When Australia voted no to war: the 1916-17 conscription referenda

April 14, 2016
From the Australian Worker, October 5, 1916, depicting the pro-conscription PM Billy Hughes.

In all the official Anzac 100-year commemorations to remember and celebrate the undoubted courage of World War I diggers, there is an extraordinary amnesia about how ambivalent Australians were about that war. This ambivalence grew as mounting casualties affected families all over the country and the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising was brutally supressed.

We forget that a majority of Australians came to oppose forcibly conscripting young men to go to the war in two national referenda in 1916 and 1917. Nor is it widely remembered that the Melbourne suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg played major roles in both the national anti-conscription campaigns and in authorities' efforts to intimidate and suppress anti-war campaigners by imprisoning them in Coburg's Pentridge Prison.

World War I claimed the lives of 11 million soldiers and 7 million civilians, and left 20 million wounded. Australia sent 416,809 volunteer troops to the war, 61,524 of whom were killed.

In the later years of the war, as news of the massive casualties at Gallipoli, Fromelles, Messines, Passchendaele and Ypres became known, wartime governments found increasing difficulty in enlisting enough volunteers. They turned to conscription as a means of supplying enough troops and the Australian government, under Prime Minister William “Billy” Hughes, sought a mandate to introduce conscription in national referenda in 1916 and 1917.

The move was immediately opposed by a broad anti-conscription movement, involving women's groups, pacifists, socialists, trade unionists, Labor Party members, some Labour parliamentarians and religious groups and leaders — notably the Quakers leader, Reverend Charles Strong and the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix.

The anti-conscriptionists' aims included stemming the flow of blood and destruction, preventing the kind of mistreatment that conscientious objectors were subjected to in other countries at war and securing a negotiated end to what was seen as a questionable or unjustifiable war.

Rarely has any government permitted its people a direct say in war-making powers and policies; it was equally rare for anti-war forces to make their voices heard and prevail in a popular vote at a time when all the powers of the state and mainstream media were deployed against them.

The referenda and their outcomes

The wording of the two referenda were calculated to maximise the “yes” vote. The first referendum asked: “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?” The vote, held on October 28, 1916, resulted in a 72,476 majority for the “No” vote — 1,160,033 “No”; 1,087,557 “Yes”.

The second referendum avoided even mentioning compulsion, simply asking: “Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth government for reinforcing the Australian Imperial Forces Overseas?” The second referendum on December 20, 1917, despite its indirect wording, was lost by the even greater margin of 166,588 — 1,181,747 “No”; 1,015,159 “Yes”.

The success of the anti-conscription campaigns in securing a No vote at both referenda is astonishing when you consider that the government, almost all the mainstream newspapers, five out of six state governments, the Protestant churches — with the exception of the Quakers — and most of the establishment were pressing for conscription and making highly-charged appeals to voters' patriotism, loyalty to the British Empire and support for troops in the field.

As Bertha Walker noted: “This was the first and only time that any country in the world was permitted to vote on whether it would conscript its young men for war.” She considered its success was due to the “way in which people of the most diverse interests combined together on this special issue. Catholics, Protestants, Atheists, Trade Unionists, Labor Party members, Socialists, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members, Pacifists … all worked wholeheartedly for the common goal.”

Trade union campaign

Anti-conscription campaigns led by the trade unions and Labor Party anti-conscription activists were closely linked. On May 10, 1916, the trade unions held an All-Australia Trade Union Conference in Melbourne, convened by the Secretary of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, Ted Holloway. The conference declared “its determination to resist any and every attempt to foist [conscription] upon the people of Australia” — total branch votes amounted to 208,018 for this resolution and 753 against.

The trade unions and Labour established a joint national anti-conscription committee and executive, with Holloway as its secretary, John Curtin — later to become Australia's prime minister during World War II — as its full-time organiser and Frank Hyett, Bob Ross and Frank Anstey on the executive. The unofficial headquarters for their campaign was St Ambrose's hall in Brunswick.

Anticipating an easy win in the 1916 referendum, Hughes ordered all 21 to 35-year-old single males to register by October 9, attend a medical, be fingerprinted, and go into camp for military training. More than 190,000 men were registered and trained across Australia; of these 80,570 sought exemption and an estimated 2500 were conscientious objectors.

Curtin was one of those who defied the call-up, refusing to register and go into camp. Led by Curtin, trade unions held a one-day strike and a 50,000-strong rally on October 4, 1916 to oppose the call-up. Curtin appealed to fellow unionists to “refuse to be bullied, or lied to, or voted into the slavery of military control … trade unionism is your trenches, emancipation your flag, solidarity and united action your only hope.”

Despite the No vote at the first referendum, Hughes continued with prosecutions under his call-up proclamation. On November 24, a court sentenced Curtin to three months' jail. He was sent to Pentridge, together with Norman Grant from the Non-Conscription Fellowship. There he was confined from 6pm to 8am in a small unventilated cell, with a bucket for a toilet and slept on the hard floor with only two blankets.

Given the outcome of the referendum, intense union and Labour pressures were exerted to have Curtin and Grant released. After three days, they were both freed, condemning the “abominable conditions prisoners have to endure”.

Between 30,000 and 60,000 people attended union-organised campaign rallies on the Yarra Bank in Melbourne or the Sydney Domain in the lead up to the first referendum.

Anti-conscription messages and materials were communicated despite the censors through Hyett's Australian Railways Union and in publications such as the Labor Call (Melbourne), The Socialist, The Worker (Sydney), the Queensland Worker and the Ballarat Echo. Key union, Labor and socialist figures in the campaign included Maurice Blackburn, Doris Blackburn, Senator Edward Findley, Tom Ryan (Labor Premier of Queensland), Don Cameron, Henry Boote, James Scullin (future Labor Prime Minister) and Henry Kneebone.

Women and the campaign

The role of women's groups and leaders was crucial throughout the anti-conscription campaigns. Women, particularly in groups such as the Women's Peace Army and Sisterhood for International Peace, were among the strongest in not only opposing conscription for the war but also in opposing the war itself.

Many observers of the referenda majority “no” vote have concluded that the women's vote was one of the most important factors in the outcome.

The Women's Peace Army formed three days after the war started. It was led in Melbourne by Vida Goldstein, Adela Pankhurst, Cecilia John and Doris Blackburn. The Sisterhood of International Peace — later the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) — was led at the time by Eleanor Moore. A third group was the Labor Women's Anti-Conscription Committee, led by Julia (Bella) Guerin from Brunswick, the Principal of Brunswick Girls' High School.

Pankhurst was the youngest daughter of the famous suffragette family. She arrived in Melbourne in March 1914 after a conflict within her family, and quickly became, alongside fellow suffragette Goldstein, an eloquent speaker against the war and conscription and supported the pacifist campaigns of the Australian Peace Alliance.

Pankhurst was imprisoned in Coburg's Pentridge Prison for “having encouraged injury to property” in the context of a women's street demonstration against rising wartime food prices. Following an unsuccessful appeal against the sentence, she was taken to the Female Prison within Pentridge on November 30, 1917. Pankhurst's letters and writings from prison showed some of the stress she felt and the horror at how prisoners were treated. In one article she likened prisoners to being “plague victims” having less than an animal existence.

After a campaign to release her, including petitions, women's demonstrations outside Pentridge and support from the Melbourne Argus, Hughes, through his Attorney-General, remitted the rest of her sentence and released her on January 10, 1918. On release, she bounced straight back into action, returning to Yarra Bank meetings to denounce the war as only in the interest of capitalists.

Many other prominent and not-so-prominent anti-conscription activists were jailed in Pentridge and International Workers of the World (IWW) activists jailed in Sydney at this time. These included Guido Baracchi, Joseph Skurrie and members of the No Conscription Fellowship.

Guido Baracchi, a Melbourne University law student, socialist, founding member of the Communist Party and anti-war activist, was jailed in early 1918 under the War Precautions Act for “making statements likely to prejudice recruiting” and “attempting to cause disaffection among the civil population”.

Joseph Skurrie, a socialist anti-conscription activist, was jailed for six weeks in mid-February 1916 for saying: “So long as Australia hung on to the old country, so long would she be involved in the wars of Britain. The only way was for Australia to stand aloof and become an independent nation.” Replace “the old country” by “United States”, and the same argument might well be advanced today.

Many less-well-known anti-conscription activists and conscientious objectors to the 1916 call-up were also jailed in Pentridge. One estimate is that there were 2500 conscientious objectors across Australia, and in Victoria 3% of all applicants for exemption were conscientious objectors. Many of these who, like Curtin, refused to go into training camp, were jailed for short periods until all were released in late November or December 1916.

Brunswick was a central location for some of the key anti-conscriptionist actors on the national stage, while Pentridge Prison in Coburg was one of the main tools of the establishment in trying to silence the anti-conscription and anti-war voices through imprisonment under the most harsh conditions.

Why remember the conscription referenda?

We remember the courage and suffering of those who fought and died in World War I but we also need to remember how the majority of Australians in 1916 and again in 1917 voiced their opposition to forcing young men into this war in a rare case of ordinary people being allowed to vote on matters of war and peace.

The need for decisions about going to war to be put to a popular vote, or at least decided by parliament rather than the executive, continues to be a major issue in the wake of past Australian decisions to intervene alongside the US in unjust and genocidal conflicts, such as the Vietnam War.

We need to remember, and learn from, how the peace, feminist and socialist activists of the day formed a national alliance that successfully defied the pro-war establishment and defeated a conscription system under which even more young Australians would most certainly have “died as cattle” in a pointless and catastrophic war.

To remember what happened, and to draw some contemporary lessons from the extraordinary success of the Australian anti-war, anti-conscription movement during this period, a Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Committee (BCACCC) has been formed to organise a range of commemoration activities this year and next.

These include: a one-day conference in Coburg Town Hall, a specially-commissioned play featuring key anti-war activists of the day, school re-enactments of the debates over the war and conscription, walking tours of key sites of anti-conscription events and Pentridge divisions where anti-war activists were imprisoned, websites with research and articles about the period and a re-enactment of the women's choir who sang outside Pankhurst's Pentridge prison cell to lift her spirits and press for her release after she was jailed for a women's anti-war demonstration.

[If you are interested in learning more about, or participating in, the BCACCC anti-conscription commemoration campaign activities sign on to the e-news site or go to Facebook page or email anticonscription1916@gmail.com).]

[Michael Hamel-Green is Emeritus Professor at Victoria University, Melbourne.]

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