Coded communications delayed Australia's war warning

Cables from Britain warning Australia to prepare for war in 1914 went unheeded for several days while the prime minister and many cabinet ministers were on the campaign trail.

Documents held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA) reveal both the government and opposition were campaigning ahead of the federal election in the days leading up to Britain declaring war on Germany on August 4, 1914.

That declaration of war is considered to mark the beginning of World War I.

NAA curator Anne-Marie Conde says when the first encrypted cable arrived from Britain on July 30, advising Australia to prepare military and naval forces, it was misinterpreted as a routine message.

Defence Minister Edward Millen did not immediately realise the importance of the cable and when it did become clear, he chose to contact Prime Minister Joseph Cook before taking any action. But Mr Cook, who was in rural Victoria at the time, did not understand the message from his minister because he did not have the correct cable cypher with him.

It was only when he returned to Melbourne on August 2 that he learnt Australia’s military forces were preparing for war, Ms Conde said.AAP

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