Home Front

Home Front book cover

This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in World War I. This resource looks at the impact of society of the First World War. Alongside this, it also hosts more than 100 full-page images. 

Department of Veterans' Affairs
Craig Wilcox
Australians in World War I
Reprinted May 2014
Home Front11 MB

One Saturday in 1917 a congregation gathered in a little brick church in the Sydney suburb of Erskineville to dedicate a new stained glass window. As was the way of things three years into the first world war, the window, with its rich reds and purples, wasn’t in honour of a saint or priest, but of two men dear to the congregation: Alan and Gordon Douglas. They were brothers; they were soldiers; and now they were dead, killed in battles that slaughtered thousands without bringing victory much closer. A third Douglas brother, young Ken, was also in uniform and still fighting on—but not for much longer. A month later his parents learned that he too was dead. So they installed a second window in the church, this time honouring a son who had lied about his age (and also his name) to get into uniform. It was dedicated three days before the bleak and anxious Christmas of 1917, as Australians wondered if the war would ever end, and as they looked back on a month of angry debate about whether other young men should be conscripted to fight in it.

Crowds of spectators line Melbourne's Swanston Street and perch on awnings to cheer on a detachment of Anzacs home from the fighting overseas, September 1918. (AWM J00350)

The experience of the millions of Australians who lived through the four years of World War I in their homes and workplaces, rather than in the army or navy, probably found its lowest point in the sobering news of aimless battles and in heart-broken mourning for dead relatives and friends. Almost as heart-breaking was the great debate about conscription. But their experience was more than this. There was a frantic support for the war, a surrender of leisure time to help the troops in some way or other, and a nudging of ‘slackers’ and ‘shirkers’ to support them too. There was excitement and a sense of purpose, especially among young women and children, and a thrill that some social constraints could be ignored in a national emergency. There was also unemployment and rising prices, and wartime restrictions on old pleasures like drinking and gambling, or watching horse races and football matches. There was growing resentment among the poor and some trade union members, even a gradual defection from the war effort. There was the military service performed near homes and factories in case the fighting came close, and internment behind barbed wire of Australians considered potential or actual enemies. On the eve of victory in 1918 there were weary calls for a negotiated peace. By the end of the war Australians at home were nearly as exhausted as Australians in the front line. As a newspaper predicted when the war began, every Australian was tested in those years, including those who had never heard a shot fired. 1

Chapter 1: Australia before the war

In the winter of 1914 Australia seemed a peaceful and prosperous place. It was also very different from Australia today. Fewer than five million people shared the vast land’s wealth. Nearly all were descended from English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish colonists, so they spoke a single language and largely agreed on how life should be lived. Most adults married for life and raised large families, and sex before marriage was said to be disgraceful. Many read a newspaper every day, and increasing numbers went to local cinemas to watch the first silent movies and early newsreels—the ancestors of today’s television news programs. Almost everyone went to a Christian church at least twice a year. Beer, tea and tobacco were the standard drugs, all of them legal. Men worked five and a half days a week, many were active members of a trade union, and most supported strikes launched to improve working conditions. Most women did no paid work, to the frustration of a few and the relief of most. Like today, nearly all adults could vote. Half of them supported the trade union based Labor Party, the rising political force that promised great social reforms, perhaps even a slow path to socialism, and a hazy vision of a future with no more inequality. More concrete, and more widespread, was a conviction that migrants from Asia, or even from mainland Europe, were strange, inferior, even dangerous people, who should never be admitted to Australia.

Not that every Australian was alike in 1914—social fractures of class, ethnicity, region and denomination were deeper than most people suspected. In some ways there was little in common between, on the one hand, a rural grazier with his tree-shaded house and live-in maid, his daughters boarding at expensive schools in the city and his suntanned, smiling sons learning the ropes on the land; and on the other hand an harassed housewife of broad accent and heavily-repaired clothes, her spindly children attending the local Catholic school, and a room or two of her tiny rented terraced house given over to lodgers to help make ends meet. Poor Australians of Irish descent like this woman were outsiders in many ways. Catholics within a Protestant majority, respectful of their priests and of the Pope in Rome, ardent that England should grant the same ‘home rule’ to Ireland that Australia enjoyed, they were sceptical towards the prevailing allegiance to Britain and the British empire.

  • 1. Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 1914, p. 6.

Chapter 2: The British empire and the coming of war

In 1914 Britain—or really its capital, London—was the centre of one of the great global empires that had parcelled up most of the planet between them. The British empire included a quarter of the world and its people, from the Indian Punjab to the Canadian prairie. Unlike Ireland, Australia was a self-governing federation within it. Legally, Australians were British subjects, and they were citizens of the empire economically and emotionally as well. Nearly half of Australia’s exports went to Britain—more than its imports came from there—and British investment largely funded economic and civic development. There was a sentimental veneration for the king, for famous generals like Kitchener, for the British army, and for the Royal Navy, which had abandoned its base at Sydney only a year before World War I began.

The Royal Navy’s departure had been a little unsettling. Its ships were concentrating off Europe as the British empire prepared for a possible war with a rival empire, that of Germany. Strange as it now sounds, Australia shared a border with Germany in 1914—the nation now called Papua New Guinea was then German territory in the north and Australian in the south. But Australians were concerned less by the remote chance of a German attack on Australia than by a more likely German invasion of Britain and, thereby, the decapitation of their empire. They were also concerned that Japan, despite being Britain’s ally at the time, might use a wartime crisis to attack Australia. So, a few years before World War I, Australians began to build their own little navy to defend their own coast or Britain’s as required. They made it compulsory for young men to join the militia, a part-time force confined to defending local soil. Their generals made plans, if war came, to enlist volunteers and send them to fight where they were needed. But if the men of Australia roused themselves for war before it began, the women did not. A few might serve as nurses, but otherwise war was seen as man’s work.

Australians were not naive about the coming conflict. School teachers and popular authors told them about the British empire’s titanic struggle against France a century earlier. Some Australians had themselves seen something of army life and the cruelty of combat when fighting in British territories in Asia and Africa. But outside the town camps and rural missions to which Australia’s Aboriginal people had long been banished, there was no personal memory of devastation and defeat. War was something that damaged other people, far away in time or place. No one was ready for the political and economic demands of a global, industrial conflict, one fought by mass armies and mighty navies, where men would be killed by poison gas and children starved by blockade, where the enemy never came close to Australia but nonetheless threatened the heart of the empire. No one expected that while their volunteers went to Gallipoli and then to France, their families would also be called on to wage war on the home front.

Chapter 3: Going to war (1914)

Towards the end of June 1914, Australians read in their newspapers of a political assassination of the heir to a European throne. The murder strained tensions between the great empires—French, Russian and British on the one hand, and German, Austrian and (eventually) Turkish on the other. German leaders decided that conflict was coming and that now was as good a time as any for it, and in just six weeks World War I was under way. The British army and Royal Navy mobilised, Australian volunteers were offered to British generals and Australian ships to British admirals. The people of Melbourne were startled by the sound of a warning shot fired by a heavy gun at a German cargo steamer—the empire's first shot of the war, Australians liked to think. Soon the German army was at the gates of Paris. The fate of empires hung in the balance. So did Australia's, in that case.

'God help us!' responded a trade union newspaper to the outbreak of war. 2  'God save the king!' was a more common cry. 'England expects every man to do his duty by the Empire', a Grafton man urged. 3 Archbishop Michael Kelly said much the same to his fellow Catholics in Sydney. 4 What that duty entailed was summed up in one of federal Labor leader Andrew Fisher's favourite sound bites about fighting to the last man and last shilling, 5 and in the title of a popular song, 'Australia Will Be There'. 6 While the militia assembled to protect coastal cities from attack and women began forming Red Cross branches to tend any wounded from a possible invasion, plans for sending volunteers overseas were pulled out of locked safes and put into action. An expedition was quickly sent to snatch the German portion of New Guinea, which proved to be undefended. A far larger Australian Imperial Force was raised for service within the British army on the other side of the world.

Thousands of men swamped recruiting offices on the day they opened. Some sought combat, others an escape from normal life; some needed regular pay, while others would have enlisted for nothing. 'The bugles of England' were calling, in the words of a schoolboy's poem that captured many imaginations at the time. 7 Dressed in pea soup-coloured uniforms and slouch hats that would soon seem iconically Australian, the troops sailed in November beside others from New Zealand. More volunteers came forward every day, and by Christmas the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was twice its intended size. There were thousands more young men in the militia. Thousands of older men were soon joining rifle clubs in the belief, as someone put it, that 'Every man should learn to shoot. Every man should learn to drill'. 8

  • 1. Australian Worker
  • 2. Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton), 18 August 1914, p. 5, letter by W. E. Wilkinson.
  • 3. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 1914, p. 16.
  • 4. Advertiser (Adelaide), 31 July 1914, p. 12; Argus (Melbourne), 1 August 1914, p. 20.
  • 5. Argus (Melbourne), 15 August 1914, p. 20; New York Times, 27 July 1919, p. 32.
  • 6. Scotch Collegian (Melbourne), December 1915, p. 225.
  • 7. Weston Bate, A History of Brighton, second edition, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983, p. 282.

Chapter 4: The enemy within

German troops pushed almost to Paris but failed to take the city. Just as welcome for Australians was the growing sense that a Japanese attack was unlikely. There was probably a huge, unspoken relief that the war would be fought far from Australia.

Yet there were fears of sedition and sabotage. Hundreds of migrants from what were now enemy lands were under orders to return home and enlist, and some Australians of German origin secretly rejoiced at enemy victories. 'I must state that my very good wishes are with Germany', one woman wrote in a family letter. 9 Words like those were one reason why Andrew Fisher’s Labor government, elected to office in September 1914, passed a War Precautions Act that awarded itself the power to introduce almost any regulations it judged necessary for Australia’s security. 10

Within months an open, casual society became a vigilant one. Police raided mining companies to ensure minerals would not reach Germany. Military censors began opening and reading mail passing through post offices, and telling newspaper proprietors what stories they should avoid. Army officers monitored and later detained men born in enemy lands. Seven thousand were eventually interned behind barbed wire, most of them subjects of the German and Austrian emperors. They idled away the months and then the years in simple huts or cells, hoping the outside world would see them as victims and release them. The outside world held them in suspicion, and feared trouble from any 'aliens' not yet interned. Only in Broken Hill was there any violence, and it came from two men who were just as much British subjects as any other Australians. On New Year’s Day 1915 a butcher and an ice cream seller born in British India obeyed the call of Turkey’s caliph for an armed jihad by all Muslims. They fired rifle shots into a passing train, killing four people.

  • 1. Mary Mennicken Coley, The Germans in Western Australia, Edith Cowan University Department of Language Studies, Perth, 1993, p. 49.
  • 2. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. 75, p. 371, 28 October 1914, Irvine.

Chapter 5: Early shocks (1914–15)

Though only a few months old, the war was sending shivers through Australian society. Imports and investment dried up, as did many markets for exports. Ships were commandeered for military use. Cautious employers shut mines and shops. The federal government printed more money. Prices rose and unemployment doubled. Families who had usually made ends meet could no longer do so. 'Well, daddy, I suppose it’s alright', a six-year-old answered two months after the war began, when she was told she had a new baby sister, ‘but it seems to me that there’s a lot of things we need more’. 11

The shivers went further than the economy. Politicians talked about war instead of wages and empire instead of Australia. Collections were taken in factories to support soldiers as well as industrial strikes. Military camps sprang up overnight. Around them hovered knots of young women who, when questioned by the police, insisted they were waitresses. 12

Still, as a Methodist preacher said in Adelaide, perhaps strains like these were to be welcomed as a kind of test that would make Australia stronger in the end. 13 Certainly Australians seemed united in the summer of late 1914 and early 1915. Country towns competed to raise money and recruits. Reports that the German army was behaving atrociously in occupied Belgium, and that German warships had shelled English towns, aroused widespread anger. There was joy when the Australian warship Sydney sank the German warship Emden, and eagerness to see how the AIF would perform in battle.

  • 1. Register (Adelaide), 24 October 1914, p. 12 (I have recast the quote from the supposed child’s voice it was rendered in).
  • 2. Peter Stanley, Bad characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force, Pier 9, Sydney, 2010, p. 58.
  • 3. Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 August 1914, p. 10.

Chapter 6: Pain and patriotism (1915)

At first the news was bad. The Anzacs, as the men of the AIF and their New Zealand comrades came to be called, seemed to be running riot in Egypt, where they trained on the way to the front. But the following news seemed better than anyone could have wished. The AIF had gone to war not in France but in Turkey, and on 25 April 1915 had 'scaled the cliffs' of the Gallipoli peninsula by the gleaming water of the Dardanelles in a 'feat unsurpassed in war', the newspapers reported. 14 High praise came from voices many Australians valued—from the king and British generals, from an English war correspondent and a Scottish poet, and from WH Fitchett, a Melbourne school principal who was also a best-selling military writer. No chapter in the British army’s long story contained 'more fire and daring than the landing at the Dardanelles', Fitchett said, and climbing those cliffs—well, that was 'the Australian touch'. 15

But along with praise like this came casualty lists, longer than anyone had expected, day after day, month after month. By the year’s end nearly eight thousand men were reported dead. They were mourned in community ceremonies like the seaside tree planting held at Victor Harbor in August 1915 for Jack Bruce, a tall, grey-eyed butcher who would not be coming home. His father broke down when asked to speak. 16 Still, who could have wished, as one magazine asked, for a finer immersion in war than 25 April? 17 It was recreated on Sydney’s Tamarama beach for an hour-long film called Hero of the Dardanelles, which ended in a call for more men to come forward and enlist. 18

They were already doing that, and in larger numbers than ever—nearly a hundred thousand between Easter and October 1915. In the mining town of Wiluna in Western Australia the grandson of a German immigrant enlisted in June, followed by a stockman and a mineworker in July, and a labourer and a postal employee in September. In the Erskineville street where the Douglas boys lived, a young brickworks employee from an Irish-Australian family joined up in August along with an older married man, followed in October by a fifteen-year-old who lied about his age. The government accepted every fit man who came forward whether or not his family, his workplace, even the economy, could afford to let him go. Farms, mines, factories and post offices lost some, most or even all the men who worked there. More women began to earn a living for themselves. Young adults about to be separated by war began to ignore old prohibitions against sex before marriage.

  • 1. Mercury (Hobart), 8 May 1915, p.5; Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 May 1915, p.15.
  • 2. Age (Melbourne), 25 May 1915, p. 9.
  • 3. Michael Page, Victor Harbor, District Council, Victor Harbor, 1987, p. 123.
  • 4. Punch (Melbourne), 6 May 1915, p. 622.
  • 5. Paul Byrne and others, Hero of the Dardanelles pages on the National Film and Sound Archive website Australian Screen, http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/hero-of-the-dardanelles/notes/.

Chapter 7: The great recruiting drive (1915)

‘I am going to avenge Ozzie’, one man declared amid the rush to enlist. 19 is simple determination would have pleased the recruiting committees forming across Australia to lift even further the number of men in uniform. Huge posters soon plastered town halls, office buildings and railway stations, begging, accusing, frightening and ‘an insult to anyone of intelligence’ according to the novelist Martin Boyd. 20 They were effective nonetheless. ‘Australia has promised Britain 50,000 more men’, one screamed at passers-by: ‘Will YOU help us keep that promise?’ 21

Equally effective was the pressure some people put on others to enlist. A group of fathers in Murray Bridge decided to ‘march en masse to homes where boys had not left for the front to plead with the families to allow their sons to go’. 22 Some women posted white feathers to men they called shirkers. More charming were the little ‘snowball marches’ of the summer of 1915–16 that tramped through rural New South Wales under names like ‘Kangaroos’ and ‘Waratahs’, ‘Cooees’ and ‘Boomerangs’, calling on locals to join them on their way to the recruiting depot. When the white-hatted, sore-footed Kangaroos marched into the tiny town of Galong on a December afternoon they were met by a councillor and a flock of locals. ‘Sunday was a great day’ for the town, a reporter announced after the Kangaroos were joined by dozens of railway workers—‘fine physical giants, who can dig trenches, and for whom the hot sun has no terrors’. 23 Around 1500 men joined marches like this and went to war singing.

The names of these and other recruits began to be recorded on wooden ‘Honor Rolls’ put up on walls by schools, councils and churches. Women began wearing enamel brooches representing the battalion their son or husband belonged to. Some women wrote to men in uniform on behalf of mothers who could not put onto paper what was in their hearts. The soldiers’ replies could be unsettling. ‘I read two letters from Gallipoli from boys I don’t know written to their Mothers’, Agnes Miller of Mosman in Sydney recorded, and what they wrote seemed ‘so real & dreadful & inhuman[,] & life & death seemed so akin’. 24 In such ways, and despite the censors, Australians began to learn the truth about the war.

  • 1. Argus (Melbourne), 1 July 1915, p. 6 (originally transcribed as ‘Ossie’).
  • 2. Martin Boyd (writing as Martin Mills), The Montforts, Constable, London, 1928, p. 265.
  • 3. Poster by unknown artist, Australia has promised Britain 50 000 more men, South Australia, 1915, Australian War Memorial, ARTV00021.
  • 4. Quoted in Michael McKernan, The Australian people and the Great War, Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p. 185.
  • 5. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December 1915, p. 10.
  • 6. Miller to Olaf Stapledon, 4 October 1915, in Robert Crossley ed., Letters Across the World: the love letters of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller, New South Wales University press, Sydney, 1988, p. 105.

Chapter 8: The fault lines open (1915–16)

The Gallipoli campaign ended in a defeat that somehow seemed a kind of victory. But in Europe the war bogged down in the trenches of the Western Front, which cut through France and Belgium, and nothing resembling victory could be detected no matter how hard anyone looked. Armies were growing larger, weapons more murderous, requests for reinforcements more urgent. Most of the AIF went into the trenches in 1916, but more men seemed necessary if the war was to be won. A Universal Service League called on Australians to compel men to fight overseas just as they already compelled young men to do militia service at home. Australia had done much for the war effort, the League announced, but 'she has not done enough'. 25

William Morris Hughes agreed, and his opinion mattered. In October 1915 this crafty, courageous, combative Labor politician became prime minister, and during the following summer he nudged Australia's men to enlist by sending a million printed forms through the mail demanding they state their willingness or otherwise to put on uniform. Some responded positively. Others ignored the call or even sneered at it. 'I don't believe in being bluffed into enlisting' and 'I am not prepared to go while the big bugs remain behind' were some of the hostile responses heard in the mining town of Beaconsfield in Tasmania. 26

The big bugs were bosses said to be profiting from war orders. Economic growth returned when the imperial government in London decided to buy all the beef, wool and wheat that Australia could provide, and the federal government put in orders to equip its troops and navy. Yet prices continued to rise. Businessmen who lived off profits, a Grafton resident complained, were refusing to take their share of the war's burden, passing it instead 'to the people who have already paid in the blood of their sons'. 27 Hughes tried to halt inflation and put a lid on profits by imposing price controls, but success was limited. He abandoned altogether an election promise to hold a referendum about curbing business monopolies. Australians who were least insulated from economic hardship began to resent the shelving of pre-war promises like this. Those who saw socialism as something more than a vague goal already resented a war that, in the bitter words of a notorious pamphlet, was making 'the living worker a slave'. 28

Some middle-class Australians were angry that anyone could think like this. They traced the movements of armies on maps in their homes, nodded their heads in church when clergymen preached that moral reform was needed for military victory, and spoke of the enemy as militaristic, as barbarians, as baby-killers. The Germans were fighting 'for the triumph of a system of spiritual enslavement', one professor lectured, ‘of harsh repression, and a more immoral standard of international conduct than has ever disgraced the world since Christianity first dawned upon it’. 29 ‘Unless the men and women in this country are seized with the seriousness of the situation’, a banker insisted in another pamphlet, ‘there is little chance for it or the empire’. 30

Sometimes the empire seemed to be running a distinct second to the small pleasures of the poorer man’s life: going to the cinema, watching the football and horse races, yelling at a boxing match, and above all drinking beer. Some people said beer was at the bottom of a riot by soldiers at the Casula camp in February 1916 that spread to Sydney and cost one man his life. The riot encouraged campaigners who, long before the war, had called for pubs to close early. The New South Wales premier announced a vote on early closing like one already held in South Australia. To vote 'yes' was patriotic, wasn't it? The king himself had given up grog for the duration. Many Australians, generally women, either agreed or welcomed any chance to prise husbands and brothers out of their drinking holes. By the end of the war, pubs across the south-east quarter of Australia were shutting their doors at 6 pm—to the disgust of many men also reeling from a similar assault on another favourite pastime. Calls to give up sport and gambling and focus on the war led to the cancellation of much competition-level sport during 1915. By 1917 the federal government was using its wartime powers 'to curtail sport meetings' and so 'concentrate the minds of the people on the more serious aspects of the war'. 31

The war was opening rifts between the Labor party and its socialist wing, between the middle class and the poor, and between some women and men. But people came together to celebrate the first Anzac Day on 25 April 1916. 'It was just a little thing to do to mark the glorious deeds performed by Australians', a newspaper explained cautiously, never dreaming that Australia would mark the day ever after. 32 The men who stormed Gallipoli seemed to have given their corner of the world a history of its own for the first time. Before the war 'it was assumed that Australia only lived by the grace of England', smiled the Catholic newspaper Freeman's Journal, but 'Anzac Day has changed all that'. 33

  • 1. Examiner (Launceston), 11 September 1915, p. 9.
  • 2. Lloyd Robson, The First AIF: a study of its recruitment, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1970, p. 68.
  • 3. Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton), 17 June 1915, p. 3.
  • 4. Pamphlet by Frank Anstey, 'The kingdom of Shylock', Labor Call, Melbourne, 1915, p. 8.
  • 5. University of Melbourne, War lectures, no. 1, 'British and German ideals' by R. G. Tucker, Robertson, Melbourne, 1915, p. 18.
  • 6. Pamphlet by R. J. Hawkes, ‘National economy, national responsibility', self-published, Adelaide, 1916, p. 11.
  • 7. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. 82, p. 8, 11 July 1917, governor general's speech.
  • 8. Burra Record, 26 April 1916, p. 2.
  • 9. Freeman's journal, (Sydney), 27 April 1916, p. 22.

Chapter 9: The patriotic funds

Who would have believed before the war, a Perth clergyman asked his congregation in 1916, ‘that the sons and daughters of this sunny land were capable of the patriotism, self-sacrifice, patience, discipline, cool unfaltering courage, and generous sympathy our soldiers have shown on the battlefield, and that their mothers, wives and daughters have shown in the patient watching and service at home?’ 34

That patient service was usually unpaid, and it was largely performed by women. Some put on white dresses and laboured long hours as overworked aides in military hospitals and convalescent homes, in compensation earning a percentage of the esteem given to a soldier or female nurse in uniform. But far greater numbers embarked on the unglamorous but equally important projects of consoling soldiers fighting at the front and maimed soldiers who had returned home, and of supporting soldiers’ dependants and also some of the millions of Belgian, French and other allied refugees who had lost everything escaping from the fighting. Their labour centred on funding, packing and posting packages of ‘comforts’, from pyjamas to pianos. Much of the work was coordinated by the Australian branch of the British Red Cross or by an Australian Comforts Fund, and the output was astonishing. Red Cross volunteers sent more than ten million cigarettes to Australian soldiers, and half a million shirts from their central depot—the Governor-General’s ballroom—alone. 35  Many of the clothes sent were home-made, often knitted. ‘Every woman, everywhere, was knitting’, Martin Boyd wrote after the war, ‘in the theatre, in the concert hall, in the trains, in the trams, there was the incessant click-click of needles, and the socks and comforters grew to khaki and grey completion, and, conveying some delicate fragrance of their makers, were sent to be stained with mud or soaked in sacrificial blood in Gallipoli or France’. 36

Australians gave nearly £14 million in total to the funds—almost as much as the federal government spent on the first year of the war. 37 The people of Goulburn gave £1000 in just one month when the war began, a sum with the resonance (if not the purchasing power) of a million dollars today; the people of Cootamundra gave twelve times that amount in just two weeks. Not all donations were for humanitarian purposes, and not every fund dispensed comforts. An Air Squadron Fund raised more than £100,000 (the same amount that might be spent on refitting a hospital) toward the cost of building warplanes, with some machines paid for individually by wealthy rural families. 38

Nor were all voluntary workers women. The father of the three Douglas boys from Erskineville was general secretary of the Polish and Serbian Fund, and coordinator of the Railway and Tramway Patriotic Display Committee. 39 Children were active too, from the two Bairnsdale boys who raised £32 (what a train driver might earn in a fortnight, counting overtime) by raffling a model they’d made of a cannon in Dover Castle 40 to the Muswellbrook teenager who knitted a hundred pairs of socks, thirty pairs of mittens and other items in a single year. 41 For many children, school work came a poor second during the war years to saving the empire and helping war refugees. 42 The author Hal Porter later remembered his boyhood during the war as an exhilarating sequence of half-day holidays and free buns, played out against a backdrop of lurid posters, tragic newspaper headlines and ‘the hissing gossip’ of adults discussing subjects they judged unfit for childish ears, from poison gas to the German emperor. 43

  • 1. Marian Aveling ed., Westralian voices, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1979, p. 61; West Australian (Perth), 10 October 1916, p. 5.
  • 2. Ernest Scott, Australia during the war, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941 (first published 1936), pp. 705–6.
  • 3. Boyd, The Montforts, p. 266.
  • 4. Scott, Australia during the war, pp. 882–7.
  • 5. Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1916, p. 8; Brisbane Courier, 21 July 1919, p. 9.
  • 6. Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 1915, p. 2 (original spelling ‘Servian’), and 4 June 1915, p. 8.
  • 7. Hal Porter, Bairnsdale, Ferguson, Sydney, 1977, p. 217.
  • 8. McKernan, The Australian people and the Great War, pp. 69–70.
  • 9. Babbler (North Sydney Girls’ High School), November 1917, p. 6.
  • 10. Porter, Bairnsdale, p. 220

Chapter 10: Paid war work and rifle clubs

Voluntary war work was paralleled by an equally vast paid effort. Factory workers turned out rifles in Lithgow, uniforms and gunpowder in Melbourne, and small warships in Sydney. Military hospitals were built to treat wounded or diseased soldiers who were invalided home during the war. Two hundred censors housed in military barracks monitored the media and, increasingly, sources of opposition to the government—a 'scandalous betrayal of public liberty' in the words of Jack Fitzgerald, a Labor politician in the New South Wales state parliament. 44  Paid war work also included thousands of jobs, often in banks and offices, taken by women after men left for the front.

Also serving the war effort were members of the militia and rifle clubs. A few militiamen wore uniform for the entire war, after being ordered to man the heavy guns that defended Sydney Harbour and isolated Thursday Island, or to examine merchant ships for contraband cargo. But most of the militia faded away as the AIF grew to a huge size. Into its place stepped the rifle clubs, who counted a hundred thousand members by the close of 1915. Ambrose Carmichael, the New South Wales state education minister and also a rifle club organiser, hoped the clubs would become the AIF’s sharpshooters. He and a thousand others eventually went to fight in France, but otherwise the clubs remained at home. They faded too, when they came to be drawn on to reinforce the front line.

  • 1. J. D. Fitzgerald to George Fitzpatrick, 21 January 1918, Mitchell Library, MSQ257, f. 17.

Chapter 11: The decision to vote on conscription (1916)

'News of Kitchener & Staff being drowned' reached Australia in June 1916, the librarian Grace Hendy Pooley noted in her wartime diary, and 'everything and everybody' seemed 'stupefied'. 45 That was certainly true of the educated empire loyalists with whom she lived and worked. More Australians were stupefied by new casualty lists. Six thousand men were killed in just two months during 1916, disputing the ruins of insignificant villages like Fromelles and Pozières. Among them were Alan Douglas and another man from his street in Erskineville. The wounded included three men from little Wiluna, all of them related to each other by birth or marriage. Military censors and well-meaning news editors could make defeat sound almost like victory, but there was no stopping the awful news of the death of a son or brother, a husband or father, from reaching homes in every town and suburb across Australia. 'It made me afraid because it came so suddenly, so easily', Agnes Miller reflected after learning that a friend had been killed. 46 A fellow voluntary war worker of Miller's, 'a solid dark pretty girl, with soft laughing brown eyes, & everything that money can buy', was expecting the early return of her fiancé from the front line—on a hospital ship, dangling a useless right arm. 47

Too few recruits came forward to replace such losses. One in every three men aged 18 to 45 had already enlisted or tried to enlist. 48 The remainder were either unfit, unavailable, or unwilling—or their parents were unwilling. The apparent failure to enlist by young Les Darcy, Australia's greatest boxer, set many tongues wagging. When he finally gave his name to a recruiting sergeant his mother quashed the idea with three simple words: 'Are you mad?' 49

William Morris Hughes and his key ministers in the federal government would have liked to impose conscription. The War Precautions Act 1914 would have let them, but Labor party policy was against it—as a national trade union congress reminded everyone in a May 1916 manifesto that the government tried to suppress. So Hughes announced that Australians would go to the polls in October to vote on the question. It was a democratic gesture without parallel in other countries fighting the war. It also divided Australians and almost destroyed Hughes’s party. Labor's New South Wales branch promptly expelled the prime minister. Beginning on this sour note, the campaign soured further as Irish Australians digested disturbing news that a puny uprising in Dublin against British rule had been brutally suppressed by a British army that supporters of the war effort said was fighting for freedom.

  • 1. Grace Hendy Pooley work diary for 1916, entry for 7 June 1916, Mitchell Library, ML MSS 1261/4.
  • 2. Miller to Olaf Stapledon, 31 July 1916, in Crossley, Letters across the world, p. 164.
  • 3. Miller to Olaf Stapledon, 10 February 1917, in Crossley, Letters across the world, p. 207.
  • 4. A. G. Butler, Official history of the Australian Army Medical Services 1914–1918, vol. 1, Gallipoli, Palestine and New Guinea, second edition, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1938, p. 543.
  • 5. Ruth Park and Rafe Champion, Home Before Dark, Viking, Melbourne, 1995, p. 214.

Chapter 12: The first conscription vote (1916)

The government poured posters and leaflets into offices and schools, churches and council buildings, to argue its case for conscription. Arguments also came from those who formed the backbone of the war effort, including a newly formed Returned Soldiers’ Association (the ancestor of today’s Returned & Services League) that begged Australians to reinforce the men already at the front. 50 Agnes Miller hoped that conscription would land a blow against slackers and trade unions, which she mistrusted. 51 ‘We believe in conscription for Home Defence’, a magazine editor called Mary ‘Lala’ Fisher said when discussing the coming vote with the editor of the Australian Worker. She meant that Australians already accepted that militia service should be compulsory. ‘That is not conscription’, her companion answered correctly and perhaps a little rudely: ‘Every man, woman and child would thrill to defend their own country’. 52 What Hughes was asking was quite different, for men to be forced to defend not just their continent but their empire. Was it right, he might have gone on to argue, for women and older men to send young men to their deaths so far from home? How would the countryside gather wool and wheat for Britain if Hughes commandeered all remaining men? Might the government abuse a ‘yes’ vote and place everyone under martial law? Might Japan attack once Australia was stripped of every man of military age? Would European or Asian migrants have to be admitted to take up these men’s jobs?

The key question, though, was simply whether it was right to compel men to take others’ lives in a war fought beyond Australian soil—and, for a tiny but growing minority, whether such a war was worth supporting after all. Two Queensland government ministers said that support for a free Ireland was a worthier cause. 53 Daniel Mannix, Melbourne’s Catholic archbishop-in-waiting and a fiery critic of the imperial government in London, would have agreed. His church had no position on recruiting policy, he emphasised—before condemning conscription as ‘a hateful thing’. 54 ‘The first man they ought to intern is Archbishop Mannix!’, an empire loyalist fumed in return. 55

The conscription campaign became a call to arms, an exciting immersion in simulated combat that was open to everyone. Words began to be hurled like bombs. Schoolyards divided into gangs of boys called Conscripts and Anti-Conscripts. Trade union members in Townsville jeered a speaker who called for conscription. 56 Some Melbourne university students jeered at a speaker who was against it. 57 Grace Pooley heard of a driver who was punished for refusing to attend an anti-conscription meeting by having the horses that pulled his wagon unhitched and taken away, stranding the vehicle in the street. 58

A month before the vote the government called up men supposedly for militia service but in truth to prepare them for war overseas. It was the last straw for Hughes’s opponents, Lala Fisher among them. On the day of the vote, 28 October 1916, she tried to embarrass Hughes at a public meeting, then pressed her case on the famous poet Henry Lawson when she met him outside a theatre. She failed at both enterprises. Hughes had faced down far tougher opponents, and Lawson complained bitterly about cigarette-smoking, billiard-playing young men who wore loud socks and ought to be shipped off to the trenches quick smart. 59

The ballot papers of just one or two people in every hundred decided the question that day. ‘We have lost by a head’, Hughes cried. 60 Jack Fitzgerald of the New South Wales parliament blamed Hughes’s manner for the defeat, along with the failure of the government in London to grant home rule to Ireland. 61 Those on the losing side felt themselves and their country betrayed. ‘In view of the disgraceful result’, Eleanor Jacob from Sydney raised an Australian Women’s Service Corps to serve ‘in any way decided on by the military officials’. The officials rejected her offer. 62 The women prepared for war nonetheless.

  • 1. Leaflet ‘From the men who know’, Returned Soldiers’ Association, Sydney, 1916, Australian War Memorial, RC00304.
  • 2. Miller to Olaf Stapledon, 23 September 1916, in Crossley, Letters across the world, p. 175.
  • 3. Lala Fisher diary, entry for 1 September 1918, Mitchell Library, ML MSS 7750.
  • 4. Brisbane Courier, 15 September 1916, p. 8.
  • 5. Argus (Melbourne), 18 September 1916, p. 6.
  • 6. R. M. Crawford, A bit of a rebel: the life and work of George Arnold Wood, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1975, p. 249.
  • 7. Brisbane Courier, 17 October 1916, p. 8.
  • 8. A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies, volume 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 24–5.
  • 9. Grace Hendy Pooley diary for 1916, entry for 4 October 1916, Mitchell Library, ML MSS 1261/4.
  • 10. Lala Fisher diary, entry for 28 October 1916, Mitchell Library, ML MSS 7750.
  • 11. Hughes to Keith Murdoch, 4 November 1916, in L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes, vol. 2, The Little Digger, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1979, p. 213.
  • 12. J. D. Fitzgerald to John Burns, 31 October 1916, Mitchell Library, MSQ255, f. 269.
  • 13. Argus (Melbourne), 4 January 1917, p. 7.

Chapter 13: The federal election and the great strike (1917)

Hughes prepared for combat too. He and his key ministers walked out of the federal Labor government and into a conservative coalition that called itself Win-the-War or Nationalist. In March 1917 the new political grouping went to the polls. ‘Myself and all my family are solid trade unionists, and are standing by the grand old [Labor] party’, one woman declared, ‘because we feel it is the only party that stands for the just cause of the workers’. 63 That feeling now seemed a distraction to many Australians, even a lie. The Labor vote fell, and Hughes remained prime minister at the head of a nationalist government. The result suggests that most Australians still supported the war effort, whatever they thought about conscription or their prime minister, for that matter, with his alarming tendency, as the Governor-General put it, ‘to pass highly controversial measures which had not the sanction of either Cabinet, or Parliament, or Governor-General’. 64

By the winter of 1917 the British empire, its lands untouched by war, was vulnerable. One of its allies, Russia, was convulsed by a revolution. Some of the soldiers of another ally, France, were refusing to fight any longer. German submarines challenged the Royal Navy’s command of the sea. More tragic news was arriving of men mown down in seemingly profitless battles on the Western Front. Five thousand Australians died in combat from April to June 1917, another nine thousand in September and October. Gordon and Ken Douglas were dead, along with a third man from their Erskineville street; Wiluna lost a postal worker, a miner and a train driver. Another casualty, in a sense, was the boxer Les Darcy. Like other men of military age he had been refused a passport by a government doing everything it could to cut off avenues that did not lead to the recruiting depot. But with his mother so opposed to his enlisting, and with an international career ahead of him, Darcy wanted to take on opponents in other countries. After much agonising he sailed illegally to the United States—only to die of a tooth infection in a Tennessee hospital. He was the grandson of Irish immigrants, and his absurd, pointless death became another spur to Irish-Australian doubts about the war effort.

Few Australians knew that Les Darcy had again tried to enlist just before his death—in the American army. As an exhausted, divided Russia fell out of the war, an ardent United States entered it. Inclined to see the conflict as a crusade for democracy, as a war being fought to end war forever, the American people accepted conscription as the practical way to expand their tiny army. Australians who were most zealous for the war effort were invigorated by this typically American mix of idealism and pragmatism. But Australians who were bewildered by the apparently endless carnage and hardest hit by ever-rising prices focussed more than ever on making ends meet. Some of their trade union leaders and Labor party politicians were seeing things in nearly the same way as the revolutionaries who were coming to power in Russia—that social struggle against the bosses was what really mattered, and the war with Germany could end in a compromise peace. After the New South Wales Labor party called for negotiations with Germany, three other state branches followed suit.

A more serious spanner in the war effort was thrown by strikers in New South Wales during the late winter and spring of 1917. Nearly a hundred thousand men downed tools, among them Ben Chifley, a train driver and future prime minister. ‘With a passion for class loyalty as grand as unparalleled they took the field and swept to battle’, a trade union newspaper boasted. 65 Trams and trains halted, street lights went out, coal disappeared from fireplaces, and butter grew scarce on kitchen tables. But the industrial battle proved no more successful for the strikers than military battles had proved for the AIF so far. The middle class fought back against them, especially in rural districts where it seemed that Sydney’s union bosses were trying to disrupt exports, cut into profits, or even take over the state. With Hughes’s active support the New South Wales government came down hard on the strikers, refusing their demands and replacing them with substitute labourers recruited from schools, offices, the unemployed, even the Australian Women’s Service Corps. Within a few weeks some strikers’ families were living on handouts, and begged their husbands and fathers to return to work. The strike was broken. The bleak triumph was no triumph at all. National interest gave way ‘to class and individual animosity’, the director-general of recruiting pointed out, ‘and the trouble grew as the effects of war weariness began to make themselves felt’. 66

  • 1. Register (Adelaide), 12 April 1917, p. 8.
  • 2. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger, p. 270.
  • 3. Australian Worker (Sydney), 16 August 1917, p. 3.
  • 4. Scott, Australia During the War, p. 398.

Chapter 14: The second conscription vote (1917)

In December 1917, a few days before the dedication of the second window to the Douglas boys in Erskineville, the prime minister put conscription to the people again, this time proposing to conscript men by ballot and only to fill shortfalls in voluntary recruiting. Hughes and Archbishop Mannix were the protagonists of the campaigns for and against the proposal, and the bitterness, rage and sheer small-mindedness of these two leaders helped ensure that the debate was even harsher than in 1916. A socialist magazine of 'anti-capitalist, anti-militarist, anti-clerical' views warned its readers that conscription would lead to Australian women marrying Chinese, Japanese or Indian men one day. 'You don't win the war', the magazine snarled, 'if you substitute niggers for white Australians'. 67 Nellie Melba, an opera star and the most famous living Australian of those years, urged women that anyone who opposed conscription was therefore Germany's ally. 68 'I believe the men at the Front should be sacrificed', ran the most notorious leaflet supporting the government, along with 'I believe that treachery is a virtue', 'disloyalty is true citizenship', and 'I believe I'm worm enough to vote no'. 69 Australians who thought like this supported the internment in November of Edmund Resch, founder of a Sydney brewery and generous donor to the war effort. Born seventy years earlier in what was now enemy territory, Resch had left it—ironically—to escape conscription into the German army. 70 But if the internment system was hard it was not heartless, and in the autumn the old patriot was released.

'Public meetings pro & anti everywhere, eggs & other missiles in constant use', Agnes Miller recorded as the conscription vote approached. 71 In Warwick in Queensland an egg struck the prime minister, and the breach of dignity and security led to the founding of the Australian Federal Police. But the real pain, from Hughes's point of view, came with the result of the poll—a decisive number against conscription. 'We had a great victory here', a Riverina Labor party official reported to a colleague in Sydney. 72 'Australia has clearly shown, for the second time, that she has a mind of her own', smiled a Brisbane union newspaper. 73 Not according to one Irish Australian who supported the war and conscription, and who railed against his fellows' 'ignorance' and growing inclination 'to repeat ad nauseam the parrot cries of small minded revolutionaries'. 74

  • 1. Ross's Monthly (Melbourne), 8 December 1917, p. 17.
  • 2. Argus (Melbourne), 5 December 1917, p. 8.
  • 3. Leaflet 'The anti's creed', Reinforcements Executive Council, Melbourne, 1917, Australian War Memorial, RC00317.
  • 4. Technically, into the Prussian army that would become the core of the later German army.
  • 5. Miller to Olaf Stapledon, 18 December 1917, in Crossley, Letters across the world, pp. 261–2.
  • 6. R. Campbell to R. Byrne, 7 January 1918, Mitchell Library, ML MSS 7570/4.
  • 7. Worker (Brisbane), 27 December 1917, p. 6.
  • 8. Morgan Jageurs to J. D. Fitzgerald, 8 March 1918, Mitchell Library, MSQ257 f. 89.

Chapter 15: Crisis (1918)

People had hoped hard during 1917 for news of victory and an end to the war, a Hobart clergyman reminded his congregation in a sermon on the last day of the year. 75 Australia had recruited an astonishing four hundred thousand men, and another five thousand women had become army nurses. Everyone was exhausted and many were angry, as much from disputing with each other as from supporting a remote and murderous war. ‘There are chasms to be bridged; wounds to be healed’, a newspaper pointed out on New Year’s Day 1918. 76

But would 1918 be a year for reconciliation? It seemed unlikely. With the vast Russian army out of the war forever, and with American soldiers not yet involved in significant numbers, a German offensive on the Western Front was imminent. The censors could not hide its initial success when it came in March. Perhaps they chose not to. Australians were free to read an alarming announcement by the commander of British and therefore Australian troops as the Germans again approached Paris: ‘With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end’. 77 Some thought ‘the gravest peril to the Empire that has yet been known’ had arrived. 78 Recruiting revived, encouraged by some alarming posters by the artist Norman Lindsay. ‘Quick!’, one poster shouted at passers-by; another begged men to fight in France now or be shot down later in their homes and farms by triumphant German soldiers. 79 Snowball marches returned to New South Wales. They were now called ‘Marches to Freedom’, a reminder that the war was supposedly being waged not merely for Australia or even the British empire, but for a better world.

The yield was miserable compared with the mass rush into uniform during 1915. A weariness with war and inclination to peace at almost any price was so obvious in some circles, a socialist magazine exulted, ‘you could almost cut it with a knife’. 80 The Labor party and trade unions were divided over the war, and Irish Australians were lining up against it. On St Patrick’s Day, Mannix led a procession through Melbourne that honoured Irish rebels killed by British troops. This seemed treason to some Australians. Why do you listen, a teenage poet begged the uncommitted, weary men and women of middle Australia, to ‘those who plot and plan you ill?’ 81 One reason they listened was the tragic trickle of soldiers returning from the war to their capital cities maimed, mad or infected by sexually transmitted diseases.

A rare intervention by the Governor-General, in the form of calling a conference of eminent Australians, failed to rally anyone. Our weary battalions at the front continued to melt away, as a politician from Perth wrote. 82 They were melting at home, too. The government tried but failed to revive the collapsed militia in case Japan chose to attack a weakened and bickering Australia. The problem was partly the military’s own fault. Back from the war after leading his ‘riflemen’s thousand’ to the front, Ambrose Carmichael now led another thousand to war. But even in this desperate hour the military authorities distrusted individual initiative. They refused an offer by Scottish Australians to raise a brigade of four thousand kilted troops. Women who asked to serve behind the lines were also turned down.

  • 1. Mercury (Hobart), 1 January 1918, p. 4.
  • 2. West Australian (Perth), 1 January 1918, p. 4.
  • 3. Brisbane Courier, 15 April 1918, p. 7.
  • 4. Argus (Melbourne), 20 April 1918, p. 17.
  • 5. Posters by Norman Lindsay for the Australian Government, Quick! and Will you fight now or wait for this, Sydney, 1918, Australian War Memorial, ARTV05294 and ARTV00079.
  • 6. Ross’s Monthly (Melbourne), June 1918, p. 12.
  • 7. H. Bailey, ‘To Australia!’, Babbler (North Sydney Girls’ High School), June 1918, p. 2.
  • 8. Argus (Melbourne), 24 July 1918, p. 8, letter by J. M. Fowler.

Chapter 16: Victory

Luckily for Australia, for the British empire and for its allies, the German people had been pushed far harder than their opponents during the past four years. Their army had lost its ability to win victories just as their opponents were learning from past defeats, and as American troops were reaching the front line in their hundreds of thousands. Suddenly the Germans were on the run, and the end of the war seemed imminent.

In Australia the streets filled with people even before news came of the armistice on 11 November 1918. The noise seemed incredible—singing and cheering, conga lines of young men and women beating on tin cans and blowing on whistles. Effigies of the German emperor were mocked, hanged and burnt. A Sydney woman was asked if she'd burn the real emperor too, if she could. 'Wouldn’t I just!', she answered. 83 In Victor Harbor the town band assembled on a hotel balcony and played patriotic songs and hymns to a crowd before a clergyman led everyone in a solemn recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Its words of acceptance and resignation—'thy will be done'—had special poignancy that day. Of the hundred men the town had sent to war, twenty-one lay in military graves on the other wide of the world. 84 Wiluna had lost three men from its tiny population. The Douglas family in Erskineville had lost three from one house alone. Another kind of loss hung over the celebrations of November 1918, one not easy to put into words. The cause that had given direction and energy and opportunity to thousands of lives, particularly young ones, had suddenly evaporated. 'The war seems like a whole life', Agnes Miller thought, '& I can't believe that that life has come to its last day'. 85

  • 1. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November 1918, p. 14.
  • 2. Page, Victor Harbor, pp. 127–8.
  • 3. Miller to Olaf Stapledon, 11 November 1918, in Crossley, Letters across the world, p. 341.

Chapter 17: Australia after the war

Many soldiers who returned to Australia during 1919 were quarantined at first. A lethal influenza popularly called the Spanish Flu was spreading around the globe, and it added another twelve thousand dead, most of them civilians, to the sixty thousand Australian soldiers who had already died or were soon to die from wounds. But most soldiers soon reached their towns and suburbs. The residents of Buckland in Tasmania welcomed Joseph French and Henry Turvey at a dance in a hall decorated with ferns and flags. 86 A Salvation Army band saluted Max Bloomer and three other men and drove them through the streets of Yea. 87 The little hall at Baree in north Queensland proved too small to hold everyone who gathered to salute their returned men. 88 Private welcomes were more complex, more confusing. There were thousands of marriages in 1919 and 1920, but also hundreds of divorces. Some young men and women had grown up during the war years. Others had grown apart.

Australia had grown up too. It had its own seat at the peace conference of 1919 held outside Paris, and it seemed less like a former colony of Britain than a partner in the British empire. Its possession of German New Guinea was confirmed, preventing the feared transfer to Japanese hands. Was all this sufficient compensation for four years of dissension and death? Why had sixty thousand men died, one in every ten of military age? ‘They died for the safety of Australia’, Hughes told parliament, and in death had ‘made for themselves and their country a name that will not die’. 89  Humble monuments to them were already appearing in most suburbs and towns. They were soon supplemented by massive memorials in the state capitals and, eventually, by the Australian War Memorial in the new national capital, Canberra. Anzac Day became Australia’s de facto birthday. An inspiring legend was woven out of the Gallipoli campaign that assured Australians their soldiers were equal to the world’s finest. There would be no more reliance on the British army and Royal Navy for Australia’s defence, and popular respect for them began to decline. Respect for Britain itself declined too, though it had already bottomed among Irish Australians. There was a little less talk than before the war about Australians being British subjects.

The nation was determined, as one poet put it, ‘To settle up—and something more’ when it came to returning soldiers and sailors to civil life. 90 A new repatriation department (today’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs) supported war widows and orphans, offered pensions and hospital treatment to injured and diseased former soldiers, and tried to slot men into good jobs or onto small farms. This selective trial run of the welfare state proved as unaffordable as the wartime decision to sustain a huge AIF, yet any attempt to restrict benefits to the most deserving was shouted down by veterans and their supporters in parliament and the press. The loss of so many men and the channelling of so much money into healing the pain of war delayed political reform and economic advance, as did the wartime divisions that lingered into peacetime. There were ugly strikes and riots in 1919. Hateful words were flung back and forth between socialists and conservatives, returned soldiers and trade unionists, Catholic zealots and Protestant ones. The brisk expulsion from Australia of six thousand men who had been interned during the war troubled few consciences.

The relaxed atmosphere of 1914 and the eager patriotism of 1915 had long gone. So had the pre-war hope that life would always improve, as Martin Boyd implied in one of his novels. 91 But hope remained below the surface. Surely, some people assumed, the decisions not to hang the German emperor, not to conquer Germany and dismember it, not to rely on military alliances and instead to build a League of Nations, were signs that international conflict was a thing of the past? Surely the new technology and know-how cultivated by four years of war would bring a better life for everyone? Some were hopeful that socialism would transform the globe and end war and injustice and inequity forever. Others marvelled at the lifelong friends they had made in the trenches, or that their son or brother or husband were alive and back home, or that old rigid rules about work and sex were a little looser now.

There was one solid ground for real optimism. Unlike in Russia and Germany, or in France and Italy, the bitterness, division and martial excitement of the war years would not tempt Australians to kill their political enemies or subvert their own governments in the 1920s and 1930s. Australians remained one people, patient and democratic, despite the urgent agonies of the First World War.

  • 1. Mercury (Hobart), 28 June 1919, p. 3.
  • 2. Yea Chronicle, 16 October 1919, p. 3.
  • 3. Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 31 March 1919, p. 7.
  • 4. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. 89, p. 12179, 10 September 1919, Hughes.
  • 5. C. J. Dennis, Digger Smith, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1918, chap. 13 (the original line reads ‘To settle up—an’ somethin’ more’).
  • 6. Boyd, The Montforts, p. 301.

Further reading

The best history yet written of Australia during the war is Michael McKernan's book The Australian people and the Great War (Nelson, Melbourne, 1980). It will soon be rivalled by centenary histories like the one being prepared under the supervision of Jeffrey Grey of the Australian Defence Force Academy. Senior school students should start serious reading on the subject by finding a good textbook such as The Great War by David Stewart and others (Nelson, Melbourne, 1995).

Studies of the war's impact on states and regions include Bobby Oliver's War and peace in Western Australia (University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1995), John McQuilton's Rural Australia and the Great War (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2001), Cheryl Mongan and Richard Reid's We have not forgotten: Yass and district's war (self published, Yass, 1998), Marilyn Lake's A divided society: Tasmania during World War I (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1975), and Raymond Evans's Loyalty and disloyalty: social conflict on the Queensland home front (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987).

One schoolboy's experience of the war years is recalled in Brian Lewis's Our war (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1980), another's in Hal Porter’s Bairnsdale (Ferguson, Sydney, 1977). Both should be read with the knowledge that memory is an act of invention as much as recall. There is no need for such caution when taking in letters written during the war by a Sydney woman printed in Letters across the world: the love letters of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller 1913–1919, edited by Robert Crossley (University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1988).

German saboteurs or their Australian sympathisers get the upper hand—only temporarily, of course—in this scene from the silent film Sea Dogs of Australia. Some Australians feared a Japanese invasion before World War I, others a German challenge to the British empire; secret war plans spelt out precautions to be taken against raids and sabotage. The film pulled big crowds when it screened as the war began in August 1914. (National Film and Sound Archive, 597737-4)

The first South Australian members of the Australian Imperial Force ride along North Terrace in Adelaide seven weeks into the war. Next day the Adelaide Register hailed the 'pageantry and pomp' of a moment that in fact had a homely, human feel, and none of the colourful uniforms and brilliant flags so recently seen as necessary in war. Australians were ready for plain, brutal, inglorious fighting—though not for four years of it. (AWM P00326.001; Adelaide Register, 22 September 1914, p. 6)

Some of the 3rd Field Company Engineers march through Hobart and past a house flying the British flag. 'Among the Australians pride of race counted for more than love of country', Australian historian Keith Hancock wrote twelve years after the war ended: 'Defining themselves as "independent Australian Britons" they believed each word essential and exact, but laid most stress upon the last'. (AWM A02558; Keith Hancock, Australia, 1930, p. 66)

Western Australia's 11th Battalion leaves for war. Some suburbs and towns felt a powerful bond with wartime units raised locally. 'Surely it is but fitting that here in Perth there should be a strong band of workers, ably organised, to supply some of the needs of [the 11th] battalion, the first to leave our shores for the present war', someone urged in 1917, 'and which counts among its numbers many who have been away from us for nearly three years'. (AWM P08644.002; West Australian, 4 July 1917, p. 8)

A last glimpse of a few of the sixty thousand Queenslanders who went to war. One of these men wrote to a Brisbane newspaper thanking the 'practical minded citizens' who had been 'decent enough to send out to the 5th Light Horse regiment gifts of butter and cheese' before their departure. 'We can buy these things as cheaply as possible at the camp', he explained diplomatically, 'but a trooper's pay is by no means gigantic'. Still, Australian soldiers were among the best paid in the world during World War I—one reason for tight national budgets once peace came. (AWM P04604.001; Brisbane Courier, 5 November 1914, p. 8)

These men might be the ones who shot down Badsha Mahommed Gool and Mullah Abdullah, the ice cream seller and butcher who, obedient to the call from Constantinople to wage holy war against the British empire, killed four people in Broken Hill on New Year's Day 1915. They are certainly participants in the mass wartime activity of forming and joining rifle clubs as a convenient means of mastering the rudiments of military life and so preparing for the worst—a German victory, or an opportunistic Japanese attack. (State Library of South Australia, PRG 280/1/33/163)

The federal government at first refused to accept recruits from Darwin, a remote and vulnerable town where every man might be needed for local defence if an enemy approached Australia. After complaining that their loyalty to the British empire was being denied, these men steamed to Queensland to enlist in April 1915. A dozen of them would be killed during the war and are recorded on Darwin's cenotaph. (Northern Territory Library, PH0412/0183)

'No fathers of families at the front', the German emperor declared as the war began, but every society summoned such men to war. Sentimental verse evoked the cost of their going. With the shadows round her stealing, every night I see her there, one poem began: just a little figure kneeling by the side of daddy's chair, and the silence is unbroken, not one whisper reaches me, but I know, though 'tis unspoken, what the prayer is sure to be. (B.E. Pike, chromolithograph on pap er, 68.8 x 49.4 cm, AWM ARTV00075; Rockhampton Capricornian, 24 June 1916, p. 2)

Australians ardently behind the war effort grew angry with others who continued to live, laugh and play as though nothing had changed. The new, carefree pastime of surfing could hardly be prevented, but by 1917 the federal government was using its wartime powers 'to curtail sport meetings' and 'concentrate the minds of the people on the more serious aspects of the war'. (DH Souter, chromolithograph on pap er, 76.2 x 51.4 cm, AWM ARTV00141; Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 11 July 1917)

A recruiting rally in Dalby, inland from Brisbane. Newspapers reported meetings like these throughout the district as spring approached in 1915. The obelisk probably honours a local member of parliament who died four years earlier, but it eerily prefigures the monuments to wartime volunteers that would soon rise up in almost every town and suburb across Australia. (State Library of Queensland, APE-020-01-0004)

'Come on boys join us', cry the original thirty Coo-ees as they begin the first 'snowball march' from rural New South Wales to Sydney and a recruiting depot. More than 230 men joined the Coo-ees—almost one for every mile walked. (AWM H18781)

New recruits from Western Australia at the Blackboy Hill training camp. Nearly a hundred thousand Australians enlisted from Easter to October 1915. The government accepted every fit man whether or not his family, his workplace or the economy could afford to let him go. (AWM P02077.001)

Learning the art of the bayonet. 'No soldiers like to face the bayonet, least of all the Germans', a Victorian newspaper informed readers in 1915 before adding the well-established fact that 'the death-rate from cold steel, in the different wars of the last century, show that it is not so deadly as is generally supposed'. Perhaps Australian military instructors did not read newspapers. (AWM DASX479; Traralgon Record, 22 January 1915, p. 6)

Learning the ways of the camel. Australian men fought on the backs of horses and camels during the war, inside flimsy aeroplanes and lumbering tanks, on the sea in huge ships or under the water in cramped submarines, and of course on foot. Those who mastered mechanical trades while in uniform sometimes put them to good use when peace came, driving motor taxis for example. Camel riding was a less marketable skill. (AWM A03584B)

New members of the 12th Light Horse train at Holsworthy outside Sydney. Used by militiamen from 1912, Holsworthy predated the wartime mushrooming of military camps around Australia. It was also the unwanted home of thousands of men of European ancestry interned during the war as 'enemy aliens'. (AWM A03315)

Lieutenant John Bagot (centre left, in an officer's dark shirt), his bride Eileen, and guests at their wedding at Broadmeadows camp, west of Melbourne, in May 1915. Bagot left for war a few days later. Perhaps Eileen was the Mrs John Bagot recorded as opening a Red Cross fundraising fete with 'a graceful speech' later that year. (AWM DAX0548; Adelaide Register, 8 July 1915, p. 3)

Studio portrait of Mrs Lewis of Toowoomba with one of her six sons who served overseas. All came home again. (AWM P05163.003)

Percy Coltman of Melbourne with the son and twin daughters he would never see again after becoming, in 1916, one of six thousand Australians to die in two months of fighting. (AWM P07426.002)

Large crowds watch an old horse tram being destroyed by fire in a spectacle on Adelaide Oval to raise funds for the war effort, photographed by Arthur Searcy. A South Australian parliamentary official with at least one relative in uniform, Searcy was a keen photographer and writer. He exchanged letters with a Natalia Annenkoff of St Petersburg in Russia who posted him 'an interesting collection of war mementoes'. He displayed them in a shop window in Adelaide's Rundle Street. (State Library of South Australia, PRG 280/1/3/9; Adelaide Register, 16 February 1916, p. 7)

Adelaide gets behind the war. Another photograph by Alfred Searcy, this time of a fund-raising pageant threading its way through a crowded King William Street in 1915. (State Library of South Australia, PRG 280/1/3/16)

The German army's unprovoked invasion of Belgium in the war's opening days, and the subsequent harsh military occupation, encouraged people around the British empire to see the war as a moral crusade against militarism. These Australians are giving to a Belgian Day appeal in Sydney in 1915, an event simultaneously devoted to celebrating France as a gallant ally. Perhaps these givers have just seen the hundred or more soldiers who marched past in Belgian and French uniforms, along with a woman and man dressed as Joan of Arc and Napoleon. (AWM H16143)

Dull wartime uniforms were enlivened by small 'colour patches' worn on soldiers' sleeves to distinguish one unit from another. What began as a functional measure developed a personal dimension as Australians began to identify with the colour combination worn by themselves or their relatives. Charts of colour patches began to be printed, framed and hung in houses. Some women wore brooches in colours their sons or brothers wore. These South Australians have made a fancy dress for themselves, for fund-raising purposes, from colours that marked out the 10th Battalion. (AWM P05064.001)

A member of the Australian Army Nursing Service teaches a merchant sailor to knit aboard HMAT Orsova, July 1915. The federal government requisitioned seventy-four ships during the war and turned them into troop transports. A few more were made to sail as hospital ships. It was honourable if dangerous compensation for the war's heavy disruption of the exports and imports that had so freely flowed before the war between Australia and the world. (AWM P05382.012)

The war fostered a tiny aviation industry in Australia, and trained hundreds of pilots like this man learning to fly at Point Cook near Melbourne. Two former military pilots established the airline now called Qantas, and two more won a huge prize for flying from England to Australia in under thirty days. (AWM DAD0037)

Women at Melbourne Town Hall sew shirts and vests for the Australian Comforts Fund, while men in the rear of the photograph model the results. 'On the average', the Melbourne Argus reported in August 1915, 'upwards of forty women have worked in the sewing-room at the Town Hall each day for a year'. (AWM J00360; Melbourne Argus, 17 August 1915, p. 8)

Socks for soldiers. War workers affiliated with the Australian Comforts Fund knitted 1.3 million socks during the war. One teenager from Muswellbrook knitted a hundred pairs in a single year. (AWM H11581)

The Melbourne suburb of Brunswick farewells men off to war in 1915. Such farewells were as heartfelt and generous and upbeat as organisers could make them. Gifts were presented, speeches were made and endured, cigars were smoked and wine was drunk. To instil a lasting a memory of cheers, not tears, was the point of it all. (Picture Victoria, image no. 5837, original photograph in Brunswick Library, Melbourne)

Sydney gives a heroes' welcome to some of the men returning from the war maimed, maddened or diseased. (AWM H16141)

From 1915 huge posters plastered town halls, office buildings, vacant lots and railway stations, begging, nudging, challenging and frightening men into uniform. They were 'an insult to anyone of intelligence', sniffed the novelist Martin Boyd. (AWM chromolithograph on pap er, 63 x 102.5 cm, ARTV00021; Martin Boyd, The Montforts, 1928, p. 265)

The white-hatted 'Kangaroos' halt their march to war at Yass late in 1915. After the town's mayor met them outside the council chambers they strutted to the showground 'where the ladies of the district had prepared a hot dinner'. A supportive welcome for a 'snowball march' did not always translate into recruits; only one Yass man joined the Kangaroos that day. (AWM P02966.001; Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 1915, p. 9)

'The band played its patriotic airs', the Sydney Morning Herald reported when some wounded soldiers arrived in Sydney toward the close of 1915, 'and the ladies of the Red Cross distributed gifts of cigarettes and fruit, and literally bestrewed the pathway of the returned soldiers with flowers, before they were lined up to be escorted, in order, to the waiting motor cars'. Here, posing for the camera, are some of the Red Cross women. (AWM P01102.022; Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 1915, p. 13)

Volunteers work in a corner of the ballroom of Melbourne's Government House, its entire space given over during the war to storing and packing parcels for the troops. 'Already there are neat stacks of pyjamas, flannel shirts, socks (both knitted and cashmere), and also rolls of material ready to be made up', a newspaper reported before the war was three weeks old. (AWM J00346; Melbourne Argus, 22 August 1914, p. 16)

Badges of pride and commitment.
Honouring a soldier's mother. The four bars below this Female Relative's Badge, issued by the Defence Department to Caroline McGillivray of Melbourne, identify a woman with five sons at war. (AWM REL39891)

Fundraising button for the Cheer Up Society, 'formed to brighten the days of our boys in camp' before leaving for war. (AWM REL34062; Adelaide Mail, 28 November 1914, p. 6S)

Honouring a sailor's mother. (AWM REL38946)

Fundraising button for the Australian Comforts Fund, the umbrella organisation for most groups of voluntary war workers. (AWM REL39133)

'Ypres' brooch sent to Millicent Walker of Gerringong, NSW, by her fiancé, Sergeant Jack Buttsworth. Jack died of wounds in France in April 1918, aged 27 years. Millicent never married, and kept this memento until her death in 1967. (AWM REL31862)

Fundraising button trading on the reputation of William Mackenzie, a Salvation Army chaplain from Bendigo less famous for earning a Military Cross than for tearing down a barbed wire barrier segregating soldiers being treated for sexually transmitted disease. (AWM REL34299)

Fundraising button issued by Victorian schools in 1916 to aid France, the British empire's most glamorous and also most important ally. (AWM REL39134)

Fundraising badge identifying the donor of a gold coin—in those days, such coins were made of genuine gold. (AWM REL35538)

Fundraising button for Repatriation Day, held before the federal government accepted the full burden of returning soldiers to civil life after the war. (AWM REL36263)

Fellow Anzacs getting bonzer treatment. On their way home from the war, these New Zealanders are being driven to Neilson Park beside Sydney harbour. The war brought thousands of men from both sides of the Tasman together, but did nothing to reverse New Zealand's determination to remain a separate country from Australia. (AWM A03614)

Volunteers serve soldiers at the Anzac Buffet at a military hospital in Melbourne's St Kilda Road. Directed by the wife of a former prime minister, the Buffet was 'a depot for clothes, an organisation for righting soldiers' wrongs, and a place where the boys from the bush and the town could obtain refreshment for the nominal price of a penny'. By war's end a thousand men a day, most poised between army life and discharge, drank tea there. Some received small loans or help putting a case to the military authorities for free rail tickets or extra pay. There were other Anzac Buffets in Sydney and in London, where thousands of Australian soldiers took temporary leave from the trenches. (AWM H03343; Hobart Mercury, 11 December 1935, p. 3S)

Today, the newspapers announced on 3 October 1916, all single men of the age of 21 and upwards and under 33, and all widowers without children, whose names begin with the initials A and B, must report to the military authorities throughout Australia. It was the beginning of a mass call-up of men, ostensibly for home-based, part-time militia service but in truth to prepare them for war if the imminent vote on conscription went the government's way. A future prime minister, John Curtin, was gaoled for refusing to report. (AWM H11588; Sydney Morning Herald, 3 O ctober 1916, p. 7)

Beginners' course in trench warfare. The soldier marked with an X is Charles McPhee, a Methodist clergyman before enlistment. WH Fitchett, the leading Methodist in Victoria and author of the bestselling book Deeds That Won the Empire, believed that clergymen in the ranks could save other soldiers from moral dangers more damaging than bullets. (AWM P01424.002)

Fresh troops for the front. These new soldiers parade along Sydney's Elizabeth Street, perhaps in 1916, hailed by the folk they will soon be fighting for. (AWM H16126)

Ships that once carried Australian wool and wheat to Europe now conveyed Australian men. On board the Ascanius in May 1916, perhaps visible in this photograph, were a farm labourer called Bill Brooks, a station hand called Bill Bradney, two farmers called Jim Elliott and Jim Pottenger, and a labourer called Bob O'Bryan. All five would soon be dead. (AWM PB0146)

On a Monday afternoon in May 1916 Kalgoorlie's bishop conveyed the 'sad intelligence' to the Bennett family that their son George, a bank clerk before joining the 28th battalion, was dead. They ordered this printed tribute from a stationer to 'Another glorious Anzac who gave his all for King and Country' and whom they believed, proudly but mistakenly, to have been the first Australian soldier killed in France. (AWM P05315.001; Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 9 May 1916, p. 14)

Indian-born, Sarn Singh, was a South Australian farmer. He was one of 12 known Indian-Australian Anzacs

The package became a family relic of a man they would never see again and whose distant grave they would never visit. (AWM REL/10838; National Archives of Australia, series B2455, enlistment dossier for 2835 David John Richards)

Marion Ball of Wynnum in Brisbane probably allowed this glass lantern slide of her stepson to be shown in cinemas to encourage other men to follow his path. While some influential Australians derided film as a distracting novelty, others harnessed its potential to preach devotion to the empire and commitment to the war. (AWM P03942.001)

The first Anzac Day in April 1916 was not always a sombre event. Here, in Echunga in South Australia, three men offer a comic tribute to 'Our Boys in Egypt'. But communal pain was never far below the surface. The Raggatt family placed a memorial notice in the Adelaide Advertiser in 'loving memory of our dear son and brother Freddy, who gave his life for a noble cause'. (State Library of South Australia, B45941; Adelaide Advertiser, 29 April 1916, p. 8)

Behind these new shops rise some of the first 'war service homes', built in Dacey Garden Suburb (later Daceyville) between Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. In August 1916 the New South Wales premier ceremoniously handed the first house keys to eight recipients. 'What we have done is little enough', he said, 'but we will do what we can'. (State Library of NSW, small picture file 1159; Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 1916, p. 8)

Children in Maryborough in Queensland celebrate Britain and its empire during a patriotic carnival held two years into the war. 'Few will forget the magnificent spectacle', a newspaper asserted, though the interest of most spectators seems to have 'centred in the various candidates for the honour of Queen of the Carnival'. (AWM P00221.001; Brisbane Courier, 28 August 1916, p. 9)

Prime Minister WM ‘Billy’ Hughes speaks in favour of conscription during a rally in Martin Place, Sydney, in late 1916. (AWM A03376)

Artist Harry Weston's jaundiced contribution to the conscription debate. (National Library of Australia, 47 x 38 cm, PIC poster Z269 LOC P2)

A monument erected during the war in the Sydney suburb of Manly, funded by a prominent solicitor after his son became, in words carved into the pillar's base, 'the first soldier of Manly to fall'. There could be 'no thought of turning back', the mayor told the crowd at the monument's inauguration in October 1916: 'Our sons will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder until the foe is vanquished and our righteous cause has triumphed'. (AWM H17853; Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1916, p. 5)

The pity of war: wounded soldiers return to Brisbane in 1916. (State Library of Qld, 196226)

A Catholic school advertises its loyalty to the empire and support for the war effort. The principal of Christian Brothers' College in Adelaide announced to those attending the unveiling of this provisional honor roll (note the incomplete date on the right of the shield) in 1916 that already there 'were nearly enough names to fill another roll, which, when completed, would match that before them'. (State Library of South Australia PRG 280/1/9/354; Adelaide Register, 29 November 1916, p. 6)

Bombing raids on London, the British empire's capital, by German airships were trivial compared with the murderous raids by the air forces of the second world war, but at the time they affronted civilised norms. They were also exciting for some who lived through them. 'I think Marjorie and I were the only people in this hotel who saw the zeppelin shot down, though many others were watching from less advantageous positions', a woman wrote home to her husband in Western Australia; 'we feel it was a sight never to be forgotten'. (AWM ARTV01155, chromolithograph, 91 x 60 cm; Geraldton Guardian, 17 October 1916, p. 3)

Tins for the troops, in this case collected by the children of New South Wales. Forty to fifty 45-kilogram boxes of sweets 'intended as Christmas presents for our soldiers, and for the most part ... sent in by the school children of the State', were prepared in Sydney in one week alone in the spring of 1915. (AWM H16132; Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1915, p. 8)

'The children unborn shall acclaim the standard the Anzacs unfurled', predicted a verse in the best-selling Anzac Book of 1916. Here, Victorian school children spell out Australia's pride in its troops at the Melbourne Cricket Ground a fortnight before Christmas that year. Six thousand boys and girls marched in singing, formed a blue and white outline of their continent, then spelt out a name that two years earlier had been nothing more than a functional military acronym. 'The effect was thrilling', a newspaper reported, 'and some seconds elapsed before the great crowd [of spectators] found its voice. Then wave after wave of cheering went around the ground'. (AWM H16097; CEW Bean, The Anzac Book, 1916, p. 95; Melbourne Argus, 18 December 1916, p. 6)

Lizzie Fay of Creightons Creek near Euroa received this postcard early in 1917 from her husband George in the Middle East. He had come through the Boer War unscathed, so surely he would come through this war too? In May she learned George was badly wounded. Worse news came in December. 'He was a splendid fellow, beloved by all men, a worthy son of Australia', the local newspaper pronounced, when informing readers of his death. (AWM P07204.004; Euroa Advertiser, 7 December 1917, p. 2)

A train delivers reinforcements to a Melbourne pier and the troopship waiting to carry them to one of the bloodiest wars in human history. (AWM PB0210)

Thousands of Melburnians massed near the Melbourne Cricket Ground to affirm their support for the war effort four months after the defeat of the first conscription vote in October 1916. George Pearce, the defence minister, addressed them beneath a wooden column provided by the Timber Merchants' Association. The temporary memorial was 'not only a reminder of the heroes who had fallen', Pearce told the crowd; it pointed out 'the way to duty to those who remained, who could and should take their place'. (AWM H19379; Melbourne Argus, 26 February 1917, p. 6)

In March 1917 the Somerville branch of the Red Cross, together with the society's Volunteer Motor Corps, drove '82 battle-scarred Anzacs' and their nurses from a military hospital to Victoria's Mornington Peninsula and fed them 'a dainty repast'. A local reporter observed the soldiers' 'happy smiling faces as they sat at the long white tables, their thoughts far away from the grim battles they had been through ... They then dispersed and made friends with the pretty girls who had attended their needs during tea'. (AWM P07898.001; Mornington Standard, 17 March 1917, p. 2)

Relics of loss.
The metal mesh covering this wristwatch was designed to protect its face from the rigours of trench warfare. Unfortunately, its protection could not extend to the wearer of the watch. Private Arthur Nicholson, a grocer from Brighton, Victoria, was hit by shrapnel and died of his wounds at a casualty clearing station near Ypres in Belgium in September 1917, aged 30 years. The watch was returned to Nicholson's family amongst his personal effects. (AWM REL38751)

Return to sender. Deceased. Ten months after Edie Robinson of Mullaley, New South Wales, posted this letter to her brother Ben, it was returned from the Dead Letter Office. Private Ben Robinson had been killed near Zonnebeke in Belgium during the Third Battle of Ypres in September 1917. He was buried at a place called Anzac Farm, but his grave was later lost, probably destroyed by shell fire, and his name appears on the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing. (AWM RC02385)

'Though his body resteth, his memory never dies.' During and after the war 'Honor Rolls' listing war volunteers went up on the walls of schools, town councils and churches. There were paper versions too, even individual tributes such as this one to James Park of Redfern in Sydney, killed in 1917. The popular motto dulce et decorum est pro patria mori was plucked from a poem by the Roman writer Horace, and claims it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. Those ancient stoic words might have erased some of the pain felt by Ada Park, James's widow, but the war's slaughter made them contemptible to some soldiers. The English soldierpoet Wilfred Owen called them 'the old lie'. (AWM P03321.002)

Collecting for the war effort in Sydney in the winter of 1917. The war years were not all pain and privation. Supporting the war and the troops, working and praying for victory—or, at the other end of the political spectrum, fighting for the old agenda of social reform against the new one of winning the war—introduced purpose and opportunity, liveliness and laughter, into thousands of lives, particularly young ones. The advent of peace in 1918 was not always welcome. (AWM P01102.007)

Schoolboys clean a locomotive during the great strike of 1917. Thousands of working-class men in New South Wales downed tools, impatient with the war, with rising prices, with worsening working conditions, with flag-waving and fiery speeches, and with the shelving of promises for social reform. Hundreds of middleclass boys picked those tools up again, helping governments to break the strike. (State Records of NSW, 17420-a014)

Hand-coloured photographs of Ken, Alan and Gordon Douglas, all killed on the western front, framed and kept by their parents after the war. The three brothers are also remembered in two stained glass windows in Holy Trinity Church in the Sydney suburb of Erskineville. My three sons, Mary Douglas wrote to the military authorities, 'have given their lives for their King and Empire. Their loss I can assure you is severe, not only as sons and comforters but financially, as I know if their young lives had been spared their help, assistance and care would have been for us'. (AWM P05470.004; National Archives of Australia, series B2455, enlistment dossier for 2879 Gordon Douglas)

The death on Gallipoli of Bill Buckingham from Collingwood prompted his son Jack to enlist. En route to the fighting he mailed these leaves home from Cape Town in South Africa. In 1917 Jack also died a soldier's death. His sister Ivy used the leaves he had sent to frame his portrait in the family album. (AWM P07707.002)

'To commemorate the third anniversary of the declaration of war and to reassert the vital necessity of ... complete victory and the possibility of lasting peace [a] mass meeting of citizens was held in the Adelaide Town Hall on Friday evening.' Adelaide Advertiser, 4 August 1917, p. 10. (AWM REL39131)

'In scorching weather members of the Wattle Day League and helpers went into the streets of Adelaide on Friday with the object of raising funds by the sale of buttons ... to help maimed soldiers and returned warriors …' Adelaide Advertiser, 22 December 1917, p. 9. (AWM REL39109)

'The demonstrations on Gallipoli Day, Anzac Day and Win the War Day seem to have been useless for the purpose of securing recruits.' Adelaide Advertiser, 9 May 1917, p. 9. (AWM REL39125)

'... there could be no limit to the people's admiration for ... the fearless seamen who have risen to the responsibility of carrying on the merchant service.' Adelaide Advertiser, 21 April 1917, p. 10. (AWM REL39119)

'The public have today an opportunity to demonstrate how deeply they appreciate the good work of the nurses.' Adelaide Advertiser, 27 October 1917, p. 6. (AWM REL39117)

Fundraising buttons for Brick Day, held in Adelaide to build a hostel for returned soldiers. (Australian War Memorial REL34058)

The Snapshots From Home league helped families to send images of themselves and their houses to soldiers, combating 'the invisible enemy of men at the front ... heart-hunger, loneliness, isolation, homesickness'. Six thousand volunteers across Australia took 150,000 photographs, developed them, printed them, and mailed them to the front line. (Frederick Pegram, chromolithograph, 47 x 32 cm, AWM ARTV05498)

Three hundred 'enemy aliens', nearly all of German descent, were interned during the war at Berrima in New South Wales, doubling the town's population. Obliged to sleep in the gaol, they could leave it during the day; a few paid rent for local houses so their families could live close by. Internees competent in the relevant subjects taught girls from these houses at this improvised töchterschule. (AWM H12155)

These voluntary war workers from Port Macquarie were typical lynchpins of community life—the mayor and his wife, the wife of a headmaster, the wife of the local newspaper proprietor, a bank manager, a retired clergyman who also happened to be a former state MP. (AWM P01871.001)

In 1917 a One Woman/One Recruit league tried to nudge Victorian men into uniform. 'Let each of us become obsessed with this one idea, the enlisting of one man', the League's secretary urged. The League had little success (though this flag records one enlistment at its instigation) and was unpopular with some Australians. In August a hundred protesters broke up one of its meetings. 'One woman was slightly hurt in the melee', a newspaper reported. (AWM REL32928; Healesville and Ya rra Glen Guardian, 28 April 1917, p. 2; West Australian, 16 August 1917, p. 5)

Recruiting sergeant Pat Kennedy bagged four potential soldiers south-west of Brisbane in April 1916, among them a young labourer from Munbilla called Tom Kehoe. This photograph, taken in the little town, might record the public meeting at which Kehoe stepped forward. He returned to Munbilla three and a half years later. (AWM H02204; Brisbane Courier, 19 April 1916, p. 7)

A pro-conscription meeting in Melbourne's Collins Street in December 1917. 'An anti-crowd' at a similar but smaller meeting in the suburb of East Malvern 'hooted returned soldiers who were advocating conscription', one newspaper noted, and 'Mr Boyd MP slapped one young interjector across the face'. (AWM J00336; Portland Guardian, 3 December 1917, p. 3)

'Do you know that British women are joining the navy?', the other side of this leaflet asked readers on the eve of the second conscription vote in 1917: 'Do you know that a Women's Army Auxiliary Corps has been formed to do active military work behind the lines in Flanders? ... These women have liberated thousands of men for duty in the firing line ... The women of England are helping to achieve victory, sharing with their sisters of France and Belgium the hardships of war. The women of Australia can back them up with an overwhelming YES on December 20'. (AWM RC00316)

'Tank Week began in Sydney this morning', a newspaper reported in April 1918, 'when a much-camouflaged monster came to a pause in Martin Place. From its deck there immediately opened a battery of four-minute appeals' for buying bonds to help the government to continue waging war without further raising taxes. 'By the time the tank had moved off to resume the attack on Balmain, £150,000 had been subscribed.' (AWM H15957; Adelaide Advertiser, 4 April 1918, p. 9)

The Commonwealth Clothing Factory opened in Melbourne's Southbank in 1912 to make uniforms for the militia. By 1915 its main product was the baggy, pea-soup coloured uniform worn by Australian soldiers overseas. The factory offered better working conditions and wages than its predominantly female staff might have received from private employers, but workers were expected to labour selflessly for the war effort. (AWM DAX2294)

The war broke the brittle spirit of Paul Windle, already afflicted with medical problems before enlistment. After returning home to Melbourne he copyrighted this 'Home Honor Board' for sale to families of soldiers. This example was made up for the Farrells of Garvoc in Victoria, who sent two sons 'to fight for the preservation of Australia's nationhood'. Jack Farrell returned a hero, with a Distinguished Conduct Medal and a Military Medal with bar on his chest, but Michael died of wounds in 1918. (AWM A05328)

A tribute from Buckingham Palace to the family of a clerk and Sunday School teacher killed in 1918. King George V mourned for his fallen subjects in another, more public way in November 1920, when he walked behind the coffin of an unidentified 'British warrior' about to be reburied in London's Westminster Abbey as the representative of all the empire's war dead. (AWM REL30213)

This replica destroyer in Sydney's Martin Place—and the real gun firing from its deck—stimulated donations to yet another public loan to the government to help pay the crippling cost of the war. (AWM H15959)

In mid 1918, when the German army seemed to be winning the war, the Australian government asked men to submit their names voluntarily for ballots that, every three months, would choose a minimum number of badly-needed reinforcements for the front line. A hundred names were drawn in the first ballot, shown in this photograph, in Sydney's Martin Place in October. The war's end a month later put paid to further ballots. (AWM H18783)

Bombardier Laurence Bryant is welcomed home to Kyabram, Victoria, in August 1918. Bryant was discharged as medically unfit due to an incurable heart condition and died two months later, aged 22 years. He was one of many soldiers who made it home only to die prematurely as a result of wounds or illness sustained on active service. (AWM P08477.005)

Hurrah! The day at last has come! The armistice of 11 November 1918 brought an end to hostilities, which allowed even those in mourning to rejoice. These returned soldiers, some maimed in battle, delight in the news that the war has ended, but the euphoria felt across the country was tempered by grief at the enormity of Australia's losses. Over the decades to come, the sight of men disabled by war wounds was commonplace in communities across the country, a constant reminder of the cost of war. (National Library of Australia, Sydney Mail, 20 November 1918)

William Morris Hughes celebrates the armistice with the soldiers he admired. Lacking the opportunity to experience Hughes' irascible temper, many soldiers admired him in return. He did more to boost Australia's war effort—and, through his zealotry and errors of judgement, more to undermine it—than anyone else. (National Library of Australia, PIC P880/1a LOC Portraits Drawer A21)

Australia's streets had begun to fill with people in anticipation of the armistice, and city streets seethed with moving bodies once the news broke. The noise seemed incredible—singing and cheering, young men and women beating on tin cans and blowing on whistles. Effigies of the German emperor were mocked, hanged and torched. (AWM A03281)

Members of the Red Cross welcome the arrival of a troop transport bringing wounded and invalided men home from the front. (AWM H18793)

A Sydney crowd waits for its heroes to come home. (AWM P01102.005)

Wounded soldiers returning to Melbourne. In April 1919 a newspaper reported some 'interesting figures' pertaining to men like these. So far, 938 had come home blind in one eye, 1202 without a leg, and twenty with no legs. (AWM J00327; Adelaide Register, 23 April 1919, p. 8)

A passionate welcome back to Sydney in 1918. (AWM H11574)

'Many Brisbane residents have at some time or other visited the Rosemount Military Hospital at Windsor', a newspaper reported five years after the war ended, 'and have realised the care and attention bestowed on the Diggers there. There are still about 100 patients at the institution, in addition to almost 300 out-patients daily. Massage cases also receive special treatment at Rosemount. Massage sought to repair nerve damage and soothe shattered minds.' (AWM H02258; Cairns Post, 2 January 1924, p. 7)

The new Repatriation Department supported war widows and orphans, offered pensions and hospital treatment to injured and diseased former soldiers, and tried its best to slot men into good jobs or onto small farms. Here, former soldiers register for work. At first the return of hundreds of thousands of men to the workplace went smoothly. In the 1920s, though, unemployment was sometimes twice as likely as in the previous decade. (National Archives of Australia, A7342/1 album 2, barcode 8832646)

Former soldiers learn book-keeping. 'Single man, totally deaf, writes a good hand and has knowledge of book-keeping; would like part or whole time job as near Cottesloe as possible so he can attend Deaf and Dumb School', one former soldier advertised. (National Archives of Australia A7342/1 album 2, barcode 8832633; Perth Sunday Times, 24 February 1918, p. 5s)

'At the Brunswick Technical School', a newspaper reported as the war ended, 'a class of returned soldiers is being taught all the work pertaining to the making of pottery ware. The class at present numbers 18, and a room has been set apart for them as a dining and recreation room ... The course of instruction includes the drawing of designs, the making of moulds, and the moulding and completion of articles of domestic and sanitary ware.' (National Archives of Australia A7342/1 album 2, barcode 8832607; Melbourne Argus, 8 November 1918, p. 9)

Former soldiers practise boot-making, a common occupation in small factories in inner Sydney and Melbourne. Funded by the Repatriation Department, twenty thousand such men were learning trades from carpentry to motor repairs by the close of 1920. (National Archives of Australia A7342/1 album 2, barcode 8832640)

'I am a soldier's widow without family', wrote a childless woman who applied to the Repatriation Department for a war widow's pension, 'and was told that it was given at their discretion. And as I was able to work they would not grant it to me'. Perhaps these women, learning hat-making in a Repatriation class, were similarly ineligible for the generous payments some war widows received—58 shillings a week for a woman with three children, about the average weekly wage. (National Archives of Australia A7342/1 album 2, barcode 8832637; Melbourne Argus, 21 June 1919, p. 11)

Women at work in the records office of the Defence Department in Melbourne. In Britain and France the war transformed women's work and also women's social and political status. In Australia—not quite as desperately immersed in the war, where women could already vote, and where men reclaimed most work-places once peace came—the changes were less dramatic, but still noticeable. Far more women worked after the war than before it. (AWM H02334)

A lethal influenza popularly called the Spanish Flu spread across the globe in 1919, adding another twelve thousand Australian dead, most of them civilians, to the sixty thousand killed in the war or soon to die from wounds. These nurses' aides at Randwick Military Hospital in Sydney take elementary precautions against the new enemy. (AWM P02789.001)

Family and friends anxiously await the arrival of cars carrying returned men, including some wounded, at the Anzac Buffet in Hyde Park, Sydney, June 1919. AWM H11576

Nurses and patients at Melbourne's Anzac Hostel for permanently disabled veterans. Two thousand former soldiers spent the rest of their lives in institutions like this. (AWM P03098.005)

Fundraising buttons for the costly return to peace. Hundreds of thousands of former soldiers had to be slotted slowly back into civil life, sometimes after training and medical treatment. Thousands more needed permanent care. The 'debt of gratitude to Our Boys can never be wholly paid', one appeal had put it even before the war ended; 'after all, theirs has been the sacrifice and theirs the suffering'. (Adelaide Mail, 17 November 1917; AWM REL39132)

In Memoria button.

Partially Blinded Soldiers Appeal of Victoria button.

Armistice Signed Nov 11 1918 button.

Anniversary 1919 Gallipoli Landing Apr 251915

A 1914 to 1918

The promise of war: family life restored after victory. Peace bonds were sold after the war to help the government pay to return soldiers to civilian life. (AWM ARTV00788, lithograph, 75 x 50 cm)

The Conquest family of Sydney, minus their husband and father at sea with the Royal Australian Navy. One of the boys was named after Horatio Nelson, the greatest British admiral. Miniature uniforms were common childhood dress even before the war. (AWM P04834.001)

The Burns family, also of Sydney, taken before Bill Burns (standing) left for the war in October 1917. He was shot dead a year later in France, and is listed on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial. (AWM P07381.002)

The Malcolm family of Melbourne. Siblings Norman, Stella, Eric and Edith, back safe from the war and together again in 1919. (AWM P03166.001)

The Nolan family of Rozelle in Sydney. Charles Nolan (in uniform) left this working-class hearth in 1916 at the age of eighteen. He was killed before his twentieth birthday. (AWM P08048.002)

The people swarmed over the trams and ferries, and put a strain on the railways, the Sydney Morning Herald reported after the city's peace day celebrations on 19 July 1919: They wanted to see the decorations and any fun that was going on—yes—but, above all, they wanted to see the sailors and soldiers march ... The most striking section of the march was in Macquarie Street, where the route was lined with the 'peace flag'—the emblem of the League of Nations which is, at least, an honest attempt to end all wars. (AWM H16148; Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1919, p. 9)

Britannia triumphant, surrounded by her faithful allies and graced by Peace. The shops and offices in Wondai, northwest of Brisbane, closed at midday on 12 November 1918, and flag-waving school children marched through the streets to the railway station, where they were addressed by the headmaster and the shire council chairman. After a picnic they were further entertained that evening in a theatre. Meanwhile, the town's adults decided to hold another, larger, more elaborate celebration of war's end. Perhaps this tableau was a consequence of that decision. Matilda McLucas (Britannia) would marry Tommy Christensen after he returned to Wondai from the war. (State Library of Qld, image no. 149066)

A typical welcome, probably in Sydney, for a 'returned man'. The people of Buckland in Tasmania welcomed Joseph French and Henry Turvey at a dance in a hall decorated with ferns and flags. A Salvation Army band saluted Max Bloomer and three other men and drove them through the streets of Yea. The little hall at Baree in north Queensland proved too small to hold everyone who gathered to salute their returned men. (AWM P02427.002)

The war was won by the weight of iron—by the bigger mountain of munitions, by the bigger navy, by the bigger railway network—but Australians rejoiced that their soldiers on horseback, bred in the famous Bush, played a part in the eventual defeat of Turkey and in snatching Palestine—the Holy Land, as they thought of it—for the British empire. Here, veterans of Queensland's 2nd Light Horse parade through Brisbane before an appreciative crowd. (AWM H02157)

Welcome Home! Warrant Officer Alfred Cook is greeted by family in Adelaide after more than four years away; he returned on the Persic in early 1919. Cook served with the light horse and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. AWM P05328.001

Alice Hucker, dressed in black, by the Mackay war memorial, after its inauguration. With her husband Arthur she attended the town's Anzac Day commemoration every year, grieving for their only son, killed in 1917. A generation earlier Arthur Hucker had lost a brother in the Sudan War. (AWM P07933.003)

The annual St Patrick's Day procession in Melbourne in 1920 had the unusual addition of 'fourteen Victoria Cross heroes' on white horses, their operatic appearance devised to add lustre to Archbishop Daniel Mannix, intellectual head of the Roman Catholic church in Australia and spokesman for hundreds of thousands of Australians of Irish descent, for their growing weariness with the war and impatience with Britain. (State Library of Victoria, H2010.179)

Mannix with one of his priests. 'I wanted to win the war', he assured an interviewer in 1962: 'I wanted to promote voluntary enlistment, but I did not want conscription'. (State Library of Victoria, H2010.174/29)

Mervyn Cummings was one of three brothers who went to war. One died in 1918, and Mervyn was still recovering from an air crash—not the result of war service, but of an accident during a Peace Loan fundraising event—when he married Beatrice Roe in Hobart in 1920. There were thousands of marriages in the wake of the war, and also hundreds of divorces. (AWM P01432.004)

Captain Claude Stubbings of Zeehan, Tasmania, was wounded several times on the Western Front, and was still confined to a hospital bed at No. 11 Australian General Hospital in Melbourne when he received his Military Cross after the war. The ceremony was attended by the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson (left), and his wife Lady Helen, who had established the Australian branch of the British Red Cross Society, which looked after sick and wounded soldiers and helped their dependents. Despite concerns that he would not recover sufficiently to support a wife, Stubbings regained his strength, married his physiotherapist, and took up a soldier-settlement block in Victoria. (AWM P05139.002)

Why had sixty thousand men given their lives during the war—one in every ten of military age? 'They died for the safety of Australia', Prime Minister William Morris Hughes told parliament in 1919, and in death had 'made for themselves and their country a name that will not die'. Humble monuments to them were appearing in most suburbs and towns, like this one in Burnie in Tasmania. They were soon supplemented by massive memorials in the state capitals and, eventually, by the Australian War Memorial in the new national capital, Canberra. (AWM H17762; Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 10 September 1919)