01 Sep

Conscription in Australia and the Referendum of 1916


In October 1916, two young friends, volunteers for the A.I.F, Jack Couzner and Hugh Foott were in Melbourne preparing to depart for France and the war. Their transport ship the “Euripides” left Melbourne on the 11th of September 1916 heading first to London, then on to The Western Front. Prior to their departure for the front, the soldiers had a brief period of leave in Melbourne where they witnessed scenes of great social division as the Nation prepared to vote on whether to enact conscription in Australia during WW1. Ten days after Jack & Hugh sailed for Egypt, the then Prime Minister, W.M “Billy” Hughes arrived in Melbourne to deliver a series of rousing speeches in favour of conscription. Hughes’ speeches saw large crowds turn out in favour of conscription, however in opposition there were strong social forces working to generate support for the ‘No’ vote.

Billy Hughes had become Prime Minister on the 27th October 1915 after Andrew Fisher, the elected Prime Minister had resigned for health reasons related to the strain of wartime leadership. Fisher had been Australian labour Prime Minister three times between 1908 and 1915 and it is commonly believed that he felt responsible for the heavy losses sustained on Gallipoli, a campaign which he’d authorised. Gallipoli had changed the view of the war in the eyes of the Australian public whose nationalistic fervour of 1914 rapidly dissipated, replaced by strong concerns over the futility and casualties sustained in that campaign. Hughes, the new labour Prime Minister in 1915, immediately set about implementing a campaign designed to recruit more volunteer soldiers for the A.I.F from within Australian society.

Billy Hughes debates conscription referendum for WW1 in 1916.
The prime minister The Right Honourable W.M.Hughes, speaking in Martin Place, Sydney. [AWM A03376]

The 1916 Campaign on Conscription in Australia

In 1916, Billy Hughes left Australia to tour Britain and the battlefields of France. The main purpose of his visit was to gauge whether or not conscription in Australia would be necessary to keep the A.I.F up to strength or whether keeping the A.I.F a volunteer force was the best course of action. Great Britain had adopted conscription through the Military Service Act of 1916, which came into effect March 2, 1916. Following his tour of the front and England, Hughes came to believe passionately that the way to replace the losses suffered by the A.I.F was to bring in conscription in Australia. However on Hughes’ return to Australia in mid 1916, enthusiasm for the war had dwindled and opposition and anti-conscription groups were forming in opposition to the proposal to conscript troops.


Australian Army First World War recruitment poster. Artist H.M.Burton.[AWM ARTV00152]
Australia’s involvement in France in 1916 had seen the disastrous loss of life and casualties sustained at the battles of Pozieres, Fromelles and Mouquet Farm. With losses spiralling upwards towards 30,000, social leaders were starting to realise that conscription had the potential to completely decimate the male population of the country, which would cause huge social and labour problems in the wars aftermath. The losses of 1916 were nearly double those of 1915 and with so many volunteers being killed or wounded, public opinion was shifting more towards preservation of the population.

Hughes remained confident that the Nation was roundly in support of conscription but as this was a highly political issue in a new democracy, he decided to put it to a referendum. Billy Hughes even made a film titled Referendum Bullets where he makes the case for the yes vote very forcefully. In 1916, the Australian Government already had the power to conscript men for service overseas however, it was felt that putting it to referendum was the right thing to do, given so many lives were at stake. Thus, when the Nation went to vote on 28th October 1916 they were taking part in a plebiscite rather than a referendum as the Government was already in possession of the powers it was seeking to legitimise in the eyes of the public. The question the population were asked was:

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?

In a well known error of judgement, Billy Hughes had been so confident that the referendum would be passed that he had already begun to call up men for medical checks and to place them into military camps. This attitude, which revealed that Hughes and his supporters saw the plebiscite as a mere formality, was received poorly by the public and is thought to have swung public opinion away from the ‘yes’ vote. These acts were especially damaging when it was revealed that the pre-referendum conscripts were being fingerprinted, a practice which at that time was reserved mainly for criminals.

Vote in Referendum for Conscription in Australia in WW1

The Polling Booth for the Conscription Referendum, 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment in Sinai, October 1916.[AWM J02466]
The outcome of the plebiscite of October 1916 was a small margin favouring the “No” vote. With 1,087,557 voting “Yes” and 1,160,033 voting “No.” The 1916 referendum as it was remembered, split the Nation right down the middle as to whether or not conscripting Australian men for the army was the right decision. The vote also split the Labor Party who ended up expelling Billy Hughes from their party. Hughes formed a wartime coalition to continue as Prime Minister, known as the National Labor Party and he would remain in office until 1923. The country voted again in 1917 on whether conscription in Australia in ww1 was a wartime necessity and again the “No” vote triumphed. Interestingly a large majority of the volunteer troops who were already fighting overseas voted against conscription. The general belief was that conscripts didn’t want to be there fighting in the first place and they would only weaken rather than strengthen the ranks.
First World War recruitment poster. Circa 1916.[AWM ARTV04952]

Murphy's War Cover For further reading and articles on Australia in World War 1, follow the link below. You’ll also find more extracts from the soldiers of Murphy’s War here.

The book, which details a number of the key battles in Australian First World War history, is also now available at the Picnic Press bookstore.

Robert Lewis is a writer, editor and web designer, read his profile here.

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