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Conscription (a Sth Australian perspective)

Pin back buttons supporting 1 side or the other in the 1916 conscription referendum.

During the Crimean War 1853-56 the South Australian colonial government passed the Militia Act 1854 enabling it to select men by ballot to undergo four weeks military training annually. In fact, the forces raised were volunteers, and, until the Defence Act of 1894, it was unclear whether they legally remained civilians, albeit in uniform. 

That Act provided that the members of the volunteer militias were 'soldiers' who were subject to military discipline, and liable to serve in any Australian colony. Amendments in 1896 allowed for compulsory military service should a state of emergency be proclaimed. However, conscription by ballot was only to be used after a call for volunteers. In the event, the ballot was never used and the South Australians who fought in South Africa 1899-1902 were volunteers.

As early as July 1901, the possibility of universal military training was discussed in the new Federal Parliament. The Commonwealth's Defence Act of 1903, as amended in 1911, provided for universal military training. This was strongly opposed by many South Australians. An account of the work of the Australian Freedom League, an organization founded by the South Australian Quakers in co-operation with other interested Christian groups, can be found in Charles Stevenson's publication, The millionth snowflake; the history of Quakers in South Australia.

The Library's archival collections contain detailed information about the unsuccessful attempts of two brothers, Llewellyn and John Jarman of Kingston in the south-east, to be exempted from the military service. Records include the brothers' personal papers, court applications, legal advice, newspaper articles and letters to the editor.

Although the Defence Act required men to undergo training with the militia, it specified that no Australian (including members of the regular military forces) could be compelled to serve overseas.

Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, initially volunteers flocked to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for overseas service. By 1916 there were insufficient new volunteers to cover the AIF's massive casualties and to meet the British authorities requests for reinforcements. The Prime Minister, WM Hughes, directly appealed to all eligible men to volunteer. His plea was supported by the work of patriotic organisations, and a campaign of propaganda posters, to raise more volunteers.

When it appeared that the recruitment targets would not be met, the government sought approval, by way of a referendum on October 1916, to require men conscripted into militia training to also undertake overseas service. The referendum of 28 October 1916 asked Australians:

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?

Colour leaflet against conscription. "To Win the War. The Effect of Conscription. Conscription in Australia cannot alter the result of the war. 

If Conscription was necessary, Canada, whose population is 3,000,000 more than Australia and is within four days' sail of the frontier, would have adopted it. 

If what Mr. Hughes says is correct, why has Russia twenty million men of military age who are not serving? 

The enemy is in Russia! Conscription in Australia will make it easy for other races to capture our industries, and the wives and daughters of the absent conscript will be forced to beg bread from an alien race.

Conscription will make it possible for the Military Authorities to pay the conscript what wages they think fit. The British conscript get one shilling (1s.) a day. Vote 'NO CONSCRIPTION'.

Conscripts of WW1

Studio portrait of new recruits Corporals Arthur Gray, Richard E. A. Gray and David J. Denny at "Billy Hughes" Training Camp at the Goulburn showground, in Goldsmith Street.

Note their soft cloth jackets. The Billy Hughes training camp was a second camp started for those compulsorily called up, as the Federal Government was certain its conscription referendum would be passed.

 The AIF drilled in blue dungarees and the "Hughesiliers", as they were facetiously called, in yellow [probably light khaki]. 

When the referendum was defeated most of the Hughesiliers went back to civilian life and some enlisted. (Original print housed in the AWM Archive Store) (Donor E. Bridge)


As there were 1,087,557 in favour and 1,160,033 against the referendum failed. Of the Australians who voted, 57.6 per cent of South Australians opposed conscription; only New South Wales recorded a stronger 'no' vote.

Members of the 21st Battalion queuing to vote at the second Australian conscription referendum, while in front line supports at Vaulx-Vraucourt-Bullecourt sector.

The conscription issue was fiercely debated and created bitter divisions between supporters and opponents. The flavour of the disputes is given in letters written to relatives by two South Australians convalescing in England after active service.

Jack Jensen, in a letter to his Aunt Hannah dated August 1915, wrote,

"I would not like to be sent back to Australia before the war is over. You see so many going about who will not enlist & the excuses they give would make your hair turn grey. One young chap who was asked to join said what had he got to join for. He had no wife no children & no parents depending on him so why should he fight let those fight who had something to fight for. These sort of men make you feel ashamed & you want to get away to your own men again. 

Of course the prospect of getting wounded again or killed is not very pleasant but I have seen some of my best mates killed & they died like men & if I can do the same I will be quite satisfied to go now. We all know we must die some time. If I am wounded again I will be able to bear it as I did the last time & if I am crippled I shall have to bear it as many another young chap is doing & I shall know at least that I have done my duty to the country which I have got my living in".

Contrast this with the letter of Victor Voules Brown written much later on 19 May 1917.

"Last time you wrote you wanted to know why it was the troops in France did not vote for conscription. I told you as short as I could perhaps it was censored so will tell you again. To cut it short the boys in France have had such a doing of it, that they consider it murder (or near enough to it) to compel anymore to come from Aussie. And then again they consider once conscription is brought in it is the end of a free Australia (No doubt about it John Australia is the finest country in the world to my idea. 

When the vote for conscription took place I was in Codford & I voted yes, but dinkum I am like the rest now I have seen it, & wouldn’t compel anyone (barring the few rotters of single chaps that won't come. And of course to get them one would have to get a lot of others, so under the circumstances let them stop at home. It is no good for a peaceful life over there & I can tell you I am not looking forward to the next dose".

A decisive defeat of the second referendum on 20 December 1917, which proposed,

"Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?"  

ended the issue of conscription for the remainder of the First World War.

The Scullin Labor government 1929-32 abolished compulsory military training so, on the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the conservative government led by Robert Menzies, chose to reintroduce the measure. All single men on turning 21 were required to undertake three months training with the militia to prepare them for home defence. Over the next two years the military position greatly worsened. The Japanese successes in the Pacific meant that Australia faced a serious threat of invasion. The Labor prime minister, John Curtin (an opponent of conscription in the First World War) in February 1942 expanded the definition of 'home defence' to cover the south-west Pacific.

There was again a public debate of the conscription issue. The flavour of this is given by selected material in the Library's collection. The case against conscription was set out by South Australian trade unionists. The case for was put by the Australian War Services League and in a pamphlet produced by the Adelaide Advertiser.

By contrast with the First World War, an overall majority of Australians supported Curtin's proposals; South Australia was one of four states where a majority approved conscription for this broadened 'home defence', which was, of course, conscription for overseas service in the areas where Australian forces were needed. 

The conscripted militia forces in fact played a vital role in the Pacific war.

For a short period after the Allied victory in 1945, conscription became a non-issue. 

The development of a 'cold war' between the Western powers and the countries of the Soviet bloc led the conservative Menzies coalition government to introduce yet another conscription scheme with universal national service for 18 year old men. Conscripts were not part of the Australian forces who served in Korea, Malaya and Borneo. 

From 1954 communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam were at war. In the 1960s hundreds of thousands of United States troops were involved in support of South Vietnam and the Australian government also decided to commit troops.

A new National Service Act of 1964 required 20 year old men, selected by a ballot of birthdays, to serve for two years in regular army units. In May 1965 the Defence Act was amended to provide that these conscripts could also be required to serve overseas. Between 1965 and 1972 (when the last Australian troops were withdrawn from Vietnam) over 800,000 men were registered for National Service, 63,000 were conscripted by the ballot, and some 19,000 served in Vietnam.. There were 200 killed and 1,279 wounded.

Many Australians were opposed to involvement in the Vietnam War and even more objected to the use of conscripts there. The first conscript to die in Vietnam, Errol Noack, was a South Australian. Groups such as the Campaign for Peace in Vietnam campaigned vigorously against conscription, and thousands joined protest marches in Adelaide.

Many young men refused to register and were supported by citizens opposed to conscription. Two conscientious objectors arrested for refusing to register were John Zarb and Robert Martin and both were jailed. Robert Martin talks of his experiences in an oral history recording held in the Library's archival collections.

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