Conscription, 1916-17

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As the casualties in France mounted, 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.

Prime Minister 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 in Australia and was narrowly defeated on 28 October 1916.

Recruitment fell further, so in 1917 Hughes called for another referendum. This campaign was just as heated as the first, and on 20 December the nation again voted No, this time with a slightly larger majority.

Billy Hughes addresses a crowd in Sydney’s Martin Place during the first conscription campaign, 1916. A03376

Men of the 10th Light Horse Regiment at Hod Willegha, Sinai, October 1916. The majority of soldiers voted Yes in both referendums. They saw it as a way to make others “do their bit”, to help fill the holes left by casualties, or provide them with the opportunity of a break. J02466

Conscription campaign badges


Anti conscription badge : CONSCRIPTION / NCF / NO. REL28376.001

Anti conscription badge : AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY VOTE NO. REL28376.003

Anti-conscription badge : FIGHT AS FREEMEN NOT AS CONSCRIPTS / VOTE NO. REL28376.005

Pro conscription badge : VOTE YES / OCT 28 / 1916. REL28376.007

Pro consription badge : YES. REL/09080.003

Private Jim Brill

Below are the personal effects found in Private Jim Brill’s pocket when he was killed near Le Transloy in March 1917. His mother, Kitty Brill, was publicly in favour of conscription. A month after receiving these items, she was anonymously sent a copy of the anti-conscription leaflet entitled “The Blood Vote”. On the back was written, “from your dead soldier son”.

Wallet : Private C J Brill, 56 Battalion AIF. RELAWM14076.001

Pocket book : Private C J Brill, 56 Battalion AIF. RELAWM14076.002

Rising Sun hat badge: Private C J Brill, 56 Battalion AIF. RELAWM14076.003

56 Battalion colour patch : Private C J Brill, 56 Battalion AIF. RELAWM14076.004

Souvenir Australian red ensign : Private C J Brill, 56 Battalion AIF. RELAWM14076.005

Photograph of Gladys : Private C J Brill, 56 Battalion AIF. RELAWM14076.006

Two brothers, two perspectives

"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 [chance] though they resorted to diabolical hun methods."

   Private James Allen, 49th Battalion, 5 October 1916

"The boys are pleased it failed & say they would be sorry to see their friends enlist to come over to fight."

   Private Ernest Allen, 49th Battalion, 8 March 1917

James, Ernest, and another brother, Josiah, all served with the 49th Battalion. James and Josiah were killed at Messines on 7 June 1917. Ernest was killed at Villers-Bretonneux on 25 April 1918.