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The fight the Little Digger just couldn’t win

28 January 2017 173 views No Comment

The Conscription Conflict and the Great War
Edited by Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer
Monash University Publishing, 220pp, $34.95

In memorialising World War I the anti-war movements of the time have been somewhat overlooked. In all the sabre-rattling countries, efforts to prevent the outbreak of war were quickly overwhelmed. More’s the pity. But in Australia a movement to prevent the introduction of military conscription was surprisingly successful.

On October 28, 1916 and again on December 20, 1917 the federal government, led by the so-called “Little Digger” William Morris (“Billy”) Hughes, held referendums in order to introduce conscription for military service overseas.

In both cases, the proposal was narrowly rejected. As Robin Archer and Sean Scalmer make clear, “simply seeking the consent of citizens in this way was quite unique. That they should answer ‘No’ amidst the wartime emotions and censorship of the period is more striking still.”

Arguably the most effective opposition to conscription in Australia was the powerful labour movement and a burgeoning labour press, including ‘The Australian Worker’, the organ of the powerful Australian Workers Union, edited by the passionately articulate Henry Boote.

In fact, Australia’s labour movement had founded a parliamentary Labor Party that was so successful that, for a few days in December 1899, Queensland boasted the world’s first Labor government, led by Anderson Dawson from Charters Towers. Federally, another Queenslander, Andrew Fisher, briefly returned to the prime ministership just after the outbreak of the World War I. While Fisher’s successor as PM, Hughes, strongly supported conscription, the labour movement and other militant Laborites argued vehemently that compulsory military service abroad was a policy that no democracy should tolerate.

At the same time, anti-conscriptionists in Australia faced the tricky problem of how to prosecute their defence of personal liberty without appearing disloyal.

Australia’s bitterly divisive conscription conflict once fascinated observers from overseas but these days its details are little known. Moreover, even within Australia the importance and some of the causes behind the defeat of the two conscription referendums are not widely understood. The editors of this book hope that the publication of eight original academic essays about these topics will shed new light on what is undoubtedly a significant episode in early-20th-century Australian history.

Perhaps the two most outstanding essays in this illuminating collection of previously unpublished pieces are Frank Bongiorno’s chapter on “Anti-Conscriptionism in Australia” and Joy Damousi’s “Universities and Conscription”.

Bongiorno usefully explores and elucidates the role of key organisations and individuals involved in the Australia-wide fight against conscription. These included the militant Industrial Workers of the World — widely known as the Wobblies — and especially in the case of the second plebiscite, in December 1917, the recently appointed anti-British, Irish-born Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix and Queensland’s militantly anti-conscriptionist Labor premier TJ Ryan.

Bongiorno also highlights the arguments of the Australian Peace Alliance, an umbrella organisation of various union, socialist, feminist, temperance and pacifist groups, whose Victorian secretary, Fred Riley, said as early as October 1915 that “to compel a man to serve outside his country, instead of encouraging them to go of their own free will, was a method abhorrent to those who had breathed our atmosphere of freedom”. But because both plebiscites were conducted by secret ballot, it is important to understand that any conclusions about why citizens voted as they did in October 1916 and December 1917 must be tentative.

As Damousi explains in her engaging essay, Hughes and the Yes campaigners expected to win both times. Moreover, because it has invariably been discussed in terms of why it lost, until the publication of this book the Yes case has been subject to far less academic analysis than the No campaigns. This imbalance is something that Damousi in the main successfully attempts in her detailed case study of the pro-conscription campaigns at the University of Melbourne.

As she points out, during the Great War, a majority of academics there argued for compulsory military service being the duty of all adult Australian males, whatever their profession. For some university staff members and officials, this included advocating the conscription of medical students — which, fortunately, did not occur. Some of the university’s leading academics even claimed that a No vote would threaten the widely cherished White Australia policy, as cheap coloured labour would flood the nation.

Yet, even though the Yes vote failed both times, Damousi estimates that by the war’s end more than 1700 University of Melbourne graduates, students and staff members had enlisted and 251 had died.

But she does not fully answer the rhetorical question cited by Murray Goot in his helpful summary of the results of the conscription referendums: “Why had the electorate proved ­Hughes so wrong?”

A number of contributors to this book point out that the poem ‘The Blood Vote’, published in 1917 and directed at women, was the most widely circulated of all anti-conscription propaganda. Written by WR Winspear and illustrated by Claude Marquet, the first of its seven, four-line verses reads:

“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.”

Fittingly, a stark, full-page version of the leaflet carrying this extremely effective anti-conscription poem is powerfully reproduced in this important work.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, January 28-29, 2017. review, Books, pp 16-17

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