At the outbreak of the War in Europe in 1914, Australia was still a very young nation, having been established as a Federation only 13 years earlier in 1901. Australia's regional position meant that it was geographically isolated from the long-standing conflicts between many of the European nations. Despite Australia's not being directly involved with the tensions which brought about the declaration of war, Australians soon found themselves playing an important role in what was thought to be 'the war to end all wars.'
The British Empire
To ensure the protection and security of the British Empire, Britain put aside her previous conflicts of interest with the French and Russian empires and signed agreements. These agreements required the reciprocal support of all parties in the event of an attack from the German Empire or her allies. See image 1
Australia, although a Federation since 1901, was still a member of the British Empire. This meant that when Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 not only were the French and Russian empires compelled to join the British, but Australia also found herself at war. The nation's financial resources and manpower were promised by the then-Labor leader, Andrew Fisher, who assured that 'Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling.' See image 2
The People's Reaction
Although Australia was constitutionally bound to the British Empire, the Australian people themselves reacted to the outbreak of war in an unprecedented manner of enthusiasm. They had a natural, strong sense of patriotism and loyalty to their 'mother country.' With ninety percent of Australians having a British background and with many aspects of life, including law and education, being modelled on the British system, many Australians still perceived themselves as being British and wanted to assist Britain's cause in any way they could. See video
Australians had such a tremendous amount of pride for their king and country that it was a popular belief among them that the British Empire was superior to other races. This resulted in feelings of animosity towards other nations and increased their desire to take up arms under the British Empire. In particular, a hatred of anything related to Germany became apparent in Australian society. News filtered down to Australian papers through the British and American media which had heightened already outrageous stories to create mass hysteria for the downfall of Germany. Rumours which emerged at the time of World War I included stories of rape and the severing of limbs of Belgians. All these rumours have since been discredited.
The public enthusiastically pledged their allegiance, with thousands of Australian men immediately volunteering to fight for Australia and the British Empire. When taking the statistics into consideration, it is not surprising that volunteers made up the main expeditionary force in the Australian Army in World War I. Initially, Australia's contribution to the war was going to be 20 000 men. With all the excitement surrounding the War, the recruitment offices were overwhelmed with enrolments. By the end of 1914, 50 000 had volunteered. In the beginning when support for the War was still strong because no one was aware of the harsh realities on the battlefield, only the fittest and those without any physical limitations were accepted. See image 3
The reason for such an expeditious response from the Australians was that, along with many other nations, they also naively thought that the War would be over before they had a chance to be a part of it.
Being a young nation, although the colonies had sent some men to fight in the Boer War, they had never been involved as a cooperative in a war before. In fact, the last major European War had ended in 1815 which meant that people all over the world were unfamiliar with the realities of war. This was one of the reasons people were eager to go.
Through the media, popular books and education in schools, war was generally perceived as being quick and effective battles. People at the time thought the War would be over in six weeks when in fact it would take four years. With the advantage of hindsight, we know war is never efficient. The financial cost and the immeasurable price of the loss of human life have a devastating effect on a nation and its people for generations to come. See image 4
Opposition to War
Although it was evident that the majority of society was prepared to give its full support to the involvement of Australia in the War, there were also a few groups who were not. Out of fear of derision, among other reasons, these groups usually did not voice their opinions loudly until some time into the War when doubt was beginning to emerge in society more generally as the real costs of war began to emerge.
Of the groups who did not support the War, there were 'conscientious objectors' who disagreed on going to war on the basis of moral grounds, as well as 'pacifists' who believed it was wrong to kill other people.
Later on in the War a small number of Irish Australians also opposed Australia's commitment to the War. This opposition had little to do with Australia herself and more to do with being against the British mistreatment of rebels in Ireland in 1916.
Some trade unions were opposed to the war in general out of concern that there would be a shortage of workers because they would be killed. The employers, however, would remain to make all of the money. In particular, the Industrial Workers of the World played a significant role in influencing others against the War. They also assisted in influencing political objectors who usually belonged to left-wing movements such as the Australian Labor Party. These two groups, in conjunction with Roman Catholic Church leaders, acted in concert on the issue, especially in the latter years of the War as the reality began to sink into Australian society.