Coded Message Delays Australia’s WWI Entrance

Recently reviewed records regarding a coded message sent from Great Britain to Australia following the start of the First World War have shown that Australia was actually late to receive news that the Great War had begun. While this delay was not extremely lengthy, it still stands as an interesting footnote in world history that an entire nation and continent was nearly late to one of history’s deadliest conflicts because of one simple coded message.

While the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo is often cited as the main inciting incident leading to the start of the First World War, most people consider the day on which Britain formally declared war against Germany to be the war’s true official start date. Five days prior to this declaration, Great Britain sent a coded message to Australia so that their allies would be forewarned of impending events. Australia, however, never had time to prepare. This is because, while the wire was received on time, its decryption took almost a week. This meant that Australia was late in mobilizing its forces to join the war effort.

The problem was that when the wire was received by defense minister Edward Mullen, it was not fully comprehended. It was then sent to the prime minister, who was unable to decrypt the coded message at all. It was not until the day after Britain’s formal declaration of war that Australians knew with any certainty what was going on. This put them in a bad position, as the government setup at the time forced them to join Britain in any formally declared conflict.

Although they were forced to join, they were unable to make any declarations themselves. This meant that they could not mobilize their troops without explicit instructions from Britain to do so. They had to know for certain that the coded message was an instruction for them to begin preparing for battle. Since this confirmation took several days, they were in a state of confusion for some time. They knew for certain that Britain was preparing, but they also knew that the British were hoping for a peaceful negotiation before any declaration was actually made, The Guardian reports.

Britain and their allies eventually won the war, but the confusion caused by the coded message meant that they were short-handed by a number of troops at the war’s outset. It is difficult to assign blame for this, as the coded message was handled by no less than three people before the start of war was confirmed. If anything, it would appear that all involved parties were simply blameless victims of a confusing and tumultuous period in world history.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE