The Conscription Conflict and the Great War (review of Archer, Damousi, et al)

‘The Conscription Conflict and the Great War’ (review of Archer, Damousi, et al), Honest History, 16 November 2016

Derek Abbott* reviews The Conscription Conflict and the Great War, edited by Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer. See also speeches by Joan Beaumont, Luke Foley and Bill Shorten launching the book

Historian Barry Smith, writing in 1965, concluded that the failure of the conscription plebiscites of 1916 and 1917 ‘split the nation and preserved for another generation the national and sectarian divisions that the Commonwealth had given promise of outgrowing in 1914’ and that the ‘broad agreement about social reform which had distinguished late Colonial and early Federal Australia … which could have become a foundation of a tradition of egalitarian liberalism, was to be replaced by the spiritually unfruitful myths of war’.[1] Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, speaking in 2013, identified that same lost ‘egalitarian liberalism’ as a more solid foundation for Australia’s national identity than the ‘martial baptism of a European cataclysm’.

ccgw-cover-printRemarks like those underline the lasting importance of Australia’s World War I conscription struggle. The bitterness of the campaigns persisted. Sectarianism, politicised and embittered by being associated with accusations of disloyalty to Australia, Great Britain and the Empire, ‘ceased to be only a religious matter’, as Peter Stanley has written, ‘and washed over into ordinary life’.[2] As the editors of this book note, ‘parts of the country retreated into a kind of loyalist British parochialism’. The Labor Party, the first in the world to be elected to national government, was weakened by the split with Hughes and his supporters and struggled throughout the inter-war years to regain that early pre-eminence.

Given conscription’s importance to Australia’s historical development it is something of a surprise to be reminded that there has not been a book-length examination of the plebiscites since Jauncey in 1935. These essays seek to address that absence, putting the campaign in its international context and noting the two-way flow of influence (a welcome counter to the parochialism which characterises so much popular history of Australia during the Great War); examining the British liberal tradition, its hostility to conscription and its influence on the anti-conscription movement in Australia; looking at the ideas and arguments that the pro- and anti-campaigns espoused; and, finally, examining the differing interpretations of the conscription campaigns, both by historians and in popular memory.

Douglas Newton surveys the origins and strength of British liberal hostility to conscription, originating from fears of the Stuart Kings’ (and Cromwell’s) efforts to create a standing army within the country that might become a factor in domestic politics. That hostility came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to associate standing armies with ‘continental despotism’ – with Napoleonic France, Tsarist Russia and Prussia, in particular. However, the centrality of opposition to standing armies and conscription to British liberal principles does involve considerable pragmatism. It was able to flourish in that relatively brief period when Great Britain’s maritime and commercial pre-eminence was virtually unchallenged and it could rely on the strength of the Royal Navy to keep land wars away from British shores.

As Newton notes, even Richard Cobden, one of the ‘mythic heroes’ of the liberal tradition had ‘an avowed attachment to the Navy’. Cobden, writing during the Crimean War, commented that he would ‘vote a hundred millions for our navy to protect us from a landing of an enemy; and I would keep the nucleus of an army always in the very highest state of efficiency’. The classic liberal, John Stuart Mill, acknowledged the right of a society to require its members to share in its defence.

As the nineteenth century progressed, this ambivalence became a clear division within liberalism: Gladstone acknowledged that force might be used in pursuit of moral purposes while proponents of Britain’s ‘civilising mission’ and Liberal Imperialists saw the use of force as justified. Thus, when conscription became an active question in Britain, Australia and throughout the Empire during World War I, liberal attitudes to it were already significantly divided. In Australia, the idea of some degree of compulsion for home defence was accepted prior to the war and had been introduced by a Labor Government in 1911 in the face of strong opposition, much of it couched in moral terms.

Robin Archer, in his chapter, advances a persuasive case for the influence of traditional liberal values on the Australian labour movement from its foundation and for the centrality of those ideas to the anti-conscription campaign. In this he takes issue with the interpretations of Ian Turner and John Hurst that the debate over conscription was largely one between the political and industrial wings of the labour movement. It should be noted that both sides made great play of ideas of ‘liberty’. Anti-conscriptionists focussed on the rights of the individual. Conversely, the argument that the best defence of individual liberties was the liberal nation, and that its defence was an obligation of citizenship, was widely used by pro-conscriptionists in Britain and Australia. Speaking in Sydney on 18 September 1916, Prime Minister Billy Hughes demanded, ‘What is there that you value – liberty, political power, high wages, the possibilities of the future – that will remain if the Allies lose? … Without the State, those rights … would not endure for an hour’.

Hughes undermined his own position and the ‘Yes’ case by his ‘authoritarian proclivities’ – his ruthless and partisan use of censorship; his harassment of opponents; his manipulation of both the terms of the questions being put and the ballot; his reliance on exaggerated and distorted statistics; and, not least, his vituperative and divisive language. If this was Hughes’s idea of the use of state power then, for many of his contemporaries, it was difficult indeed to see this power as the benign guarantor of individual liberty.

recruitment6_217182396Canadian recruitment poster, c. 1916 ( University)

John Connor’s essay surveys the adoption of conscription by the English-speaking allied powers. Only in Australia was the conscription question put to a popular vote; in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and the United States it was introduced through the normal legislative processes. South Africa was an outlier: issues of race and the loyalty of the Afrikaner population made conscription of the white population untenable. In Britain, New Zealand and Canada conscription was accepted but not without opposition. In the United Kingdom, it was not extended to Ireland until 1918 and never enforced in practice; in Canada, the debate split the Anglo- and Francophone communities; in New Zealand, Maori who had volunteered in significant numbers were initially excluded and, even after conscription was extended to Maori in June 1917, no Maori conscripts served overseas.

Ross McKibbin, in examining the British experience, notes that many of the same arguments and issues applied there as in Australia but that the outcomes were significantly different. In Australia, the union movement feared that military conscription would foreshadow civil conscription, undermining the powers of trade unions and eroding the gains made by organised labour. In Britain, military conscription and manpower policy worked in parallel and the cooperation of organised labour was vital to the success of the latter. McKibbin concludes that ‘via manpower policy and the debate over conscription, the unions adopted a more active definition of the state and politics, which … made possible the reorganisation of the Labour Party in 1917-18 and its emergence as the second party of the state’.

Similarly, eugenic arguments – the impact of the war on the health of the ‘race’ – took opposing forms. In Britain, anxieties that a volunteer army was disproportionately drawn from the educated middle class – ‘We are slowly but surely killing off the best of the male population of these islands’ – favoured conscription as a means of sharing the burden and diluting its adverse impacts. The active role of the union movement and higher taxes in Britain also underpinned the ‘fairness’ of conscription; the war was just and necessary and all had a duty to share its burdens.

In Australia, conscription became bound up with White Australia. If Australians were conscripted for overseas service their place in the workforce would be taken by cheap Asian labour. This, in turn, fed into class hostility – the bosses favoured conscription as a means of getting access to cheap labour.

Examining the campaign in Australia, Frank Bongiorno takes up the question of the ideas and values underpinning the conscription debate and describes arguments based on the liberties of the individual as ‘the very essence of the anti-conscriptionist cause’. At the same time he acknowledges that, as in any political controversy participants will, as John Hirst had it, ‘raise every bogey until you find one that bites’. Given there was a secret ballot, what position, what argument most strongly influenced the individual voter must remain a mystery but Bongiorno suggests that historians who have sought to characterise the conflict as primarily a clash of economic or industrial interests have ‘missed the intense intellectual and emotional attachment to freedom … which lent the campaigns much of their passion’.

p11677-001Anti-conscription campaigners selling pictures of Archbishop Mannix, Melbourne, 1916 (AWM P.11677.001)

Murray Goot has subjected the actual voting to detailed analysis, concluding that many of the conventional explanations are insufficient: voters of German background do not explain the South Australian ‘No’ vote, nor do rural votes more generally explain the strength of the ‘No’ vote in the eastern States. Nor can the ‘Yes’ vote in Western Australia be explained by the number of recent English migrants in that state. Goot does hold out some hope that closer examination of individuals and groups, rather than of electorates or states, might yield a better understanding of the success of the ‘No’ case.

In the light of General Birdwood’s comment – ‘can you think of any country in the world (especially one so many thousands of miles from the scene of conflict) voluntarily voting “Yes”’ – the strength of that case, is also ripe for closer analysis. After all, it came within a few per cent of succeeding.

Joy Damousi’s chapter on the medical profession and academics at the University of Melbourne who supported the ‘Yes’ case takes up Murray Goot’s call to examine the attitudes and motivations of smaller groups. The University was divided on the matter. In November 1917, its Council unanimously adopted a motion encouraging students to enlist: ‘No considerations of commercial and professional advantage should … stand in the way of this plain duty’.

However, the extent to which the University could seek to encourage enlistment was contested. Ormond College declined to accept men who lacked good reason for not enlisting, whereas others were concerned at the impact on the University if eligible men were forced out. Some academics considered it ‘a breach of duty’ to use their positions to promote enlistment among their students. In hounding out two respected German academics the University showed that its commitment to liberal values was far from solid.

Academic staff actively engaged in the ‘Yes’ campaign echoed Hughes in his more restrained moments: citizenship in a democracy carried with it duties and responsibilities as well as liberties and freedoms and the principal duty was to defend those liberties when they were threatened; conscription was a lesser evil. There was also a reflection of the ‘sharing the burden’ argument that was persuasive in Great Britain – anticipation of a post-war world in which ‘conflicts between classes, creeds and families … will poison our social life, dominate our politics and threaten our capacity for self-government’ were conscription not introduced.

The interventions of the medical profession were on somewhat narrower grounds. Serving medical officers wrote in support of the first conscription vote, arguing that,  without a steady flow of fresh recruits, troops would not be given sufficient rest from the front line and the wounded would have too little time to convalesce. A poll of medicoes prior to the second vote overwhelmingly supported conscription of doctors, because, without it, ‘medical treatment would be cumbersome, slow, uncertain and costly’.

In a concluding essay, Sean Scalmer draws some positives from the conscription debates and questions the dominant narrative of division in society generally and the labour movement specifically. Most particularly, he suggests that Australians might celebrate that the issue was, uniquely, put to the vote in wartime and that the potential for violence was contained: ‘whether divisive or not, the event should be remembered as a significant moment in a national history of self-rule’. It may be true that the strength of the ‘No’ vote demonstrated the hold that liberal values had on the Australian voter, that it represented a rejection of sectarianism, that women played significant roles in both the campaign and the voting, but, in the context of what Bill Gammage described as ‘one long national funeral for a generation and more after 1918’ it is hard to see the legacy of conscription as anything other than bitterness and division.

p11464-069-001Soldiers in Palestine, probably 7th Light Horse, voting, October 1916 (AWM P11464.069.001)

This collection of essays does bring many new and welcome perspectives to the study of the conscription votes but it still has the feel of a work in progress. Perhaps one of the authors will take on the challenge of a major work that brings together both recent research and established interpretations to produce a ‘standard’ history of the period.


[1] FB Smith, The Conscription Plebiscites in Australia, 1916-17, Victorian Historical Association, Melbourne 1965, p. 21.

[2] Peter Stanley, ‘Society’, John Connor, Peter Stanley & Peter Yule, The War at Home: The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, Volume IV, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2015, p. 209.

* Derek Abbott is a retired Senate officer with a history degree from Aberdeen University. He has reviewed a number of books for Honest History (use our Search engine to find them).

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