Arguments over conscription

While 50,000 men had signed up before the end of 1914 — a rate of more than 10,000 each month — the numbers of enlisting fell to 6,000 for the month of the Gallipoli landing in April 1915.

Enlistment rose sharply after news of the Gallipoli landings reached home. Many men were keen to avenge their fallen countrymen and the seriousness of the conflict was no longer in question. With five divisions overseas, Australian leaders were committed to retaining the strength of these divisions and that meant continual reinforcement with new troops.

Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, whose promise before the onset of war was that Australia would support Britain to ‘last man and last shilling’, had overseen the first year of the war. He was succeeded by William Hughes whose support for the war effort was even stronger.

Hughes had visited the Western Front and believed that conscription was necessary and that military service was a moral duty of all eligible Australian men. Hughes called a plebiscite to gauge the public’s thoughts on compulsory overseas military service. Conscription would guarantee 7000 men each month.

A genuine peace movement also existed on the home front. Trade unionists like the Industrial Workers of the World, believed the war was being fought because of capitalist interests. Women were also active on this front. The Women’s Peace Army had the motto ‘We war against war’ and members like Vida Goldstein rallied against the militarism of the times

Conscription divided Australian society. One tactic from the anti-conscriptionists was to ask the opinion of Nathaniel Jacka, father of three sons- all serving in France - including Australia’s best known soldier, Victoria Cross winner, Lieutenant Albert Jacka. Jacka related that this sons were against men being compelled to fight and that he regarded conscription as a blow to a free Australia.

Hughes’ position had put him in opposition to his own Labor Party. He left to form a new party, the Nationalists, who won election in 1917.

Troops were also split on the issue of conscription. In letters home some men expressed no wish to be joined in the fight by ‘jellyfish’ while others felt it was unfair that 'shirkers' were not bearing their fair share.

The first plebiscite was narrowly defeated 51% to 49%. The votes of Australian troops showed support for conscription but only by a slim margin. Hughes tried again in 1917. The second plebiscite was defeated by an even wider margin. Australian troops again supported conscription but by an even narrower margin.

At the Paris Peace Conference, President Wilson questioned whether Australia (as such a small nation) should really be at the negotiating table. Prime Minister Hughes responded with: ‘I speak for 60,000 dead. For how many do you speak?’

Hughes continued to lead the country through the war years and was instrumental in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. He was Prime Minister until 1923.

Pamphlet supporting conscription in the first World War.
Newspaper advertisement exhorting women to support men enlisting in World War I
Handbill produced against conscription in World War I
Pacifist handbill from World War I.