Conscription debate in Australia during World War I

 

Even before the war began, the Australian Government made an unwavering commitment to supporting its closest ally, the United Kingdom. At the outbreak of the war, many men volunteered to enlist in the newly formed Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to serve overseas. A government policy for conscription would have forced eligible Australian men into military service overseas with the AIF. Conscription was a contentious issue in the Australian community. It was hotly debated amongst Australia's political and religious leaders at the time.

Large numbers of recruits

Rows of soldiers stand to attention to a commanding officer
New AIF recruits under instruction by Sergeant Major Vincent at Broadmeadows Army Camp, Victoria. 1914. AWM H18404

In 1911, the Australian Government had introduced compulsory military training for males aged from 18 to 60 years. General enthusiasm for military service may have been a motivating factor, among other reasons for volunteering.

Thousands of Australian men wanted to sign up when recruitment offices opened on 10 August 1914. By the end of 1914, the AIF had recruited more than 52,000 soldiers.

After broadening the conditions of enlistment in June 1915, another 165,000 men enlisted by the end of 1915.

Decline in optimism and volunteers

As the war progressed, most Australians read daily newspaper reports of heavy casualties. Communities across the country were saddened by the loss of loved ones in battles at Gallipoli, the Middle East and the Western Front.

Notable losses reported in 1916 included:

  • 5500 Australian casualties overnight at Fromelles
  • another 23,000 over 6 weeks at Pozières

New enlistments started to decline in mid-1915.

By 1916, the British were pressuring Prime Minister Billy Hughes to supply 5500 men per month. But the AIF was struggling to maintain the full strength of its military divisions in Europe.

Conscription policy

Some nations in the British Empire introduced conscription during World War I:

  • Canada - introduced conscription for men aged from 20 to 45 years on 29 August 1917 after many months of divisive debate.
  • New Zealand - launched the National Registration scheme in October 1915 to identify potentially eligible men aged from 17 to 60 years; then introduced conscription on 1 August 1916 with monthly ballots starting in November 1916.
  • Union of South Africa - conscripted an African labour force (Carrier Corps) who did not bear arms but did not conscript white Africans.
  • United Kingdom - introduced conscription for men aged from 18 to 41 years in all regions except Ireland on 27 January 1916.

Australia's Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, strongly supported conscription during World War I. He tried to introduce it twice.

First referendum on conscription in 1916

A crowd is congregated to watch a man on a podium speak.

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

On 30 August 1916, Hughes announced his intention to hold a plebiscite on conscription. The Australian Government would ask the people of Australia to vote in a referendum to introduce a conscription policy.

Compulsory voting in referendums had been introduced in 1915. Eligible voters at that time included most men and women aged 21 and over. First Australians, who were not given the right to vote until 1949, were ineligible.

The Australian Government asked voters if they agreed with compulsory military training for Australian men to serve overseas.

The wording of the referendum was complex:

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?

The campaign for and against conscription in September and October 1916 was bitterly contested. The debate divided Australian society.

'Yes' to conscription campaign

Political and social elites championed the case for conscription, including:

  • business leaders
  • most of the press
  • Protestant church leaders
  • the federal Opposition

For these largely middle-class Australians, the military case for compulsion seemed irrefutable. They accepted the British High Command’s view that:

  • the war was a just and noble cause in defence of the British Empire and the values it stood for
  • there was no other way of ensuring the AIF received the reinforcements it needed
  • the enemy was brutal and uncivilised, going by Australian press coverage of atrocities in Belgium

Conscription was also a debate about the obligations of citizenship. Those supporting conscription argued that:

  • military service should not be an individual choice
  • the supreme duty a citizen owed to their country was to fight for it
  • the burden of the war must be shared equitably

Equality of sacrifice was an argument rooted partly in the agony of bereavement and loss. Why should my family member die while yours lives?

A eugenics argument also noted a flaw in relying on volunteers. The 'yes' campaigners assumed that volunteers were the fittest, most virile and most morally sound men in Australia. If they died, the Australian race might become degenerate if left with those who were presumed not to have these qualities.

These arguments were positioned within an unquestioned identification with the British Empire. This view had underpinned Australia's initial commitment to the war. British interests were seen as indivisible from Australian.

Those who opposed conscription were seen as 'disloyal', and branded with insinuations of treason, treachery and support for Germany.

'No' to conscription campaign

The case against conscription was dominated by:

  • anti-war activists
  • trade unions
  • large segments of the Irish Catholic community

They also talked about the equality of sacrifice.

The 'no' campaigners were incensed that the capitalist class of so-called 'plutocrats' were shamelessly profiting from the war. At the time, people in the working classes were straining under economic hardships caused by inflation.

Opponents of conscription:

  • challenged the official estimates of the reinforcements needed to replace AIF losses
  • believed military conscription might foreshadow industrial conscription
  • feared a loss of workers' rights gained by the union movement over the past 20 years
  • worried that if more Australian men were sent to Europe, the country would be vulnerable to an invasion from the north

Like the 'yes' case, the 'no' campaign also invoked civil liberties. Campaigners claimed that it was a violation of democratic rights in forcing men to fight and kill against their will.

Catholic leaders and followers

Over 20% of the Australian population identified themselves as Roman Catholic. Most were working-class with Irish heritage. With few exceptions, their religious leaders were Irish by birth or training.

In contrast to the Protestant leaders, the Catholic hierarchy did not initially adopt a formal position on conscription. Divided on the conscription issue themselves, they declared it a secular issue, not a moral one.

However, Catholic followers were largely opposed to conscription. It's widely debated whether this was because of their class, ethnicity or religion.

Many Australian Catholics with Irish heritage distrusted British imperialists at the time. They lacked the Australian Britons' enthusiastic support for the war effort. It's possible that some had also been radicalised by an event in Ireland - the 1916 Easter Rising.

Women in the debate

Over a long campaign of 8 weeks, public order disintegrated.

Each side held large rallies, with crowds of up to 100,000 people in Sydney.

Violence and disruptive tactics became common on both sides. The violence often targeted women, as did the propaganda of both sides.

The 'yes' case exhorted women to fulfil biological roles and provide husbands and sons to fight for the nation.

The 'no' case turned this gendered argument on its head. Campaigners exhorted women to protect their offspring and the sons of other women from the savagery of war.

On both sides of the campaign, women entered a public sphere traditionally dominated by men.

The public debate became deeply personalised and bitter in communities where everyone knew each other. Small rural towns were divided by the partisan politics of the debate. Public shaming of families who had not sent their sons or husbands to the war was common.

Result of the first referendum

Soldier queue outside cabin buildings
Soldiers of 6th Brigade reinforcements waiting in line at Rollestone Camp, England, to vote in the first conscription referendum, 1916. AWM A00735

On 28 October 1916, Australians voted on whether to introduce conscription.

The referendum was defeated by a narrow margin. More than 2.2 million Australians voted:

  • 49% were in favour
  • 51% were against

Interestingly, Australian soldiers in France and the Middle East voted 'yes' by a margin of more than 13,000 votes.

The dead - and those whose wounds made them unfit for front line service - would continue to be replaced by volunteers.

Shocking losses on the Western Front

News of heavy casualties on the Western Front in Belgium and France left many Australians uncertain and pessimistic by the start of 1917. Peace and victory remained distant prospects.

Battles at Bullecourt, Messines and Ypres made 1917 the bloodiest year in Australia's wartime history. At the Third Battle of Ypres, more than 38,000 Australians were killed or wounded in less than 4 weeks.

Second referendum in 1917

Soldiers address a crowd of spectators in Collins Street, Melbourne, during the second conscription referendum campaign, December 1917. AWM J00336

The first vote had divided our young nation and split the Australian Labour Party.

As leader of the newly created National Labor Party, Hughes campaigned on a promise not to introduce conscription again, unless Germany looked like winning the war. He won the next election in 1917.

The AIF was in crisis throughout 1917. Numbers of volunteer recruits were not sufficient to replace its losses.

The Australian 6th division began to be formed in early 1917 but was never completed. Instead, the men were disbursed in September 1917 to make up the numbers in the other divisions.

Many of the Allied forces had already introduced conscription: Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. In November 1917, Prime Minister Billy Hughes announced a second conscription referendum.

The wording was simpler in this referendum:

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

Hughes' proposal was that any shortfall in voluntary enlistment would be met by compulsory reinforcements of single men, widowers and divorcees without dependants aged between 20 and 44 years, who would be called up by ballot.

The lead up to the second referendum was just as divisive as the first for the Australian community.

Result of the second referendum

The vote was held on 20 December 1917. Again, Australians voted 'no'. This time, slightly more people voted against the proposal. Fewer than 2.2 million Australians voted this time:

  • 46% were in favour
  • 54% were against

End of the conscription debate

AIF volunteers continued to drop, with new enlistments of:

  • 45,101 in 1917
  • 28,883 in 1918

The Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, marking the end of fighting. The repatriation of Australians on ships from Europe and the Middle East occurred over the next 10 months.

Some Australian airmen and troops continued to be deployed in 1919.


Last updated: 7 July 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Conscription debate in Australia during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/politics/conscription
Was this page helpful?