The case for Conscription was put most powerfully by the Australian Government, backed by almost all of the major newspapers, the Liberal Party and most church leaders. Some specific organisations, like the Universal Service League (formed in September 1915), acted as lobby groups in favour of conscription, along with other conservative organisations like chambers of commerce, and women's groups like the National Council of Women and the Australian Women's National League.  Most local councils were also pro-conscription. As the debate became more bitter, local government often restricted the use of its halls and meeting rooms to those supporting the 'Yes' vote.

The main point of conscription was the need to make up for flagging enlistments and provide adequate reinforcements for those at the front.  Estimates of the need varied and Hughes was accused by some of exaggerating the number required. Some estimates suggested that 5,000 men were needed each month.  Others said 7,000. Either way, it was a terrible reflection of the cost of the war.

 

Duty, honour, loyalty and the defence of 'liberty'

Pro-conscription speeches and propaganda appealed to a sense of duty, honour and loyalty - to the country, the Empire and the men already serving at the front. There was a sense that men who opposed conscription were 'shirkers', joining those who refused to volunteer in letting down 'our boys' in their hour of need. British 'liberty' was said to be threatened by the brute hand of 'Prussianism', which stood for military force and the denial of democracy. There was more than a hint in pro-conscription propaganda that those supporting the 'No' case were disloyal to their country.

 

The power of the image

Central to pro-conscription propaganda was an especially graphic caricature of the enemy. Germany was presented throughout the war as the rapacious 'Hun', trampling liberty underfoot and murdering innocent women and children. Those who opposed conscription were said to be playing into the hands of the enemy - aiding the hated 'Kaiser' in his militarist ambitions. There were many dark references to the 'enemy within'. This was an elastic concept that varied over time, but could include those opposed to conscription as well as German Australians, socialists, the Industrial Workers of the World and peace activists of various persuasions.

State Library of Victoria image.

[bg_collapse view="link" color="#783f40" expand_text="Further reading" collapse_text="Reduce" ]

Joy Damousi 'Universities and Conscription: the "Yes" Campaign and the University of Melbourne', in Robin Archer et al The Conscription Conflict and the Great War  Melbourne, Monash University Publishing, 2016, pp. 92-110

L.F Fitzhardinge 'Hughes, William Morris (Billy) (1862-1952), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 9, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1983 http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hughes-william-morris-billy-6761 Consulted October 2017.

Aneurin Hughes Billy Hughes: Prime Minister and Controversial Founding Father of the Australian Labor Party Milton (Qld), John Wiley & Sons, 2011

Stuart Macintyre & Geoffrey Bolton The Oxford History of Australia, Volume 4: The Succeeding Age, 1901-1942 Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1993

[/bg_collapse]

Related content:

Jennie Baines (1866-1951)

Sarah Jane (Jennie) Baines (1866-1951) was a radical feminist and socialist who was a significant force in the anti-conscription movement ...
Read More

The conscription debate and the Old Treasury Building

The Old Treasury Building played a small but significant role in the turmoil surrounding conscription. From Federation in 1901 until ...
Read More

Cecilia Annie John (1877-1955)

Cecilia Annie John was a singer who campaigned actively against conscription during World War I. With Vida Goldstein she helped ...
Read More

Adela Pankhurst (Walsh) (1885-1961) and the conscription debate

Adela Pankhurst was born in 1885, the third daughter of the famous English suffrage campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst and Richard Pankhurst, ...
Read More

Referendum or plebiscite?

The precise meaning and use of the terms 'referendum' and 'plebiscite' have varied between countries and over time. In 1916 ...
Read More

Why were referendums held in 1916 & 1917?

It is a source of national pride that Australia fielded a volunteer army throughout World War I. But it might ...
Read More

The case for Conscription in World War I

The case for Conscription was put most powerfully by the Australian Government, backed by almost all of the major newspapers, the ...
Read More

Claude Marquet (1869-1920)

Claude Marquet was a self-taught black and white artist, who grew up in Moonta South Australia. He worked in the ...
Read More

Hughes, William Morris (Billy) (1862-1952)

William Morris (Billy) Hughes, was Federal Attorney General, then Prime Minister of Australia from 1915-1923. He was a strong advocate of ...
Read More

Daniel Mannix (1864-1963)

Daniel Mannix, Catholic archbishop of Melbourne was a controversial figure during World War I. Although he took little part in the ...
Read More

Vida Goldstein (1869 – 1949)

Vida Goldstein was a tireless and charismatic campaigner for women’s equality, universal suffrage and equal pay. In 1903 she became ...
Read More

Propaganda and the conscription debate

The conscription debate generated an enormous volume of propaganda material. Although the Australian Government promoting the 'Yes' case had more resources ...
Read More

Songs and the conscription conflict in World War I

Music was an important part of cultural life in Australia during World War I. Brass bands played at recruiting events ...
Read More

The case against Conscription in World War I

The anti-conscription cause was presented by a loose coalition of groups, including labour organisations, civil libertarians and anti-war groups. Its ...
Read More

Remembering conscription in World War I – what does it have to tell us?

In commemorating the Great War, few now remember that most bitter battle on the home front - the war of ...
Read More

Women and the Conscription debate

Women played a central role in the conscription campaigns.  Feminist Vida Goldstein later commented that conscription politicised Australian women more than ...
Read More

The second Conscription Referendum – 1917

1917 has been described as the worst year of the war, both on the battle fields and on the home ...
Read More

The First Conscription Referendum – 1916

The first conscription referendum was held on Saturday 28 October 1916.  Australian electors were asked to answer 'Yes' or 'No' ...
Read More