Wellings, Ben: conscription referendums made our Great War different

Wellings, Ben

Only the conscription referendums made Australia’s Great War experience different‘, The Conversation, 10 November 2015

‘Relegating the global and transnational dimensions and reiterating familiar – if erroneous – national narratives’, the author argues, ‘creates distortions in the image of the national self’. He compares Australia’s image of a volunteer army with other countries which had similar arrangements, including India and South Africa.

‘A more accurate claim would be that Australia was only one of two of the “white” Dominions not to impose conscription.’ Where we were unique, though, is that we voted conscription down – twice.

Here is something that Australia, as a new nation-state with a reputation for social and political innovation, could offer the world as a unique moment in the history of the Great War.

It is to be hoped that after 2015 the commemorative emphasis will be less on military service and broaden to the two referendums of 1916 and 1917: a moment for the commemoration of citizenry in wartime rather than soldier-citizenry in war.

It may be that it is difficult to commemorate the intense divisions created by the conscription referendums at a time when bipartisanship rules in the rhetoric of contemporary commemoration. Nevertheless, this could be just the breath of fresh air that the potentially repetitive centenary needs. By looking more closely at others, we will understand more about ourselves.

Another aspect, raised in the comments on Wellings’ piece, is the existence of youth conscription in Australia before World War I, so that a good proportion of the men who went had military experience of a sort. That qualifies to some extent the image of volunteerism. On this, see Max Waugh’s recent book, Soldier Boys.

Ben Wellings is one of Honest History’s distinguished supporters.

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