A short summary of the historical context relevant to the Australian conscription debates of 1916-17.

This summary was prepared by historians, researchers and students at UQ in 2015-18, including Dr Geoff Ginn, Assoc. Prof. Martin Crotty, Dr Susan Kellett, Mr Duncan Hart, Ms Emily Lancaster, and Mr Michael Norris.

Before WWI

At Federation in 1901, the new government of the Commonwealth of Australia had the task of providing suitable defence for the country. International tensions in an age of imperial rivalries led to the introduction of the Commonwealth Defence Act of 1903. This imposed an obligation on all males between the ages of 18 and 60 to serve in defence of their country in wartime.

The legislation provoked debate on a number of related issues. The Victorian Liberal H.B. Higgins wished to make provision for conscientious objectors to military service for reasons such as religion. He also wanted to ensure that a call-up of men would not occur in an ill-defined ‘national emergency’, and to impose limits so that volunteers would not be able to be used in overseas enlistments. Other criticisms came from William “Billy” Hughes of the Australian Labor Party, who urged the compulsory military training of Australian men of suitable age.

The Act was strengthened over time, in 1909, 1910 and 1912. At the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, it gave the Commonwealth Government the power to introduce compulsory military training within Australia for able bodied men between the ages 18-60. Compulsory drill training for youths between the ages 12-26 had also been instituted.

The Commonwealth Defence Act, however, still did not provide the Commonwealth Government any power to compel Australians to serve overseas.


J. M. Main, Conscription: the Australian debate, 1901-1970 (Melbourne: Cassell, 1970)

F.B. Smith, The Conscription Plebiscites in Australia (Melbourne: Victorian Historical Association, 1974).

Early years of the Great War

When war broke out between the European powers in August 1914, Australia immediately entered the conflict on the Allied side. Recruitment during the early months of the conflict was driven by widespread patriotic sentiment. Andrew Fisher, the Prime Minister and leader of the Australian Labor Party, promised a national support for the war “to the last man and the last shilling”. By January 1915, 52,000 Australian men had enlisted with little formal encouragement by authorities to drive recruitment.

But by September 1915, and with the horrendous casualties at Gallipoli, volunteer rates had dropped considerably. Military and governmental concerns began to be raised that there would be insufficient volunteers to continue to reinforce existing deployments to the Dardanelles and Egypt. The Universal Service League was formed in Australia at this time (echoing similar developments in Britain) to press the case for compulsory military recruitment by conscription to ensure victory.

In October 1915, exhausted by his duties as PM, Fisher resigned and was replaced by the trade unionist and passionate Empire loyalist, the Welsh-born William ‘Billy’ Hughes. A fierce, determined and dynamic figure in the ALP, Hughes had an “erratic brilliance” (according to the historian Joan Beaumont) that soon proved divisive. As Robin Archer observes, “Hughes’ long record as one of the principle proponents of compulsory military training and both his and Defence Minister [George] Pearce’s increasingly ambiguous statements led to growing concerns about his intentions [in relation to conscription for the war effort].”

Meanwhile, a War Census conducted with parliamentary approval in August 1915 attempted to account for both the national wealth and manpower of Australia. The census sparked rumours that compulsory military service was being considered. Billy Hughes, at that time serving as Attorney-General, attempted to re-assure public opinion on the issue of coercion and compulsory military service.  “In no circumstances”, he famously declared to parliament (in words that came back to haunt him), “would I agree to send men out of this country to fight against their will."

The Census indicated that there were 600,000 fit and healthy men in Australia between the ages of 18 and 44. This coincided with the fact that the government had announced another 50,000 men would be needed as recruits, and an additional 9,500 to make up for "wastage". To raise these numbers, the government approached the 600,000 men with a personal letter asking:

Are you prepared to enlist now? Reply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

If you reply ‘Yes’ you will be given a fortnight’s notice before being called up.

If not willing to enlist now, are you willing to enlist at a later date? Reply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and if willing, state when.

If not willing to enlist, state the reason why, as explicitly as possible.

The historian F. B. Smith summarises this as "a crude attempt to defeat the passive resistance rooted in a moderately prosperous independent community that was far from the scenes of conflict." The questionnaire included a patriotic ‘Call to Arms’ from the Prime Minister that made a case for national service:

If those rights and privileges for which Australian democracy has struggled long and values dearer than life itself are to be preserved, Prussian military despotism must be crushed once and for all … to wage this war with less than our full strength is to commit national suicide by slowly bleeding to death … This Australia of ours, the freest and best country on God’s earth, calls to her sons for aid. Destiny has given you a great opportunity … If you love your country, if you love freedom, then take your place alongside your fellow Australians at the front and help them to achieve a speedy and glorious victory.

Conscription for compulsory military service had not yet been formally proposed by Hughes or his government. But the ideas and language that would be used to recommend it to Australians were already evident.


F.B. Smith, The Conscription Plebiscites in Australia (Melbourne: Victorian Historical Association, 1974).

R. Forward and B. Reece, Conscription in Australia (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1968).

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

Robin Archer, ‘Labour and Liberty: The Origins of the Conscription Referendum’ in Robin Robin, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer (eds), The Conscription Conflict and the Great War (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2016), pp. 37-66.

Hughes’ conscription proposal

Prime Minister Hughes was in Europe from March to June 1916 attending conferences on war matters in London and Paris. Britain had introduced conscription in January 1916, and there is no doubt that Hughes was personally impressed by the scale and severity of the conflict and the demands it was making on all the Allied nations.

Shortly after the Prime Minister arrived back in Australia on July 31, the Australian Government received a request from the British Army Council (BAC) for an additional 20,000 recruits, following horrendous losses to the Australian forces at Pozieres, Mouquet Farm and Fromelles. The request also stipulated that they expected 16,500 men per month for a further three months. But only around 6,000 men had enlisted per month during June and July. It was clear that these expectations would be difficult to satisfy without some form of compulsory military service.

However, the introduction of conscription to supply these reinforcements was not a straightforward matter for Hughes’ government. For a start, his own cabinet was not unified on the issue. There was much opposition in the labour movement itself: the largest union in Australia at the time, the Australian Workers Union (AWU), had explicitly voted against conscription, along with labour councils, trade unions and ALP branches throughout Australia.

But the main difficulty, as far as Hughes was concerned, was the opposition to conscription within the ranks of the parliamentary members of the ALP. Hughes could force the measure through under the War Precautions Act, but this would likely split the party and destroy his government. But a parliamentary majority existed in favour of the idea of putting the idea up for a national vote – a referendum (or more technically, a plebiscite as this did not involve a proposed change to the constitution).

Thus, Hughes’s strategy to introduce conscription started with a popular vote involving all the electors to demonstrate public support for the proposal. He and many pro-conscriptionists were confident of victory.


Scott, Ernest, ‘The First Conscription Referendum’ in his Australia During the War: The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941), vol. 11, pp. 320-62.

Arguments for and against, 1916

Central to the pro-conscriptionist view were ideas that had powerful ethical, moral and even religious associations. Just as the ‘spirit of self-sacrifice’ had motivated the Australian volunteers fighting overseas, so too was the nation now called to make more and greater sacrifices to winning the war. In the Christian tradition, ‘sacrifice’ was associated with the crucifixion and the redemption of sins, but this could also be seen in straightforward ethical terms. By replacing selfish motives with a sense of contributing to the common good, the idea of ‘sacrifice’ was seen as a spiritual and ‘ennobling’ force. It was important in the cultivation of the ‘Anzac spirit’ following the “It is upon this foundation of self-sacrifice that true patriotism rests,” Hughes had told Australian soldiers based in London on Anzac Day in 1916. “And, since it has evoked this pure and noble spirit, who shall say that this dreadful war is wholly an evil?”

‘Duty’ was another watchword: Australia had a duty to assist the ‘mother country’ Great Britain, and Australians had a duty to serve in the hour of their country’s direst need. More personally, fathers and sons had a duty to protect their families, and men had a duty to stand by their friends and comrades. With these ideas uppermost, many advocates of compulsory military service could proclaim their stance to be patriotic and ‘loyalist’ (to the British and national cause).

Within this framework of sacrifice and duty, Hughes had many vigorous advocates for conscription. In the Church of England, for example, the synod of the Diocese of Melbourne resolved in September 1916 that they were “so convinced that the forces of the Allies are being used by God to vindicate the rights of the weak and to maintain the moral order of the world” that they supported the principle of universal service to fight the national cause. Vocal support for the conscription cause was expressed in sermons, public speeches and personal entreaties in many Protestant churches across the country.

The anti-conscriptionists promoted alternative views to argue their case. They drew on themes of labour solidarity, and working-class identity against capitalist interests. Some argued that it was a capitalist and imperialist war in far-away Europe that had no relevance to Australia. While not being anti-war, many were opposed to the idea that working men would be compelled to serve while business and the wealthy made no such sacrifices. Many in the labour movement, such as Queensland’s socialist premier TJ Ryan, argued that if men were to be conscripted, capitalist wealth should also be requisitioned through taxation for the war effort.

Many anti-conscriptionists were Australian patriots who felt that Australian interests were not being served by the fraught and destructive war. Within this there were many Irish Australians who joined with the Catholic Church in opposing the idea of compulsory military service in a war to defend the British Empire. Liberal ideas of individual freedom against the coercive power of the state were also very important. The political scientist Robin Archer suggests that liberal ideas tied these other arguments together, as when the powerful Labour figure E.J. Holloway insisted in September 1916: “The great test has come…We must choose between Freedom and Slavery. If we would be Free, then we must fight to the last gasp against the introduction of conscription in Australia.”

But racism also influenced the anti-conscriptionist arguments: if Australia introduced conscription, there were fears that 'non-white' workers would be needed to meet labour shortages. According to one opponent of Hughes' conscription argument, "I will vote 'No' because I believe in keeping Australia a white man's country. 'Yes' would commit Australia to sending 16,500 men away monthly for an indefinite time. Soon all except those utterly incapable of service would be gone and this country would have to resort to importing labour."

Pacifists and humanitarians, meanwhile, argued the state should not be allowed to compel citizens to fight. They took ideas of liberty and individual conscience much further than other opponents to conscription. A good example is the Quaker and pacifist Margaret Thorp. A Brisbane-based activist in the Women’s Peace Army, Thorp made many eloquent speeches that captured the conscientious objection not just to military compulsion but to the violence and destruction of war itself. As well as opposing conscription, men and women like Thorp pleaded for a negotiated settlement and peace terms to end the war quickly and responsibly.

The debate ensued in an atmosphere of deepening national crisis. The strains of war, anxiety and grief contributed to social, ethnic and religious divisions and tensions.  Censorship was imposed under the War Precautions Act, to the extent that anti-conscription pamphlets and posters were seen as seditious and confiscated. Police forces were directed on occasion to break up anti-conscriptionist meetings. Newspapers that wanted to seem ‘patriotic’ would report almost exclusively on pro-conscription matters, and often made sure to point out the unruly behaviour of the anti-conscriptionists.

As the divisive debate gathered force, the arguments – whether in public or private – became increasingly vehement, often highly personalised and emotional. At the centre of it was Billy Hughes, a formidable advocate and tireless promoter of the conscription proposal, who as Prime Minister had become a highly polarising figure.


Andrews, J., ‘Sacrifice and Identity: the Australian conscription debate, 1916’ Central States Speech Journal 22, 2 (1971): 110-17.

Robin Archer, ‘Labour and Liberty: The Origins of the Conscription Referendum’ in Robin Robin, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer (eds), The Conscription Conflict and the Great War (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2016), pp. 37-66.

The first plebiscite (October 1916)

On 28 October 1916 Australians were asked the following in a national plebiscite:

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?

Australians answered with 1,087,557 citizens voting ‘yes’ and 1,160,033 voting ‘no.’ Only in Victoria, and in the small voting populations of Western Australia and Tasmania, was there a majority in favour. The other states and territories voted against.

The result: a narrow victory for the anti-conscription cause. It was a dramatic and unexpected rejection of the Prime Minister’s proposal for compulsory military service. “In a year of disappointment,” as one boy from a middle class, Yes-voting family in Melbourne later remembered, “this result was one of the biggest. Australia had shown that it was not the most loyal bit of the Empire; it had decided that it was to be the only large bit which would not have conscription.”


Brian Lewis, Our War: A view of World War 1 from inside an Australian family (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1980)

The Labor split

Following the Government's defeat in the first conscription plebiscite, tensions within the parliamentary Labor party came to a head. After the Labor caucus (the parliamentary members of the ALP) prepared to debate a motion of no confidence in his leadership, Hughes dramatically left the party room along with his supporters (23 of a total of 65 Labor members at that time). Describing themselves as the ‘National Labor Party’, in early 1917 this group went into coalition with the Liberal opposition to form a new party, the Australian Nationalist Party. In the absence of any other feasible candidate, the Governor-General offered Hughes a commission to remain as Prime Minister based on this new parliamentary coalition.

Led by Hughes, always energetic and still personally popular, the Australian Nationalist Party won the 1917 election on a patriotic “win the war” platform. But the unity of the labour movement was in tatters. The conscription issue had split the ALP, thrown it out of government and deprived it of its most effective leader and spokesperson, and had thrown it out of government. But as historians like Ernest Scott recognise, “the conscription issue…brought to a focus dissatisfactions which were already existing in the Labour party, enlarged them, and gave the opportunity for ejecting the leader.”


Scott, Ernest, ‘The First Conscription Referendum’ and ‘The Second Conscription Referendum’ in his Australia During the War: The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941), vol. 11, pp. 320-62, 297-430.

The debate resumes, 1917

In 1917, with casualties continuing to mount on the Western Front and in Palestine, the pace of voluntary enlistment was insufficient to reinforce the five Australian divisions on active service. This was despite relentless recruitment propaganda. As Joan Beaumont writes: “Restaurants, hotels, cafes, cinemas, public transport and box kites flown over racecourses all carried the patriotic message [to enlist]. City footpaths bore huge footprints leading ‘eligibles’ to recruiting depots. There were recruiting trains, more route marches and military displays of every kind. Open-air meetings in Sydney paraded horses with empty saddles, inviting recruits to fill them.” Even so, only 4155 men enlisted in July, and by October that had fallen to 2761.

Despite the bitterness of the 1916 debate, Hughes' coalition government revisited the question of compulsory military service. The arguments for and against conscription resumed, but as Beaumont observes “the tone was more strident, irrational and hysterical…It was as if all the despair and grief about a war that seemed beyond human control, unable to be ended yet devouring more and more lives in its monstrous maw, was displaced onto enemies at home.”

For many, the figure-head of the anti-conscription cause in 1917 was Daniel Mannix, the Irish Catholic archbishop of Melbourne. He rallied working class Catholic communities with his argument that the British Empire fought for the liberty of nations, yet had repeatedly denied that freedom and independence to the Irish. As his biographer writes, his speeches rallying opposition to the conscription proposal “were a rich blend of fierce irony, reasoned argument and comic belittlement of his opponents. He addressed his audience directly, identifying himself with the working class who, he said, would pay the highest price in the war and be forgotten by the wealthy.” His views were condemned by ‘loyalists’ as seditious and treacherous, and there were calls for his deportation. Sectarian animosities were unleashed, deepening the rift between Catholic and Protestant.

Another champion of the anti-conscription cause was the youthful and dynamic socialist premier of Queensland, the lawyer T.J. Ryan. Although also of Irish background, Ryan was an avid supporter of the war effort but on the basis of voluntary enlistment. He regarded compulsion on this issue to be a breach of basic civil liberties and an abuse of governmental power. He was the only Australian premier to oppose the conscription proposal in 1916, and the following year he famously clashed with Hughes after delivering an anti-conscription speech in the Queensland parliament. When the national censors refused to allow Queensland newspapers to print the speech, it was issued in a special issue of Hansard, the parliamentary record, leading to a tense showdown. As Queensland historian Denis Murphy wrote, “The remarkable and unique occurrence of a prime minister charging a state premier with conspiracy made other news of the referendum pale by comparison. All Australia was stirred by a political conflict that had no precedent or parallel.” At this time, Australian Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson reported to London that Ryan and Mannix were the two most dangerous men in Australia.

On 20 December 1917, a second plebiscite was held. Voters were asked a more direct question, that still managed to avoid the use of the controversial word ‘conscription’: "Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?" This time, the yes vote carried 1,015,159 votes in favour and 1,181,747 against. The margin of victory for the 'no' vote had increased.


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

Brenda Niall, Mannix (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015).

D.J. Murphy, ‘Thomas Joseph Ryan’ in D.J. Murphy and R.B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1962 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1978).


While the opposition to the proposal celebrated their victory, on the other side the mood was bitter and despondent. One man who had three sons in uniform wrote to the Melbourne newspaper The Argus:

We can now divide the Commonwealth [of Australia] into two parties…1) The soldiers and their relatives, and all who are making sacrifices for the Empire; 2) men who are making no sacrifice, but are drawing large salaries – shirkers, and traitors. The sooner the people get hold of this division the sooner shall we put an end to the present tomfoolery.

For Australians today, the bitter experiences of the conscription debates of 1916-17 remind us that Australians at that time were not united in supporting victory at all costs. Its impacts were deep and traumatic, posing profoundly difficult dilemmas for civilians, men and women, families and children. As a liberal democracy, the nation’s commitment to civil liberties, free speech and democratic rights of opinion and action were sorely tested.

This a history that eludes us if we focus on the Anzacs and their battlefields alone. As the historian Peter Stanley comments, our focus on the military aspects of WWI (what he calls the ‘khaki filter’) “obscures our awareness of the scale of the protests that erupted against the war, the hardships it imposed and against the way the Hughes government turned compliance into the central test of citizenship.” The antagonism sparked by Hughes’ conscription proposal and the nature of the debates that ensued are essential elements of the nation’s experience in 1914-1918:

In Melbourne alone in October 1916, 80,000 anti-conscription protesters marched through the city; a year later women charged the steps of the federal Parliament House (then located in Melbourne) demanding relief from wartime price increases. In March 1918, 60,000 Irish-Australians honoured Daniel Mannix…who removed his biretta for the martyrs of Dublin in 1916 but not for the King’s flag. We get a sense of the scale of the opposition the war aroused, not just over conscription, but ultimately about whether Australia ought to have been involved.


Andrews, J., ‘Sacrifice and Identity: the Australian conscription debate, 1916’ Central States Speech Journal 22, 2 (1971): 110-17.

Bill Gammage, The Broken Years: Australian soldiers in the Great War (Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1975).

Peter Stanley, “Our life goes on the same’: the Great War at home’ Parliamentary Library lecture, 11 November 2015. Available at: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/Vis/vis1516/GreatWar