The Conscription Debate

The 1916 Conscription Referendum

Whether or not men should be conscripted into the AIF was debated in Pakenham as early as July 1915, when Cr Reg Henty spoke in favour of this at a public meeting. William Keast MLA though, said he had “sufficient confidence in Britons and Australians” to expect that enough men “of the right stamp” would “willingly come forward to do their duty for honour and home” without the need to resort to conscription (DA 15/7/1915, p.2). The merits of the volunteer system versus conscription were again debated publicly in town in December 1915 (SBMJ 16/12/1915, p. 2). When the War Council gave the Berwick Shire an informal recruitment quota to meet in early 1916, Councillors Close and Martin were concerned about a perceived lack of support for the recruitment movement and urged the necessity of conscription. Berwick Shire actually voted to write to all councils asking them to support conscription (BSN 23/2/1916 p.3 & DA 24/2/1916, p. 2). In the end, the Berwick Shire more than met the quota, such that the Recruitment Committee declared that the volunteer system “has so far proved sufficient for all requirements in the Shire of Berwick” and while it had once thought conscription may be necessary, “they now admit that they have changed their opinion” (SBMJ 4/5/1916, p. 2). 

The horrendous casualties sustained on the Western Front during 1916, combined with falling recruitment numbers, ensured that there was continued pressure to introduce conscription. Britain had already done so and expected Australia to follow suit. When the Prime Minister, W. M. (“Billy”) Hughes moved to do so, his government and party split, along with the rest of the community. Prime Minister Hughes subsequently put the issue to the public directly via a referendum. The ensuing debate in the community was passionate and highly divisive. Like elsewhere in Australia, public meetings were held in Pakenham both for and against conscription. Indeed, Berwick Shire, which was firmly for conscription, agreed to the Prime Minister’s request to organise public meetings in support of the cause. Cr Martin said he was personally “astounded at the number who were opposed to conscription” in the Shire (BSN 18/10/1916 p. 3). A few days later, a large meeting in support of conscription was held at the Pakenham Mechanics‘ Institute.


Meanwhile, in preparation for conscription, the Government invoked the Governor General’s powers under the Defence Act to call up men for compulsory military service in Australia. Single men and widowers (without children) aged from 21 to 35 were required to report for medical examinations to determine whether they were fit for service. Those deemed fit were to be given seven days’ grace before having to report to an army training camp. Once there, the men were to be issued with uniforms and treated as if they were AIF recruits in terms of pay, rations and privileges. They would be trained as soldiers, with parades held twice a week when they would have the opportunity to volunteer for service (BSN 11/10/1916, p. 3). If conscription was endorsed at the referendum, the men would then be deployed overseas. Exemptions could be claimed based on certain criteria, but these cases had to be heard by special exemption courts. Under the “Call to the Colours”, eligible men from Pakenham, Berwick, Beaconsfield, Harkaway, Officer, Nar Nar Goon, Koo Wee Rup and Cardinia were required to report to the Berwick Shire Chambers in Pakenham on October 5 1916 for their medical examinations (Argus 2/10/1916, p. 6). The nearest camp was at Warragul, although it was reported that if fifty or more men were enlisted from the district, then a new camp could be established on the Pakenham Recreation Reserve for the “advantage of both those in camp and their friends and relatives” (DA 12/10/1916, p. 2). Of the 198 men who presented at Pakenham, 116 passed fit, with 63 declared unfit, 17 as “doubtful” and two as temporarily unfit. Of those passed fit, 25 immediately applied for exemptions (BSN 11/10/1916, p. 3). The Exemption Court met at Berwick, Pakenham and Dandenong, presided over by Police Magistrate Vivian Tanner. Some of the reasons given for exemptions included the need to support widowed mothers, elderly parents and younger siblings; being the sole remaining son in a family; having sole responsibility for a farm; the need to bring in the harvest and the potential ruination of a business. William H Baker, listed as a contractor from Pakenham, sought an exemption on conscientious grounds, stating he “would be willing to perform military service but not in destruction of life”. (DA 26/10/1916, p.2). Not all these reasons were accepted by the court.

Prior to referendum day in late October 1916, it was reported that most people in Pakenham Upper would be voting in favour of conscription (DA 28/9/1916, p. 2). There was apparently little excitement over the actual vote there and “everything passed off very quietly” (DA 2/11/1916, p. 2). In Pakenham East though, conscription was said to be the “all absorbing topic” which “tightened its hold on the public” as referendum day drew near. Apparently, many people had been swinging from supporting conscription, to opposing it, then supporting it again (SBMJ 2/11/1916 p. 2). In the end, a majority of Australians voted against conscription, although Victoria returned an over-all majority in favour. In the Pakenham sub-division of the Flinders Electorate, 61% of electors supported conscription (Ibid). Interestingly, many of the soldiers already overseas were opposed to conscription, being proud to be part of an entirely volunteer force. For example, Douglas McRae, a former student at Pakenham State School, wrote to his family asking them to vote “No” for this reason (Crow 1988 p. 6).


Conscription: Round Two

Throughout 1917, the outcome of the War still hung in the balance, and the losses on the Western Front were staggering: between July and November 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) claimed the lives of over half a million men on both sides. In terms of Australian losses, over 10,000  Australians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner during the first and second battles of Bullecourt (April and May 1917), while a further 38,000 Australians were killed or wounded later in the year at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde While the casualties mounted, there was a significant drop in volunteers coming forward to replace them. The macabre arithmetic of the situation ensured that conscription remained a live issue. Speaking at a public meeting in Pakenham in April 1917, the local member for Flinders, Sir William Irvine, openly challenged Prime Minister Hughes to introduce conscription as a matter of necessity (The Age, 26/4/1917, p. 7). Meanwhile, the Federal Government was forced to rely on other measures to encourage volunteer enlistments, including major recruitment drives. One of these campaigns in 1917 appealed to the quintessential Australian values of “mateship” and a “fair go”. Men were encouraged to volunteer to relieve the original Anzacs who had enlisted in 1914 and had already served 1,000 days: “Many eligible men have personal friends among these veterans. What more fitting recognition of their deeds could there be than for friends to enlist in their place, so that the overtaxed soldiers could be in their homes by Christmas?  ... The man in the trenches will be informed that an Australian is willing to act as a comrade in the truest sense of the word. To answer this appeal is to obey the best instincts of Australians. It would be a splendid acknowledgement of the Anzac courage and self-sacrifice”. The names of three original Anzacs from Pakenham were published in the local press: Driver A. J. Ely (SERN 900); Driver J. W. Baggaley (SERN 355) and Gunner Ray Maher (SERN 2228) (PG 27/7/1917, p. 3). The Government even introduced a “Bachelor’s tax” (a surcharge on the incomes of single men) in order to encourage enlistment, although it may have simply encouraged some young men to “speed up” their marriage plans!  (DA 22/11/1917, p. 2). 


Given the relative ineffectiveness of such measures, the Government decided to put conscription to the people again. The proposition this time was that the voluntary system of enlistment would continue, with men only conscripted if volunteer numbers dropped below 7,000 recruits per month. A range of exemptions were also proposed, including for men working in “essential industries” deemed vital to the war effort, including rural industries (PG 16/11/1917, p. 3). Although this was clearly a compromise proposition, the debate this time round was perhaps even fiercer than in 1916. Rival meetings in Pakenham were described as “more or less disorderly”, but fortunately without any “hospital cases” (SBMJ 3/12/1917, p. 12). The debate occasioned a welling up of religious sectarianism, which lurked not too far beneath the surface of Australian society in those days. Many Irish-Australians were opposed to conscription because they feared that it would free up British troops to continue the suppression of the nationalist movement in Ireland. With Dr Daniel Mannix, the Irish-born Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, emerging as one of the leading opponents of conscription, some began to accuse Catholics in general of being “disloyal to the Empire”. 

It is unclear to what extent sectarian tensions arose in Pakenham over the issue though: the Catholic and Protestant churches generally had a good relationship in the district. However, the local Catholic school teacher, Miss Elizabeth Hunt, felt compelled to write to The Age newspaper to defend the honour and loyalty of the Catholic school system, which she thought had been unfairly impeached by a Protestant minister in Melbourne (The Age 15/11/1917, p. 8). Similarly, at a pro-conscription meeting at the Mechanics’ Institute in November 1917, T.C. Brennan, former editor of the Catholic Advocate newspaper (and later a Victorian Senator), sought to clear up any misapprehensions which members of the audience might have about the Catholic Church’s official position on conscription. Mr Brennan stated Catholics were free to vote as they saw fit and Archbishop Mannix’s views were purely his own (PG 30/11/1917, p. 2). Equally, not all Protestants were supportive of conscription: an anti-conscription meeting at the Mechanics’ Institute which was “packed to overflowing” heard from a Reverend F. Sinclaire who asked his listeners to reject conscription in the light of Christian teaching, which he said “stood for peace and goodwill to all men” (PG 7/12/1917, p.3).




The second referendum was defeated nationally with a slightly larger “no” vote than in 1916. A majority of Pakenham residents still voted in favour, but with the “yes” vote reduced to 58.3%. For some reason, support for conscription in neighbouring Berwick was nearly 5% higher than in Pakenham (SBMJ 3/1/1918, p.2). With conscription now “dead and buried”, there was a constant round of recruitment drives and meetings. These included a “monster meeting and concert” held at Pakenham on 28 June 1918 which was addressed by the Member for Flinders, Captain Stanley Melbourne Bruce MC (who later served as Prime Minister from 1923 to 1929). Recruitment meetings were still being held in Pakenham as late as September 1918, when Captain Bruce returned to rally more men into enlisting. By this stage though, it seems that many people were simply “over” the War, waiting for it to end. The meeting only achieved a “moderate attendance” and Captain Bruce specifically commented on the absence of “those to whom it was most desirable that the speakers should address their words”. Captain Bruce also tackled head on what he claimed as the “many and varied excuses” otherwise fit men gave for not enlisting, including the notion that this was not “Australia’s War”; that it was simply a “trade war”; and that peace should be negotiated as the War had gone on for too long (PG 6/9/1918, p. 3). Such sentiments were a far cry from the widespread and patriotic enthusiasm earlier in the War.