Conscription conflicts in WWI well detailed in new book

January 14, 2017

The Conscription Conflict & the Great War
Edited by Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot & Sean Scalmer
Monash University Publishing, 2016
Paperback, $29.95.

The First World War was to take the lives of eleven million soldiers on both sides, seven million civilians, and, as a further consequence, the loss of some 50-100 million lives worldwide from the Spanish Flu pandemic which began in the troop staging camps and hospitals in Étaples, France, and which returning troops brought home with them. Australia itself lost 61,524 soldiers, one in 80 of the Australian population at the time, not counting those who died from the influenza pandemic.

A war on such a scale was not conducted without much anguish, debate, and conflict on conscription issues within the affected democracies. Yet, as Robin Archer and Sean Scalmer note, the conscription issue and associated anti-conscription movements in Australia, England and other English-speaking parties to the war, have received relatively little analysis: “while the centenary [of the war] has generated much discussion about those who fought the war, those who sought to prevent it or contain its effects have received far less attention”. This new book on WWI conscription issues, “aims to offer new interpretations” of the conscription issues, conflicts and policies in the English-speaking countries involved in the war, with a particular focus on Australia as the one country to decide against conscription by popular vote.

The book was launched, fittingly enough, by the Labor Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, at the Victorian Trades Hall, on the eve of the 100-year anniversary of the first 28 October 1916 Conscription Referendum that saw a majority of Australians vote against Prime Minister William Hughes’ proposal to introduce conscription in Australia. A year later, on 20 December 1917, a second referendum was lost by an even greater majority. The Trades Hall location for the launch was particularly appropriate given the central role that trade unions and the Interstate Trade Union Congress played in successfully galvanising opposition to the proposed conscription scheme, both within the labour movement and more broadly.

The book most certainly delivers on its promise of offering many new interpretations and fresh insights into the conscription issues and dilemmas of the day. This is particularly the case in looking at Australia’s unique decision to let Australians vote directly on the matter in the two plebiscites, but the book also throws much light on conscription policies and decision-making in Britain, New Zealand, the US, and Canada.

While all the chapters have much to offer in relation to specific aspects of the conscription issue, Frank Bongiorno’s chapter on “Anti-Conscriptionism in Australia” is an exceptionally insightful overview of the whole Australian anti-conscription movement at the time. Within the necessary constraints of a single chapter, Bongiorno does justice to the main strands of the movement (socialist, unionist, labour, women’s, Irish-Catholic, Quaker and pacifists) who joined together in opposition to conscription. He not only succinctly explains the roles of the various strands at key moments in the course of the 1916-17 anti-conscription campaigns but also makes very effective use of the actual words of key protagonists. Of all the contributions to the book, Bongiorno’s comes closest to capturing and portraying the dynamics of the anti-conscription campaigns and the passions of its participants. As he memorably concludes: “The campaigns over conscription were imbued with the grief and anxiety of a society at war, yet they were also colourful and exciting, occasions for marching and singing, for rallies, concerts and torchlight processions, for compelling oratory.”

Several of the chapters deal with the conscription issue in other English-speaking countries. Douglas Newton provides detailed insights into Liberal thinking on conscription in England before and during the war, and explains how the change from anti-conscription to pro-conscription positions occurred in the Liberal leadership. John Connor offers an analysis of the reasons for the implementation of conscription in some English-speaking countries but not in others. Ross McKibbin provides a detailed comparison between the British and Australian experiences of conscription. All three of these contributions tend to focus on parliamentary and political party leaderships without providing much detail on what was happening in terms of grass roots opposition to conscription. In noting that “16,500 British men claimed exemption from conscription as Conscientious Objectors”, Connor asserts: “Overall, most British people seem to have accepted military compulsion”. Since there were no opinion polls in this period, and since using electoral data on who voted for anti-conscriptionist candidates only involved male voters (as women could not vote in Britain at that time), it seems a somewhat questionable claim for Connor to make. Presumably, the fact that only 16,500 sought CO status is supposed to indicate that all the other conscripts, and the majority of the British population, supported conscription. Yet anyone at the time who sought CO status faced gaol or even being shot (if their application failed), or at the very least being vilified as “shirkers”, so it may be surmised that there were many who did not actually “accept” conscription but were intimidated into not applying for exemption.

McKibbon makes a more nuanced and evidenced case for arguing for widespread acceptance of conscription in England but is careful to limit his generalisation to males, saying that if a plebiscite had been held, “the majority of men would have voted Yes”.

It was a little disappointing that all three commentaries on the British conscription issue seemed to neglect David Boulton’s seminal study of the WWI British anti-conscription movement (Objection Overruled, 1967) which is the English parallel to Leslie Jauncey’s study of the Australian anti-conscription movement (frequently referred to in the chapters on Australia). In particular, at the grassroots level, the No-Conscription Fellowship of conscientious objectors in Britain both preceded and helped inspire the comparable Australian WWI No-Conscription Fellowship, which in turn partly inspired the establishment of the Draft Resisters Union during the Vietnam War (not, as Scalmer suggests elsewhere, inspired solely or even mainly by “the draft dodgers of America”, itself a pejorative way of describing those who in conscience could not participate in the unjust and genocidal war against the Vietnamese).

The 1916-17 Conscription Referenda in Australia are unique in how they show how Australians at that time viewed the specific issue of conscription, or rather conscription for overseas service as distinct from Australia’s “boy conscription” scheme for home defence only. Murray Goot’s chapter provides a perceptive detailed analysis of the voting patterns in the two referenda and relevant elections, and very effectively counters a number of previous interpretations of the voting outcomes, particularly the widely cited notion that the vote of farmers concerned about losing farm labour was the decisive factor in the No vote.

In analysing the origins and actual debates involved in the Australian referenda, Robin Archer, makes a persuasive case for the importance of liberal concepts of freedom and liberty in the anti-conscription campaigns as against other more class-based or economic interpretations, and suggestions that liberal references were mere rhetoric. This focus on the importance of liberal concepts was shared by a number of the book’s contributors. However, one aspect that continues to be neglected in the relevant scholarly discourse – yet is abundantly evident in the words, songs, poetry and posters of the anti-conscriptionists – is the simple moral and emotional impact of the enormous slaughter that was occurring during the war, and associated efforts of anti-conscriptionists at the time to seek a negotiated end to the war and the slaughter. This humanitarian aspect is not necessarily limited to a particular framework, such as liberalism. As official histories of the war have now shown, there were a number of key moments when the German side was ready for negotiation, yet ignored by the British side. It is likely that the ready availability of “cannon fodder” through conscription pipelines prolonged the war by making leaders more inclined to continue fighting than negotiate peace.

Joy Damousi’s chapter on Melbourne University’s support for the “Yes” campaigns is a more micro-analytical account of one particular section of the more general “establishment” support for the war and conscription. It demonstrates well the complexity of views amongst leading academics who shared some of the values of liberty and freedom with those in the anti-conscription cause, yet often responded in very intolerant and illiberal ways. Oddly, in her discussion of Alexander Leeper, warden of Trinity College and founder of the collegiate system at the university, Damousi does not mention Leeper’s key role in seeking to have the radical anti-conscription student (and later a founder of the Australian Communist Party), Guido Baracchi, expelled by the Academic Board for an article in the Melbourne University Magazine that merely said “The war, whatever the jingoes and junkers may tell us, is not primarily our affair” (for details of this episode, see Jeff Sparrow’s biography of Baracchi, Communism: a Love Affair, 2007). Even more surprisingly, Leeper appeared to be more zealous in seeking sanctions against Baracchi than Melbourne’s own military censor, Lieutenant Colonel Francis S. Newell, who had already cleared Baracchi’s article for publication. In the same chapter, Joy Damousi discusses the extraordinary argument of the contemporary medical fraternity that conscription was needed to replace men at the front falling victim to “infectious and exhausting diseases”. In the context of the Spanish Flu pandemic that was to emerge in the war zone, it would be useful to explore how the medical fraternity of the day later viewed the whole question of the war following the enormous loss of life resulting from the war-generated pandemic.

Sean Scalmer’s final chapter rounds out the book by surveying Australian processes of remembering conscription issues dating back to the First World War, and argues for the need to acknowledge the positive democratic aspects of the conscription conflict at the time, and the role of the popular vote in limiting state powers. The whole book, with its wealth of new insights into the extraordinary and highly successful efforts of the anti-conscription movement in winning the 1916-17 referenda, will be an important resource for students and researchers studying this period, and a very necessary complement to the abundant literature focussing solely on WWI military activities and service.

[This Article first appeared at Labour History Melbourne and is reprinted with the author’s permission. Michael Hamel-Green is a Emeritus Professor in the College of Arts, Victoria University.]

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