Ever since news of the landing at Gallipoli first reached Australia via the reporting of the British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, the achievements of the AIF have become embedded in Australian national consciousness. By the end of the war the AIF had come to be regarded as one of the premier Allied fighting forces, and [General Sir John] Monash as one of their most successful generals. Reflecting the widespread militaristic outlook of the early twentieth century, Gallipoli was regarded as the nation’s ‘baptism of fire’, which was understandable given that its only previous military involvement had been in the much smaller scale South African (Boer) War. What was, and is, less understandable is the suggestion that Gallipoli marked the birth of the nation, as if the very achievement of Federation in 1901 by peaceful means and the introduction of universal suffrage (Indigenous inhabitants excepted) was less significant in the history of the new Commonwealth. One hundred years on from the landing of 25 April 1915, ‘Anzac’ remains a contested concept that attracts vigorous criticism and impassioned defence. The fact that scores of thousands turn out every year at dawn services throughout the country suggests that the AIF as the original Anzacs continues to inspire new generations.
Bean concluded his final volume of the official history by hailing the story of the AIF as a ‘monument to great-hearted men; and, for their nation, a possession forever’. That the AIF was able to achieve what it did truly is a remarkable story. It would have been almost inconceivable in the decade following Federation that Australia could raise a substantial force within a matter of months and dispatch it to fight in distant campaigns. Yet from the moment that Australia entered the war and opened recruiting until the first convoy sailed from Albany, less than three months had elapsed. It was because of the work of countless military and civil officers, and with the support of large sections of the Australian community, that the initial force of 20 000 men—one infantry division and a light horse brigade—was raised so quickly. That was a significant achievement in itself, but the ultimate expansion (and probably over-expansion) of the AIF to a strength of five divisions and the best part of two mounted divisions was, by any measure, an extraordinary effort on the part of a small (and new) nation. By 1918 the AIF was, by any reckoning (and here we can avoid the extravagant claims of some cheerleaders), among the best fighting forces in the empire and, indeed, in the whole of the Allied camp. In the process it produced officers (many from the ranks but also from the pre-war Militia/Citizen Military Forces) who could command at every level. Monash was the outstanding Australian officer that the war produced, and in some circles he was touted as a possible commander-in-chief for the whole of the British Expeditionary Force, but this move to elevate him to the very top was as much a political campaign as it was a sound evaluation of his capability. He was supported by a legion of subordinates, many of whom grew into their positions from a very low base of experience: war was to be the great teacher. The war also produced thousands of soldiers of all ranks who performed their duties efficiently and effectively.
Underpinning these achievements was, first, a training scheme that quickly developed into one that could turn untried civilians into soldiers in a short period, for time was always of the essence. From its arrival in Egypt in December 1914, the AIF had barely four months to create a semblance of a military force from the mass of raw recruits that had embarked in the first convoy. Thereafter as reinforcements arrived in Egypt and, after the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, in Britain for eventual deployment on the Western Front, the training system developed the capacity to keep units at the maximum strength that the flow of recruits would allow. This was no mean feat.
The second, and often overlooked, factor underpinning the exploits of the AIF was the complex yet efficient administrative system that was developed, one that extended from the front lines to the bases in Egypt, France and Britain, all the way back to Australia. It is a source of wonderment a hundred years on to see the level of detail that was recorded on an individual’s file and the efforts that were made to communicate to families the particulars of their loved ones at the front, thereby ensuring public support for the AIF, even when wider questions were increasingly contested. More generally the act of keeping track of movements, equipment and all the support functions necessary to keep the AIF in the field required remarkable administrative abilities across the whole of the AIF and the Department of Defence.
What made all this possible? In the first instance it must be recognised that although the AIF was largely formed from scratch in terms of the bulk of enlisted men, it did not spring from nowhere. The small cadre of officers who formed the tiny pre-war professional army, together with the more robust officers and men of the CMF (a number of officers quickly showed that the rigors of a campaign were beyond their mental and physical capacity and were let go), provided a solid base on which to build. Such men as [Inspector-General, Brigadier-General William] Bridges had honed their skills through experience, in Australia and in South Africa, and on attachment to and working with the British Army. It is fashionable in some ignorant circles to decry the influence of the British Army on the AIF, but the fact is that the AIF fought as part of a larger British formation: the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli, the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front and the Eastern Expeditionary Force in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Besides the indispensable support that the British Army and Britain more generally made available to the AIF, which was far beyond the capacity of Australian industry to provide, the British Army was, for better or worse (decidedly better by war’s end) the source of imperial military doctrine that made it possible for such a formation as the AIF to slot easily into wider operations.
Similarly, access to British training establishments was critical in enabling the AIF to develop over time its operational skills while, without the resources of the British Army medical system and its supporting network of hospitals, especially in Britain, the AIF could not have sustained the level of medical care that it was able to afford its sick and wounded. British officers who served with the AIF, from Birdwood down, rendered invaluable service, especially in such areas as staff work where the Australian military lacked deep experience. Again, much popular writing denigrates British officers (contemporary cartoons in unit newspapers mercilessly lampooned the monocled ‘toffs’ of the British military establishment), and there were certainly cases of incompetent British officers being posted to Australian units (just as there were incompetent Australian officers), but on the whole the
British officers who were attached to the AIF performed well, and the AIF would have been hard-pressed without them.
Nevertheless, although it is essential to acknowledge the inevitable reliance of the AIF on its far larger British counterpart, we should not underestimate the element of self-reliance that eventually made the AIF the force that it was by 1918. We should remember also that the fledgling force of 1914 bore little relation to the AIF of 1917–18. That it should become so highly valued within Allied circles was due in no small part to its officers, whose professional ability grew with experience. Monash, for example, had not done very well at Gallipoli; three years of hard fighting on the Western Front turned him into a leader to rank with the best. Those who held commissions in the CMF more on the basis of their social standing than because of their perceived ability were quickly weeded out in the AIF: demonstrable merit rather than background became the test for commissioning and promotion, an approach that served the AIF well.
Much has been made of the egalitarianism of the AIF, especially compared with what was regarded as the hidebound, class-conscious British Army. Emphasis on the latter can be exaggerated, but it is clear that officer–men relations in the AIF were more relaxed than in the British Army, not least because by the second half of the war many officers had come from the ranks. The AIF became notorious for the ill-discipline displayed by its members of various occasions, not only in comparison with the British Army but also with the Canadian and New Zealand forces. The vast majority of disciplinary cases arose from minor transgressions—drunkenness, overstaying leave, being out of bounds, using obscene language and so on—but there was a significant number of cases of criminal behaviour. Minor lapses in discipline and displays of ‘larrikinism’ could be excused as a release from the stresses of the front line, and in any case they largely escaped the attention of the public in Australia. It was a different matter when troops returned to Australia and engaged in public rowdiness and, in some cases, in such discreditable behaviour that there was danger of a public backlash against them.
‘Mateship’ is often touted as a peculiarly Australian characteristic, but this is a gross exaggeration, as though this tendency to stick together, whatever name is given to it, was not equally to be seen in every other army, especially those from the sister dominions. Australian troops might have been more overt in their demonstration of mateship, but the Diggers were no more concerned about their fellow soldiers than their counterparts from Canada and New Zealand, or indeed from the British Army. Australians did not have a monopoly on small group cohesion. What they shared in particular with their dominion counterparts was the fact that they were away from Australia for exceptionally long periods, and very few got home leave. This naturally focused emotions and a sense of responsibility on the soldier’s immediate surroundings—his platoon and company. The ‘fellowship of the trenches’ was a very real motivating factor that enabled men to endure the rigors of war.
[Charles] Bean was right when he wrote that the AIF became for Australia a possession forever.
The bitterness of the conscription campaign took years to fade and had long-lasting political effects, but the reputation of the AIF remained undiminished. When a second AIF was raised in 1939 it seemed only proper that, following in the footsteps of its famous forebear, it should adopt the names and numbering system of the 1st AIF (thus 2/10th Battalion, 2/12th Battalion and so on), with its divisions following on sequentially from the five divisions of the First AIF. Whatever the prevailing views about the Great War and ‘Anzac’ are—and they regularly change and mutate—the AIF is rightly firmly established in Australia’s consciousness as one of its great achievements.
This extract is taken from The Australian Imperial Force. Volume V of The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War series.
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