Australia's Part in the Great War

By Fred S. Alford

[The American Review of Reviews, August 1916]

Australia watched the breaking out of the war, early in August, 1914, with the deepest concern. There was but one opinion. England's war in the defense of martyred Belgium, in particular, and democracy and freedom generally was Australia's cause too. It was an inspiring slogan that rallied the people to the flag with remarkable unanimity. Something like 97 per cent of the population of Australia is of British birth or direct British descent—more British than Britain herself. The remaining 3 per cent, are mostly of German birth or descent. Many of these were indiscreet, championing the cause of the "Fatherland," and were promptly interned. But it must be frankly stated that the hyphenated Australians generally have proved good colonists and a fair proportion of their numbers have shown their practical appreciation of British freedom and liberty by enlisting in the Australian army for active service against the common foe.


The outbreak of hostilities in Europe caught Australia in the midst of bitter general elections. Both federal houses of Parliament had been dissolved, owing to a constitutional deadlock. The ministry had been urgently recalled to Melbourne when the war clouds lowered, and were guided by public opinion. The Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Joseph Cook, P. C., placed the commonwealth navy at the unreserved disposal of Great Britain, and offered to provide, equip, and maintain an expeditionary force of 20,000 men for dispatch to Europe. Both offers were immediately accepted by the Imperial Government.

No constitutional machinery existed for the recall of a dissolved legislature, so the elections had to proceed during the most anxious period of the war. There was some abatement of bitterness, but the campaign was continued and decided on party issues, resulting in the defeat of the Government (Liberal) at the polls on September 5, 1914. The Rt. Hon. Andrew Fisher then took office as Prince Minister of a Labor Government, and endorsed the war policy of his predecessor by pledging Australia "to the last man and the last shilling."


It says much for the efficiency of the Australian navy that it was able to put to sea without a moment's delay, ready for every emergency. Its establishment was of recent date. The Rt. Hon. Joseph Cook, then Minister for Defence, piloted the bill authorizing the construction of a local navy through Parliament in November, 1909. The program provided for a naval expenditure of' $90,000,000 over a period of eight years. The governing force behind the departure was that the time had arrived for Australia to take up the burden of the defense of the Pacific, owing to the concentration of England's naval forces in the North Sea. The order for the construction of the dreadnought H. M. A. S. Australia was placed in England the following month. Provision was also made for the building of cruisers, smaller vessels, and submarines. The fleet had been in commission only a few months prior to war, and was, accordingly, modern.

The Australia proved a golden investment. It is no secret that her 12-inch guns, in the early days of the war, on two occasions at least, saved the rich east coast of the Commonwealth and New Zealand from bombardment by the German Pacific squadron. In the meantime, Australian and New Zealand forces, escorted by the Commonwealth fleet made a quick conquest of Germany's Pacific possessions—New Guinea, Samoa, and the Marshall Islands. The resistance offered was not serious, and the casualties sustained were not heavy. After Von Spee had sunk the Monmouth and the Good Hope off the coast of Chile, he was driven 'round Cape Horn into the trap prepared by the brilliant Sturdee at Falkland Islands. The Australia was largely responsible for the movement that drove the German squadron to its summary doom.

The consummation of Australia's naval efforts was when the H. M. A. S. Sydney ended the career of the notorious commerce raider Emden, off Cocos Island, on November 9, 1914. The Sydney was one of a dozen cruisers escorting thirty-eight transports conveying 30,000 Australasian troops and equipment. It is recorded that the Emden's captain had determined to "cut loose" among such fine game, but the departure of this immense convoy had been well guarded. The Emden, unknowingly, had passed the convoy a few miles to the east just before dawn. The Sydney soon afterwards picked up the wireless call for help from Cocos and streaked off like a "slipped" greyhound after its quarry, and almost within sight of the troop-ships quickly battered and destroyed the Kaiser's most successful raider by overpowering gunnery. This feat was responsible for an outburst of extraordinary enthusiasm and gratification throughout Australia.


At the time that the Commonwealth had decided to establish its own navy, the military defense of Australia was not overlooked. At the close of 1909 a scheme for the compulsory universal service was placed on the statute, and was put into operation in 1911. All youths between the ages of 14 and 18 were required to register for training unless exempted as medically unfit. Those between the ages of 14 and 16 were trained as Junior Cadets. The next two-year term is in the Senior Cadets. From 12 to 14 years, preliminary training is carried out by the public schools. At 18 years of age they pass into the Citizen Forces, where the service continues until the age of 25. Full military uniforms and equipment are supplied even to the youngest cadets. The innovation has worked smoothly and successfully, and is popular. The trainees are compelled to put in so many hours' drill per quarter, training being given two evenings every week and one afternoon every month. In addition, the Citizen Forces go into camp for field training for a fortnight every year.

At the outbreak of war the following, divided into military units, were in training under the scheme:

Junior Cadets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Senior Cadets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Citizen Forces (1894-5-6 quotas) . . . . . .



When the first call for volunteers was made, the oldest trainees were only 20 years of age. The scheme, therefore, was of too recent establishment to be of any great utility at that time. The Citizen Forces were, however, mobilized for manning forts and similar home work, and their training still continues. The first 20,000 men for the Expeditionary Force were offering within a few days, and included a sprinkling of youthful "Citizens." Australia was fortunate in having a large supply of officers to draw from, trained specially for service in connection with the compulsory' system. All those now enlisting between the ages of 18 and 22 have had five years' training.

The initial force of 20,000—the First Division—consisting of three infantry brigades and one brigade of light horse, left western Australia on November 2, 1914. They disembarked in Egypt to complete their training and incidentally to preserve order. When Turkey threw in her lot with the Teutonic powers, the seditious propaganda in Egypt by German agents was making headway, and the small, quiet English Territorials from the ills of Lancashire were treated with levity by the Egyptians. The arrival of the big Australians on the scene was opportune. They knew how to impress natives and did It in characteristically Australian fashion. The undercurrent of mutinous discontent disappeared. The men from the antipodes rapidly became popular and were styled the "wealthy Australians." The 30,000 Australasians on that first Christmas Eve drew an average of $60 each—nearly $2,000,000! They spent this freely and lavishly in Cairo, more than making up for the absence of the usual tourists, creating a new conception of soldiery at once strange, majestic, and fearsome, but at the same time idolized by the Egyptian population.


The training of the men from "down under" was continued on the heavy desert sands. It was said to be the most arduous to which any body of troops were ever subjected. It was a test of endurance, and those who failed to stand it were sent back, leaving an army of physical giants fit for anything. They were prepared for a special task, and their opportunity came at the Dardanelles on the ever-memorable 25th of April, 1915, when the famous Third Brigade of Australian Infantry, commanded by Brig. Gen. E. G. Sinclair-Maclagan, C. B., D. S. O., and with the "Terrible Tenth" Battalion, under Col. S. Price-Weir, V. C., forming the center of the first line of attack, waded ashore under a merciless fire at point-blank range and rushed the first enemy trench on the beach with the cold steel in the early dawn. Then, pausing only to throw off their packs, they stormed up the precipitous cliffs of Gaba Tepe under a stream of leaden death.

Nothing could stand against these big, seasoned athletes. By midday they had pushed the German-officered Turks back four miles in extraordinarily difficult, broken country, capturing trench after trench, ridge after ridge, by the most furious and long-sustained bayonet drive in history. It was an unparalleled performance, and by troops under fire for the first time. Had it been possible to reinforce them, Constantinople would have fallen in a week. In the meantime, the remainder of the Australians, with the New Zealanders, were able to land. The thin line of khaki held firm, though without respite or sleep for four days, and the invaders finally became, as the Turkish counter attacks died away, securely dug in. The casualties were appalling—the Australian First Infantry Division losing 60 per cent of its strength in four days! The success, as General Sir Ian Hamilton has stated, was due to the natural initiative and resourcefulness so characteristic of Australians, in being able to go on when they lost their officers or were out of touch with them in the broken country.


The area held by the Australians on Galli poli 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 have 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, as inexplicable to Sir Ian Hamilton (whose orders were to push forward at all costs) as it was to the Anzacs, who cannot understand hesitancy in such circumstances. For the second time the success—and the sacrifice—of the Anzacs was in vain.

While every unit accomplished magnificent work in that August fighting, the taking of the Lone Pine trenches, with a loss of 3000 men, is the finest thing yet recorded even in this war of great deeds. The honor belongs to the First Brigade of Australian infantry. Charging across the intervening ground, swept with a hurricane of lead, hacking their way through deadly entanglements, the survivors reached the enemy position. The trenches were roofed over with heavy logs. Finding or making openings, the intrepid Anzacs plunged straight in amongst the waiting Turks. Then followed the most bloody and terrible conflict underground conceivable. Choking with acid fumes of bursting bombs, smothered in blood from the vicious stabbing of cold steel, the fight waged through the network of trenches, over the barriers of mangled dead and dying soldiers, without abatement for fifty hours. Physical endurance and deadly tenacity won, in spite of overwhelming odds, and the Anzacs remained sole possessors of Lone Pine.


With the entry of Bulgaria into the war on the side of the Central Powers, withdrawal from Gallipoli was inevitable. The British Government hesitated to sanction this, fearing the effect it might have on the Australian people. The Commonwealth was approached, and the Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. W. M. Hughes, P. C., LL. B. (who succeeded Mr. Fisher in October, 1915), replied that Australia would continue to be guided by the imperial authorities. He offered to create three new divisions of infantry and supply reinforcements of 16,000 per month, bringing Australia's contribution to 300,000 by the middle of 1916. This was unanimously endorsed by public opinion. 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. The evacuation was a masterpiece. Fraught with natural difficulties threatening annihilation of the rearguard, every living soul (only four were wounded) melted silently away, and the last boat had pulled out from Anzac Beach before the Turks were aware, by the burning of abandoned stores, that the Anzacs had left. The men felt keenly leaving the positions so dearly won.

he troops were reorganized in Egypt, and the present strength of the Australian army, including the three new divisions, has been brought up to sixty-eight battalions of infantry (each 1000 rifles) and ten regiments of light horse. In addition, there is the full complement of army service, army medical corps, besides a flying corps and a number of artillery brigades, etc. Two more divisions of infantry are under contemplation. The New Zealand army, associating with the Australian, is about one-third the size of the latter—all under the command of General Sir W. Birdwood, who is the idol of his men and familiarly known as "Birdie."


Critics say there is no discipline in an Australian army. From the continental standpoint there is not. Australians obey orders promptly and intelligently, but retain their individuality. General Birdwood delights in relating experiences characteristic of the men of Anzac. An English colonel of the old school once complained that the Australians did not show him proper respect. "That is nothing," replied General Birdwood; "they seldom salute me either. One day, when on the rounds of inspection, I passed a burly Queenslander on sentry duty who stared at me with nonchalant interest without saluting. Just then a shell came screaming over, and the Queenslander, turning quickly to me, cried warningly: 'Duck your blamed head, Birdie!'" "And what did you do?" inquired the Colonel, aghast, anticipating an account of a summary court-martial. "Why, I ducked my blamed head, of course," was the smiling reply of the distinguished General.

Glorious deeds of individual bravery and thrilling episodes at Anzac would fill volumes, but one thing stands out alone; that was "the fortitude and cheerfulness of wounded Anzacs. They died smiling, often with the words of their war-song on their lips, "Australia will be there." Famous surgeons and war correspondents with experience of other fronts met nothing like it before. In an inspiring poem, London Punch gave tribute to the Anzacs as "the bravest thing God ever made." The Australian is described by competent judges as the finest soldier in the world. Clean-cut, of magnificent physique, extraordinary endurance, and ever cool and resourceful, he is in a class by himself. He is grim and determined in combat and a big, merry, overgrown boy in relaxation, with a fine capacity for enjoying the best of life.

In April last, the first of the Anzac army landed in France, as unobtrusively as the first English expeditionary force, twenty months earlier. They proceeded immediately to the front, and it is a great compliment to their prowess that they took over one of the most difficult sectors of the whole Western front. Their fine physique and merry dispositions won the hearts of the French immediately.

The casualties of the Australians on Gallipoli totaled 41,524, of whom 6837 were killed; 1838 are missing (all considered killed), while only 61 are prisoners of war. The balance were either wounded or ill. These casualties were mostly confined to the First Division, who bore the brunt of the work. The New Zealand losses were in the same proportion. Casualty lists are now coming through of the operations in France, but are not heavy yet.


After the dispatch of the first expeditionary force, other contingents were raised and left at intervals. The forces are being voluntarily recruited, and up to the middle of May 260,000 men had been accepted for active service abroad. Approximately 200,000 have been dispatched to the front. The remaining 60,000 men are in camp in various stages of preparation for service abroad. The medical examination is unusually strict, and nearly another 100,000 men have been rejected for slight defects. Owing to the great distance from the field of operations and the heavy cost of maintenance, it was considered unwise to relax the medical test, as men who break down under the strain of modern warfare are a burden. Besides those enlisted for active service, a large number of men, mostly medical "rejects," are retained for home service, on a war footing, for camp and detail work. In including the contributions to the navy, Australia is maintaining an active force of approximately 300,000 men at present, but which is steadily growing all the time. No other dominion, proportionately, has done so much.

As the commitments for reinforcements are now so large, and as public opinion demands that the supreme effort should be made to bring the war to an early termination, the agitation for the immediate adoption of general compulsion is widespread and overwhelming. It illustrates Australia's grim determination to see the business through. While the majority of the members of the House of Representatives favor compulsion, the extremists of the Labor Party are opposing it. The Labor Government, in power by a small majority, is endeavoring to avoid a change in recruiting policy recommended by the Commonwealth War Council until the return of Prime Minister Hughes from Europe.

Mr. Hughes is a man of extraordinary force of character, who dominates his militant supporters by his masterful personality. He freed Australian metals from German control, eliminated shareholders of German birth from Australian companies, and has forced his views on post-war trade problems on the British Government so strongly that he was asked to represent the Empire at the Economic Conference in Paris in June. Mr. Hughes electrified Great Britain by his fervid eloquence and advocacy of a more vigorous prosecution of the war and was offered a seat in the British Cabinet. If the Prime Minister demands compulsion after his return to Australia, then it will be adopted. Meanwhile, special efforts will be made to accelerate enlistments. New Zealand, however, has introduced a bill into Parliament for compulsion, and the other dominions are not likely to lag behind this lead.


The sacrifice to Australia is no small one. She is bearing the whole of the cost of her military efforts. The nature of this burden may be judged by the fact that the Australian soldier is the highest paid in the world, and probably the best equipped. A private draws $10.50 per week, a corporal $17.50, a lieutenant $35, and higher ranks in proportion. Very liberal provision is also made for dependents of fallen soldiers, and for soldiers incapacitated. The pension to a widow or other dependents is half the rate of pay the soldier was drawing, with extra for each child under sixteen. The scale of pensions to permanently disabled soldiers is being increased 50 per cent, and will in special cases be $10 per week for a private, but generally $7.10.

The whole of the soldier's equipment, including rifles and small-arms ammunition, is manufactured locally. Artillery, field requirements, and land, transport is mostly supplied by England. For the transportation of troops the Commonwealth has a fleet of ninety vessels in constant service. Up to the end of June, 1916, Australia's participation in the war is estimated at $375,000,000 in "local'" expenditure alone. The Treasurer has stated that no returns are available yet of the expenditure incurred by the Imperial Government in maintaining and equipping Australian forces at the front, where necessary. This will be adjusted and debited to Australia later.

Much of the war expenditure is being met by local loans. In September, 1915, the first war loan of $25,000,000, at 4½ per cent interest, was submitted to the people, and $70,000,000 was subscribed. In January, 1916, the second loan of $50,000,000 was submitted, and $105,000,000 was subscribed. Previously to this the banks advanced the Government $50,000,000 until after the war. The ready response to the war loans is a clear indication of the people's confidence in victory.


The industrial position in Australia is very satisfactory. There is no unemployment, no distress, and therefore no relief work. The war census, taken in 1915 to determine the country's resources, showed that the wealth of Australia was $5,000,000,000 and the annual income $1,000,000,000. Savings-bank deposits were the highest in the world per head of population, and show no decline. The postal revenue has increased and governmental finances generally are in a sound position. The states have been spending millions of British capital on great reproductive works. It is feared, however, as a result of a protracted war, that there will be a limitation to borrowing, and there is an undercurrent of uneasiness in respect to the economic aftermath should Europe be involved in great financial crises.

Australia is remarkable for its recuperative qualities. It experienced the worst drought for fifty years in 1914-5, depleting stock to a large extent, and necessitating the importation of wheat and fodder. Last year, by way of contrast, was the best season ever known, the wheat yield totaling 190,000,000 bushels, or 50 per cent in excess of the previous best crop.

To assist the Allied cause further, munition committees have been formed in each of the states, for the purpose of directing the manufacture of shells in large quantities, with satisfactory results. The Commonwealth explosive factory has been enlarged, and the Government, besides providing for its own needs, is also supplying the cordite requirements of two other dominions. The finest example of Australia's sense of responsibility in matters of defense was in the successful launching last year of three destroyers and the cruiser Brisbane, a sister ship to the famous Sydney, constructed in the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard in Sydney Harbor, N. S. W. This was the first large warship built in any of the dominions. Other keels have been laid down. A portion of the Australian navy is in the North Sea fleet, the balance on escort duty. All have done fine work.


The people's part in the war is remarkable for its practical enthusiasm, more particularly in view of the disastrous drought of 1914. The public have subscribed, up to May, 1916, nearly $20,000,000 in donations to the various patriotic funds. About half of this amount is for the wounded soldiers, the balance being devoted to Belgian relief and Red Cross funds. Hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of wheat, beef, mutton, and other goods have been collected for the Belgians, and innumerable gifts and motor ambulances for the Red Cross.

Australia's part in the Great War may not be large compared with the colossal efforts involved in all Europe. But added to the more or less equal efforts of New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and India, and combined with the great energy of Great Britain, the British Empire, working unitedly in one direction, must exert a powerful and overwhelming influence on the successful-course and duration of the war.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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