Discipline within the AIF on the Western Front

imageA case study investigating the discipline record of the AIF during the First World War using the 5th Reinforcements 22nd Battalion, who enlisted into the Australian Imperial Force in July 1915, as our study group, combined with previously published literature.

The discipline record of the Australian Imperial Force was the worst of any of the countries that fought within the British Army during the First World War. This case study looks at the factors why this occurred and draws from the commentary and observations provided by C.E.W. Bean in his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 together with findings from other published literature. As part of the ‘Following the Twenty-Second’ WW1 commemorative project, the service records of the 154 infantrymen of the Victorian based 5th Reinforcements 22nd Battalion AIF are used to illustrate these findings. How representative is this group from the 5th/22nd for this case study? They are comprised of men that enlisted in the great recruitment campaign of 1915, saw action throughout the time that the AIF was stationed on the Western Front, and between them accounted for thirty Courts Martial, with one man in seven being charged and sentenced, twice the rate of the AIF as a whole. Finally military discipline is just a means to an end, that is to provide a fighting force that will achieve its military objectives, and this article will explore whether the poor discipline of the Australian soldier was or was not detrimental to its effectiveness as a fighting unit.

The causes of poor discipline in the AIF

The underlying cause for the poor disciplinary record of the AIF has its roots in two main areas: the character of the Australian soldier and the environment in which he was brought up; the selective choice of punishments available to the AIF as provided within the British Army Act. An additional factor was that being thousands of miles away from home and their families and paid six times more than the British soldier, Australian soldiers, particularly while on leave or recuperating in English based hospitals and camps, had the wherewithal if so inclined to enjoy the bars, estaminets, and temptation of the local women to the full.

Living in a new country being forged by a people not riven with class deference and where can-do frontier attitude was to the fore, the character of the Australian soldier was markedly different from soldiers from many other countries, notably the British ‘Tommy’ that he fought alongside. Volunteers to a man, the motivation for the Australian soldier lay within the character and environment that he had grown up with: not giving way when his mates were relying on his firmness; not having another unit do their unfinished work; fear of being haunted in later life that he lacked the grit to carry it through. As Bean describes, he was quick to act on his own initiative and as a result others instinctively looked up to the Australian private as a leader, sometimes to good, sometimes to bad. He also saw himself as a civilian that had come to do a job, and not as a regular soldier that was more used to parade ground rigours and rules. Such men could not be easily controlled by the traditional discipline methods used in most armies, however they were seriously intent upon learning and readily controlled by anyone that showed real competence.

sharples-reginald-james-2502An example of this Australian character can be seen within our case study right from the beginning while they were training in the Egyptian desert. In January 1916 and as the 5th/22nd were being transported in open train carriages to be Taken on Strength into the 22nd Battalion, an incident had occurred and acting on initiative and what they believed was in good faith 2502 Pte Sharples (photograph right) along with 2185 Pte Morgan took it upon themselves to uncouple the carriages in order to bring the train safely to a halt. This however was misguided and potentially a very dangerous act, and as a result they faced a subsequent Field General Court Martial. Pleading not guilty, they were found guilty of ‘an act to the prejudice of good order and military discipline’ and sentenced to one year Imprisonment with Hard Labour. Approaching the end of his sentence back in Australia, Pte Sharples writes a request to re-enlist, as he states his pending discharge branded him as a ‘bad character’ which he saw as a life sentence. Pte Sharples requests in his letter for an opportunity to ‘faithfully serve my King and Country and earn for myself a clean and honourable discharge’. On 12thJanuary 1917 it is approved and Pte Sharples is released two weeks later, re-joining as Cpl 3470 Sharples of the 57th Battalion, fighting with his new unit through 1918 before getting wounded just days before the AIF were withdrawn from the front-line. Although very much aware of the dangers facing him – he had two brothers serving in France, both of whom at that time had been wounded, with 7367 Pte Sharples being killed in April 1918 – and probably feeling a sense of injustice from the Army, for Cpl Sharples the motivational needs of honour, ‘doing one’s bit’, and not relying upon others to do his work was much greater.

Military discipline in the British Army was dictated by the Army Act which gave a range of punishments covering the very wide spectrum of offences that could occur. Serious matters were tried by Field General Court Martials, moderately serious by District Court Martials, and small scale violations such as being late on parade, not saluting, dirty equipment etc. dealt with by the Officers and NCO’s of the man’s own unit. The ultimate penalty was the Death Penalty with the risk of being shot for a variety of reasons, but mainly for desertion, murder, and cowardice in front of the enemy. During the First World War 346 men of the British Army were executed, though 3,080 had been sentenced to death and with the majority having their sentence reduced. After the death penalty came a variety of sentences of incarceration through Detention, Penal Servitude or Imprisonment with Hard Labour, with the convicted placed either in a military compound or sometimes a prison. Field Punishments were also available, and as the name suggests carried out close to or in front of the man’s unit. Field Punishment Number 1 consisted of the convicted man being shackled in irons and secured to a fixed object, such as a gun wheel or post, and frequently in a crucifixion stance. Field Punishment Number 2 was similar except the shackled man was not fixed to anything.

Lewes DC.jpgThus the Australian Imperial Force in WW1 had a variety of punishments at its disposal, but driven by their own Parliament, public opinion, and the wishes of their own commanders were selective in which to use to maintain discipline within their force. The AIF was unique in the First World War in that it was both an all-volunteer force, and through the Australian Defence Act did not enforce the death penalty, with exception for men found guilty of mutiny, desertion or treacherous dealings with the enemy.  During WW1 129 Australian soldiers were given the death penalty sentence, 119 for desertion and 117 of the cases being in France, but none of these sentences were carried through. Without the ultimate deterrent and faced with the growing problems of drinking and desertion while the AIF was in Egypt in 1915, General Bridges adopted another approach by returning troublemakers to Australia and asked Bean to publish a letter in Australian newspapers explaining the reasons. This act of humiliation came as a shock to the public at home and was resented by much of the force. Its potential detrimental effect to the morale and the fighting spirit of the men, plus to the recruitment campaign, meant that this option of punishment was withdrawn. In a similar fashion, the use of Field Punishment Number 1 was also not widely used by Australian commanding officers, again as it was seen to be too much of a humiliation – cases were recorded where some men risked their own punishment by freeing the prisoner from the shackles. This type of punishment was also contrary to the attitudes displayed by some of the best officers in the Australian units, i.e. the officers that had the respect of their men by showing a sense of empathy and well-being for the men under their command. Therefore the severest options for punishment were reduced meaning that pretty much the worse that could happen to the Australian soldier would be to be locked away in a prison such as the Lewes Detention Centre (photograph above) for the duration of the war, with the prospect of release at the end of the hostilities, and even though the regimes were harsh were still not as bad as being out on the front-line.

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Table 1: Comparison of sentences between the 5th/22nd and British Army

The approach taken by the AIF in its passing of sentences is reflected in the punishments given in the thirty cases of Courts Martial for the men of the 5th/22nd as shown in Table 1 above. The highest category for both the British Army and the 5th/22nd was Detention with 34% and 40% of sentences respectively, however to the 5th/22nd number are added 23% Penal Servitude and 10% Imprisonment whereas for the British these other two forms of incarceration are small and included just within ‘Other’ forms of sentence. Included in these numbers for the 5th/22nd are 2487 Pte Payne who, in his second Court Martial, is just one of 143 in the entire British Army who received a life Penal Servitude sentence during the war, and 2486 Pte Barton who, in his fourth Court Martial, was one of just 461 to receive a Penal Servitude sentence of 15 years. The differences in attitude to Field Punishment No.1 can also be seen where only one of the thirty 5th/22nd cases brought before a Courts Martial resulted in this punishment against the 60,210, or one in every five cases within the British Army.

Discipline becoming an increasing problem

From the time of their arrival in Egypt, the Australian soldier was becoming well known for heavy drinking, going absent without leave, but also there were the more serious attacks on local inhabitants and robbery. Some commanding officers such as Major General Gellibrand of the AIF 6th Brigade took a balanced view that trusting in the character of his men, relatively minor offences such as overstaying leave by a couple of days would be dismissed save for the paying of a fine, which most of the men saw as an acceptable price for their time away. However, with reinforcements arriving from Australia in late 1915 along with the returning Gallipoli veterans the decision was taken to relocate the AIF to the middle of the desert closer to the Suez Canal, thus lessening the temptations of Cairo.

Concern was growing in the British GHQ that the arrival of the Australians on the Western Front could have a destabilising effect on the discipline of the British and other Dominion forces that they would be fighting alongside. With the AIF 1st and 2nd Divisions preparing to leave Egypt for France in March 1916, General Birdwood wrote to all men serving in the AIF reminding them of their responsibilities and not to damage the fine reputation that had been won above the cliffs of Anzac Cove. Furthermore, fearing riotous behaviour upon their arrival in France steps were taken to move the arriving troops from the ships in Marseille Harbour to the waiting trains during the night to lessen the chance of men absconding into the bars as they marched through the city. As it happened, after the 2nd and then 1st Divisions had passed through, General Birdwood was informed that no troops had caused less trouble. The same gratitude and admiration was afforded to General McCay as the 5th Division passed through a couple of months later.

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Table 2: Comparison of Charges brought before a Courts Martial

While stationed in Europe, Australian cases brought before a Courts Martial (Table 3) were proportionately much higher than any other section of the British Army. Although the ‘larrikin’ behaviour of slovenly dress, not saluting an officer, and bad language, was an irritant to the British, it was the more serious cases of absent without leave and desertion that the British GHQ was becoming concerned with. As shown in Table 2 above the percentage of Courts Martial for being Absent Without Leave in the AIF was 58%, about twice as much as in the British Army. For the 5th/22nd when the four cases of desertion in France are added to the eighteen of AWL, the total percentage for absenteeism was almost three in four cases brought before the courts. It should be noted however that of the eighteen Courts Martial cases of AWL, fifteen occurred while the soldiers were in England, frequently absconding while they were recuperating from their wounds in the Command Depots or overstaying leave.

Although much was made of the Australian free-spirit, for British GHQ there appeared to be a strong correlation between discipline and punishment, as other dominion forces such as the Canadians and the New Zealanders which one could argue could have the same frontier type free spirit as the Australians and who too were thousands of miles away from home, had a much better disciplinary record. In 1915, before the arrival of the Anzacs on the Western Front, the Canadians were indeed regarded as second to none in terms of discipline, smartness and efficiency.

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Table 3: Country comparisons

A comparison between the numbers of Courts Martial between these countries is shown in Table 3 above, including comparative rates of absenteeism and the sentencing response by the courts. As can be seen by the snapshot figure taken in July 1918 Australian soldiers were ten times more likely to go absent without leave than the New Zealanders or Canadians. When looking at their total time spent in the AIF, our case study group of the 5th/22nd shows that 44 men, i.e. more than 1 in 4 went absent at some time while in the army, with half of these being repeat offenders, the same proportion incidentally as the number that would face a Courts Martial for the offences of absent without leave or desertion. In all there were close to 100 instances amongst this group of going absent without leave, with a third of these occurring in 1917.

Given that both New Zealand and Canada employed the ultimate deterrent there appears to be a strong correlation between discipline and the use of the death penalty. Requests were repeatedly made by British Army Commanding Officers such as General Rawlinson of the British 4th Army and then by Field Marshal Douglas Haig that examples should be made of certain bad cases and they should be shot, but each time the Australian Government refused. British GHQ was also exasperated that the Australian commanding officers were not making more use of Field Punishment No.1, particularly as it was viewed that a proportionately high number of Australians were living out the war in relative comfort in prisons. An example of its effectiveness was shown with the AIF 12th Brigade that was experiencing excessive numbers of Courts Martial for drunkenness, absence and refusing duty, and after the increased use of Field Punishment No.1 instances of the above declined significantly.

The character of a charged soldier in the AIF

A volunteer army will by its very nature contain a vast array of characters, all asked to put their lives at risk and carry out acts contrary to normal human behaviour. As a result it is inevitable that some hard cases and persons of bad character will enlist. Indeed the former, if managed properly, could be just the type of valued soldier that a unit would want, whereas those of bad character would need to be weeded out as they could become a source for demoralising within the unit. While the AIF was at Tel el Kabir, as Bean observed, it had become obvious that certain characters or criminals had enlisted, for example to run gambling schools or escape punishment in Australia, and for a tiny minority had no intention of reaching the firing line. For some men, the act of catching venereal disease while on leave or going absent without leave, was used as an effective way of keeping out of the front-line, a condition that many in GHQ placed akin to self-maiming.

Within the case study group the small minority of bad characters identified by Bean would appear to be present, and the service records of two men from the 5th/22nd  (not identified in this article) indicate very little intention of wanting to be in the firing line, not only from repeat instances of going absent without leave, but during their time of absence they contracted on multiple occasions a venereal disease which would see them reside in hospital before absconding again and repeating the process. As indicated by this behaviour it soon became apparent to the authorities that being able to breakout of Bulford Hospital (1ADH) where most of the Australian venereal disease cases were treated was pretty easy, so a new medical wing to treat VD cases was created at the Lewes Detention Centre (pictured above) in Sussex which also housed many of the men serving custodial sentences.

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Table 4: Comparison of character between soldiers with and without Courts Martial convictions

This behaviour though was the exception rather than the rule and for the vast majority of the men that were brought before the courts they exhibited the attributes and experiences of the Unit as a whole. Table 4 shown above helps to demonstrate this showing that the percentage of men that faced a Courts Martial had the same casualty rate as the rest of the 5th/22nd – including 2340 Pte Hosking and 2381 Pte Smillie being killed after having served their sentences – and the proportion of men receiving an award for gallantry the same in both groups with 2335 Pte Hunt and 2347 Pte MacFarlane receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal and 2394 Pte Stephens the Military Medal. Furthermore, despite absence from the front-line through their wounds, crime and detention, the period that the courts martial cohort spent with the Unit on active service was almost identical to that of the 5th/22nd as a whole at 44%  and 45% respectively.

Leading up to the Gallipoli landings and during their time in Egypt, Bean observed that many of the perpetrators of bad discipline in I Anzac appeared to be the older soldier and those born overseas. From our case study group there is no evidence that this carried forward to the period on the Western Front. For example the average age of the men of the 5th/22nd that were tried by Courts Martial was just over 25 years old compared with 26 years for the 5th/22nd as a whole, and 14% of these men were born overseas compared with 11% overall. Furthermore, investigation into the demographics of the 5th/22nd to see if there was a particular type of person from a certain profession pre-disposed to bad discipline, again showed that this was not a factor as seen in Table 5 below.

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Table 5: Comparison of professions between with and without Courts Martial convictions

During the reorganisation of the AIF in February and March 1916, a number of unit commanders used this as an opportunity to move the troublemakers out to another unit. As it turned out 1 in 3 of the men of the 5th/22nd that received a Courts Martial had at one stage been transferred out to another unit compared with 1 in 5 overall for the 5th/22nd. How many would have been identified as troublemaker’s at the time of their transfer is unknown, though 2329 Pte Carmody and 2416 Pte Stevenson had already had instances of being absent without leave.

Much has been attributed to the frontier-type spirit of the ‘bush’ in defining the Australian characteristic and behaviour. However this would have only applied directly to about a quarter of the AIF soldiers as a whole, with the majority having been brought up in the towns and cities. In our case study, the men of the 5th/22nd were all drawn from the centre and suburbs of Melbourne, and 11% from abroad, therefore exposure to the bush lifestyle and mentality would not have been directly relevant in defining their character, thus probably more to do with an adoption of these characteristics.

Although the rate of committing a military crime was very high for the Australian Army compared with other countries, it should be noted that a large majority of these occurred while the soldier was away from the firing line, either with his Unit recuperating or while on leave or in hospital or camp. Behaviour on leave in England deteriorated in 1917 with the soldier’s time away from home growing leading to increased boredom and homesickness, and differences between the social conditions including attitudes to women in the workplace rose to the surface creating tensions, fuelled by the six-times higher pay packet. Of course, this higher pay also resulted in the men wearing the Rising Sun badge being targeted by prostitutes looking to maximise their earnings potential. Army courts and authorities were becoming bogged down with cases, and officers were urged to use other means to avoid them. In September 1917 a memo from AIF 1st Division urged commanding officers to exercise discretion as to whether cases should be sent to Courts Martial, with the raising from seven days to 21 days of absence without leave before going to a Field General Courts Martial. This more tolerant approach, plus with the number of men in each unit falling due to the high number of casualties being inflicted, may explain why 2394 Pte Stephens and 2397 Pte Samways were not sent to FGCM despite being ‘illegal absentees’ for 41 days until apprehended while in England. Instead they were sent directly back to their unit in France.

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Table 6: Distribution of Courts Martial through the AIF period on the Western Front

The rate at which Australian soldiers were appearing in front of the military courts remained high throughout the war. Although AIF absolute numbers showed a decline in the six month periods in 1917 and 1918, Table 6 above also shows that the proportion of Australian soldiers that were sent for Courts Martial remained at about 1 in 14, on account of the declining numbers within the AIF as the war progressed. This is more pronounced in the 5th/22nd which actually shows an increase in Courts Stephens & Samways.jpgMartial in real terms in 1918, leading to a high proportion of 1 in 10 men still with the 22nd Battalion being sentenced during the first half of 1918. The high rates for this cohort in 1918 are likely to be a combination of factors: over two years facing the worst that the enemy and elements on the Somme and around Ypres could throw at them; the majority having been wounded and felt that ‘they had done their bit’; boredom and homesickness while recuperating away from the front in England. One such example was 2394 Pte Stephens who, having been wounded on four occasions – the most by any member of the 5th/22nd – and having received the Military Medal on the second from last day of fighting by the AIF in the war,  went absent on Armistice Day, again with his best mate 2397 Pte Samways. It is believed that in addition to ‘having done his bit’ Pte Stephens had another motive, as illustrated in his service records by the wedding certificate to his wartime sweetheart Minnie Taylor from Twickenham in May 1919. For this misdemeanour, and probably taking into consideration their absenteeism in 1917, Pte Stephens (photograph, standing) and Pte Samways (photograph, sitting) both received 40 days Field Punishment No.2, the most common of the non-custodial sentences applied by the Australian courts.

Authorities had a difficult time all the way through to demobilisation in 1919 as the soldiers were becoming frustrated with the delays to their return to Australia. Included amongst the trouble makers during this time was 44 year-old 2494 Cpl Clack who in May 1916 had been transferred from the 22nd Battalion to AIF HQ and spent the entire war as escort to General Birdwood. Cpl Clack was found guilty at a Field General Court Martial of drunkenness while on active service in February 1919, and fined the princely sum of £1!

The effectiveness of discipline and punishment

Military discipline is ultimately designed to prepare men for the traumas of battle and for them to remain as an effective and cohesive unit during the heat of the battle. Furthermore, the British had developed over centuries the ability to turn working men and those from the bottom rung of society into effective soldiers to successfully achieve its political and economic goals creating one of the world’s greatest Empires of the time. As a result British military discipline was one of the strictest within the armies that fought in the First World War. This included the use of the death penalty which saw the execution of 346 men for military offences during the war. To help judge whether this strict rule of discipline, to which Australian politicians, public and servicemen were broadly against, was necessary it needs to be placed into the context with what was happening elsewhere. For example within the German Army, the death penalty was used sparingly with only 48 out of the 150 death sentences carried out. However, desertion to the enemy was common, happening almost daily on the Somme in 1916, but was very rare for the British and almost unknown for the Australians. The rigidity of the British disciplinary code was envied by General von Ludendorff, who in his memoirs stated that the absence of a British-style military discipline was a significant factor in Germany’s defeat.

The numbers of convicted French soldiers shot are unknown due to some summary executions, but in the region of 600 were carried out from 2,000 condemned men that are documented. Although a higher number than in the British Army, this punishment did not stop the potentially devastating French Army Mutinies of 1917, which was caused by low morale at that time. Other armies, such as the Italian were more punitive. In Italy, the ancient Roman practice of decimation, choosing and then executing soldiers by lots from a unit that had failed was reintroduced. No nation shot more of its own than Italy during the First World War, but its poor performance was more down to incompetent leadership, poor training, low morale and inferior equipment. As for Russia, discipline broke down completely leading to a full scale revolution in 1917.

For the British the strict disciplinary code that was used by the British Army and its Dominion forces provided the foundation for ultimate military success, and furthermore the British Army remained the only army on the Western Front not to experience serious military problems on the front-line. However, as can be seen from the above military success is not guaranteed by just strict discipline and many other factors come into play such as leadership, training, camaraderie and morale.

It was to these other factors that the Australian people put their faith that their officers and men serving under them possessed the initiative, courage and skill to get the job done, and not encumbered by excessive threats of punishment. Frustrations often ran high within the senior British Army High Command with regard to the Australian problem of discipline, but the Australian Parliament and its senior Commanding Officers, notably Generals Birdwood and Monash stuck to the belief in their men, and they and the French people were repaid as witnessed by the events of the spring and summer of 1918 with the AIF being pivotal in the defeat of the German Army and the Central Powers. It should also be noted that as the war progressed through 1918 the effectiveness of the AIF in halting the German Spring Offensive at Amiens and the subsequent delivering of Ludendorff’s ‘darkest day’ on the 8th August was substantially helped by fighting shoulder to shoulder with their countrymen and ‘mates’ as a Corps, and under the brilliant leadership of one of their own, General Monash.


The case study using the service records of the 154 infantrymen of the AIF 5th/22nd has illustrated the poor discipline of the Australian soldier in the First World War as demonstrated by the high level of Courts Martial and absenteeism in general, and that this problem was exacerbated by the conscious choice by the Australian courts of which punishments to use during this time. In addition, with the exception of a tiny minority of bad characters that according to Bean had made their way into the AIF, the vast majority of the men with poor discipline records were indeed regular ‘Diggers’ that did their time at the front, became casualties, awarded for bravery, and promoted at the same rate as their mates that had kept out of trouble. The character of the Australian soldier meant that they were more likely to be pre-disposed to pushing the limits of discipline, but they were able to do this knowing that they were safe from the death penalty, and that the two main punishments of humiliation which they detested, namely being returned to Australia in disgrace and Field Punishment No.1, were not being used.

sir-john-monashLooser discipline was considered by many of their superior officers as an acceptable ‘price’ when put beside their performance on the battlefield. Australians and New Zealanders were known as among the most fearsome and willing troops of the Allied forces. Overt discipline was therefore, and probably uniquely, less of a necessity for the Australians than soldiers from other countries as the senior command trusted that the character of the officers and men charged with carrying out the orders would see it through. By the end of the war Field Marshal Douglas Haig conceded that Australian battle discipline had held up during the war despite the poor discipline away from the front. As General Monash (photograph right) later wrote:

“Very much and very stupid comment has been made upon the discipline of the Australian soldier. That was because the very conception and purpose of discipline have been misunderstood. It is, after all, only a means to an end, and that end is the power to secure coordinated action among a large number of individuals for the achievement of a definite purpose. It does not mean lip service, nor obsequious homage to superiors, nor servile observance of forms and customs, nor a suppression of individuality… the Australian Army is a proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline”. 

References and Reading Material

Service Records held by the National Archives of Australia

Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18. Vols I & III – The Story of Anzac; C.E.W. Bean

Crime and punishment on the Western Front: the AIF and British Army Discipline – thesis by EJ Garstang, Murdoch University,2009


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