The Propaganda of Conscription Down Under Part One – The Referendum of 1916

The issue of conscription was one that all the countries of the Commonwealth would have to deal with at some point during the Great War, and Australia was no different. 

Following the British introduction of conscription in March 1916, both New Zealand, in August the same year,…

…and Canada, in August 1917, would introduce conscription as the numbers of voluntary enlistments fell.  In South Africa, for political (i.e. racial) reasons above all else, conscription was never on the cards, and in India there was no need; the regular pay and conditions of service offered by the British Army proving a carrot many could not resist, and as the bulk of the Indian Army was withdrawn from the Western Front in October 1915 to other theatres, the reinforcement issue was less pressing.  What was different was the way Australia went about the issue, particularly as there had already been a form of compulsory military service in the country for over a decade prior to the war.  The Defense Acts of 1903 & 1904 required all men between the ages of eighteen & sixty to be liable for service in time of war, with the caveat that none should be required to serve outside the borders of the Commonwealth unless they volunteered to do so.

As a consequence, when the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) left Australian shores in December 1914 bound for the Middle East & Gallipoli, it was an entirely volunteer force,…

…while back at home so many men were voluntarily enlisting, urged on by patriotic posters such as these, that recruiting offices were forced to turn men away.

It wouldn’t last.  The casualties suffered, and the eventual evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula at the end of 1915, convinced the Australian public that there would be no quick end to the war.  Following the arrival of the A.I.F. on the Western Front in early 1916 the casualty rate would inevitably rise, while at home the numbers of men enlisting would begin to fall, and fall steadily, and consequently the A.I.F. began to face a shortage of men.

At the time of Labor Party Prime Minister Andrew Fisher’s resignation, in somewhat curious circumstances, on 27th October 1915, his successor, William ‘Billy’ Hughes, was already on record as publicly stating, just a few months earlier, that ‘In no circumstances would I agree to send men out of the country to fight against their will’.  Nevertheless, when Hughes travelled to Britain in February 1916 to discuss the Australian war effort, the British, in the process of introducing conscription themselves, were far from shy in urging Hughes to follow suit.  Nor, by the way, were the British public, who cheered the series of apparently exhilarating speeches made by Hughes at Lloyd George’s behest whilst here; by the time he returned to Australia, Hughes was convinced that, in order to fulfil Australia’s commitments to the Empire, conscription back home was essential.

In the summer of 1916 the Australian Labor Party (A.L.P.) not only held a strong majority in both houses of parliament, they also controlled five of the six Australian states at a local level.  On the face of it, and in normal circumstances, such a strong political position would allow a government to pass any legislation it wished, but Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes had one major problem to overcome; the A.L.P. as a party was opposed to any form of conscription, and many of the rank and file party members were insisting that their local MPs pledge their opposition to conscription or be replaced.

Hughes’ (above) apparently strong political position, at least as far as the question of conscription was concerned, was built on quicksand, and he knew that any attempt to bulldoze legislation through parliament was likely to fail.

But not with a strong ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum behind him, which was the option to which he then turned.

The Australian Government’s ‘Yes’ campaign for the introduction of conscription was backed by the major newspapers, the Liberal party, various conservative and lobby groups including nationalist women’s groups, and most local councils, a problem for those on the other side when they began to find the use of halls and meeting rooms denied them.  The ‘Yes’ campaign donned the cloak of honour, duty, and loyalty to the flag of the Mother Country and to the Aussie troops already fighting – if you wouldn’t join them, if you wouldn’t help the ‘boys at the front’, then why not?  Were you a shirker? – as well as using the fear factor – the fear of Prussianism, of the might of German militarism trampling Australian society beneath its hobnailed boots.

Stills from an Australian government propaganda film outlining the main points of the ‘Yes’ campaign (click, as with all images, to enlarge), the final frame showing Hughes himself on the hustings.

The ‘No’ campaign was represented by a variety of groups representing the labour movement – socialist and workers organisations, the left-of-centre press (see above), civil liberties groups, radical political groups, women’s peace groups and other peace campaigners, and so on.  Their argument was that conscription was the tool of militaristic states, exactly the tyranny their soldiers were fighting against, and that the right of a man to choose for himself whether to fight or not should be sacrosanct.  They also maintained that the cost of the war was being felt more keenly by the working classes – prices were rising yet wages, despite government promises, had been frozen.

The electorate was asked to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the following question, ‘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 has now with regard to military service within the Commonwealth?’  Not the easiest question, perhaps, and no actual mention of conscription.

Incidentally, for those of you who care, strictly speaking the vote was a plebiscite, not a referendum; the government already had the power to introduce conscription, and so didn’t really have to ask the public anything, but Hughes wanted the public’s approval.  And please don’t ask me why they’ve called it a referendum ever since, because I have no idea, and don’t blame me either for following suit, because it’s not my fault……

Anyway, thus the 1916 conscription campaign began,…

…and for eight weeks a bitter battle was fought between those on the ‘Yes’ side,…

…and those on the ‘No’ side.

The Anti-Conscription League of Australasia, formed in 1915 in Sydney under the leadership of various trade unions and socialist organisations, the No-Conscription Campaign (above right), the Women’s Peace Army and the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) were among the various groups to rally around the ‘No’ flag.  There were meetings, demonstrations & strikes, whatever was legally allowed, and much that wasn’t!

Two shots of an anti-conscription rally in Melbourne, quite possibly, I would have thought,…

…a Monster meeting!


The government attempted to suppress the opposition, using whatever tactics they could get away with under legislation passed in the early months of the war, stopping meetings, censoring debates and seizing propaganda material,…

…all the while churning out their own – here’s the front page of the ‘Universal Service’ (they didn’t dare call it ‘Conscription Weekly’) dated 26th August 1916.

Leaflets (above & following) from both sides aimed at the Australian labour force.

Racism, surprise surprise, would raise its ugly head,…

…on both sides of the argument.

In 1902 the Australian Parliament, only established the previous year, passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act; women could now vote at federal elections and stand for the federal parliament.  Well, they could unless they happened to be indigenous women from just about anywhere beginning with the letter ‘A’ – Africa, Asia, Australia, Any Atoll Anywhere (that covers the Pacific Islands), you get the idea.

By 1908 all six Australian states had also passed legislation enabling women to vote in state elections, and so it’s hardly surprising that the women’s vote was fought over with great gusto during the conscription campaign.

Women’s Peace Army leaflets,…

…and attendees at a Women’s Peace Army demonstration.

The Kaiser wants you to vote ‘No’.  Original sketch (above) by artist David Low, and the finished poster (below).

And another hard-hitting cartoon, the widowed mother in black bemoaning her fateful decision,…

…the image frequently used during the campaign,…

…and clearly based on this series of British Bamforth postcards (note the V.C.) which I showed you during the postcardfest of 2020.

This striking image was one of a number drawn by artist Claude Marquet that were used by the ‘No’ campaign,…

…as was this, ‘The Blood Vote’, the accompanying poem credited to socialist & journalist William Robert Winspear, although recent suggestions suggest another newspaperman, E. J. Dempsey, may have been the actual author.

Marquet, originally a copper-mine worker, would become one of Australia’s best-known political cartoonists during the pre-war years.  By 1906, having already made his mark in publications on both sides of the political spectrum, Marquet was invited to Sydney at the invitation of the ‘Australian Worker’,…

…and he was still working for them in 1916, as we see here, the date of this issue of the paper the day before the referendum.  The devil-figure lurking in the background,…

…is none other than Prime Minister Hughes, seen here, on the left, in another Marquet picture.

Officers of the 10th Light Horse, somewhere overseas, pin their colours to the ‘Yes’ mast.

Australian troops serving abroad had the opportunity to vote, as seen here somewhere in Britain, Hughes counting on their support to help secure the ‘Yes’ vote.

He was far from unpopular with the troops, as seen here at pro-conscription rallies in Sydney (above & below), plenty of soldiers in evidence,…

…and when the final count was made the soldiers, at least, duly obliged, 72,399 voting ‘Yes’ against 58,894 voting ‘No’.

But the Australian public didn’t.  When the results of the vote were counted, to Hughes’ extreme chagrin, the ‘Yes’ campaign was defeated by 1,160,033 votes to 1,087,557, 51.6% to 48.4%.

Which is where things stood as 1916 became 1917, and as this post clearly has 1916 in its title, that is also where we shall finish.  And anyway, the conscription debate in Australia was surely now over.  Wasn’t it?

Why end with these photos of dead British soldiers on Spion Kop in 1900 during the Boer War?  Check out the first picture in this post once again.  Propaganda, my friends, propaganda.

This entry was posted in Australia, Books, Documents, Maps & Artwork, Conscription, Postcards. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Propaganda of Conscription Down Under Part One – The Referendum of 1916

  1. ALAN BOND says:

    Thank you very interesting

  2. nicholas Kilner says:

    A very interesting topic. I hadnt realised until now that Australia had a form of national service at that time, (something I would like to see reintroduced to our own shores, truth be told). Hughes certainly opened a can of worms when he gambled on a ‘yes’ win, which is perhaps why he never actually raised the question of conscription. It occurs to me that in fact national service was still technically a requirement throughout the war, as the vote was on whether or not men could be forced to fight ‘beyond the boundaries’ of the commonwealth. Those of age were still obliged to fight within the commonwealth countries as part of their compulsory national service, were they not? It would have restricted all but volunteer Australian troops to service somewhere like Egypt, but it seems to me that technically speaking, they did not have grounds to refuse to serve. Perhaps too much of a ‘hot potato’ by then for Hughes to enforce.

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