“From your dead soldier son”: the conscription referenda 1916–17

25 November 2013 by Dianne Rutherford

This article was originally published in ICON Magazine, Issue One November - December 2013. Find our more and suscribe to ICON Magazine here.


The Australian War Memorial is currently redeveloping its First World War galleries in anticipation of the centenary from 2014. During this period, the Memorial is staging an exhibition, called ANZAC voices, which tells the story of the First World War using letters and diaries, supplemented by objects, photographs, and works of art. Many of the items in this exhibition have never been exhibited before, and include treasures, such as letters from John Simpson Kirkpatrick, General Sir John Monash, and an Indigenous soldier, Lance Corporal Charles Blackman. It will also be the first time items recovered from the Pheasant Wood mass grave at Fromelles in 2010 have been put on public display.

Two of the stories told in the exhibition concern the conscription referenda of 1916 and 1917. The first is told from the soldiers’ perspective and concerns two brothers, James and Ernest Allen, and the first referendum vote that took place on 28 October 1916. The vote came about because of Prime Minister’s Billy Hughes’ determination to introduce conscription to meet a shortfall in volunteer recruiting, made worse by heavy casualties in France. James was pro-conscription, and just before he embarked for service overseas from Sydney, he and some friends attacked an anti-conscription rally. On 5 October 1916, he wrote:

The boys are all cheerful and mad for gore. They started operations in a minor way last night by charging an anti-conscriptionist meeting. A fair fight followed, but the civies hadn’t a possible [chance] though they resorted to diabolical hun methods. Throwing hot ashes and vitriol, some of our lads got burnt a bit, but routed the meeting. On the other hand, Hughes P.M. got a magnificent reception, every conceivable place was packed and the meeting was very orderly. So I think the referendum as good as law.

He and two of his brothers, Ernest and Josiah, embarked for the war a few days later. Ernest later wrote from the front about the 1916 conscription referendum; while he does not state what his feelings are about conscription, in March 1917 he noted:

The boys are pleased it failed & say they would be sorry to see their friends enlist to come over to fight. One thing the cold is awful & your fingers are numbed all day in spite of woollen gloves.

Contrary to popular belief, serving soldiers voted in favour of conscription, by a margin of 72,399 to 58,894 in the first referendum and 103,789 to 93,910 in the second. Soldiers who supported conscription saw it as a way to make others “do their bit”. However, Ernest’s experience suggests there were many front-line soldiers who were against conscription.

James, Ernest, and Josiah all served with the 49th Battalion on the Western Front. One wonders whether James would have changed his attitude to conscription after experiencing the war first hand, but he did not get the chance. Both he and Josiah were killed at the battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. Ernest was killed at Villers-Bretonneux on ANZAC Day the following year.

With a further decrease in enlistments, Prime Minister Billy Hughes again called for a referendum to take place on 20 December 1917. Divisions in Australian society along religious, social and economic lines that had emerged during the first referendum campaign deepened even further in the second and led to a number of malicious acts being committed on both sides, by those who did and those who did not support conscription.

One of the most iconic pieces of propaganda to come out of the conscription campaign was the anti-conscription leaflet “The Blood Vote”. This comprised a poem written by W.R. Winspear during the 1916 referendum and an illustration by Claude Marquet showing a guilt-stricken woman casting a Yes vote while a gleeful, almost demonic figure – possibly meant to be Billy Hughes – looks on.

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 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.”

A copy of “The Blood Vote” leaflet and some of the personal effects of another soldier, Jim Brill, are at the centre of the other conscription story told in the exhibition. Mrs Kitty Brill from Craigie in New South Wales had two sons who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, Les and Jim. Les served on Gallipoli and the Western Front and was awarded the Military Medal for bravery; Jim also served on the Western Front and was killed on 14 March 1917 by a shell. Eight months after his death, in the middle of the 1917 conscription campaign, Mrs Brill received Jim’s effects, including his wallet and its contents that had been damaged by the shell that killed him.

Photograph of a young woman named ‘Gladys’ found in Private Brill’s wallet, RELAWM14076.006

The young lady in the photograph from Jim’s wallet is believed to be Gladys Tapsell, whose address is listed in Jim’s notebook. She married his brother Les in July 1917 and later came to Australia as an English war bride. She sent Mrs Brill 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 woman’s only child was in training and waiting to meet the age limit for the British Army. It included the 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!

Mrs Brill asked a local newspaper to print the letter, which they agreed to do on 14 December, less than a week before the referendum vote. Given the timing, in some people’s eyes this aligned Mrs Brill with the pro-conscription lobby. Although Mrs Brill never overtly expressed her opinion in the paper, this letter led her to being targeted by an unknown anti-conscriptionist from the nearby town of Delegate, who sent her a copy of “The Blood Vote”.

In light of Mrs Brill’s experience of having just received the shell-damaged effects of her dead son just weeks earlier, being sent this leaflet would have been distressing enough, but this was only increased by the cruel note the sender scrawled on the back of the leaflet: “From your dead soldier son”. Mrs Brill’s experience highlights the anger and bitterness the two referenda created in Australian society at that time.

ANZAC voices opens at the Australian War Memorial on 29 November 2013 and will be on display until 30 November 2014.

Dianne Rutherford
Co-curator, ANZAC voices