Life for Australians in the navy during World War I


During World War I, ships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) served as part of the Royal Navy. In doing so, Australian sailors travelled all over the globe. For example, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia served in the North Sea with the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. Whereas, HMAS Brisbane mostly operated in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and in and around Australian waters. For most Australian sailors, naval life at sea during the war wasn't dominated by action.

Recruitment and training

Sailors on the deck of a ship with their heads bowed down
The ship's company attending morning prayer's on the training ship, HMAS Tingira, before the war, 1912. AWM 301565

When war broke out, the senior command of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), like many political and military leaders at the time, believed that the war would be short. The RAN's short-term plans to bring ships and establishment up to strength overrode any long-term plans to sustain the fleet. This short-sightedness created staffing challenges for the RAN throughout the war.

Permanent personnel in the RAN grew from 3730 in 1914 to 5263 at the end of 1918. On average, around 80% were RAN personnel. The rest came from Britain's Royal Navy.

For example, when HMAS Australia was commissioned in 1913, only 18 of its 63 officers came from the RAN. Nonetheless, attempts were made to ensure that personnel loaned to the RAN from the Royal Navy had some connection with Australia. During the war, the RAN recruited around 3000 ratings (juniors).

One final source of personnel were those members of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve who undertook much-needed roles in Australia. This freed up other personnel for service onboard ship, although some did serve overseas.

Another critical challenge was training.

To operate a major ship effectively required long-term, high-quality training. For example, of the first class of 28 cadets to enter the new Royal Australian Naval College in 1913, 23 didn't graduate until late 1916. They were commissioned as midshipmen.

At sea, training was continuous. It ranged from fleet exercises to physical training onboard ship. Training and exercises with other ships were essential for the RAN, which served as part of the much larger British Royal Navy fleet during the war.

Service with the British

Sailors in unifrom march down a grass field
His Excellency the Governor General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, inspects the first quota of midshipmen trained at the Royal Australian Naval College, before the men joined Royal Navy and RAN ships in the North Sea. AWM A00729

Australians not only served in the ranks of the RAN, but could also be found on ships of the Royal Navy. In this capacity, they served as either RAN or Royal Navy personnel. At the Battle of Jutland, several Australians served and died on Royal Navy ships.

When the first cadets graduated from the Royal Australian Naval College in late 1916, many were deployed onboard Royal Navy ships. For example, at the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight in November 1917, 11 recently commissioned midshipmen from the Royal Australian Naval College served onboard HMS Glorious and HMS Canada.

Service on Royal Navy ships wasn't always pleasant. Bullying and 'ragging' of new personnel was a common occurrence.

British officers also served on Australian ships. On average around 20% of the permanent naval personnel in the RAN came from the Royal Navy. For example, HMAS Swan, one of the six River class torpedo boat destroyers built and operated by the RAN, was commanded by Commander Arthur Bond. Bond was a British officer who had joined the Royal Navy and was attached to the RAN.

It's important to remember that the concept of being 'Australian' was more fluid then than it is today.

For example, the First Naval Member of the Australian Naval Board during World War I, Rear Admiral Sir William Creswell, was born in Gibraltar and schooled in the United Kingdom. Creswell initially served in the Royal Navy before serving in the South Australian Naval Forces and then as Commandant of the Queensland Marine Defence Forces before Federation. He was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the RAN in 1922.

Day-to-day work

A North Sea wave crashes over the bow of HMAS Melbourne, seen from HMAS Sydney, when both ships sailed with the Royal Navy's 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, 1918. AWM EN0344

Official historian of the RAN in World War I, Arthur Jose, described the day-to-day operations of navy:

Of actual fighting, of visible enemy, not a trace; merely a prolonged chase over seas peopled solely by traders and fishermen (though strewn here and there with submarine-made wrecks), of a foe believed to exist somewhere but beyond the vision of any man in the squadron; and just when the crews [hoped] that at any moment enemy masts might lift above the horizon, an order out of the air […] and […] the return to an undesired harbour and another age of uncomprehending disappointment.

Life in the RAN during World War I could be arduous and varied, depending on where an Australian ship served. RAN ships played an essential role during the war. They worked hard to keep open:

  • sea lines of communication that linked Australia with key battlefronts
  • supply lines within the British Empire.

While for many sailors, naval life wasn't dominated by action at sea, they performed important if relatively unsung roles.

Shore leave and visitors

Group photo of men in sporting clothing on a grass field. Two are in navy uniform.
Football (soccer) team representing the crew of HMAS Sydney, near the Forth of Firth in Scotland, during a break from patrols of the North Sea with the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, October 1918. AWM EN0334

Early in World War I, while major ships still operated in the Pacific, naval vessels regularly returned to Australia. Where possible, sailors took what opportunities they could to spend their free time on land.

For example, while HMAS Melbourne was in port at Melbourne in early October 1914, Leading Signalman Stanley Gedling recalled being surprised by a visit from his mother and someone called 'Arthur'. Such visits did much good for morale.

As the war progressed, such opportunities to visit Australia became the exception rather than the rule. Nonetheless, where possible, shore leave did happen.

Howard Blake, who served onboard HMAS Australia, recalled playing football when afternoon leave was granted when in port at Rosyth in Scotland. Blake also remembered visiting London, Ireland and northern Scotland when granted annual leave. This he did with his friend 'Bob'.

Similarly, while operating in the West Indies between 1915 and 1916, HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney were often opened up to visitors, and various activities were planned, such as sports days.

Bands and music

Members ofa  navy band stand in a circle playing instruments on the deck of a ship
Ship's band playing onboard HMAS Australia at the southern naval base of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, near the Firth of Forth, Scotland, March 1918. AWM EN0332

Most larger RAN vessels had a band. Music was an essential source of recreation and helped improve the crew's morale.

Able Seaman Roy Cummins nevertheless recorded his curious experience of Christmas Day 1915 in Tanzania while serving onboard HMAS Pioneer.

Xmas day found us at Lindi flying a white flag of truce […] A similar one being displayed ashore we steamed in anchored off the jetty, had an excellent dinner of bully beef, pudding and sweets and in the afternoon our band played to the amusement of the Germans and natives ashore.

HMAS Pioneer was involved in the attacks on the German cruiser SMS Konigsberg that was eventually scuttled in July 1915. After this, HMAS Pioneer was involved in the blockade of German East Africa in 1915.

Squalor and hardships

Seamen onboard HMAS Melbourne in the North Sea organise the distribution of tinned and packaged food, including tea, December 1916. AWM EN0439

While attempts were made to break up the challenges of life onboard ship, even early in the war, it was clear that service could be difficult. Acting Sub-Lieutenant Bertie Packer recalled conditions on HMAS Australia in 1914:

The ship is alive with cockroaches, all the food, our clothes, and I even found one in my pipe yesterday. Of course we are on salt grub – bacon and beans and tinned meat...

HMAS Swan was built at Cockatoo Island in Sydney and commissioned in 1916. The ship served in the East Indies until transferring to the Mediterranean in mid-1917.

The ship's commander, Arthur Bond described life onboard HMAS Swan in the East Indies:

Ice lasted for the first twenty-four hours only; fresh meat would not keep, and water in the drinking tanks was warm. As it was necessary to keep the forward awnings furled to give the 4” gun a fee arc of training, the officers' and men's living quarters under the forecastle were like an oven. All hands lived mostly on deck, in the minimum of clothing, uniform consisting of shorts and flannel, and so burnt were we that the ship' company looked [more] like Malays than Australians. Food consisted mainly of corned beef, and efforts to provide livestock were never very successful, as the Borneo chicken (mostly legs at the start) shed everything edible but sinew before it came to the table. On one occasion I tried taking a pig to sea but the unfortunate animal committed suicide by jumping overboard before his time arrived to become pork.

Arduous coaling

Group of seamen on a ship
Seamen onboard HMAS Melbourne after they'd finished coaling their ship in record time, December 1915. AWM EN0434

One of the essential experiences for many sailors was coaling. Many ships of this period were powered by coal, including HMAS Australia. These ships regularly required to stock up on coal for operations. This was an arduous process that involved all personnel.

Bandsman Arthur Bollard described the process of coaling HMAS Australia while the ship was in New Caledonia in late August 1914:

Hands cleaned into coaling rags and at 9:30am coaling commenced in grim earnest. For hours afterwards all that could be heard was a 'clanging of shovels', 'hoarse shoutings of orders from dusty throats', 'the screaming of wynches [sic]', and now and again could be heard the occasional adjective (never seen in the ordinary English grammar) when some obliging 'Bandsman' ran over a burly 'Jack's foot' with his coal barrow. It was an awful coal ship; the dust seeming to get into one's ears, eyes, nose and mouth; until one was nearly driven mad with it.

Close living arrangements

Sailors moving  around the deck of a ship
Seamen ('bluejackets') onboard HMAS Australia jog along the decks on a cold morning, with musical accompaniment from the ship's band, about 1915 to 1918. AWM EN0513

Living in the relatively cramped spaces of a ship created many challenges for sailors during the war. For example, HMAS Australia had a complement 820 men and the ship was only 180m long.

One key area where this challenge manifested itself was in the medical experience of the crews who operated in such cramped conditions.

Cramped conditions helped incubate diseases. The health of those onboard wasn't helped by the RAN's global operations. Changing climatic conditions could cause health problems.

For example, in early 1915, after HMAS Australia had arrived in the United Kingdom, its medical staff reported at least 250 cases of respiratory illness. This was linked to people who were not used to the colder weather of the northern hemisphere. The men also experienced issues with hygiene onboard HMAS Australia.

A yellow flag was used to indicate a quarantined ship. For a time, this flag became known as the 'Australian Jack'. In March 1917, HMAS Brisbane flew the yellow quarantine flag while at Malta. During operations in the Mediterranean, its sailors had contracted measles.

In 1918, the emergence of Spanish flu became a concern for ships. Several outbreaks hit the destroyers deployed in the Adriatic Sea, which caused challenges for maintaining crews at full operating strength.

Deserters, casualties and prisoners of war

Men sitting in 2 rows howing number cards on their laps.
Prisoners of war held in Turkey holding identification numbers, including six sailors from HMAS AE2, about September 1917. AWM H19411

Maintaining morale was a constant challenge. Throughout World War I, around 10% of the total trained strength of the RAN deserted.

Sailors who deserted had various reasons for abandoning their ships. Many wanted to leave the RAN to take a more active role in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

In August 1915, HMAS Warrego was docked in Brisbane and wounded soldiers were beginning to return from Gallipoli. Commander Claude Cumberlege, suggested that the sailors' desertions were owed:

[t]o the presence of large numbers of men in khaki, the enthusiasm of the populace, and a not unnatural feeling on the part of the men of the flotilla that they would like to be taking a more active part in the suppression of our enemies.

From sailor to soldier

Those found to have deserted the RAN to join the AIF were eventually treated quite well.

Leading Seaman Percival Reed (naval record) was one sailor who deserted to join the AIF.

Born in New Zealand, Reed joined the RAN and served onboard HMAS Warrego. Then Reed enlisted in the AIF as Private Eric Heurtley. Within a year, he had become a Lieutenant in 12th Battalion AIF. After he was wounded twice in France, Reed worried that his wife would miss out on a pension if he died. He admitted to being a deserter and was given a King's Pardon.

Reed resumed service under his real name: Percival Francis Heurtley Reed (AIF record). Reed was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the Second Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917 and was later mentioned in Charles Bean's official history.

Casualties of war

During World War I, the RAN suffered 171 deaths. Of those who died:

  • 13 were killed in action
  • 86 died of various illnesses
  • four were prisoners of war who died in captivity

The loss of HMAS AE2 during the Gallipoli Campaign had led to her crew being captured by Turkish forces. The crew spent the rest of the war in captivity in the Ottoman Empire. Four of the crew died in captivity. Treatment differed between officers and sailors who were typically kept apart.

Some men tried to escape from their captors, such as HMAS AE2's commander, Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker. Stoker led two unsuccessful escape attempts. He also suffered 25 days in solitary confinement.


  • deserter
  • rating
  • squalor

Learning Activities

  • Why did Australia need the Royal Australian Navy?
  • What was the significance of the first convoy?
  • What happened to the SMS Emden?
  • What was the fate of the HMAS AE2?
  • What was life at sea like for members of the RAN during World War I?

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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Life for Australians in the navy during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 July 2024,
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