Who Served and Why?

While it is generally accepted that fewer than 40 per cent of eligible males aged eighteen to forty-four enlisted in the AIF during the First World War, the exact number and nationalities of foreign-born enlistees have not been authoritatively established.10 Australia is fortunate in that First World War attestation papers have been kept, and are accessible within individual soldiers’ service records in the National Archives of Australia (NAA). This study draws primarily on this collection.11 As well as providing information about soldiers’ service during the war, such records also allow the reader to develop a snapshot of the soldier himself through information such as next of kin (and subsequent changes to this), religion, occupation, physical attributes, details of the soldier’s will, and so on. The second question on the attestation paper, after name, asked for place of birth, and the third enquired as to citizenship status and naturalisation—information that was highly relevant to military authorities in an immigrant nation such as Australia. It is this information that helps to indicate the true extent of the nationalities other than British/Australian-born who served.

However, it is important to note that a simple analysis based on these entries is sometimes misleading as identity, particularly migrant identity, is open to interpretation. As Govor found in her study of Russian Anzacs, for some migrants single national labels are problematic—a person identifying as Russian may in fact be a Balt, a Finn, or a Pole.12 Equally, information is often confusing when migrant families’ movements have been extensive or ongoing. A couple of examples illustrate this problem: Elias Lebovitz told AIF authorities he was born in the parish of Palestine, near the town of Limburg, in the country of Austria. Lebovitz listed his next of kin as his father, whose address was Jaffe, Palestine. However, Lebovitz also presented a letter from the Russian Consul stating that his parents were ethnic Russians, meaning that he was Russian and, as an allied citizen, eligible to serve. Similar dilemmas were particularly evident among men who moved around the world as sailors or sojourners and became naturalised in the process. One such man, Oliver Johannes Bergstein, was born in Iceland and on attestation quite rightly listed his nationality as Danish (Iceland was politically linked to Denmark until independence in 1944). However, Bergstein was also a naturalised American and a naturalised British subject (that is, he had naturalised in Australia).13 The Bergstein example also raises the issue of nationality when national borders or controls have changed or are contentious. This is particularly evident in regard to a group of six men who listed their place of birth as Austria but prefaced this with Croatia, Buda-Pesth [sic], Bohemia, and Dalmatia.14

Care also needs to be taken when assessing the accuracy of the attestation officer’s interpretation of accents, or in cases of enlistees with limited

English, as well as those born in colonised lands. For example, over six hundred men listed their country of birth as India but, unsurprisingly, nearly all of these were actually of British descent with only a handful being ethnic Indian. Similarly, citizens of French colonies may, for example, have considered themselves either to be French, or alternatively New Caledonian, Algerian and so on.

Although the number of soldiers whose nationality is in question is small, the solution to the problem of identity is not an easy one. In single nationality studies, such as my work on Italians, the examination of additional information including alien registration or naturalisation papers helped to make a sensible attribution, or at least one that contributes to a deeper understanding of soldier experiences.15 However, in such a broad case study as this, nationality is not as readily confirmed. Place of birth is therefore taken as the country given on the attestation throughout this chapter. Using this methodology Table 2.1 gives an indication, for a selection of nationalities, of both the absolute numbers that served in the AIF and the proportion of their respective nationality based on the male population in Australia at the 1911 Census.

This analysis prompts questions about motivation for enlistment, particularly in regard to the number of men from neutral countries represented. Although scholars agree that a definitive list of motives for

Table 2.1 Relative representation of major nationalities within the AIF from outside the British world


Number males in Australia (1911 census)

Number in AIF



















































Source: Information from author’s study of First World War attestations held in the NAA enlistment is not possible or in any way likely to cover the thousands of potential personal and particular reasons that might exist, common categories are nevertheless often used.16 Of these, motives related to employment situation are perhaps the most relevant to the foreign-born soldier. Many worked in industries that were initially hard-hit by the war, such as mining, and as unemployment rose, getting a job as a foreigner in an increasingly xenophobic society was difficult. Large numbers of some nationalities, including Scandinavians and French, were sailors stranded in Australia when ships could not sell cargos, meaning their future employment was irregular and uncertain. Enlistment may have been the solution not only to unemployment but also, especially in the earlier stages when the potential longevity of the war was in doubt, a means of going home either permanently or temporarily. There is strong evidence within the attestation papers to support this theory: a large number of foreign-born soldiers, working in industries such as mining, enlisted in the first twelve months of the war and subsequently went on to request discharge in Europe or to take home leave either during their service or before returning to Australia. Service records also indicate many examples of desertion promptly after arrival in Egypt or Europe.

Other potential motives often suggested for enlistment, such as ‘hatred of the Hun’ and the ‘cry of the mother country’, may certainly have influenced those from Central Power-occupied countries such as Belgium. Alternatively, for those with family in Australia or in affected nations, a sense of duty to parents and loved ones may have induced some to enlist. In his study of soldiers of German birth and descent, John Williams argues that the incorrect belief that a son in the AIF would save a parent from internment was a motive for enlistment.17 Certainly Serbian Tom Berich believed he had made a deal in exchange for his enlistment when he wrote to his brother, a prisoner of war in Liverpool Camp, and said “I asked the Military Authorities to let you free and they promised me they will let you free.”18

It is unfortunately impossible to ascertain exact reasons for enlistment, especially for foreign-born soldiers who for various reasons—language barriers, lower literacy levels and issues of censorship—were even less likely to leave diaries, letters or other indications within the Australian historical sources.19 However, it is evident that the initial motivation would certainly have impacted upon the foreign-born soldier’s attitude towards, and experiences of, service—especially for those who may have been motivated by rising xenophobia and the subsequent lack of employment.

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