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World War I the Australian experience

Starting just 13 years after Australia became a nation, World War I was one of the first times we came together as ‘Australians’.

Many people say our national character was shaped by this experience. After Gallipoli, ANZAC soldiers became known and respected for their courage, endurance and mateship – all attributes that we still prize.

But the war also changed society at home, from the role of women to the establishment of organisations to help returned service people.

Discover how the experience of World War I created the conditions that have helped make Australia what it is today.

Community Link World War I

Ypres, 1917. Australian War Memorial E05260.

Finding out

In 1915, the population of Australia was just under 5 million. Eight per cent of the population (417,000 people) enlisted to serve in World War I. Of those who enlisted, 60,000 did not survive the war (14%) and 156,000 (37%) were wounded. Can you apply these percentages to your class? If your class represents the people who enlisted in World War I, how many students would not return? How many would be wounded? 

The international community sought to outlaw the use of poisonous gas in The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Did you know that wars had rules? Do you think wars need rules? Why/why not?

Find out more about the rules of war by researching international humanitarian laws. The Australian Red Cross website has helpful information www.redcross.org.au  Enter ‘rules of war’ in the search field.

Sorting out

Slides 2 and 6 show men in trenches and Slide 3 shows soldiers preparing for a gas attack. Make lists of the advantages and disadvantages of using trenches as places to shelter from and launch attacks.

One of the earliest military uses of chlorine gas was by German forces in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. At first, Allied soldiers thought the gas was a smoke screen to cover an advance by the enemy. They mistakenly walked into the deadly gas. The British responded by using chlorine gas in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Because gas proved to be an effective weapon for both sides, other forms such as phosgene and mustard gas were developed for use later in the war. Many soldiers who survived the war suffered the effects of gas for the rest of their lives.

The use of poison gas was described by Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper as ‘devilry’. Sir John French, then commander of the British Expeditionary Force, described the use of gas as a ‘… cynical and barbarous disregard of the well-known usages of civilised war’. Yet it was only four months later that the British used the same weapon. Do you believe a nation is justified in breaking the rules of war if the enemy does so first? Why/Why not?

Some military historians claim soldiers were more terrified of gas attacks than any other threat. Why do you think gas was so feared?

Slide 8 describes the impact of trench foot on soldiers. A combination of cold, wet feet and poor blood circulation caused trench foot. In some cases, soldiers did not unlace or remove boots for days at a time. There was little chance for troops to warm or clean their feet. Eventually gangrene and tetanus set in. Even when soldiers were removed from the front it could take months for infected feet to recover.

Why might injuries caused by gas or trench foot slow an army’s capacity to advance and win battles?

Does Slide 8 suggest that military first aid was well organised during the early years of WWI? How might this have added to a battalion’s difficulties?

Taking action

Search online for Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est. The title is taken from an ode by the Ancient Roman poet Horace. The final phrase, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, means ‘It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.’

Which of the following do you think best describes the perspective demonstrated in this poem. Explain your choice with reference to the poem and the images in the slide show.

  1. A victorious soldier who is proud that he has helped to save his country.
  2. A soldier who has survived battles but is devastated by what he has endured. He has seen friends gassed and bombed and argues that the saying ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is propaganda.

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World War II - The Australian Experience
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World War II the Australian experience

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