Man or Myth? How the ‘Great War’ challenged Australian concepts of masculinity.

“As you have played the game in the past so we ask you to play the greater game now. This is your day”. – ‘Billy’ Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia; 27th July 1917. (

As we all know, the realities of the ‘Great War’ were far from a “game”. In 1914, this was not the case. It might come as a surprise to some new readers that the war was seen as an opportunity for males to meet their pre-war expectations of manhood.

Yes, that’s right, an opportunity!

Australian men willingly packed up and left their families to meet social expectations. As a result, there was a big proportion of the male population travelling to war with the idea of competing in another game of ‘sport’, in an effort to prove their athletic qualities and survive in rural untamed areas. However, as these ‘men’ arrived at the frontline, they were faced with the realities of war. In response to these realities, the Australian troops (as proved by their letters home), were left feeling emasculated in their unrealistic quest for warrior manhood. In order to understand how these Australian men were ‘set up for a fall’, I will first look at the conditions of pre-1914 Australia.

The Bushman Legend:

At the heart of these pre-war concepts of Australian masculinity was the bushman legend. The bushman arose as the pinnacle for Australian manhood in the pre-war era. As Australia was a newly settled nation, perceptions of manhood were bound in British culture. However, as these rural males began to ‘tame the harsh land’, ideas of what it was to be a man in Australia were interwoven with this bush culture. This bushman prided himself on the “golden rule” of mateship and the use of violence, as it allowed them to survive the harsh conditions of ‘outback’ (Davidson, 2012). Before Private Bert Smyth was sent to the front, he wrote home to his mother. Smyth dreamt of exploring unknown lands and making his first kill, enthusiastically explaining that he planned to “put a bullet on the job from the hip” (Smythe, 1915). Smyth is just one example of how the Bushman legend invaded ideas of war and what it was to be masculine, as his pursuit for a warrior manhood was eventually cut short by German artillery in 1917.


Manhood and masculinity are socially constructed. For a male to be considered masculine, they must act through a set of socially derived roles that have been deemed ‘appropriate’ for the ‘man’. Sport was one of these socially approved roles…

“Join the best sport on Almighty God’s earth – War!”  (New South Wales sportsman campaign, August 1915).

Obviously, the relationship between manhood, sport and war in the early twentieth century was subtle. Not surprisingly, research by sports historian Murray Phillips (2007), exposed that during the pre-war period, the Australian government believed that the sportsman could seamlessly move his skills from the sports field to the battlefield. So once again, the conditions of pre-war Australia romanticised war as an arena to prove one’s manhood.

“A race of athletes”:   

As shown, the bar had been set reasonably high for Australian men as they set out to give a ‘helping hand’ in the Great War. Not only were they expected to conquer the untamed lands of Europe and beyond, they were also meant to play and win this simple sport-like ‘game’ of war. So, expectations of World War One could not be any more unrealistic you say? Enter historians like Charles Bean.

Bean and friends (Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, etc.), managed to further legitimise these pre-war concepts of manhood as they “praised the soldierly qualities” of the ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli (Ashmead-Bartlett, 1915). As a consequence, the British Press, with support from social Darwinists such as Randolf Bedford, began to embrace Australian soldiers as “a race of athletes” (The London Times, 1915). These average Australian male “athletes” were argued to be scientifically superior to their British cousins (Garton, 1998). Consequently, Australian soldiers set off to war with the expectation that they were a “superb”  “race of athletes” (Bean, 1921).

The realities of war:

On the 18th of May 1915, Private Harold Craig of the Sixth Battalion AIF wrote to his mother detailing what he had seen at the landing of Gallipoli. He noted how he had witnessed an Australian Captain call out to his troops,

“Come on Australians, show these French and British beggars how to fight!” (Craig, 1915).

Craig’s following sentence detailed how the resulting charge of Australian soldiers was met by almost complete casualties. Modern military tactics such the use of machine guns combined with the conditions of trench warfare negated the Australian soldiers expectations of war as a “game”. As the realities of war proved to be far from the what the men expected, many soldiers failed to cope.
Ex-AIF soldier Fred Farrall noted in an interview with Alistair Thomson (1990) that he was “discouraged” from “expressing fear” as it was not considered manly. So as you can see, many Australian soldiers, like Farrall, would have felt “inadequate” by not being able to live up to the pre-war expectations of being part of this rugged, brave and sporting “race of athletes”.


Australian males were indeed ‘set up for the fall’. Pre-war understandings manhood and masculinity could not be carried to the battlefield. Because of these unrealistic expectations, the Australian soldiers were not only in a battle against the Central Powers, but were also in a battle against themselves becoming the feminised other.

If this blog post has intrigued you, have a look at these:

Crotty, Martin. “The Limits of Manliness”, in Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity, 1870-1920, Carlton South: Melbourne University Press, 2001, pp. 211-220.

Dwyer, Brian. “Place and Masculinity in the Anzac Legend” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 4 (1997): pp. 226-231.

Garton, Stephen. “War and masculinity in twentieth century Australia”, Journal of Australian Studies, 22:56 (1998): pp. 86-95.

Murrie, Linzi. “The Australian legend: Writing Australian masculinity/writing ‘Australian’ masculine”, Journal of Australian Studies, 22:56 (2009): pp. 68-77.

Phillips, Murray. “Sport, war and gender images: the Australian sportsmen’s battalions and the First World War”, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 14:1 (2007): pp. 78-96.

Smythe, Bert, ‘Letter home to parents’, Australian War Memorial, 30th June 1916.

Thomson, Alistair. “Anzac Memories: Putting Popular Memory Theory into Practice in Australia”, Oral History, 28:1 (1990): pp. 25-31.


2 comments on “Man or Myth? How the ‘Great War’ challenged Australian concepts of masculinity.

  1. shannonfonti says:

    What an interesting subject! During a television coverage of Remembrance Day last week one of the commentators was saying that Australian men knew what they were getting in for when they enlisted in WWI. I disagreed with what he was saying and I feel that if he read your argument about the illusion of war as ‘sport’ than maybe he would rethink his argument too. This aspect of the early expectations of the young men who enlisted is fascinating and deserves more attention. Well done!

  2. patsin1 says:

    I find it very interesting how enlisting in the war was considered an opportunity. It was the next addition to the criteria of Australian manhood. Initially, Australia romanticised war as the ultimate experience, and held the belief their soldiers were more capable soldiers on way to victory. The actual realties of war were a far cry from what was portrayed. The pre-war conceptions of manhood did not necessarily translate onto the battlefield. The Great War would revolutionise Australia’s understanding of manhood, to the detriment of generations of men. An interesting and we though out piece!

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