Australia's responses to World War I

After the outbreak of war, Australia responded in many ways. Politically, the country continued on the road to a federal election. The Australian Government introduced economic measures to curb trade with 'enemy' companies. Both imports and exports declined. Socially, the outbreak of war generated many different responses, from initial enthusiasm to an increase in racism towards Australians of German, Austrian and Hungarian descent.

Political responses

Support for the British war effort

Portrait photo of men in military uniform with 3 women and 2 children sitting in front of steps of a large building.
Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson with his wife, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, and others at Government House, Melbourne, in about 1914. NAA M3614, 3

Even before Britain had declared war, the critical question facing Australian politicians was how they could support the war.

On 3 August, the Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson cabled London to say that:

In the event of war Commonwealth of Australia prepared to place vessels of Australian Navy under control of British Admiralty when desired. Further prepared to despatch expeditionary force 20,000 men of any suggested composition to any destination desired by Home Government. Force to be at complete disposal Home Government. Cost of despatch and maintenance would be borne by this Government. Australian Press notified accordingly.

This had been agreed to at a meeting of the cabinet earlier that day. Australia's offer of support to the United Kingdom received bipartisan support from all sides of politics.

New Labor government

A notice board with names and numbers on the balcony of a stone building
1914 federal election results for Adelaide, Boothby, Barker, Grey, Angas, Hindmarsh and Wakefield electorates posted at the Register newspaper office in Adelaide. Image: State Library of South Australia. SLSA PRG 280/1/10/407

Australia's support for the British war effort became a vital issue during the 1914 federal election campaign. As a Member of Parliament in the Opposition at the time, Billy Hughes called for the election to be cancelled, but it went ahead as planned.

At a political rally in Colac, Victoria, the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Fisher, famously declared that:

Australians [would] stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling

When the people voted on 5 September 1914, they elected a Labor government led by Fisher. This was Fisher's third time as Prime Minister, but he would find wartime leadership difficult. Fisher was replaced by Hughes in October 1915.

One argument why Labor won the election in 1914 stemmed from its stronger public image concerning defence. Defence was now a crucial issue to the public.

Special laws for wartime

The Fisher Government presided over the introduction of several new laws that helped Australia adjust to the war.

As Attorney-General, Hughes became an increasingly influential figure in the Australian Government. He helped to create a legal framework to allow Australia to go to war:

The most controversial of these was the War Precautions Act. As Joan Beaumont has suggested, the Act and its amendments during World War I reflected the:

increasingly authoritarian nature of the Australian state at war

Despite later opposition, the Act was passed unopposed by parliament.

The War Precautions Act gave the Australian Government the power to limit people's freedoms by:

  • introducing censorship
  • controlling newspapers
  • penalising those who spread information that was damaging to the Australian war effort
  • placing restrictions on 'alien' subjects

Censorship would become especially intrusive when used by the Hughes Government.

Economic responses

While Australia enjoyed a high standard of living at the time, the outbreak of war presented several economic challenges.

Decline in trade

A busy street lined with  people and large buildings
View of the Melbourne Stock Exchange on Collins Street. SLV H2016.423/2

The imminent outbreak of war threw the world's stock markets into confusion. Stock markets were closed in the major Western capitals, including New York and London. Australia followed suit.

All stock exchanges in Australia closed from 3 August to 28 September 1914. The closures were partly to allow time for the market to adjust to wartime conditions.

Read about the closures: MELBOURNE STOCK EXCHANGE, The Age 4 August 1914

Another issue to affect the Australian economy was that imports and exports declined because of a lack of shipping during the war.

Limit of German influences

Trade was also affected by the government's decision on 7 August 1914 to impose an embargo on trade with enemy countries. This led to a disruption to trade. In particular, this affected Australia's wool industry.

Many everyday Australians were concerned about buying German goods after the war began.

Read a Letter to the Editor: WAR PROBLEMS, The Sydney Morning Herald 21 October 1914.

On 23 October 1914, the government passed the Trading with the Enemy Act, which declared that:

Any person who, during the continuance of the present state of war, trades or has before the commencement of this Act traded with the enemy shall be guilty of an offence.

People were also concerned about the degree of German economic influence in Australia.

The supply and use of overseas capital in the Australian economy were also concerning issues. The issue of supply led to some outbreaks of profiteering, which was decried by state premiers.

Funding for the war effort

On 11 August, Prime Minister Joseph Cook called a meeting with the state premiers. This meeting was convened to deal with wartime financial policy.

One crucial issue for the states was that a lack of capital would impact their state projects.

To help the states, Fisher's first budget made it clear that the war would be funded by borrowing rather than taxation.

Another important outcome of this meeting was that the states agreed to waive the cost of transporting recruits on state railways.

The Australian economy also had to deal with two other critical issues:

  • the diversion and loss of its workforce to the military
  • the diversion of funds to the military to help fight the war

Fisher's decision to borrow heavily for Australia's war effort helped alleviate concerns about reduced funds elsewhere.

Military responses

Australia's armed forces supported the imperial war effort by:

Raising a force for wartime service overseas

Men in suits line up in a queue ouside a building
Volunteers queuing to enlist outside Victoria Barracks, Sydney. AWM A03406

The critical military response to the outbreak of the war was the decision to raise an expeditionary force of 20,000 men for use overseas. Its name 'Australian Imperial Force' was chosen by its first commander, Major General William Bridges.

In many respects, the name established the identity of the Australian forces that would serve overseas. It affirmed imperial loyalty but also gave a sense of national character to the organisation.

The critical concern facing the Australian Government in raising the AIF was whether they could recruit 20,000 troops. This stemmed from the problem that the Defence Act 1903 prohibited the deployment of the permanent Australian Army overseas. As such, the AIF had to be recruited from volunteers.

The government's concern ultimately proved unfounded. When recruiting started on 10 August, the recruitment office in Sydney received 2000 volunteers.

Early operations

On 6 August 1914, the British Government asked the Australian Government to undertake operations against German colonies in the region. The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force was raised to occupy German New Guinea. Military operations in the early part of the war included:

Social responses

Support from Australian Britons

Early responses to the outbreak of the war were broadly enthusiastic to the point that rioting occurred in Melbourne.

Enthusiasm at that time was most likely due to:

  • Australia's special relationship with the United Kingdom
  • a large number of British-born people living in Australia

There was no contradiction to being both Australian and British. As former Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin said, many citizens could be described as an 'independent Australian Briton'.

Opposition to the war

However, there were some objections to going to war.

Some people on the left of politics, including trade unionists, were against the war, as were many Australians of Irish descent who were not in favour of fighting in Britain's name.

One vocal opponent to the war was the pacifist and feminist Vida Goldstein. Goldstein was:

  • president of the Women's Political Association of Victoria
  • chairman of the Peace Alliance
  • founder of the Women's Peace Army (in 1915)

Read a newsletter article about Goldstein: A MARKED PERSONALITY, Woman Voter 25 August 1914.

Racial intolerance

A dirt road with cabins along each side with menu walking along the road
Internees moving along a street of the German Internment Camp at Holsworthy, New South Wales, 1917. AWM H18467

One of the critical social responses of the early month of World War I was that of how Australians responded to fellow citizens of German descent.

In the Australian census of 1911, around 36,000 people identified themselves as being born in Germany or Austria-Hungary. Australia also had a sizable population of Lutherans, a denomination associated with Germany.

The initial period of the war was one of intolerance to towards people of German, Austrian and Hungarian descent.

On 10 August 1914, those of German descent had to register their details with the nearest police station. Added to this was an atmosphere of hysteria driven by anti-German propaganda. This led people to denounce fellow citizens with little evidence.

Many citizens of Austro-German descent tried to reaffirm their loyalty to Australia. A few enlisted to serve Australia in the war. Many changed their last names.

Under the War Precautions Act, the Australian Government ran several internment camps in Australia. Some 6890 people were interred during the war. Another 4260 suspected individuals lived under parole throughout the war.


Last updated: 23 July 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Australia's responses to World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/politics/response-to-war
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