13 Nov

Exemption Courts & Recruitment in Victoria during WW1

Elizabeth Murphy


At the beginning of October 1916, The Commonwealth Government made a proclamation which would eventually lead to the establishment of Exemption Courts across the country. At that time it was declared that ‘all unmarried able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 35 were to undertake military training leading to the possibility of service’.

However the debate about compulsory military service overseas and an impending referendum on the issue were occurring at almost the same time. As we’ve seen, both referendums on conscription were defeated, however enrolment for military training in anticipation of conscription continued. If men met the eligibility criteria they had to go to enrolment centres to have their suitability assessed. If selected under this process men could challenge the decision in an Exemption Court. Pleas were heard in local Police Courts before a magistrate and a representative of the Defence Department. (Whitehead, 2014).

compulsory training

The judgements of many of these courts were resented by particular sections of the population and particularly so in rural areas. There were three main reasons for this:

  • Employment was disrupted while men attended camp and farmers especially were left short of labour.
  • It was believed that such a process would precipitate men directly into the fighting on the Western Front.
  • This caused hardships for families because the basis for exemption was ‘clearly the number of brothers who had enlisted for overseas service’ (Pearson in Whitehead,1992).

Although many of our soldiers had volunteered by October 1916 most of the soldiers in our story were from rural areas or farming families. We presume their brothers or friends went before Exemption Courts near to where they lived.

Exemption courts and sitting judges: Wimmera region.

J. W. W. Beaven – Kerang. Swan Hill. Pyramid Hill. Cohuna.
V. Elliget Boort. Ultima. Chillingollah. Quambatook. Charlton. Wycheproof. Sea Lake. Kaneira.
W. W. Greene Birchip. Donald. Mildura. Ouyen. Woomelang. Murrayville.
E. Harrison Warracknabeal. Murtoa. Minvip. Rainbow. Hopetoun. Beulah. Rupanvup.

Source: Exemption Courts: Amended Official List 6 October, 1916. Argus Newspaper Melbourne, p.8

Military Exemption Court: Redruth (Wannon Falls)

The following is part of an extract from the Burra Record, Wednesday 8 November 1916,p.2 demonstrating the work of the Exemption Court and its impact on rural Australia.

On Friday last for the first time in history a military exemption court was held in the Redruth Court House. Mr. Keats. S-M. was the presiding magistrate and Lieut. W. W. Judd appeared for the military. Lieut. Queale also had a seat at the table. His Honour briefly explained the procedure. He said that unless there was something very special he did not wish to hear of financial obligations. The Moratorium Ad covered mortgages and so long as the interest was kept paid up no mortgagee could foreclose.

  • Eighty four farmers, including two or three farm labourers were granted three months exemption to take off their crops, 40 applicants were granted total exemption on the plea that they were only sons or that more than half the family had enlisted. In several cases the applications were withdrawn.
  • A post office official and a bank clerk said that exemptions were being applied for them by their institutions and withdrew their applications.
  • In five cases which the applicants appeared no exemption was granted, and 17 cases were struck out owing to no appearance.
  • In most of the cases the applicants were out only for time to take off the crop but in some total exemption was applied for.
  • When there were only two brothers, neither of whom had enlisted, they were usually granted three months but were told that if one enlisted the other would make application to – the military authorities and would be granted full exemption.
  • One applicant said he had four brothers, 24 to 41 years of age, none of whom had enlisted. He was the only son at home and the support of his parents on 360acres of land. ‘Whose going to do my work when I’m gone’ he asked. ‘You go and finish the war first,’ said the S.M.
  • A man said he had six brothers from 18 to 40. One had enlisted. He had 90 acres of crop. His father was unable to work. Lieutenant Judd objected to any exemption, his brothers could take off the crop. The S.M: He is engaged in the production of cereals. To Lieut. Judd applicant said that all his brothers were on farms of their own. The Lieutenant said his impression was that some of the brothers were working for other farmers. Three months was granted.
  • Another applicant said he had eight brothers, 12 to 30 years of age, none of whom had enlisted. He was managing a farm on which was 800 acres of crop. Three months. One applicant had two brothers, and five step-brothers the eldest of whom was 13. One brother was in France and the other had enlisted. The S.M: What do you mean by saying your brother is in France, has he enlisted? The Applicant : I expect so, it would be a funny sort of holiday trip. After being induced to swear that his brother in France had enlisted he was granted absolute exemption.

Murphy's War Cover

Elizabeth Murphy is an author and historian. Her recent book on Victoria and World War 1, Murphy’s War, is now available at the Picnic Press bookstore.