Enlisting in the Australian forces during World War I

 

An Australian law prevented men from serving in the war without first voluntarily joining a special military force. At first, many Australians wanted to join the war effort. But the number of enlistments dropped off during the war. The population of willing men had all joined by the end of 1915. Long lists of deaths reported in daily newspapers probably added to the low recruitment.

Preparation for war

When the United Kingdom (UK) declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, nations in the British Empire followed willingly. Part of the Australia's response to war was to pledge an immediate force of 20,000 Australian troops, with more to follow.

Under Australian law at the time (the Defence Act 1903), members of the military forces could not serve in a war overseas. This was true even if they were already members of Australia's Regular Army or Army Reserves.

The government had to form a new army to serve in the war: the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

A defence strategy was quickly created to plan the structure of the AIF.

At the outbreak of war, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was placed under the command of the British Admiralty. Australian ships, submarines and sailors were ready to serve in the war overseas. The RAN only needed to recruit naval personnel to fill any shortfalls.

Recruitment of volunteers

Australia's population in mid-1914 was just over 4.9 million, of which 52% were men. Each man of 'military age' (19 to 38 years old) had to decide whether to join the armed forces and go to war. It was an important decision that affected most families in Australia.

Recruiting offices opened at army barracks around Australia on 10 August 1914, only 6 days after the war began.

Thousands of Australian men joined the AIF in the first few months. They were willing to support the British Empire.

Men sitting at a table handing out pieces of paper to a queue of men
Australian men at the recruiting office at the Town Hall, Melbourne, to enlist for service in World War I. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

New recruits received a free railway ticket to the nearest city so they could begin basic military training.

Within days of enlisting in the AIF, the first volunteers were in training camps set up around Australia.

Selecting volunteers

When men reported to a recruiting depot, a medical examination was arranged for them.

Authorities set precise enlistment standards for military recruits.

Only the biggest and fittest of the early volunteers were accepted in the forces. In the first year of the war, almost one-third of volunteers were rejected. The standards were very strict. For example, men could be rejected for having bad teeth.

As the war progressed, the AIF needed more men to reinforce units with casualties and expand its army. Physical conditions for enlistment were relaxed so that more men would be eligible to serve in the war.

Enlistment standards for the Australian Imperial Force over the course of World War I
Minimum physical requirements August 1914 June 1915 April 1917
Age 19 to 38 years 18 to 45 years 18 to 45 years
Height 5 ft 6 in (168 cm) 5 ft 2 in (157 cm) 5 ft (152 cm)
Chest measurement (fully expanded) 34 in (86 cm) 33 in (84 cm) 33 in (84 cm)

In May 1917, the Australian Government issued Military Order 200(2), which relaxed the provisions around Indigenous service. Men of mixed heritage could be accepted if the medical officer felt 'satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin'.

Counting the recruits

During the war's opening months, more volunteers came forward every day.

About 50,000 men joined the AIF in the first 4 months of the war and around 4000 men joined the navy, including the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF).

Nearly 100,000 men enlisted in the AIF between April and October 1915, while Australian troops were serving in the Gallipoli Campaign.

Through the war years, about 416,000 men enlisted in the AIF out of a population of about 5 million at the end of 1918. Of those enlistments, more than 330,000 men served overseas (we call this 'total embarkations').

We also know that 2139 women served in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) during the war.

Reasons for volunteering

There were many reasons why men didn't enlist, such as:

  • opposition to the war
  • needing to stay home and work family farms or stations
  • family decisions to keep one son at home when others went

But a large group of willing men was ready to enlist in the armed forces, even before the war was announced.

Widespread empathy for Great Britain's cause

Large sections of the Australian community felt loyal to Britain when the war was declared. More than 90% of migrants to Australia in the 8 years before 1914 were from the United Kingdom. Many Australians still called England 'the mother country'.

The Leader of the Opposition at the time, Andrew Fisher, showed his British colours when he declared Australia's unwavering support to Great Britain during a famous election campaign speech in Colac on 31 July 1914:

Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling.

Personal sentiments

Introduction of compulsory military service in 1911 had probably enthused many Australians. Some volunteers had:

  • been members of cadet units or rifle clubs
  • served in militia units
  • served in British campaigns in Sudan, South Africa or China
  • served with the British-Indian Army in the Afghan wars

Initially, Australian men volunteered to enlist for different reasons, because they:

  • needed regular pay
  • sought combat or adventure
  • wanted to escape from normal life
  • wanted to do their duty for the British Empire

The AIF suffered huge losses at Gallipoli in 1915, and then in devastating battles on the Western Front. After long lists of casualties were published in Australian newspapers, the decision to serve was more motivated by duty than adventure.

Enlistment campaigns

From the beginning of the war, propaganda pressured all young men to do their duty for King and country.

The Australian Government copied British campaign methods and used propaganda to stimulate enlistments, with:

  • powerful posters
  • pamphlets and leaflets
  • broadsides (strong spoken or written attacks) and speeches
  • patriotic songs and poems
  • advertisements for war bonds
A poster depicting a soldier and a sitting and reading a book with the words Which Picture would your father like to show his friends?
NSW Recruiting Committee and Win the War League recruitment campaign poster, 'Which picture would your father like to show his friends?', 1917 AWM ARTV00147

These persuasive methods called on all Australians to support the war effort. Men were encouraged and often pressured to enlist in the armed forces. Women were encouraged to keep the home front operating, to consider the safety of their children, and to encourage their husbands and sons to serve.

More than 330,000 Australian men and women served in the AIF overseas during the war. In the aftermath of war, 60,284 Australian service personnel had died and many more suffered injury, sickness and trauma.

Bibliography

ABS 2014, 3105.0.65.001 Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2014, Table 1.2 Population by sex, state and territories, 30 June, 1901 onwards, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.


Last updated: 11 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Enlisting in the Australian forces during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 29 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/military-organisation/enlistment
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