416,809 Australians enlisted for service in the First World War, representing 38.7% of the total male population aged between 18 and 44. At the outbreak of the First World War, the number of people volunteering to enlist for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was so high that recruitment officers were forced to turn people away. Approximately 33% of all volunteers were rejected during the first year of the war.
However, as the war went on, casualty rates increased and the number of volunteers declined, so that by 1916 the AIF faced a shortage of men. Despite opposition from his own party, Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes decided to take the issue to the people in a referendum. The nation was asked to grant the government the power to compel citizens to serve overseas during the current war, ie. conscription. The referendum was held on 28 October 1916, provoking furious debate. It was narrowly defeated.
Enlistment for the war continued to fall, and in 1917 Hughes called for a second referendum. On 20 December 1917 the nation again voted “No” to conscription, this time with a slightly larger majority. Australia and South Africa were the only participating countries not to introduce conscription during the First World War.
During the course of the First World War standards for age, minimum height and minimum chest measurement for enlistment in the AIF were relaxed in an attempt to secure more volunteers. Dental and ophthalmological restrictions were also eased.
In August 1914 the requirements for enlistment in the AIF were:
- Age from 18 to 35 years
- Height of 5ft 6in (167cm)
- Chest measurement of 34 inches (86cm)
In June 1915 the age range and minimum height requirements were changed to 18–45 years and 5ft 2in (157cm), with the minimum height being lowered again to 5ft (152cm) in April 1917.
However, with relaxation of physical standards of age and height, as well as dental and ophthalmic fitness, previously ineligible men were now eligible for enlistment. Men for railway sections and mining corps were accepted up to 50 years, and men with spectacles were allowed to enter the ASC, AMC and ordnance corps.
On enlistment recruits were examined for BC or D tattooed on their skin. These were British army tattoos. BC stood for bad character and D for deserter.