What happened in Australia during WWI?

Vintage WWI photograph
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The Australian home front during World War One was a time of great patriotism and sacrifice.


Many people believed that the people of Australia should band together to support the war effort, even though they were far from the battlefields.


However, there were many challenges faced by the people on the home front. As increasingly more resources were sent overseas to help in the war effort, less goods were available to civilians at home.


There were limitations on food, clothing, and everyday items.


As the harsh reality of war became more apparent, and the number of young men being killed increased, the enthusiasm for Australia's involvement in the conflict declined. This led to political conflicts in Australia for many years.


In this article, we will take a closer look at life on the Australian home front during World War One.

German soldier charging the trenches
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Initial reactions

The outbreak of war in August 1914 appeared to result in a huge wave of enthusiastic support for the war effort from the Australian people.


This was in stark contrast to the attitude of the British people, who were largely against going to war.


The Australian people saw it as their opportunity to show their loyalty to the British Empire and prove that they were worthy of membership.

There was an initial rush to sign up for the war effort, as young men lined up in large numbers at recruitment offices.


In 1914, the only kind of men that were accepted at the recruiting offices were those who were physically fit, had no medical issues, and were of white, European descent. 


For those men that did not choose to enlist, they were often treated harshly by others.  There was a perception that if you were not fighting for your country, then you were not 'doing your part'.


This led to the development of the term 'slacker' to describe men who avoided enlistment or were not participating in the war effort in other ways.


Young men were often sent a white feather in the mail as a way of indicating their cowardice, and to encourage them to enlist.

Australian slouch hat
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Rationing and shortages

The outbreak of war also resulted in rationing and shortages of everyday items. This was because the British government believed that it was more important to send food and supplies overseas to help with the war effort than to keep them available for people at home. 


As a result, Australians had to make do with less food, clothing, and other essentials.


Rationing meant that each person was only allowed a certain amount of food each week, which often meant that people went without. 


Clothing was also in short supply, as the textile factories were converted to produce military uniforms and other supplies.


This led to a shortage of items such as shoes, hats, and coats. The shortages continued throughout the war and became more severe as it progressed.

Box of potatoes
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Impact of Gallipoli

The first major challenge for the Australian people on the home front was to come to terms with the huge number of casualties that occurred early in the war. In 1915, the ANZACs landed at Gallipoli and suffered heavy casualties.


This was followed by even more casualties at the Battle of Fromelles later that year.


The Australian people were shocked by these losses and began to question whether or not they should be supporting the war effort.


Death notices began to appear in newspapers, and it became increasingly common for families to have someone serving in the war.


The impact of the war could be seen on every street corner, as people mourned their loved ones and struggled to come to terms with the enormity of the conflict.

Yet, Gallipoli was seen as 'a test' for Australia, to prove that the young nation was just as brave and as capable as the older empires of Europe.


It was believed that if Australia showed their courage and abilities by succeeding at Gallipoli, the rest of the world would treat them as equals.


Following the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, some people remained supportive of the war because they believed that it was still Australia's duty to support the British Empire.


Others began to question the value of the war and whether or not it was worth the cost in human lives.

Flanders war graves
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Recruitment drives

As the war continued, the Australian government began to run recruitment drives in an attempt to boost the number of soldiers fighting overseas. These drives were not always successful, as many men did not want to leave their families and homes.


The government ran a number of campaigns to try and convince men to enlist, including propaganda posters and songs. Large events like Empire Day, Allies Day and ANZAC Day intended to show overall support for the war.

Norman Lindsay became a key figure in the recruitment effort. He made a range of propaganda posters on behalf of the Australian government in order to promote the idea of enlistment into the armed forces.


Many of these posters featured images of strong and brave young men, who were willing to fight for their country. They appealed to the sense of duty that many Australians felt and promised adventure and glory on the battlefields.

WWI newspaper on a desk
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The rise of conscription

In order to improve attitudes towards the war, the Australian government also adopted extra powers. One of the most important was the War Precautions Act.


The War allowed the government to create any new laws it needed to if it affected the war effort.


Normally, the government would need a range of approvals to create laws that affected the Australia people, but the Act allowed them to avoid most of these approvals whenever it needed to.

In 1916, Australia attempted to introduce conscription in an effort to boost the number of men joining the army.


Conscription is the process of forcing people to join the military. However, this was met with strong opposition from many Australians, who saw it as an infringement on their rights. There were large protests against conscription.


The Australian Prime Minister at the time, Billy Hughes, wanted to force conscription unto the population and decided to use a referendum to do this.


A referendum is a vote where all the people in a country can have their say on an important issue.


Hughes was confident that the Australian people would vote in favour of conscription, but he was wrong.


The first referendum failed, and Hughes resigned from his position as Prime Minister.


So many people were against the war and conscription because they believed that it was not their fight.


They thought that Australia should stay out of the conflict. Many people also felt as though the government had not been honest with them about the true extent of the war, and they were angry about being forced to fight in a conflict that they did not believe in.


Both sides created propaganda posters to encourage Australians to vote for their side of the debate.


The second referendum on conscription also failed, but this time by a larger margin. This showed that there was still significant opposition to conscription in Australia, even though the country was at war.


As a result of these referendums, Australia never introduced compulsory military service during World War One.

The role of women

The role of women on the Australian home front during World War One changed dramatically from what it had been before the war.


In pre-war Australia, most women's roles were restricted to the home and family.


However, as more men went off to fight in the war, women began to take on a wider range of roles in society.


Many women worked in factories making munitions and other supplies for the war effort, while others worked in hospitals and charities. 

Women also played a vital role in keeping morale high on the home front. They organised activities and events such as concerts, dances, and fetes, in order to raise money for the war effort and keep people's spirits high.


Groups like the Australian Women’s National League pro-actively supported the war effort and encouraged young men to enlist.


As a result, they promoted the idea of conscription and often participated in the referendum process.

Peasant farmers
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The impact of the war on Australian society was far-reaching and can be seen in many aspects of life.


The loss of so many young men had a devastating impact on families and communities, while the attempted introduction of conscription caused widespread anger towards the government.


Women began to take on a wider range of roles in society, and there was a greater sense of patriotism and determination among Australians.


The war also had a significant impact on Australian art and culture, with artists such as Norman Lindsay creating powerful works that captured the spirit of the nation.

Statue of a WWI soldier with a horse
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