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Remembered Today:

First Australian Conscription Debate


aussiesoldier
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We are almost at the 100th anniversary of the first Conscription debate in Australia. Confronted by massive losses at Pozieres and the demands of the War Office for an increased commitment of Infantry to the Western Front, Prime Minister Hughes put forward the idea of a referendum to authorise conscription for overseas military service.

 

Of all the official Anzac 100-year commemorations that remember and celebrate the undoubted courage of World War I diggers, there is an extraordinary amnesia about how ambivalent Australians were about that war. We forget that a majority of Australians came to oppose forcibly conscripting young men to go to the war in two national referenda in 1916 and 1917.

Australian voters were asked in October 1916, and again in December 1917, to vote on the issue of conscription. Universal military training for Australian men aged 18 to 60 had been compulsory since 1911. The referendums, if carried, would have extended this requirement to service overseas.

The 1916 referendum

Australian troops fighting overseas in World War I enlisted voluntarily. As the enormity of Australian casualties on the Western Front became known in Australia and no quick end to the war seemed likely the number of men volunteering fell steadily. There was sustained British pressure on the Australian Government to ensure that its divisions were not depleted: in 1916 it was argued that Australia needed to provide reinforcements of 5500 men per month to maintain its forces overseas at operational level. With advertising campaigns not achieving recruiting targets, Prime Minister Hughes decided to ask the people in a referendum if they would agree to a proposal requiring men undergoing compulsory training to serve overseas. The referendum of 28 October 1916 asked Australians:

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 referendum was defeated but the nation was broken into warring parties; parents from children, Protestant from Catholic, labour from middle class, mothers from fathers, brothers from brothers and sisters. Future WW2 Prime Minister Curtin, a railway union rep in Western Australia, was gaoled for organising opposition to the referendum He would introduce conscription by regulation in 1940! 

bloodvote.jpg

Conscriptreferendum 3.jpg

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A selection of posters.

Conscript 4.jpg

Vic Vote No.jpg

Vote Yes.jpg

Conscriptreferendum 1.JPG

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An extraordinary amnesia…

 

I'm uncertain as to who this is being directed at or, indeed, what your intent is with this post.  As in all referenda, there are at least two sides and with extreme views!  My reading has made it very clear that the question asked became more divisive as time wore on in the debates at the time.  Once the votes were cast, especially the second time round, then one had to accept the decision.  I have no idea if it was the right or wrong decision but I am very proud of the fact that my Grandpa was one of the 100% of the AIF who volunteered.

 

I would assume that the vast majority of us (Australian) on this forum have family connections with those who served.  We're here to find out more and commemorate their lives.  Although what went on at home at the time was very important we are, perhaps, more focussed upon the issues dealt with in Europe, Gallipoli and Palestine.

 

I do thank you for bringing attention to this matter, though.  It's not forgotten by all.

 

Jonathan

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Well you've educated me.

I was unaware of the referendums on conscription in Australia.

 

Cheers,
Derek.

Edited by Derek Black
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Jonathan,

 

 

I always thought the idea of the site was to educate its members, many of whom are not lucky enough to live in this southern heaven. When I have spoken to people overseas they are not aware that we fielded a completely volunteer army and wonder why we did not introduce conscription.

Although called a referendum, it was instead a plebiscite because the Australian government already had powers sufficient to introduce overseas conscription. However, due to the controversial nature of the measure and a lack of clear parliamentary support (his Labor Party was strongly opposed), Hughes took the issue to a public vote to obtain symbolic, rather than legal, sanction for the move. The plebiscite sparked a divisive debate that split the public and the Labor Party in the process, and resulted in a close but clear rejection of the measure. After the re-election of Hughes in the 1917 election, a 1917 plebiscite was carried dealing with the same issue softening the conditions of conscription, and with the same result.

I don’t think he understood the national feeling and certainly misunderstood the crucial importance of the women’s vote.  They had only had the right to vote in federal elections since 1908 and I think he felt they would fall in line with the male opinion.  Not surprisingly, both campaigns focussed much of their effort on getting the women’s vote.

The role and vote of the front line soldier is just as contentious. There were 133,813 votes from the 1st AIF of which the ‘yes’ vote won by a narrow 13,000 votes. Below are some examples of this divide.

Captain Harold ‘Rollo’ Armitage enlisted in the Australian military on 23 January 1915, aged 20. He joined the 4th Australian Division, rose to the rank of captain and was sent to fight in Belgium and France. From these locations he sent many letters home to his family and kept a personal diary. It is within this diary that his opinions on the conscription plebiscites were found.

On 5 November 1916, following the first plebiscite, Armitage opened his diary entry with: ‘I am sorry to be an Australian since that [plebiscite] and now call myself a Britisher.’ As a captain, Armitage would have overseen many soldiers and his belief in a soldiers’ welfare greatly influenced his conscription vote. Having more men join the military to replace those who were lost was one way that Armitage believed support could be given to the remaining soldiers.

Similarly Sergeant Major Norman Ellsworth wrote from England, 1917, of how his ‘blood boiled’ when he read the plebiscite had failed. Anyone who voted no, according to Ellsworth, was a traitor to the country. Common themes of responsibility, burden-sharing and cowardice ran throughout the letters of those in higher ranks.

Claude Ewart wrote while stationed at the Somme. Courtesy Museum Victoria Collection, ID 366102.

After one year on the frontline, this attitude had changed considerably. Claude Ewart wrote about the death began to surround him and this, paired with horrific conditions in the trenches, spurred him to write: ‘I would not ask anyone to come over here and go through what I have in this last twelve months.’

The terrible conditions faced by servicemen on the Western Front appear to have been a major contributing factor to those voting no. Ernest Allen and his two brothers from Gin Gin further offer an insight into fighting conditions. Overall, he was glad conscription had failed as he did not want to see his friends sent over. In that same month, he had witnessed the death of a friend of his. Although detailed military issues were not allowed to be discussed, Ernest did mention the fact that he wished the war to be over and for no more men to be killed.

Ernest Allen wrote from the front about the 1916 conscription referendum; while he does not state what his feelings are about conscription, in March 1917 he noted:

The boys are pleased it failed & say they would be sorry to see their friends enlist to come over to fight. One thing the cold is awful & your fingers are numbed all day in spite of woollen gloves.

 

Contrary to popular belief, serving soldiers voted in favour of conscription, by a margin of 72,399 to 58,894 in the first referendum and 103,789 to 93,910 in the second. Soldiers who supported conscription saw it as a way to make others “do their bit”. However, Ernest’s experience suggests there were many front-line soldiers who were against conscription.

I hope that this helps you all understand the event.

 

 

 

 

Edited by aussiesoldier
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Thank you aussiesoldier,

 

This interesting subject has made me want to spend more of my research time looking at the men from my town who served in the Australian Army.

 

Cheers,
Derek.

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10 hours ago, aussiesoldier said:

Jonathan,

 

 

I always thought the idea of the site was to educate its members, many of whom are not lucky enough to live in this southern heaven. When I have spoken to people overseas they are not aware that we fielded a completely volunteer army and wonder why we did not introduce conscription.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I totally agree with your sentiments.  Your second post clarified, in great detail I might add, what your first post was, in my mind, missing.  I thank you for that.  Your balanced research is very educational and shows how the divisiveness affected so many people on all sides of the front.

 

Jonathan

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10 hours ago, Derek Black said:

Thank you aussiesoldier,

 

This interesting subject has made me want to spend more of my research time looking at the men from my town who served in the Australian Army.

 

Cheers,
Derek.

 

18% of the first AIF were British born, so you may find a few.

 

Ken

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41 minutes ago, kenf48 said:

 

18% of the first AIF were British born, so you may find a few.

 

Ken

 

Thanks Ken,

I did wonder what the ratio would have been.
Do you have the New Zealand data to hand?

Cheers,
Derek.

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6 minutes ago, Derek Black said:

 

Thanks Ken,

I did wonder what the ratio would have been.
Do you have the New Zealand data to hand?

Cheers,
Derek.

 

No, the Australian figure is in Graham Seal's 'Inventing Anzac The Digger and National Mythology'.  While the courage and sacrifice on the battlefield is not diminished there is certainly an academic debate in Australia on the context of WW1 and national identity.

 

Ken

 

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I find it difficult to accept that defeat of the referendum on two occasions means that Australians were 'ambivalent about that war'. Surely it is more accurate to say that the result demonstrated that Australians were, by a small majority, against being compelled to serve.

 

I would like to know how many, amongst those who enlisted voluntarily, voted against conscription. By that I mean those who enlisted post-referenda

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Ken,

 

I can't remember where I heard it - great research skills but soooo many interviews were recorded before the Anzacs died of old age - but more than one of the infantrymen said that they would never vote to put someone into 'that hell' against their wishes. My recollection is an honest desire to say that only those who volunteered should ever be made to serve in the trenches. It also seemed to be a matter of some regard that we were all volunteers and that fact was often mentioned.

 

One wonders if the yes vote came from training, reinforcements, supply, signals and perhaps artillery.  I wish I could remember the exact circumstances and it may have been the 1970's series on the Australians at War or the ABC commissioned series of the late 80's. Considering the ballots were all secret and only the names of those voting were recorded I actually don't know how the results were tabulated and if these results are available.

A letter written home after the first referendum vote by Victor Voules Brown, dated 19 May 1917.

"Last time you wrote you wanted to know why it was the troops in France did not vote for conscription. I told you as short as I could perhaps it was censored so will tell you again. To cut it short the boys in France have had such a doing of it, that they consider it murder (or near enough to it) to compel anymore to come from Aussie. And then again they consider once conscription is brought in it is the end of a free Australia (No doubt about it John Australia is the finest country in the world to my idea. )

When the vote for conscription (1916) took place I was in Codford & I voted yes, but dinkum I am like the rest now I have seen it, & wouldn’t compel anyone (barring the few rotters of single chaps that won't come.) And of course to get them one would have to get a lot of others, so under the circumstances let them stop at home. It is no good for a peaceful life over there & I can tell you I am not looking forward to the next dose".

So it is as clear as mud.  Photo is of members of the 21st Battalion queuing to vote at the second Australian conscription referendum, while in front line supports at Vaulx-Vraucourt-Bullecourt sector.

 

conscription1.jpg

Edited by aussiesoldier
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23 hours ago, Derek Black said:

Thank you aussiesoldier,

 

This interesting subject has made me want to spend more of my research time looking at the men from my town who served in the Australian Army.

 

Cheers,
Derek.

 

Derek

 

Have a look  t the map on the Discovering Anzacs site. You can search by town or scroll to an area where each soldier was born according to the information provided on his attestation form. It is a joint Aus/NZ project and NZ service personnel are covered as well as Australians.

 

One important point, I don't know what they've done where someone has only provided a county e.g. Lancashire and no town. Perhaps an email to them would explain that.

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1 minute ago, spof said:

 

Derek

 

Have a look  t the map on the Discovering Anzacs site. You can search by town or scroll to an area where each soldier was born according to the information provided on his attestation form. It is a joint Aus/NZ project and NZ service personnel are covered as well as Australians.

 

One important point, I don't know what they've done where someone has only provided a county e.g. Lancashire and no town. Perhaps an email to them would explain that.


Thanks for the pointer.
I had looked at the site some years ago, it seems to have had a transformation since then.


72 men are listed pluus 4 from the district.
 

Cheers,
Derek.

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Getting back to the conscription discussion...

 

I've read a few letters from serving soldiers regarding the vote and the "Yes" voters seem to be mostly thinking that more men = getting it over with quicker. The "No" voters had various reasons. The "I wouldn't wish this on anyone else" sentiment as aussiesoldier has written about and the other common one was that the men didn't feel they could trust someone who was there against their will. He might not be as attentive on lookout etc.

 

An interesting read are the letters of Canon David John Garland. He was senior chaplain at the Enogerra army camp in Brisbane,set up one of the very first clubs for returning servicemen, a big instigator of AnzacDay services and active in the Queensland Recruiting Committee. In this latter role he was also very much involved in organising the Yes vote in Queensland and there are some interesting insites into the whole thing.

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  • 5 years later...

http://thebignote.com/2022/01/30/the-propaganda-of-conscription-down-under-part-one-the-referendum-of-1916/#comments

The Propaganda of Conscription – The Military Service Act of 1916.


The Propaganda of Conscription Down Under Part One – The Referendum of 1916
Posted on January 30, 2022 by Magicfingers
 

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