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A nation divided

1916–17: Conscription for military service overseas rejected in two referendums

National Library of Australia obj-138262103
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Do you think that the government should be able to conscript people in times of conflict?

2. In 1943, during the Second World War, a limited form of overseas conscription was successfully introduced by the government. Does this make it more or less surprising that conscription failed in the First World War? You can read about conscription during the Second World War in the Defining Moment: 

1943: ‘Chocolate soldiers’ – Conscription introduced

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the 1916–17 conscription referendums are a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>A pro-conscription badge from the 1916 conscription referendum</p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

In 1916 and 1917, during the First World War, the Australian people were asked in two referendums if they thought that Australian men should be conscripted (forced to enlist in the armed forces) to fight overseas. The conscription debates were among the most bitter in Australia’s political history. Both the 1916 and 1917 referendums ended in a ‘no’ vote. But most Australians still believed that Australia should be involved in the war.

A pro-conscription badge from the 1916 conscription referendum

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. Why did Billy Hughes want to introduce conscription in 1916?

2. What were the results of the two conscription referendums?

3. How did the conscription debates affect the Australian Labor Party?

What led to the referendums?

On 5 August 1914 Australia joined other countries in the British Empire and declared war on Germany. Men rushed to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and by the end of the year more than 50,000 men had enlisted. But when the news of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign reached Australia in 1915, the number of men enlisting as AIF volunteers dropped. 

Prime Minister Billy Hughes travelled to Europe in 1916 to discuss the war with British and European governments. He returned home after nearly 6000 Australian men had been killed in the first 7 weeks of the Battle of the Somme. He was convinced that the only way Australia could maintain the size of its army was to introduce conscription.

The Defence Act 1903 gave the federal government the right to conscript men for Australia’s self-defence, but Hughes had to amend this Act to make overseas military service compulsory. Hughes’ own Labor Party split on the issue, and the Senate would not support it, so Hughes decided to pressure these groups into accepting conscription by holding a referendum.

Did the first referendum pass?

The referendum was set for 28 October 1916. The debate leading up to the vote divided the country. The working class and union members mostly voted against conscription as they felt they were already doing more than their share of the fighting. Protestants with a close connection to Britain mostly voted for conscription, believing it would help the British Empire. Catholics, mostly of an Irish background, generally opposed conscription, with many unhappy about Britain’s handling of Irish demands for independence.

The result of the referendum was ‘no’ by 3.2 per cent. Even though a slim majority of Australians voted against conscription, most still believed that the war was a just cause.

Research task 

 

Read about the conscription debates on the Billy Hughes at War website, and cast your own vote!

Billy Hughes at War

 

 

‘Our national existence, our liberties, are at stake. There rests upon every man an obligation to do his duty in the spirit that befits free men.’

Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes, 30 August 1916
Prime Minister William Morris Hughes.

What was the effect of the first referendum?

After the 1916 referendum Hughes, along with 24 other Members of Parliament, left the Labor Party to form the new National Labor Party. The National Labor Party joined with the opposition Liberal party to form a new government, and Hughes remained Prime Minister for the rest of the First World War. The Labor Party was left weakened by the split, and it did not come to power again until 1929.

Hughes kept fighting for conscription. But a second referendum, held on 20 December 1917, also resulted in a ‘no’ vote.

Gold mourning locket with a photograph of Australian champion boxer Les Darcy, who was at the centre of conscription debates because he did not volunteer to serve with the Australian Imperial Force. Darcy died in 1917.

National Museum of Australia

Gold mourning locket with a photograph of Australian champion boxer Les Darcy, who was at the centre of conscription debates because he did not volunteer to serve with the Australian Imperial Force. Darcy died in 1917.

When did the war end?

On 11 November 1918 peace was finally declared. During the four years of the war more than 420,000 Australians volunteered for the AIF, the Navy and the Nursing Corps. Sixty thousand died serving their country.

Conscription for overseas military service was successfully brought in during the Second World War (1939–45), and controversially brought in again during the Vietnam War (1964–75).

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research task

 

Was the 1916 vote a ‘referendum’ or was it a ‘plebiscite’? Research the meaning of both words and explain which one you think it was.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. Why did Billy Hughes want to introduce conscription in 1916?

2. What were the results of the two conscription referendums?

3. How did the conscription debates affect the Australian Labor Party?