World War I and Australia

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All users should be aware that some topics or historical content may be culturally sensitive, offensive or distressing, and that some images may contain nudity or are of people not yet identified. Certain words, terms or descriptions may reflect the author's/creator's attitude or that of the period in which they were written, but are now considered inappropriate in today's context.

Key to library resources

Access anywhere with a library card In the Library (or anywhere with a Library card for NSW residents)
Available to access in the library Only in the Library
Publicly available online Publicly available

Recruitment and conscription

At the beginning of the war recruitment numbers were so high that men had to be turned away by recruitment officers.

However the number of recruits declined as the war went on and as the casualty rates continued to increase. By 1916 there was a shortage of men volunteering to enlist.

North Coasters being sworn in at Port Macquarie Show Ground.

After Prime Minister Andrew Fisher resigned on 27 October 1915 the Deputy Prime Minister William Morris Hughes was elected by the Labor caucus as Fisher’s replacement. Hughes was a strong supporter of compulsory war service (conscription). However under the Defence Act 1903 the government could not send conscripts overseas – they could only fight on Australian soil.

With the topic of compulsory war service entering the debate – and dividing the country and the Labor Party – Hughes took the issue to a referendum. The referendum incited a heated debate between those who supported and opposed conscription, even within the Labor Party. The referendum was only just defeated with 1,160,033 against conscription and 1,087,557 in favour of it.

After the failure of the referendum Hughes was expelled from the party and formed the National Labor Party with his supporters from the Labor caucus. Hughes kept his position of Prime Minister through merging the National Labor Party with the Liberal Party to form the Nationalist Party of Australia.

Australia - the diggers inheritance [poster]

Voluntary enlistment numbers continued to fall which meant the government was not able to provide the men needed by Britain. Hughes called for another referendum on conscription to hopefully solve this problem. The campaign was even more heated than the first. On 20 December 1917 the referendum was defeated again, this time with a slightly larger majority.

The issue of conscription was not revisited again during the war. Australia and South Africa were the only countries that did not introduce conscription.


Enlistment posters

Posters were used as a powerful tool to encourage men to help the war effort by enlisting.

We've digitised the posters from our collection so you can view them online.

Search our catalogue to find other posters using the subject term: World War, 1914-1918 -- Recruiting, Enlistment, Etc -- Australia -- Posters.

Recruitment pamphlets, enlistment forms, war leaflets and personal papers

We've digitised some of our ephemera on recruitment for World War I which includes general propaganda in favour of the war and against Germany such as:

  • pamphlets and leaflets
  • broadsides of speeches
  • patriotic songs and poems
  • advertisements for war bonds

Visit us to learn about the Gilgandra Coo-ee Recruitment March, New South Wales in 1915 from the personal papers of Alex Halden (Joe) Miller which include correspondence and scrapbooks.

Leaflets, newscuttings and pamphlets on the conscription debate

Visit us to view these collections detailing the conscription debate.

Pro-conscription poster, 1917
Anti-conscription poster, 1917

Personal papers relating to conscription

Visit us to read these personal papers to find out more about the anti-conscription viewpoint.

  • Reginald Patrick Byrne - papers, ca. 1904 - ca. 1969
    Byrne was an active member of the Labor Party and in 1914 he joined the Darlinghurst Political League. He was a strong opponent of conscription. Byrne's papers include material relating to the conscription referendums.
  • Voltaire Molesworth papers
    Molesworth's papers in the 'Report of the Executive of the No-Conscription Fellowship (Parramatta), 1 February 1918'. The report discusses the success of the campaign to secure a 'No' vote in the conscription referendum 20 December 1917.


You can see some of the Library's recruitment posters in our new Digital Collections Viewer.

Regimental Unit histories

Search the Library's catalogue to find published accounts of the various regimental unit histories. Use subject term:

World War, 1914-1918 -- Regimental Histories -- Australia


Search Trove to find Australian newspaper articles relating to the outbreak of the war, recruitment numbers, the conscription debate and battles involving Australian troops.

Trove includes major Australian metropolitan and regional newspapers. You can search by keyword across all newspapers or narrow your search to a specific newspaper.

View a list of the newspapers available on Trove.

Troopship and Trench newspapers

Newspapers were printed on troopships and in the trenches. The newspapers included poetry, jokes, news from home, artwork and songs.

We have some of the newspapers in our collection including:

Copying, publishing or purchasing digital copies

You can make copies of pictures for research and study purposes by:

  • using a digital camera
  • using our microfilm reader printers 
  • ordering paper or electronic copies
  • ordering high quality digital scans  

You need to contact us for permission to publish our original materials. You must also acknowledge the Library and provide the correct location details. 

Find out more about copying and purchasing digital copies.