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.


Further reading

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