The rush to enlist
At the start of World War I, Australia was a nation of around four million people. This meant that there was a potential pool of around 820,000 men of ‘fighting age’ (between 19 and 38).
Official recruitment for the Australian Expeditionary Force commenced in August 1914. With an initial commitment of 20,000 troops, the army was able to set a minimum height requirement of 5 feet 6 inches (168cm) and preference was given to those who had military experience. Australia would be sending its ‘best’ examples of Australian males.
By the end of the year over 50,000 had enlisted and thousands more had been rejected on medical grounds:
[One man] was told that his eyesight was defective and was twice turned away before a £2 tip facilitated his passage into the Australian Infantry Force. Rejected men stumbled in tears from the tables, unable to answer sons or mates left to the fortunes of war. They formed an Association, and wore a large badge to cover their civilian shame. Those who sailed against Turkey were the fittest, strongest, and most ardent in the land.
- Bill Gammage
Gammage, B 2010, The broken years: Australian soldiers in the Great War, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, Vic.
Australians had an image of themselves as tough pioneers. In an era that uncritically viewed the occupation of Indigenous lands, Australians found their most persuasive stories in settlement, exploration and the gold rushes. Poetry and paintings celebrated abilities like riding a horse and shooting a rifle. There was a powerful mythology of war being the event that turned boys into men.
Many recruits worried that the fighting might be over before they arrived or that the German army would be a pushover. Posters and leaflets promised an opportunity to see England and Europe.
Troops were paid a minimum of six shillings a day (more than three times the wage of English forces) leading to the phrase ‘six bob a day tourists’. Although slightly below the basic wage, it was still attractive to many because of the tough financial conditions and high unemployment in 1914.
After the casualty lists of Gallipoli were published, a sense of duty to country and fallen comrades were more often given by soldiers as their reason for enlisting. The war now seemed less like a great adventure and more of a moral decision:
I will go, in my heart hating all the time the military spirit, rousing though it is...from love of empire, and for the good of civilisation. I will train myself well in the use of military implements, and forms which are necessary for our purpose, without being carried away by the blind, ignorant, heroic spirit which inspires warlike men who fight for fighting's sake alone...
- Private Percy Samson
State Library of Victoria Manuscript MS 11838 Percy George Samson
Percy George Samson was a teacher who thought long and hard about whether joining the army was the right thing to do. A little older than many recruits at 27 and a committed Christian, his conflicted feelings are easy to discern in this diary entry. He survived the war as a stretcher-bearer and lived to the age of 94.
By July of 1915 the minimum height requirements had fallen to 5 feet 2 inches and the age limit had risen from 38 to 45. New men were required to replace the dead and injured. The government increased its propaganda campaign and would eventually attempt to conscript all eligible Australian males.