Were we at war in 1914? Nobody knew

Media release: Friday, 1 August 2014

Encrypted cables, voter schmoozing and an absent prime minister all combined to leave Australia unsure as to whether the nation was at war in 1914.

In July of that year, Australia's politicians had other things on their mind, with a federal election only weeks away.

'When  cables from Britain warned of imminent hostilities in late July,  the Prime Minister, Opposition leader and many Cabinet Ministers were campaigning in isolated areas, far removed from the heart of national decision-making,' said Anne-Marie Conde, a curator with the National Archives of Australia, which holds the original cables and other documents from the time.

'All cables were encrypted and had to be deciphered before their message was clear. But the first cable that arrived on 30 July – advising that naval and military preparations should go ahead as agreed with Britain – was misinterpreted as a routine message.'

At this crucial point, not recognising the urgency of the situation, the Defence Minister Edward Millen did nothing. Even when he realised the importance of the cable, he delayed making a decision until Prime Minister Joseph Cook could be contacted.

However, the Prime Minister, in the depths of rural Victoria did not have the correct cable cypher with him and did not understand the message.  It was only on 2 August when he returned to Melbourne that he learned a decision had been made in his absence to put Australian military forces on a war footing.

Cabinet met on 3 August to discuss the situation, later cabling Britain that Australia would bear the cost of sending an expeditionary force of 20,000 men.

'As part of the British Empire, Australia had no option to remain neutral,' said Anne-Marie Conde. 'If Britain declared itself at war, Australia was automatically at war as well.'

All cables from Britain were sent to the Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson.  His official secretary instructed that all official and cyphered cablegrams from London were to be delivered personally, at whatever hour of the day or night.

Finally, at lunchtime on 5 August, he received the news that 'war has broken out with Germany'. He immediately sent copies to the Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence and all state governors. By 12.30 Prime Minister Joseph Cook announced the news to the Australian press.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019