The Conscription Debate - Australia

Throughout Australia’s history few disputes have divided Australian society as much as the conscription debate did in World War 1. Introduction to the idea of conscription in 1916 posed a lot of questions and many were left unanswered. From individual family members to Labour Party members, every person had their own view about conscription and the moral issues associated with it.

In 1914 when World War 1 started many young men enlisted to the army with their heads full of adventurous notions, unaware of the horrors they would face when they reached the battleground. Even throughout 1915 the number of volunteers continued to increase up to heights of 36500 in July, although this patriotism did not last long. Enlistments started to decline in 1916, as the Australian public became more aware of the conditions facing their AIF troops overseas. Prior to this, Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes had promised Britain a supply of 16500 troops every month, with only 5500 men enlisting at the time. Hughes had to do something about the decreasing number of volunteers, which he did through introducing the issue of conscription.

Under the Australian constitution, Australians were able to be conscripted to defend the country in Australia. This meant that they could not be forced to fight overseas. For this reason, Prime Minister Hughes had to make a change to the constitution. There were a few reasons why he chose to do this, one being that he had visited the Somme earlier, one of the worst battlegrounds in World War 1 and believed that conscription would be able to stop further bloodshed in similar areas. Another reason he wanted to introduce conscription was because Britain had previously done the same in 1916, and he thought that by following their example he would gain their approval. However, as he belonged to the Labour party who were traditionally anti-conscription, many fights and disagreements arose.

Recognising that he wouldn’t get the support needed to...