British Soldiers in a front line trench

World War 1, 1914-18

On June 28 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand – heir to the throne of the mighty Austrian-Hungarian Empire – was assassinated in Sarejevo. That event is considered the catalyst for the start of World War 1. However, from the late 19th century tensions throughout Europe were high as the macro-politics of the region played out. Sarejevo’s location in Bosnia put it at the strategic heart of the ongoing push and pull of the European empires. The great European alliances had been mobilized and “The Great War” began.

Years Active

Australians Served

Australians Wounded

Australians Killed

This was to be the “war to end all wars”. Alas, history has proven otherwise.

Australia’s entry into World War 1 coincided with the British declaration of war on Germany on August 14, 1914. Germany had launched an invasion on France through the previously unaligned Belgium, with whom Britain has a mutual defence pact.

Fig. 1

The first significant Australian act of war was on 17 Sept 1914 when the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Forces took possession of New Guinea, which had been under German control. However, the engagement that is credited as shaping the Australian national identity like no other was the infamous landing on 25 April 1915 and subsequent eight month campaign at Gallipoli ( in latter-day Turkey) where our troops had been despatched by their British commanders to help deal with the territorial aspirations of the Ottoman Empire.

Post Gallipoli the AIF Light Horse brigade remained in the Middle East and North Africa to defend the strategically important Suez canal and then onwards with the British into Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. The infantry division progressively transferred to the battlefields of France and the associated horrors of the many battles on the European Western Front. Over forty thousand Australians were killed or injured on the Western Front alone.

Approximately sixty-five million men marched to this war and over eight million never returned. More than fifty percent of all soldiers were wounded. From the fledgling Australian nation of less than five million people, nearly four hundred and twenty thousand Australian men enlisted for battle, of whom more than sixty thousand were killed and one hundred and fifty-six thousand wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. This war affected communities deeply and permanently.

Australian enlistments represented nearly forty percent of the male population aged between eighteen and forty-four years of age. Anecdotally, we also know that many younger or older men misrepresented their birthdates to enlist. This left a huge void at home but Australian women volunteered in droves for service in auxiliary roles such as cooks, drivers, munitions workers and farm workers. Nurses were welcomed into the armed forces and served near the front lines in Egypt, France and Germany but applications from women for overseas service from other professions were generally refused.

World War 1 effectively ended with the signing of an armistice on 11 November 1918. When news of the armistice reached Australia late in the day on November 11, 1918, celebrations around the nation were exuberant. The streets of Melbourne were thronged with crowds who climbed on trams, waved flags and made as much noise as they could with songs, firecrackers and musical instruments.

November 11 continues to be recognized annually as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, with 11 am being the universal time for a one minute reflective silence…. the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

On the home front

Australia’s war effort did not end on the battlefields of Gallipoli or the Western Front. With Australian enlistments representing nearly forty percent of the male population aged between eighteen and forty-four years of age, the need for the “rolling up of sleeves” and shouldering of the burden fell to those left at home.

Miss Coll knitting socks from the fleece of sheep in Melbourne, Australia. Socks were packed into bales and shipped overseas to Australian Troops by the Australian Comforts Fund.

In addition to their ever-present practical obligations with children, women increasingly assumed the financial burden of caring for their families and keeping the wheels of industry turning. They undertook daily work roles that were the previous domain of men. Amongst a raft of war-related roles, they worked in munitions factories to produce ammunition. In country regions there was assistance to be provided for the production of food and wool, as Australia’s agricultural supply was vital to the war effort in the “mother country” Britain. So whilst local food shortages and price increases became entrenched, the overriding theme of helping with the war effort was of paramount importance. Sacrifices made locally were perceived as nothing in comparison to the military effort in Europe.

Over and above the formal engagement in jobs previously considered the sole domain of men, efforts on the home front permeated scarce leisure time. Textile factories had volunteers working to produce clothing for troops facing harsh northern hemisphere winters. Woman and girls were knitting socks, scarves and balaclavas for soldiers:

When they ran out of knitting needles, they made new ones from bicycle spokes. When they ran out of dye, they used onion skins and wattle bark. When they ran out of wool, they learnt to spin their own*


A lesser known aspect of World War 1 in Australian was the internment of thousands of people in camps scattered around Australia, under the War Precautions Act 1914 . The declaration of “enemy alien” was generally (but not exclusively) applied to people with a perceived connection to Germany and included native -born Australians of German descent, leaders of the Lutheran church and staff of German companies temporarily living in Australia. Many of these internees worked for war rations on the country’s railways, roads and bush-clearing projects. Internment was without trial and often without the knowledge of their families. Social division in Australia grew as a result of racial fears arising from overseas military aggression.

* Locally, the WW1 home front knitting effort has been recorded by the Melton family History Group, also as part of the Centenary of Anzac commemoration.

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