First Australian Imperial Force in World War I
The Australian Government established the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in August 1914 and immediately began recruiting men to serve the British Empire in the war. The men of the AIF served in the Middle East and on the Western Front during the war.
Before the war
Australia's Regular Army was a young evolving force when war broke out. It had been formed when the separate defence forces of six colonial states were joined with the federation of Australia in 1901.
Before the war, the Army introduced two major changes:
- compulsory military training started in 1909
- military organisation was restructured after Field Marshal Viscount Herbert Kitchener visited Australia in 1910
The Regular Army was organised into:
- Australian Infantry Regiment (foot soldiers)
- field companies (engineers)
- garrison artillery batteries
- light horse brigades (mounted troops)
At the time, Australian law didn't permit men in the Regular Army and the Citizen Forces (part-time reserves) to serve in wars overseas.
Declaration of war
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Australia had already offered unreserved help:
- The Cabinet had pledged an initial armed force of 20,000 troops.
- The Royal Australia Navy had offered all its vessels and sailors.
General William Bridges and Major Cyril Brudenell White completed a defence scheme for the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) by 8 August 1914.
AIF recruitment offices opened in army barracks around Australia on 10 August 1914.
Within days, the first AIF volunteers were in basic training camps preparing to fight for the British Empire.
A hurriedly assembled Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) captured and occupied German colonial outposts in New Guinea in September 1914. The Battle of Bitapaka was Australia's first action in the war.
Most of first AIF contingent of troops and nurses destined for the war in Europe left Albany in Western Australia on 1 November 1914. The force sailed in a convoy of 38 Australian transports or troopships, 36 from Albany and two from Fremantle that joined the convoy at sea. The convoy also included 10 New Zealand Transports. The contingent included all the units that comprised a modern army:
- field ambulance
- light horse
A well-known war diarist, Private Archie Barwick of the 1st Battalion, wrote:
... all that day we watched the Australian coast fading away, till darkness shut it out, and when we got up in the morning we were out of sight of land, and nothing but the calm blue sea all around us, like a sheet of shimmering glass, and at last we felt we were fairly on the way to England.
The convoy sailed across the Indian Ocean towards the Suez Canal. The men thought they were going to England — and then across to France to engage the German army.
Diverted to Egypt
The first contingent of the AIF never got to England.
The Australian High Commissioner in London, Sir George Reid, and the British military authorities agreed that the overcrowded military camps in England were unsuitable for so many men over winter.
The AIF disembarked at Alexandria on 3 December 1914, and the men moved to training camps near Cairo.
In Egypt, the AIF and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) formed one corps — the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) — commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, with 2 divisions:
- 1st Australian Division
- New Zealand and Australian Division
(Birdwood was well regarded by the AIF troops on Gallipoli. The affection was surely returned. Birdwood used to visit wounded Anzacs at No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Harefield Park, where many Australian soldiers are buried.)
Until March 1915, the troops trained in the desert beneath the pyramids. A situation had developed that would bring them to battle with the men of the Ottoman Army. The soldiers of the Ottoman Army are often known as Turks’, but the army also comprised people from the vast Ottoman Empire, including current day Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, as well as peoples from the settled areas of the Arabian peninsula.
The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force included British, French, British-Indian Army, New Zealand and Australian units. They gathered on the Greek island of Lemnos, 100km south-west of Gallipoli, in early April 1915.
In Mudros harbour, the Australian men and some of their officers practised beach landings as they waited for the Gallipoli Campaign to begin.
Lieutenant Alan Henderson of the 7th Battalion confided to his family in a letter they received after his death:
It is going to be Australia's chance and she makes a tradition out of this that she must always look back on. God grant it will be a great one. The importance of this alone seems stupendous to Australia.
On the afternoon of 24 April 1915, the AIF men boarded troop transports, destroyers and battleships for a short overnight trip to Gallipoli. The landing at Gallipoli started on 25 April and the initial fighting lasted 9 days. There were heavy casualties on the first day and during the Turkish counter-attacks.
About 2300 Australians had been killed on Gallipoli by 3 May. The 16th Battalion landed at 5:30pm on 26 April and moved to Monash Valley. At roll call on 3 May, only 307 of its 955 men had survived.
After they came ashore, the men occupied the beach and a small inland area of cliffs and gullies. Their tasks were to:
- capture the high ground to the north (which they never acheived)
- dig trenches and dugouts into the hills for shelter
- haul supplies and equipment
- land the pack animals
- send wounded men back to the ships
- set up condensers to provide fresh water
- set up headquarters
- set up medical facilities
The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force failed to make any progress against Turkish defences on the Gallipoli peninsula. The British War Cabinet finally decided to end the campaign on 8 December 1915.
When the last of the British forces left Cape Helles on 8 January 1916, the unsuccessful Gallipoli Campaign was over.
The AIF experienced casualties of nearly half the men who served at Gallipoli in 8 months — more than 8100 died and some 26,000 were wounded.
We define the first Anzacs as having courage, endurance and humour — qualities that helped them to cope with the hell around them, through the long months of struggle, danger, ill-health and loss.
Middle East campaigns
After British forces withdrew from Gallipoli, thousands of Turkish troops were freed up to fight in other campaigns. The British worried about the threat to its protectorate, the Sultanate of Egypt, and the Suez Canal. This shipping route was vital to the British Empire's war effort.
The AIF returned to Egypt from Gallipoli with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. General Archibald Murray became commander of the force in January 1916. He was charged with the defence of the Suez Canal against Turkish attacks.
After 10 divisions embarked for France, the MEF was renamed the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in March 1916. The force included 4 incomplete British infantry divisions and a force of British-Indian Army, as well as mounted troops, infantry and support units:
- British Yeomanry
- Australian Light Horse
- New Zealand Mounted Rifles
The first objective was to move along the northern Sinai Peninsula to Romani, away from the banks of the Suez and across the Sinai toward Palestine, in Ottoman Territory. The Battle of Romani ended Turkish attempts on the Suez and opened the way to Palestine. The men constructed a railway and a water pipeline as they went. Water supply determined the outcome of several desert battles.
Between 1916 and 1918, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force pushed the Turks back in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.
After his failure in the second battle of Gaza in April 1917, General Murray was replaced with the popular General Edmund Allenby.
The campaign ended in September 1918 with the Megiddo offensive — including a brilliant cavalry operation. Both the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions helped to capture 360 guns and 75,000 prisoners - and moved the front forward 560km.
The Armistice of Mudros in October 1918 ended conflict in the Middle East with the Ottoman Empire.
The AIF suffered almost 5000 casualties in the campaign, including over 1400 deaths.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes told Parliament in 1919:
In the history of the world, there never was a greater victory than that which was achieved in Palestine, and in it, also, as in France, the soldiers of Australia played a great part.
Expansion and reorganisation
In February 1916, the military structure of the AIF and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was reorganised because both forces had expanded.
The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was replaced by:
- I ANZAC Corps — 1st Division, 2nd Division and the newly formed New Zealand Division
- II ANZAC Corps — 4th Division and 5th Division (both newly formed)
I ANZAC Corps included veterans of the 1st and 2nd Divisions evacuated from Gallipoli, reinforcements who had been training in Egypt and recent recruits from Australia. Battalions in the 4th and 5th Divisions were also made up of new men from Australia and Gallipoli veterans transferred to the newly formed battalions to provide a core of experience.
Arrival on the Western Front
In France and Belgium, the Australians faced the powerful Imperial German Army. The fury of the battles would test the limits of each man's endurance. Many survivors would have mental and physical scars for life.
Australian troops began to arrive in Marseille, France, at the end of March 1916.
The AIF men were fit and keen. They were eager to prove themselves worthy of the Anzacs' reputation for bravery and initiative.
Captain Eric Wren of the 3rd Battalion recalled his ship's arrival in France:
The approach to the French coast was made in beautifully clear weather. A ferry boat passed close. There were many women among the passengers, and it was observed that everyone appeared to be in black. It gave a first impression of France, 'a nation in mourning'.
The soldiers travelled by train from the port of Marseilles to northern France. A soldier's life behind the front lines in France was easier than in Egypt. Cafes in villages sold eggs, chips, beer and wine. However, billets were often basic, such as a barn, loft or stable.
The Australians settled into training. They learned about trench warfare in 'the nursery', a section of trenches around Armentières.
Living on the front line involved occasional shelling, raids, sniping and trench routine (the learned behaviours that helped men to survive).
In June, Australia's Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, visited the 1st Division near Armentières. He reminded the men that the Australian people were thinking of them. Hughes was very moved by the experience:
What a glorious and inspiring sight they were … to see them is the elixir of life!
Battle of the Somme
The 4th Division swapped with the New Zealand Division to join I ANZAC Corps - in time for the corps move to the Somme.
The First Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916, and the Australians were committed to action within 3 weeks. Men from I ANZAC Corps served in the British Reserve Army (later called the 5th Army) from 23 July, commanded by General Hubert Gough.
The Somme Offensive was a series of bloody battles that continued for almost 5 months and caused more than 1 million causalities.
Many Australians died in an ill-conceived attack at Fromelles. In a single night, on 19 to 20 July 1916, the 5th Division suffered more than 5500 casualties and no ground was taken.
Within days, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions — one after the other — entered the battle at Pozières, part of the Battle of the Somme. They made 19 attacks over 45 days and captured vital ground, but some 23,000 AIF men were killed or wounded.
The AIF withdrew its troops from the line to reorganise and reform the depleted battalions. The 5th Division did not return to the front line until October, when it joined the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions near Flers in the Somme valley.
The AIF's 3rd Division arrived in France on 21 November, under the command of Major General John Monash, and joined II ANZAC Corps in Flanders. Formed in Australia in February 1916, the men had been training since July at Larkhill Camp, one of the AIF's new depots set up on Salisbury Plain.
The Australian troops experienced a bitterly cruel winter in the trenches after the Somme Offensive.
1916 was devastating for Australian families. Over 10,000 AIF men died on the Western Front by the end of the year, and 30,000 had been wounded.
Those who survived the battles of Fromelles or Pozières, or served through the winter on the Somme, could never forget the horrors and suffering they endured.
On the home front, thousands of households were in mourning. Newspapers recorded sad obituaries and poems dedicated to lost fathers, sons, brothers and husbands.
In the first half of the year, the AIF's heaviest fighting took place in France, at Bullecourt.
All armies were struck with disease outbreaks in the extremely cold months of January and February — especially respiratory illness (eg colds, bronchitis) and rheumatism.
I ANZAC Corps helped to patrol the front over winter. The men noticed the Germans withdrawing to the newly constructed Hindenburg Line. The Australians soon realised the enemy had retreated to this heavily fortified and strongly defended position.
The 2nd and 5th Divisions helped to capture German-held villages between Bapaume and the Hindenburg Line. This involved some heavy fighting across open fields. By 9 April, the British and Australian forces had reached the Hindenburg Line outposts outside Bapaume and were facing the Germans at Bullecourt. Heavy fighting followed but the front barely moved in this area until 1918.
Battle of Arras
In the Battle of Arras, the British sought to break through the Hindenburg Line and force a German withdrawal. General Gough was very keen for the British 5th Army to get involved, to support the main offensive.
At the First Battle of Bullecourt on 10 April, a hurried plan to break into the German line using tanks in front of the attacking infantry rather than bombarding the defences with artillery was a failure. The action was a disaster that shattered the 4th Australian Division, which suffered more than 3000 casualties and had some 1170 men taken prisoner.
The Germans suffered losses too, but they retaliated with an attack on Lagnicourt on 15 April. Tragically, 1000 men from the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions were killed or wounded during this fighting.
The Second Battle of Bullecourt began on 3 May. The 1st Australian Division suffered heavy losses to capture a section of the German line. They held on for 5 days until they were relieved by the 5th Division. On 15 May, the Australians withstood one last heavy counter-attack before the Germans gave up the ground. In 2 weeks, the AIF suffered more than 7000 casualties.
By now, the 4 AIF divisions were severely depleted. They had had heavy losses among combat veterans and there were few experienced men available to replace them. A plan to raise a 6th Australian Division in England was abandoned. The AIF had to supply the other divisions with much-needed reinforcements.
The men of the AIF felt very wary of many of their British commanders. War correspondent Charles Bean wrote:
Bullecourt, more than any other battle, shook the confidence of Australian soldiers in the capacity of British command; the errors, especially of April 10th and 11th, were obvious to almost everyone.
The grand scheme for the major British offensive at Arras failed. The French army was seriously weakened after its own failed offensive, known as the Nivelle Offensive, and the Allies were in crisis. The British forces were still capable of attacking on the Western Front, while the French were compelled to go on the defensive. The British Commander General Douglas Haig turned his attention to Belgium.
Since November 1916, the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company protected and worked on British tunnels south of Ypres beneath Hill 60. The galleries reached under the German line and were packed with tonnes of explosives.
On 7 June, the Battle of Messines began when 19 mines exploded under the German lines, including at Hill 60. The explosions shocked and demoralised the German troops, killing and wounding up to 10,000 and leading thousands more to surrender.., The 3rd Australian Division seized the enemy front line near Messines within minutes.
Messines was the first time Australian troops encountered the concrete blockhouses dubbed ‘pillboxes’. Learning how to capture a German pillbox became a feature of fighting outside Ypres.
Fighting to overcome German machine guns nested in the cement pillboxes was particularly fierce. Charles Bean noted that pillbox combat was:
… marked by a ferocity that renders the reading of any true narrative peculiarly unpleasant … the rules of “civilised” war are powerless
Third Battle of Ypres
In the second half of the year, the AIF suffered terrible losses in Flanders.
I ANZAC Corps, comprising the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions, became part of General Gough's 5th Army again in September.
All 5 Australian divisions fought together —sometimes side by side — throughout September and October. The battles became known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or simply 'Passchendaele'.
The AIF men served in a series of 'bite and hold' battles at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. The victory at Menin Road demonstrated the outstanding qualities of the Australians in the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions. The Battle of Broodseinde was dubbed one of the AIF's greatest victories.
Then followed heavy rain and two doomed attacks in the muddy quagmire - at Poelcappelle and Passchendaele.
Over 8 weeks, the AIF had suffered 38,000 casualties. British command withdrew the Australians from the lines by 14 November. The men had a chance to rest. Some lucky soldiers took leave in London or Paris.
Most tragic year
For the men involved, 1917 began in the muddy frozen trenches of the Somme and ended in the slimy bog leading up to the Belgian village of Passchendaele.
The AIF reorganised its military structure on 1 November to form the Australian Corps. All five Australian divisions were together for the first time.
In 1917, more than 76,000 Australians became casualties on the Western Front, including some 40,000 who died.
By 1918, the world had become weary of war, and yet no end was in sight.
The old armies were near exhaustion. However, their firepower - through advances in technology and production - was greater than ever. The French and British, drained from years of fighting, were holding on until the arrival of the Americans who had joined the war on the Allied side in April 1917.
The AIF was seriously low in numbers. The Australian public had voted 'no' to conscription in October 1916 and again December 1917. The pool of enthusiastic volunteers that had supplied the AIF in the early years had run dry.
In January, the Australian Corps had about 120,000 troops in Belgium and France. Its units included infantry, artillerymen, engineers, machine-gunners, signallers and medical personnel. Other units on the Western Front included Australians too, for example, flying squadrons, railway companies and tunnellers.
Periods of duty in the muddy or frozen trenches worsened the men's health and morale. In rotations, the AIF units were extended along the front line from Armentières to Messines, across to Hill 60 and closer to Ypres.
German Spring Offensive
Germany launched its Spring Offensive on 21 March 1918. It hoped to inflict a crippling blow to the Allies before the American forces built up in France. The Germans advanced quickly with 63 divisions over a front of 110km.
The German offensive, in reality a series of several offensives, lasted almost 5 months and left the Australians bitter about any German successes. The Germans drove back the British forces on the Somme and in Flanders. They retook many of the battlegrounds that had been taken by the Australians in 1916 and 1917. They also threatened vital railway and communication centres.
The AIF fought many defensive battles, including those at Dernancourt, Hangard Wood, Hazebrouck, Morlancourt and Villers-Bretonneux. The Battle of Hamel on 4 July was a successful Australian-planned attack. The Australian commander, General John Monash used combined arms (aircraft, artillery, infantry and tanks) to straighten a bulge in the front line. Both Australian and American troops were involved.
In April, due to low numbers of enlistments back home and the lack of reinforcements, the AIF disbanded three battalions: the 36th, the 47th and the 52nd. It was a painful process for men devoted to their units.
From April to August, many troops were involved in 'peaceful penetration raids' to capture parts of the German line. They patrolled and raided enemy outposts and trenches, often on their own initiative.
In the end, the Imperial German Army over-extended itself and the Spring Offensive had failed by mid-July.
Hundred Days offensives
Having prevented the Germans from reaching the vital British transport hub at Amiens, the British began to plan their own offensive. It would be a series of attacks - now called the Hundred Days - on the Western Front aimed at keeping the Germans from organising an effective defence. It would end the war.
The Australian Corps was part of the 4th Army, commanded by General Henry Rawlinson, which launched a successful surprise attack on the Germans. Over the next month, the Australians captured ground around Lihons, Etineham, Proyart and the ridge of Chuignes. Then they captured Mont St Quentin and Péronne.
War correspondent Charles Bean wrote:
The capture of Mont St Quentin and Péronne is held by many Australian soldiers to be the most brilliant achievement of the A.I.F.
The battle-weary Australians pursued the Germans to the main Hindenburg Line. The AIF men were heavily burdened, dirty and dwindling in numbers. But they moved quickly beyond the villages of Le Verguier, Villeret and Hargicourt to capture Épehy.
The exhausted infantry battalions from the 1st and 4th Divisions were relieved from front-line duties and moved to the rear. Monash held on to their artillery and the machine-gun companies. The 3rd and 5th Divisions still needed more rest, and the 2nd Division was still recovering from Mont St Quentin.
The AIF devised a plan to cope with high casualties, low enlistments and weakened divisions. It ordered the disbandment of a battalion in each of the 8 original brigades on 23 September. The order caused great anguish amongst the men.
Monash was offered 50,000 men of the American II Corps to assist his 3rd and 5th Divisions in the Battle of St Quentin Canal, which began on 29 September. Despite the Americans' lack of progress and the loss of many tanks, British forces finally broke through the Hindenburg Line by 10 October.
During the attacks, the 3rd and 5th Divisions were relieved by 2nd Division on 3 October. Only 2 years earlier, the 2nd Division was the first Australian unit in France. Now it was the last one still fighting.
Lieutenant Joseph (Joe) Maxwell of 18th Battalion was considered one of the toughest, most experienced and most courageous officers in the AIF. Maxwell later wrote that, at this point, he still thought the end of the war 'was yet far off':
[T]he strain was beginning to tell. We began to reflect that it was merely a matter of time when we would all be killed off. A man who was wounded was damned lucky to be out of it. Out of the nearly three hundred who left Australian in B Company not half a dozen remained. Personally at this juncture I was utterly sick of the war and everything associated with it.
The Australian Corps fought their last infantry battle on 5 October - a small but successful attack at Montbrehain. The 2nd Division finally moved into reserve. The artillery stayed on longer to support the advancing Americans and spent time in Montbrehain after the war.
Only a few Australian units, most notably the flying corps squadrons and some tunnelling companies, were still in action a month later.
The 1st and 4th Divisions were moving back to the front line, but had not taken their positions, when the war ended with an armistice on 11 November 1918. At the time, there were 95,000 Australians in France and 60,000 in Britain.
The AIF suffered around 180,000 casualties on the Western Front:
- 46,000 deaths
- 114,000 wounded
- 16,000 gassed
- approximately 3850 prisoners of war
After the war
The AIF finished its service on a high note of repeated successes. The men in the front line units were tired. All had been far from home - some for years - with their hopes for survival waning. The sudden announcement of peace was as bewildering as it was welcome.
Not needed in Germany as part of the army of occupation, the AIF was held in different parts of Belgium and France until they could be moved to England.
The 1st and 4th Divisions stayed around Le Cateau in France until the first week of December, and then moved to Belgium. The other three divisions were in billets around Abbeville in the Somme. Then the 2nd and 5th Divisions joined the 1st and 4th near Charleroi in April 1919. All the time, the divisions were being reduced as units left for England.
The waiting men were occupied with education and vocational schemes to prepare them for resettlement in Australia, and with sport and travel.
Many visited Brussels and Paris. Some accepted invitations to visit Belgian and French families. More than 100 Australian men volunteered for a short military expedition to North Russia. Some Australians in Dunsterforce remained active in Mesopotamia into 1919. A few men remained in Europe, settling in Britain or France.
But most men of the AIF just wanted to get back to Australia.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes wanted the men repatriated as soon as possible. But too few ships were available to quickly transport some 155,000 men, as well as nearly 2000 nurses and about 12,000 war brides and children.
Within 9 months, most the AIF were transported in 200 sea voyages on 150 ships. The last major voyage was in December 1919. A few men did not return until 1920.
In the decades after the war, the service men and women who had returned to the community had a strong presence. Some had physical and emotional scars from their wartime experiences. They and their families often suffered years of torment. Others re-established themselves with jobs, careers and domestic life. A few became great military leaders in World War II. A lot of men wanted to forget; some couldn't.
Many veterans - then called 'returned soldiers' or 'returned men' - tried to retain the solidarity and mateship of wartime. They formed clubs and associations. The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia was the largest and most enduring. Today we know it as 'the RSL' or 'Returned and Services League'.
First commemorated in 1916, Anzac Day became an important annual occasion for all veterans.
Today, no Australian veterans of World War I remain - just as Charles Bean foretold:
The Old Force passed down the road to History. The dust of its march settled. The sound of its arms died. Upon a hundred battlefields the broken trees stretched their lean arms over sixty thousand of its graves.
Private Alec Campbell from Tasmania was the last Gallipoli veteran to pass away in 2002, aged 103.
Corporal Jack Ross from Victoria was the last of 416,000 Australians who enlisted for service in World War I. Jack died in 2009. He was 110 years old. His death closed a chapter in our history.