Divided sunburnt country: Australia 1916-18 (31): Returned soldiers speak out against conscription

Divided sunburnt country: Australia 1916-18 (31): Returned soldiers speak out against conscription’, Honest History, 6 December 2017

The ‘Divided sunburnt country’ series

The newspaper, the Woman Voter, run by Vida Goldstein, Cecilia John and other radical women, was often a thorn in the side of the Hughes government during World War I. The paper swung into strong action once the second conscription referendum was announced early in November 1917.

The following document, from the edition of 6 December 1917 and reproduced here pretty much in full, shows the attitudes of members of the labour movement and the vehemence of their feeling. It also shows vividly that having been a soldier did not make a man pro-conscription.

Returned Soldiers’ Manifesto

Head Office, Trades Hall, Melbourne.


Australia is to be again plunged into a state of chaos and dismemberment by the Government submitting a Referendum, and asking you to cast an affirmative vote for Conscription. It is alleged by the Conscriptionists that the Voluntary System has had a fair trial and failed; no effort is to be spared by the Conscription Party to have a pernicious system of Militarism forced upon you.
We returned soldiers, having proved our loyalty and patriotism to our country by risking our lives daily in the trenches, many having come back crippled for life, have decided on taking an active part in this campaign, and are going to do our utmost to preserve our people’s freedom, and resist anything in the shape of Prussian Militarism.

The conscriptionists are slandering Australia by claiming the country has not done its share and is disloyal.

They [the conscriptionists] have not the slightest regard for the fact that the great name of ANZAC was not created by them, or any politician, or set of politicians, but by the life’s-blood of many of our comrades—the sons and brothers of the great majority of the men who are called “Shirkers” by this same crowd, and the sons and brothers of our womenfolk, who conscientiously and with that love of freedom which inspires all true Australians, have refused to be a party to any form of coercion or compulsion. Nor do they recognise the fact that it has been that spirit of independence and freedom which inspired Australian troops to accomplish the heroic feats which stand to their credit.

The cry for conscription is led by rich men in Sydney who balk at the concomitant conscription of wealth. Some of these people are also pushing for industrial conscription. They are also engaged in price gouging. There should be a tax on excess war profits.

Every man, so far as we are concerned, shall be free. If he can see his way clear to volunteer, we honour him. If the Government want voluntary recruiting to succeed, we will give them the key to the situation. Let the Government take all excess war profits over 10 per cent. Make the owners of wealth, who stand a good chance of losing it should we be defeated, lend their money free of interest. If we are willing to risk our lives, is it too much to ask that Capital shall risk its wealth?

There should be guarantees that soldiers are paid the equivalent of a living wage, are supported properly if they come home crippled, and are employed at a living wage on their return from service. And that their dependants are looked after properly.

While opposing the introduction of conscription for overseas service, we are not averse to creating a strong citizen army to enable us to maintain a White Australia. If conscription is carried, we see clearly the danger of our White Australia Policy going to the winds.

Conscript armies lack morale. Opponents of conscription are neither shirkers nor pro-German nor traitors.


(Signed) R. A. Crouch,
President, 22nd Battalion
A. G. Bott, Secretary, 7th Battalion

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One comment on “Divided sunburnt country: Australia 1916-18 (31): Returned soldiers speak out against conscription
  1. Leighton View says:

    Well presented arguments … of course the “White Australia” aspects are off-putting.

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