William (Billy) Hughes

Full name:
The Right Honorable William Morris Hughes, CH, KC

Pimlico, London

Arrival in Australia:
Prime Minister of Australia
St Stephen's School, Westminster, London, England
Decorations/ commendations:
Australian Army
Military event:

William Morris Hughes, often called 'Billy Hughes', was Australia’s 7th prime minister and an important figure in Australia's political and wartime history. When the Labor Party was elected to government on 5 September 1914, after war was declared, Hughes was appointed Attorney General. On 27 October, he became Prime Minister and held that office until 9 February 1923.

Welsh-born Hughes arrived in Australia as a young man. He disembarked from the SS Duke of Westminster in December 1884. Hughes was an activist and politician for many years before becoming Australia's Prime Minister. He was first elected to office in the New South Wales Government on 17 July 1894 when he won the seat of Sydney-Lang.

Hughes got a taste of wartime governing when the Labor Party won the federal election on 5 September 1914, only a month after war was declared, led by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher.

Hughes as Attorney-General and Senator George Pearce as Minister for Defence virtually ran the inexperienced government for Prime Minister Andrew Fisher.

When Fisher resigned under the wartime pressures, the caucus elected Billy Hughes as Prime Minister on 27 October 1915. He remained leader of Australia throughout the war and post-war years.

Before the war

Hughes had a strong attachment to the British Empire and its achievements. He also believed that Australia's long-term security needed a strong and dependable British Empire.

Hughes formed close personal links with British leaders so he could gain influence over British policy. For example, he visited England in 1907 as a delegate to the Colonial Merchant Shipping Conference. Hughes established a good relationship with future prime minister, David Lloyd George, who was also Welsh.

During the war

Australia's absolute commitment to the British Empire's cause throughout the war derived from Hughes' view that defeat for Britain in Europe would mean defeat for Australia in the Pacific.

His first action as Attorney-General was to draft wartime laws. He was assisted by Robert Garran, the first head of the Attorney-General's Department. The two men formed a close working relationship that lasted many years.

Hughes introduced the War Precautions Act 1914, which gave the Australian Government special powers during the war and for 6 months afterwards.

In a strategy we now call 'total war', Hughes believed that the best way to shorten the conflict was to dedicate the nation's workforce and resources to achieving victory.

In July 1915, Hughes introduced the War Census Bill 1915 to provide for the compulsory registration of human resources and materials. He denied this was a first step towards conscription, saying:

… in no circumstances would I agree to send men out of this country to fight against their will

This statement was thrown back at him many times during Australia's conscription policy debate.

In early 1916, Hughes travelled to England for high-level talks with the British Government. He was away from Australia for more than 6 months. He made many popular speeches in England and was dubbed 'the Strong Man of Australia'.

Hughes met with Australian troops in France before big battles of July 1916 at Fromelles and on the Somme. This visit - and the dreadful casualties in these battles - convinced Hughes of the need for conscription.

The British had also been pressuring the Australian Government to replenish the losses from the Australian Divisions on the Western Front.

When Hughes returned to Australia, he introduced the idea of conscription to bolster the falling numbers of voluntary recruits. He believed that he could convince Australia to adopt a military conscription policy.

Conscription debate

Hughes thought that conscription should be introduced in Australia, just as it had been in Britain in January 1916. He knew that his Labor Party and the Senate would not approve his proposal, so he introduced a referendum.

The Australian Government asked the public to vote on a conscription policy on 28 October 1916. The referendum was defeated by a small margin, although the soldiers voted narrowly in its favour.

The issue split the Labor Party, and Hughes formed a breakaway coalition government.

Hughes tried again in 1917. The second referendum was similarly defeated.

The bitterness of the conscription debate caused long-standing divisions amongst the Australian people.

Towards the end of the war

Hughes left Sydney on 26 April 1918 to attend a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet and the Imperial War Conference in London. He was joined by:

Hughes was away from Australia for 16 months. He travelled to Europe via Vancouver, Canada and the US.

In the US, Hughes unsuccessfully tried to influence President Woodrow about the protection of Australia's interests in the Pacific.

Imperial War Conference 1918

At the Imperial War Conference held in London from 12 June to 26 July 1918, Hughes discovered that the British Government was keeping the dominions in ignorance of the true course of the war. Hughes quickly realised that he would have to safeguard Australian interests once the Allies had defeated Germany. He decided to stay in Europe until the peace conference after the war.

In July 1918, Hughes spoke to the Australian troops of the 2nd Division camped at Camon, in Amiens. The experience moved him. He knew that getting these men home after the war would be a huge task. He decided to oversee the repatriation of Australians while he was in Europe.

Watch a silent film: Prime Minister Rt Hon WM Hughes visits Western Front

Cinematographer, George Hubert Wilkins, made this silent film on 2 and 3 July 1918. The film shows Hughes and Cook travelling with Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash. Monash was annoyed by the timing of the official visit. He was deep in the planning of the Hamel attack, which was to take place on 4 July.

After the war

When the war ended, Hughes led a team of Australian delegates through 6 months of discussions with the British Government and other dominions of the British Empire.

In June 1919, the Australian delegation began weeks of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to protect Australian interests.

As the country slid into recession, the Country Party and Nationalists began to plot Hughes' downfall. He won the federal election on 16 December 1922, but failed to form a coalition with the relatively new Country Party. Hughes resigned as leader of the Nationalist Party on 9 February 1923 and was succeeded by his Treasurer, Stanley Bruce.

Last updated: 18 November 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), William Morris Hughes, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/biographies/william-morris-hughes
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