Wednesday 20 August 2014 by Yi Jiang. 1 comment
Education at the Memorial, News, Primary source, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11-12, First World War, ACDSEH021, ACDSEH096

How would you measure up?

With the outbreak of war in August 1914, Australia began an official recruiting effort to raise an army to send overseas. However, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), as it was named, would not take just anyone. It was intended to be a force of skilled, experienced soldiers, chosen from "the fittest, strongest, and most ardent in the land".1

Recruits being medical examined at Victoria Barracks.

With 820,000 Australian males of "fighting age" (19 to 38 years old), the modest initial quota of 20,000 troops meant those wanting to enlist would have to fit the very strict selection process. The physical and medical standards were set high; recruits had to be at least 5 feet 6 inches (168cm) tall, have chests measuring at least 34 inches, and preferably have had some military experience.

There were other considerations, too. Indigenous Australians, Asian Australians, and many others found themselves refused on the basis they were not "substantially of European origin". When George Kong-Meng was rejected for this reason, he wrote a letter to the editor of The Argus, asking why the system did not deem him "worthy of helping to defend the Empire" despite having previous military experience and a brother already serving.2

The restrictions initially meant a third of potential recruits were turned away, most on medical grounds. Any dental or eyesight problems could lead to rejection. Despite later myths about the robust health of Australians at the time, it was an unexpectedly large proportion of the adult male population that was judged unfit for military service.3

Given the enthusiasm of so many to join up – whether out of a sense of duty, the guaranteed income, or a desire for adventure – rejection could be a crushing blow:

Volunteered for Active Service badge given to those judged to be "medically unfit"

Rejected men stumbled in tears from the tables, unable to answer sons or mates left to the fortunes of war. They formed an Association, and wore a large badge to cover their civilian shame.4

Many Australian women also needed no encouragement to "do their bit". Civilian nurses, for instance, usually unmarried and between 25 and 40 years of age, could join the Australian Army Nursing Service if they had their nursing certificates and some years of experience. At least 2,200 nurses did exactly that, and became an integral part of the AIF. Others paid their own way to the front to join up with private hospitals and other organisations in Britain and France. This was just one way Australian women could participate directly in the war effort, but it also provided opportunities for independence, travel, or just to be closer to loved ones serving abroad.

Recruiting poster, 1915.

As the war dragged on, however, volunteers dwindled and there were huge pressures to ease recruiting standards. After more than 8,700 losses at Gallipoli, the number of promised reinforcements had to be doubled in July 1915. Supplying 11,000 men per month, and still more later on, "taxed the utmost resources of Australia for the rest of the war and necessitated a series of special recruiting campaigns."5

To boost numbers, the height requirement was dropped to 5 feet 2 inches (157cm) and the age limit relaxed to 45 years. New government propaganda appealed to duty and the social stigma of being a "shirker" to increase the pressure on men to join up.

With the terrible losses on the Western Front in 1916, Billy Hughes' government argued it would need to conscript all eligible men in order to maintain Australia's commitments, leading to two extremely divisive public debates on the issue of conscription. It was twice defeated and again the physical standards were dropped. Older men, men with spectacles, and some with curable conditions were able to join up. Personal letters were also sent out to those who hadn't yet come forward, urging them to take their share of the fighting.

By this time many of the skilled medical officers who had turned men away in 1914 had themselves enlisted, and their replacements often had no previous medical experience. Combined with the compromises on recruiting standards, many men with more serious medical conditions were slipping through and enlisting. As were many under-age boys. In 1917 it became an offence under the War Precautions Regulations to make a false statement while undergoing a medical examination.

By mid-1918 recruitment rates were around half the minimum required. The problem, in the end, was never fully solved, and had the war not ended when it did it would have been impossible for Australia to maintain its level of commitment to the fighting. By the armistice in 1918, around 416,000 Australians of different ages, and backgrounds had enlisted with the AIF for service at home or abroad.

Activities for classroom research and discussion:

  1. Recruitment posters were a powerful way to encourage men to enlist. Examine the posters below and answer the following:

    • What are some common themes?

    • Which would you find most effective, and why?

  2. Around half of Australia's men aged 19 to 38 enlisted for the First World War. What reasons might there have been for not enlisting? You might consider employment as well as ideology.

  3. Why would a rejected recruit want to wear a badge saying they were medically unfit?

  4. What does this suggest about how "shirkers" were regarded at the time?

  5. The minimum height for a recruit in 1914 was 168cm.

    • How would this compare to the average adult male's height at the time?

    • How does it compare to the average today?

    • Why would there be a difference?

  6. Do you think the Australians who successfully enlisted in the First World War were representative of Australian society as a whole? What evidence suggests why/why not?

Further reading


[1] Bill Gammage, The broken years: Australian soldiers in the Great War, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, Vic. 2010

[2] George Kong-Meng, "Recruiting stupidity", The Argus, Melbourne, Vic. 4 Jan 1916

[3] Michael Tyquin, "Unjustly accused? Medical authorities and army recruitment in Australia 1914-1918" Journal of Military and Veterans' Health Vol. 22.2

[4] Bill Gammage, The broken years: Australian soldiers in the Great War, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, Vic. 2010

[5] A.G. Butler, "Enlistment and Examination of Recruits, Standards" AWM 41/797


anthony peterson

See how standards changed.... Type "wooden leg" on the Collection section of the AWM website. Click on the photo in "Heraldry". This should take you to the amusing story of Warrant Officer II H.S. Blackburn of the 4th Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company.