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Anzacs & the empire. Robyn Van Dyk on the AWM’s Anzac Voices

The Australian War Memorial’s new exhibition focuses on the inner voices of the our Anzacs during World War I. Its curator, Robyn van Dyk, explains what will be on show.

Letters to a sweetheart; diaries of a hard-fought campaign; postcards scrawled in the trenches, hospitals, ships, and battlefields of war. ANZAC voices offers a glimpse into the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of Australians throughout World War I. The words of these brave men and women are drawn from the treasures of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) archive; a collection which includes thousands of handwritten accounts. The letters and diaries in the collection reach back to a time when Australia was a new nation, its colonies having federated little more than a decade earlier, a country of almost five million people spread across a handful of developing cities and in the bush. Australia was a culture firmly rooted in Britain and the Empire.

This recruitment leaflet was created to resemble a holiday brochure. The war is only referred to as the "Great Adventure". Courtesy of Australian War Memorial, ID 5/5/3
This recruitment leaflet was created to resemble a holiday brochure. The war is only referred to as the “Great Adventure”. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial, ID 5/5/3

In mid 1914, as relations between the major European powers worsened, many Australians followed news from abroad with interest. When Britain declared war on Germany, Australia quickly pledged its support for Britain. As Andrew Fisher said shortly before he was elected prime minister, “Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling.” On 4 August, the day war was declared between Britain and Germany, Sub-Lieutenant Henry McWilliam of HMAS Australia wrote in his diary:

everyone is very excited about the idea, but we cannot yet realise the meanings of war.

On 5 August McWilliam received the official message conveying the news of the outbreak of war with Germany: “Everyone is very pleased at the definite news of war as it has always been the opinion of [naval officers?] that the longer it was put off the stronger Germany would become.” The Australian government placed its Navy under the command of the British Admiralty and McWilliam’s diary entry was written while HMAS Australia was already on a war route to German New Guinea (AWM, ID 1DRL/0467).

The Australian government pledged 20,000 troops, and recruiting began five days after war was declared. People were caught up in the excitement and there was no difficulty making up the numbers. Many people enlisted out of a sense of duty, as part of the British Empire which stood against German militarism. Some joined because Australia was experiencing a period of high unemployment, and soldiers were to be paid a minimum of six shillings a day. Others enlisted early from a sense of adventure. The idea that the war would be over by Christmas, and that this was a good opportunity to see the world, was in the minds of many.

Enlisting at Victoria Barracks, Sydney. By the end of 1914, some 50,000 Australians had joined the fight. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial, ID A03406
Enlisting at Victoria Barracks, Sydney. By the end of 1914, some 50,000 Australians had joined the fight. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial, ID A03406

Englishman John Kirkpatrick enlisted in the AIF in 1914, hoping to work his passage back home. He used his mother’s maiden name, Simpson, to enlist and expected to be heading for “the old country”. He’d later become a legend of the war but his letters home reveal some interesting observations about Australia and his motivations for enlisting (AWM, ID 3DRL/3424).

John Simpson’s letter on Christmas Day 1914 shows he was in training with the AIF in Egypt. In his letters he reveals disappointment on being in Cairo and that he had enlisted in order to get a working passage home, have a holiday and then fight the Germans on the Western Front. Simpson had a close relationship with his mother, Sarah, and sister, Annie, and a strong motivation for his enlistment would have been his family’s distress at home. In the time leading up to his enlistment, his mother wrote several letters expressing fear of the Germans invading Britain — ‘Jack we have been in a terrible state here’ — and that if the Germans got into Britain they would be ‘committing terrible atrocities’, as they had reportedly done in Belgium (AWM, ID 3DRL/3424). These letters survive in the Memorial’s collections and will be on display as part of the exhibition.

During the first year of the war approximately 33 per cent of volunteers were rejected. The requirements in August 1914 were for enlistees to be 18 to 35 years old, 5’6’’ (167cm) in height and with a chest measurement of 34” (86cm). Physical standards were later relaxed but the fitness of the 1914 enlistees was extremely high. Character was also important; on enlistment recruits were examined for BC (bad character) or D (deserter) British army tattoos on their skin.

Indigenous Australians were barred from joining Australia’s military forces, but despite not even being citizens in their own country they tried to volunteer in the AIF anyway. Many travelled hundreds of kilometres to enlist after being denied the chance at recruiting centres closer to their communities. It is estimated that around 1,000 Indigenous Australians fought in World War I. Lance Corporal Charles Blackman enlisted in Brisbane on 18 August 1915 at 19 years of age. He joined the 9th Battalion, becoming one of the earliest known Indigenous volunteers for the AIF. When war was declared, Blackman was working as a labourer employed by John Salter in Biggenden, Queensland. Salter and Blackman were friends and corresponded throughout the war. In a letter written in February 1918 Blackman tells Salter how his 9th Battalion comrades treated him as “good pals would” (AWM, ID PR01679). Once recruited into the AIF, Indigenous Australians tended to experience less discrimination than they would have within Australian society. They received equal pay, and many were treated as equals by the other men.

Being part of Australia’s chance to prove itself was significant to many. The widely held belief that real nationhood would be formed on the battlefield was discussed in the press and in politics. Brigadier General John Monash wrote a letter to his wife on the eve of the Gallipoli landing:

…in the event of my going out, you are to believe that I do so with only one regret, which is, the grief that this will bring to you and Burt and Mat. — For myself, I am prepared to take my chance… to win through safely would mean honour and achievement, on the other hand to fall would mean an honourable end. — At best I have only a few years of vigour left, and then would come decay and the chill of old age, & perhaps lingering illness (AWM, ID 3DRL/2316 Series 3, 9 of 72).

Monash’s words reveal the importance many placed on proving personal valour and being part of history. ANZAC voices represents a rare opportunity to view original handwritten eyewitness accounts of the war, including those of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, John Croft, Charles Blackman, and Sir John Monash.

✻ Robyn van Dyk is Acting Head of the Research Centre at the Australian War Memorial and co-curator of ANZAC voices, which opens on 29 November 2013 and runs until 30 November 2014 at the Australian War Memorial. Visit for more details

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