NSW’s contribution to the First World War

The response to the First World War by Australia was nationally based. This was the first major conflict that Australia as a new nation faced, and its commitment to the war effort was ultimately coordinated by the then relatively new national government. In fact, as a consequence of this coordinated effort, the Australian Government grew in both strength and stature, and it saw a shift in a number of powers from the states to the Commonwealth.

Notwithstanding this national effort, NSW made a major contribution to the overall war effort. Being the most populous State at the time (over 1,800,000 people resided in NSW at the outbreak of war in 1914) it is not surprising that the contribution by NSW was the most significant of all states, particularly when the statistics of manpower, finance and industry are considered.

NSW’s contribution was however not only made on the battlefronts of the First World War. It played a significant role in supporting the war from home as well. There is a rich tapestry of military, economic and social history regarding NSW’s involvement in the First World War, and although it is not intended to cover all of these topics in detail here, there are some key facts that are worth highlighting about the State’s contribution in this Fact Sheet.

Readers are also encouraged to explore the many sources available to discover for themselves the engrossing story of our State’s involvement in this significant conflict. It is hoped that by doing so, more people will become aware of the important role that NSW played in the First World War, which will be appropriately remembered during the Centenary Commemorations that occur from 2014 onwards.

Some of the key facts relating to NSW’s contribution to the First World War are as follows:

  • NSW provided over 164,000 enlistees in the Australian Imperial Force and the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. This figure represented 39.8% of all males in this State between the ages of 18 and 44, the highest percentage of any state in Australia. It is estimated that more than 3,000 New South Welshmen also enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy between 1914 and 1918.
  • Over 50% of all volunteers for the Australian Imperial Force from NSW were either killed or wounded.
  • The majority of troops embarked for overseas service from the port of Sydney.
  • Some of the most famous Australian units came from NSW including the 1st Battalion of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division, as well as the 12th Light Horse Regiment which took part in the Light Horse Brigade attack in Beersheba.
  • Units from NSW took part in all major conflicts in the First World War including Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele, and Bullecourt.
  • Of the 64 Victoria Cross winners from the First World War, 17 came from NSW.
  • Australia’s most famous war correspondent, and key founder of the Australian War Memorial, Charles W.E. Bean, came from Bathurst NSW.
  • Well known recruitment drives occurred throughout NSW towns, including the COOEE March from Gilgandra and the Kangaroos from Wagga Wagga.
  • NSW provided the bulk of metals to the war effort, a significant amount of which came from the then newly built BHP plant at Newcastle.
  • The then recently opened (by Lord Kitchener) small arms factory at Lithgow expanded rapidly during the war to provide domestically produced rifles and bayonets for the Australian soldiers, and at its height was producing 80,000 .303 rifles per year during the First World War.
  • The NSW Premier throughout the entire war period was the Hon. William Arthur Holman, who like the Prime Minister of the time (the Hon. William Hughes), started with the Labor Party and then formed a conservative nationalist government in the State in the aftermath of the first referendum on conscription.
  • NSW voted “No” on the two occasions that a referendum was held on the issue of conscription during the First World War. The only two other states to vote “No” on both occasions were Queensland and South Australia.
  • Australia’s Prime Minister for the majority of the First World War, the Hon. William Hughes, held the seat of Western Sydney, and in one of his many pre-government roles was the Secretary of the Sydney Waterside Workers Union.
  • Some of the biggest strikes and protest action against the war and its affects on the nation were held in NSW.
  • NSW raised the greatest amount of funds through war pensions and Australian Patriotic Funds.

The above brief facts represent a very small part of the significant, and at times controversial, contribution made by NSW to the First World War.