“From your dead soldier son”: The cruel side of the 1917 conscription campaign

12 December 2017 by Dianne Rutherford

The 20 December 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the second conscription referendum. As casualties mounted during the First World War, sustaining an all-volunteer force became increasingly difficult for Australia’s small population. By mid-1916 recruitment had slumped. Enlistment figures could not keep up with the desperate need for reinforcements.

Honourable W M Hughes addressing crowd
Prime Minister William “Billy” Hughes gives a referendum campaign speech in Sydney, 1916.

Prime Minister William “Billy” Hughes took the issue to the people in a referendum to grant the government the power to compel citizens to serve overseas during the war. The referendum provoked furious debate and was narrowly defeated on 28 October 1916.

Recruitment fell further in 1917, so Hughes called for another conscription referendum to be held on 20 December 1917. This campaign was as heated as the first. Divisions in Australian society that had emerged during the first referendum campaign along religious, social, and economic lines deepened even further, and led to a number of malicious acts being committed on both sides.

Blood vote poster
An anti-conscription leaflet distributed during the first referendum.

The most iconic piece of propaganda to come out of the conscription campaign was the anti-conscription leaflet titled “The blood vote”. The poem was written by E. J. Dempsey  and signed by W.R. Winspear and was illustrated by Claude Marquet.

The blood vote

“Why is your face so white, Mother?
Why do you choke for breath?”
“O I have dreamt in the night, my son
That I doomed a man to death.”

“Why do you hide your hand, Mother?
And crouch above it in dread?”
“It beareth a dreadful branch, my son
With the dead man’s blood ’tis red.

“I hear his widow cry in the night.
I hear his children weep,
And always within my sight, O God!
The dead man’s blood doth leap.

“They put the dagger into my grasp,
It seemed but a pencil then,
I did not know it was a fiend a gasp
For the priceless blood of men.

“They gave me the ballot paper.
The grim death warrant of doom,
And I smugly sentenced the man to death
In that dreadful little room.

“I put it inside the Box of Blood
Nor thought of the man I’d slain.
Till at midnight came like a ’whelming flood
God’s word – and the Brand of Cain.

“O little son! O my little son!
Pray God for your Mother’s soul
That the scarlet stain may be white again
In God’s great Judgement Roll.”

During the war Mrs Kitty Brill from Craigie in New South Wales had two sons serving in the Australian Imperial Force: Les and Jim.

Private Clarence James “Jim” Brill was killed in France on 14 March 1917. Eight months after his death, at the height of the 1917 conscription campaign, Mrs Brill received his effects. In his wallet, damaged by the shell that killed him, was a photograph of a young woman believed to be Gladys Tapsell, whose address was listed in Jim’s notebook. Gladys later married Jim’s brother, Leslie William Brill, in July 1917 and later came to Australia as an English war bride.

Photo of Kitty Brill Craig
This photograph was found in Jim Brill’s wallet after his death.

Around the time Mrs Brill received her son’s effects, Gladys sent her a letter published in a British newspaper from “A little mother”: it railed against pacifists and women not willing to sacrifice their sons for the greater good. The writer’s only child was in training and waiting to meet the age limit for the British Army. The article included the following poem:

Tommy Atkins to the front,

He has gone to bear the brunt.

Shall “stay-at-homes” do naught but

snivel and but sigh?

No, while your eyes are filling

We are up and doing, willing

To face the music with you – or to die!

At Mrs Brill’s request, The Bombala Times printed the letter and poem on 14 December, less than a week before the conscription vote. Afterwards she was targeted by an anti-conscriptionist from the nearby town of Delegate, who sent her a copy of “The blood vote”. On the back was written “From your dead soldier son”. The sender was never identified.

Mrs Brill’s experience highlights the anger and bitterness the referendum created in Australian society. In 1917 Australia again voted “no”, this time with a slightly larger majority. There were no further referenda on the topic.