In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Australia from the Colonial Era to the Present

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Interwar Period
  • Cold War Conflicts
  • From the Cold War to the War on Terror, 1972 Onward

Military History Australia from the Colonial Era to the Present
Jeffrey Grey, Craig Stockings
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0107


The global wars of the 20th century have had a defining effect on the course of Australian history. Despite its relative youth and small size, the Australian nation has chosen to become embroiled in conflicts such as the two world wars, the limited conflagrations of the Cold War such as Korea, Malaya, Borneo, and Vietnam, and more recently in places like Iraq and Afghanistan; this involvement has been a consequence of both particular and enduring themes. The nation’s historical connections to Britain, its unique security dilemmas, and policies designed to solve them have all been central in this regard. Apart from the various “wars” of the 20th century, in the post–Vietnam era Australian military forces have also been involved in numerous international peacekeeping missions. In total, nearly 103,000 Australians died during the course of these conflicts. The social impacts of Australian experiences of war in the 20th century were dominated by the “Anzac” myth. Indeed, no discussion of Australian military history can proceed without an acknowledgment of the importance of this phenomenon. The word itself is derived from Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—a formation that participated in the Gallipoli landing in 1915. As Australians learned of the tragedy and the loss of life in the events unfolding in the Dardanelles, so, too, were they told that such bloodletting had forged their nation’s rite of passage into the international community. Their country had passed its test. At the same time, deeds at Gallipoli, and later in Flanders and Palestine, filled a vacuum for the “newborn” nation. In the 1920s and 1930s the idea of Anzac also came to represent a distinct collection of social values embodying the perceived comradeship of frontline soldiers, the rejection of conventional discipline, physical strength, egalitarianism, loyalty, self-sacrifice, courage, and early-20th-century Australian conceptions of masculinity. It became impossible to escape the myth—and it still is. Anzac is, in fact, getting stronger. The number of politicians invoking the term to hit a social chord bound to reverberate, the size of Anzac Day marches despite the dwindling number of veterans, the number of Australians on annual pilgrimages to Anzac Cove—flags in hand or draped over their shoulders—provide evidence enough of this. This issue here from a historiographical perspective is that efforts at objective and historical analysis often run up against the social expectations of Anzac. Any student of Australian military history must be aware and cautious of the ever-present tension. Partially as a consequence, as it stands, those interested in Australian military history should also be aware that the genre is dominated by populist, nonacademic authors and that the volume of academic work is relatively small. This is particularly so with regard to works dealing with the more technical aspects of military history such as command, operations, doctrine, logistics, and the role of technology.

General Overviews

There are few published works that encompass the entirety of Australia’s 20th-century military history. However, two outstanding standard general reference works in this regard are Grey 2008, now in its third edition, along with Dennis, et al. 2008. See also the six volumes of The Australian Centenary History of Defence, particularly Beaumont 2001. A valuable bibliography in the field is Smith and Moss 1987. Anzac Day and the Anzac legend have attracted some perceptive commentators, most recently the authors of Lake, et al. 2010. An earlier debate on the role of the Gallipoli landings in 1915 in the creation of Australian national feeling may be followed in Serle 1965. For an exceptional general essay about the place of war in Australian history, see White 1988. The amateur and natural soldier traditions are well analyzed by Ross 1985. More recently, Stockings 2010 has offered a critical antidote to some of the enduring “myths” of Australian military history from Gallipoli to East Timor in 1999.

  • Beaumont, Joan. The Australian Centenary History of Defence. Vol. 6, Australian Defence: Sources and Statistics. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    This is Volume 6 of a six-part series on the history of Australian defense. It is a valuable source of empirical data in its own right but is best used in conjunction with the other five volumes of the series: Jeffrey Grey and David M. Horner, The Australian Army (2001); Alan Stephens, The Royal Australia Air Force (2001); David Stevens, The Royal Australian Navy (2006); David M. Horner, Making the Australian Defence Force (2001); and Eric Andrews, The Department of Defence (2001) (all published by Oxford University Press, Melbourne).

  • Dennis, Peter, Jeffrey Grey, Ewan Morris, Robin Prior, and John Connor. The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. 2d ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    This work is structured and formatted in accordance with typical Oxford Companion style. It represents the distilled expertise of a range of leading Australian military historians and is a necessary reference text for any serious investigator in the field.

  • Grey, Jeffrey. A Military History of Australia. 3d ed. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511481345

    This is the standard single-volume overview of Australian military history from colonial frontier conflict to modern-day military commitments. It is accessible and valuable for general readers, undergraduates, and professional historians alike.

  • Lake, Marilyn, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna, and Joy Damousi. What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010.

    In this collection, the authors present their belief that it is time to call a halt to the relentless militarization of Australian history. It is a controversial book and one of the few to criticize the Anzac phenomenon.

  • Ross, Jane. The Myth of the Digger: The Australian Soldier in Two World Wars. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1985.

    In this book, Ross explores the myth of the Australian “digger” in relation to the reality of the First Australian Imperial Force (1st AIF) and 2nd AIF. In an incisive study, she finds, not surprisingly, that the legend and the actuality are markedly different.

  • Serle, Geoffrey. “The Digger Tradition and Australian Nationalism.” Meanjin Quarterly 24.2 (1965): 155–156.

    Serle investigates, among other issues associated with the “digger” tradition, how it was crafted by ex-servicemen and conservative elements within Australian society as an expression of right-wing patriotism and nationalism.

  • Smith, Hugh, and Sue Moss, eds. A Bibliography of Armed Forces and Society in Australia. Canberra: University of New South Wales Press, 1987.

    A valuable bibliographical source covering not only the operational aspects of Australian military history, but the social aspect as well.

  • Stockings, Craig, ed. Zombie Myths of Australian Military History. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010.

    This is an edited work bringing together a number of leading contemporary Australian military historians. The work is not iconoclastic for its own sake but rather attempts to challenge a number of the most deeply entrenched misconceptions of Australian military history. Invariably, this means that most authors run up against, and must deal with, the distorting effect of Anzac mythology.

  • White, Richard. “War and Australian Society.” In Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace. Edited by Michael McKernan and Margaret Browne, 391–424. Canberra: Australian War Memorial in association with Allen & Unwin, 1988.

    This article is a clear, articulate, and valuable discussion of the role and place of war within conceptions of Australian military history.

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