Why did Australian men volunteer for the AIF in World War I?

20th May 2016


W E of the A .I.F .! . . .
We stand At home, or in an alien land,
For love of country, first and last—
To guard its Future, and its Past . . .
(Clough, 1943:1)

When war broke out across Europe, Australia was a fledgling nation with a population of only around five million people. While federation, in 1901, and the possession of the ability of self-governance, had made Australia a ‘proper country’, she was still part of the British Empire. On the morning 5th of August 1914, following Britain’s formal declaration of war on Germany, Australia, constitutionally bound to Great Britain as a member of the Commonwealth, also found herself, suddenly and unexpectedly, at war. Individual motivations to enlist and serve are often complex at best, and as such, there exists no single or simple explanation or rationale as to why so many, so quickly, answered the call to volunteer. In the early days of the war, it is plausible that many saw enlistment as an opportunity to travel, to go on ‘a grand adventure’ so to speak, although there is little doubt that the majority also possessed patriotic motivations behind their actions. Other early motivations were often seen to be closely tied to social attitudes and beliefs surrounding masculinity and manliness, or as the result of influence exerted through government propaganda campaigns and social expectation.

In the post-colonial years it is realistic to attribute British heritage and ancestory to as much as ninety percent of the Australian population. This taken alongside the many aspects of typical daily life, including laws and education which were modeled on introduced British systems, it is natural that many Australians still perpetuated individualized perceptions of themselves as remaining British. Despite their place of birth, or naturalisation as an Australian citizen, many of the general populace continued to maintain a strong sense or patriotism and loyality to Great Britain, their ‘mother country’, and strongly desired to assist the British war effort in any way they could. “Most Australians, perhaps showing the depth of emotional ties with Britain, greeted the news [of Australia declaration to assist Great Britain in the war] with great enthusiasm” (RSLNSW, 2014). While volunteers rushed to enlist for “an exciting war which was expected to be over by Christmas”, for many Australia’s citizens, the reality of the situation was that they still felt an extremely strong affinity to the motherland (RSLNSW, 2014). Dowling (2007:11) suggests that socially, “in their hearts and minds a majority of Australian citizens probably felt more British than Australian” and considered themselves to be “’Australasian Britons’, bound to Britain by ‘the crimson thread of kinship’ and a proud junior partner in the empire” (Stanley, 2011). It is interesting to note that, according to an internet source provided by the Australian Government (2009), “the service records of men and women who were born in Australia state that they were ‘British born’”. During this period, there was a generally agreed upon feeling that it was one’s duty was to provide service to the ‘mother country’—a tangible truth for most Australians whose parents or grandparents really were British born (Crotty, 2001). While early enlistments may have stemmed from an underlying sense of patriotism, to either the young Australian nation, or the British motherland, it was only one of a myriad of reasons that Australians chose to enlist. Other reasons such as; governmental influence and the use of propaganda, a developing sense of the Australian identity, the search for adventure, the desire, and possible the perceived need to prove one’s self, financial incentives, and societal expectations were all equally important.

 b2 A 1915 postcard photograph with hand inscription, of ‘the firing line’ in Shrapnel Gully on Gallipoli.

According to Crotty (2001), Australians also joined because of the contemporary society’s interpretation of masculinity,. He notes that “the widespread enthusiasm which greeted the outbreak of World War I, particularly strong among middle-class males, marked the high point of a masculinized and militarized Australian manliness”. Notions of manhood and masculinity are socially constructed such that for a male to be identified as masculine, they must first meet a set of socially dictated roles or traits that have been deemed ‘appropriate’ for ‘men’ within a specific society (Franklin, 1987). Crotty (2001) explains that “although such notions were created through discourse, pre-war ideologies of manliness had very real effects in the social world”. Central to many of these ideas was the strength and romanticism portrayed in the growing bushman legends.

From the earliest days of colonization, early Australian society maintained the socially imposed acuity of manhood, brought from the British motherland with the first settlers. As the settlements expanded further into rural and more untamed lands, socio-cultural perceptions began to become increasingly more interwoven with the bush culture that developed in these remote areas. Davidson (2012) relates that of all things “the bushman prided himself on the ‘golden rule’ of mateship and the use of violence, as it allowed them to survive the harsh conditions of ‘outback’”, an ideology that is openly reflected in the war time mannerisms of the ANZAC legends. Australians have always had an image of themselves as tough pioneers, physically fit, toughened, strong and mentally capable for almost anything. War-time recruitment literature demanded no less. “Consequently, men felt pressured to prove they fitted this bill, otherwise they were telling everyone they weren’t good enough” (State Library of Victoria, 2014). This powerful mythology appeared to surround a much deeper, more primal inherent belief that war was one of the events that transitioned boys into men.

 b3 These badges were issued to medically unfit volunteers to prevent them from being handed white feathers, a sign of cowardice, by women in the streets.

Statistically, based on a population of 5 million, and between the ages of 19 and 38, Australia’s potential recruiting pool would have reached between 600,000 and 650,000 men of ‘fighting age’ . At the commencement of official recruitment processes, the Australian government proposed an initial commitment of 20,000 troops. With such a small commitment the government was able to set minimum height restrictions, health requirements and give preference to those who already possessed some form of military training or experience. With a standing military of less than half this in number, rapid expansion was needed to fulfill this obligation. At the initial call for volunteers, despite a rigidly strict enlistment criteria, public support was overwhelmingly strong. Australia sought to send a contingent of soldiers, within which about fifty percent were either current service personnel, trained militiamen, of veterans with previous war service. The remainder was to be augmented by volunteers between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five years , who exceeded the minimum entrance criteria, of being taller than 168cm , a chest measurement of greater than 86cm, without any physical limitations, and no discernable BC or D tattoo markings (AWM(a), n.d). In effect Australia was sending the best she could muster.

During 1914, only thirteen years after federation many felt a need to establish a national identity, that was uniquely Australian, and in doing so develop a sense of national pride. Popular belief was that in entering into the war, Australia would become better represented as a nation independent from British rule and interference, a country with their own army, a country that follows, for better or for worse, their own leadership decisions. They would no longer be viewed, or view themselves, as a legacy of British colonial rule. This meant that party politics and political affiliations also played a strong role, since Australia still remained a dominion of the British Crown, and as a sovereign territory maintained an obligation to protect, defend and serve when called upon to do so. In providing service to the Crown during World War I, in the capacity of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), it offered the first substantial challenge to views of nationhood that would later be the foundational stimulus behind the growth of a more self-orientated form of Australian nationalism (Stanley, 2011). In an influential speech the Australian Labor Party leader Andrew Fisher (1914) declared national and governmental support of Great Britain, regardless of outcome or consequence. He stated that; ‘Should the worst happen, after everything has been done that honour will permit, Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling”(Curtis, 2014). Another, similarly powerful, speech favoring the defense of the ‘Mother Country’ was delivered by the Liberal leader Joseph Cook (1914). In this speech he proclaimed that; “Whatever happens, Australia is a part of the Empire right to the full. Remember that when the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war … So far as the defences go here and now in Australia, I want to make it quite clear that all our resources in Australia are in the Empire and for the Empire, and for the preservation and the security of the Empire”, (Trueman, 2012; Parliamentary Education Office, n.d; ABC News, 2014). In showing their support for such steps, Australians around the country ardently pledged their commitment. The recruiting offices were overwhelmed with enlistees. Thousands of men volunteered almost immediately, and during the following four months in excess of 50,000 had enlisted. Many thousands of others had also been rejected on medical grounds.

MacIntyre (1993:143) remarks that Australian soldiers were also likely to have been attracted by the prospect of being paid five shillings per day (and another shilling after leaving Australia). This was a high wage considering the financial conditions of the time (State Library of Victoria, 2014) and “was undoubtedly and attraction” during a period of financial hardship. Australians experienced a rise in unemployment figures from 5.9 percent at the beginning of 1914 to 11 percent by the end of the same year (MacIntyre 1993:146). Contrary to other areas back home where the vast majority of employment opportunities continued to exist in an agricultural arena that was now experiencing difficulties, military service payments were paid regularly, and on time. There were, however others who sold up businesses, farms, and other assets in order to enlist.

After several disastrous offensives which resulted in high casualty rates and losses of life, along with the realization that for others this could become a very long war, enlistments began to decline. The Australian Government however, had by this time already agreed to supply more troops to the European arena. Achieving this called for a relaxing of the previous, stringently adhered to, physical requirements for enlistment. In further efforts to bolster numbers, recruiters began organizing meetings, both in city and regional areas, to ‘encourage’ , men to volunteer for enlistment. Many attendees were told it was their duty to join up and to serve King and Country in a righteous cause. As the War progressed, propaganda and government influence became a crucial instrument in the encouragement of further Australian enlistment.

Fervently charged propaganda posters, served a dual purpose during this period. Their first was “to maintain public anger about German atrocities” through the portrayal of the Germans as inhumane monsters (State Library of Victoria, 2014). The second purpose served to promote enlistment. Most appealed to the viewer through a sense of duty to their country, their freedom, and most importantly to their obligations. Most of these posters were simple, in design and message, convincing, and maintained patriotic and rousing messages. One of the most simple, yet effective carried the message “This space is reserved for a fit man”.

Before the war’s end, the vast majority of men deemed of “fighting age”, and some women, had applied for active service to the AIF. In total, almost 416,809 Australians enlisted, and of these 331,781 of these served on overseas deployment (AWM(b), n.d.). Although many sought to enlist immediately, there were a considerable number who did not. Whatever their individual motivations, Australians enlisted for a diverse range of reasons, and while aspirations to assist England were sufficiently compelling for most, other reasons including governmental influence, changes to the Australian identity, prospects of adventure, financial incentives, perceptions of masculinity, societal expectations and propaganda, remained equally significant in convincing thousands of Australians to fight during the Great War.

Men of the A .I.F .! . . .
Heroes I f ever heroes were, God knows!
Men who were at Gallipoli,
And still as soldiers eagerly
Enter the lists and join the scrap
And fight like hell, and take the rap . . .
(Clough 1943:46)


Artist Unknown. 1915. Recruitment Advertisement, 1915 (June 12) Moorabbin News http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/img/article/264_1.jpg

Photograper Unknown, 1915. “Gallipoli Peninsula – Here Australia became a nation – the firing line Shrapnel Gully”. Collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library: Manuscripts & Pictorial. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=24693&recordNum=0&q=shrapnel+gully&t=items&l=en&tc=0&numResults=20

Photographer Unknown, 1915. “Badge: Volunteered for Active Service. Medically Unfit”. State Library of Victoria. http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/image/badge-volunteered-active-service-medically-unfit
ABC News, 2014. “World War I: How Australia reacted to the outbreak of conflict”. (4th August 2014). http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-04/world-war-i-australian-reaction-to-outbreak-of-conflict/5603588

Australian Bureau of Statistics. 1914. “Year Book Australia, 1914”. Canberra, Aust. http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/free.nsf/0/154B66EA61877590CA257AEE0014E999/$File/13010_1901_1913%20section%204.pdf

Australian Bureau of Statistics. 1920. “Year Book Australia, 1920”. Canberra, Aust. http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/free.nsf/0/2DB373BF5D0CD9D0CA257AEF00193903/$File/13010_1901_1919%20section%204.pdf

Australian Government, 2009. “Australians on the Western Front”. Australia.gov.au. http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/australians-on-the-western-front

Australian War Memorial, (a), n.d. Enlistment standards. AWM.Canberra, Aust. https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/enlistment/

Australian War Memorial, (a), n.d. Enlistment statistics, First World War. AWM.Canberra, Aust. https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/enlistment/ww1/

Clough, M., 1943. “We of the A.I.F. and other poems”. Dymock’s Book Arcade Ltd., Sydney, Aust.

Crotty, M., 2001. “The limits of Manliness”. Australian Humanities Review, ANU, Canberra, Aust.

Curtis, J. 2014. “To the Last Man – Australia’s entry to war in 1914”. Parliament of Australia. http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1415/AustToWar1914

Dowling, C., 2007. “World War I: The conflict that gave rise to the Anzac legend”. Exisle Publishing, Wollombi, Aust.

Franklin, C.W., 1987. “The Changing Definition of Masculinity”. Plenum Press, New York, USA.

MacIntyre, S., 1993. “The Oxford History of Australia: The Succeeding Age 1901-1942”. Oxford university Press Australia, South Melbourne. Aust.

Parlimentary Education Office, n.d. “Going to War” (Transcript), To our last shilling. http://tols.peo.gov.au/going-to-war/going-to-war-transcript

Rosenzweig, P.A. 2006. “Adventurous roving natures: Northern Territory volunteers of 1914”. Sabretache, vol.47, No.2, June 2006:7-21. http://search.informit.com.au.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/documentSummary;dn=200608333;res=IELAPA

RSLNSW, 2014. “The First World War”. http://rslnsw.org.au/commemoration/heritage/the-first-world-war

Stanley, P., 2011. Australia in World War One. BBC History. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/australia_01.shtml

State Library of Victoria, n.d. “The rush to enlist”, State Library of Victoria (Website Copyright 2016). http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/australia-wwi/home-wwi/rush-enlist.

Trueman, C.N., 2012. “Australia and World War One”, History Learning Site. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-one/australia-and-world-war-one/