Weapons used by the Australian Army in World War I
The Australian Army mostly used the same equipment and weapons as the British and other dominion forces. This standardisation allowed greater interoperability and faster production and supply of weapons and ammunition throughout the war. Sometimes, unique items of equipment were developed out of necessity, such as the periscope rifle.
Standard British weaponry
Although the Australian Army was still being formed when the war began, weaponry between the six Australian states had been standardised since Federation in 1901. The equipment used by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was mostly the same as the British Army and the armies of the other British dominions.
When the men of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) left Australia, the Minister for Defence said in a statement to the press:
We have sent or are about to send troops to the number of 40,000 for the defence of the Empire in Europe. All of these are armed and equipped exactly as are the British regiments.
[CITIZEN DUTY, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Nov 1914, p.8]
AIF soldiers were issued with a thick woollen khaki uniform, a broad-brimmed slouch hat with a Rising Sun badge, a rifle and a long sword bayonet.
Infantrymen received a woven cotton webbing equipment set, which included:
- a belt
- cartridge pouches
- bayonet frog
- a water bottle with holder
- haversack (small bag)
- valise with straps (backpack)
- an entrenching tool with holder
Men on the Western Front were given steel helmets from 1916.
Light horsemen received a leather bandolier to hold ammunition and load carriage equipment.
Military equipment changed during the war as warfare tactics changed and technology advanced.
In 1914, the AIF equipped soldiers with rifles from the Citizen Forces until local production of Lee-Enfield rifles increased at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory.
Soldiers who received weapons training as cadets had probably practised shooting with the .310 Martini Cadet single-shot rifle. (For many years after the war, farmhouses throughout Australia had one of these .310 rifles for pest animal control.)
Soldiers in the Infantry and Light Horse brigades were issued with a short magazine Lee-Enfield Mark III rifle. This rifle had been used across the British Army since 1910. (Many Commonwealth forces continued to use it in different variations up until the late 1950s.)
A report from war correspondent, Trooper Clifford Halloran of the 6th Light Horse in Ma'adi, highlighted differing opinions about the Australian-made Lee-Enfield rifle:
MA'ADI, Egypt, March 24. I am glad to be able to say that a recognised authority on rifle construction has vindicated the Lee-Enfield, Mark 3, rifles which the Australian infantry and Light Horse in Egypt are using. There has been a great amount of wild talk among the troops concerning these rifles, which were turned out at the Commonwealth Government's small arms factory. But Lieutenant Proudfoot, an Englishman, a man who knows much about rifles, said at a lecture a few nights ago that the Australian Government's rifle was one of the finest he had ever handled. Our rifle is shorter and not so slender as the weapon with which the British Territorials in Egypt have been armed. Our bayonet, though, is longer than that of the Terriers--just that much longer as to even matters up. Our bayonet, too, is thicker and heavier than the English weapon we seen in Egypt.
[AUSTRALIANS IN EGYPT, The Sun, 23 Apr 1915, p.4]
At Gallipoli, Lance Corporal William Beech invented a periscope rifle that let soldiers aim and fire from a trench without exposing themselves to enemy fire.
The improvised jam tin bombs was designed by the Anzacs at Gallipoli because they were ill-equipped for trench warfare. Until supplied with standard bombs, soldiers would sometimes set these explosives as booby traps under battlefield debris and bodies.
Infantrymen used a Mills bomb, a standard British Army grenade that weighed 765g. A soldier could throw a Mills bomb about 15m. The wounding range of the bomb's exploding fragments was about 90m. These bombs had to be used offensively, with the thrower behind cover and the target within range.
The target wasn't always in the open. Sometimes, it might have been in a shell hole, for example.
Bombs were thrown:
- into dugouts when trenches were assaulted
- to clear the ground around traverses when infantry were advancing along enemy trenches
- against pillboxes in Flanders
Later in the war, the Mills bomb was modified to be used with a rod-type rifle launcher and a cup-type launcher, which increased its range up to 182m. One example is the Hales rifle grenade.
At the start of the war, the AIF used a small number of medium machine guns (Maxim, Vickers). Machine gun technology and tactics evolved in response to trench warfare on the Western Front.
The Vickers medium machine gun was a heavy machine gun used to mow down rows of advancing enemy troops. This destroyer of human life was used by the British Army until 1968, when it was given a full military funeral.
Lewis light machine guns could be carried into an attack. By the end of the war, each platoon carried several Lewis guns into action, in part to make up for the dwindling number of men.
Later in the war, the AIF used a Stokes 3-inch trench mortar. A soldier could drop a mortar bomb into a firing tube, propelling the 4kg shell up to 686m towards a target. The equipment weighed 47kg and needed at least 2 men to carry and operate it in the field.
Other trench mortars used were the Garland trench mortar and the 2-inch medium Howitzer mortar.
Accidents could be fatal for soldiers firing a trench mortar, for example the deaths of 2 Australian soldiers from the 6th Light Trench Mortar Battery.
Artillerymen operated the largest guns during combat. Guns used in Australian brigades included:
- 9.45 inch heavy trench mortar (the 'flying pig') – up to 1 round per 6 minutes and 2km maximum range
- 4.5 inch Howitzer field gun – up to 4 rounds per minute and 6km maximum range
- 18-pounder field gun – up to 20 rounds per minute and 6 to 10km maximum range
Heavy mortars and field guns were dismantled for transport on a horse-drawn wagons to the front lines.
Tanks and armoured cars
The AIF did not operate any tanks during the war. But Australians served alongside British tanks during the fighting on the Western Front:
- sometimes unsuccessfully (eg Battle of Bullecourt)
- sometimes successfully (eg Battle of Hamel)
With the rise of mass-produced cars in the early 20th century, automotive technology was adopted during the war.
Open top cars fitted with a Lewis gun or machine gun were used by British forces in hit-and-run attacks on the Germans. The usefulness of these mobile weapons decreased with the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front but armoured cars were used in the war's final months after the trench stalemate was broken.
Armoured Cars were also used by Australians in the Middle East. The 1st Australian Light Car patrol was recorded on film at Aleppo in operations against the Ottomans.