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The Blood Votes
Teaching Conscription: World War One Debates.
Coordinated by Blood Votes
  • An Overview of Events Leading up to the Conscription Debates.

    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 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).


    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 fueled 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;

    1. Are you prepared to enlist now?  If your answer is yes, you will be given a fortnights notice before being called up

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

    3. 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)

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