Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 38

Voluntary Ballot Enlistment Scheme, 1918

Author: Graham Donley

{1} On 20 December 1917, Commonwealth government plans for the introduction of conscription were defeated at referendum for the second time (the first poll having been taken little more than a year before, on 28 October 1916). This meant that the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) fighting overseas would remain an all-volunteer army, but left unresolved the problem of maintaining its strength in the face of a need for 5,400 recruits every month to replace casualties and other wastage. During 1918 the government led by Prime Minister W. M. Hughes devised a novel scheme involving ballots of men who voluntarily submitted their names. This was the little-known “Voluntary Ballot Enlistment Scheme”, or VBES.

{2} Under the proposed scheme, drawing of a ballot was to be carried out every three months in each of the 1,049 Commonwealth electoral subdivisions by committees formed locally for that purpose. Letters and pamphlets exhorting participation in the scheme were to be posted to every man eligible for service – a number calculated to be 838,121. Cards would then be posted for each to complete and return for use in the drawing of the ballot. At the same time, posters would be displayed throughout the Commonwealth to advertise the scheme and appeal strongly to men eligible to take part. In the event, the scheme had barely come into operation before it was shut down with the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War on 11 November 1918.

Background to the scheme

{3} In the first months of 1918 the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, took the initiative of proposing that a conference of “representative men of all sections” be held, “to see whether a concentrated effort could be made to drop party differences and concentrate upon a general effort to keep the Australian armies up to strength”. With the concurrence of his ministers, Munro-Ferguson sent out telegrams to members of the Government and Opposition at Federal and State level, and others holding senior positions in the various political parties as well as employers organisations and unions, inviting them to meet at Government House in Melbourne (then the national capital) at 11 am on 12 April. While this appeal met with a few refusals, a total of 39 delegates attended at the appointed time.[1]

{4} After formally opening the gathering, the Governor-General withdrew, allowing the election of Donald Mackinnon, the Director-General of Recruiting, as president. The debate which followed over the next seven days was, as official historian C. E. W. Bean later wrote, “profoundly disappointing”:

It turned into a discussion of grievances, largely arising out of the referendum campaigns and recent industrial disturbances, and ended with a bare vague resolution to unite in securing the necessary volunteers.[2]

While the conference undoubtedly seemed like a waste of time, it was nonetheless here that the recently-appointed Minister for Recruiting, Richard Orchard, outlined a number of suggestions the Government had before it for addressing the recruiting problem while maintaining the voluntary requirement. The main proposal was for what became known as the “Voluntary Ballot Enlistment Scheme”, or more generally the “Voluntary Ballot”. Sometimes it was called the “Victory Ballot” or “Voluntary Recruiting Ballot” in newspaper articles of the day.

{5} Given the public mood and the rejection of conscription proposals put at two referenda, it was essential that recruiting continue to be on a voluntary basis. Orchard’s intention was therefore to appeal to the sporting nature of the Australian male population by conducting a ballot, or lottery by another name. He explained that, during 1917, lists had been compiled of men of military age – that is, between 19 and 44 years. These lists had been kept up to date as far as practicable, and efforts were being made to improve them, so that they could be used as the basis for approaching all “eligibles”. It was intended to send a card (see illustration) to every man recorded.

enlistment form

{6} From printer’s footnotes, it appears that 300,000 of these cards were printed in June 1918. It is not known how many other (if any) print runs there were. Question 2 on the card was explained by the fact that the original very high standards for enlistment were to be reduced, so that men who had been rejected earlier for minor ailments could well be now accepted. It was also intended that an “Important Notice” be sent to every eligible advising that, for those submitting their names to the ballot, it might possibly be months, or years, before he would be required to enlist and that his services might not be required at all. The Notice would explain with examples why this was so.

{7} Orchard went on to say that three other proposals, not part of this scheme, were that the Government would:

  1. increase the allowance paid to dependents;
  2. induce the raising of funds for the purpose of insuring the lives of the men who went away;
  3. credit those men who were away for 12 months with interest of 4½ per cent on their deferred pay.

{8} Following a recruiting conference held in Melbourne on 18 July, it was reported in one newspaper that, as the plans for the ballot had now been definitely set down, efforts were being concentrated on completing the necessary organisation with as little delay as possible. A central publicity department was to be established in Melbourne and cards were to be distributed, if possible before the end of the month.[3] This was a bold statement under the circumstances, and within days the same newspaper carried a further article stating that, good progress having being made in preparing the cards, they could be distributed by the middle of the following month.[4] On 7 August it was announced that the cards would go out in September, with the first ballot probably at the end of that month.[5]

{9} From various newspaper reports (usually citing quotes from Orchard), it is obvious that the task of preparing and maintaining up-to-date lists of names and addresses of over 800,000 men, then addressing and posting over two and a half million items, presented huge logistical challenges with the technology of the day. Even with the computers available today, it would be a formidable task. Some of the statements made were conflicting, giving the impression that they were made “on the run” or with hope, rather than facts, behind them.

VBES badge

{10} In the wake of the socially-divisive conscription campaigns, feelings were extremely bitter and strong against males not in uniform who gave the outward appearance of being within the 19–44 age group and physically able to serve. In those times, a white feather was considered the mark of a coward and the ultimate insult. These emblems of disgust were sent in the mail, or even handed out personally in the street to those males not in uniform who the instigator considered should be serving in the AIF.[6] Some of the recipients of these odious emblems were, in fact, medically unfit, engaged in essential war work, or even discharged returned soldiers who had already served their country well.

{11} To assist men in avoiding unwarranted indignity and scorn, or receiving a white feather, it was decided to issue every one who submitted his name to the voluntary enlistment ballot, whether or not his name was drawn, with an attractive badge to wear on his civilian clothing. This was to prove that the wearer was not shirking his responsibility to the nation in relation to service in the AIF.

[12} In mid-August, press reports stated that the design of a badge for the Voluntary Ballot had been approved, was the size of a shilling, and that manufacture was to begin forthwith.[7] In fact, the badge referred to in these articles was one of the unsuccessful designs and not that finally chosen. Research has revealed that six designs were submitted, with the successful design being the one submitted by jewellers Angus and Coote. Handwritten on the final design of the successful submission is “Approved by Minister for Recruiting. 23. 8. 18. G D M”.

{13} On 30 August, the following report appeared in the Melbourne Age:

Mr Orchard states that he has received numerous letters from men who are prepared to submit their names to ballot, but who ask “How may a man who has submitted his name for ballot be distinguished from another who has not?” This question, the Minister says, has been finally considered, and an attractive metal badge will be issued to those who submitted their names. It would have the coat of arms with the words “Volunteer [sic] Ballot, AIF” with a blue enamelled “B”signifying ballot.

{14} The approved badge was ovoid in shape, 35 mm high and 28 mm wide, including the protuberances on each side. It was made of silvered copper, with a pin fastening at the back, and a number struck into the reverse of each badge. Apparently, 10,000 badges were produced in the initial (and probably only) striking, but this cannot be confirmed since no contract letting has been located in the Commonwealth Gazette for 1918, and the manufacturer no longer has the records for production of badges from that era.[8]

The illustration shows the reverse and obverse next to a “shilling”which is approximately the same size as a ten-cent piece.

{15} At a conference of Victorian recruiting officers held on 8 September 1918, it was stated that the badges would be distributed immediately the cards were returned to headquarters.[9] Three days later, a press report declared:

The recruiting authorities believe that everything will be in readiness for the conduct of the first voluntary ballots by the end of next month. The Minister for Recruiting said yesterday that the first ballots would in all probability be held during the last week in October. In the course of the next few days circulars and pamphlets dealing with the ballot scheme are to be sent to eligible men in the several States, and the distribution of the ballot cards will begin about the end of the present month. The ballot badges are now in process of manufacture, and delivery has been guaranteed by Saturday.[10]

The scheme falters

{16} In an article of 14 September, there was criticism of the cost of the ballot scheme under the heading, “Costly publicity scheme. Gross extravagance alleged.” This article was strongly critical of arrangements to flood the Commonwealth with a mass of literature directing attention to the ballot scheme, with special pamphlets and follow up letters to be posted direct to every man of military age who had not enlisted, together with thousands of large posters ordered for general display. (The well-known artist Norman Lindsay was also involved in this project, but which of his many works were specifically for this scheme has yet to be positively identified.) Costs were alleged to be between £20,000 and £40,000, which would have equated to the annual pay of between some 180 to 360 private soldiers. It was said that the printing was carried out by private runs in New South Wales at contract rates. It was further hinted that the publicity scheme was embarked upon without ministerial knowledge or sanction, and that authority for expenditure of much of the money needed had to be obtained after a large amount of the printing had been executed.[11]

{17} In a response published the next day, Orchard made it quite clear that the scheme was entirely voluntary, medical standards would be maintained, and those failing the medical would still receive the badge.[12] A week later, full details of how the ballot scheme would be implemented were carried in the press:

In connection with the voluntary ballot enlistment scheme the Minister for Recruiting (Mr Orchard) states that the cards will shortly be posted to all men in New South Wales between the ages of 18 and 44.

All the Federal electoral recruiting committees in the State are being called together with a view to completing the arrangements for drawing the ballot.

Each Federal electorate is divided into electoral subdivisions. As far as is practicable there will be a public drawing in each subdivision, and the local committee will nominate a supervisor.

The ballot will be drawn in the following manner:

  1. The number of each V. B. E. card received from a subdivision will be printed on a card to be used in the ballot.
  2. A separate card for each number will be used.
  3. The whole of the separate ballot cards, each bearing a number, will be placed in a receptacle under the direction of the person or persons appointed. The ballot will be drawn in the presence of a committee elected from those of the public who desire to witness the drawing.
  4. A person blindfolded will draw one number at a time until all the numbers required have been drawn.
  5. A schedule will then be prepared by tellers, containing all the numbers drawn, and those numbers will be placed in the schedule in the exact order in which they are drawn under the direction of the person or persons appointed to draw the ballot.
  6. The first number drawn is to be placed at the top of the first page of the schedule and the second next below, and this numerical order will be followed in the schedule until all the numbers are placed in the exact order in which they are drawn, with corresponding names on the list.
  7. This schedule will determine and control the exact order in which the persons whose voluntary ballot enlistment A. I. F. cards have been registered, and who have submitted to the ballot are liable to be called upon to be physically examined, and discharged or accepted for military service in the A. I. F., subject to the rules, regulations, orders, etc prescribed for voluntary enlistment

Mr Orchard states that the new badges which are to be issued to each man who submits his name are now ready. It will be the duty of the recruiting officers to forward the badge to each one who returns his card, agreeing to participate in the ballot. Only those who are entitled to the badge will be allowed to wear it.[13]

{18} On 26 September, it was stated that the cards would go out on 11 October, with the first ballots to be held three weeks later.[14] That same day Orchard went on the record as saying:

In view of the number of applicants for voluntary ballot enlistment cards by men who have already decided to take their chance in the ballot, he has decided to issue the voluntary ballot enlistment badges to all applicants who fill in their cards agreeing to participate in the drawing. It has been decided that when the first 100 cards applied for have been returned, they will be drawn with the badge numbers 1 to 100, and be allotted as drawn. “Who will be the proud possessor of voluntary enlistment badge number 1?” said the Minister.”The names of the applicants for these ballot cards will not be submitted to the enlistment ballot any earlier than if they waited for their cards to be sent to them in the ordinary course.[15]

{19} The New South Wales Recruiting Committee, also on 26 September, announced that there had been an excellent response in connection with the first 100 voluntary enlistment ballot badges and they were now considering drawing for the next 900 in the same manner.[16] (No evidence has been found to confirm that this took place, so the proposal was probably not proceeded with.) It was also announced that, as the ballots were to be drawn four times a year, it was quite possible that men who submitted their names to the ballot would not be called upon for years provided the response is good. The names of those willing to submit to the ballot were to be published, as were the names of those drawn in the ballot after the drawing.[17]

{20} The draw for the first 100 badges took place in Martin Place in Sydney on 7 October 1918, with Orchard conducting the draw. There was tremendous importance placed on this event, with a military band and a detachment of infantry present.[18] It was, in fact, the only draw to be conducted in relation to the ballot scheme. Number 2 was drawn fairly early and went to Sydney A. Goldbrick, care of Mills and Mills, 14 City Road (presumably in Chippendale). Number 1 was the 73rd number drawn, and went to Mr O. R. D. Pier of 22 Relby Street, Newtown, who was not present at the drawing but received three cheers from the assembled crowd of several thousand, mainly men.

AWM H18783
The Minister for Recruiting, R. B. Orchard, draws a ballot for voluntary enlistment, in Martin Place, Sydney, October 1918
AWM H18783

{21} Mr Orchard pointed out that the establishment of the voluntary ballot took away the last available excuse for eligible men in Australia not to enlist. Although the war was nearly over, he said, men would be wanted to do garrison duty in Germany, since there would be no peace with Germany until she had paid the full penalty of her crimes. And why not give relief to the men who had been away fighting for years? He went on to say that his officers were now almost ready to send cards to the 300,000 eligible men in New South Wales.

{22} In an article headed “The Victory Ballot”, one South Australian newspaper stated on 17 October that:

Throughout the Commonwealth the voluntary ballot enlistment scheme cards are being distributed. Every man of military age (19 to 44 years) will, in the next day or so, receive a card containing the request that he submit his name to be selected in a nation wide ballot. Full instructions and explanations are sent with every card. The recruiting authorities will, however, be pleased to give advice on matters not contained in the instructions. It is hoped that the eligible men of Australia will support the voluntary ballot enlistment scheme, and by their individual and unselfish help be the means of adequately reinforcing the splendid men of the AIF who for so long have been bearing the unfair and unequal burden of the nation.[19]

{23} This was, in fact, incorrect, because the cards themselves were never posted out, as future reports were to confirm. Possibly, what was referred to were the letters, written in very patriotic terms, which urged men to submit their name for the Voluntary Recruiting Ballot. According to one postal history, examples of the first of these exhorting letters have been found which were mailed in Adelaide on 2 and 3 November but which had a date line of September 1918. Examples of a second letter, dated October 1918, were posted in Melbourne on 24 October.[20]

{24} The scheme was regarded as having been definitely set in motion when the first installment of over half a million letters and pamphlets were posted at the Sydney GPO to all men of military age in New South Wales on 25 October. The letter was from Orchard as Minister for Recruiting, and the pamphlet was from the Director-General of Recruiting, Mackinnon. The letter was reproduced in the Sydney Morning Herald, and was identical to the postal example bearing the September 1918 date line, except that it included a note, “PS if you are over the age of 44 when this reaches you, kindly advise the New South Wales Recruiting Committee at once giving date of birth etc.”[21]

{25} This mass mail-out was not without its problems. The very next day it was alleged in Federal Parliament that the literature in relation to the voluntary ballot was being sent out in a negligent manner, without discriminating between eligibles and ineligibles. Letters had reportedly been received by persons who had already suffered bereavement in the war, and to men over 60 years of age and others who were ineligible on other grounds. Orchard was asked if he had come to the conclusion, allegedly held universally by people outside the House, as to the utter futility of the scheme. The Minister replied that great difficulty had been experienced in compiling the lists of eligibles and that he hoped within a week to be able to announce a date when the cards would be sent out, as well as the date when the ballot would be taken. He stated that out of 160,000 pamphlets sent out, less than 3¼ per cent had been wrongly addressed. This statement was challenged without resolution.[22]

{26} On 29 October, Orchard was reported as stating that no ballot cards had been sent out to eligibles in New South Wales, and that some of the circulars and recruiting pamphlets sent in error through the post had been returned by men who were over age. It was impossible to avoid making mistakes, he said, and asked that those to whom the items were sent in error return them promptly to the recruiting committee with a statement as to their ineligibility. He explained that one of the objects in forwarding the circular letters prior to the posting of the cards was to test the accuracy of the mailing lists.[23] But, he also asserted, the Voluntary Recruiting Ballot was still needed in spite of the state of the war.[24]

{27} By 1 November, Orchard was quoted as saying that the ballot would take place in the metropolitan areas on Thursday 5 December, and as far as practicable in the country districts on the same date. Ballot cards would be sent out on 16 November and made returnable by 30 November.[25] Events in Europe were now overtaking the need for the VBES, however, so that a week after Orchard’s previous statement he announced on 8 November that, in view of the swift and satisfactory changes in the war situation, the government had decided to postpone the voluntary ballot. He expected to be able to make a statement early next week as to ordinary enlistments.[26]

{28} On 9 November, a cablegram was sent by the Acting Prime Minister, W. A. Watt, to Prime Minister Hughes, who was then in London. This advised that:

In view of favourable war situation, Cabinet has decided to abandon voluntary enlistment ballot which was about to be launched. We propose consider early next week discontinuance of enlistments. Please cable immediately your views on latter situation.[27]

The terms of any reply from Hughes are not known, but on 11 November the armistice was signed, and the next day the Minister for Defence (Senator G. F. Pearce) announced that recruiting would stop at once.[28]

A curio of the war

{29} In 1940, a Melbourne newspaper article quoted a Mrs McMillan as saying that she believed that she possessed the only “Voluntary Ballot” badge in existence, as the armistice was signed before the scheme was put into operation. As a result, the badges were all destroyed but one had been “souvenired” and given to her, as she had been the superintendent of the ANZAC buffet at the No. 5 Australian General Hospital in St Kilda Road, Melbourne, throughout the Great War.[29]

{30} This claim has proved to be incorrect. While the badge is not common, perhaps even rare, examples are known to be held by the Australian War Memorial, the Army Museum of Western Australia and a few private collectors. It remains a positive reminder of an historic event in the annals of Australia – one that has never happened before, or since. The proposed effect of the VBES in a social sense was to “hose down” the enmity in the populace caused by the spectre of conscription, while increasing the rate of volunteering by recruits for service in the AIF. This would put paid to the conscription issue once and for all, and maintain the AIF as a purely voluntary force.

© Graham Donley

The author

Major Graham Donley, RFD, served in the Royal Australian Corps of Signals as a reservist from 1952 until 1982; he was Colonel Commandant of the corps in the 5th Military District in 1984–90 and Honorary Colonel of Army Cadets, Western Region, in 1995–2001. He lives at Yokine, a northern suburb of Perth. His interest in the VBES was sparked while working as a volunteer in the Heraldry Section of the Army Museum of Western Australia, when he identified a badge which had been donated there.


[1] E. Scott, Australia during the war, vol.11 of Official history of Australia in the war of 1914–1918 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1936), pp.446–7, and “Report of the proceedings of the conference convened by his Excellency the Governor-General on the subject of the securing of reinforcements under the voluntary system for the Australian Imperial Force now serving abroad”, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers, no.75, 1918 (copy held AWM41/1236).

[2] C. E. W. Bean, ANZAC to Amiens (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1946), p.439.

[3] Age (Melbourne), 22 July 1918.

[4] Age (Melbourne), 25 July 1918.

[5] Age (Melbourne), 7 August 1918.

[6] B. Haynes & B. Pope, Western Australia: the forces, prisoner of war and censor mail (Perth: Western Australia Study Group, 1997).

[7] Mercury (Hobart) and Sydney Morning Herald, 10 August 1918.

[8] The figure of 10,000 is accepted nonetheless, because that number was handwritten on one of the unsuccessful designs submitted – the one incorrectly described in a later newspaper as that to be produced – and badge number D 4815 of the approved design is held by the Army Museum of Western Australia, which shows that the quantity was at least in the vicinity of 5,000.

[9] Age (Melbourne), 9 September 1918.

[10] Age (Melbourne), 11 September 1918.

[11] Age (Melbourne), 14 September 1918.

[12] Mercury (Hobart), 16 September 1918.

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, 23 September 1918.

[14] Age (Melbourne), 26 September 1918.

[15] Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1918.

[16] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 1918.

[17] Sydney Morning Herald, 28 September 1918.

[18] Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October 1918.

[19] Express and Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 October 1918.

[20] R. C. Emery, Supplement to the postal history of the Australian Imperial Forces [sic] during World War One, 1914–1918 (Worthing, Eng.: author, 1988), pp.2–4.

[21] Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1918.

[22] Age (Melbourne), 26 October 1918.

[23] Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1918.

[24] Express and Telegraph (Adelaide), 30 October 1918.

[25] Mercury (Hobart), Age (Melbourne), West Australian (Perth), 2 November 1918.

[26] West Australian and Age, 9 November 1918.

[27] National Archives of Australia, A6006, item 1918/12/31, “Voluntary Enlistment Ballot”.

[28] Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 1918.

[29] Argus (Melbourne), 26 March 1940.