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Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience



The First World War was the occasion of a major influx of Australians into Britain. From summer 1916 to the end of the war there were never fewer than 50,000 Australian troops in Britain. Britain was the base for the training of Australian reinforcements and technical specialists. The sick and wounded from the BEF were evacuated from France for treatment in British hospitals and Australian auxiliary hospitals. Control of Australian military activity in Britain was divided between Administrative Headquarters at Horseferry Road in London and UK Depots on Salisbury Plain. London provided the administrative, disciplinary and medical back-up for all of the AIF overseas and their new preparedness to mock the long-existent condescension towards them as colonials.

Britain experienced what was probably the largest and most sudden influx of Australians in the twentieth century when members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) arrived during the First World War. Little has been written about their experience and their effect upon the British. Historians Michael McKernan and Eric M. Andrews take a generally negative view of the experience of the AIF in Britain.1 The chapter title ‘From Hero to Villain’ in McKernan’s The Australian People and the Great War summarises the argument. Andrews’s conclusions are almost as bleak: ‘the Australians had been transformed from heroes to criminals in the eyes of the British authorities’.2 Both rely upon anecdotal evidence to support their conclusion that the meeting of the British with large numbers of young Australians led to mutual disillusionment. But no firm statistical evidence can be offered that this was the case. The experience of the majority of individual Australian soldiers was likely to have been very different from the ‘over here and oversexed’ caricature of some press reports and the rather lurid episodes in some memoirs.

A total of 331,781 Australian soldiers embarked for overseas service with the AIF, as did 3011 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service.3 The majority of the AIF served with the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Almost without exception AIF members serving in France would have visited Britain. From mid-summer 1916 until mid-1919 there were never fewer than 50,000 Australian troops in Britain, excluding men on furlough.

Soldiers in such numbers would have many different experiences, and often conflicting opinions about those experiences. A similar range of experience and opinion would be found in the attitudes of their hosts. At the Australian Engineers Training Depot (AETD) at Brightlingsea in Essex, activities organised by the AIF in the summer and autumn of 1917 included a circus, gymkhana and sports, together with weekly plays and concerts. A Literary and Debating Society was formed in November 1917 and met weekly. A ‘khaki choir’ sang at the Wesleyan church and the AIF provided a harpist, Driver Francesco Pisania, to play at New Church.4 A chronicler of the experience of the AIF in Brightlingsea comments:


All these respectable, conventional, and ‘small town’ Australian activities were reported in the Brightlingsea column of the three local newspapers exactly as if their participants were Essex shopkeepers and their families and not soldiers in the bloodiest year of the bloodiest war so far in history. Psychologically this cosy routine was perhaps essential for all involved.5

In contrast, the activities of the Australian troops in the vicinity of the Salisbury Plain camps in the months after the Armistice were described thus:


For discipline and regulations they cared not a jot. They fought the military police. Some of the worst characters deserted their regiments and lived rough in the adjacent woods in far worse than Robin Hood fashion. While the main body remaining in camp jeered at their officers, insisted on lifts to Salisbury in every passing car, and made themselves a general nuisance to the world around them.6

The experience of most of the troops, of course, fell in between these extremes, embracing the routines of camp or hospital and the occasional leave in London or elsewhere. To understand some of the reasons for these variations it is vital to recognise both the varied nature of the AIF experience in Britain and the context within which they occurred.

The experience of the AIF divides into two distinct periods. At first the troops were largely the responsibility of the High Commission and of the ad hoc organisation created to discharge that responsibility. Thereafter, from the summer of 1916 onwards the main force of the AIF was serving as a part of the British Expeditionary Force, and an AIF military command structure existed in Britain. The initial AIF contingent left Australia in November 1914, with Britain as its intended destination. Concern that the camps on Salisbury Plain would not be ready in time, plus the need to stiffen the defences of the Suez Canal against a possible Turkish attack, meant that the troops disembarked in Egypt to complete their training.

The small number of Australian troops in Britain in early 1915 placed few demands upon the High Commission in London. This situation changed when sick and wounded from Gallipoli began to be evacuated direct from the peninsula. During 1915 a total of 12,140 Australians and 3983 New Zealanders arrived after being evacuated as casualties from the Mediterranean theatre of war or from Mediterranean garrisons.7 It had been the original intention of the AIF to establish a records office in London, and it was upon this small organisation that responsibility fell for Australian troops arriving in Britain. The lack of an effective AIF organisation in Britain and, in particular, the absence of effective Australian Army Medical Service direction, resulted in confusion due to lack of knowledge and well meaning but ill informed interference. The High Commission was faced with the need to create from scratch a medical service to deal with Australian casualties and a base depot to which recovered sick and wounded could be drafted. British hospitals would provide the initial treatment, but the task of following the progress of casualties through the system and of providing convalescent care and rehabilitation was accepted as an Australian responsibility.

The limited resources available to the High Commission meant that volunteer groups and individuals undertook much of the contact and liaison with the Australian wounded in British hospitals. As early as July 1915 there were notices in the press proposing support for the arriving Australians. Surgeon General R.H. Fetherston spoke of the ‘number of semi-official visitors at hospitals who were giving orders and instructions regarding Australians’.8 After Fetherston’s report, in the autumn of 1915, the High Commission put in place a scheme whereby regular visits to hospitals were made by non-commissioned officers, who then reported back to medical officers at the High Commission. This improved the situation, but critical comments from the ‘amateur’ visitors now began to appear in the press in Australia and caused problems for the Defence Department. The High Commission was asked by the Department of External Affairs in Melbourne to investigate the allegation that Australian soldiers discharged from hospital were ‘sleeping rough’ on the Embankment in London. A letter was obtained from the Metropolitan Police confirming that there had been no reports of Australians on the Embankment.9 In November 1915 the High Commission forwarded to Melbourne a letter from seven Australian soldiers in the 1st Southern General Hospital at Edgbaston, Birmingham, which stated that ‘they have heard some Australians have been neglected but speaking for themselves they are receiving every comfort and are exceptionally well attended to’.10 This appears to have been an attempt to counter the adverse comments appearing in the home press.

Captain J.A. Smeal AAMS, who was Registrar at Harefield Hospital, inspected Imperial Hospitals and reported in December 1915:


The idea that Australians are discontented in English hospitals owing to their lack of freedom by the rules and regulations which suit the English ‘Tommy’ is, in my opinion completely false. In fact one Australian doctor who is now [a Royal Australian Medical Corps] officer in one of these hospitals expressed his belief that they were more contented and better behaved in an English hospital than in an Australian one.11

Some of the confusion surrounding the hospitalisation of AIF members and their subsequent treatment as convalescents arose from a lack of clear leadership by the Australian Army Medical Service. In April 1916 Professor Grafton Elliot Smith of Manchester University, Chairman of the Manchester and District Committee of the Australian War Contingent Association, reported:


Some member of the Committee visited every Australian soldier every week and attended to his material wants and ministered to his social welfare. When it is realised that at one time there were as many as seven hundred wounded Australians in this district scattered over an area bigger than London you will have some idea of the Committee’s task.12

The committee report complained that their work was delayed as they had been told that all Australian wounded were going to Harefield Hospital. In the event 730 men were found in 87 different hospitals.

Australians arriving in Britain after April 1915 came with both the advantage and the disadvantage of the reputation won by the AIF at Anzac Cove. Michael McKernan highlights the significant point that after Gallipoli the Australians, even those reinforcements who had not served at Anzac Cove, arrived as heroes. The Canadians, in comparison, ‘slipped quietly into the trenches in France beside the British and French, creating no separate identity for themselves’.13 Such a reputation was not necessarily an aid to maintaining discipline. Surgeon General W.D.C. Williams instituted an enquiry into problems at Harefield Hospital, and the response from the commanding officer blamed a system that kept fit men in hospital:


Out of the 500 patients 400 are strong lusty men with very little wrong with them and these men have been spoiled by the attention that they have received and the eulogies of the public press ... If Harefield was used more as a hospital and less as a Dumping ground it would be more easily managed.14

Surgeon General Williams had already written to Fetherston in Melbourne criticising the arrangements at Harefield: ‘They are in a bad way at Harefield Park ... In fact so bad have things become that they have begun, or are about to begin to erect cells to confine convalescent prisoners. God knows what it will be like when they get to a couple of thousand’.15 The hospital registrar attributed much of the problem to the nearby inn: ‘Before the hospital was opened the inn had a very small business ... being supplied with beer only by an old one-horsed vehicle which called occasionally. Now a two-horse van supplies it daily’.16

The problems at Harefield highlighted a key issue in the process of rehabilitation of casualties, the decision as to when a soldier should pass from medical to military control. It was to address this point that the command depot was introduced. In April 1915 the War Office had created this new form of convalescent establishment.17 The command depots were intended to provide an additional stage of treatment between the hospital and the regimental depots. Previously, British policy had been to provide convalescent units for men leaving hospital who were not fit to proceed directly to their regimental depots. Accommodation had been provided for Australians at one of these convalescent hospitals, Woodcote Park in Epsom, Surrey, where 10 huts, each containing 48 beds, were handed over for the use of the AIF. Control of the hospital remained with the Imperial authorities but Australian doctors and orderlies were appointed to deal with Australian patients. Accommodation was increased to 1000 beds by the end of 1915.18

The introduction of the new depots, which were to be placed under the command of military rather than medical personnel, replaced the system of military convalescent hospitals. The function of the command depot was ‘To ensure by suitable medical treatment that the increasing number of infantry soldiers invalided from the Expeditionary Forces may become fit as quickly as possible’.19 Command depots were military units, and to conform with the new policy a depot at Bostal Heath, near Woolwich in southeast London, was placed within Lt Col. Sir Newton J. Moore’s command. Moore had been appointed Commandant of the Australian and New Zealand Depot on 29 May 1915. The Anzac depot at Weymouth in Dorset was similarly reclassified and became Command Depot No. 2. The purpose of the command depots was to progressively improve the health of the sick or wounded man after his discharge from hospital, with the aim of returning him to active service.

With the transfer of the main body of the AIF to France there was brief consideration of the idea of setting up an exclusively Australian medical system, which would have involved establishing Australian general hospitals in the south of France to which Australian casualties could have been evacuated. Such a scheme was quickly recognised as impracticable and Australian treatment of casualties conformed totally to the Imperial system. Australian general hospitals in France treated any casualties, not simply Australian ones. Any British Expeditionary Force casualties not expected to return to duty within a month were evacuated to Britain. Table 6.1 shows the numbers of AIF casualties arriving in Britain in 1916, 1917 and 1918.

Table 6.1 AIF casualties evacuated from France, 1916-18

Source: A.G. Butler, Official History Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1945, vol. 3, p. 919.

No Australian general hospitals were established in Britain to treat Australian casualties arriving from France. All casualties went, on arrival, to British hospitals. Once fit enough to be moved, they were transferred to the Australian auxiliary hospitals. Harefield in Middlesex was the first and the largest of these, but growing numbers of casualties from the Somme offensive led to the opening of additional auxiliary hospitals at Dartford in Kent and at Southall in West London in the autumn of 1916. After treatment patients were discharged to various command depots and those not expected to be fit within six months were sent to Weymouth, whence they were repatriated to Australia.

Sick and wounded Australians arrived in Britain for treatment; new reinforcements arrived in Britain for training. By the end of 1916 the policy was that all new recruits would receive only limited basic training in Australia. On arrival in Britain they would undergo the full 14 weeks standard British infantry training, after which further specialist training would be given where appropriate. In Egypt the training of new recruits had been under the command of British officers. In Britain it became an Australian responsibility, but a shortage of instructors meant that the force was dependent upon the British army for much of it. In April 1917 Sergeant Eric Evans, who had been repatriated to Australia after service in Gallipoli and who had subsequently reenlisted, included in his diary a description of a typical British sergeant major serving as his drill instructor:


One of the Tommy sergeant majors, by the name of Jabson, gave us a right drill-bashing yesterday. He is some guy – an old Imperial soldier and looks it, roars like a bull and is a typical British warrant officer. He gives orders on parade as only an Imperial can but he is a real decent chap off parade.20

A shortage of instructors was not the only problem. The bulk of the new recruits arrived in Britain during the winter of 1916–17, which was one of the coldest on record. The combination of the weather and poor organisation took its toll. The memoirs of F.V. Culverhouse, who arrived as reinforcement in early 1917, describe the training:


Alternating periods of violent exercise followed by standing still as we gradually freeze. Alternately giving exercises that caused you to get overheated and then such drills as would let you freeze. That made sure that only the fittest could survive it.21

In March 1917 former Sydney journalist George Goddard commented that ‘About half our company are at present in hospital. This climate has played havoc with them and three of them are not expected to get over their illnesses – pneumonia’.22 As late as April, Eric Evans noted in his diary, ‘Yesterday we were to be inspected by General Sir Newton Moore but he did not turn up. Another guy did the inspection and took the salute at the march past. I suppose it was too cold for “Salutin” Moore as he is known’.23

The numbers affected by illness in the early months of 1917 were highest of the war because the depots at that time were full of newly arrived reinforcements. There had been no problems in the summer months. Unlike the Canadians in 1914, the Australian troops were in huts not tents but they were still unprepared for the levels of sickness experienced. A.G. Butler comments:


Some camps were ill-sited – exposed and bleak – in particular Larkhill, Rollestone and Perham Downs. But most important there had not been time to build up a staff capable of rising to the occasion; living, messing, training, sick parades were mechanical – there was no vision.24

A soldier’s eye view of the situation was given by Private G.V. Rose, 30th Battalion, who arrived at No. 9 Camp Hurdcott on 30 January 1917:


After breakfast we were taken out on the icy parade ground and were roared at by Col. Steele (known afterwards as the ‘Food King’ but at the time as that B— B—) His speech was something like this:

You men are not in Australia now. You’ve come here to work hard, d— hard. You are going to France to fight very soon (sensation in the ranks). Got to fight b— hard, fight like hell. I don’t want you sick – sick man no bloody good, worse than a dead man – it takes two men to look after him. When you get leave come back on time. If you don’t you get twenty-eight days.

There appeared to be little realisation by those in authority of the dangers posed by the very cold weather to those unaccustomed to it, and there appeared to Private Rose to be a lack of medical care:


These colds to my mind were mostly caused by the hardening process to which we were subjected. No overcoats were allowed on parade and mufflers had to be worn under tunics if worn at all.

The Tommies (Notts. & Derby Regt.) on the other hand used to wear their greatcoats every day on parade and also on route marches.

Men parading sick, many of them fit to be in hospital were given a dose of Mist Expect. or Mist Tussi and told by the doctor (— of the north coast NSW) that they were malingering. He has more than one life to answer for.

One man, Price of our platoon, was told that if he paraded next day sick he would be brought up before the orderly room for malingering. Next day he did not parade he was brought to the [Army Medical Corps] on a stretcher and sent straight to Fovant Hospital. During the week a Fovant Hospital Doctor sent our quack a note saying it was no use sending up dead men to be cured. They preferred to have them earlier.25

Stuart Braga suggests that the problems in the training camps during the winter of 1916–17 were the result of British policy, but it is clear from the accounts above that much of it was the fault of the AIF. The level of sickness in the AIF UK depots reached 10 per cent by the end of February 1917 and this level would not be exceeded even at the peak of the influenza pandemic of the following year, when it reached only 8 per cent.26

Infantry training was not without other hazards. All men were required to throw three live grenades before being allowed to go on a draft. Evans, in a letter home, records an accident which caused the death of a soldier,27 Private Stephens, and describes his own experience of bombing training:


This bombing is not the game it is cracked up to be especially with some of the roosters we have here, they lose their block when they know it is a live one they have a hold on. A few days ago one got half his head blown off and several had bad wounds, they looked awful, poor devils, it made us feel a bit skew whiff for a while, then the Sgt.-Major came along and said, ‘come on lads it’s all in the game get to it’, and we got to it and soon forgot it.28

While the training period for infantry was laid down as 14 weeks, this was not adhered to during periods of high demand for reinforcements. In his report upon handing over command of UK Depots in April 1917, Newton Moore reported that:


Orders have constantly been received from the War Office directing that partially trained men shall be sent if trained men are not available, and there is now a standing order that men who have reached a standard equivalent to nine weeks or over are deemed to be available if the demand for trained men cannot be met.

At the end of October [1916] the demands for Infantry were so urgent that all men in the eighth week were hurriedly put through a course of musketry and sent Overseas. It has been observed that although rolls are sent with drafts, showing the standard of training the men have received, this has not always been taken into consideration in commenting on this efficiency.29

It is clear from these comments that the decision to draft to France men who had not completed the full period of training was made by the War Office. The AIF was, in this matter, treated as if it were a British training unit.

The number of Australian troops in Britain, and the resulting need for support services, led to the creation of a large Australian military organisation in Britain. Command of Australian troops was divided throughout the war. The Administrative HQ in Horseferry Road in London was responsible for the administration of all of the AIF overseas, for medical services and for liaison with the War Office. AIF UK Depots at Tidworth Camp on Salisbury Plain was responsible for training, for the command depots and for discipline. The majority of the personnel of the training depots were men on six-month secondment from frontline units in France, but there were a substantial number of Australian personnel permanently based in Britain.

Despite regular announcements of the ‘combing out’ of fit men from the permanent establishment, the AIF in Britain, and in particular Administrative HQ, was suspected both by the men serving in France and by the Australian press of providing a safe haven for those wishing to avoid active service. The pejorative term ‘Horseferry Dragoons’ was used in this description by a correspondent to the Melbourne Age, calling himself ‘Old Anzac’, of ‘Hundreds of men who wear soldiers’ uniforms, all tailor made and look like tailor’s models’:


their chief occupation seems to be parading the streets of London casting condescending glances at the poorer Anzac from the trenches ... They are known to the ordinary fighting man as the ‘shiny legging, tailor made and gold tooth brigade’.30

Criticism of Administrative HQ ranged from the scurrilous soldiers’ song ‘Horseferry Road’ to speeches in the Australian parliament.31 On 12 June 1918, in the House of Representatives, the Member for Ballarat, David C. McGrath, who had recently returned from serving in the AIF, made a speech in which he was extremely critical of the staff of Horseferry Road and voiced the widely held conviction of many soldiers that some men got favoured treatment:


Do not let it be possible for a man to go from here, as a late reinforcement, and be immediately claimed by somebody in Horseferry Road as a private only to emerge two months later with two stars. Immediately such a man gets promotion he is no longer eligible to serve in the field. He is free. When a man becomes an officer at Headquarters and gets one star on his shoulder he will never hear the guns booming.32

The sensitivity of Horseferry Road to such criticism is demonstrated by the amount of effort put in to refuting the claims.33 McGrath had himself served at Horseferry Road, and his transfer to service in France was the occasion of a typical attack by the British Australasian:


Not long ago we had at Horseferry Road soldier politicians, or ex-politicians, one of whom has been returned to Australia and discharged as unfit after collisions with our military authorities, the rights and wrongs of which are hotly in dispute.

Another, Sgt. McGrath, is now at his own request on service in France, much to the sorrow of numerous men on leave who found his ability and good will of much service to them in settling various little difficulties when he held a position on the Administrative HQ staff.34

Despite the best efforts of the headquarters staff to prove the contrary, the belief that able-bodied men were hiding from active service within Administrative HQ never disappeared. Even when reporting a ‘comb-out’ of fit men from Horseferry Road, the British Australasian could not resist the comment that this ‘will afford some of them an opportunity to gratify their long cherished desire to see active service’.35

The London HQ was also criticised for its location in what was seen as a less than salubrious part of London. There was a general feeling that the Horseferry Road area was unsuitable as a base for the Australian troops. The British Australasian described it as ‘A reeking slum with half a dozen second-rate public houses within a stone’s throw and Delilah lurking up every murky passage about the place’.36 The problem which most concerned many interested parties was not hotels and alcohol but the relations of the Australian troops with British women. For the military authorities the primary concern was the loss in manpower due to venereal disease. Infected soldiers were confined to isolation hospitals. The question of the Australians’ relations with women is obviously important. The AIF was a force comprised of young men; 57 per cent were aged 25 or under and 81 per cent were unmarried.37 For such a group, the need for female company was a major issue. The same situation would arise on an even greater scale during the Second World War with the United States servicemen in Britain. David Reynolds notes that ‘the persistent advances of amorous GIs were notorious’, but also comments that ‘it was commonplace that many British females were as “over-sexed” as American males’.38

The popular view of the Australian soldiers in Britain between 1916 and 1919 is very similar to that taken of the Americans after 1942. The difference is only in the scale of the perceived problem. Concern about developing relationships between Australian soldiers and local women was not confined to Britain. Fear that Australians would ‘fall prey’ to the ‘wiles’ of British women prompted an attempt in Australia, reported by The Times, to introduce a law permitting proxy marriage by AIF members overseas:


The bill was desired by several Australian women’s organisations on the grounds that the duration of the war was greatly disturbing the normal course of engagements ... Very many hundreds of Australians have married English girls whilst in England.39

The first Australian arrivals in Britain were perceived by some as innocents needing protection from the wicked world rather than as potential troublemakers. An unnamed correspondent wrote in The Times on 9 July 1915:


Two cases have recently come to my knowledge in which Australian soldiers from country districts, entirely ignorant not only of London but of any large town have been greeted by women whose hospitable demeanour and fashionable clothes greatly impressed them.

Fortunately before accepting the women’s invitations to tea they happened to mention the matter to a lady who is interested in the welfare of soldiers in London and she had no difficulty in learning that these women were well known to the police as possessing the worst possible reputation.

It is cruel recompense to men who have come halfway round the globe to fight England’s battles that they should be allowed, innocently and unforwarned [sic] to run the risk of being robbed by these birds of prey of all they possess. An obvious way of helping them would be to post warning notices in the carriages of the trains which bring them to London.40

AIF diaries and memoirs tend to separate women into two types, and images of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ girl arise frequently:


In our drifting to and from London we came to learn that there were girls and girls. There were the parasites, the lounge lizards, ready to sell themselves to anyone who had the price, and the fine self sacrificing girls who did war work and formed many a clean and honest friendship that was an inspiration to men, jaded and embittered by two years of war.41

Accounts of individual experience almost invariably stress that the writer shunned involvement with the less suitable females. This may simply reflect the mores of the time and a disinclination to admit past sins, but somebody was certainly giving the ‘good-time girls’ a good time.

Australians feature prominently in press reports of immoral activities in the vicinity of the camps. The Weymouth Telegram of 20 April 1917 reported the prosecution of a local woman for keeping a disorderly house, in which the police described ‘frequent visits by Australian soldiers’.42 A Sergeant McNab of the AIF was said to have ‘induced a girl to leave to stay with him’. She was charged with giving false information on a registration form; he was charged with aiding and abetting.43 Despite the large numbers of Australians who passed through No. 2 Command Depot at Weymouth, the town seems to have maintained good relations with the force. When a young Australian soldier was accused of stealing from a local woman the magistrate dismissed the charge, telling the woman that ‘we know rather more about you than we wish to express in public’.44

Some reports of the activities of Australian men with local women suggest more naivety than villainy. When Private Arnst of the AIF married a woman in London in May 1917 she gave her age as 28, but it transpired that she was 44 years old, and already married with six children.45 The case was reported of a young Australian who, after drawing 15 pounds in back pay at Horseferry Road, was picked up by a woman and taken back to her room, where he was allegedly robbed: ‘So that he should know the place again he smashed the doors and windows in the front of the house’. A police inspector reported that the area, Campbell Road, was notorious and the soldier was cautioned and bound over to be of good behaviour.46

When paternity claims were made against Australian troops it was the task of the ‘OC Troops’ at Administrative HQ to investigate them. Interviewing the complainant was sometimes an eye-opening experience:


Some of the women interviewed were of a good type, perhaps the soldier was responsible for their downfall, others were the opposite and very little sympathy was due them.

The interviews were very remarkable, and, to the OC troops, in some cases very embarrassing. In some cases the facts were laid out in a cold unashamed way, in others in a modest way. In some it was hard to believe that one was speaking to a specimen of the gentler sex.

One girl of about seventeen summers obtained an order from a notorious absentee in respect of a pair of twins, and on his arrest some months later he asked for permission to marry another damsel, whom he stated was about to become a mother.47

It would be incorrect to see the Australian troops only in the role of villain where relationships with local women were concerned. About 8000 met and married British women, and most returned with them to Australia. In October 1918 a driver in the 10th Field Company of Engineers married a girl, only to see her face a charge of bigamy when her first husband returned from the army.48 He stood by his bride and applied to the Paymaster at AIF HQ for the £100 needed in bail and sureties to free her from Exeter gaol, where she awaited trial. Bigamous marriages of members of the AIF became a matter of serious concern, and in June 1918 an AIF Order required that any soldier marrying in church must produce a certificate showing his ‘marital condition’. In the case of registry office weddings, the registrar would correspond directly with the OC Records at Administrative HQ.

If the vexed question of the relationships of Australian soldiers with British women can be considered a moral rather than a disciplinary issue, then the subject of greatest concern to the Australian authorities was absence without leave (AWL). This was true throughout the war, but the problem became much greater in 1918. Table 6.2 shows the comparative figures for District Courts Martial (DCM) in June to November 1916 and January to June 1918. At the end of June 1916 there were 20,522 AIF troops in the United Kingdom, and by the end of the year the number had increased to 60,378. If 40,000 is taken as the average number in the country for the six months to November, the rate is 2.87 courts martial for AWL per 1,000 men. In the first six months of 1918 there were on average 50,000 troops in Britain, which gives a rate for of 28.26 per 1000. This is a more than 10-fold increase. Summary awards of punishment for the six months ending 30 June 1918 totalled 13,662, of which 65 per cent were for AWL.49

Table 6.2 AIF UK depots: Cases tried by District Courts Martial

Sources: National Archives of Australia, AIF 369 1 262; Deputy Assistant Judge Advocate General, ‘Memorandum on courts martial statistics for six months to 30/6/18’, copy in J.G. Latham papers, National Library of Australia, 1009/20/526

In 1917 the newly appointed commanding officer of UK Depots, Major General J.M. McCay, offered an amnesty. Routine Order no. 1272 of 9 August 1917 announced that all men serving detention for AWL or ‘Out of Bounds’ would have their sentences remitted and be released on 10 August. Absentees with less than 30 days absence who surrendered by 25 August would not be punished, and those absent for more than 30 days would have the fact of their surrendering taken into account when assessing their punishment. This carrot apparently failed, for on 24 September Special Order 1912 announced that ‘In future all cases of AWL exceeding 14 days will be tried by DCM’. With both carrot and stick proving unsuccessful, McCay turned to exhortation, with a direct appeal to the troops:


I speak as one soldier to others. We all know that our comrades in France want reinforcements urgently and are looking to us to join them. Yet there are still those among us who go Absent Without Leave.

AWL is the best friend the Germans have in the AIF. Consequently he who goes AWL is betraying his mates in his own platoon, his own section. It is more than a question of duty to country or authority; besides that it is a desertion of our own mates of our own rank. Most of us do not go AWL and it is up to you and me to make it clear to those who are inclined to do so that they would be betraying us as well as our mates in France.50

The majority of cases coming before courts martial in London were for desertion or AWL. Up to 28 days AWL would, for privates, be punished on a sliding scale that ranged from loss of a day’s pay to detention. Non-commissioned officers were likely to come before a District Court Martial for less than a 28-day absence.51 The AIF provosts in London waged a constant campaign against absentees, as The Times reported on 1 March 1917:


The Australian Military Police paid a surprise visit yesterday to the Commonwealth Bank near Broad Street. When a number of the AIF presented themselves at the Bank to make withdrawals they were asked to show their passes. Many had overstayed their leave and some had no passes. They were placed under arrest and brought before Mr Alderman Hanson at the Guildhall where they were ordered to be handed over to the authorities.52

In October the same year The Times carried an account of a raid by the Australian Military Police on a public house in London:


Louis Henry Golding licensee of the Phoenix Hotel, Bishopsgate St., was charged with four summonses alleging aiding and abetting deserters.

On Sept. 3 Warrant Officer Hawkins of the Australian Military Police visited the hotel and found a number of Australians drinking in the bar. During an examination of passes three of them disappeared. Other passes were found to be overdue. The three men were found upstairs behind a locked door. Eight men on the premises were deserters twenty-five to forty eight days overdue.

What was most worrying for the AIF by the beginning of 1918 was where the AWL was occurring. Almost three quarters of courts martial and nearly 70 per cent of summary punishments were awarded in the command depots and the Overseas Training Brigade, that is, among men of whom the majority were likely to have seen active service. The memorandum from the Deputy Assistant Judge Advocate General cited for Table 6.2 noted that the problem was greatest in the command depots, but the writer seemed unable to decide upon a single reason for the levels of absence. The memorandum noted an increasing number of men who had done no fighting and had been AWL and in custody for years: ‘It seems clear that a class of habitual offenders is being created. In some cases the men are absolutely depraved’.53 However, it suggested that ‘others are simply men who have fought well but have decided that they have done enough’. This view is supported by the fact that the AWL problem was smallest in Command Depot No. 2, which was at Weymouth and through which the men marked for repatriation would pass. Once a man was listed for repatriation, there was little incentive to go AWL.

Men sentenced to detention in excess of 28 days were held in a military detention barracks. Before November 1917 the AIF did not have their own barracks and men were held in one of 15 such British barracks. Once convicted and sentenced, they were handed over to the Assistant Provost Marshal of the AIF depot at Tidworth, who would then make arrangements for them to be held in one of the British barracks. Where the men would be held depended upon where there were vacancies; on occasions prisoners had to be taken a considerable distance under the escort of a non-commissioned officer and two Other Ranks. Apart from the administrative inconvenience of this arrangement it also proved to be expensive. In January 1917 AIF prisoners were delivered to nine different detention barracks at a total cost in excess of £200.54 A further problem was that prisoners suffering from VD were held in No. 1 Australian Dermatological Hospital at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. This required a guard of an officer and 78 men, and the lack of security made it relatively easy for prisoners to escape:


Venereal patients in detention were difficult to deal with in the venereal hospital in Bulford. There were no means of keeping separate good and bad characters. Discipline was hard to maintain, adequate exercise could not be given, and treatment was difficult as the man had to be paraded for treatment singly, or even be handcuffed.55

The AIF requested a prison large enough to accommodate 600 prisoners. The offer of Dorchester and Cambridge prisons provided a combined capacity of only 270; the average number of AIF detainees was 320. The AIF asked for Wandsworth prison but this request was refused and an offer was made of Gloucester and Devizes. These two units would still not have provided sufficient accommodation and the AIF asked for Lewes prison in Sussex. The Lewes Detention Barracks, which had been used to accommodate members of Sinn Fein brought over from Ireland, was taken over by the AIF on 1 November 1917, except for one wing of 24 cells retained for civilian use. The Detention Barracks were used to hold soldiers serving sentences ranging from 14 days to two years.

An important factor in the discipline of the AIF appears to have been the extent of opportunity for a social life outside a purely military sphere. In the major camps, numbers were so great that local civilian facilities were overwhelmed and civilians were less likely to welcome individuals into their homes. The negative stereotype of the soldier would be reinforced by lack of personal contact. Organisations such as the YMCA made efforts to provide social and leisure activities, but these could not replace genuine social interaction outside the camps. The higher levels of crime, disorder and venereal disease attributed to the soldiers in the large encampments support the view that these conditions contributed to bad behaviour. Accounts of the Australian Flying Corps in Gloucester and the Field Engineers in Essex reveal a much better integration of the Australians into the local community.56 In both cases, while there were instances of high spirits and minor hooliganism, there is no evidence of the large-scale bad behaviour reported in the vicinity of the large training camps or in the metropolis.

Relations between the men (and women) of the AIF and the British remained generally good to the end. There is little evidence of the disillusionment described by some writers, other than the inevitable war-weariness that was general by 1918. There were problems with the discipline, particularly around the larger camps, but where opportunities existed for social integration with the locals these were seized with enthusiasm by the Australians. The ‘habitual offenders’ and the poor imposition of discipline that had existed in 1916 were still there two years later, but these alone do not account for the situation in 1918.57 The manpower shortage in the AIF resulted in widespread fatigue and there is no doubt that the increased AWL rates for 1918 reflect a profound weariness. The highest levels of AWL were occurring in those units that held men who had served in France. It is no exaggeration to suggest that AWL rates in 1918 indicate that a substantial proportion of the force had experienced enough of the war and wanted to serve no more. Australia, alone among the combatants, had not adopted conscription and no other national force was under the same pressures.


1     McKernan, 1980; Andrews, 1993.

2     Andrews, 1993, 186.

3     Butler, 1930–43, 3, 88, table 11.

4     Foynes, 2003, 46–49.

5     Foynes, 2003, 36.

6     Street, 1952, 173.

7     Macpherson, 1924, 377, table 3.

8     National Archives of Australia (NAA), AIF 239 8 88.

9     NAA, AIF 8 45.

10    NAA, AIF 239 8 40.

11    NAA, AIF 239 8 88.

12    Correspondence and report in AWM, 10 4332/8/87.

13    McKernan, 1980, 5.

14    Letter, 12 August 1915, in AWM, 32 123.

15    Cited in Tyquin, 2003, 222. Williams sailed with the First Contingent as Director of Medical Services AIF, but had been effectively sidelined, and was employed in Britain only in connection with repatriation.

16    AWM, 25 265/3.

17    Butler, 1930–43, 1, 496.

18    Butler, 1930–43, 1, 496.

19    Butler, 1943–45, 504.

20    Evans, 2002, 40–41.

21    John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM64-31/7.

22    Letter home, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, 2885/24.

23    Evans, 2002, 41.

24    Butler, 1930–43, vol. 2, 561.

25    G.V. Rose, 30th Bn AIF, Memoir.

26    Braga, 2000, 231; Macpherson, 1924, 3, 202.

27    Evans, 2002, 55.

28    Letters, Private 19th Reinforcement Draft, 11 April 1917, Imperial War Museum, London, P443.

29    AWM, 2 DRL 0868.

30    Age (Melbourne), 19 January 1917.

31    The first verse of ‘Horseferry Road’ gives a good feeling for the tone of the song:


He was stranded in London and strode

To Army Headquarters in Horseferry Road

And there he met a poofter lance corporal who said

You’ve got blood on your tunic and mud on your head

You look so disgraceful that people will laugh

Said the cold-footed bastard from Horseferry staff.

A slightly different version of the full song can be found at:, accessed 15 October 2008.


32     Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (Australia), 12 June 1918.

33    See correspondence in AWM, 10 4301/14/17.

34    British Australasian, 6 September 1917, 5.

35    British Australasian, 1 March 1917.

36    British Australasian, 22 February 1917.

37    Beaumont, 2001, 116.

38    Reynolds, 1995, 201.

39    The Times (London), 18 December 1916.

40    The Times (London), 9 July 1915.

41    Maxwell, 1936, 82.

42    Weymouth Telegram, 20 April 1917.

43    Weymouth Telegram, 24 August 1917.

44    Weymouth Telegram, 15 October 1918.

45    Weymouth Telegram, 15 June 1917.

46    The Times (London), 2 July 1917.

47    History of ‘OC Troops in London, AWM, 224 MSS 567.

48    Correspondence of the Rev. E.E. Haward, Imperial War Museum, London.

49    Deputy Assistant Judge Advocate General, Memorandum on courts-martial statistics for six months to 30/6/18, Copy in J.G. Latham papers, NLA, 1009/20/526.

50    AWM, 21 311/16 pt 5.

51    History of ‘OC Troops in London, AWM, 224 MSS 567.

52    The Times, 1 March, 1917.

53    Latham papers, National Library of Australia, 1009/20/526.

54    Wilson, 2005, 15.

55    AWM, 2 DRL 0868.

56    Goodland and Vaughan, 1992; Foynes, 2003.

57    For a view on the problems arising from lax imposition of discipline, see Barr, 2005.


Age (Melbourne), 1917.

Australian War Memorial (AWM), 10 4332/8/87.

AWM, 2 DRL 0868.

AWM, 224 MSS 567.

Correspondence of the Rev. E.E. Haward, Imperial War Museum, London.

G.V. Rose, 30th Bn AIF, Memoir, Imperial War Museum, London.

Letters, Private 19th Reinforcement Draft, Imperial War Museum, London, P443.

Letter home, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, 2885/24.

John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM64-31/7.

National Archives of Australia (NAA), AIF 8 45.

NAA, AIF 239 8 88.

Latham papers, National Library of Australia, 1009/20/526.

Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (Australia), 12 June 1918.

British Australasian, 1917.

The Times (London), 1916; 1917.

Weymouth Telegram, 1917.


Andrews, Eric M. 1993. The Anzac Illusion. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Barr, Geoffrey. 2005. Beyond the Myth. Canberra: HJ Publications.

Beaumont J., editor. 2001. Australian Defence Sources and Statistics. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Braga, S. 2000. Anzac Doctor: Life of Sir Neville Howse. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger.

Butler, A.G. 1930–1943. The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914–1918. Vols. 1–3. Canberra: Australian War Memorial.

Butler, A.G. 1943–1945. The Australian Medical Services in the War of 1914–18. Vols. 1–3. Canberra: Australian War Memorial.

Evans, E. 2002. So Far from Home, edited by Patrick Wilson. Sydney: Kangaroo Press.

Foynes, J.P. 2003. The Australians at Brightlingsea. Self-published.

Goodland, D.; Vaughan, A. 1992. Anzacs over England. Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing.

McKernan, Michael. 1980. The Australia People and the Great War. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson.

Macpherson, W.G. 1924. History of the Great War: Medical Services General History. Vol. 3. London: HMSO.

Maxwell, J. 1936. Hell’s Bells & Mademoiselles. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Street, A.G. 1952. The Gentlemen of the Party. London: Country Book Club.

Reynolds, David. 1995. Rich Relations. New York: Random House.

Tyquin, M. 2003. Little by Little: A Centenary History of the RAAMC, Canberra: Department of Defence.

Wilson, Graham. 2005. ‘A prison of our own: The AIF detention barracks 1917–1919’. Sabretache 46(2): 13–30.


Cite this chapter as: Beckett, Roger. 2009. ‘The Australian soldier in Britain, 1914–1918’. Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Bridge, Carl; Crawford, Robert; Dunstan, David. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 6.1 to 6.17.


Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

   by Carl Bridge