Conscription during the First World War, 1914–18

At the outbreak of the First World War, the number of people volunteering to enlist for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was so high that recruitment officers were forced to turn people away. However, as the war went on, casualty rates increased and the number of volunteers declined, so that by 1916 the AIF faced a shortage of men.

The Prime Minister, Mr William Morris Hughes, speaking to a large crowd during the conscription referendum campaign, Brisbane QLD, c1916.  C226563

First referendum defeated

Despite opposition from his own party, Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes decided to take the issue to the people in a referendum. The nation was asked to grant the government the power to compel citizens to serve overseas during the current war. The referendum provoked furious debate within the Australian community. It was held on 28 October 1916, and the proposal for conscription was narrowly defeated. In the ensuing political fall-out, the Labor Party split and Hughes formed a breakaway party called the Nationalist Party.

Second referendum defeated

Enlistment for the war continued to fall, and in 1917 Hughes called for another referendum on the conscription issue. This conscription campaign was just as heated as the first, with the most prominent anti-conscription activist being the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Daniel Mannix. On 20 December 1917 the nation again voted "No" to conscription, this time with a slightly larger majority. Australia, South Africa and India were the only participating countries not to introduce conscription during the First World War.


  • Ernest Scott, Australia during the war: the official history of Australia in the war of 1914–1918, vol. 11, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1938, chapters 9 and 11
  • Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995
  • National Archives of Australia, Fact sheet: Conscription referendums, 1916 and 1917


Last updated: 10/23/2017