Unit 1 - World War I - Enlistment and Fighting on the Western Front
Historical Context: Australia’s response to the outbreak of war in 1914
When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, most major decisions about Australia’s foreign policy were still made by leaders in Britain. So, when the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Australia also committed to war.
Three days before Britain’s declaration of war, the Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Cook, made a speech in which he had already promised Australian support to Britain if a war broke out. In a speech in Victoria, he said:
Whatever happens, Australia is part of the Empire right to the full. Remember that when the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war. That being so, you will see how grave is the situation. So far as the defences go here and now in Australia, I want to make it quite clear that all our resources in Australia are in the Empire and for the Empire and for the preservation and security of the Empire.
Joseph Cook, speech given in Victoria on 1 August 1914
The day before, the Australian opposition leader, Andrew Fisher, had already promised the ‘last man and the last shilling’ to Britain in the event of war.
When war did break out in August 1914, the Australian government placed the navy under the command of Britain and announced a plan to build an Australian Expeditionary Force (AIF) to send overseas. The government’s promise to Britain was an AIF of 20,000 men. As the war continued for four years, more Australian men were required to fill the ranks of the growing AIF and the government was forced to actively seek more recruits as enlistment numbers fell.
The total population in Australia in August 1914 was about 4.9 million people. Over the next four years 416,809 Australian men enlisted for service in the First World War. That was about 39% of the total male population who were allowed to enlist, men between the ages of 18 and 44. (Australian War Memorial: Enlistment Statistics, First World War)
Why did Australian men enlist in to fight in the First World War? There were a variety of reasons for this and many men did not join up for one reason alone. Common reasons for enlisting are outlined in the diagram below.
- Why did Australia join the war against Germany in 1914?
- How many men did the Australian government promise to Britain in 1914?
- Watch the following video interview with Professor Peter Stanley on Australia and the Great War. Make notes using the Video Questions worksheet (SR 1).
For further reading and resources see the Parliamentary Education Office’s 'To our LAST shilling'.