On This Day: Australia joins WWI
ON 6 AUGUST 1914 crowds gathered on street corners, engaged in animated discussions about Australia’s involvement in the international conflict that had begun only weeks earlier, when on 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
After Germany declared war on Russia and France and, on 4 August, invaded Belgium, Britain declared war with Germany, and Australia immediately pledged troops.
After the release of false reports on August 5 regarding an alleged Australian naval engagement in the North Sea, Aussies were clamouring for legitimate information.
In Melbourne, people flocked to premises of The Argus newspaper as they anxiously awaited accurate information. Police officers guarded the doors, arms linked in defence.
Campaigning for conscription in Mingenew, Western Australia in 1917. (Image: State Library of Western Australia)
Australia’s first international conflict
Later that night, Australia’s official involvement in the war was announced, and the raucous crowd outside The Argus turned boisterous. A mob of 3000 young men agitated in support of Britain. Amidst the riotous chaos, a police horse was stabbed and businesses were vandalised.
Despite this rough turn, says Aaron Pegram, a historian at the Australian War Memorial, “When the news was received, going to war alongside Britain was universally considered to be the right thing to do. Both the government and the opposition agreed unanimously”.
This was a chance to demonstrate Australia’s military value while ensuring long-term support from Britain. Australians realised that its nation’s small population, paired with its expansive swaths of vulnerable coastline, rendered it dependent upon Imperial defence.
Political parties, churches, community leaders and media outlets issued statements of support. “The war touched everyone in Australia at the time and all Australians contributed to the war effort,” Aaron says.
Many companies pledged to grant fully-paid leave to all employees who enlisted and guaranteed that their positions would be held for them upon return. Even the arts became involved with musical performances ending in cast renditions of Advance Australia Fair during which audience members would often chime in.
At two Melbourne theatres, Her Majesty and Theatre Royal, the orchestra began playing the national anthem before curtain-rise, and ended performances with God Save the King.
Lines of the 9th and 10th Battalions at Mena Camp, looking towards the Pyramids. The soldier in the foreground is playing with a kangaroo, the regimental mascot. Many Australian units brought kangaroos and other Australian animals with them to Egypt, and some were given to the Cairo Zoological Gardens when the units went to Gallipoli. (Image: Australian War Memorial)
Rushing to enlist in WWI and feathers
Young men quickly enlisted. At the outset of recruitment efforts, the Australian Imperial Force had a pool of 820,000 men of ‘fighting age’ to choose from. Since these volunteer enlistees were so plentiful, standards of physical ‘fitness’ were exceptionally high.
Men younger than 19, older than 38 or shorter than 168 cm were not accepted and candidates with prior military experience were preferred. Australia endeavoured to select only the strongest men to serve as representatives in the nation’s first major military engagement.
Enlistment fervour was so robust that by the end of the year, 50,000 men had enlisted while thousands more were turned away.
All ‘fit’ men were expected to serve and as the war progressed, social pressure to enlist intensified. Men who were rejected from military service at the recruiting depot nearest their homes would often attempt to enlist in other states.
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“Especially later in the war, there was tremendous pressure to enlist. Government enlistment propaganda made direct appeals to masculinity and deliberately targeted manhood,” Aaron says.
The stigma associated with shirking military service was so strong that it became common practice for women to give fit men who did not enlist a white feather as a symbol of cowardice.
The Department of Defence issued two badges to prevent failed enlistees from encountering this dishonour. One declared its wearer ‘Medically Unfit for Military Service’ and the other stated that the individual was ‘Required for Home Service’.
WWI’s lasting impact on Australia’s national identity
Almost 40 per cent of Australia’s male population aged 18-44 had enlisted by the end of the Great War, and almost 15 per cent of those men didn’t return. It would forever shape the young Australian nation, which was less then two decades old when the war began.
It cemented, says Aaron, the idea that Australian men were rugged pioneers. “The First World War was a catalyst for the formation of a distinct national identity for Australia. After the war, Australians saw themselves differently.
“They played a main part in the main arena of world events and had a significant impact on the outcome,” Aaron says.
More than 61,500 Australian troops died throughout the course of World War I.