Photograph courtesy of AWM

Australian Referendum Rejects Conscription

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When the First World War was declared in August 1914, Australians in their thousands voluntarily enlisted to fight ‘for the mother country’ and against an aggressor harshly imposing its will on small countries such as Belgium. With the casualties mounting from Gallipoli the Australian Government renewed its recruitment campaign in the summer of 1915, and yet again the recruiting halls were full of young and able Australians signing up ‘to do their bit’. However the four AIF Divisions fighting in France in 1916 suffered very heavily at Fromelles and Pozieres with 28,000 becoming casualties in the six weeks of fighting. With the number of men volunteering steadily falling concern was growing conscription-2that the divisions in France would soon not have enough reinforcements – estimated requirement of 5,500 per month – to bring them up to strength. As a result Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes decided to hold a referendum on conscription, i.e. the compulsory enlistment into military service.

Compulsory military service had in fact been part of Australian life before the War stating that men between the ages of 18 and 60 should be available for service in times of war, but this was limited to fighting within the Commonwealth territories, which given the current theatre of operations for the AIF in Europe and the Middle East, was outside of this remit. PM Hughes decided to put the following question to the Australian people ‘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 now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?

The referendum argument turned out to be very divisive amongst the Australian population with fault lines exposed between political parties, religions and workers. The referendum was held on 28th October 1916 and the motion was narrowly rejected with 1,087,557 voting for and 1,160,033 against. Within the AIF the vote was in favour by 72,399 to 58,894, but it was understood that it was the men on transports and in the camps that had yet to witness the horrors of the front that were responsible for the ‘yes’ vote from the army. As a result there were concerns that there would not be enough reinforcements to replenish the existing four Divisions, and that the AIF 3rd conscription-1Division should remain in England and be broken up to provide the normal reinforcement for the other four. However, General Plumer, Commanding Officer of the British Second Army in Flanders objected stating that the 3rd was needed to strengthen II Anzac Corps and this wish prevailed.

Having been at odds with his Labor Party, Billy Hughes crossed the floor of the House with about half of his parliamentary party, formed the new National Labor Party and with the support of the Liberals remained Prime Minister. A year later he would ask the question a second time. Again the motion of conscription was rejected by the Australian people and despite the battalions fighting the rest of the war with reduced strength, the AIF remained the only fully voluntary army to fight during the First World War.


22nd Battalion badge 222nd Battalion badge 2100 years ago today, the 22nd Battalion was: training at Buire in preparation for its return to the Somme battle front


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