war: 4,044 (397 died while captive)
(Source: Australian War Memorial at http://www.awm.gov.au/)

The Anzacs
Australian involvement in World War I is synonymous with the legend of the Anzacs (ANZAC = Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). The name became famous with the landing of the Corps on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey on 25 April 1915. It was the first military engagement in which significant numbers of Australians fought and died as Australian nationals.

The Anzacs were part of an Allied campaign against the Turks to control the Dardenalles and thus open the way to Constantinople and Eastern Europe. This engagement ended with the evacuation of Australian troops on 19 - 20 December 1915.

The Gallipoli campaign resulted in the deaths of 7,600 Australians and 2,500 New Zealanders and the wounding of 19,000 Australians and 5,000 New Zealanders. Despite the defeat, the legend attached to the heroism, comradeship and valour of the soldiers, stretcher-bearers, medical officers and others involved remains a source of Australian pride and national identity. (Teacher and student resources: http://www.anzacday.org.au/)

Location of Australian forces
 

  • First Australian troops sent to Egypt to defend British interests against the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), 1915
  • Engaged in battle on the Gallipoli Peninsula against the Turks on 25 April 1915
  • Evacuated from Gallipoli 19 - 20 December 1915
  • The Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) then reorganised; expanded from two to five infantry divisions
  • Transferred to France from March 1916
  • AIF mounted division remained in the Middle East

Style of combat
Europe
 

  • Trench warfare with opposing armies facing each other through north-eastern France from the English Channel to the Swiss border and across Belgium
  • Use of machine guns and artillery favouring defence over attack (Visit trench warfare display at http://www.awm.gov.au/, 1918 online exhibition.)
  • By 1918 the Allies were combining infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft, enabling their ultimate victory

Middle East
A mobile war involving the Australian Light Horse Regiment: Conditions of extreme heat, harsh terrain and shortage of water

At sea
The RAN involved under the command of the Royal Navy One significant victory -- the destruction of the German raider Emden near the Cocos Islands in November 1914

In the air
About 3,000 Australian airmen served in the Middle East and France with the Australian Flying Corps

Major battles
 

  • Gallipoli, Turkey (For full details visit http://www.anzacday.org.au/)
  • Fromelles on the Somme, France, July 1916
  • Bullecourt, France, 1917
  • Messines, Belgium, 1917
  • Ypres (the battle of Passchedaele), Belgium, 1917
  • Hamel Spur, France, 4 July 1918
  • Mont St Quentin, France
  • Peronne, France
  • Hindenberg Line, France

(Details of each of these battles are available at http://www.awm.gov.au/, 1918 section)

Role of women in World War I
Women were not involved as fighting personnel during the war. However, they served as members of the Australian Army Nursing Service dealing with injuries and immense suffering in the field. The first draft of nursing sisters left Australia in September 1914. Throughout the war they served wherever Australian troops were sent. In total, 2,139 served overseas, 423 served in Australia, 25 died and 388 were decorated for their service. (Teacher and student resource: http://www.anzacday.org.au/) Women worked in Australia through organisations such as the Red Cross and the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau and contributed to the morale of the fighting forces by organising and packing supplies. The huge toll of dead and wounded meant that frequently women were left with the entire responsibility for holding families together.

On the home front: Debate about conscription
Although there was great popular support for Australia's involvement in the war, it was not universal. In particular, the issue of conscription created great debate in the Australian community. Australian troops fighting overseas enlisted voluntarily and at first there was great enthusiasm for enlistment. However, the huge toll of deaths and the length of the war meant that by 1916 the number of volunteers was not sufficient to meet the requirements of the British military command.

The Australian Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, was committed to supplying the AIF and the British Government with as many reinforcements as possible. He opted to put a referendum to the Australian people. The referendum proposed that men undergoing compulsory military training should serve overseas. The national vote was held on 28 October 1916 and was defeated: 1,160,033 voted against and 1,087,557 for.

On 17 December 1917 a second referendum was held. At this referendum, Prime Minister Hughes was seeking to reinforce voluntary enlistment with single men, widowers and divorced men without dependants, who were between the ages of 20 and 44 and who would be called up by ballot. The referendum was defeated with 1,181,747 against and 1,015,159 in favour. (Teacher and student resource: http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs161.aspx)

Back to Activity 1. Events that shape our nation's identity: Australians at war