Australia entered World War One as a united population. Many of Australia’s 5 million population had a strong bond with the United Kingdom and once the UK entered World War One it seemed almost natural that Australia would do the same. Political leaders in Australia vied with each other to appear the most patriotic to the cause. Liberal leader Joseph Cook said:
“Whatever happens, Australia is part of the Empire right to the full. When the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war. All our resources are in the Empire and for the preservation and security of the Empire.”
Labour leader Andrew Fisher stated:
“Should the worst happen, after everything has been done that honour will permit, Australia will stand behind the mother country to help and defend her to the last man and our last shilling.”
The Governor-General cabled London that there was “indescribable enthusiasm” for the war and “entire unanimity throughout Australia.”
Fisher and the Labour Party won a general election just on the outbreak of World War One. The government introduced sweeping powers for itself under the War Precautions Act which allowed press censorship and powers over those deemed a threat to Australia’s internal security. Such national powers brought the federal government into a clash with state powers and the Queensland premier, T J Ryan was held to account and charged by the police for violations regarding national security. The charges against Ryan were dropped but his speeches were considered so inflammatory that they were censored despite appearing in Parliamentary Debate papers.
Support for the UK was also shown when place names of a Germanic origin were replaced by traditional British names. For example, Kaiserstauhl became Mount Kitchener.
Australia was hit hard by a manpower shortage, which was made worse after the Gallipoli campaign had ended. In 1915, 12,000 men had volunteered to fight for the Empire. By the end of 1916, this had fallen to 6,000. The issue of compulsory military service was a very sensitive one in Australia. In October 1916, the people of Australia rejected in a referendum the extension of compulsory overseas military service. The government led by William Morris Hughes, pictured, had expected a ‘yes’ vote so the referendum’s rejection came as a surprise. For many World War One seemed a very long way away while the slaughter of the ANZAC’s at Gallipoli had shown Australians just how bad modern warfare had become. Some members of the Catholic Church also campaigned against compulsory overseas military service such as Dr. Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne, and there is little doubt that this church had some influence in the lead up to the referendum’s result. Another group that campaigned against compulsory overseas military service was the International Workers of the World.
Some historians such as Christopher Falkus believe that Australia was heading towards a major internal political crisis that was only saved by the collapse of the German army on the Western Front. Society had become polarised in Australia between those who favoured compulsory overseas military service and those who were adamantly against it. The end of the war may have saved Australia from major political dislocation. The war saw a rise in the power of trade unions in Australia with the ‘International Workers of the World’ being especially vocal. They demanded, but failed to achieve, an immediate cessation to the war. But the rise of the IWW coincided with the collapse of the German army on the Western Front.
“”It is probable that a serious division within Australian society on the war issue was averted only be the unexpected collapse of the German armies in the autumn of 1918. But despite these troubles her contribution to the final victory was remarkable. Her proportion of troops in the field and of casualties sustained compared favourably with those of other dominions and of Great Britain herself. Moreover in the ‘Anzac spirit’ Australia discovered a sense of national identity as well as of national pride.” (Falkus)