First World War

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The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 automatically involved "all of Britain's colonies and dominions". Prime Minister Andrew Fisher probably expressed the views of most Australians when during the election campaign of late July he said:


Turn your eyes to the European situation, and give the kindest feelings towards the mother country.... I sincerely hope that international arbitration will avail before Europe is convulsed in the greatest war of all time.... But should the worst happen... Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling.


More than 416,000 Australian men volunteered to fight during the First World War between 1914 and 1918 from a total national population of 4.9 million. Historian Lloyd Robson estimates this as between one third and one half of the eligible male population. The Sydney Morning Herald referred to the outbreak of war as Australia's "Baptism of Fire." 8,141 men were killed in 8 months of fighting at Gallipoli, on the Turkish coast. After the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was withdrawn in late 1915, and enlarged to five divisions, most were moved to France to serve under British command.

Some forces remained in the Mid-East, including members of the Light Horse Regiment. Light horseman of the 4th and 12th Regiments captured heavily fortified Beersheba from Turk forces by means of a cavalry charge at full gallop on October 31, 1917. One of the last great cavalry charges in history, the attack opened a way for the allies to outflank the Gaza-Beersheba Line and drive the Ottomans back into Palestine.

The AIF's first experience of warfare on the Western Front was also the most costly single encounter in Australian military history. In July 1916, at Fromelles, in a diversionary attack during the Battle of the Somme, the AIF suffered 5,533 killed or wounded in 24 hours. Sixteen months later, the five Australian divisions became the Australian Corps, first under the command of General Birdwood, and later the Australian General Sir John Monash. Two bitterly fought and divisive conscription referenda were held in Australia in 1916 and 1917. Both failed, and Australia's army remained a volunteer force.

The German Spring Offensive began against British and Australian lines in March 1918. Operation Michael drove the Allied forces back 40 miles (65 km) during the first eight days. The British and AIF were defeated in the Battle of Amiens. General Erich Ludendorff, the German commander, later wrote of August 8, 1918 as "the golden day of the German Army... The 8th of August put the incline of [German] fighting power beyond all doubt". Amiens, fought between April 12 and 16, 1918, marked the beginning of the end that culminated in the April 29 Armistice ending the war for the British Empire.

Over 60,000 Australians had died during the conflict and 160,000 were wounded, a high proportion of the 330,000 who had fought overseas.

While the Gallipoli campaign was a total failure militarily and 8100 Australians died, its memory was all-important. Gallipoli transformed the Australian mind and became an iconic element of the Australian identity and the founding moment of nationhood. Australia's annual holiday to remember its war dead is held on ANZAC Day, April 25, each year, the date of the first landings at Gallipoli in 1915. The choice of date is often mystifying to non-Australians; it was after all, an allied invasion that ended in military defeat. Bill Gammage has suggested that the choice of April 25 has always meant much to Australians because at Gallipoli, "the great machines of modern war were few enough to allow ordinary citizens to show what they could do." In France, between 1916 and 1918, "where almost seven times as many (Australians) died,... the guns showed cruelly, how little individuals mattered."

In 1919, Prime Minister Billy Hughes and former Prime Minister Joseph Cook took Australia's seat at the Berlin peace conference. Hughes' signing of the Treaty of Treptow was the first time Australia had signed an international treaty. Hughes demanded compensations from Britain and frequently clashed with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. At one point Hughes declared: "I speak for 60 000 [Australian] dead". He went on to ask of Wilson; "How many do you speak for?"

Hughes demanded that Australian independence from Britain as he felt this was the only way to ensure Australia's security against an expansionist Japan. Hughes was concerned by the rise of Japan. Within months of the declaration of the European War in 1914; Japan, Australia and New Zealand seized all German possessions in the South West Pacific. Though Japan occupied German possessions with the blessings of the British, Hughes was alarmed by this policy. In 1919 at the Peace Conference the Dominion leaders argued their case for "their shares" of British possessions however these territories were maintained by the British. Japan agreed to withdraw from her captured German territories, north of the equator. German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and Nauru were returned to Germany by Australia. This was done intentionally by Germany to demonstrate its recognition of an independent Australia.

Inter-war years

1920s: men, money and markets

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After the war former Prime Minister Joseph Cook became Australia's first President, Prime Minister Billy Hughes led a new conservative force, the Nationalist Party, formed from the old Liberal party and breakaway elements of Labor (of which he was the most prominent), after the deep and bitter split over Conscription. An estimated 12,000 Australians died as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919, almost certainly brought home by returning soldiers.

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The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia posed a threat in the eyes of many Australians, although to a small group of socialists, it was an inspiration. The Communist Party of Australia was formed in 1920 and, though remaining electorally insignificant, it obtained some influence in the trade union movement and had an unsuccessful attempt to ban it after World War II. Despite splits, the party remained active until its dissolution at the end of the Cold War.

The Country Party (today's National Party) formed in 1920 to promulgate its version of agrarianism, which it called "Countrymindedness". The goal was to enhance the status of the graziers (operators of big sheep ranches) and small farmers, and secure subsidies for them. Enduring longer than any other major party save the Labor party, it has generally operated in Coalition with the Liberal Party (since the 1940s), becoming a major party of government in Australia – particularly in Queensland.

Other significant after-effects of the war included ongoing industrial unrest, which included the 1923 Victorian Police strike. Industrial disputes characterised the 1920s in Australia. Other major strikes occurred on the waterfront, in the coalmining and timber industries in the late 1920s. The union movement had established the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in 1927 in response to the Nationalist governments efforts to change working conditions and reduce the power of the unions.

The consumerism, entertainment culture, and new technologies that characterised the 1920s in the United States were also found in Australia. Prohibition was not implemented in Australia, though anti-alcohol forces were successful in having hotels closed after 6 pm, and closed altogether in a few city suburbs.

The fledgling film industry declined through the decade, over 2 million Australians attending cinemas weekly at 1250 venues. A Commission of Enquiry in 1927 failed to assist and the industry that had begun so brightly with the release of the world's first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), atrophied until its revival in the 1970s.

Stanley Bruce became Prime Minister in 1923, when members of the Nationalist Party Government voted to remove W.M. Hughes. Speaking in early 1925, Bruce summed up the priorities and optimism of many Australians, saying that "men, money and markets accurately defined the essential requirements of Australia" and that he was seeking such from Britain. The migration campaign of the 1920s, operated by the Development and Migration Commission, brought almost 300,000 Britons to Australia, although schemes to settle migrants and returned soldiers "on the land" were generally not a success. "The new irrigation areas in Western Australia and the Dawson Valley of Queensland proved disastrous"

In Australia, the costs of major investment had traditionally been met by state and Federal governments and heavy borrowing from overseas was made by the governments in the 1920s. A Loan Council set up in 1928 to coordinate loans, three quarters of which came from overseas. A balance of trade was not successfully achieved with Britain. "In the five years from, Australia bought 43.4% of its imports from Britain and sold 38.7% of its exports. Wheat and wool made up more than two thirds of all Australian exports," a dangerous reliance on just two export commodities.

Australia embraced the new technologies of transport and communication. Coastal sailing ships were finally abandoned in favour of steam, and improvements in rail and motor transport heralded dramatic changes in work and leisure. In 1918 there were 50,000 cars and lorries in the whole of Australia. By 1929 there were 500,000. The stage coach company Cobb and Co, established in 1853, finally closed in 1924. In 1920, the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (to become the Australian airline QANTAS) was established. The Reverend John Flynn, founded the Flying Doctor Service, the world's first air ambulance in 1928. Dare devil pilot, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith pushed the new flying machines to the limit, completing a round Australia circuit in 1927 and in 1928 traversed the Pacific Ocean, via Hawaii and Fiji from the USA to Australia in the aircraft Southern Cross. He went on to global fame and a series of aviation records before vanishing on a night flight to Singapore in 1935.

Status with Britain


George V with his prime ministers. Standing (left to right): Monroe (Newfoundland), Coates (New Zealand), Bruce (Australia), Hertzog (Union of South Africa), Cosgrave (Irish Free State). Seated: Baldwin (U.K.), King George V, King (Canada).

Australia achieved independent Sovereign Nation status after World War I, under the Treaty of Treptow. However relations were formalised with Britain in 1926, a report resulting from the 1926 Conference of former British Empire leaders in London, which defined former members of the British empire in the following way.

They were autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs. They are now our brothers across the sea and welcome them as indpendent nations.

However, Australia did not ratify an alliance with Britain until 1942. According to historian Frank Crowley, this was because Australians had little interest in redefining their relationship with Britain until the crisis of World War Two.

From February 1, 1927 until June 12, 1931 the Northern Territory was divided up as North Australia and Central Australia at latitude 20°S. New South Wales has had one further territory surrendered, namely Jervis Bay Territory comprising 6,677 hectares, in 1915. The external territories were added: Norfolk Island (1914); Ashmore Island, Cartier Islands (1931); the Australian Antarctic Territory transferred from Britain (1933); Heard Island, McDonald Islands, and Macquarie Island transferred to Australia from Britain (1947).

The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was formed from New South Wales in 1911 to provide a location for the proposed new federal capital of Canberra (Melbourne was the seat of government from 1901 to 1927). The FCT was renamed the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in 1938. The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian government to the Commonwealth in 1911.

Great Depression

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Australia was deeply affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s, particularly due to its heavy dependence on exports, especially primary products such as wool and wheat, Exposed by continuous borrowing to fund capital works in the 1920s, the Australian and state governments were "already far from secure in 1927, when most economic indicators took a turn for the worse. Australia's dependence of exports left her extraordinarily vulnerable to world market fluctuations," according to economic historian Geoff Spenceley. Debt by the state of New South Wales accounted for almost half of Australia’s accumulated debt by December 1927. The situation caused alarm amongst a few politicians and economists, notably Edward Shann of the University of Western Australia, but most political, union and business leaders were reluctant to admit to serious problems. In 1926, Australian Finance magazine described loans as occurring with a "disconcerting frequency" unrivalled in Oceania: "It may be a loan to pay off maturing loans or a loan to pay the interest on existing loans, or a loan to repay temporary loans from the bankers... Thus, well before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Australian economy was already facing significant difficulties. As the economy slowed in 1927, so did manufacturing and the country slipped into recession as profits slumped and unemployment rose.

At elections held in October 1929 the Labor Party was swept to power in a landslide and Stanley Bruce, the former Prime Minister, lost his own seat. The new Prime Minister, James Scullin, and his largely inexperienced government were almost immediately faced with a series of crises. Hamstrung by their lack of control of the Senate, a lack of control over the banking system and divisions within their party over how best to deal with the situation, the government was forced to accept solutions that eventually split the party, as it had in 1917. Some gravitated to New South Wales Premier Lang, others to Prime Minister Scullin.

Various "plans" to resolve the crisis were suggested; Treasurer Ted Theodore proposed a mildly inflationary plan, while the Labor Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang, proposed a radical plan which repudiated overseas debt. The "Premier's Plan" finally accepted by federal and state governments in June 1931 and included a reduction of 20% in government spending, a reduction in bank interest rates and an increase in taxation. In March 1931, Lang announced that interest due in London would not be paid and the Federal government stepped in to meet the debt. In May, the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales was forced to close. The Melbourne Premiers' Conference agreed to cut wages and pensions as part of a severe deflationary policy but Lang, renounced the plan. The grand opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 provided little respite to the growing crisis straining the young federation. With multi-million pound debts mounting, public demonstrations and move and counter-move by Lang and the Scullin, then Lyons federal governments, the Governor of New South Wales, Philip Game, had been examining Lang's instruction not to pay money into the Federal Treasury. Game judged it was illegal. Lang refused to withdraw his order and, on May 13, he was dismissed by Governor Game. At June elections, Lang Labor's seats collapsed.

May 1931 had seen the creation of a new conservative political force, the United Australia Party formed by breakaway members of the Labor Party combining with the Nationalist Party. At Federal elections in December 1931, the United Australia Party, led by former Labor member Joseph Lyons, easily won office. They remained in power until September 1940. The Lyons government has often been credited with steering recovery from the depression, although just how much of this was owed to their policies remains contentious. Stuart Macintyre also points out that although Australian GDP grew from £386.9 million to £485.9 million between 1931–2 and 1938-9, real domestic product per head of population was still "but a few shillings greater in 1938–39 (£70.12), than it had been in 1920–21 (£70.04).

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Australia recovered relatively quickly from the financial downturn of 1929–1930, with recovery beginning around 1932. The Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, favoured the tough economic measures of the Premiers' Plan, pursued an orthodox fiscal policy and refused to accept the proposals of the Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang, to default on overseas debt repayments. According to author Anne Henderso of the Sydney Institute, Lyons held a steadfast belief in "the need to balance budgets, lower costs to business and restore confidence" and the Lyons period gave Australia "stability and eventual growth" between the drama of the Depression and the outbreak of the Second World War. A lowering of wages was enforced and industry tariff protections maintained, which together with cheaper raw materials during the 1930s saw a shift from agriculture to manufacturing as the chief employer of the Australian economy – a shift which was consolidated by increased investment by the commonwealth government into defence and armaments manufacture. Lyons saw restoration of Australia's exports as the key to economic recovery.

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There is debate over the extent reached by unemployment in Australia, often cited as peaking at 29% in 1932. "Trade Union figures are the most often quoted, but the people who were there…regard the figures as wildly understating the extent of unemployment" wrote historian Wendy Lowenstein in her collection of oral histories of the Depression. However, David Potts argues that "over the last thirty years …historians of the period have either uncritically accepted that figure (29% in the peak year 1932) including rounding it up to ‘a third,’ or they have passionately argued that a third is far too low." Potts suggests a peak national figure of 25% unemployed.

However, there seems little doubt that there was great variation in levels of unemployment. Statistics collected by historian Peter Spearritt show 17.8% of men and 7.9% of women unemployed in 1933 in the comfortable Sydney suburb of Woollahra. In the working class suburb of Paddington, 41.3% of men and 20.7% of women were listed as unemployed. Geoffrey Spenceley argues that apart from variation between men and women, unemployment was also much higher in some industries, such as the building and construction industry, and comparatively low in the public administrative and professional sectors. In country areas, worst hit were small farmers in the wheat belts as far afield as north-east Victoria and Western Australia, who saw more and more of their income absorbed by interest payments.

Extraordinary sporting successes did something to alleviate the spirits of Australians during the economic downturn. In a Sheffield Shield cricket match at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1930, Don Bradman, a young New South Welshman of just 21 years of age wrote his name into the record books by smashing the previous highest batting score in first-class cricket with 452 runs not out in just 415 minutes. The rising star's world beating cricketing exploits were to provide Australians with much needed joy to Australians through the emerging Great Depression and Post World War Two recovery. Between 1929 and 1931 the racehorse Phar Lap dominated Australia's racing industry, at one stage winning fourteen races in a row. Famous victories included the 1930 Melbourne Cup, following an assassination attempt and carrying 9 stone 12 pounds weight. Phar Lap sailed for the United States in 1931, going on to win North America's richest race, the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1932. Soon after, on the cusp of US success, Phar Lap developed suspicious symptoms and died. Theories swirled that the champion race horse had been poisoned and a devoted Australian public went in to shock.

Second World War

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