A short summary of the historical context relevant to the Australian conscription debates of 1916-17.

This summary was prepared by historians, researchers and students at UQ in 2015-18, including Dr Geoff Ginn, Assoc. Prof. Martin Crotty, Dr Susan Kellett, Mr Duncan Hart, Ms Emily Lancaster, and Mr Michael Norris.

Before WWI

The Commonwealth Government of Australia had the task of providing suitable defence for the country when it federated in 1901. A large and growing urgency to provide this proctection led to the introduction of the Commonwealth Defence Act of 1903, which imposed an obligation on all males between the ages of 18 and 60 to serve in defence of their country in wartime (J.M.Main 1970).

The result of this proposed legislation led to a series of backlash around various issues. H.B.Higgins wished to make provision for conscientious objectors to military service for reasons such as religion, to ensure that a call up of men was not conducted through ill-defined "national emergency" and to finally limit this bill to make sure that volunteers would not be able to be used in overseas enlistments. Other criticisms of this bill came from William Hughes of the Australian Labor Party, who advocated for the compulsory military training of Australians (J.M.Main 1970).

The bill was strengthened over time, in 1909, 1910 and 1912, which now gave the following powers; the commonwealth had the power to introduce compulsory military training within Australia for able bodied men between the ages 18-60. Further, compulsory drill training for youths between the ages 12-26 was instituted. The transformation of the parliamentary opinion on the matter of the Defence Act had much to do with W.M Hughes passionate advocacy (Smith F.B 1974).

Early years of the Great War

Recruitment for the War proceeded in an optimistic and concise manner during the opening months of warfare. By January 1915, 52 000 men had enlisted and because of this, there was no real push by authorities to help drive recruitment. By September of 1915 volunteers had started to dwindle and the effects of Gallipoli were starting to be seen. Fears were starting to circulate that there wouldn't be enough volunteers to continue to reinforce current deployments (Smith 1974).

The fear would be fuelled by pressure from the British Government; "Every available man that can be recruited in Australia is wanted". This led to a recruitment drive in places like Victoria, which had seen numbers dwindle. This worked for a small time, but by the end of October 1915 "the hopelessness of the Dardanelles campaign had become apparent" (Forward & Reece 1974).

The War Census Act, introduced in July 1915, authorised the accounting of both the wealth and manpower of Australia. This form of census sparked fear, as a rumor that conscription was to be considered an option due to dwindling recruitment had begun to circulate. William Hughes at this point was Attorney-General when he addressed this;

"...In no circumstances would I agree to send men out of this country to fight against their will" (Forward & Reece 1974).

The Census brought back information that there were 600 000 fit healthy men between the ages 18 and 44. This coincided with the fact that the government had announced another 50 000 men would be sent to war and an additional 9 500 to make up for "wastage". To raise these numbers, the government had approached the 600,000 men with the following;

Are you prepared to enlist now? If your answer is yes, you will be given a fortnight’s notice before being called up’

Are you prepared to enlist at a later date? If so, name the date.

If you are not prepared to enlist, state the reasons why.

(Forward & Reece 1974)

Reflecting on this recruitment campaign, Smith summarised "...a crude attempt to defeat the passive resistance rooted in a moderately prosperous independent community that was far from the scenes of conflict" (Smith 1974)

Hughes’ conscription proposal

In August 1914, there was no doubt that the Australian people fully supported the imperial War effort. From federation, the Australian nation had the power to control their "external affairs". However, it was usually accepted that London controlled foreign policy for the whole empire. When War was declared, Australians still felt imperial loyalty, often identifying with the British Empire. This coupled with the notion that Australia's defence relied on the supremacy of the British Empire, made the War mostly supported (Beaumont, 2014).

When Prime Minister Hughes had arrived back in Australia after spending time abroad in London in regards to War matters, he received a request from the British Army Council (BAC) for an additional 20,000 recruits. The request also stipulated that they expected 16,500 men per month up to three months. The dilemma that P.M Hughes now faced was the following; only 6345 men had enlisted in that month, and so meeting expectations would be hard, unless conscription was considered an option (Bridge 2011).

This however was another issue of its own. The largest union in Australia at the time, the AWU, had voted against conscription, including the trades halls in Sydney and Victoria. The Labor parties in Queensland, NSW and Victoria had also voted against the idea. Before the request from the BAC, Hughes had been informed that the majority of his party was strongly opposed to conscription. Hughes knew that his party was against him on this issue, and they controlled the senate, so passing a conscription bill through upper and lower houses of government would not work. He also knew that he could force it through under the War Precautions Act but would be kicked from his party and lose leadership. Thus, his last strategy to introduce conscription was a call for a plebiscite (Bridge 2011).

Arguments for and against, 1916

Central to the pro-conscriptionist view was the idea of “sacrifice”. This concept was often linked with “duty” and usually was the bedrock of pro-conscription rhetoric. Prime Minister Billy Hughes assured the Australia public that “the enemy can be crushed, the war shortened, and the triumphant victory and lasting peace assured” only if conscription was implemented. "Duty" and "Sacrifice" were transcendent concepts, and Australians were reminded that their sacrifice was insufficient: “…we have made sacrifices, but we know nothing of the agonies which France, Belgium, Russia, and Serbia have endured”.

Within this framework of sacrifice and duty, Hughes launched his campaign for conscription, seeking to use patriotism to bolster war recruitment. Hughes had various supporters for conscription, such as Dr Leeper from the Church of England who claimed the allies were forces of God maintaining moral order (Andrews 1971).

The anti-conscriptionists would promote their own concepts against the push for conscription. This was interwoven with themes of Labor solidarity and class identity. The Labor movement argued that if men were to be conscripted, capitalist wealth should also be requisitioned for the war effort. Racism also influenced anti-conscriptionist arguments: if Australia introduced conscription, there were fears that 'non-white' labour would gain a foothold.

According to one opponent of Hughes' concription argument, "I will vote 'No' because I believe in keeping Australia a white man's country. 'Yes' would commit Australia to sending 16,500 men away monthly for an indefinite time. Soon all except those utterly incapable of service would be gone and this country would have to resort to importing labour." (Andrews 1971).

Organised labour would comment that they were against conscription due to it being a Capitalists War in Europe therefore had nothing to do with them. Pacifists argued the state should not be allowed to compel citizens to fight. Censorship was imposed, and police and military force used to break up anti-conscriptionist meetings. Newspapers would report almost exclusively on pro-conscription matters and would make sure to point out the unruly behaviour of the anti-conscriptionists. At the same time, they would also downplay the anti-conscription message. As time went on they became more personal and emotional, as the divisive debate continued.

The first plebiscite (October 1916)

On the 28th of October 1916 Australians were asked the following in a national plebiscite;

"Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?"

Australians answered with 1,087,557 citizens voting yes and 1,160,033 voting no, a narrow victory for the anti-conscriptionists.

The Labor split

Following the Government's loss in the first conscription plebiscite, tensions within the parliamentary Labor party came to a head. Supporters of Prime Minister Billy Hughes followed his lead in splitting to form a new National Labor Party, which in early 1917 went into coalition with the Liberal opposition.

Please note: this website is presently under development. For further details regarding this topic, please contact Dr Geoff Ginn (g.ginn@uq.edu.au).

Arguments for and against, 1917

In 1917, with casualties continuing on the Western Front, Hughes' coalition government revisted the question of compulsory military service. The arguments for and against conscription resumed with increased bitterness.

Please note: this website is presently under development. For further details regarding this topic, please contact Dr Geoff Ginn (g.ginn@uq.edu.au).

The second plebiscite (December 1917)

On the 20th of December 1917, a second referendum was held. Voters were asked:

"Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?"

This time, the yes vote carried 1,015,159 votes for and 1,181,747 against. The margin of victory for the 'no' vote had increased.


Please note: this website is presently under development. For further details regarding this topic, please contact Dr Geoff Ginn (g.ginn@uq.edu.au).