Centenary of WWI: 1914

This stamp issue is the first in a five-year series that commemorates World War I, the first war in which Australians fought not as colonial soldiers but as Australians. Together the five issues in will tell a chronological story of the war, with each issue relating the centenary year in which it is released. So the designs in this first commemorative stamp issue relate to Australia’s part in the first months of the war, from its declaration to troops’ arrival in Egypt.

Overview of first months of the war

This was the first war in which Australians fought post-Federation. So it was the first they entered into as Australian soldiers rather than colonial soldiers, as they had done little more than a decade earlier with the Boer War.

The Great War, as it was known until World War 2, originated from European tensions not immediately linked to Britain. It arose from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a Serbian nationalist on 28 June 1914. This threatened the balance of the central powers in Europe. With Austria delivering an ultimatum to the terms of the peaceful solution being sought, war was inevitable. Like falling dominoes, European powers came to aid of their allies: on 30 July, Austria declared war on Serbia; Russia then mobilised forces to support Serbia; in retaliation, on 2 August, Germany declared war on Russia, which also meant France was at war; and Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August, following the invasion of neutral Belgium. This meant Australia and the other British dominions were also at war.

On the declaration of war, Australia lent its full support to Britain, pledging 20,000 troops and the services of its navy. Australians greeted news of the war with enthusiasm, many perceiving enlistment as an adventure abroad. The term “six bob a day tourists” originated from the fact that Australian soldiers were apparently the best paid in the war, as 6s a day, the average wage of the time. The Defence Act meant that only volunteers could be enlisted, and so recruitment began on 10 August for an infantry division and light horse brigade. By the end of August, 881 officers and 19,745 men of other ranks had been recruited into the Australian Imperial Force. Over the course of the war, 416,809 Australian men enlisted from a population of less than five million; some “60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner”.

Australia’s first shot during the war was fired at Fort Nepean at 12.45pm on 5 August, just one day after war was declared. The German merchant ship SS Pfalz was trying to escape Victorian waters through Port Phillip Heads, so a warning shot was sounded to halt it. Soon after, Australian naval forces engaged with the enemy in the Pacific.

As a colonial power, Germany commanded a strategic position in the western Pacific, where it was able to establish radio stations that would allow it to monitor and intercept radio communications and to control its naval forces across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. On 19 August 1914, the Australian Military and Naval Expeditionary Force sailed from Sydney to German New Guinea, landing at Rabaul on 11 September and taking possession of the German colony after just seven days of fighting. Here, the first Australian lives were lost in the war. The terms of surrender were agreed upon on 17 September, and Australia took possession of New Britain very soon after, in October 1914. The naval force included Australia’s recently commissioned first submarines, AE1 and AE2, the former of which went missing soon after the seizure of Rabaul was complete.

Meanwhile, troops and ships were being readied for departure to England, leaving Australian shores from Albany, Western Australia, on 1 November. Turkey had entered the war after the combined Australian and New Zealand convoy had set sail. They were diverted to protect British interests in Egypt, spending several months training at Mena Camp, near Cairo.

Only days after the convoy departed Albany, the force was called upon to engage with the enemy in the Indian Ocean. The HMAS Sydney was instructed to scuttle the German warship the SMS Emden at Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a command it successfully carried out on 9 November. The ships then continued on to Egypt.

Stamp - War Declared!

War Declared!

At the outbreak of the war, Australia pledged 20,000 troops to Britain. The “War Declared!” design depicts volunteers queuing to enlist in Sydney

Stamp - Australians in Action

Australians in Action

The first action in which Australians were involved was the seizure of German New Guinea, represented in the “Australians in Action” design. The Australian Military and Naval Expeditionary Force landed at Rabaul on 11 September, taking possession after seven days of fighting. The first Australian fatalities of the war occurred during this engagement. The photograph shows the HMAS AE2, Australia’s newly acquired submarine, entering Rabaul Harbour.

Stamp - Troops Depart

Troops Depart

While the Australian Military and Naval Expeditionary Force was taking possession of the German colony in the Pacific, troops at home were being readied for departure for Europe. The enthusiasm of these early recruits is evident in waving men in the “Troops Depart” design.

Stamp - Training: Mena Camp

Training: Mena Camp

With Turkey entering the war once the Australian and New Zealand convoy had left Albany, the troopships were diverted to Egypt. Here, they trained at Mena Camp, in the shadow of the pyramids. The stamp image shows lines of 9th and 10th Battalions at Mena Camp, one soldier playing with a camp mascot. Soldiers brought several native animals to Egypt, some of which were given to the Cairo zoo when the troops left for Gallipoli.

Stamp - Our Boys

Our Boys

The three unknown soldiers in the studio portrait represent the tens of thousands of young men who left Australia to fight in a war half a world away.