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First World War 1914 – 1918

For Australia, as for many nations, the First World War remains the most costly conflict ever in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 300,000 men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.

The outbreak of war was greeted in Australia, as in many other places, with great public enthusiasm. In response to the overwhelming number of volunteers, the authorities set exacting physical standards for recruits. Yet most of the men accepted into the army in August 1914 were sent first to Egypt, not Europe, to meet the threat which a new belligerent, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), posed to British interests in the Middle East and the Suez Canal.

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HMAS Sydney at full speed, ten minutes after the cease-fire was ordered in her battle with the German cruiser Emden.
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After four and a half months of training near Cairo, the Australians departed by ship for the Gallipoli peninsula, together with troops from New Zealand, Britain and France. The Australians landed at what became known as ANZAC Cove on 25 April 1915, and they established a tenuous foothold on the steep slopes above the beach. During the early days of the campaign, the allies tried to break through the Turkish lines and the Turks tried to drive the allied troops off the peninsular. All attempts ended in failure for both sides, and the ensuing stalemate continued for the remainder of 1915. The most successful operation of the campaign was in fact the evacuation of the troops on 19–20 December, under cover of a comprehensive deception operation. As a result, the Turks were unable to inflict more than a very few casualties on the retreating forces.

After Gallipoli the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was reorganised and expanded from two to five infantry divisions, all of which were progressively transferred to France, beginning in March 1916. The AIF mounted division that had served as additional infantry during the campaign remained in the Middle East. When the other AIF divisions arrived in France, the war on the Western Front had long been settled in a stalemate, with the opposing armies facing each other from trench systems that extended across Belgium and north-east France from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The development of machine-guns and artillery favoured defence over attack and compounded the impasse, which lasted until the final months of the war.

While the overall hostile stasis continued throughout 1916 and 1917, the Australians and other allied armies repeatedly attempted attacks preceded by massive artillery bombardments intended to cut barbed wire and destroy enemy defences. After these bombardments, waves of attacking infantry emerged from the trenches into no man's land and advanced towards the enemy's positions. The surviving Germans, protected by deep and heavily reinforced bunkers, were usually able to repel the attackers with machine-gun fire and artillery support from the rear. These attacks often resulted in only limited territorial gains which were followed in turn by German counter-attacks; although this style of warfare favoured the defence, both sides sustained heavy losses.

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An Australian "Digger" uses a periscope in one of the trenches captured during the attack on Lone Pine, Gallipoli, 8 August 1915.
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Australian infantry were introduced to this type of combat at Fromelles, in July 1916, where they suffered 5,533 casualties in 24 hours. By the end of the year about 40,000 Australians had been killed or wounded on the Western Front. In 1917 a further 76,836 Australians became casualties in battles such as those at Bullecourt, Messines and the four-month long campaign around Ypres, known as the battle of Passchendaele.

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Troops of 53rd Battalion wait to don equipment for the attack at Fromelles, 19 July 1916. Only three of these men survived.
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In March 1918 the German army launched its final offensive of the war, hoping for a decisive victory before the military and industrial strength of the United States could be fully mobilised in support of the allies. At first the Germans met with great success and advanced 64 kilometres past the region of the 1916 Somme battles before the offensive lost momentum. Between April and November the stalemate of the preceding years began to give way, as the allies began to combine infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft more effectively: such a combined operation was behind the Australian capture of Hamel spur on 4 July 1918. The allied offensive which began on 8 August at Amiens also contributed to Australian successes at Mont St Quentin and Péronne, and to the capture of the Hindenburg Line. In early October the Australian divisions withdrew from the front for rest and refitting; they were preparing to return when Germany surrendered on 11 November.

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Australian wounded infantrymen at the first battle of Passchendaele, near Zonnebele railway station.
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Unlike their counterparts in France and Belgium, the Australians in the Middle East fought a mobile war against the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) in conditions completely different from the mud and stagnation of the Western Front. The light horsemen and their mounts had to survive extreme heat, harsh terrain and water shortages. Nevertheless, casualties were comparatively light, with 1,394 Australians killed or wounded in three years of war. This campaign began in 1916 with Australian troops participating in the defence of the Suez Canal and the allied reconquest of the Sinai peninsular. In the following year Australian and other allied troops advanced into Palestine and captured Gaza and Jerusalem; by 1918 they had occupied Lebanon and Syria. On 30 October 1918, Turkey sued for peace.

Australians also served at sea and in the newly-formed flying corps. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN), under the command of the Royal Navy, made a significant contribution early in the war when HMAS Sydney destroyed the German raider Emden near the Cocos Islands in November 1914. The First World War was the first armed conflict in which aircraft were used; about 3,000 Australian airmen served in the Middle East and France with the Australian Flying Corps, mainly in observation capacities or providing infantry support.

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3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment machine-gunners in action at Khurbetha-Ibn-Harith, near Palestine, 31 December 1917.
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Australian women volunteered for service in auxiliary roles, as cooks, nurses, drivers, interpreters, munitions workers and skilled farm workers. While the government welcomed the service of nurses, it generally rejected offers from women in other professions to serve overseas. Australian nurses served in Egypt, France, Greece and India, often in trying conditions or close to the front, where they were exposed to shelling and aerial bombardment.

The impact of the war was also felt at home. Families and communities grieved following the loss of so many men, and women increasingly assumed the physical and financial burden of caring for families. Anti-German feeling emerged with the outbreak of the war, and many Germans living in Australia were sent to internment camps. Censorship and surveillance, regarded by many as an excuse to silence political views that had no direct impact on the war, increased as the conflict continued. Social division also grew, reaching a climax in the bitterly contested (and unsuccessful) conscription referendums held in 1916 and 1917. When the war ended, thousands of ex-servicemen, many disabled with physical or emotional wounds, had to be re-integrated into a society which was keen to consign the war to the past and resume normal life.

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9th Australian Light Horse bring in Turkish prisoners in the Sinai, 13 April 1916.
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Further information available on this website.

Sources and further reading:

C.E.W. Bean, ANZAC to Amiens (New York: Penguin Books Australia, 1993)

J. Beaumont, Australia's War 1914–1918 (St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 1995)

Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995)

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