Reflect on the deep divisions this referendum imposed—and its long-term effects on Australian society—with Professor Joan Beaumont, Dr John Connor, Dr Michael McKernan and Professor Peter Stanley.
Discuss what a plebiscite is.
Discuss what a referendum is.
Discuss what conscription is.
Drawing on their knowledge and research of battlefield conditions in the First World War, ask students to write a letter home to their families from the perspective of a soldier, sailor or nurse.
Ask them to consider the following themes:
- being in the middle of a battle (what can you see, hear, smell and taste?)
- living conditions where your unit is stationed
- mates being wounded or killed
- the trauma of witnessing and being part of battles (how do you react physically and emotionally to these experiences?)
- home sickness.
This activity provides a personal context to conscription and to the activities at the end of this module. The aim is to have students reflect on these letters before and after the classroom vote.
Today, is the Australian Government considering having any referendums? If so, what are they?
Before you get started
In 1916, the Australian Government asked Australians to vote in a referendum to decide whether it could force men to fight—and possibly die—in a war on the other side of the world. It was the first time people had been asked to make such a decision, but it would not be the last.
Read about the social and political context below in which Australians went to the polls to help you understand their world at the time they had to make this difficult decision. Use the Trove list to find primary sources relating to the issue.
In October of 1916, the war raged across the world. Australian forces had been involved in many parts of the world including the Pacific, the Western Front and, of course, Gallipoli. Casualties were mounting, progress of the war was uncertain and, although the notion of it being ‘over by Christmas’, had not been entirely abandoned, a third Christmas was approaching with no end in sight.
The Australian Government understood what was required for its defence. With the departure of British regular army forces from Australia in 1870, the Australian colonies took on the responsibility for their own defence. After federation, Australia established one defence force, created from the militia that already existed in the colonies.
The Australian Government introduced the defence acts of 1903 and 1904, allowing men to be called up for military duty in times of war. By 1911, another act introduced universal military training. This empowered the government, in times of peace, to make all men between the ages of 18 and 60 undergo compulsory military training. Field Marshal Viscount Kitchener of Great Britain had visited Australia in 1909 and made recommendations on how an 80,000-strong Australian fighting force could defend Australia during the ‘conduct of a great war’. In such a war, the British Royal Navy would need to be concentrated somewhere other than Australia, so Australia would have to protect itself.
At the outbreak of the First World War, both the Australian Government and much of the population did not hesitate to commit themselves to the war effort, both at home and abroad. For many, fighting for king and mother country (that is, Britain) was taken for granted. In 1914 and 1915, many enlisted so there was plenty of manpower that could be provided for the war. The fact that the acts of 1903, 1904 and 1911 did not grant the power to conscript men into active military service outside Australia was of little concern at this point.
As the war progressed, Australian troops engaged in battle, first in New Guinea and the Cocos Islands, and then later at Gallipoli and the Western Front. Although there were some initial successes in battle, people became aware of the reality of a modern industrial war when casualty lists—of those killed, missing in action or wounded—began to appear.
In the early days of the war, often recruits who lived in the same areas formed military units. This meant that many men fought side by side with their childhood friends, their schoolmates and members of their sports teams. In some cases, they fought alongside members of their own family.
The names of newly recruited men and boys were listed in newspapers and often at local post offices and churches. The process of recruitment devastated communities, and in some cases almost wiped out a generation of young men. Before the 1916 referendum, there were more than 17,000 Australian deaths in the major battles or campaigns:
- the Battle of Gallipoli—8,709
- the Battle of Fromelles—2,000
- the Battle of Pozières—6,800
These numbers do not include Australians who were killed in other major battles, deaths brutally referred by the officials as ‘wastage’. They also don’t take into account the number of wounded, some so horrifically that they had already been sent back to Australia.
Listen to the podcast about the deep divisions in Australian society caused by the campaign for the 1916 referendum and the impact.
In the end, the 1916 referendum was defeated. Of the 82 per cent of Australians who voted, 1,087,557 were in favour and 1,160,033 were against.
How would you have voted? Why?
1. Read the 1916 referendum question below.
Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?
What is the government asking? Write the question in a shorter and simpler way.
How would you write the question in order to get a Yes answer?
How would you write the question in order to get a No answer?
2. Most nations introduced conscription with some restrictions in place. If Prime Minister Billy Hughes had been more specific about who could be conscripted, how do you think it could have changed the outcome? What restrictions would you have placed if you had been the prime minister?
3. Why do you think there was such deep division in the Australian Government around the issue of conscription?
4. Why do you think the trade unions or religious organisations took up a position on this issue?
5. Unlike today in Australia, at the time of the 1916 referendum, voting was not compulsory. Find other examples of democracies that today do not have compulsory voting. How does their voter turnout compare to the 82 per cent turnout for the 1916 referendum?
6. Ask students to vote on the 1916 referendum question. How many voted Yes and how many voted No?
7. In groups, research and present a multimodal presentation, using images, quotes and documents from the era, to persuade your classmates to vote either Yes or No. After the presentations, repeat the poll.