You are in site section:

Conscription referendums

Defining Moments in Australian History

Warning: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Conscription referendums

1916–17: Conscription for military service overseas defeated in two referendums


1916–17: Conscription for military service overseas defeated in two referendums

The 1916 and 1917 conscription referendums were among the most divisive moments in Australian history.

Throughout 1916, Australia had experienced problems meeting the troop supply commitments it had made to the British government. Prime Minister Billy Hughes believed the only way to achieve the numbers needed was through the controversial approach of conscription.

A referendum to determine public support for conscription was held in October 1916 where it failed by a slim margin; a second took place in December 1917 and again most Australians voted against it.

More on the conscription referendums

Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes, 30 August 1916:

To falter now is to make the great sacrifice of lives to no avail, to enable the enemy to recover himself, and, if not to defeat us, to prolong the struggle indefinitely, and thus rob the world of all hope of a lasting peace … Our national existence, our liberties, are at stake. There rests upon every man an obligation to do his duty in the spirit that befits free men.
Poster showing a small boy passing a note to his mother with the words ‘Vote no’. The poster says: Australian Labor Party Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee, then ‘Vote No Mum. They’ll take Dad next’.
Labor Party anti-conscription advertisement. National Library of Australia, vn3697266.

Pre-war compulsory service

The Defence Act of 1903, which provided for the raising and servicing of the new Australian army, was one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Commonwealth Government. One of the provisions of the Act was the Government’s right to conscript men for the purpose of self-defence.

In 1909, at the invitation of Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, Field Marshal Kitchener of Great Britain visited Australia to inspect the defence preparedness of the young nation. In February the following year, he submitted a report that recommended the introduction of compulsory military training within Australia. From 1911, males between the ages of 12 and 60 had to enrol in the scheme.

Australia goes to war

On 5 August 1914, Australia joined other countries in the British Empire and declared war on Germany. Men quickly enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), which was to fight alongside the British Army.

Unlike the major European military forces, the AIF was entirely a volunteer army as compulsory military service was still limited to service inside Australia. Official recruitment began in August with the government initially committing 20,000 troops to the campaign.

By the end of the year, more than 50,000 men had enlisted at a rate of nearly 10,000 per month. Men were enlisting for a number of reasons: patriotism, the excitement of action, travel, and for the pay, which was among the most generous of any Allied army. This pay was particularly attractive as Australia was in the midst of a drought and depression.

However, after news of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign made its way back to Australia, enlistments started to decline.

Studio portrait photo of an expressionless Billy Hughes.
Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes. National Library of Australia, vn4831473.

Billy Hughes and the Somme

William (Billy) Hughes replaced Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher who resigned on 27 October 1915. Hughes had publicly stated in July 1915 that he would, ‘in no circumstances … send men out of the country to fight against their will’.

However, in February 1916, Hughes travelled to Europe to consult with British and European governments on Australia’s contribution to the war effort. Just before he left, the British parliament passed conscription legislation, then in May the New Zealand government followed suit and in July the catastrophic Somme offensive in Belgium got underway.

The Somme saw a dramatic increase in Australian troops killed or wounded. In the seven weeks after the attack began, the AIF lost close to 6000 men and another 17,000 wounded. It seemed impossible that the AIF could replace its huge losses through voluntarism alone.

At the same time, enlistments in August were down to 6345 and according to the British War Council the AIF immediately needed a special draft of 20,000 men and a further 16,500 per month over the next three months to keep its numbers up to agreed levels.

Hughes returned from Europe believing that conscription was essential for Australia to fulfill its commitments. However, the Labor Party was split over the issue of compulsory overseas military service. Because of a hostile Senate, Hughes could not amend the Defence Act 1903 to allow for overseas service, so he decided to take the matter to the public by holding a referendum.

Although public support for conscription in the referendum would have no legal force, Hughes felt it would give him a mandate with which he could pressure the Opposition as well as opponents within his own Cabinet.

First referendum

The referendum was set for 28 October. The campaign incited, in the words of historian Joan Beaumont:

a public debate that has never been rivalled in Australian political history for its bitterness, divisiveness, and violence … What was at stake it soon emerged was not simply a disagreement about military need for conscription, but an irreconcilable conflict of views about core values: the nature of citizenship and national security; equality of sacrifice in times of national crisis; and the legitimate exercise of power within Australia’s democracy.

The debate split the country. The working class and unionists felt they were bearing the brunt of the war and voted predominantly against conscription. Protestants with a connection to Britain voted in the majority to assist the Empire by introducing conscription, while Catholics, most of whom were of Irish background and opposed to the British handling of Irish independence, mostly voted against it.

Yet for all the animosity around the issue, most Australians still believed the war was a just cause.

The vote took place on 28 October after two months of feverish campaigning. The question put to voters 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?

The result was ‘no’ by a margin of 3.2 per cent, but considering the entire apparatus of government and most of the media had been campaigning for ‘yes’ it was a significant victory for grassroots activism. 

The political fallout from the referendum was profound. On 14 November, the federal Labor caucus met and a vote of no-confidence in Billy Hughes’s leadership was successfully moved. Throughout the morning bitter debate ensued. In the afternoon Hughes called on those, ‘who think with me to follow me’.

Twenty-four Members of Parliament supported him and it was around this rump of the party that the incredibly resilient Hughes formed the new National Labor Party and, with support from the Liberals, formed a new government.

Second referendum

The Labor Party had split and would take years to regain its pre-war power. Hughes remained Prime Minister for the rest of the First World War and continued to fight for conscription. The second referendum, held on 20 December 1917, was also voted down, this time by a larger majority.

On 11 November 1918, peace was finally declared. During the four years of the war, more than 420,000 Australians volunteered for the AIF, the Navy and the Nursing Corps, and 60,000 of that number died serving their count.

Grainy, poor-quality photo of a large crowd of men at an open expanse of grassland.
Anti-conscription referendum rally, Yarra Bank, Melbourne, 16 April 1916. National Library of Australia, vn6487142.

Further reading

The Home Front exhibition on the National Museum of Australia’s website

Billy Hughes in the Australian Dictionary of Biography online

Conscription fact sheet on the National Archives of Australia website

Conscription information on the Australian War Memorial website

Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation, Australians in the Great War, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2013.

John Barrett, Falling in: Australians and ‘boy conscription’, 1911–1915, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1979.

JM Main, Conscription: the Australian debate, 1901–1970, Cassell Australia, Melbourne, 1970.

From our collection

Mourning locket for boxer Les Darcy

Mikey Robins examines a mourning locket that belonged to the fiancee of boxer Les Darcy. He is joined by National Museum of Australia curator Jono Lineen. Darcy was a central figure in the 1916/17 conscription debate.

You can find more object stories on the Defining Moments videos page

< Previous Next >

Other featured moments from this period

1920: Qantas established
1917: Completion of Trans-Australian Railway linking Western Australia and the eastern states
1920: Country Party founded
1913: Foundation of Canberra as the national capital
1912: Australian Government introduces a maternity allowance
1916: Federal–state agreement for soldier settlement

Browse related featured moments

Topics:NationhoodPolitics and legislationWar Places:Australia Curriculum subjects:Civics and CitizenshipHistory School years:Year 7Year 9