Wartime Australians: Billy Hughes

This commemorative publication focuses on William Morris Hughes, often called Billy Hughes. He was Australia's 7th Prime Minister. This resource covers his views on total war, conscription and repatriation.

ISBN: 1 920720 96 0
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Early Life

Little is known of the early life of Australia's seventh prime minister, William Morris Hughes, and much of what is known is unreliable. Born in London on 25 September 1862, Hughes was the only child of Welsh parents, William and Jane (née Morris). His father was a carpenter employed at the House of Lords. His mother, from a farming family on the Welsh border, had come to London to enter domestic service. When William was seven, his mother died and he was placed in the care of an aunt at Llandudno in Wales, where he lived for five years, attending the local grammar school and making occasional visits to London. In 1874 Hughes was appointed a pupil-teacher at St Stephen's School, Westminster, where after completing his apprenticeship he stayed as an assistant, occupying his spare time in a volunteer battalion of a British Army infantry regiment, the Royal Fusiliers.

On 8 October 1884 Hughes emigrated to Queensland on board the Duke of Westminster, landing in a colony that was sliding into recession. Drought was taking hold and unemployment was on the rise. He decided to go bush, where he roamed Queensland and New South Wales from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the town of Orange, doing a variety of jobs. At one stage, he joined the Queensland Navy at a time when the colony was gripped with fear of an imminent Russian invasion. Later, he served as a ship's cook up and down the Queensland coast.

Hughes' first years in Australia provided him with valuable insights into the country and the men and women who were building the nation he would one day lead. He saw at first hand the struggle for survival of a wide cross-section of people; he not only saw it—he lived it, and came to understand people's problems and outlook.

In 1886, after two years in the bush, Hughes arrived in Sydney, where according to his own account he lived rough, doing kitchen work when he could find it and sleeping out if he lacked the price of a room, until he found regular work forging hinges for cooking ovens. It was in Sydney that he met Elizabeth Cutts, the daughter of his landlady at a boarding house in Moore Park.

Hughes as a volunteer in the Royal Fusiliers, 1884. (NLA vn4198448)

He and Elizabeth had seven children, but the nature of their relationship is shrouded in mystery and it is not known for certain whether they ever married. In 1890 the family moved to Balmain, where they set up a mixed shop. To supplement their income, Elizabeth took in washing and William did odd jobs. The shop sold a wide range of products including books and political pamphlets, and its back room soon became a meeting place for the exchange of the new political ideas then infusing Sydney's working class.

Activist and Politician

One of those who attended the shop was William Arthur Holman, an English immigrant nine years Hughes' junior who would become premier of New South Wales. In 1894 they published together a weekly paper called New Order, which strongly advocated the case of the recently formed Labor Party. Hughes would later write more than 200 articles for the Daily Telegraph under the title 'The Case for Labor'.

Following the maritime strike of 1890, the Sydney Trades and Labor Council established electoral leagues to secure the election to parliament of members who would look after the interests of the working class. At the New South Wales elections in June 1891, the Labor leagues won 36 out of 141 seats, gaining the balance of power. However, without a recognised leader, a strong organisational base or clear policies, the caucus soon fractured.

Hughes' long time colleague William Holman was Premier of NSW from 1913 to 1920. They clashed over constitutional issues but were united on conscription. (State Library of NSW GPO 1 – 13478)

Students and teachers at Llandudno Grammar School, c 1870. William Morris Hughes is fourth from the left in the centre row. (NLA vn3308002)

Cardinal Patrick Moran, who endorsed the Labor Party as a suitable vehicle for Catholics so long as it rejected radical socialist policies. (State Library of Victoria H38849/3056)

Members of the Labor Party, First Federal Parliament, 1901. (NLA an22862446)

Ahead of the 1894 elections, party organisers took action to correct those defects. Among the organisers was William Hughes, who for eight months travelled on bicycle, horseback and foot through rural New South Wales addressing meetings and organising leagues in six western electorates.

In November 1893, two hundred delegates from electoral leagues across the state met in Sydney to determine the party's platform and decide on a pledge to bind the parliamentary members. Almost all the existing parliamentarians repudiated the conference decisions, but the party's annual conference in March 1894, at which Hughes played a leading role, affirmed the decisions.

At the elections on 17 July, Hughes contested the inner Sydney seat of Lang and was elected as one of twentyseven Labor representatives, of whom only fifteen accepted the party's pledge. Although Labor nominally held the balance of power, Premier George Reid secured the support of the twelve independent Labor members, offering their leader Joseph Cook a cabinet place.

Hughes was an active participant in the party on both organisational and policy fronts. While he supported the solidarity pledge, he retreated from his earlier socialism, dropping his membership of the Australian Socialist League (ASL).

The moderates' defeat of the ASL in 1898 and the withdrawal of its supporters to form their own party, led the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Patrick Moran, to endorse the Labor Party as a suitable vehicle for Catholics to pursue their political aspirations. His endorsement was a significant boost for both the party and Catholic aspirants for political office. But it was a two-edged sword. To maintain Moran's support the party would need to avoid radical policies and give careful attention to what the Cardinal might advise his flock.

Although Hughes, as a pragmatic politician, was prepared to adjust to win Catholic votes, he resented church intervention in politics. He believed the Catholic bishops were anti-British and agents of the Vatican. This attitude became an obsession from 1916 when Catholic bishops became outspoken critics of Britain's actions in Ireland.

Pragmatism over principle saw the Labor Party steadily increase its electoral support and achieve by negotiation with the major parties the passage of much of the social legislation it advocated. It was Hughes who negotiated most of these political deals. He also achieved a reputation as one of the most effective speakers in the House, one of the most tireless and shrewd committee members, and one of the Labor Party's leading propagandists.

In 1901 Hughes switched to the Commonwealth parliament, winning the seat of West Sydney. It was a measure of his pragmatism that he had been a vigorous opponent of federation, arguing that New South Wales would be better off developing a progressive state under a Labor government before joining the federation. He would spend the rest of his political life attempting to broaden the powers of the Commonwealth parliament to achieve social reform.

Politics and Policy before the War

Labor in government

Joseph Cook, Liberal Prime Minister 1913 to 1914, started out as a Labor member of the NSW Parliament. (NLA an23309790)

The first decade of the federal parliament was characterised by the rotation of government among the three parliamentary parties: Free Trade, Protectionist and Labor. During that time Labor formed government three times.

In April 1904 Labor came to power under John Christian Watson, with Hughes as Minister for External Affairs, but this first national Labor government lasted less than four months. In November 1908 Labor returned to government under Andrew Fisher, with Hughes as Attorney-General. This time the government lasted almost seven months. In both cases Labor was in a minority, dependent on the support of non-Labor members to stay in office. But at the elections in April 1910 the party won a majority and survived for a full term. Fisher was again Prime Minister and Hughes Attorney-General.

By then the non-Labor parties had merged to form the Liberal Party, which defeated Labor at the elections in May 1913. Joseph Cook, who had started his parliamentary career as a Labor member in the New South Wales parliament, was the prime minister.

 

 

Hughes' and immigration policy

The 'White Australia' policy became a keystone of the Labor platform and for more than half a century had general acceptance across the political spectrum. Hughes was one of its most strident supporters.

Whether White Australia was essentially an economic rather than a racial policy, as some have argued, its advocates often used language that was racist in tone. Hughes told the parliament that the Australian people 'must not only fear the destruction of living standards that would come with cheap labour; these coloured people must also be rejected because of their vices, because of their immorality, and because of a hundred things which could only be hinted'. Nevertheless, he also said, 'It is on industrial grounds that we desire to exclude these aliens, and not on account of their colour and religion, because that would be absurd'.

Hughes and industrial policy

In the New South Wales parliament, Hughes had set out to consolidate his support in the party by building a strong union base. In 1899 he resurrected the Sydney Wharf Labourers' Union, which had been emasculated during the 1890 strike. He was appointed the union's secretary. Hughes also organised the federation of unions known as the Waterside Workers Federation in the early 1900s.

It was a tough world in which he was opposed by socialists and gangsters. Lacking the brute strength to defeat them physically, he used carefully thought out tactics to outsmart them. In the same way, he achieved favourable results in negotiations with the employers, thereby endearing himself to the men.

Industrial arbitration was one of Hughes' passionate interests throughout his political career. He practised as an industrial advocate for the unions and was admitted to the bar in November 1903 after years of part-time study. He was responsible for much of the legislation at state and federal levels, setting up an arbitration system that at the time was the envy of the world. Even so, it was often incapable of resolving seemingly intractable disputes, in which case Hughes personally intervened, using his powers of persuasion to find a compromise acceptable to both sides.

 

Sixth Commonwealth Ministry, from 13 Nov 1908 to 1 June 1909. (NLA an23309694)

 

'The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia.' The White Australia policy had general acceptance across the political spectrum, and was often expressed in racist terms. (NLA, The Bulletin, 21 August 1886)

 

The arrival from England of the first ships of the Australian Navy, the torpedo boat destroyers Yarra (left) and Parramatta, at the Alfred graving dock, Williamstown, Victoria, on 10 December 1910. (AWM P00670.004)

 

Hughes and defence policy

Immigration and industrial arbitration were two issues Hughes made his own during his career. A third was defence. To Hughes, Australia was a British outpost in a hostile Asian environment. Hughes recognised that the White Australia policy offended Asians, particularly the Japanese. He believed that if Australia wished to maintain its racial homogeneity in the face of hostile, embittered and expansionary neighbours, it must develop a capacity to defend itself.

In federal parliament Hughes argued strongly for compulsory military service. He also advocated the establishment of an Australian navy. Hughes' caucus colleagues at first did not support him on either selfreliance or an Australian navy as they wanted to minimise defence expenditure and maximise spending on social reform. The idea of an Australian navy was not popular with conservatives either; they regarded the presence of the Royal Navy in the region as a sufficient and much cheaper deterrent.

As a non-government member in the new federal parliament, Hughes could only promote his ideas from the backbench, which he did loud and long. In Labor's first period in government, Hughes worked with Prime Minister Watson and Defence Minister Andrew Dawson on a defence bill, but the government fell before it could be introduced. The Japanese victory over the Russians in 1905 instilled urgency into the defence debate and in 1906 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin announced a program for an Australian navy, though not compulsory military training.

Although the naval plan languished, Deakin eventually came to support compulsion. When Deakin resigned in November 1908 and Andrew Fisher became the prime minister, the Labor government continued to promote Deakin's military training scheme, with Hughes playing a leading role, but again the government fell before the legislation passed.

On return to power in June 1909, Deakin introduced the Defence Bill 1909, based on the same principles, and compulsory military training was finally introduced, though it was limited to home defence. The following year the Labor government strengthened the legislation by giving effect to the report of Lord Kitchener who had visited Australia in December 1909 and made recommendations for Australia's military defence.

 

Alfred Deakin, three times prime minister of Australia, was with Hughes a key figure in promoting Australia's defence self-reliance. (NLA an23309662)

 

By this time many Australian political leaders accepted Hughes' view that the Royal Navy could not be relied on to defend Australia in times of crisis and Australia should accept responsibility for its own naval defence. In November 1910 Hughes, as the acting prime minister, introduced a bill to establish the Australian Navy.

Due to the strategic foresight shown by Hughes and Deakin during the decade before the war, Australia was able to make a substantial commitment to the defence of Great Britain in 1914. Hughes had converted a pacifist Labor Party that was opposed to large defence expenditure and had helped Deakin convince conservative politicians of the need for greater self-reliance.

Hughes and the British Empire

Hughes had a strong attachment to the British Empire based on a belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and its glorious achievements. Nevertheless, his imperialism was more than romantic tosh. He believed Australia could defend itself against a major power for a short time only and that Australia's security ultimately depended on a strong and dependable British Empire.

This is the key to understanding Hughes' absolute commitment to the Empire's cause during the First World War—in his view, defeat for Britain in Europe inevitably spelt defeat for Australia in the Pacific.

But support for the British Empire carried the risk that Britain might drag Australia into conflicts that were of no concern to Australia and over which Australia had no say. Hughes therefore saw it as essential to form close personal links with British leaders in order to gain influence over British policy. His first opportunity to do so came in 1907 when he visited England as a delegate to the Merchant Shipping Conference. There he established close relations with the future prime minister, David Lloyd George. But he was not so successful with Herbert Asquith or Winston Churchill, whom he distrusted. Nevertheless, Hughes laid the foundation for when he would become a leader on the imperial stage.

 

Hughes with David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain 1916–1922. (NLA vn4199983)

 

Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister of Great Britain 1908–1915, Leader of the National Coalition Government 1915–1916. (Imperial War Museum Q 42036)

 

Australia at War

Labor to power

Australia was unprepared for the outbreak of war when it came in early August 1914. The nation's leaders were engaged in a federal election campaign and ministers were scattered around the country when news arrived at the end of July of the immanence of war. Those who could, made their way to Melbourne (then the seat of government), where a hastily convened meeting of five cabinet ministers resolved to offer to Britain an expeditionary force of 20,000 men. Two days later Australia was at war.

Hughes' immediate response to the news was that the war must take precedence over everything, including the election campaign. Believing the public shared his sense of urgency, he urged Andrew Fisher in the strongest terms to make an offer to Prime Minister Cook to cancel the elections. Both Fisher and Cook rejected the idea.

On 5 September Labor was elected with a majority in the House of Representatives and with 31 out of 36 Senate seats. Labor had a mandate for the vigorous conduct of the war and the parliamentary strength to enact the necessary wartime-powers legislation. However, the cabinet was inexperienced, and the load was carried by Fisher, Hughes and Senator George Pearce, with the latter two virtually running the government.

Hughes as Attorney-General had the responsibility to draft the legislation necessary to put the country on a war footing. In this task he was assisted by Robert Garran, the first head of the Attorney-General's Department. The two men had formed a close working relationship that lasted for many years.

The war provided an opportunity for the Commonwealth to assume powers the Constitution denied it in peace time and which the people had refused to give it at referendums in 1911 and 1913. Hughes' first major piece of wartime legislation was the War Precautions Act 1914, which conferred on the executive the power to make regulations governing a range of activities unimagined in peace time, with the ability to enforce them by fines and imprisonment.

While the opposition supported the bill, Labor radicals voiced their opposition to the curtailment of civil liberties. Hughes denigrated their stance, arguing they 'could not see through the mists of abstractions in which they had lived the dreadful horrors of this war'.

Hughes' approach to winning the war was more aggressive than that of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, whose 'business as usual' attitude infuriated Hughes. Hughes had a well-informed understanding of strategy and was prepared to act more decisively than Asquith. He believed that the best way to shorten the conflict was to adopt the strategy now known as 'total war', dedicating all the nation's manpower and resources to achieve victory.

In July 1915 he introduced the War Census Bill 1915 to provide for the compulsory registration of manpower and materials. This was seen by some as a first step towards conscription, but Hughes denied this. Goaded by the Labor left during debate on the bill, Hughes declared, 'in no circumstances would I agree to send men out of this country to fight against their will'3. It was a statement that would be thrown back at him time and again during the conscription debate the following year.

 

'A Temporary Suspension', cartoon by Hal Eyre printed in The Daily Telegraph, 8 December 1917. (NLA)

 

'His Pledged Word', cartoon by Claude Marquet, 1916. (State Library of NSW PXD227)

 

Hughes and the economic war

Hughes also realised sooner than most that the war would be won by superior economic force and believed that Australia could make a contribution in that regard as important as the despatch of troops. He used his wartime powers to intervene in a number of industries, including metals, wheat and sugar.

Using those powers, Hughes authorised police raids on metals firms and discovered that German interests controlled the Australian metals market, using long-term contracts, many with London-based companies. He resolved to remove German control of Australian metals vital to the manufacture of munitions and to make them available to Britain. At first Asquith would not agree, preferring not to interfere with existing contracts. Hughes persisted and pushed through legislation providing machinery for the annulment of metals contracts, and set up a framework for the industry that included an Australian Metals Exchange through which Australian minerals had to be marketed.

In the wheat industry, lack of shipping in 1915 threatened to hit growers hard. Hughes' solution was for the Commonwealth to assume responsibility for chartering the necessary transports and to set up a process for marketing the wheat and tiding the growers over financially until their crops were sold. The scheme involved the setting up of wheat boards in each state to acquire the harvest, the pooling of all wheat, and the availability of an overdraft with the Commonwealth Bank to make advances to growers.

In the sugar industry Hughes put in place a scheme by which the Commonwealth arranged for the purchase and refining of the sugar crop so as to guarantee growers a fair price while ensuring consumers would not face the high prices that the world sugar shortage had caused.

Hughes had adopted imaginative solutions, pressing them forward with characteristic determination and with the advice and assistance of industry experts who had the technical competence to implement the schemes.

Despite his single-minded approach to winning the war, Hughes wanted the Commonwealth's wartime powers over trade, commerce and industrial relations to apply after the war. He persuaded the party to agree to a referendum. But when legislation for the referendum was introduced the debate was heated, with Cook accusing Hughes of introducing a partisan measure in time of war. The bitterness was illustrated when the opposition walked out of the chamber.

It was always going to be an uphill battle to win the referendum as none of the premiers supported it and some were hostile. As a compromise, the premiers agreed to transfer some of the states' powers to the Commonwealth and Hughes abandoned the referendum. Many suspected the compromise had been contrived to ease Hughes' embarrassment and Labor radicals accused him of betrayal. Hughes' biographer LF Fitzhardinge argues that this issue rather than conscription sealed Hughes' alienation from the radicals.

 

Prime Minister WM ‘Billy’ Hughes speaks in favour of conscription during a rally in Martin Place, Sydney, in late 1916. (AWM A03376)

 

Hughes and his wife Mary visit his old school in Wales, 21 March 1916. (NLA vn4199856)

 

Hughes PM

While Hughes thrived on the challenges the war presented, Andrew Fisher was a man of a different character and his health suffered under the pressure. Therefore, when the office of Australian High Commissioner in London became available, it provided Fisher an escape hatch. On 26 October 1915 caucus approved Fisher's appointment and elected Hughes unopposed as the new leader. The next day he was sworn in as Prime Minister.

Hughes at war Recruiting was then at a level where enlistments were below replacement needs and pressure was building for the government to introduce conscription for overseas service. To head off growing calls for conscription, Hughes instigated a recruiting drive which initially saw the monthly recruitment figure double in January 1916.

While conscriptionists grew more vocal, a strong undercurrent of opposition to recruiting and the war itself was emerging within the labour movement. Until the end of 1915 the country had been virtually strike free, but workers were becoming restive. Prices were rising but wages were not. Strikes in key industries began to occur.

At about this time, the government was also becoming sensitive to the impact that events in Ireland might have on the Irish-Australian community, comprising a quarter of the population. More than a year had passed since the enactment by the Westminster parliament of the Home Rule Act 1914, which was suspending for the duration of the war. Nationalists in Ireland, most of whom initially supported the war, were growing impatient, and the British high command's mishandling of Irish troops at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, led many of them to question their support. Censors were instructed to be vigilant to minimise resentment among the Australian Irish.

As the pressure cooker of conscription, industrial relations and Irish disaffection slowly built up a head of steam, Hughes sailed out of Sydney on 20 January 1916 bound for England. His first wife, Elizabeth, had died in 1906; sailing with him were his second wife Mary, whom he had married in 1911, and their daughter Helen, not yet six months.

Hughes abroad

On arrival in England, Hughes found little to encourage him in the way the British government was conducting the war and soon decided that Asquith was temperamentally unsuited to lead the Empire in these difficult times. Moreover, the patronising attitude of the British government towards dominion prime ministers irked him as he believed he knew more about running the war than they did. So, he took his message to the British people.

His speeches were fiercely anti-German, and he bitterly attacked defeatism and expressed confidence in victory. The British press gave enthusiastic coverage to his views, arousing much popular enthusiasm. It was at this time that Hughes became associated with Keith Murdoch, a thirty-year-old Melbourne journalist who managed a cable service for a group of Australian newspapers. Murdoch made himself Hughes' honorary public relations officer, placing stories about him in newspapers and organising his publicity.

The British government soon invited Hughes to attend cabinet meetings, where Hughes pressed his case with characteristic passion and vigour. Some newspapers suggested that Hughes be asked to stay on as a member of the cabinet, while others mischievously spoke of his replacing Asquith.

 

Hughes with Keith Murdoch on the Western Front in France. (AWM E02650)

 

Prime Minister Hughes, with Lieutenant Colonel Sir Newton Moore, inspects members of the Australian Army Provost Corps, London, 1916. (AWM H18654)

 

He was also keen to attend the Allied Economic Conference in Paris in June but the British government was reluctant to allow him to go. However, popular opinion persuaded Asquith to allow Hughes not only to attend but to have the right to put his own point of view. Although the conference outcomes were not significant overall, Hughes' participation gave him the opportunity to work with French political leaders, which proved invaluable two years later at the Paris peace conference.

While in London Hughes negotiated favourable deals for the sale of Australian metals and for Australia's shipping needs, ensuring Australian primary producers could market their produce in Europe, though in doing so he was regarded as abrasive. Overcoming the inertia of British bureaucracy, he managed to purchase fifteen ships to carry Australia's exports.

Hughes' other area of concern was the long-term threat of Japan. Without consulting Australia, Britain had agreed to Japan's occupying German Pacific possessions north of the equator in return for Japanese naval support. Under pressure from Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, Hughes reluctantly acquiesced. He would later claim that Grey told him that Japan had threatened to ally itself with Germany if Britain did not agree.

Despite his busy schedule, never far from Hughes' mind was the welfare of the men of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Whenever he could, he would talk to them in camps, hospitals, convalescent homes and at AIF headquarters in London. He would listen to the men talk about Gallipoli and would make short speeches on why Australia was at war. In early June he crossed over to France and standing on a wagon in an orchard near Armentières he addressed the men of the 1st Division, telling them that the thoughts of the Australian people were with them. Hughes was moved by his experience, writing to Pearce, 'What a glorious and inspiring sight they were ... to see them is the elixir of life!'

Hughes remained popular with the soldiers during and after the war. At various times, in both England and Australia, admiring groups of diggers mobbed him, lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him around like a mascot. Often they would place a slouch hat on his head. After the war, Hughes would take his place at the Cenotaph in Sydney's Martin Place each Anzac Day and watch the parade of returned servicemen. Following his death, it became customary to leave an empty chair with a slouch hat on it as a reminder of the man they called 'the Little Digger'.

 

'Saving it with his mouth', cartoon by Oswald Pryor, 1916. (NLA, The Bulletin, 4 May 1916)

 

'Billywog: London's latest craze', cartoon by David Low, from The Billy Book: Hughes Abroad, NSW Bookstall Co. Ltd, 1918. (NLA NPF 741 LOW)

 

'The Firebrand and the Fossils', cartoon by David Low in which Asquith says to Lloyd George: 'David, talk to him in Welsh and pacify him!' (NLA an6426987)

 

Seamen crowd around Prime Minister Hughes as he addresses them on the deck of HMAS Australia at the dockyard in Devon, England, on 21 May 1916. (AMW EN0080)

 

Prime Minister Hughes and Lieutenant Colonel William Walker Watson watch as Australian soldiers march past their billets in a French village west of Armentières. (AWM EZ0029)

 

'A visit to the front', cartoon by David Low, from The Billy Book: Hughes Abroad, NSW Bookstall Co. Ltd, 1918. (NLA NPF 741 LOW)

 

'A visit to the front', cartoon by David Low, from The Billy Book: Hughes Abroad, NSW Bookstall Co. Ltd, 1918. (NLA NPF 741 LOW)

 

Conscription

During his time in London, a close personal friendship had developed between Hughes and Murdoch, with Murdoch becoming Hughes' confidante during the dark days ahead. And dark they would be, for as soon as Hughes returned to Australia at the end of July 1916, he found himself embroiled in the great conscription controversy.

Instead of immediately announcing his intentions on the issue of extending conscription to overseas service, as many urged him to do, Hughes kept his counsel, in order to gain time to get his bearings and to gauge public opinion. The surge in recruiting before his departure had receded, leading pro-conscriptionists to renew their calls for compulsion. At the same time, a succession of organisations within the labour movement declared themselves against conscription.

Hughes may well have been sincere in 1915 when he dismissed conscription as an option. However, in August 1916 circumstances had changed. General Sir Douglas Haig had told Hughes of his new strategy of sustained pressure on a narrow front designed to wear down the Germans leading to a breakthrough that would bring the war to a quick finish. A year later Hughes would have met such talk with scepticism, but this was early 1916 and the Australians had only just arrived on the Western Front.

While Hughes was en route to Australia the new strategy was put into effect with the great Somme offensive. When the Australians were thrown into the battle, at Pozières, Hughes was still a week out from Fremantle. By the time he landed he would have known of the heavy casualties they were taking. The news over the next few weeks worsened.

If the pressure was to be kept up until the Germans broke, as Haig's strategy demanded, every man was needed and the present level of recruiting was sufficient for a few months only. Britain and New Zealand had accepted conscription without fuss; why not Australia?

Hughes came under increasing pressure. Advisers argued that the people were for conscription and that opposition was confined to union bosses and party machines. He had also received a cable from the Army Council in Britain specifying the level of reinforcements required to maintain the Australian divisions in the field. It well exceeded the current level of voluntary recruitment. Events would show the figures were grossly exaggerated, but that was the advice Hughes had at the time.

Hughes knew that a majority of his party opposed conscription and that the necessary legislation would be defeated in the Senate, overwhelmingly dominated by Labor. The exercise would also split the party. He decided to appeal over the heads of his parliamentary opponents to the Australian people in the hope that their endorsement of conscription would persuade a sufficient number of Labor senators to accede to the democratically expressed will of the people.

It took four days of prolonged and stormy debate for Hughes to secure, by 23 votes to 21, caucus approval to hold a referendum. Hughes then went on the road, meeting with party executives and trade union councils in three states. In Melbourne and Sydney he was soundly rebuffed, while Adelaide was equivocal.

Hughes threw himself into the campaign with all his energies. His meetings were usually well attended and enthusiastic, but his audiences were mostly middle class and conservative. As the campaign rolled on, a spirit of bitterness without precedent in Australian politics took hold and arguments became more emotional and more personal. The pros made much of Australia's ties with Britain and argued that Australia's survival was at stake. The antis appealed to women by arguing they would lose their sons and to workers by telling them they would be replaced by cheap foreign labour.

Within the labour movement hostility to Hughes intensified. On 15 September the NSW executive expelled him from the party and a fortnight later the Sydney Wharf Labourers' Union expelled him from the union.

As it became clear that the referendum might be lost, Hughes took more drastic measures. He used censorship to suppress unfavourable reports and to emphasise news that would stir fear and create an atmosphere of crisis. On the eve of the vote three cabinet members resigned in protest over his methods. Hughes' decision to issue a proclamation under the Defence Act calling up all single men aged between twenty-one and thirty-five is seen by many historians and contemporaries as a blunder in that it caused inconvenience and resentment to those called up and heightened the fears of the farmers that they would have insufficient labour to harvest their wheat and shear their sheep.

The Irish question also caused Hughes concern. Irish-Australians generally supported the war and had little sympathy with the Easter Rising of April 1916. However, the ruthless repression of the rising and the execution of the leaders had stirred latent anti-British feelings. Hughes was keen to neutralise Ireland as an issue and implored the British government to resolve the crisis, but without success.

In the result, the No vote achieved an overall majority of 72,476 out of a total formal vote of 2,247,590 , with only Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania voting for. The soldiers' vote was Hughes' biggest disappointment. While the AIF overseas recorded a slight majority in favour of conscription, the vote on the Western Front was negative.

 

Members of the 10th Australian Light Horse vote on the conscription referendum at the polling booth at Hod Willegha, Sinai, on October 1916. (AWM J02466)

 

'Reinforcements referendum. What of the soldiers? Vote Yes on December 20', leaflet drawn by Stan Cross, with a poem by Andree Hayward, 1917. (AWM RC00325)

 

'The blood vote', leaflet drawn by Claude Marquet, with a poem by WR Winspear. (AWM RC00337)

 

'Keep Australia White', leaflet. Workers were told to reject conscription as it would destroy White Australia. (National Archives of Australia [NAA] A456, w26/217/8)

 

'Australian Labor Party', leaflet produced by the Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee. (AWM RC00336)

 

'God bless dear Daddy, who is fighting the Hun and send him Help', recruitment poster by Norman Lindsay. (AWM ARTV05469)

 

Aftermath: Labor split, sectarianism, industrial turmoil

On 14 November 1916 caucus met and, after allowing his opponents to have their say, Hughes did not wait for a vote but left the meeting, avoiding the need to resign or refuse to resign. He took with him 24 members. The Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, accepted Hughes' assurance that the opposition would support his rump government and commissioned him the same day to form what was called the National Labor government. Frank Tudor was elected leader of what was left of the Labor Party.

After the result of the referendum was announced, Hughes went looking for a scapegoat, and it was not long before the finger was pointed at Irish Catholics for being behind the defeat. The perceived role of the Irish Catholic vote was to lead to some of the most vitriolic attacks ever to be made on the Australian Catholic community.

Growing anti-Catholic animus was stirred up even more in January 1917, when Daniel Mannix, the Irishborn coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne, described the war as 'an ordinary trade war'. This and other public utterances by Mannix, critical of the government's war policy, elevated him to national status and earned him the role of bogey man in the minds of government supporters.

In May 1917 Mannix succeeded Archbishop Thomas Carr as the Archbishop of Melbourne, raising his profile even more. He soon assumed the mantle of leader of the opposition, answering calls for a greater war effort in support of the Empire by pointing to Britain's betrayal of Ireland and arguing that the duty of Australians was to Australia first. He soon became the accepted spokesman of most Irish-Australians, while at the same time he became a lightning-rod attracting much of the rising anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry.

 

Archbishop Daniel Mannix. (AWM P01383.001)

 

Soon after forming his National Labor government, Hughes knew that his position was untenable in the long term. In January 1917 he established the National Federation, ostensibly a non-partisan organisation designed to ensure support for his government. Its principal objects were winning the war and maintaining Empire solidarity. Joseph Cook, hoping to become prime minister himself, soon realised that Hughes had out-manoeuvred him. In early February the Liberal Party authorised Cook to enter into a coalition with Hughes as leader. Thus was born the Nationalist Party.

The first popular test of the government came at the elections on 5 May 1917. Hughes stood for the seat of Bendigo because West Sydney, a Labor stronghold, was no longer viable for him. The overall election result was a personal triumph for Hughes, with his Nationalist Party winning a clear victory and gaining control of both houses. The downside, however, was that to counter allegations by his opponents that if elected he would introduce conscription, Hughes promised he would not do so without a referendum. This promise may have removed conscription as an election issue but it proved a liability later that year when declining enlistments and rising casualties once again pointed to the need for compulsion.

In the meantime, growing industrial unrest was proving a major headache for governments around the country. In August eastern Australia was plunged into a strike more widespread and damaging than any since the 1890s. It threatened to paralyse transport and industry, services essential to maintain the war economy. The industrial workforce was suffering war weariness and was frustrated by rising prices and frozen wages. Workers felt they bore the burden of wartime austerity while employers were profiting from defence contracts and interest on war loans.

Hughes, however, did not see it in these terms, believing instead that the strike was politically inspired, the work of sinister and disloyal forces such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Sinn Féiners who, he claimed, had captured the labour movement. In the middle of the strike he told Lloyd George that 'the Irish question is at the bottom of all our difficulties in Australia'.5 Governments, federal and state, came down heavily on the strikers, employing volunteers and dismissing union members. The strike was eventually crushed, leaving a legacy of acrimony that lasted for generations.

 

Hughes Ministry, 17 February 1917 to 8 January 1918. (AMW A02822)

 

Workers felt they bore the burden of wartime austerity while the wealthy were profiting from the war. (Claude Marquet, 1915, State Library of NSW PXD227)

 

Conscription again

Meanwhile, the war was not going well. The offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele had been a disaster, shipping losses in the Atlantic had reached a new peak, the Austrians had defeated the Italians at Caporetto, and the Russian front had collapsed following the Bolshevik revolution. A German victory was once more a distinct possibility.

In Australia pressure for conscription was building. In the period July to November 1917, the AIF suffered nearly 40,000 casualties on the Western Front, while recruiting continued a downward trend and was less than half that required. Hughes postponed making a decision for weeks before finally deciding that conscription was necessary. Although Hughes had the numbers in both houses of parliament to pass the necessary legislation, he chose instead to honour his election promise to hold another referendum.

The campaign was more bitter, more strident and more uninhibited on both sides than in 1916. It was conducted in an atmosphere of violence quite unusual for Australia. Hughes seemed to believe that the biggest impediment to success was the attitude of the Irish Catholics, in particular Archbishop Mannix and Queensland Premier TJ Ryan.

In opening the campaign Hughes pledged that if the referendum were lost he would resign, transforming the vote from the specific issue of conscription to confidence in the government. This set the tone for a campaign in which at times Hughes was at the edge of hysteria and his behaviour erratic. To suppress anti-conscription speeches by Ryan, Hughes ordered the Queensland censor to seize all copies of an issue of the Queensland Hansard in which the speeches had been reproduced. The government also mounted a series of prosecutions against the Queensland premier.

 

Men of the 44th Battalion AIF vote on the referendum at Neuve Eglise on the Western Front, 8 December 1917. Overall the AIF voted 'yes', but those on the Western Front voted 'no'. (AWM E01605)

 

On 29 November 1917 at Warwick railway station in Queensland, Hughes suffered the indignity of being struck by an egg thrown by an Irish-Australian, Bart Brosnan. Hughes retaliated, throwing himself into the melee. He then ordered Sergeant Kenny of the Queensland police force, an Irish-Australian, to arrest the culprit. Kenny refused and later, after Ryan refused to discipline the policeman, Hughes drafted a regulation to establish a Commonwealth police force. In a telegram to the Governor-General, Hughes explained: 'This will apply to Queensland where [the] present position is one of latent rebellion. Police is honeycombed with Sinn Feiners and I.W.W. ... [T]here are towns in North Queensland where the Law ... is openly ignored and I.W.W. and Sinn Féin run the show.'

The referendum was once again defeated, this time by a larger margin. The No majority was 166,588 out of a total of 2,196,906 votes cast, with Victoria joining the No majority.

After the campaign Hughes calmed down. The immediate problem he faced was the tactical one of fulfilling his promise to resign. He was still the dominant political figure, with no serious alternative. He tendered his resignation to the Governor-General without offering advice as to a successor. Munro-Ferguson duly invited him to form a new government.

 

'Overwrought', cartoon by Claude Marquet, c1917. (NLA PICR8493 LOC8963-B)

 

'Who threw that egg?', cartoon by Jim Case referring to an incident in which Hughes was struck by an egg at Warwick railway station. (NLA, Australia's Pioneer Co-operative Labor Journal, 24 December 1917)

 

Australia and the Peace

Imperial War Conference 1918

In early 1918 Hughes, having survived his referendum defeat, lapsed into depression. But his spirits lifted at the thought of returning to London for meetings of the Imperial War Conference and Cabinet. He left Sydney on 26 April, taking Joseph Cook with him to protect his back, and did not return until 16 months later.

He travelled via the United States in order to talk with President Woodrow Wilson, much to the annoyance of the British government, which regarded itself as the sole conduit for discussions between the dominions and foreign powers. However, Hughes was determined to discover for himself whether America would help Australia protect its vital interests in the Pacific. Although he met with the president, he received no assurances.

In London Hughes soon realised that the British government was keeping the dominions in ignorance of the true course of the war. Therefore, when the Allied offensive broke through the German lines in August and victory seemed assured, he decided to stay in London to safeguard Australian interests at the peace conference once Germany collapsed.

 

Arriving in London on his way to attend the Imperial War Conference, Hughes is welcomed at Euston Station by his wife, his soldier son, and his daughter, 15 June 1918. (NLA vn3065078)

 

Repatriation

He also wanted to oversee the repatriation of the AIF. Visiting the men at the front in July 1918 he was once again moved by the experience. Getting them home would be a mammoth task given the numbers involved, the shortage of shipping and the need to keep the men occupied for at least twelve months after the war. Not only did he use his gritty determination to overcome bureaucratic bottlenecks, he also initiated a scheme for retraining soldiers in British workshops, factories and farms, using his industrial relations experience to broker agreements with employers and unions.

Paris Peace Conference

Hughes had a list of issues he wanted addressed at the peace conference and he believed that only he could properly argue Australia's case. His first achievement, therefore, was to win agreement for separate dominion representation at the peace conference.

On the issue of reparations, Hughes gained little of real economic value for Australia, despite his prominence in the debate. He did, however, succeed in ensuring Australia's effective control of the former German colonies. President Wilson had opposed Hughes' demand to annex the colonies, largely because he wanted to deny Japan the same right in relation to German possessions north of the equator. Hughes shared the president's concerns, so eventually he agreed to a mandate system proposed by the Americans, but on terms that gave Australia the control Hughes desired.

Hughes' other victory was to defeat a Japanese attempt to have the principle of racial equality written into the charter of the League of Nations, which President Wilson had initially supported. Hughes argued this would threaten the White Australia policy.

 

The Paris Peace Conference, 1919–1920 (Imperial War Museum Q 81859)

 

Australian soldiers hang a dummy of the Australian Prime Minister 'Billie' Hughes from a window in Rouge Croix, France, in June 1918. The dummy was a battalion mascot of the 1st Division. (AWM E04919)

 

Sisters and staff of the 1st Australian General Hospital share a joke with Prime Minister Hughes at Sutton Veny, England. (AWM P02402.031)

 

Hughes examines the barrel of a disabled German gun with Lieutenant James Loudon MC and Bar, France, 1918. (AWM P01212.001)

 

Hughes, during a visit to the 5th Australian Division Headquarters, addresses a crowd of Australian troops gathered in Solre-le-Chateau, February 1919. (AWM E04960, photographer Cyril J Jackson)

 

Post-war Politics

1919 elections

On his return Hughes received such popular acclaim that he called an early election and a referendum on Commonwealth powers for 13 December 1919. The campaign was marked by sectarianism, particularly when TJ Ryan nominated for Hughes' old seat of West Sydney. The election soon became a contest between Hughes on one side and Ryan and Mannix on the other.

The government was returned with a reduced majority. The Labor Party won four extra seats in the House of Representatives, but lost all but one seat in the Senate. However, once again Hughes failed to convince voters to approve the extension of the Commonwealth's powers.

A new party representing conservative rural voters dissatisfied with parties dominated by metropolitan interests, picked up eleven seats. Initially the Country Party lacked cohesion, but after Earle Page became leader in 1921 it became strong and coherent. Hughes rightly foresaw it as a threat, and hostility soon grew between him and Page. Nevertheless, the parliament ran its full term.

 

Hughes receives a warm welcome on his return to Australia in 1919. (NLA an23150756)

 

Expulsion of Hugh Mahon

The parliament was, however, marred by the expulsion of one of its members, Hugh Mahon, a prominent Irish-born Catholic who had denounced British rule in Ireland as 'this bloody and accursed despotism'. On 11 November 1920 Hughes moved in the House of Representatives that Mahon be expelled from the House and the motion was carried on party lines.

LF Fitzhardinge attributed sectarian motives to Hughes' decision to have Mahon expelled, while another biographer Malcolm Booker argued it showed a vindictiveness beyond political requirements.

International relations The Paris peace conference was the first major international conference where Australia was represented separately from Britain. It marked the beginning of the nation's evolution towards independence as an international entity.

At the 1921 Imperial Conference the evolutionary process continued, with Canada and South Africa seeking increased autonomy, while Australia and New Zealand were more cautious. Hughes believed that Australia's security was best assured within the British Empire but with proper consultation, which modern communications now made possible. For that reason Hughes promoted new technologies, such as wireless and aviation, which would overcome Australia's remoteness.

At Hughes' suggestion, the conference agreed on an international meeting on security in the Pacific. However, after Lloyd George informed parliament of the plan, President Warren Harding announced that he himself had called a conference to be held in Washington. After initial doubts as to dominion representation, Lloyd George invited Australia and New Zealand to be represented on the British delegation. Hughes was tempted to go but domestic politics dictated otherwise and he sent Pearce instead. The Washington Conference broadly achieved the objective Hughes had sought through the Imperial Conference, easing tensions between the United States and Japan.

In September 1922, however, the Chanak crisis caused Hughes to doubt whether anything but the rhetoric of empire had changed. Turkish troops had entered Chanak (now Canakkale), across the Dardanelles from Gallipoli, then occupied by British forces. The British government requested the dominions to send troops as part of an imperial force and issued a press release announcing the request. The press release, which claimed that war graves on the Gallipoli peninsula were at risk, reached Australian newspapers before the government's invitation.

Hughes could hardly reject the request, even if he had wanted to, given the emotive reference to the war graves. He issued a public statement saying Australia would send troops, but he also sent a lengthy, stinging private rebuke to Lloyd George. Fortunately, the issue went away when the crisis was resolved before the time to send troops arose.

Return to the backbench

In late 1921 the country was sliding into recession and Country Party and Nationalist malcontents were plotting Hughes' downfall. To avoid a fatal confrontation, he kept parliament in recess for six months, and to mollify critical business interests, he invited Stanley Melbourne Bruce to join the cabinet. When parliament resumed in June 1922, Hughes survived two close votes before parliament was prorogued in October for a 16 December election. Because Bendigo had become unwinnable, Hughes nominated for the safe Nationalist seat of North Sydney.

During the campaign, Page launched a fierce personal attack on Hughes and declared that the Country Party would not support a government led by Hughes. The government lost nine seats, including five ministers, and the new parliament comprised thirty Labor members, twentyeight Nationalists and fourteen Country Party.

Although Hughes would have realised his fate, he made no move to resign. His party declared confidence in him, but called for a coalition with the Country Party. Page, however, held to his pledge not to serve under Hughes. Hughes held on for two weeks and then tendered his resignation, advising the Governor- General to call for Bruce, who formed a government on 9 February 1923.

 

Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who replaced Hughes as Prime Minister of Australia. (NLA an23245080)

 

The Long Twilight

In his sixtieth year and after almost thirty years in parliament, twenty-two of them in the federal parliament, and seven and a half years as prime minister, Hughes might have been expected to retire from politics and enjoy the rest of his days away from the tumult and shouting of political life. It was not to be.

In fact Hughes remained in parliament for almost another thirty years. In those remaining years he had the personal satisfaction of bringing about the downfall of his successor, SM Bruce, when he crossed the floor in September 1929 precipitating the fall of the government and the election of a Labor government at the ensuing elections in which Bruce lost his seat.

In 1931, as the Labor government was disintegrating in the midst of the Great Depression, Hughes joined the United Australia Party (UAP), the new non-Labor grouping formed by members of the Nationalist Party and dissenting members of the Labor Party under Joseph Lyons. Hughes once more found himself in cabinet in 1934 when he became Minister for Health and Repatriation in the Lyons government and between 1934 and 1941 he served Lyons and his successor, Robert Menzies, in various portfolios.

He continued to advocate defence self-reliance and became a vocal critic of appeasement, leading to his forced resignation from the government in 1935 after he published a book perceived as questioning government policy. Two years later he suffered a personal tragedy when his beloved daughter Helen, aged twenty-one, died in childbirth in England. The strict moral code of the day dictated that her cause of death be suppressed, leading to rumours of a botched abortion, compounding his grief.

 

Billy Hughes with daughter Helen Hughes at the Sydney Cricket Ground; she died in childbirth in 1937 at the age of 21. (NLA MS1538)

 

A former soldier reaches out from the ranks to shake the hand of the Right Honourable William Hughes during the Anzac Day march in Sydney, 25 April 1938. (AWM H17121)

 

In 1939 Lyons died and Menzies came to power. But internal dissension within the UAP led to his resignation in August 1941, with Country Party leader Arthur Fadden taking over. Following the government's defeat in parliament in October 1941, Labor took office under John Curtin.

Hughes, then aged seventy-nine, once again found himself leader of his party, but Fadden became leader of the opposition. In February 1944 the UAP withdrew its members from the Advisory War Council in protest against the government. Hughes, however, returned to the council and was expelled from the UAP. In 1944 Menzies formed the Liberal Party and the following year Hughes became a member, winning elections for the party in the seat of North Sydney in 1946 and Bradfield in 1949 and 1951.

He died at his home in Lindfield on 28 October 1952, at the age of ninety, while still a Member of Parliament.

 

Lady Chauvel, Dame Mary Hughes, General Sir Harry Chauvel, and the Right Honourable William Hughes shake hands with Navy officers at a march in Melbourne on 24 January 1940. (AWM 000505)

 

Hughes plays a game of billiards at the Australian Army Canteens Service Club, Adelaide River, Northern Territory, in November 1944. (AWM 082302)

 

Hughes prepares to inspect an Anson aircraft, Katherine NT c 1944. (AWM NWA0698)

 

'54 years in parliament—and still going strong', cartoon from The Daily Mirror commemorating Hughes' long record of continuous parliamentary service. (NLA MS1538)

 

Billy Hughes' funeral, St. Andrews Cathedral, Sydney, 2 November 1952. (State Library of NSW NCY51/523)

 

Billy Hughes' funeral, St. Andrews Cathedral, Sydney, 2 November 1952. (State Library of NSW NCY51/524)

 

 

 

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