This teaching pack has been designed to be used within the context of a Year 9 history class group. Specifically, this pack is designed for the in-depth topic discussion ACDSEH096: The impact of World War I, with a particular emphasis on Australia including the changing role of women.

The following aspects of the Depth Study will be addressed:

  • identifying the groups who opposed conscription (for example, trade unionists, Irish Catholics) and the grounds for their objections;
  • studying the first and second referenda on conscription, including the division within the Labor Party over this issue; and
  • investigating the short- and long-term impact of World War I on the role of women in Australia.

Teaching sequence

Activity 1 - Introduction

The activity begins with creating a “mind map” of the concept of conscription, and its key historical elements in 1916-17. Questions that can be asked to help prompt discussion include:

  • What is conscription?
  • What are the moral or ethical arguments for and against conscription?
  • Why would any society introduce conscription?
  • Why did conscription become a topic for discussion in Australia during 1916 and 1917?
  • What is propaganda? What is pacifism? What is a plebiscite?

Activity 2 – Propaganda and Perspective

Students are divided into two groups, one that is nominally in support of compulsory service and the other that is opposed. With other members of their group, students visit the Australian War Memorial's Sources: the conscription debate website to view the examples of propaganda presented there.

After viewing various pieces of anti- and pro-conscription propaganda, students prepare a summary of the primary reasons given in the propaganda for either supporting or opposing conscription. Against these summaries, students should also note 1) who is this propaganda aimed at, and 2) how effective would this message have been in the context of Australia during World War 1.

Activity 3 - Voices of the Past

Despite the simplicity of the propaganda, the 1916-17 conscription debate was a highly complex and emotional issue. There was opposition from parts of the Australian community including working people, the labour movement, peace activists, the Catholic church and key figures such as Queensland Labor Premier T.J. Ryan and Archbishop Mannix. Age, gender and social class were major factors contributing to individual reactions to the issue.

Students will refer to Museum of Australian Democracy's Billy Hughes at War: The Conscription Debate website for their research task.

This link provides an interactive audio experience for students to explore. Students will be encouraged to focus on a particular “voice” which interested them. Students should write a brief summary on why they chose that particular “voice”, what conscription meant for that person, why were they for or against conscription?

Activity 4 - The Blood Votes, a play by Michael Futcher

The Blood Votes was written by Brisbane playwright Michael Futcher in 2016-18, and is a dramatic interpretation of the conscription debate of WWI for theatre audiences. It is grounded in historical research, and combines historical evidence with fictional elements, characters and plot situations.

Students should read the play, referring to the filmed extracts as required, and note the key themes, perspectives and conflicts that stand out. They should present their findings to a class sub-group, discussing interpretations and sharing ideas.

If time does not allow for a full reading of the play, sample sections (such as Part 1, which climaxes with the 1916 plebiscite result) can be used by students to complete this activity.

Activity 5 – The Great Conscription Debate

Using the main ideas and perspectives gathered from Activities 1-4, students formulate groups to debate the issue of conscription. Young people during WWI – like Robert and Ruby in The Blood Votes - were subject to considerable pressure to join one side or the other. This class-room activity should  aim to replicate this environment.

Through discussion, the whole class will decide which groups should be formed, such as Soldiers’ Mothers, Labour Movement Activists, Pacifist Activists, Hughes Supporters, Irish Catholics, Soldiers at the Front, among others.

After being assigned to one of these groups, students prepare their arguments, clarify points and supporting statements and assign speakers. The focus of the activity should be on the students’ ability to use the reasoning used at the time to present persuasive arguments for or against conscription. In addition to the materials gathered during earlier activities, students can also use sources from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Great Debates—Conscription 2016 to facilitate different arguments.