British Empire

Page 3 – Commonwealth of Australia

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1914 Map

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General facts

  • Population: 4,948,990 (1914)
  • Capital:
    • Officially – Canberra
    • ‘Temporarily’ – Melbourne (1914 population 670,000)
      When Canberra was selected as the site for the Commonwealth of Australia’s capital in 1908, Melbourne was designated as the seat of government while the new one was built from the ground up in the New South Wales countryside. Construction work had barely begun in earnest when the outbreak of the war in 1914 brought it to a grinding halt. Not until 1927 was the Federal Parliament building completed, allowing the federal government to move from Melbourne to Canberra.

Government

  • Head of State: King George V (6 May 1910 – 20 January 1936)
  • Head of Government:
    • Prime Minister Joseph Cook (24 June 1913 – 17 September 1914)
    • Prime Minister Andrew Fisher (17 September 1914 – 27 October 1915)
    • Prime Minister William (‘Billy’) Hughes (27 October 1915 – 9 February 1923)

Participation in the War

  • Entered the war: 4 August 1914 (British Empire declared war on Germany)
  • Ceased hostilities: 11 November 1918 (armistice with Germany)
  • Ended belligerent status: 10 August 1920 (Treaty of Sèvres signed with Ottoman Empire) 

Military Forces

Army

  • Peacetime strength 1914:
  • Reserves 1914:

The Australian Imperial Force (AIF)

  • Total mobilised during the war: 416,000
  • Served overseas: 324,000

Immediately after the declaration of war against Germany, the Australian government offered to raise an expeditionary force for service overseas alongside British imperial troops. The British government accepted the offer and voluntary recruitment for this force – the ‘Australian Imperial Force’ (AIF) – began on 10 August 1914.

The troop convoy carrying the Main Body of the AIF left its final assembly point at Albany, Western Australia, for Egypt on 1 November 1914. It had been joined at Albany by the troop convoy carrying the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), and the two contingents formed a single combined convoy for their journey across the Indian Ocean. The AIF portion of the convoy consisted of 20,000 soldiers and 7800 horses embarked on 28 transport ships.

The convoy entered the Suez Canal on 30 November 1914 and began to disembark at Alexandria a few days later. The AIF and NZEF were allocated areas in the countryside near the Egyptian capital, Cairo, in which to establish their base camps.

The AIF at Gallipoli 1915

The AIF contributed an infantry division (1st Australian Division) and an infantry brigade (4th Australian Brigade) to the British-led Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) that landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. The Australian forces were grouped together with New Zealand troops as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – ‘Anzac’ – and tasked with seizing the heights of Gaba Tepe (overlooking what was soon to be known as Anzac Cove). The Australian Light Horse brigades (minus their horses) arrived as reinforcements in May and a second infantry division was recruited in Australia and dispatched to Gallipoli in September.

The Australians suffered 26,000 casualties during the eight-month Gallipoli campaign and were involved in some of the fiercest fighting on the peninsula. The most renowned Australian action of the campaign was the Battle of Lone Pine, a diversionary attack on strongly defended Ottoman trenches carried out by Australian troops during the Sari Bair Offensive on 6–9 August 1915. Seven Australian soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions during this battle (one of them, Captain Alfred Shout, was originally from New Zealand).

Lance-Corporal Albert Jacka VC

Gallipoli, 19 May 1915: Lance-Corporal Albert Jacka, 14th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, single-handedly recaptures a section of trench at Courtney’s Post that had been seized by Ottoman troops earlier that day. After his unit fail to retake the position in a direct assault along the trench, Jacka climbs over the parapet into no-man’s-land while the his men divert the Ottoman soldiers’ attention by firing their rifles and throwing two grenades. The diversion works and Jacka leaps into the Ottoman-held trench to find himself surrounded by seven enemy soldiers. He kills them all, shooting five and bayoneting two. For his actions Jacka becomes the first soldier of the Australian Imperial Force to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The AIF in the Middle East 1916-1918

After the Gallipoli campaign the Light Horse component of the AIF was reorganised and expanded in Egypt during early 1916. When the AIF infantry divisions left for France, the Australian Light Horse regiments remained behind to serve with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) against the Ottoman Turks, first in the Sinai campaign of 1916 and then in the Palestine campaign of 1917–18. Together with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and British Yeomanry units they provided the EEF commanders, General Archibald Murray and his successor, General Sir Edmund Allenby, with the mobile strike force that helped to deliver the EEF victories such as the Battle of Romani in 1916, the Third Battle of Gaza in 1917 and the Battle of Megiddo in 1918.

The most famous Australian action of the campaign was the successful mounted charge by the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade across open ground against Turkish trenches at Beersheba during the opening phase of the Third Battle of Gaza.

The AIF on the Western Front 1916-1918

After the Gallipoli campaign the infantry component of the AIF was reorganised and expanded to four divisions in early 1916 in Egypt. These divisions went to the Western Front in May. A fifth infantry division was raised in Australia later that year and transported directly to the United Kingdom for service in France.

The first operation involving Australian troops on the Western Front saw the 5th Australian Division suffer 5300 casualties on 5 July 1916 in the disastrous Battle of Fromelles. By early 1917 some 90,000 Australian troops were in France, serving in five infantry divisions grouped into two separate corps, ‘I Anzac Corps’ and ‘II Anzac Corps’ (which included the New Zealand Division). In November 1917 the five Australian divisions were reorganised into a single  ‘Australian Corps’ following a precedent set by the Canadians.

Australian troops took part in most of the British offensives on the Western Front from mid-1916, including the later stages of the Battle of the Somme, Messines and the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). The most notable victory won by the Australian Corps on the Western Front was its part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in August–September 1918.

Royal Australian Navy

  • Peacetime strength 1914: 3,800
  • Total mobilised during the war: 9950 (including 3000 Royal Australian Naval Reserve)

Fleet (1914)

  • Battlecruisers: 1
  • Cruisers: 3
  • Light cruisers: 3
  • Destroyers: 3
  • Submarines: 2

Conscription

Conscription was not implemented in Australia during the war. The Hughes government attempted to introduce conscription through national referendums in October 1916 and December 1917. On both occasions the public voted against the proposal, albeit in bitterly fought close contests that divided Australia along sectarian and class lines. The result was that the AIF remained an all-volunteer force for the duration of the conflict.

Casualties

Australian Imperial Force

  • Dead (all causes): 58,961
  • Wounded: 152,171

Royal Australian Navy

  • Dead (all causes): 85

Sources

  • Peter Dennis, Jeffrey Grey, Ewan Morris and Robin Prior (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2008