The ANZAC’S – Our Greatest Ever Volunteers?

Andy Fryar April 25, 2015 3
The ANZAC’S – Our Greatest Ever Volunteers?

By Andy Fryar

Today in Australia and New Zealand we respectfully commemorate 100 years of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli.

For overseas readers, this day has become sacrosanct in this part of the world and epitomises the very core and character of our nations.

To commemorate this milestone date, I wanted to take the opportunity to pen a tribute of a different kind to the Australians and Kiwis involved in the great conflict that was World War 1.

While we are quick to acknowledge their selfless acts of heroism on the war front – how many of us have carefully considered how it all started for them, and the role that volunteering played in this great conflict?

At the time the great war broke out, neither Australia or New Zealand had any policy of conscription – and so the bulk of those who enlisted to fight in the war ‘volunteered’ to do so.

Perhaps our greatest ever acts of volunteering!

When war was declared, volunteers from right around the country rushed to enlist for a war that was expected to be over by Christmas.

At that time, the population of Australia sat at just 5 million people, and in total, around 420,000 Australians volunteered for service. NZ had a population of just a million, and about 100,000 of their population went to war.

In fact, the number of people volunteering to enlist was so high that recruitment officers were forced to turn people away!

So overwhelming were the numbers of people volunteering, that the authorities of the day were able to set very specific physical standards for recruits. (Perhaps this was can be considered one of the first volunteer screening tests!!!)

As the war went on, casualty rates increased and the number of volunteers started to decline. In fact they declined to the point that in Australia, a lot of political pressure was placed on Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, who appealed directly to all eligible men to volunteer. Two Australian referendums to implement conscription were introduced and both were defeated.

In NZ, the government did later implement a policy of conscription to top up those soldiers who had initially volunteered for service.

Australia however remained conscription free right throughout the war, one of only two countries to do so (the other being South Africa).

Now let’s be clear, once accepted as a soldier, the ANZAC’s were quite rightly paid a wage – and I can already hear the purists arguing that these were not ‘real’ volunteers. But let us be clear that the act of actually enlisting, of choosing to defend our country, to leave family behind and put their lives on the line was indeed a voluntary one.

…and many thousands never returned from that volunteering job.


But it wasn’t just men who volunteered to assist with the war effort.

Australian and NZ women also volunteered for service in large numbers in auxiliary roles. These roles included working as cooks, drivers, interpreters and as skilled farm workers. Hundreds of other trained nurses served overseas with organisations that included the British nursing services, the Red Cross, St John Ambulance and the Australian Voluntary Hospital.

Women also played a significant role on the home front, where they undertook fundraising and recruiting activities as well as organising comfort packages for soldiers serving overseas.

So the next time someone suggests that volunteering is not as important as paid work, or is something only done by retirees with nothing better to do with their time – do a digger a favour and remind them that Australia and NZ were built on a volunteering backbone that has become one of the strongest foundations.

Lest we forget.


  1. Lucy Camp April 27, 2015 at 6:41 am - Reply

    Thanks Andy – a great reminder to remember all the other volunteers involved in the wars, not just those who put their hands up to enlist on the front line

  2. Sue Hine April 25, 2015 at 10:54 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the story Andy, a good reminder to all of us of the spread and depth of volunteering. You might like to know that the first recorded use of ‘volunteer’ (as a noun) was about 1600 in reference to “one who offers himself [sic] for military service”. So the ANZAC volunteers have a long and honourable pre-history.

    • Andy Fryar April 26, 2015 at 2:46 am - Reply

      Thanks Sue – I agree. One of the reasons I wanted to post this was because we don’t often enough consider things like military signs ups and even activism as being volunteering.

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