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An officer or a gentleman :: The 1916 and 1917 conscription referenda

The 1916 and 1917 conscription referenda divided Australian society and shaped attitudes towards the Great War. Rebecca Lush examines the personal letters and diaries of servicemen stationed overseas to see how they really felt about the debate raging on the home front.  

The call to enlist for the Great War in 1914 was greeted with much enthusiasm. Men were recruited en masse and sent to the main battlefields of Gallipoli and the Western Front. By 1916, however, this initial enthusiasm to enlist was beginning to fade. News from abroad on the horror of trench warfare was one factor that forced many men to rethink their decision to go to war. Those who remained behind were under constant pressure to join the Australian Imperial Forces.

It was in this context that Prime Minister William Hughes held the first conscription plebiscite on October 28 1916. Although commonly referred to as the conscription referenda, they proposed no changes to the Constitution. The term plebiscite is, therefore, more accurate. Military training in Australia was compulsory for men aged 18 to 60 years. Overseas service, however, was not. The question posed to the public was:

“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?” 

According to the figures provided by the National Archives of Australia, the first plebiscite was defeated by only 72,476 votes. Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia led the ‘no’ campaign. Dissatisfied with the response, the federal government launched another plebiscite one year later on 20 December 1917, once again encouraging the public to introduce conscription into the armed forces. This time the margin for the ‘no’ vote was much greater at 166,588.

There was a range of reasons why individuals were in favour of, or opposed to, conscription. Religious, political, social and personal factors all contributed to the various campaigns. For example, Roman Catholics were more likely to vote ‘no’ in the plebiscites. Workers, especially trade union members, were also more often opposed to conscription. Those who supported conscription were likely to be from the upper and middle classes.

The campaigns for the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes were extremely public and divisive. Badges, leaflets and posters decorated capital cities projecting images of grandeur in war and, on the other hand, of loss and destruction. Some wore badges supporting conscription, examples of which can now be found in the Queensland Museum and Melbourne Museum. The Melbourne Museum also has in its archives a leaflet titled “The Blood Vote”. This leaflet uses emotive language such as ‘box of  blood’ to argue that a vote for conscription was a vote against humanity.

Historically, much research has been done on the conscription plebiscites. Falling In by John Barrett (Hale & Ironmonger, 1979) delves into conscription issues in the early stages of World War I. Other works, notably FB Smith’s The Conscription Plebiscites in Australia (Victorian Historical Association, 1965), focus more on the two plebiscites and the divide they caused in Australian society and politics.

What might be surprising to some is that Australians on the home front were not the only ones who were allowed to vote. Servicemen fighting overseas in every major war zone were also given the opportunity. In 1916 and 1917, Australians were told that servicemen overwhelmingly supported conscription. Results were often falsified and it was not until much later that the official figures from the servicemen plebiscites were released. In Queensland, official results were not published until 1936 in The Courier Mail. What they revealed was that the margin between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes not only shrunk between 1916 and 1917, but was, initially, very small (in 1916, 72,399 for and 58,894 against; 103,789 for and 92,910 against in 1917).

Searching through the numerous letters in the Australian War Memorial can begin to shed light on the personal lives of the men who fought and voted. Whereas their religious, political and social backgrounds would have somewhat influenced their standing on conscription, the letters and diary entries that they wrote show other, more insightful motives. These writings by servicemen on conscription reveal the faces and lives of the men behind the numbers.

Captain Harold ‘Rollo’ Armitage enlisted in the Australian military on 23 January 1915, aged 20. At the time of enlistment, Armitage was a student at Adelaide University training to become a teacher. He joined the 4th Australian Division, rose to the rank of captain and was sent to fight in Belgium and France. From these locations he sent many letters home to his family and kept a personal diary. It is within this diary that his opinions on the conscription plebiscites were found.

On 5 November 1916, following the first plebiscite, Armitage opened his diary entry with: ‘I am sorry to be an Australian since that [plebiscite] and now call myself a Britisher.’ As a captain, Armitage would have overseen many soldiers and his belief in a soldiers’ welfare greatly influenced his conscription vote. Having more men join the military to replace those who were lost was one way that Armitage believed support could be given to the remaining soldiers.

Armitage argued that conscription should have been in place from the beginning. No man should have been able to avoid enlistment. He believed that the men who volunteered to enlist had been made to look like fools, despite risking their lives for their country. He lashed out at men back in Australia, terming them “shirkers” (cowards). Armitage equated the winning ‘no’ vote back home with a great Australian failure to recognise the magnitude of the war. He called Prime Minister Hughes an ‘oil-tongued Devil’ for allowing Australians the right to vote in a plebiscite without knowing the full extent of the war situation.

Armitage was clearly not alone in voting yes as the ‘yes’ vote overseas marginally won in both 1916 and 1917. Lieutenant Colonel GR Short, a New South Welshman, wrote many diary entries from the Somme in 1916. In November he wrote on how concerned he was that the plebiscite at home had failed. He believed that without conscription, the need for more men to share the burden on the Western Front would go unfulfilled.

Similarly Sergeant Major Norman Ellsworth wrote from England, 1917, of how his ‘blood boiled’ when he read the plebiscite had failed. Anyone who voted no, according to Ellsworth, was a traitor to the country. Common themes of responsibility, burden-sharing and cowardice ran throughout the letters of those in higher ranks.

There were, however, a wide range of servicemen who voted ‘no’ who were able to explain their decision through their diaries and letters. None of the letters were censored. The opinions of the soldiers were able to reach Australia and their families and feed into the conscription debates back home.

In August 1916, Driver Claude Ewart from Tasmania joined the Australian Imperial Force, aged 27. First Ewart was sent to Egypt for military training where he joined the 10th Battery 4th Field Artillery Division. After time in training, he was sent to the Somme just prior to the second conscription plebiscite. The first time Ewart mentioned conscription was when he was travelling from his military training in Egypt to the Western Front. He saw conscription as a great way ‘to make the slackers do their bit’, suggesting if he had voted the first time it would have been ‘yes’.

The diary in which Claude Ewart wrote while stationed at the Somme. Courtesy Museum Victoria Collection, ID 366102.
The diary in which Claude Ewart wrote while stationed at the Somme. Courtesy Museum Victoria Collection, ID 366102.

After one year on the frontline, this attitude had changed considerably. Ewart began to personalise the ‘enemy’, writing of finding a German soldier dead in the fields. To Ewart, this was not an unusual sight — ‘it is nothing to come across dead bodies.’ Death began to surround him and this, paired with horrific conditions in the trenches, spurred him to write: ‘I would not ask anyone to come over here and go through what I have in this last twelve months.’

The terrible conditions faced by servicemen on the Western Front appear to have been a major contributing factor to those voting no. Ernest Allen and his two brothers from Gin Gin further offer an insight into fighting conditions. Ernest, a former Queensland grazier, was stationed in France. In March 1917 he wrote home to his mother and younger brother, who was not sent to war, and conscription was among the many topics of conversation.

Overall, he was glad conscription had failed as he did not want to see his friends sent over. In that same month, he had witnessed the death of a friend of his. Although detailed military issues were not allowed to be discussed, Ernest did mention the fact that he wished the war to be over and for no more men to be killed.

In the four letters witnessed, held in the Australian War Memorial, Ernest consistently mentioned the terrible fighting and living conditions. He particularly disliked the weather of both England and France, remarking on how miserable it made the troops.

Above The Allen family of Gin Gin in Queensland, pictured in 1912. Serviceman Ernest Allen is standing in the back row, fourth from the left. Courtesy State Library of Queensland, ID 147787.
The Allen family of Gin Gin in Queensland, pictured in 1912. Serviceman Ernest Allen is standing in the back row, fourth from the left. Courtesy State Library of Queensland, ID 147787.

One of Ernest’s brothers, Josiah, was similarly against conscription. His reasoning, however, was slightly different. His belief was that men had to voluntarily join the army to be efficient fighters. Forcing someone to fight overseas was counterintuitive and could prove harmful. The third brother from the Allen family was silent on the issue of conscription and did not write as many letters home to his family as Ernest or Josiah.

There is one final reason found as to why a serviceman may have voted ‘no’ in the conscription plebiscite. A Queensland soldier, Jack, wrote home to his mother in 1917 from Perham Downs in England. Jack had been fighting on the Western Front, and after being injured, was sent to England to recover. He told his mother that Prime Minister Hughes had been lying about the numbers voting in favour of conscription and offered his reasons for voting no.

The treatment of Australian soldiers in England was central to his letter as he complained that the men were not treated as humans. Lack of food, proper shelter from fire, and general living hardships were the main issues Jack had with his English counterparts in the recovery camp.

Unlike those who were in favour of conscription, those who voted ‘no’ were mainly foot soldiers of lower rank who were constantly fighting on the front. Themes of terrible conditions, fear of friends being sent over, and poor treatment of soldiers were more important to these soldiers than reinforcing the Western Front.

Found also within these personal letters are clues as to how opinions on conscription were expressed to others. One clue can be found in the diary entry from GR Short, dated 15 October, 1916. In this entry Short commented on how ‘the cooks’ chimneys are chalk-marked “NO”.’ This act of vandalism by a serviceman in the camp potentially sparked discussions on conscription and may have influenced how others voted. Other than this small excerpt there is nothing else mentioned by any servicemen in their letters or diaries to indicate any active campaigning on the plebiscites.

Some letters indicated that conscription was widely debated and discussed. Servicemen would talk about the outcome of the plebiscites with each other in the camps. Even months before the plebiscites were held, servicemen wrote that there was great discussion and some were even predicting the outcome of the vote in their camp.

The reasons behind voting ‘no’ were so strong for some who returned home before the end of the war that they joined anti-conscription leagues in time for the 1917 plebiscite. These organisations released their own pamphlets to the public providing a soldier’s perspective on conscription.

Generally speaking each letter contains, at most, three or four sentences on the conscription plebiscites. The fact they are included, however, shows how the debate was not isolated to Australia. Servicemen overseas had the opportunity to vote and these opinions and beliefs were transported back to the home front, contributing to the battle of conscription and to the battle of conscience.

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