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France, December 1916. Unidentified members of the Australian 5th Division, enjoying a "smoko" near Mametz, on the Somme. Some are wearing slouch hats, steel helmets, sheepskin jackets and woollen gloves, demonstrating both the variety of official battledress, and how it was modified and augmented, for local conditions.

The First Australian Imperial Force (1st AIF) was the main expeditionary force of the Australian Army during World War I. It was formed from 15 August 1914, following Britain's declaration of war on Germany. Generally known at the time as the AIF, it is today referred to as the 1st AIF to distinguish from the 2nd AIF which was raised during World War II.[1] The 1st AIF included the Australian Flying Corps, which was later renamed the Royal Australian Air Force.


The 1st AIF was a purely volunteer force for the duration of the war. In Australia, two plebiscites on conscription were defeated, thereby preserving the volunteer status but stretching the AIF's reserves towards the end of the war.[2] A total of 331,814 Australians were sent overseas to serve as part of the AIF, which represented 13% of the white male population. Of these, 18% (61,859) were killed. The casualty rate (killed or wounded) was 64%. About 2,100 women served with the 1st AIF, mainly as nurses. Close to 20% of those who served in the 1st AIF had been born in the United Kingdom but all enlistments had to occur in Australia (there were a few exceptions). As a volunteer force, all units were demobilized at the end of the war.

Originally the Australian government pledged to supply 20,000 men organised as one infantry division and one light horse brigade plus supporting units. By the end of the war, the 1st AIF comprised 5 infantry divisions and the most part of 2 mounted divisions. The 1st AIF was predominantly a fighting force – the proportion of combat troops to non-combatants (medical, logistical, etc.) was exceeded only by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

When originally formed in 1914, the AIF was commanded by General William Bridges, who also assumed command of the infantry division. After Bridges' death at Gallipoli in May 1915, command transferred by default to General William Birdwood, commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Birdwood was officially confirmed as commander of the AIF on 14 September 1916, while also commanding the I Anzac Corps.

After the war finished, all AIF units went into camp and began the process of demobilisation. The exceptions were No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps and 3rd Australian Casualty Clearing Station, which participated in the occupation of the Rhineland. The 7th Light Horse Regiment was sent to occupy the Gallipoli peninsula, along with a New Zealand regiment. In general, while the British appreciated the fighting qualities of the Australian soldiers, they were not considered docile enough to act as an occupying garrison, and so no Australian infantry were called upon. There were 92,000 soldiers in France and a further 60,000 in England, 17,000 in the Middle East plus nurses in Salonica and India, all to be transported home. By May 1919, the last troops were out of France, 70,000 now encamped on Salisbury Plain. By September, only 10,000 remained. General John Monash, the senior Australian commander, was repatriated on 26 December 1919. The last transport organized to repatriate the troops was the H.T Naldera, which departed London on 13 April 1920. The 1st AIF officially ceased to exist on 1 April 1921 and on 1 July 1921 the military hospitals in Australia passed into civilian hands.

Infantry Divisions

11th Battalion posing on the Great Pyramid of Giza, 1915.

Each division comprised three infantry brigades and each brigade contained four battalions. A battalion contained about 1000 men.

At the start of the Battle of Gallipoli the AIF had four infantry brigades with the first three making up the 1st Division. The 4th Brigade was joined with the sole New Zealand infantry brigade to form the New Zealand and Australian Division. The 2nd Division had been formed in Egypt in 1915 and was sent to Gallipoli in August. After Gallipoli, the infantry underwent a major expansion. The 3rd Division was formed in Australia and sent to France. The original infantry brigades (1st to 4th) were split in half to create 16 new battalions to form another four brigades of infantry. These new brigades (12th to 15th) were used to form the 4th and 5th Divisions. This ensured the battalions of the two new divisions had a core of experienced soldiers.

A 6th Division commenced forming in England in February 1917 but was never deployed to France and was broken up in September of that year.

The Australian infantry did not have regiments in the British sense, only battalions identified by ordinal number (1st to 60th). Each battalion originated from a geographical region. New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states, filled their own battalions (and even whole brigades) while the "Outer States" often combined to assemble a battalion. These regional associations remained throughout the war and each battalion developed its own strong regimental identity.

In the manpower crisis following the Third Battle of Ypres, in which the five divisions sustained 38,000 casualties, there were plans to follow the British reorganisation and reduce all brigades from four battalions to three. In the British regimental system this was traumatic enough; however, the regimental identity survived the disbanding of a single battalion. In the Australian system, disbanding a battalion meant the extinction of the unit. In September 1918, when the call was made to disband eight battalions, there followed a series of "mutinies over disbandment" where the ranks refused to report to their new battalions. In the AIF, mutiny was one of two charges that carried the death penalty, the other being desertion to the enemy. Instead of being charged with mutiny, the instigators were charged as being AWOL and the doomed battalions were eventually permitted to remain together for the forthcoming battle, following which the survivors voluntarily disbanded.

Mounted Divisions

Australian light horsemen

Each division comprised three mounted light horse brigades. The ANZAC Mounted Division so named because it contained one mounted brigade from New Zealand – the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. Likewise the Australian Mounted Division was originally named the Imperial Mounted Division because it contained the British 5th and 6th Mounted Brigades.

Army Corps

See also


  1. It should be noted however, that the term '1st AIF' was in use as early as August 1914, in anticipation that a 2nd AIF would one day be formed.
  2. "Conscription referendums, 1916 and 1917 – Fact sheet 161". Your story, our history. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 21 October 2013. 

Further reading

  • Kyle, Roy (2003) An Anzac's Story. Camberwell, Penguin, ISBN 0-14-300187-6.
  • Fleming, Robert (2012) "The Australian Army in World War I". Osprey Publishing, ISBN 184908632X.

External links

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