Centenary of WWI: The Western Front 1916

This stamp issue is the third in a five-year series commemorating World War I, each issue relating to the centenary year in which it is released. This issue focuses on the events of 1916, when the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) became involved in the conflict on the Western Front. The stamps represent the troops’ arrival, the Somme offensive, Matron Grace Wilson of the Australian Army Nursing Service, the home front through the first public vote on conscription and postal connections with home.

Stamp - Arrival on the Western Front

Arrival on the Western Front

This design shows Australian soldiers soon after their arrival on the Western Front, the photograph taken on 3 June 1916. These men of the 2nd Australian Division are on the Bois Grenier sector, the soldier to the left holding a Lewis gun, the soldier to the right surveying the scene across the trench through a periscope.

Stamp - The Somme offensive

The Somme offensive

This design shows machine gunners returning to their billets from the front line. The Australian machine gunners are members of either the 5th, 6th or 7th Machine Gun Companies, 2nd Australian Division, and most likely on a road near Pozières. The two men at the front carry Vickers Mark I machine guns. Some men carrying picks walk in the opposite direction.

Stamp - Public vote on conscription

Public vote on conscription

On the home front, news of the massive number of casualties on the frontline led to a decline in voluntary enlistment, reversing the situation at the outbreak of war, when volunteers were so numerous that men were turned away. Recruitment efforts were stepped up, with speeches, rallies, posters and the like targeting men of eligible age.

Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes believed that more troops was the only way to win the war, and Britain pressured him to commit 5,500 men per month. With Labor policy against involuntary service and the party split on the issue, he sought support from the Australian public. The question of conscription inflamed passions and proved divisive politically, socially and religiously. The first of two public votes was held on 28 October 1916, the second in December 1917. Australians voted against conscription in a narrow but clear defeat: around 48%–52%. The defeat was more decisive in the 1917 vote.

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Stamp - Matron Grace Wilson (AANS)

Matron Grace Wilson (AANS)

In 1916, Grace Wilson of the Australian Army Nursing Service – matron on Lemnos in 1915, in Egypt and Britain in 1916, and in Abbeville, France, in 1917 – was awarded the Royal Red Cross, First Class for “distinguished service in the field”. Having joined the AIF in 1914, she was transferred to Lemnos as principal matron with the 3rd Australian General Hospital to treat casualties from the Gallipoli campaign, which, despite the absence of facilities, by August was caring for 900 patients.

After the evacuation of Gallipoli, the hospital, known as 3GH, was transferred to Egypt. On New Year’s Day 1916, Wilson was recommended for the Royal Red Cross. This award was gazetted on 2 May. She was also awarded three “Mentioned in Despatches” that year for her service, and a fourth time in 1918. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (Military) on 1 January 1919 “for valuable services rendered in connection with military operations in France and Flanders”.

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Stamp - Ties to home

Ties to home

Taken in late November 1916, the photograph in the design shows a soldier of the Australian 2nd Battalion engrossed in writing while at his billet at Flesselles. The muddy yard signals the notoriously bad weather that turned the battlefields to quagmires. Yet the fact the soldier wears his hat back-to-front suggests a break in the weather and that he seeks to keep the sun from his eyes as he writes.