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The Volunteers of WWI

In the European theatre the First World War didn’t just erupt overnight because of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, on 28th June 1914 by Bosnian revolutionary, Gavrilo Princip. It was the final trigger that was squeezed in a series of associated “build-up” events that started many years before.

H.W. Crocker III(1) stated in his book several factors over the preceding years contributed:

  • Alliances between countries between the years 1879 to 1914
  • Imperialism and jealousies between Britain and Germany and other countries on overseas land controls
  • A build-up of military forces given high priority by governments and the onset of new military vessels and weapons being developed
  • Nationalistic movements from within the countries affected by (a) the Congress of Vienna (Germany and Italy left as divided States), (b) the Franco-Prussian War (the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany), and (c) the rise of nationalism in the Austria-Hungary and Serbia countries
  • Crises over Morocco (German jealousies of Britain and France), and Bosnia (the Balkans War of 1911-12).

All the simmering diplomatic positions at the time left some countries wanting peace but several others wanting war. Mixed in this quagmire were the Monarchical jealousies between the three cousins: Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of Great Britain v Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

Military build-up and technological rise in Germany and unification of it’s States years before had Germany and particularly the Kaiser wanting more respect from other countries and their leaders. “On 1 August, the Germans declared war on Russia; two days later they declared war on France; and on 4 August, they invaded Belgium, which had rejected Germany’s ultimatum for free passage of its troops. Britain then declared war on Germany. German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg rebuked Britain’s ambassador to Berlin: “Just for a scrap of paper, Britain is going to make war on a kindred nation.” That amoral disregard for scraps of paper was one reason Europe’s Armageddon had begun.”


“On the first day of the war in 1914, British newspapers published appeals for young men to join the colours, and to fight against Germany. Following the advice of the new Secretary for War, Lord Kitchener, the government decided to raise a huge volunteer army, hoping that in two or three years, when the other combatants were exhausted, this would tip the scales in Britain’s favour.

Over the next few weeks, thousands of young men came forward. When the first grim news of casualties and of the retreat from Mons arrived in late August, more volunteered, and after the fall of Antwerp in early October, there was a renewed surge. On some days, more than 10,000 men enlisted.

By Christmas 1914, hundreds of thousands had come forward, and this continued well into 1915. Men from all social classes and all areas of Britain volunteered. Others who were overseas in August 1914 travelled thousands of miles to get back and enlist. Whole groups from individual companies, offices, and universities joined up together. There were far more volunteers than the government could arm or equip, and most had to spend months training in civilian clothes, without proper weapons.”(2)

“There was a broad national consensus that Britain was fighting a righteous war, and that volunteering was, put simply, the right moral choice.”

Thacker explains that volunteering was not a decision easily made in many countryside areas. Men young and old were challenged by friends and workmates to volunteer, but then pulled in another direction by parents. “Those who did not volunteer faced insults from the press, and were publicly ridiculed for their lack of “manliness”. Many were presented with white feathers by women, something which often left a lasting sense of shame. In the family, amongst friends in the pub, and in the workplace, they faced derision, contempt, and intimidation.”

(The offering of white feathers to uncommitted males in Britain was highlighted in the Carnival Series Downton Abbey shown in our current popular culture. Several episodes highlighted in Season 2 the trauma suffered by the soldiers also).


In Australia, every person who went to this War was a volunteer and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). This was because in Australia we did not have conscription legislated for the period of the war. Prime Minister Billy Hughes tried twice in 1916 and 1917 with two referenda on the issue after major calls from Britain for troops to help the cause.(3)(4)

With their strong ties to Empire, Australian men were eager to fight for the cause because of the eagerness to battle the Germans, manliness reasoning, and tourist adventures coupled with “six bob a day” pay.

The “six bob a day” influenced the large unemployment masses in Australia  at the time. However, after the casualties of Gallipoli were published volunteering slumped dramatically. “The war now seemed like a great adventure and more of a moral decision.(5)

After this decline in 1915, various governments also issued a large flood of posters calling for reinforcements and volunteers to sign up. This was a campaign similar to that in Britain calling for enrollments.(6)

During the period of enlistment, some 420,000(7) Australians enlisted, of which 1000(8) were thought to be indigenous. 50 of those soldiers who fought at Gallipoli were thought to be indigenous.

The indigenous enlistments were illegal under law because they were not classed as “substantial Europeans”, however it is thought that this illegality was overlooked because recruiters saw “numbers” not men, and some may have passed for “white folk”.

In Queensland, 57,705(9) enlisted, and 1272(10) were from Cairns.
Casualties from WWI numbered 61,514(11).


The writer of this article, William Kolln, had a naturalized German Grandfather who was not allowed to go to the war because of his Germanic links. He was however, not interred either.
He was married to Mabel who later became the Lessee of the Central Hotel in Port Douglas. Mabel, after her husband William passed in 1922, remarried an Australian of English descent.

William Evans (715B) enlisted in the AIF on 14th December 1914, and trained until January at Enoggera in Queensland. He was enlisted in the 2nd Reinforcement 5th Light Horse Regiment, and fought initially at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli, before being wounded first in the thigh in July, recovering, being wounded again and then rejoining the forces, before being evacuated on 5 October 1915 back to England. He also served in France on the Western Front, eventually being discharged on 5 May 1919.

Within the family, his reasons for enlistment were thought to be purely “British loyalties”.


Life on the battlefields and in the trenches was some of the worst conditions experienced by man. As well as attempting to continue with daily routines of cleaning rifles, repairing the trench boards, pumping out rain-water, the dawn observance of “Stand To” and “the Morning Hate”…breakfast had to be taken if you weren’t under fire or bombardment from the enemy.

There was constant fear of rats that ate dead bodies, lice, cold and wet trench foot that caused gangrene and needless to say the misery of waiting for a return to a former life back at home. This was atop the constant fear companion that you might survive the war but end up broken and partially complete with shell shock always rolling over in your head.

It was by no means an enjoyable nor adventurous few years.


“In late September 1918 Allied troops broke through the Hindenburg Line, Germany’s last defensive position on the Western Front. With her armies in disarray and facing revolution at home, Germany was compelled to admit defeat.

The Armistice, signed by senior Allied and German representatives in the forest at Compiègne outside Paris came into effect at 11:00am on 11 November 1918. At that hour all fighting ceased and on the Western Front soldiers on both sides laid down their arms. In Australia, people poured into town and city streets to celebrate, but festivities were tempered by grief at the enormous loss of life.

While the Armistice ended the fighting, the Treaty of Versailles, signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on 28 June 1919 ended the war. Prime Minister, William Morris (Billy) Hughes and Deputy Prime Minister Joseph Cook signed on Australia’s behalf.” (12)





Centenary of the First World War Armistice

Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France(12)

Commemorations marking the cessation of hostilities are held on the anniversary of the Armistice which since the Second World War has been known as Remembrance Day, an occasion to commemorate the dead of all conflicts.


Remembrance Day Australian National Ceremony

Australian War Memorial 10.30am – 12pm

On Remembrance Day the Australian War Memorial will host the nation’s key commemoration. The ceremony includes a formal wreath-laying and will be attended by many high-level dignitaries, diplomats, school students, as well as thousands of members of the general public. Australia’s Federation Guard and the Band of the Royal Military College, Duntroon will be on parade, and there will be a special commemorative address.(13)


Cairns – Remembrance Day Commemorative Service

Location: Cairns Cenotaph(14)
Sunday 11 November, 1040-1115hrs
“A Remembrance Day service will be held on the Esplanade opposite the Cairns RSL Club. The service will consist of a catafalque party comprising of Defence personnel from HMAS Cairns and 51st Battalion, The Far North Queensland Regiment, 60 uniformed Defence Personnel alongside 104 Squadron Australian Air Force Cadets, TS Endeavour – Navy Cadets and Army Cadets will line the boardwalk, an official address by Colonel John Paterson, wreath placing by local dignitaries and the community, and the national anthem will be performed by St Andrew’s Catholic College school choir.”

Other Centenary Events are planned from 1-30 November



(I) What Started WW1? A Closer Look at the Origins of the Great War – excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. Published on History of the Net
(2) Your Country Needs You: Why Did so Many Volunteer in WWI, Author Toby Thacker, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, Cardiff University. Published on The Conversation
(3) Conscription referendums, 1916 and 1917, National Archives of Australia– Fact sheet 161
(4) State Library Victoria, The conscription issue in Australia
(5) State Library Victoria, The Rush to Enlist
(6) State Government South Australia Archives, World War One recruitment and war effort posters
(7) Australian War Memorial, Total Enlistments WWI
(8) Australian War Memorial, Aboriginal service during the First World War
(9) Australian War Memorial, Enlistment Statistics, World War One, Enlistments by State, Queensland
(10) Cairns RSL Sub Branch, Events, Armistice Centenary Family Weekend
(11) Australian War Memorial, Enlistment Statistics First World War, At the End of the War
(12) First world War Commemorations – Department of Veterans Affairs: – Introduction: French Commemorations
(13) Australian War Memorial Remembrance Day 2018
(14) Remembrance Day – Armistice Centenary, Cairns RSL Sub-Branch
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