Labour History

‘In military parlance I suppose we were mutineers’: Industrial Relations in the Australian Imperial Force during World War I

Labour History (2011), 101, (1), 161–176.


During World War I, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), for all its apparent effectiveness in combat situations, developed a reputation as being an ill-disciplined and generally poorlyled group of ‘colonial’ soldiers. British commanders blamed this on ‘failures of Australian leadership’ and ‘insufficient training’. During the early stages of the war the official Australian historian, Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, attributed blame to the small group of veterans of the Boer War and their strong influence over young recruits (partially, no doubt, in order to maintain a favourable public image of the ‘average’ Australian soldier). However, in the nine and a half decades since the end of World War I the disciplinary problems of the AIF have been either ignored in favour of more combat-oriented histories, or hidden away in favour of more popularly attractive studies of the Anzac Legend. The result is that we have a scant body of literature addressing the cause, nature and effect of the disciplinary problems within the AIF. This paper seeks to rectify this absence, in part by addressing one aspect of these ‘disciplinary problems’, that being the use of industrial relations techniques by the rank and file within the military. In doing so, this paper will seek to expand further our understanding of the experiences of Australian soldiers in the AIF by highlighting their agency in shaping the working culture and ‘digger identity’ that many valued throughout World War I. Far from being those who merely ‘do and die’, the men of the AIF actively ‘reasoned why’ and, on occasion, successfully challenged their officers through practiceproven industrial activities.

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56.Ibid., p.161. Google Scholar

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58.Peter Stanley calculates, based on an estimate that 40 per cent of workers had been unionists, that 125,000 trade unionists donned khaki (out of 410,000 enlistments).Stanley, Bad Characters, p.38. Google Scholar

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65.Bean, Official History, Vol. 6, p.938. Google Scholar

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76.See for exampleS.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire,Peter Smith,Gloucester,, 1978. Google Scholar

77.Ibid., p.41. Google Scholar

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Author details

Wise, Nathan