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Studies of conflict - World War I - Ypres
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Studies of conflict: World War I

When war was declared, many Australians rushed to enlist. But as the war went on and the list of casualties grew, fewer men were volunteering. The Government called two plebiscites on conscription, but they were both defeated.

By the end of the war, more than 60,000 Australian soldiers had been killed. This gave Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes leverage to play an active role in the talks that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles.

At home, the Australian Government interned thousands of people who had been born in enemy countries like Germany, or who were Australian-born descendants of migrants from these countries.

As soldiers began returning from the battlefields, many of them with terrible injuries, organisations like the RSL were founded to provide support and camaraderie.

Monument Wood, near Villers-Bretonneux

Monument Wood, near Villers-Bretonneux. Australian War Memorial E04910


To the historian, images and documents collected during a war are important sources of evidence. Observe Slide 2 carefully. It depicts Charles Bean, an official correspondent and historian.

  • Do you think Bean experienced the same conditions as the soldiers? Why/Why not? Be sure to make references to the source in your answer.
  • Do you think this would enhance or strengthen Bean’s credibility as a source? Why/Why not?

Bean was a journalist, not a professional historian. In September 1914, the Australian Journalists Association chose him to become Australia's official war correspondent. He traveled to Egypt with Australian troops and landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915.

  • Do you think this would enhance or strengthen his credibility as a source? Why/Why not?

Despite suffering a wounded leg at Gallipoli, Bean travelled with Australian troops to the Western Front. His history of Australians in World War I (WWI) took 23 years to complete.

  • Do you think this would enhance or strengthen his credibility as a source? Why/Why not?

In his book Men at War, Ernest Hemingway wrote, ‘The last [war] … was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise lied. So the writers either wrote propaganda, shut up, or fought’. Bean’s reporting is likely to have been censored to prevent Australians learning about the horrors experienced by men in the field.

  • Does this raise any concerns about the accuracy and completeness of Bean’s history? Why/Why not?
  • How difficult would it have been for Bean to describe the truth of what he saw when he was subject to censorship?

Research more about Charles Bean and plan a historiographical paragraph in which you use evidence to weigh his credibility as a source and evaluate his impact upon Australia’s military history.


The number of men volunteering to enlist at the beginning of the war was so great that many were turned away. By 1916, however, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) needed reinforcements. Two plebiscites aimed at introducing conscription were held in 1916 and 1917. The third, fourth and fifth images feature posters encouraging men to enlist. Consider each carefully.

  • Which poster do you think would have been most effective? In your response, make reference to how the poster attempts to manipulate reason (logos) and emotions (pathos)
  • Both conscription plebiscites were defeated. What arguments could be put forward in favour of conscription? What arguments could be raised against it?

Examine the image of Vera Deakin, daughter of Alfred Deakin, Prime Minister (on and off) from 1903-1910.

  • Do you think this photograph was taken during her time as a volunteer? Refer to specific elements of the photograph in your response.

Women such as Vera were invaluable in organising impromptu first aid stations, as well as tea and food for soldiers at railway stations as they were being repatriated. While wealthy Australian women could travel to Europe to assist in this way, most women remained at home to support the war effort. They knitted socks, raised funds and sent letters and care packages, including the iconic ANZAC biscuit, to troops overseas. Over 3,000 Australian nurses volunteered for duty during WWI.

Look for the slide captioned ‘German internees at Berrima’. Not surprisingly, anti-German sentiment grew during the war and many German people who had lived in Australia for many years faced suspicion and social isolation.

  • What do you think motivated Australians to isolate or imprison German-Australians?
  • How might these attitudes affect the children of German-Australians?
  • Do you think such emotional responses would occur today in similar circumstances? Provide reasons for your decisions.

On 31 July 1917, British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig launched an offensive from Ypres in Belgium. By 10 November, 12,000 Australians had been killed and another 26,000 wounded. A famous painting of the Australian troops at Menin Road (east of Ypres) can be found at the Australian War Memorial’s website (search using ‘Septimus Power Menin Road’). Examine the image carefully. The painter, H Septimus Power, was an official Australian war painter.

  • What feelings and ideas about battle can be conveyed in paintings like this? Be sure to refer to specific elements of the painting in your response.
  • Contrast Power’s painting with that of Will Longstaff’s, titled 'Menin Gate at Midnight’. It can be found at (search using 'Menin Gate at Midnight’ and select the Collections box under the search field).

Despite the mood conveyed by these paintings, the slide captioned ‘A soldier carries a wounded medical officer. Ypres, 1917’ shows the strength of character demonstrated by Australian soldiers who put their own comfort and safety after that of their comrades.

  • How would you describe the mood of the photograph in contrast to the two paintings?


William ‘Billy’ Hughes, Australia’s Prime Minister at the end of the war, opposed the adoption of American President Woodrow Wilson’s principles for peace negotiations, referred to as the ‘Fourteen Points’. Hughes played a significant role in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. He overcame Wilson’s objections to ensure Australia had independent membership of the League of Nations. He was one of the strongest voices arguing that Germany must pay for the costs of the war and pressed for Australian control over former German Territory in New Guinea.  When the American President reminded Hughes that he represented only 5 million Australians, Hughes responded, ‘I speak for 60,000 dead!’

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