It is a source of national pride that Australia fielded a volunteer army throughout World War I. But it might not have been so.

As casualties in the Australian Imperial Force mounted in 1915-16 recruitment centres in Australia began to find it difficult to find enough reinforcements. By 1916 Australians were engaged in war zones in both Palestine and France (on the Western Front). Casualty rates from the Western Front were very high.  Although by early 1916 over 200,000 men had enlisted voluntarily, recruitment began to decline sharply. Some members of the Australian Government, including Labor Prime Minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes, decided that conscription was the only answer.


Conscription and other nations

Most other combatant forces in World War I used conscripted troops. Britain introduced conscription in January 1916, New Zealand in June 1916. Germany fielded a conscripted army from the beginning, although a large number of volunteers also fought. Both Britain and New Zealand introduced conscription by legislation, but this course was problematic for the Hughes Labor Government.


The politics of conscription in Australia

In mid-1916 the Australian Labor Party (ALP) held government federally and in every state in Australia except Victoria.  The Hughes government had an especially strong majority in both houses of the Commonwealth parliament, including 31 out of 36 Senate seats. In other circumstances it would have been a simple matter to pass legislation, but Hughes faced a major obstacle. Both his own party, and the wider labour movement, were implacably opposed to conscription. The battle lines were drawn long before August 1916 when Hughes formally raised the issue of conscription with his caucus. A Universal Service League had formed in Australia in late 1915 with the express purpose of arguing for conscription.  Within days the Industrial Workers of the World, supported by many trade unionists, formed an opposing group the Anti-Conscription League, and the labour movement became increasingly determined in its opposition. As early as 29 July 1915 the Labor Call described conscription as 'the traditional and implacable foe of democracy, of social reform, and of people rightly struggling to be free.' By mid-1916 the ALP in many branches was demanding that MPs pledge their opposition to conscription or lose pre-selection. Hughes knew that any attempt to legislate for conscription would fail to pass the Parliament. He decided to take a chance by appealing directly to the people, assuming that a strong vote in his favour would give him the moral authority to force legislation through the Parliament. In August 1916 the Australian Parliament reluctantly passed the Military Service Referendum Act 1916, empowering the government to hold a referendum on conscription.


Note: Referendums or referenda?

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the plural of referendum can be either referendums or referenda.  Some prefer referenda, following the convention for words derived from the Latin, but referendums was used more commonly at the time and so we have used that form here.


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

Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot & Sean Scalmer (eds) The Conscription Conflict and the Great War Melbourne, Monash University Publishing, 2016.

Joan Beaumont Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2013

Michael McKernan Victoria at War 1914-1918 Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, 2014


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