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The offending 'M' - WW2 Army service numbers

During the Second World War, Australia’s land fighting force was essentially composed of two separate armies, the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the Citizen Military Forces (CMF or Militia).

Image: Fighting side by side, in New Guinea helped to establish a professional respect between the AIF and the Militia. In this picture, four Australian soldiers await repatriation from Bougainville at the conclusion of World War 2.

During the Second World War, Australia’s land fighting force was essentially composed of two separate armies, the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the Citizen Military Forces (CMF or Militia).  

An undercurrent of hostility and competition between the two armies, particularly during the early years of the war, has been well documented. 

Men in the AIF volunteered for an indefinite time period and for service in any location. The militia on the other hand were volunteers who enlisted for home defence and whose service had restrictions placed upon it, for example the localities to which they could be sent. Some members of the AIF doubted the abilities of the militia and predicted they would melt under pressure, derisively labelling them “chocos” (short for chocolate soldiers).

In general, it is easy to discern whether a Second World War Army Veteran served with the militia or with the AIF, simply by examining his service number. Members of the militia have service numbers that appear like thus: V25444. In this case, the V stands for Victoria, denoting the state of enlistment with the unique identifying number following.   N6942 denoted a New South Wales enlistee, S78024 a South Australian enlistee, and so on.

A member of the AIF would have a service number resembling this: VX542. In this case, again, the first initial denotes the state of enlistment and the second initial, the ‘X’, indicates that the soldier was a member of the AIF.

Initially, when a soldier transferred from the militia to the AIF, an ‘M’ would be inserted into his service number. Thus, if he was originally a member of the militia and his service number was V5467 – following his transfer to the AIF, his number would change to VMX5467.

The tension between the two forces was evident at a meeting of the Advisory War Council in Melbourne on 6 August 1942.

Here, council member and future Prime Minister, John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen questioned the numbering practice used for men voluntarily transferring from the militia to the AIF. 

While it may seem a triviality, this practice proved unpopular with the troops. The main reason for this was that it differentiated between troops who had enlisted in the AIF directly, and those who had arrived there via the Militia.

When John McEwen raised concerns about this practice to the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces, General Thomas Blamey, who replied that this practice occurred merely for the purposes of record keeping. 

Nevertheless, Blamey acknowledged that the administrative practice was causing discontent amongst the troops and as a consequence, advised the members of the Council that the practice would be discontinued and a new batch of numbers would be allotted to the militia transfers – minus the offending ‘M’.

This, coupled with the respect the Militia gained from the AIF after they distinguished themselves in the brutal fighting of the Papuan Campaign, helped to alleviate friction between Australia’s two forces.

Nick Anderson - Australian Army History Unit

Last updated
3 December 2016
Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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