Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice

After the war comes the battle...

At 5am Paris time on 11 November 1918, representatives of France, Germany and Britain met in a railway carriage parked in a French forest and signed the Armistice that ended World War I. It followed a difficult year for both sides, in which German military leaders came to believe they could not win the war. The cease-fire came into effect along the entire Western Front six hours later, at 11am.

As the guns fell silent and the news broke, rejoicing erupted from Paris and London to the cities and towns of Australia. The reaction was understandable. After more than four years of bloody conflict and countless casualties, the war was at an end. But for many Australians the effects of World War I remained with them for the rest of their lives.

In 2009 the National Archives created the touring exhibition Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice. View the tour schedule, buy the catalogue from our online shop or download the education kit below. A sample of documents and photographs from the exhibition are showcased here. Click on an image to view the enlargement.

The Armistice and the peace treaty

The Armistice between Germany and the Allies initially ran for 36 days but was regularly renewed until the formal peace treaty.

Australian Prime Minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes and Deputy Prime Minister Joseph Cook joined representatives from other allied nations in Paris to negotiate the treaty. Hughes was determined to ensure Australia’s independent representation at the peace conference and relished being on the world stage, even as a minor player. His unwavering and energetic defence of Australia’s interests brought him into conflict with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and United States President Woodrow Wilson.

On 28 June 1919, the treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, with Hughes and Cook adding their signatures on Australia’s behalf.

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    Most urgent cablegram
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    Extraordinary Government Gazette
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    Message to Parliament

Repatriation: the digger carries on

Of the nearly 272,000 Australians who survived the war, 170,000 suffered from wounds or illness.

In 1918, the Australian Government created the Repatriation Department, which established a comprehensive and centralised repatriation scheme. The department managed pensions for the disabled and those no longer able to support themselves, and for dependants of those who died. It established employment bureaus and vocational and rehabilitation training for returned servicemen and women. Free medical and hospital care, hostels and homes were provided for the totally and permanently incapacitated, and artificial limbs for amputees.

The long-term costs of medical care and welfare benefits following the war were on a scale never before encountered. In 1938, there were 77,000 incapacitated soldiers and 180,000 dependants still on pensions. War pensions had cost Australia nearly £148 million and medical care £8.57 million. In addition, there were 1600 men still in hostels and homes for the permanently incapacitated, and about 23,000 outpatients in repatriation hospitals.

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    Soldiers returning from overseas
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    Machine shop training
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    Millinery class for war widows
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    Anzac Hostel ward
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    Lady Galway Home
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    Poppy Day appeal

Grieving and remembrance

World War I left behind a vast legacy of sorrow that was felt for generations. The loss of 60,000 Australians meant that scarcely a family in Australia was left untouched. Yet for many, the sadness was deferred or unresolved.

The lack of details about the fate of more than 23,000 missing soldiers delayed the grief for their families. Even into the 1920s, many clung to the slim hope that perhaps a mistake had been made and their son, brother or husband might still be alive and unable to find his way home.

Communities in nearly every Australian city and town erected memorials to honour their war dead. Rolls of honour listing those who served and died were erected in schools and halls. Some communities built memorial drives or avenues of honour.

Official attempts to address collective mourning on a national scale took the form of public commemoration, such as Armistice Day ceremonies, and the building of national monuments in each state and territory.

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    On the eleventh hour
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    Design for a memorial
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    Original grave and marker
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    Annie Munro’s request
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    A soldiers’ memorial highway
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    'God will answer'
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014