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The Blood Votes
Teaching Conscription: World War One Debates.
Coordinated by Blood Votes
  • The Battle for Conscription

    On 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 P.M 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).

    Central to the pro-conscriptionist's was the idea of “sacrifice”.  This concept was often linked with “duty” and usually was the bedrock of pro-conscription rhetoric.  P.M 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" was a transcendent concept, Australians were reminded that we had not done enough sacrifice “…we have made sacrifices, but we know nothing of the agonies which France, Belgium, Russia, and Serbia have endured”.  This sacrificial concept was sold in a "positive good" manner and what helped form our foundations as a nation.  Within this framework of sacrifice and duty, Hughes launched his campaign for conscription, seeking to link patriotism and higher callings to the concept.  Hughes had various supporters for conscription, for example Dr Leeper from the Church of England who claimed the allies were forces of God maintaining moral order (Andrews 1971).

    The anti-conscriptionist's would promote their own concepts as well against the push for conscription.  This was interwoven themes of Labor solidarity and “Australia First”.  Anti-conscriptionist's put forward that conscription was not a self-sacrificing response to dutiful kinsmen but rather, letting down his fellow man, if voting yes.  Another concept used was the idea of “distance”.  The consideration of Australian interests and Australian priorities were a different thing compared to the British.  This interjection helped contribute to the growing national consciousness and identity.  Labor’s attack on conscription was a countering the points of the pro-conscriptionists with appeals to Australian nationhood.  Racism was also a concept used by the anti-conscriptionists.  The idea was that if Australia voted for conscription, we would no longer be a “white” nation.  Reminders of the events in America and their civil war were used, to remind Australians that they would have to import “coloured” labour to make up for the loss of white men at War (Andrews 1971).

    "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 and take life from others.  Regardless on reasons, the Government applied censorship to the anti-conscriptionists whomever they would be.  Soldiers would be sent 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, splitting and dividing Australians everywhere with the air of bitterness (Wray, 2015)

  • Results of both Referendums

    On the 28th of October 1916 Australians were asked the following in a 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 citizens voting no, a narrow victory for the anti-conscriptionists. (Australian Government)

    Following this defeat, on the 20th of December 1917, a second referendum 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.  This issue seemed to have divided the nation very closely.  (Australian Government.)