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.