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World War I ended 100 years ago, but what if it happened now?

Related Story: The unknown story of the tiny town that suffered the greatest loss in WW1

Meet James, he is 21 and a labourer. He loves the cricket, hopes to start his own business and hangs out with his mate Harry on weekends.

He's been dating his girlfriend Ashleigh for six months, and she's told her best friend Lucy she's pretty sure he's the one.

James has never considered joining the army and the closest he's come to violence is seeing a fight at the pub.

Then war breaks out on the other side of the world and everything changes.

The devastating toll of a war that concluded 100 years ago is hard for us to perceive today, so ABC News has translated the impact into present-day terms.

Using figures supplied by the National Archives, if World War I happened in 2018, 2 million men would enlist including more than half-a-million men from NSW.

More than 1.6 million men would depart for war and by the end of it, 300,000 would die.

Black & white: Glass original whole plate negative

That's equivalent to wiping Wollongong off the map, or killing 50,000 more than the entire population of the Northern Territory.

About 15,000 women would sign up to serve as nurses and about 10,000 would be sent overseas.

By the time fighting ends, Australia would suffer the 2018 equivalent of around 750,000 casualties.

Based on various historical accounts, the ABC has created four fictional characters who represent some of the experiences of young people, whose lives were impacted by the Great War.

Characters James, Lucy, Harry and Ashleigh were everyday Australian friends in their 20s.

Join them on their journey and discover what life would have been like for them 100 years ago.

Volunteers queuing to enlist outside Victoria Barracks, Sydney, 1914-1916.

Within days of the war being declared, enlistment centres start popping up.

James is unsure about going as he has commitments at home, so he is not in the first rush to enlist.

But eventually Army officials start visiting James' work, pressuring him to sign up.

Those who don't want to go are branded "stay-at-homes", "disloyalists" and "slackers".

Under pressure from his friends and family, James and Harry — along with 37 per cent of all Australian men aged 18-44 — enlist and hope for the best.

Illustration of World War One soldiers riding horses and fighting in trenches and nurses treating wounded men.

James narrowly survives the Gallipoli campaign but is then sent to the Western Front — a far more deadly destination, according to historian Associate Professor Martin Crotty.

"Australians had to contend with artillery, deadly gas, machine guns, aeroplanes and barbed wire as they fought a lethal, well-trained and well-equipped enemy," Associate Professor Crotty said.

"They fought in mud so deep that men drowned in it, and in cold so intense that some froze to death."

Only a minority die quickly and cleanly, such as from a rifle shot to the head.

"Most deaths were uglier, often more lingering, and unimaginably painful," Associate Professor Crotty said.

Men with trench foot Australian soldiers march to front line position in the Ypres Sector in Belgium Australian soldiers resting en route to the trenches in December 1916.

James sees his mates buried alive, mangled by artillery, disembowelled by machine guns, poisoned by gas and skewered by bayonets.

"Some of the most harrowing stories detail the agonies of wounded men stranded in no man's land," Associate Professor Crotty said.

James is haunted by the sound of friends, and the enemy, screaming for help.

His girlfriend Ashleigh's best friend, Lucy, is serving as a nurse in a casualty clearing station — some of the closest facilities to the front line.

Australian nurses treat men in the Australian Casualty Clearing Station near Steenvoorde. Two men and a nurse apply a dressing to the leg of a wounded French soldier, at a mobile hospital south-west of Amiens in WW1.

She and the small team are swamped with thousands of men within days of a battle, sometimes whilst being bombed and showered by flying shrapnel themselves.

While fighting off exhaustion and sickness, Lucy also faces challenges she would not have previously fathomed, including ghastly wounds inflicted by artillery, multiple limb losses and a severe lack of doctors.

Some of the men beg her to let them die, with pain so extreme and injuries so severe.

Lucy helps feed some whose jaws have been shot away, and washes countless infected wounds.

Despite the confronting work, Lucy feels useful and respected.

According to the Australian War Memorial, nurses were frequently doing heavy physical labour, often living in squalid conditions and trying environments.

The return home

Somehow James survives the war, but he's traumatised from the constant bombing and stench of death.

On the surface James seems relatively unscathed, but he internalises his trauma.

Ship brings Australian troops home after the Armistice at Port Melbourne after returning from overseas, 1919. A group of women and children rejoicing in a street in Sydney at the signing of the Armistice.

For every Australian soldier killed in World War I, between two and three were wounded or gassed.

"Even disregarding the often-agonising wait for treatment and the painful procedures and recoveries, wounded soldiers were left with ailments such as missing or paralysed limbs, blindness, hacking coughs, chronic pain, neuroses and suicidal depression," Associate Professor Crotty said.

Many who survive their battlefield injuries face dramatically different lives.

"Their employment opportunities were limited and they were often spurned by the opposite sex, especially in the case of facial injuries," Associate Professor Crotty said.

Individual trauma feeds into social trauma

Ashleigh has been waiting patiently for James to return home, and the wait for updates on his survival is agonising.

The war affords some women greater social and economic autonomy, so Ashleigh decides to take up a job in the printing industry.

James and Ashleigh are reunited and quickly marry, but things aren't the same between them.

Illustration of WW1 veteran and his wife at home after the war, beer bottles sit on the table.

He is withdrawn and starts drinking heavily to help with night terrors and flashbacks.

Returning soldiers were more likely to get married than the general population, but their marriages ended in divorce at a much higher rate.

Research by the University of Melbourne in 2005 found there was also a rise in domestic violence.

A PhD thesis by Dr Elizabeth Nelson found some deserted husbands or boyfriends murdered their former partners, while stress disorders, frustration and other legacies like "shell shock" led to violent behaviours.

"The war contributed to both veterans' and civilian men's wife abuse by idealising male aggression and by provoking a range of experiences that personally disempowered men," research by Dr Nelson found.

A millinery class for war widows, 1919

"Failure to enlist, failure to fight, and failure to cope with horrifying memories of battle were some of the ways in which men fell short of their own and society's expectations of manliness."

The research found that in Victoria there was also official leniency towards returned-soldier perpetrators, both during and after the war, and such leniency extended to civilian defendants post-war too.

Some women disempowered

Lucy returns from the war and feels pressure to marry a man 20 years older than her to secure her economic future.

Once married, Ashleigh and Lucy "do the right thing" and quit their jobs.

Upon their return to Australia, nurses of WWI did not receive the same post-service financial benefits as their soldier counterparts, nor did they receive any kind of recognition for their work.

Before the war in 1911, there were 21,500 more men than women aged between 20 and 29, but by 1921 that figure had flipped with 22,500 more women.

Associate Professor Crotty said there would be even fewer marriage prospects for women than the numbers suggest.

"Some men suffered from impotency, many from reduced wage-earning potential, and some were so screwed up they probably wouldn't have been great fathers," he said.

Harry's rejection

This section contains the image of an Aboriginal veteran who has died.

James' mate Harry tries to enlist in the war with him, but is knocked back because he is part Aboriginal.

Three years later, the war effort becomes desperate.

Recruits become harder to find, and a conscription referendum fails.

Illustration of Indigenous man being shunned by white patrons as he walks into a veterans' club or pub post World War One.

A new military order in 1917 is made allowing "half-castes" to be enlisted, if examining medical officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.

Harry is an outstanding soldier and is treated as an equal on the battlefield.

He even receives the same wage as the other recruits.

Harry is awarded a military medaland promoted to corporal for his courage and leadership.

Soldiers returning to Australia on HMAT Medic in 1919.

But when Harry returns home, he doesn't feel welcome by veterans' organisations and is back under the authority of the Government Protector.

James avoids eye-contact with Harry at the local RSL, and he never goes back.

In some cases, Indigenous veterans like Harry had their wages stolen, while others died and were never given a proper service grave.

At least 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers served during World War I, and as many as 8,000 may have signed up during World War II.

The aftermath

The impact of almost 40 per cent of working-age men enlisting in the war is almost incomprehensible today.

Imagine your Facebook feed full of grieving posts, with many of your friends and family directly or indirectly devastated by the conflict.

Australia had one of the highest proportion of casualties among those who enlisted — 64.8 per cent.

Hell Spit cemetery

Some country towns lost large sections of their workforces and football clubs lost teams of men.

Communities and families had to grieve without a body, with their loved one's remainsburied in Europe or the Middle-East

Many shattered men like James, and many widows, became reliant on government pensions to survive.

By 1931, the number of people on pensions reached 283,000, and the cost of pensions was equivalent to nearly half of the entire Commonwealth budget before the war.

An illustration of poppies

Long after their sacrifice, the service of Indigenous veterans like Harry and nurses like Lucy is at last being recognised.

A century on it is hard to comprehend the trauma the Australian community suffered after such mass casualties — even after converting the loss into today's terms.

However, we can honour the lost and try to understand.

Credits

Reporter: Laura Gartry

Producer: Nick Wiggins

Illustrations: Sharon Gordon

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