World War I, Australia

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Australia's role during World War I, although relatively minor in global terms, is considered very significant taking into account the size of the nation and the toll of the war on its population. The war remains the most costly conflict in the nation's history, in terms of deaths and casualties.[1] Of a population of fewer than 5 million, 416,809 men enlisted. Of those, more than 60,000 died and 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.

Heading off to war

The initial reaction to the outbreak of war was, in Australia as in many other places, one of exuberant enthusiasm, reflected in enlistment numbers. Such were the numbers of volunteers for the armed services that the authorities were able to be very particular about physical standards for recruits. These standards were significantly lowered later in the war, as casualties and decreasing numbers of volunteers (this largely the result of growing awareness in Australia of the horrific nature of the war) took their toll.

Instead of being sent to Europe, as they expected, the new soldiers found themselves in Egypt, training to meet the threat the Ottoman Empire posed to British interests in the Middle East. After four and a half months of training near Cairo, the Australians boarded ships for the Gallipoli peninsula, together with troops from Britain, France and New Zealand. They were to take part in an ambitious campaign with the multiple aims of knocking the Ottomans out of the war, exposing the "soft underbelly" of their German and Austro-Hungarian enemies in Europe, and opening a passage for shipping supplies and munitions to the Russians via the Black Sea.

Gallipoli

At dawn on 25 April 1915 the Australians landed at what was to become known as Anzac Cove (after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC), at the commencement of a campaign that was considered Australia's baptism of fire as a nation. The invading soldiers were met with unexpectedly steep terrain and fierce resistance from the defending Turks, but were able to create a tenuous foothold near the shoreline. The campaign, here and elsewhere on the peninsula, dissolved into a bloody stalemate, with both sides failing to strike a decisive blow during months of fruitless battles. Ironically, the most successful part of the campaign was the evacuation of troops on 19 and 20 December 1915. Aware that attempts to retreat openly could lead to a massacre, the British commanders organised a deception operation that completely fooled the Turks into thinking the Allied positions were still occupied for some time after they had left. The Turks inflicted very few casualties on the withdrawing forces.

The Western Front

After Gallipoli, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was reorganised and expanded from two to five infantry divisions. From March 1916 these were progressively transferred to the Western Front in France. The AIF mounted division that had served as auxiliary infantry during the Gallipoli campaign remained in the Middle East, where it was to serve with distinction for the remainder of the war.

The Western Front had long since bogged down into stalemate, created by machine-guns, artillery and barbed wire, by the time the AIF arrived. The Australians took part in a number of massive, if fruitless, offensives throughout 1916 and 1917. At Fromelles in July 1916 the Australians had their first taste of trench warfare, suffering 5,533 casualties in 24 hours. By the end of the year they had lost around 40,000 men, killed or wounded, on the Western Front. Almost 77,000 Australians became casualties in 1917, at battles such as Bullecourt, Messines, and the four-month campaign (now known as the Battle of Passchendaele) around the Belgian town of Ypres (now called by its Flemish name, Ieper, and affectionately called "Wipers" by the Australian troops during the war).</ref>

In March 1918 the Germans launched their final offensive of the war, hoping for victory before the United States could enter the war in earnest. Initial successes soon gained inertia, and between April and November the stalemate began to crumble as the Allies learned how to effectively combine infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft. The Australian capture of Hamel spur on 4 July 1918 is a case in point. Australians also saw success at Mont St Quentin and Péronne, battles that were part of the Allied offensive that began on 8 August 1918 at Amiens and led to the breaking of the Hindenburg Line.

Severely depleted by casualties, and with slender hope of reinforcements because of falling enlistments at home, Australian divisions were withdrawn from the line in early October 1918 for rest and refitting. They were preparing to return when the Germans surrendered on 11 November.

The Light Horse in the Middle East

Back in the Middle East, troopers of the Australian Light Horse were fighting a much more mobile war against the Ottomans. Rather than mud and stagnation, these men and their horses (remounts of unspecific breeding known as "Walers") had to deal with extremes of heat and terrain, and lack of water. Despite conditions, casualties were relatively light; only 1,394 Australians were killed in this theatre over three years of war.

In 1916 the Australians began their campaign by aiding in the defence of the Suez Canal and the Allied reconquest of the Sinai peninsula. In 1917, Australian troops advanced with the Allies into Palestine and took Gaza and Jerusalem. During 1918 they occupied Lebanon and Syria, and on 30 October 1918 Turkey sued for peace.

Naval and air commitments

Australia also provided naval and air forces. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was under the command of the British Royal Navy, and scored an early and significant victory when it destroyed the German raider Emden near the Cocos Islands in 1914. Around 3,000 airmen serve in the Middle East and France saw service with the newly formed Australian Flying Corps (AFC), mainly during observation missions or in infantry support.

The home front

At home, the war had a deep and lasting effect. Communities and individuals bore deep-seated grief after the loss of so many men, and the physical and financial burdens of caring for families fell increasingly onto women. Anti-German feeling was rife; many Germans living in Australia were interned in camps, and placenames of German origin were changed. South Australia, a state that had many German migrants, provided numerous examples of this practice.

Social division over the war reached its height during 1916 and 1917, when Prime Minister Billy Hughes sought to introduce conscription in two bitterly fought and ultimately unsuccessful referendums.

After the war new difficulties arose, as thousands of former servicemen, many disabled with physical or emotional injuries, had to try to reintegrate into a society whose most precious ambition was now to put the war behind it and move on.

Notes and references

  1. Unless otherwise specified, general background information in this article is from Australian War Memorial. n.d. "First World War 1914–18". Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/ww1.asp