Australian Military

The military has occupied a marginal position in Australian society for most of the nation’s history, but war and the fact of military service have been key determinants in the shaping of the national character and ethos. At the level of national policy, the search for security through alliance with `great and powerful friends’ has typified Australian defence and foreign relations since the late nineteenth century. Australians have often defined themselves in terms of their military past, although until very recently they have studiously avoided any consideration of the violent dispossession of the aboriginal people in this process.

The British army and the Royal Navy left an indelible stamp on the early Australian colonies, but this had little to do with the discharge of their most obvious military functions. The garrison of New South Wales was provided initially by several companies of the Royal Marines, who were succeeded in 1791 by the New South Wales Corps, a regiment recruited specifically for service in the colony. Following its involvement in the bloodless deposition of Governor William Bligh in January 1808 it was recalled to Britain and disbanded finally in 1818, and from 1809 the military force in the Australian colonies was provided by regiments of the British army, usually four in number at any one time. These provided guards for the convict labourers who made up the bulk of the settlement’s early population, maintained internal law and order against the aboriginal population and escaped convicts, and provided a security guarantee against an external threat which, while frequently apprehended, never materialized. With the decline in transportation after 1840 the internal security function declined, and this together with the absence of a clearly identifiable external enemy led to a gradual rundown in the British garrison, although the last regiment was not withdrawn until 1870 in line with the recommendations of the Mills Committee of 1862.

The most important contribution of the British military was in `nation-building’; most of the original transport and communications infrastructure of the colonies was created by officers of the Royal Engineers, who also supervised the early Mints, while the structure of executive government and administration was supplied by officers of the army and navy. The regiments and the ships of the Australia Station (created in 1859) played a dominant role in the social life of the colonies as well.

The achievement of self-governing status in the 1850s and 1860s, and especially the departure of the last garrison units, forced colonial governments back on their own resources for the provision of their own defence. The colonial military forces were never very effective militarily; they fulfilled an important social function for the middle classes but were subject equally to marked fluctuation in strength and the provision of equipment, especially during the major depression of the 1890s. On two occasions colonial forces played on a wider stage: in 1885 when New South Wales despatched a contingent of 770 men to the Sudan to avenge Gordon, and during the Boer War (1899-1902) when 16,175 men served in five colonial contingents and, following Federation in 1901, in three Commonwealth ones.

The period between the federation of the colonies in 1901 and the outbreak of war in 1914 was marked by considerable military activity, although initially the Commonwealth parliament was hostile to military spending. This changed with the Japanese victory against the Russians in 1905, coupled with dissatisfaction with existing arrangements for naval defence which entailed reliance on, but no control over, ships of the Royal Navy subsidized by the Commonwealth. Agitation for a greater say in the dispositions of naval defence led to the formation of an Australian naval squadron in 1914, while a system of universal military training was introduced in 1909 to provide a sizeable field force for the home defence of the Commonwealth. In both areas Australia adopted distinctly different solutions to its defence problems from either Britain or the other self-governing dominions.

The Boer War notwithstanding, participation in the Great War of 1914-18 was regarded widely as the nation’s `coming of age’, and involvement in that war influenced Australian society for decades. Approximately half the eligible white males drawn from a total population of five million enlisted; 331,000 of these served overseas, of whom 60,000 were killed and a further 166,000 were wounded. It was a devastating introduction to modern industrial warfare, made worse by the deep divisions occasioned by the domestic disputes over conscription for overseas service.

The seizure of German colonial territories in the South Pacific in the war’s opening months and the destruction of German commerce-raiders fully justified Australia’s pre-war insistence on an Australian fleet, but the first major military commitment was to the defence of the Suez Canal and the opening of a front against Turkey in the Dardanelles. An unmitigated disaster at almost every level, Gallipoli is the foundation stone of the Australian military myth and provided the raw material of the self-regarding Anzac legend, which has dominated the Australian national image ever since. It was also a small epic of courage, endurance and sacrifice which demonstrated both that the Australians had the makings of very fine soldiers – something which various British observers had remarked on during the Boer War – and that they still had a long way to go. Of the 50,000 men who served on the peninsula over 26,000 became casualties, more than 8,000 of them killed, in just seven months.

The Australian Imperial Force was greatly enlarged and reorganized in January 1916; five infantry divisions departed for service on the Western Front while two mounted divisions remained in the eastern Mediterranean as part of the main strike force in the campaigns in Sinai and Palestine. In France the Australians fought on the Somme, losing 28,000 men in July-August 1916, and at Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele, where they suffered another 58,000 casualties in the course of 1917. Formed into an Australian Corps at the end of that year, and from May 1918 commanded by an Australian militia officer, General Sir John Monash, the Australian divisions became one of the spearhead formations of the British 4th Army, heavily involved in the great advances of July-October 1918 which resulted in the final defeat of the German army, and during which they suffered a further 21,000 killed and wounded. The heavy losses in France led directly to agitation for the introduction of conscription in line with Britain and the other dominions. Dominated by the prime minster, William Morris Hughes, the domestic debate degenerated into a loyalty test into which various irrelevant considerations of religion and class were introduced by both sides, influenced by events in Ireland in 1916 and Russia in 1917. The electorate twice rejected the proposal, in October 1916 and December 1917, and by 1918 the home front was bitterly divided; recruitment in the last year failed significantly to keep pace with wastage, and many units in France operated at half strength or less.

The interwar years were marked by the same financial stringencies and political blindness experienced throughout the western democracies, in Australia’s case influenced strongly by over-reliance on the Singapore strategy. The outbreak of war in 1939 saw Australia commit inadequately equipped forces to the Mediterranean once again, while the entry of the Japanese into the war in December 1941 revealed the bankruptcy of interwar strategy. Australian infantry divisions were involved heavily in the early defeats of the Italians in 1941 and in the see-sawing offensives against the Germans in North Africa, as well as comprising the main forces committed to the disasters in Greece and Crete. A division was lost at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, at which point the Australian government insisted on its right to withdraw its forces from Europe for the defence of its own territory. Under the command of General Douglas MacArthur in the American-created South-West Pacific Area, Australian formations defeated the Japanese in a succession of gruelling campaigns in Papua-New Guinea in 1942-3 until, eclipsed by the enormous build-up of US forces and denied a role in the reconquest of the Philippines, they were deflected into marginal campaigns away from the main axis of the Allies’ northwards advance.

Australia fielded about 800,000 uniformed personnel during the war, and made as great an effort on the home front. As well as supplying its own needs it provisioned the US forces in the South-west Pacific theatre and continued to supply foodstuffs to Britain. War-related industries received a considerable boost, and large numbers of women entered nontraditional employment categories for the first time. So great was the strain on the domestic economy that the government began selective demobilization of the forces at the end of 1943 in order to meet the demands for labour. From February 1943 a limited form of conscription for overseas service applied; conscripted militiamen were required to serve only in Australia’s immediate environs, and the successful passage of the legislation was the result of considerable persuasion within the Labor Party by the Labor prime minister, John Curtin. Dictated by the seriousness of Australia’s strategic situation, it remains the only occasion on which the issue has not deeply polarized the wider community.

Postwar defence policy was characterized by three tendencies: forward defence and the concomitant involvement in a continuous series of conflicts throughout the 1950s and 1960s; the dominance of the regular services, especially the army, as the principal source of advice to government; and the centralization of defence administration. At the same time, Australian reliance on a major ally switched, gradually, from the United Kingdom to the United States. In the period immediately after the war Australia in fact re-emphasized the traditional links with Britain; through the 1950s Australian policy tried to balance British and American links and, although the major realignment of the armed forces along American lines began with equipment acquisition programmes announced in 1957, this policy continued until the final announcement of British withdrawal from southeast Asia in the late 1960s.

Involvement in the occupation of Japan (1946-51), the Korean War (1950-3), the Malayan Emergency (1950-60), Konfrontasi with Indonesia (1964-6) and the Vietnam War (1962-72) saw the services involved in operations more or less continuously for a quarter of a century. With the significant exception of Vietnam, these wars were fought entirely by regular service personnel; casualties were low and the operations generally successful, and involvement in these campaigns aroused little comment and almost no opposition at home. Although initially ignored by most, Vietnam became the most divisive war in half a century, especially after the first national servicemen were despatched in mid-1966. As in 1916-17 the issue for most was the use of conscripts overseas, although for the radical Left this soon led to a critique of the conduct of the war, the fact of Australian involvement, the US alliance, and the nature of society generally. The operations conducted by the 1st Australian Task Force were highly successful on the whole, and the casualty rates low: 501 killed, only 1 per cent of the total number involved, and around 3,000 wounded. These factors made little difference to the growing unease felt by middle Australia over government policy, nor to the mostly young demonstrators who took to the streets in 1970-1 in their tens of thousands. The Australian contribution was scaled down in 1969, and withdrawn in late 1971. Whether Vietnam was the key issue in unseating the government in the elections in December 1972 must be doubted, however.

Since 1975, and more particularly since 1983, Australia’s defence posture has undergone some fundamental changes. While the alliance with the United States remains close, epitomized by the prompt despatch of a small naval task force to the Persian Gulf in late 1990, a series of reports has stressed the need for greater selfreliance in the task of defending Australian territory and interests. A large-scale equipment acquisition and replacement programme, commenced in the 1980s, will run through to the end of the century, and this has placed strain on the defence budget, but in other areas, especially the proclaimed intention to pass many functions back to the reserve forces, government policy seems intent on reversing many of the developments of the postwar era.


Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia (Melbourne, 1990); Australia: two centuries of war and peace, eds Michael McKernan and Margaret Browne (Canberra, 1988); Revue Internationale d’Histoire Militaire, lxxii, edition Australienne, eds Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey (Canberra, 1990); Peter Pierce, Jeffrey Grey and Jeff Doyle, Vietnam Days: Australia and the impact of Vietnam (Ringwood, Victoria, 1991).

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