Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 30: 2nd Conscription Ballot 20 December 1917

From: John Laffin Western Front 1917-1918 The Cost of Victory. Time-Life Books, North Sydney 1988.

For 1 015 159
Against 1 181 747

Among the Armed Forces the vote in favour was 103 789 and 93 910 against, but as in the earlier referendum the majority of front-line troops rejected conscription.

Photo of men at polling station at Neuve Eglise 8 Dec 1917 [ AWM E01605]

From Australian War memorial website:

The second and last Australian referendum on the divisive issue of conscription was held in December 1917. This movement for conscription was defeated by a larger majority than in the first referendum of October 1916. There continued to be many recruiting drives throughout 1918, although numbers of volunteers steadily decreased, and the debate surrounding the issue remained a bitter and emotional fight.

By 1918, many wounded men had already been sent back to Australia from the front. Their visible wounds, and talk of conditions on the Western Front, may have acted as a deterrent to some of those who had not yet enlisted. Yet despite the feeling of war weariness, a few thousand Australian men enlisted in 1918, primarily because they had reached the age of 18 or they satisfied the necessary physical requirements.

Private Charles Carpenter, 23rd General Service Reinforcements, enlisted in August 1918, despite the fact that his two brothers pleaded with him not to enlist. Both brothers had already been in service on the Western Front, and one had lost a leg and the other had been badly gassed. As it turned out, much to his dismay, Carpenter never saw active service (apart from having his nose broken on the voyage over!). However, at the same time, he was understandably relieved that he wouldn't have to face what his brothers had.

Conscription and the Front

An Australian recruitment poster from 1918, by Norman Lindsay.

The new generation of 1918 recruits were serving alongside many veterans of the war. Because of the decreasing numbers of Australian volunteers in 1918 (despite the gradual lowering of entry restrictions), many of the men who fought in Australian divisions had been wounded, evacuated, and later sent back to the front. A few existing Australian battalions had to be disbanded because of the lack of replacements.

Captain Francis Fairweather commented on 12 September 1918 that

if we are to maintain effective units further amalgamation of battalions will have to take place and certain famous battalions will go out of existence Reinforcements simply don't come and one can't maintain an effective fighting unit on paper alone one can only go on and see one's men, tired and weary as they are, going on indomitably and carrying the burdens of these wasters as well as their own.

The reality of the number of original recruits that had been killed or wounded by 1918 was illustrated by Gunner J.R. Armitage- a new recruit at the beginning of the year- in a story he wrote on 10 April at a new camp at Portnoyelles, France:

A most unfortunate thing happened while entering our names. One of our reinforcements was named Flannagan, a rather delicate and very young boy. S.M. McMurray, the battery sergeant major, a very decent chap, commenting on the name, said rather jokingly "I don't want to scare you or anything like that, but its rather a coincidence, a namesake of yours came to the battery only a fortnight ago, and he was killed a few days ago!" It turned out to be the young reinforcement's brother. The poor kid was shattered and the S.M. horrified at what he had done. The incident made the rest of us realise we had arrived at the war.

Some men who had been serving for a long time felt resentful that volunteers were not forthcoming, and felt that they had been betrayed by those men in Australia who had chosen not to enlist. Private Ronald Simpson wrote in October 1918:

There is a good few 1914 men leaving here for home, the majority say they will never come back and I don't blame them, it's time some of the loafers came to do a bit.

However, others believed that the strength of the Australian Corps lay in the fact that every man had volunteered to be there, and that this psychological distinction had an important influence on morale. All German males between the ages of 17 and 45 had a military obligation under the German system of conscription, and some felt this may have contributed to the Germans' eventual loss in 1918 because "their heart wasn't in it". Lance Corporal A.H. McKibbin wrote in October 1918:

I rejoice every time I remember that neither of my brothers came here to go through what most of us have.

From Patsy Adam-Smith, The Anzacs, p. 390:

In the second conscription ballot the results were:

For: 1 015 159
Against: 1 181 747

The Armed Forces vote was:

For: 103 789
Against: 93 910

This high percentage of men ‘at the Front’ voted against conscription for many reasons ranging from ‘nobody should be made to come to this’, ‘every man should be able to make up his own mind’ and ‘If they have to be forced to come they won’t be much good over here’. Many had written home earlier criticising ‘mt friends who stayed at home’ but just as many had written to say , ‘ Tell Bob not to join up. The game’s up to mud.’

Lieutenant H.R. Williams (56th Battalion) had written. ‘It was amazing to me that most of our men seemed resolved to vote “no”. The main reason was the reluctance of the men (all volunteers and still willing to fight for the cause that brought them overseas) to vote in favour of forcing their countrymen to join up and help in the fight. It was typical of the Australian soldier that he could face all the dangers that came his way, but would not vote to compel others of his countrymen, who had just a smuch to fight for as he had, to risk their lives in the common cause.’ And Eddie Johnson said: ‘During a special parade one day, we were informed that voting on conscription would take place after dinner, and we were told to give it thought while having dinner. . . the conclusion from conversations heard was vote No – let people please themselves.’ (Strangely, one of the best wise-cracks was about men who didn’t enlist. They called them ‘Would-to-Godders’ from ‘Would to God I could go to the war’.)

Say No To Conscription leaflet, c. 1917. [AWM RC00328]
"Colour leaflet against conscription. "To Win the War. The Effect of Conscription. Conscription in Australia cannot alter the result of the war. If Conscription was necessary, Canada, whose population is 3,000,000 more than Australia and is within four days' sail of the frontier, would have adopted it. If what Mr. Hughes says is correct, why has Russia twenty million men of military age who are not serving? The enemy is in Russia! Conscription in Australia will make it easy for other races to capture our industries, and the wives and daughters of the absent conscript will be forced to beg bread from an alien race. Conscription will make it possible for the Military Authorities to pay the conscript what wages they think fit. The British conscript get one shilling (1s.) a day. Vote 'NO CONSCRIPTION'. "
Pro conscription leaflet 1917 [AWM RC00317]
Australian Labor party Anti Conscription leaflet [AWM RC00336]
Pro conscription leaflet targetting women [AWM RC00319]
Pro conscription leaflet: "The Sweatshops of Germany" [AWM RC00311]

There are many other examples of Conscription referendum leaflets on the Australian War Memorial website ; these are just a few.


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