Training Australian army recruits during World War I
Civilian men were rapidly recruited at the start of the war. All soldiers received some basic military training before they left Australia. Then they usually joined a military training camp in Egypt or England. Some went to specialist training schools. Airmen received only basic training at Point Cook, and most needed extra training in Egypt or England before they could fly in the war.
Outbreak of war
When the war began, Australia's military forces included:
- a small Royal Australian Navy (RAN)
- Citizen Naval Forces (part-time Navy reserve volunteers)
- a small regular Australian Army
- Citizen Military Forces (part-time Army reserve volunteers)
Since 1901, the Australian Government preferred to fund the Citizen Forces over its regular army and navy. Such a policy:
- alleviated public distrust of keeping a large permanent military force
- kept the defence budget low
Compulsory military training
British Field Marshal Viscount Herbert Kitchener visited Australia in 1909. The Australian Government introduced the Universal Service Scheme in 1911 as a result of Kitchener's report.
During peacetime, training and military service was compulsory for Australian males aged 12 to 26 years under the scheme.
Periods of training under the scheme were:
- 6 years of elementary training for boys under 18 years
- 7 years of intensive training for adults in the Citizen Military Force or the Citizen Navy
The scheme probably made many Australian families enthusiastic about military service. It might have stimulated enlistments in 1914.
Australian Imperial Army training for recruits
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, and the Australian Government was willing to lend its full support.
An Australian defence plan completed on 8 August included:
- a rapidly formed Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF)
- an army to serve overseas - the Australian Imperial Force (AIF)
(The British Admiralty became responsible for the Royal Australian Navy when the war began, including the training of Australian naval personnel.)
Recruiting offices opened at army barracks around Australia on 10 August. Thousands of men volunteered to enlist in the military forces. The AIF recruited around 45,000 men in August, and 52,561 by the end of 1914.
Australian training camps
Within days of signing up, the recruits were training in camps. The makeshift camps were set up at military bases, farms, parklands and sporting grounds around Australia.
Liverpool Military Camp was the main centre in New South Wales to provide basic military training. Conditions at the camp were generally poor throughout the war. Reportedly the camp was worse than the nearby Holsworthy internment camp for 'enemy aliens'. Life improved at the Liverpool camp when enlistments dropped off and regional centres began to deliver basic training.
At the beginning of the war, the army could only provide limited training for the recruits in the AIF.
Militia non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and officers, and veterans of British colonial wars, were promoted rapidly. They trained the men in basic military operations:
- military command
- operating equipment (eg machine guns)
The army often chose officers based on their level of education, social standing and rank in the Citizen Forces. But the officers didn't received any specialised training. Some men with military experience served as NCOs before becoming officers.
A 1914 newspaper article captured the British Empire's strong emphasis on rifle skills at the time:
The ability of the troops to use their rifles with efficiency on the battle field is a matter that cannot be overrated. Although a knowledge of drill movements is valuable, all the cleverness and adroitness of such movements are thrown away in the actual combat unless the men are able to use their rifles with deadly effect when face to face with the foe. Only a few days ago the cable grams informed us of Lord Kitchener's latest instructions in respect to recruiting at home to this effect. The great War Minister was reported to have said, "Never mind the drill: teach them to shoot, and do it quickly".
Egyptian training camps
The AIF men were meant to receive further training in England, as the Canadian troops had done. But military camps on the Salisbury Plan were overcrowded and subject to shortages of equipment and supplies.
So the ships in the first convoy of Australian troops were ordered to dock in Egypt. This was considered a better place for the men to train during the Northern Hemisphere winter.
The Ottoman Empire had ruled Egypt for 400 years. Then British forces occupied the Nile Valley for 30 years. (Although the Sultanate of Egypt protectorate did not commence until 1914.)
The first Australian and New Zealand troops disembarked at Alexandria on 3 December 1914. They were moved into training camps around Cairo. With the late change of plans, only 8500 troops could be given tents. The rest made do with bivouacs (improvised shelters). More tents arrived from England 2 weeks later.
The men worked hard: 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, training in drills and manoeuvres. At first, they wore full kits and heavy backpacks. Many became ill with heat stroke as they trained on the desert sand. A few even died of pneumonia.
Australians were given short periods for leave in Cairo. Some toured the pyramids and tombs (where you can still see their graffiti on the walls). Some shopped in Cairo souks (outdoor markets). A few Australians earned a reputation for rowdy behaviour, larrikinism and frequent visits to brothels.
While in Egypt, the AIF and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) were combined into a corps. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) comprised:
- the 1st Australian Division
- the New Zealand and Australian Division
Location of Egyptian camps
The British forces had many military bases around Egypt. Australian troops lived and trained at these and other makeshift camps during the war. The camps included:
- Heliopolis Aerodrome, Cairo - requisitioned by the Royal Flying Corps, a base for the Australian Flying Corps (modern-day Almaza Air Force Base Airport)
- Kasr el-Nil barracks, Cairo - on the central street of Cairo's Ismailiya district (modern-day Nile Ritz-Carlton site)
- Maadi Camp, Cairo - also spelt 'Meadi', where the Australian Light Horse brigades camped with their horses (modern-day suburb of al-Ma'adi)
- Mena Camp - the main AIF camp in Egypt, near Cairo, where Australian troops camped in the early months of 1915
- Mena House, near Cairo - an old hotel near the Giza pyramids requisitioned by the AIF in 1915; it later became the 2nd Australian General Hospital
- Mex Fort, Alexandria - a transport and holding facility on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, an important base for desert operations
- Mo'ascar Isolation Camp, Ismailia - a training area near the Suez Canal for the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions from 1916 to 1919
- The Citadel, Cairo - Egyptian Army Barracks requisitioned by British forces during the war
- Zahariah Camp, Alexandria - also spelt 'El Zahria' and 'Zahrieh', where Field Artillery brigades trained near lake Maryout (Mariout) before Gallipoli
- Zeitoun Camp, Cairo
Water was always an issue in the desert military bases. British Army war diaries describe Mex Camp as having insufficient water and poor sanitation.
On 18 December 1914, the Egyptian Post newspaper described the Maadi Camp, which was home to the Australian Light Horse brigades:
Although the camp is not yet quite fixed, the men seem cheerful and at home. Large wood fires burn beneath and around oval iron pots of tea; toast too, seems a great favourite, baked and often sadly burned in the wood ashes. The many lines of beautiful and much loved horses strike the onlooker immediately; they have practically constant attention night and day. Being packed on the boats as they were the whole time from Australia, standing for seven or eight weeks has for the time weakened and stiffened their legs and joints and at present not one of them is being ridden. They are exercised daily, at first gently, increasing to 10 mile exercises and training they are now undergoing. There are wild and almost wild horses amongst them many of which were presented to the regiments before they left.
Learn more about life in Egypt:
- military training in Egypt
- the Wasser' riots began on Good Friday 1915
- Christmas in Cairo 1914
- a 3-minute audio message from Second Lieutenant Henry Miller Lanser to his family, recorded at Mena Camp in December 1914
Lemnos in Greece
In early 1915, British and French forces gathered at Lemnos, a Greek island about 100km from the Gallipoli peninsula. In Mudros Harbour during the first weeks of April, Australian men and some of their officers practised beach landings as they prepared for the invasion.
As the campaign on Gallipoli progressed, a small medical centre on Lemnos island was expanded to become a military medical base. A rest camp was set up to help wounded and sick soldiers recover their fitness for battle.
Egyptian camps after Gallipoli
The last British units evacuated from Gallipoli arrived in Egypt at the end of February 1916.
Over a 6-week period, ships disembarked veterans of the Gallipoli Campaign and reinforcements from Australia. The ships that docked at Alexandria and Port Said also unloaded animals, guns and supplies for the troops.
Both the Australian and British forces were exhausted. The AIF restructured its units to take in the reinforcements from Australia. Battalions were split to contain a mix of veterans and new arrivals.
The officers and their men underwent more rigorous training before embarking on the campaigns on the Western Front and in the Sinai:
- a machine-gun school operated at Mo'ascar Isolation Camp at Ismailia (until it moved to the Imperial School of Instruction at Zeitoun)
- a training centre operated in Tel el Kebir, between Port Said and Cairo (until training was transferred to the AIF depots in England)
The Imperial School of Instruction was started by Major Edward Colston, who had served in the South African War. The school ran classes for officers and NCOs on existing and emerging technologies, including:
- artillery warfare
- grenadier - grenade (bomb) throwing
- Lewis guns, Vickers machine guns and Stokes mortars
- signal and telephone operations
Colston published an insightful training manual of his lectures in 1915.
Signallers and telegraphists provided communication services for troops. They used an extensive network of military telegraphs over 1600km of front. They did specialised training to meet the challenges of Egypt - long distances, camel transport, desert, sandstorms and mirage.
In March 1919, war artist George Lambert described the Moascar Isolation Camp as:
Miles and miles of tents and desert, thousands of sweating, sun-bronzed men and beautiful horses.
[George Lambert, 1938]
Warfare training in England
Later in the war, AIF troops arriving in England from Australia were trained at military depots on the Salisbury Plain. The aim was to turn them into soldiers who were partly prepared for trench warfare in Belgium and France.
The No. 1 Training Company of the 15th Training Battalion covered warfare topics in the last 3 weeks of its 14-week training program. Instruction included:
- firing rifle grenades
- firing the Lewis light machine gun
- dealing with a gas attack
- using bombs (hand grenades)
- using the bayonet
- routines in the trenches
After completing training in England, the troops received an extra 10 days of training at the major British base depot at Étaples near Boulogne, on the French coast. British officers subjected them to a strict medical check and some military 'tests', such as practising their response to gas attacks.
Flight training for the Australian Flying Corps
Students at the new Central Flying School at Point Cook, Victoria, received only very basic flying instruction. They learnt on 5 aircraft, including a Bristol Boxkite described as a 'mass of booms and struts and wire'. (The Boxkite was allegedly pushed backwards by wind in the Mesopotamia Campaign.)
The school's first instructors, Henry Petre and Eric Harrison, mostly conducted lessons within the aerodrome's boundary at an altitude of 15 to 60m, usually at dawn or dusk when there was no wind.
Flying stations in Egypt
Neither ground crews nor airmen in the Australian Flying Corps were prepared for wartime service when they reached Egypt. Some were sent to two local British squadrons for instruction in bombing, gunnery and photography. Others went to England for further flight training.
Flying stations in England
Point Cook graduates who arrived at Royal Flying Corps stations (flying bases) around England undertook months of training. Aircrews had to be well-prepared before they could join a line squadron to face German planes in the skies over Belgium and France.
The airmen were taught the science of aviation and operational tasks, such as:
- battery ranging for artillery work
- observation and interpretation of the ground from above
- photography and surveillance
Experienced pilots lectured trainees on conditions over the Western Front and the latest aerial combat tactics.
Accidents were common during training. The average trainee pilot in the Royal Flying Corps destroyed two aircraft and wrecked six undercarriages.
Towards the end of 1917, the AFC had 4 training squadrons in England - together they formed the Australian Training Wing.
The graves of 32 Australians in English cemeteries prove that it was dangerous learning to fight in the air - 23 are buried at Leighteron Church Cemetery.