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Military Resources: World War I

This State Library of South Australia guide to military related information includes medals, militia and Australian involvement in conflicts. The emphasis is on South Australian resources.

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World War I 1914 - 1918

World War One (WWI) is also known as The Great War or the First World War. 

On the 28 June 1914 Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. The Austrian-Hungarian empire declared war on Serbia and Russia. Germany, in support of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, declared war on Russia on 1 August 1914, and two days later invaded France via Belgium. As Belgium had signed a treaty and declared itself neutral, Britain declared war on Germany for this invasion on the 4 August 1914.

Australia was drawn into the conflict through its ties with Britain; on 31 July 1914, Prime Minister Cook declared, 'Remember that when the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war' ('Statement by Mr. Cook', Argus, 1 August 1914, p. 20, col. c).

Some 20,000 Australian volunteers rushed to join up, all eager to do their part for King and Country. Some even returned to Britain to enlist, keen to support the Empire.

By November of 1914 the first wave of volunteers where prepared to set sail for Egypt. They became known as the  First Australian Imperial Force (AIF).   In April 1915 when the Australian and New Zealand troops landed at Gallipoli, on the Turkish coast, they took on the nickname "ANZACs" (Australian New Zealand Army Corp.) and soon after also earned the affectionate title 'diggers'.

Australian forces saw conflict in the Middle East, Turkey, France, Belgium and on the Western Front. Many of the Light Horse units remained in the Middle East fighting the Turks until the end of the war. The Royal Australian Navy saw action in the Atlantic, North Sea, Adriatic, Black Sea, Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The Australian Flying Corps. also served in the Middle East and over the Western Front.

By 1916 it became harder and harder to recruit volunteers to cover the AIF's massive losses and meet the demand for reinforcements. A referendum in October 1916 asked Australians:

Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?

The Australian people answered 'no' to this question and when asked a similar question in a second referendum in December 1917 'Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?' they again showed their disfavour and voted 'no'. This ended the issue of conscription for the remainder of the war.

Many consider Armistice Day (also known as Remembrance Day), the 11 November 1918, as the end of the war. However this date only marked the signing of the ceasefire and the end of fighting. There was to be another 5 months of political posturing and manoeuvring before the Treaty of Versailles was signed on the 28 June 1919 and thus ending hostilities between Germany and the Allies.

As Australia chose not to contribute troops to the occupying forces in Germany after the 11 November 1918 ceasefire; the military began the lengthy process of repatriating up to 167,000 troops back to Australia. Some soldiers chose to delay their departure and instead joined the British Army and went on to serve in Northern Russia during the Russian Civil War

Also, in Egypt in early 1919, a number of Australian light horse units were used to quell a nationalist uprising while they were waiting for passage back to Australia. 

Despite shortages in shipping, the process of returning the soldiers to Australia was completed faster than expected and by September 1919 there were only 10,000 men still in Britain awaiting repatriation. The last of the main transports conveying Australian troops left England on 23 December 1919, arriving in Australia in early 1920. A year later, on 1 April 1921, the AIF was officially disbanded.